The Radical Effect of Christianity: 1 Timothy 2:11

Recently, I had a challenge from a commenter on a post about a charge of misogynistic behavior relating to 1 Timothy 2:11, which in the New English Translation reads, “A woman must learn quietly with all submissiveness.”

Isolated and alone, it’s a pretty condemning sentence, penned by the Apostle Paul to young pastor Timothy. It comes off, in English, as sexist and worthy of rejection. Most pastors and teachers I know will avoid verses like these like they were a plague, rather that deal with them, like I am about to.

So, a question: who is the letter addressed to? It is addressed to a man, a man with a Jewish heritage; a man who would run into issues from two cultures (Jewish and Greek) both of whom held women with low esteem. As Paul is writing, he is giving this young pastor advice on how to run a church, and how people ought to conduct themselves both inside and outside of the church, for the consistency of the faith. He does this, first by addressing men and their behavior toward each other (1Tim. 2:1-8) then turns toward the women. What is interesting is that no one seems to have a problem with verses 9-10, but with 11 and following really get their dander up.

Verses 9 & 10 are somewhat innocuous, advising women to clothe themselves in godly acts, eschewing their previously wanton lifestyles and the clothing and hairstyles that marked them out in society for a modest, reserved way of presenting themselves. I believe that the problem is that v11 is taken to be directed at women directly, rather than the fact that the letter is addressed to Timothy. What do I mean by this? Allow me to explain.

Keep in mind who Timothy is. We are introduced to him in Acts 16:

1 He (Paul) also came to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but whose father was a Greek.
2 The brothers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him.
3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was Greek.

Because of Timothy’s parentage, that his father was Greek, Timothy’s place in his Jewish heritage had been secured by his mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5) who, in spite of cultural prohibitions to the contrary, had made sure that he was familiar with Jewish scriptures, either through directly teaching him (a cultural no-no), or hiring a scribe to teach him, either way Timothy had come to faith in Christ, and had impressed Paul who trained him further and had installed him as a bishop at one if the churches in Ephesus. Enough history.

The truly scandalous part of 1 Tim 2:11 is the phrase, often rendered “Let a woman learn…” Until Christianity came on the scene, a woman’s place was literally “in the home“. In Jewish circles, it was taboo to even teach a woman the Torah or even speak to a woman in public, and Greek circles weren’t much different. “Barefoot and pregnant” was pretty much the lot of women until Jesus Christ came on the scene, then things began to change.

Paul’s instruction to young Timothy is simple, “make sure that the women have a place to learn about the faith.” Further, the Greek word translated “quietly” or “in quietness” is again directed at men. The word can be translated “not meddling“, which seems to indicate that in making a place for women, who in Jewish experience had largely been excluded from worship and in Greek paganism often been abused in worship, that the women were not to be ridiculed or disturbed. The final phrase, often rendered, “in submission” seems to harken back to Ephesians 5:24 (another pet verse) where a woman is directed to submit to her husband the the same way the church submits to Christ’s headship. The general instruction could be taken, “if a woman comes seeking to be taught the way of Christ, treat her just like you would a man doing the same thing.”

In the midst of cultures where women were treated like possessions, this was a radical and subversive idea, and brought about by the reality of Christ in the lives of believers.

Maybe I’ll take on the other verses later.


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