A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.
—1 Timothy 2:11, NIV
The key here is the word learn.
We must first remember that Paul addressed this epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:2), not to the churches of all ages, so we must realize that we are reading this over Timothy’s shoulders. We have to take Timothy’s situation into account before we apply what we read. Our interpretation isn’t scriptural if we ignore the scripture in 1 Timothy 1:2!
Paul’s letters to Timothy were written 1,900 years before Sunday school was invented. The only religious instruction that existed was for new converts or for clergy candidates. In contrast to Judaism and the pagan religions of that day, the Church included women in those classes. (In Orthodox Judaism, even today, women are not bound by the requirement for daily prayers.) We know that women attended classes, not just because Phoebe is mentioned as a deacon in the Greek of Romans 16:1, but also because the ancient ecumenical councils regulated female deacons—and in those days, deacons were considered an order of the clergy. The duties of female deacons were to instruct female catechumens and baptize them.
Incidentally, there is no such word as deaconess in Greek. The Greek text says that Phoebe was a deacon. In the ancient Church, as in the historic churches today, deacons are ordained clergy; so this has important ramifications.
At the time this epistle was written, the Church was the only religious institution that gave women religious instruction and training. In those days, women could not vote, but neither could the bulk of the population. But we know from the story of Lydia in Acts 16 that women could own businesses on their own. Throughout Acts, Luke depicts Paul as seeking out “influential women” as converts. We can corroborate this with archaeology. Recent excavations of the town a suburb of Pompeii revealed that the largest building in town was a businesswomen’s club. The archaeologists also turned up political petitions that had women’s signatures prominently at the top.
The problem must have been with the catechism classes, not the deacon’s training, because women being trained for the diaconate would know what to expect. So in the catechism class, influential businesswomen were being put into religious instruction, a novel situation for them, and you can imagine how unruly they would be if they were used to being in charge. This reminds me of the time when my parents lived in a retirement community where the men all used to be high corporate mucky-mucks. Every time they had a condominium meeting, all the men were trying to be in charge at the same time! It was a mess, and I imagine that is the situation that Timothy faced with the women.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.
—1 Timothy 2:12, NIV
Paul could just as easily have said, “Do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man,” but he didn’t. So we have to take this as a description of Paul’s practice, not as an instruction. It is true that in those days, the female deacons instructed the female catechumens and male deacons instructed male catechumens. It is also a historic fact that female deacons in the ancient church did not have any duties over men. It was not the practice of the church to mix the sexes in the classes. This reflected the culture of the day, in which the sexes were generally kept separate for such things. In the synagogues of those days, men and women were segregated from each other, but apparently the Church didn’t have a women’s gallery. In 1 Corinthians 14:35 we read that women were able to disrupt the service by asking men questions. So Paul is simply saying that he complies with the current social customs by keeping men and women separate for a small and intimate gathering like a catechism class, to forestall even the appearance of hanky-panky. However, this is not stated as a rule, as I pointed out, but only as a description of Paul’s practice. So at most we can take this as permission to keep men and women separate, not as a commandment to do so.
There are some other interesting implications here. The fact that Paul says, in effect, “this is what I do,” implies that other people did it differently and that Paul was recommending his way to address Timothy’s situation, without implying that the other approaches were invalid.
The fact that this issue came up at all is interesting. At the Church’s birth at Pentecost, Peter quoted this scripture:
In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams,
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
—Acts 2:17-18, NIV; quoting Joel 2:28-29
And Paul himself said,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave no free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:28, NIV
In these passages, we clearly see the Church struggling to express the sexual equality implicit in the gospel within the social customs of the day.
Paul is saying that the women who are students in a class must not disrupt the class and they must submit to the teacher—who, by the way, is a woman herself! Of course, all students must do that, but in this case the problem was with the women who were in a situation with which they were unaccustomed. Paul’s advice certainly does not mean that men can learn in rowdiness and insubordination! Men must learn in silence and submission as well, but Timothy obviously did not have a problem with the men’s classes, at least not at the time that Paul wrote this letter.