In our day and in the Western world, 1 Timothy 2 might be the most controversial passage in the Bible. Here, Paul writes, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (2:11–12). While Paul certainly seems to limit a woman’s authority and instruct women to be quiet or silent, many are not convinced. They argue that Paul simply did not want certain women in the church to assume authority over a man. And in reality, Paul had a more egalitarian outlook.
But evidence from the first-century writer Clement shows that he sees the instruction for women be quiet as a general pattern of good behaviour. Before looking at Clement, I want to consider two egalitarian arguments that Paul does not forbid women from teaching in the church.
The egalitarian argument largely revolves around a constructed historical context. Paul wrote 1 Timothy to the church in Ephesus. And in that city, women were largely uneducated and would talk during worship services. Paul targets this group but not all women as the argument goes.
A second egalitarian argument comes more directly from the text. The argument goes like this: a number of women in the church wanted to “assume authority” over men and so introduce false teaching into the church at Ephesus. Paul alludes to this false teaching in the introduction (1:3–11) and conclusion of 1 Timothy (6:2–10). So Paul targets women who are disrupting services in Ephesus by introducing false teaching.
Each of these arguments has merit, yet fails to convince. Paul’s statement seems more universal than these arguments assume. After all, he cites Genesis to confirm his argument (2:13–14). After saying that women should be quiet, he writes “for ….” The “for” indicates that Paul grounds his statement in what follows, and what follows is a citation from Genesis 2 regarding Adam and Eve. Paul thus seems to ground his instruction in God’s intent for men and women in creation.
Second, it’s not obvious that these women are introducing false teaching, but it does seem likely given the inclusio of false teaching within 1 Timothy. But why only women and not men? Should we assume that other women or men have influenced only women in the church to introduce false teaching into the worship service?
Paul makes a general accusation that people are teaching false doctrines (1 Tim 1:3). If it were only women who did so, then one might assume Paul would have specified this in either the introduction or conclusion to his letter. But he does not. And so, therefore, the argument that Paul commands women to remain quiet due to false teaching (and not men) is not persuasive.
The surface meaning of the text, namely, that Paul instructs women to remain silent and not to teach men appears correct.
How Would Contemporaries of Paul Read This Passage?
Paul wrote 1 Timothy in the late 50s (perhaps 58 and or 59), and so we don’t have access to someone’s response in that decade. We do, however, have access to someone’s writing who was acquainted with Paul—Clement of Rome.
Clement pastored the church in Rome and lived while disciples of Jesus still lived. He possibly met Paul, but he at least ministered in Rome where Paul likely died. In the 80s or 90s Clement wrote a letter to Corinth which still exists. Given the date of this letter, we know that Clement was an adult in the 80s or 90s. He, therefore, could have lived during the same time as Paul but would have been part of a younger generation.
Upon reading Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, it’s clear that he knows Paul’s writings (e.g., 1 Clement 47:1). And after instructing older men and the young on how to behave, he turns to women. Clement gives this instruction:
Let us guide our women toward that which is good: let them display a disposition to purity worthy of admiration; let them exhibit a sincere desire to be gentle; let them demonstrate by their quietness (σιγῆς) the moderation of their tongue; let them show their love without partiality and in holiness, equally toward all those who fear God. (1 Clement 21:6–7)*
It is interesting that Clement advises “quietness” or “silence” for women. Clement is not writing against false teaching but is rather advocating for good behaviour: “that which is good.” Clement understands quietness to be a virtue for women. Clement may follow Paul here (admitting that he also follows a broader cultural and religious context).
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul repeats the instruction for women to be quiet or silent twice: “A woman should learn in quietness (ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ) and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet (ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ).”
Since Clement knew Paul’s writings (see 1 Clement 47:1) and since he probably knew or was influenced by the church that Paul influenced in Rome, it is not unreasonable to trace a relationship between Clement’s instruction to women and Paul’s instruction to women. Clement argues that quietness for women is part of the pattern of good behaviour. And this instruction may trace its source back to Paul or the church that Paul influenced.
Do Paul and Clement instruct women never to speak? That cannot be the case as Paul clearly spoke with women (Junia and Priscilla). So they must limit this quietness in some sense. It seems clear that Clement wrote to the Corinthian church and thus his comments generally refer to church life.
Clement possibly means, then, that women should have a quiet demeanor, especially in worship settings. Likewise, Paul seems to specify that women are to be quiet and not teach within worship settings. This seems to be the case because Paul immediately provides the requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3, and elders are the group who can teach in the local church.
Certainly, the above argument is not conclusive, but it does seem to suggest that Paul’s argument would be received in the way that many complementarians read the text today. And, I might say, the way that Christians have read 1 Timothy 2 for nearly two-thousand years.
*I modified slightly Holmes’ translation here by changing the word “silent” to quietness. The word that Clement uses, σιγή, is an equivalent to Paul’s term ἡσυχία