Based on the study we have just completed of the Greek terms hēsuchazō and sigaō, we can now return to our earlier question and pursue it a little further: Does what Paul tells women to do in 1 Timothy help us understand what he doesn’t want them to do?
He tells them to “learn in quietness and full submission” and to “be quiet,” using the term hēsuchia in both cases. We’ve already seen that Paul does not expect women to remain absolutely silent in gatherings of Jesus’ followers. So we should rather understand this term in the sense of refraining from saying something specific that one otherwise might say. And this is something that a woman in Ephesus would want to say to a man there. When we look at the wider context—the rest of Paul’s correspondence with Timothy—we begin to get an idea of what this might be.
Paul tells Timothy in this letter not to put younger widows on the list of those supported by the church because “they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.” In his next letter Paul warns Timothy about false teachers who “worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women,” teachers who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So it seems that there was some false teaching in Ephesus that was being spread by women followers who had the time and opportunity to go “from house to house” promoting it.
Paul’s words in the very passage we’ve been considering may give us an even better idea of what this was. Assuming that what he doesn’t want women to do is authoritatively and publicly “correct” the true teaching (in my view, this is the best explanation of what he means by using the verbs didaskein and authentein together), then what he says immediately afterwards may be his own correction of the false teaching: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
In her book I Suffer Not a Woman, Catherine Kroeger documents the existence in the first-century Mediterranean world of a myth that the woman (Zoe or life in Greek, identified with Eve by syncretistic teachers) was created first, and brought spiritual life to the man by showing him that the creator God was not the true, supreme God, as he had deceived the man into thinking. (This myth reflects the Greek belief that matter was bad and spirit was good.) Paul’s comments here would be a correction of this myth. In other words, by saying “Adam was formed first,” they’re actually countering the content of the false teaching. They’re not citing primogeniture as a reason why men should be in charge of women.
Paul may be correcting the same myth in 1 Corinthians when he writes, “Man did not come from woman, but woman from man.” If the same myth was prevalent in Corinth, just across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus, and if it was also being promoted by women there, then we can see why Paul would tell the Corinthian women, too, not to challenge or argue with the speaker on this issue in the churches.
The bottom line is that Paul’s comments in both epistles have a specific, local focus: women representing this false teaching are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. While many applications can be drawn from this to the present day, one of them is not that no woman should be in a church-wide position of teaching or authority.