What does Paul mean when he says ‘let a woman learn quietly?’
God intends a certain order in the husband-wife relationship. The order of creation establishes the husband as leader in the first marriage and in all marriages to follow.
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise, also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Timothy 2:8–14)
An exhortation for men
It is significant that Paul addresses men in verse 8 before addressing women in verse 9. Paul views men as leaders of their homes—and some of them as leaders of the church. He is making clear that they have a particular role to play “in every place” where the church gathers, including at Ephesus. Men are supposed to pray. Paul has already made clear what he wants them to pray for (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1–7). The issue that he focuses on here is how they are supposed to pray, zeroing in on two things, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, they are to pray while “lifting holy hands.”
This is a common posture for prayer in the OT (1 Kings 8:22; Ps. 28:2; 63:4). Jesus himself prayed with lifted hands (Luke 24:50). A reference in Isaiah to the lifting of the hands informs our understanding of Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:8:
When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil. (Isa. 1:15–16)
Isaiah is clear that lifting hands is not merely a posture for prayer. A person’s hands represent his deeds, which can be either pure or defiled. In the Isaiah text, his hearers’ “hands” are covered with blood, so God will not hear them.
This is why Paul calls on these men to pray while lifting “holy hands.” Their public expressions of worship must flow from a life marked by holiness. In other words, God is looking for worshipers who will worship him in spirit and in truth, not in hypocrisy. God cares very little for a man’s religious performance at worship if such a man is living like the Devil elsewhere. And so Paul says that men are to raise “holy hands.”
Negatively, Paul asserts that public expressions of worship must grow out of a life that is without “anger” or “quarreling.” Anger and quarreling, therefore, are the specific sins in view that render a man’s “hands” unholy. “Anger” refers to an inner disposition of wrath and indignation, while “quarreling” refers to unholy disputes and arguments produced by such an angry spirit. “Lifting holy hands” requires a transformation of both heart and deeds.
An exhortation for women
“Likewise” indicates a correspondence between Paul’s exhortation to men in verse 8 and his exhortation to women in verse 9. George Knight explains the connection this way: “Just as Christian men needed to be warned that their interest in vigor and discussion should not produce strife and dissension (v. 8), so Christian women needed to be warned that their interest in beauty and adornment should not produce immodesty and indiscretion.”(1)
There is nothing new under the sun. Women in Paul’s day were concerned about their appearance just as some women in our day are. There is evidence from antiquity that these particular adornments—elaborate braiding of hair, gold, pearls, expensive clothing—while not evil in themselves, could be marks of sinful motives: “It is the excess and sensuality that the items connote that Paul forbids (cf. Jas. 5:1–6), not braids, gold, pearls, or even costly garments in and of themselves.”(2) It is not that all braids and gold and pearls and clothing were wrong. It is only those that express seduction or ostentation (cf. 1 Pet. 3:3–4, where Peter is not forbidding wearing “clothing” per se).
Learning was not generally encouraged for women by Jewish men in the first century, yet, in spite of that patriarchal norm, Paul tells the believers in Ephesus that he desires women to “learn” (i.e., to be instructed in the faith). This command for women to “learn” is the only imperative in this entire text. However, the accent is not on the command itself (Paul seems to assume that women will be learning) but on the manner in which women are to do so: literally, they are to learn “quietly” and “with all submissiveness.”
“Quietly” does not mean that women are never to utter a word when the church gathers for worship. This would completely contradict what Paul says about women in 1 Corinthians 11, where he tells the women how to pray and prophesy in church. His assumption is that they will pray and prophesy, which means his assumption is that they will speak during church services. We may note that the term for “quietly” in verse 11 is similar to the term for “quiet” in verse 2. When Christians are commanded to pray for a “peaceful and quiet life,” that phrase does not describe a life in which no one talks. It aims rather at a life “without turmoil” (cf. BDAG, s.v. ἡσυχία). Likewise here, “quietly” does not mean complete silence. It means instead that women are to be “without turmoil.” The term requires women to have a “quiet demeanor and spirit that is peaceable instead of argumentative.”(3)
What is allowed?
This verse is one of the most controversial texts in all of the NT, mainly because there is such a difference of opinion over what it is that Paul is disallowing. The literature on this verse is voluminous, and adjudicating all the competing interpretations would be beyond the scope of this commentary.(4) Nevertheless, we can simplify the discussion by dividing interpretive options into two groups.
One stream of interpretation posits that Paul is prohibiting one thing—a certain kind of teaching. On this view, such interpreters translate the statement as “I do not allow a woman to teach with authority,” or perhaps, “I do not allow a woman to teach with an intent to dominate.” In either case, it is only a certain kind of teaching that Paul prohibits. As long as women do not teach with authority—teaching with pastoral authority—then it is permissible for women to teach men in the gathered assembly of the church. Or, as long as female teachers do not seek to dominate, they are allowed to teach the gathered assembly of God’s people. Paul rules out for women not church-wide teaching per se but only a certain kind of teaching—the kind that wrongly assumes authority or exercises authority in a harsh or sinful way.
