It is in relationship to the cultural issues that we come back to the question concerning what role a woman should have in the assembly and church life. Peter, in his first letter, (3:1-7) shares many of the same principles in relationship to submission that Paul shares in 1 Corinthians. Peter indicates that women (wives) should be submissive to their husbands, as Paul has said. Once again, this is not a “forced bondage,” but a willing spirit of the ladies’ behalf to be God’s woman and live lovingly with her husband. And, just as Paul has shared in Ephesians 5, men (husbands) should live in a loving, protective (even “submissive”) relationship with their wives (v.7). Peter wants the woman of God to be “chaste” and have “respectful behavior” and “to be adorned properly.” As I have already indicated earlier, she is also to exercise a “gentle and quiet spirit.” Peter seems to indicate that this attitude is a universal principal, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (v.6). So, this is a mindset or attitude that was to be consistent with women everywhere at the time, and there is nothing to indicate that this is a principal that has changed over time.
When we consider Paul’s instructions to Timothy concerning the church in Ephesus (particularly women/wives in 1 Timothy 2), we see a number of things that are consistent with what we already have seen in 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter. At the same time, there are also some significant differences. Once again, the question of women coming to the assembly without appearing immoral is at issue (1 Timothy 2:9). The women at that time needed to be modest with their attire as befitting a person who was godly. There were some women in Ephesus that appear to have a similar mindset as those in Corinth, in that they were not being in subjection to their husbands and this was not acceptable. The women/wives in Ephesus, as at Corinth, had no place to be contradicting the public teaching in an abusive manner, nor should they be arbitrarily teaching (taking over the role of public teaching) in a way that would not be Christ-like. What is interesting to note concerning v.12, is that Paul says a woman should receive teaching literally, “in a respectful manner, with a quiet spirit.” This word aysuchia, is the same word that Peter uses (1 Peter 3:4) and it is a word that describes the practical, spiritual mindset that godly women are to embrace and exercise. It is the spiritual working out of the principle of “keeping silent” that Paul describes earlier in relationship to the Corinthian church. What is fascinating is that Jesus came to set women free from their bondage under the Jewish cultural system. Notice that I said “cultural,” because this is not what God had intended for women, spiritually or even religiously, but the Jews had become so constricting with their laws in so many ways that it became a struggle for women to function at all...much like what we see under Islam in many Middle-eastern countries today. So, for a woman even to be able to receive instruction was a relatively new concept to many of those whom Jesus was speaking, and it carries over to Paul, here. These women, culturally and spiritually, are in a place where they actually are able to receive instruction, but they must not forget that they must continue to behave in a spiritual manner.
The real context of the situation is set in v.13, as Paul indicates that there are some there in Ephesus, as in Corinth, who desire to have their opinions heard and will do whatever it takes in order to accomplish this. Some of these women have been “exercising authority over” some of the men there. The word that Paul uses here is authenteo, “to have authority over” in a way which literally means “to domineer,” and it is used only here in the New Testament. If Paul had wanted to, he very well could have used the word exousia, which is the predominant, typical word for “authority” in the New Testament. The fact that he does not do so, but in fact uses a much stronger word, indicates that he does indeed have a point to make here. And his point fits precisely the context, as I have shared. In my opinion, Paul is not making a negative blanket statement about women teaching in a public or private manner, just that they need to do so in a way that is respectful and with a right (submissive) spirit. We see that when Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos in order to show him a better way (Acts 18:24-28), that it is apparently Priscilla who is the taking the lead in doing the “teaching.” In fact, Priscilla seems to have been the stronger personality in that relationship, but she obviously seems to have understood the principles of submission concerning which Paul shares here in 1 Timothy as well as 1 Corinthians.
Paul finishes his argument here with an allusion to Adam and Eve. He still wants men and women (husbands and wives) to understand that they each have particular functions...and it must always be so. Paul wants the church, in general, to understand that men are to be the spiritual leaders not only of the church family, but of their own families at home. This has been something of a problem in the current culture in which we live, as we have seen the advent of such Para-church organizations such as Promise Keepers that seeks to help men to re-identify themselves as the spiritual leaders of their families. It is not that Paul is saying that men are to have the only spiritual leadership role at home and in the church, but that they are to have the primary role. Most families could not conceive of mothers not having a significant spiritual role in the training and overall spiritual health of the family. Why should it be any different as it pertains to the body of Christ? Paul is not saying that women “should be seen and not heard” as some have practically interpreted it, but that women should have a prominent role in the life and leadership of the church. He is not overriding the principle of women being involved in the body life of the church, which he has clearly stated, but is dealing with some abnormalities that have arisen – this is clearly indicated in the New Testament context. Men should be the primary spiritual leaders of the church, but this does not mean that ladies are supposed to have some insignificant role or function. It is apparent that Paul desires for women to teach as he describes in Titus 2:3 (and it is “good,” which could be done by example, living a life of service, or didactically, in a classroom setting). It is apparent that some women were intended to be leaders, as we see with Priscilla, some of those who were praying and prophesying in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:4), Lydia, who was a prominent convert, Philip who had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8), but perhaps the most prominent “leader” was Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). This lady played a significant role in helping her home congregation. There have been some who have specifically interpreted the word diakonia to mean “deaconess” in the context. This word needs to be understood in that it can have a general and specific meaning. The word “apostle,” meaning, “one sent out with a message,” works in much the same way, as we know that there were twelve “specific” apostles, like Paul, but also that Barnabas was called “an apostle” in a more general sense (Acts 14:14), as was Junias, a woman, in Romans (16:7). So, Phoebe may or may not have been a deaconess in the specific sense, but that she was certainly a “prominent servant” having helped Paul and others on a number of missions.
We can understand that Paul did have in mind a role for women not only in the culture in which he was living, but also in the church. It was not necessarily a minor role; it could very well be a major role, depending upon the situation and the place. There were obviously some women who were abusing their positions and, as the result, were being admonished by Paul in his direct addresses to at least two churches that they needed to keep a proper spiritual perspective in relationship to modesty, respect and submission.
Note: We need to be able to take a look at the passages that I have mentioned and consider them honestly...free from presuppositions...which is not necessarily an easy thing to do. One of the difficult problems with interpretation is that we were all taught specific things in certain ways, and it is difficult to separate ourselves from this. It is humbling and challenging to come to conclusions that are different than the ones that we have been taught...and I have had this happen for me concerning a number of passages...but this does not mean that we have to disparage either our former educators or our new understanding. In fact, I like to call it growth. :-) We simply need to be thankful that God can help us to see things differently...to gain insights in ways that we may not have understood before and that it is okay. God bless you in your studies.