“I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather.”


One concern may remain from the argument that Paul’s apparently broadly restrictive comments in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians actually have a narrower, local focus—that women representing a false teaching are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching.  While this may be the original context, Paul still says that women, as women, aren’t to relate to men, as men, in a particular way.  So aren’t his restrictive comments universally applicable?  If he had really only wanted to stop the spread of a false teaching, wouldn’t he just have said that no one (meaning either man or woman) was to advocate this specific false teaching?

An analogy from history may be helpful here.  During the First World War, the “Order of the White Feather” was founded with the aim of shaming men into enlisting for military service by getting women to present them with a white feather, symbolic of cowardice, if they were not wearing a uniform.  While the concern was local (context-specific in time and place), this was still an exercise in encouraging women, as women, to relate to men, as men, in a particular way.  The women considered themselves to be acting on behalf of their sex in appealing to the bravery and chivalry of men to protect them and their country.

It was not long before the “Order of the White Feather” became controversial and unpopular.  Government officials who were actively promoting the war effort, civilians in military employ, and even soldiers who were out of uniform because they were home on leave were publicly accused of cowardice by being handed white feathers.  Men who were not suited for military service may well have been shamed into enlisting and ultimately killed in situations where others might have survived.  Vital industries were deprived of needed workers.

So we can easily imagine a factory owner, for example, issuing an order applicable on the factory premises such as, “I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather.”  Even though a local situation is in view, the order needs to be stated in such general terms because it concerns something that women are doing, as women, in relation to men, as men.

I believe the same thing was going on in first-century Ephesus.  If the belief was that women were the physical origin and source of spiritual enlightenment for men, it makes sense that they were being encouraged, as women, to re-enact the role of Zoe/Eve in bringing spiritual enlightenment to men, as men, by correcting their supposedly mistaken view of the creation order.  This explains why Paul would speak to a local situation in such general terms.

If Paul’s concern is with origins, then “head” probably means “source” in 1 Corinthians

What we’ve just concluded about Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy—that they aren’t intended as a blanket prohibition of women in authority roles, but rather as a corrective to a false teaching and a restraint on the spread of that teaching—has implications for the comment Paul makes in 1 Corinthians, when discussing head coverings, about man being the “head” of woman. This comment is often cited to argue that men should be in authority over women.

When it comes to interpreting this statement, the debate centers on whether “head” means “authority over” or “source.”  This question can best be settled by considering the context.  (Usage determines meaning.)

If we have reconstructed the context correctly, and Paul is indeed opposing a teaching that man came from woman and that woman is therefore the source of spiritual enlightenment for man, it makes sense that he would correct a wrong practice based on this wrong belief by first stating what should properly be believed.  And what should be believed is that “the head of the woman is man,” i.e. the source of the woman is man, meaning that woman originally came from man.  Paul goes on to state this at more length:  “man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”  And he then qualifies this statement by describing what life is like “in the Lord,” that is, in the community that now embodies God’s inbreaking work of redemption:   “Woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.  For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.  But everything comes from God.”

There is really no reason for Paul to say any of this if his concern is with authority.  But there is every reason for him to go into this kind of detail if his concern is with origins. And while he wants to correct the false teaching, it’s clear from these subsequent comments that he doesn’t want to institute arrangements within the community of Jesus’ followers based on the supposed implications of origins.

In my view, a meaning of “source” for “head” also makes more sense for the statement “the head of Christ is God.”  The Father is the “source” of the Son in the sense that the Son is begotten of the Father.  It makes much less sense to me to say that the Father is in authority over the Son; at least in my understanding of the Trinity, all three persons are free and creative co-participants in every action.  One is not responsible for telling the others what to do.  While on earth Jesus did submit himself entirely to the Father’s will, but that was a necessary measure for Jesus to accomplish his redemptive mission under conditions where he had “emptied himself” of divine attributes such as omniscience.

The statement that “the head of every man is Christ” refers to the fact that Christ is source of man, that is, his Creator. But in light of Paul’s other epistles, we can also understand “source” to mean “ongoing source of life and nourishment,” as, for example, in Colossians: “the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”

This passage in 1 Corinthians is also notable because on the surface it appears to require women to wear head coverings in gatherings of Jesus’ followers.  This requirement, like the one a little later in 1 Corinthians for women to keep silent, is not enforced today by virtually any group of Jesus’ followers (although there are, of course, some exceptions).  These two restrictions are instead treated as limited in their specific application to the original context, with only inferential applications today based on their principles.  Why, then, isn’t Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy about teaching and authority treated the same way?