But neither of those interpretations makes sense of the actual wording of the text. Thus another stream of interpretation holds that Paul is prohibiting two things, not one.(5) According to this view, Paul is saying that women should not teach or exercise authority within the gathered assembly of the church. Paul is disallowing both activities. Paul is not prohibiting all teaching by women—as if a woman must refrain from teaching subjects like geometry or science. The word translated as “teach” refers specifically to teaching Christian doctrine. Thus the prohibition applies narrowly to those who would teach and preach the Bible.
Nor is Paul saying that women are incapable of being gifted Bible teachers. There are many women who are very gifted teachers. He is simply saying that the exercise of their teaching gifts must be kept within certain parameters. They are not allowed to teach men. Nor are they allowed to “exercise authority,” which means that women are not to be pastors.6 As the following chapter of 1 Timothy makes clear, the pastorate is reserved only for qualified men—not all men, but only those who meet certain qualifications, with the result that they are recognized as elders by the rest of the church.
The average person with modern sensibilities begins to feel an objection welling up: “Why would Paul put gender parameters on who can teach and be an elder? This sounds sexist.” As if he were anticipating this objection, Paul answers it in the next verse.
Order of creation
The word “for” introduces the reason for the prohibition in verse 12: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” This is a clear reference to the Genesis 2 account of creation. In Genesis 2, God creates Adam from the ground and afterward creates Eve from Adam’s rib. Paul is teaching that the reason for the prohibition has something to do with how God made the first man and the first woman.
Some interpreters have suggested that the first woman had an intellect and discernment inferior to the man’s. They argue, therefore, that women are prohibited from teaching because they are not quite “up to snuff” intellectually. Such an interpretation is unpersuasive, for various reasons.
First of all, Paul calls for women to teach other women (Titus 2:3–5). If women are intellectually inferior to men, then Paul would not have let them teach at all. But because Paul wants women to teach other women in the church, he obviously believes that at least some women are fully capable of doing so.
Second, the text does not say that women are prohibited from teaching because they are more gullible than men. Notice in verse 13 that Paul uses the word “first” to emphasize the sequence of the creation of the man and the woman: “Adam was formed first, then Eve.” This means that the reason for the prohibition of verse 12 is found in the order of creation.
Note too that verses 13 and 14 use passive verbs: “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived.” The implicit agents are God in verse 13 and Satan in verse 14. In this way Paul highlights not what Adam and Eve did in the garden but what was done to them. Verse 13 specifies that God made Adam first and then Eve. In contrast, verse 14 specifies that Satan first deceived Eve, not Adam. In the original order of creation, God spoke his word to Adam, Adam spoke God’s word to Eve, and Adam and Eve were to rule over the beasts of the ground. In the fall, the Serpent spoke his word to Eve, Eve influenced Adam to follow her, and both Adam and Eve evaded God. So verse 13 tells us what God has done, and verse 14 tells us what Satan has done. God established an order of creation, and Satan subverted that order.
Paul appeals to this agency and order in creation and the fall to show that Adam’s leadership in the first marriage was established in part on the basis that God created him first—a principle of primogeniture very common in the ancient world. Because this ordering is a part of God’s original creation and is deemed by God to be “good,” Paul views it as the paradigm for all marriages to follow. God intends a certain order in the husband-wife relationship. The order of creation establishes the husband as leader in the first marriage and in all marriages to follow.
The pattern for leadership in marriage is the basis for an all-male eldership. The gender norms of the eldership must follow the gender norms for marriage.
The order in marriage has wider implications for church leadership, which is the point Paul is pressing in 1 Timothy 2:12ff. Paul appeals to the nature of marriage to establish a point about leadership within the church. This is not an accident, and it corresponds with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:3–16 concerning marriage, “headship,” and order within the gathered assembly. The pattern for leadership in marriage is the basis for an all-male eldership. The gender norms of the eldership must follow the gender norms for marriage. If this were not the case, the church’s leadership structure would be at odds with the leadership structure God has established for marriages within the church.
Sin came into the world when the Serpent strove to assault God’s order. Likewise, to subvert the headship principle that God established at the very beginning would be to subvert God’s design. This is why he prohibits women from teaching and exercising authority within the gathered assembly. The prohibition is not because of deficiency of intellect among women. Nor is it due to some situation specific to the Ephesian church. Because this prohibition is rooted in the order of creation, it is a transcultural principle to be observed for all times and ages. Male headship in marriage is not a result of the fall but is a part of the order of creation. So also, then, is male eldership in the church.
Editors’ note: This article is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon(Volume 11 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar. It was originally published at the Crossway blog.
- George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 136
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 186.
- For an extended discussion of this verse in English translation, see Denny Burk, “New and Old Departures in the Translation of Αὐθεντεῖν,” in Women in the Church, 279–296.
- Andreas J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence: The Syntax of 1 Timothy 2:12,” in Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Thomas R. Schreiner, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 117–161
- “Authority” does not have an inherently negative connotation. See Al Wolters, “The Meaning of Αὐθεντέω,” in Women in the Church, 65–115.