Must women be silent in church?

The following words by the apostle Paul are frequently used to denigrate the Bible as sexist—“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 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” (1 Timothy 2:12–13, emphasis added). The criticism that Paul’s teaching is sexist is silenced by a careful consideration of context.

First, Paul obviously does not intend to say that women must always be silent in church. Rather, in a culture in which women were largely illiterate and unlearned, Paul is saying that until a woman learns she must not presume to teach. If Paul had intended to say a woman must always be silent, he would not have given women instructions on how to pray or prophesy publicly in church (1 Corinthians 11:5).

Furthermore, by alluding to Eve’s deception in the garden, Paul underscores how crucial it is that women, like men, involve themselves in learning. Far from chastising Eve for her role in the Fall, Paul chastises the Jewish men of his day for excluding women from learning, thus leaving them vulnerable to deception. Just as Adam was responsible for failing to protect Eve from deception, so too the men of Paul’s day would be held responsible if they hindered women from studying and growing in their faith.

Finally, Paul’s words refute the matriarchal authoritarianism practiced by pagan cults in that day. Ephesus, where Timothy ministered, was the home of a cult dedicated to the pagan goddess Artemis. Worship of Artemis was conducted under the authority of an entirely female priesthood that exercised authoritarian dominion over male worshipers. Thus, Paul emphasizes that women should not presume undue authority over men. Paul neither elevates women over men nor men over women, but is rather concerned that men and women be granted equal opportunity to learn and grow in submission to one another and to God (1 Timothy 2:11; cf. Ephesians 5:21).

For further study, see N.T. Wright,“Women’s Service in the Church:The Biblical Basis,” available at

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Ephesians 5:21

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