You can read a more detailed discussion of this passage on head coverings in an article I wrote some years ago with Laurie Hurshman.

What might the Corinthian (and Ephesian) women have wanted to say?

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.

“They fell silent and said . . .”

We’ll be looking in the next several posts at the Greek word, translated as “quietness” or “silence” in most English Bibles, that Paul uses in 1 Timothy when he says that “a woman should learn in hēsuchia.”  Our premise is that if we can understand what Paul wants women to do when he gives this positive command, this will help us understand what he doesn’t want women to do when he gives the negative prohibition about teaching and authority that immediately follows.

I’d actually like to begin here with the verb hēsuchazō that comes from the same Greek root as the noun hēsuchia, because the use of this verb in the New Testament gives us a good idea of the essential idea behind the root.

In some contexts hēsuchazō clearly means “to keep silent” in the sense of saying nothing.  For example:  “Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’ But they remained silent” (Luke 14:4).  However, in other contexts, this cannot be the meaning, because the people who are said to have done whatever this word implies are then depicted as speaking!

In Acts 21:14, for example, Paul’s friends are trying to convince him not to go to Jerusalem.  Luke records, “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased (hēsuchazō) and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” This is the ESV translation; the NIV has “we gave up” for hēsuchazō.  In other words, Paul’s friends stopped arguing.

Similarly, in Acts 11, when Peter is answering to the apostles and believers in Jerusalem for the way he has shared the gospel with Gentiles, hēsuchazō is used to describe how Peter’s description of God giving the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles evoked a response not of silence but of agreement: “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” Once again this is the ESV; the NIV says, “they had no further objections.”  In other words, once again, they stopped arguing.

More generally, it appears that hēsuchazō describes a situation in which people don’t say something they have in mind and otherwise might say, but choose not to.  This certainly applies to the first example, of the Pharisees, who don’t think it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath and who don’t want Jesus to heal the man, but who are hesitant or afraid to say so, perhaps because of the crowd that is apparently also present in this home.

This understanding also applies to the other two uses of hēsuchazō in the New Testament.

Luke says about the women who wanted to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56).  In this case there was something they wanted to do, rather than to say, but they deferred, out of respect for the Law.

And Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “We urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you (1 Thessalonians 4:11).  We see from the parallel instruction in 2 Thessalonians, which uses the noun hēsuchia rather than the verb hēsuchazō, that the concern here is for diligent work in place of idle gossip:  “For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12).  In other words, once again, there’s something the Thessalonians would like to say (unfortunately, gossip about others).  “Living in hēsuchia” means not saying this, out of respect for others’ privacy and reputations and as an expression of Christian character.

The adjective hēsuchios, which comes from the same root, is used twice in the New Testament, with similar meaning.  In 1 Timothy, shortly before Paul makes the comments we’ve been discussing, he writes: “I urge . . . that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for . . . those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet (hēsuchios) lives.”  This instance, in which Paul urges prayer, further confirms the argument that the root does not describe silence, the absence of speech or sound.

The only other NT occurrence of the adjective hēsuchios also comes in a context of relating to authority and it also precludes a meaning of the absence of speech or sound. Addressing women, Peter tells them, “your beauty . . . should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet (hēsuchios) spirit . . . for this is the way the holy women of the past . . . used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord.”

These two occurrences of hēsuchios highlight the gospel emphasis on inner transformation rather than compliance with outward requirements. (Why couldn’t a church just say, “We urge all of our women to cultivate a gentle and quiet spirit, and we urge all of our men to be considerate and respectful, and we’ll leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit”?)

In our next post we’ll look at the one other use of the noun hēsuchia in the New Testament, and also meet another Greek root that’s used very similarly.  Once we’ve explored the uses of both roots, we’ll then be in a position to explore the implications for what Paul writes in 1 Timothy about women learning in hēsuchia.

Does what Paul tells women to do in 1 Timothy show what he doesn’t want them to do?

