Why does St. Paul ask women to learn in silence & submission? Is he a Misogynist? Fr. Gabriel Wissa

June 17, 2020

Does God prefer men over women? Christianity claims that both genders are equal—which they are. But we read in 1st Timothy that women ought to learn in silence with all submission and that they should not have authority over a man or to teach. We also find similar language in 1st Corinthians.
Was St. Paul sexist then? Is the Church sexist? Even worse, is Paul a misogynist? By God’s Grace, this video will answer these questions.

In this video, we will be analyzing together the text in 1st Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11 to 15. God willing, we will tackle the seemingly misogynist language in 1st Corinthians in another video. Before addressing 1st Timothy, one important point we ought to consider is that there is no such seemingly misogynist language in the gospels or in the catholic epistles, which are meant for the church at large. Both the epistles to the Corinthians and Ephesians are messages meant for specific local churches. So the key to unravel this mystery is to look at the background of these churches. Now, 1st Timothy, verse 11 says: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission.” Like any true accurate biblical exegesis, we ought to understand the context of the passage. The first mistake we make when approaching this text is to use our own twenty-first century lens. Remember, this was written in the first century, at a time when women, generally speaking, were considered inferior to men and did not have readily available access to teaching. So, when St. Paul in the beginning of the verse allows women to learn, that is in itself revolutionary. Christianity was slowly shifting society from female subordination to gender equality. That is the reason St. Paul says in Galatians 3: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Within Christianity, we are all equal. But remember, this does not happen instantly, it takes decades and centuries to instill such change within humanity.

However, at the end of the verse, St. Paul says that women should learn in submission. Now, further analysis is definitely needed. First, we should understand that St. Paul is writing to St. Timothy, whom he had ordained as the Bishop of the city of Ephesus after he, himself, had started the church there. Now, Ephesus, as a city, had many issues. We can understand from Acts 19 that Ephesus was the home of the temple of the goddess Diana, also known as Artemis; where people participated in pagan worship. Acts 19 also reveals that Ephesus was a city where magic was practiced by many. So, the Christians in Ephesus were moving away from cult worship and sorcery to embracing Christianity. History also reveals that there were gnostic teachings in Ephesus at the time as can be seen in 1st Timothy 6:20. So there was truly a mishmash of wrong doctrinal teaching and St. Paul clearly addressed it in 1st Timothy 1 when he said to Timothy: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia–remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.” Now, in their Ephesian tradition, women, and more specifically older women, used to teach these traditions to the newer generations. Unfortunately, these women would discourteously teach this mishmash of Gnostic and pagan traditions in the church in Ephesus. That is why in 1st Timothy 4, we can read Paul asking Timothy to reject profane and old wives’ fables. So, St. Paul, as a good pastor, is responding to these old women’s wrong doctrinal teachings within the church. He, therefore, uses very strong language against their actions. In this verse specifically, he asks them to continue learning but in submission. In other words, he asks them to repent from their pride, rebellious attitude and false teachings and become good humble students.

St. Paul continues in verse 12 and says: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” Now, a look at the Greek language clarifies this verse. The word permit, here, in Greek is ‘epitrepo.’ This word is always used in the New Testament when permission is needed due to a specific set of circumstances. Also, the usual Greek word for ‘authority’ is ‘exousia,’ which is fairly common in the New Testament; however, this is not the word used here. The Greek word rendered as ‘authority,’ in this verse, is ‘authenteo.’ This word, in the Greek corpus, implies that those whom are the target of these authoritative actions are being harmed. So, in other words, verse 12 can be read as follows: “Because of the current set of circumstances, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have a harmful authority over a man, but to be in silence.” When we dig deeper into the Greek, it becomes obvious that this is all a reaction to misbehaviour. Now, the next two verses say: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.” As I mentioned earlier, the Ephesians were influenced by gnostic teachings. And, there are several surviving Gnostic creation accounts which gave Eve primacy over Adam because Gnostics held knowledge in very high esteem, therefore, in their false understanding, Eve was considered a heroine because she sought knowledge by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So, St. Paul, in reaction to this teaching, stresses that Adam was formed first and then Eve. And what the Gnostics consider as virtue, namely Eve eating from the tree, Christians consider as the first sin. It is very natural then for a loving pastor like St. Paul to put things in order when he sees part of his flock pridefully and rebelliously teaching incorrect doctrine. Now, moving on to the last verse of this controversial passage. It says: “Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.” This verse could be understood once we realize that the Ephesians used to consider the goddess Diana to be a mid-wife that allegedly had the power to bring life and to take it away. Therefore, the Ephesian women used to call on her during labour. Evidently, certain women in the Church, who were formerly followers of Diana still had that habit. St. Paul is, here, reminding them that pain in labour is a consequence of the first sin. In other words, St. Paul is still admonishing these rebellious women and reminding them, to not call on Diana during child labour, but to remember the fall, to offer repentance and to live in faith, love, holiness and self-control. As can be seen from the specific background of this passage, it is obvious that it should not be understood as misogyny or be applied to women in general.

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