So far we’ve looked at Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy from the perspective of those who say there should be restrictions on what women can do in the church.  We’ve seen that these interpreters believe Paul forbids women to teach or hold authority on the basis of the principle of primogeniture.  I’ve offered several reasons why I don’t think this is what Paul is saying.  But what then is he saying?

I’d argue that we can get a great insight into what Paul doesn’t want the women in Ephesus to do (and likely, by extension, other women in other places) by considering what he does, by contrast, want them to do.  He says, after all, in effect, I want them to do this and not that.  As the ESV puts it:  “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (As you can see by comparing other translations, the word rather is not in the Greek, but the ESV helpfully supplies it to bring out the meaning.)

Most specifically, Paul says that he wants a woman to learn “in hēsuchia” and that, rather than relate to men in the ways forbidden, women should “be in hēsuchia.”  The 1972 RSV, of which the ESV is a revision, translates this word as “silence”: a woman should “learn in silence” and “keep silent.”  The 1973 and 1984 editions of the NIV said instead that a woman should learn in “quietness,” but then, at the end of the statement, still said that she should be “silent.” The TNIV changed this reading to “be quiet” and the 2011 NIV has retained this wording.  So we can see that English translations are moving away from the idea of silence to something having more to do with attitude and demeanor.

In the next several posts I’d like to explore how the term hēsuchia is used elsewhere in the New Testament.  This will give us some very useful insights into Paul’s meaning in 1 Timothy.

But here I’d like to observe—marvel, actually—at how there has been, well, silence about the matter of women’s hēsuchia in 1 Timothy on both sides of the debate about restrictions.  All of the energy has been concentrated on defining what it means for a woman to “teach or have authority”; I haven’t seen anything that addresses, in more than a passing way, what Paul means by hēsuchia.

It’s very interesting to me how closely parallel Paul’s comments here in 1 Timothy are to what he says in 1 Corinthians:

“The women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission” (1 Corinthians, ESV).

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent ” (1 Timothy, RSV)

So why aren’t Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy seen as another notorious “women must keep silent” passage that we all (wink, wink) know we don’t have to take at face value and apply universally?  Is it because we would have to wrestle with whether to take the comments about teaching and authority at face value if we acknowledged the elephant in the room and admitted that, at first glance, it sounds as if Paul is forbidding women to speak in church in two places, not just one?  We see how important it is to ask whether this is actual “silence” or some kind of “quietness” instead.  So we’ll dive right into the word study next time.

Beginning to engage Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy

According to the interpretation developed to this point, the church should place women who have been given gifts for ministry by the Holy Spirit in roles where they can exercise those gifts effectively to build up the body, including spiritual leadership roles appropriate to their gifting.  At the same time, these women should continue to show respect for their husbands, if married, in their heart attitudes and gracious conduct (just as their husbands should treat them with loving consideration). But serving in a spiritual leadership role does not, in itself, constitute disrespect.

Our remaining question is whether the controversial passages in Paul’s letters–1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36–contradict this interpretation.

Let’s begin here with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which bears most directly on our discussion to this point, since (in the opinion of some) it brings in the idea of primogeniture. Paul writes, in the NIV translation, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve” (vv. 12-13). As we’ve already seen in the case of Thomas Schreiner, those who favor restrictions on what women can do in the church see the principle of primogeniture behind this argument. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) argued similarly on an earlier version of its website (now under reconstruction, so that these words apparently are no longer found there): “The contextual basis for this argument in the book of Genesis is the assumption throughout the book that the ‘firstborn’ in a human family has the special right and responsibility of leadership in the family.”

We’ve already seen, however, that God disregards the principle of primogeniture throughout the First Testament, particularly in the book of Genesis, when choosing the agents of his inbreaking redemptive activity. There are some further considerations that make us wonder whether the restrictive view is really capturing what Paul intended to say:

– If man is in authority over woman because he was created “first,” wouldn’t this establish a principle of “the first shall be first”? How could this be reconciled with Jesus’ teaching?

– In Romans 9:10-12, Paul appeals to God’s setting aside Esau’s firstborn privilege to establish that salvation is “not by works”: “Before the twins [Esau and Jacob] were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.'” It seems that something very essential to Paul’s understanding of the gospel is at risk if we interpret him as saying in 1 Timothy that men are in authority because of their firstborn privilege.

We’ll continue to consider this passage in 1 Timothy in further posts.