Women in the First Century Church

This blog has been provided in response to some recent discussion on the role of women in the first century church in light of 1 Timothy 2:11–14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. The original essay provided a detailed exegesis of the Greek text, which I have translated for this forum. The traditional Christadelphian interpretation of these passages (and that of many mainstream churches as well) has been that God, writing through Paul, requires all women in all ages to maintain a literal silence in church meetings and to submit to all men. This precludes them from praying, reading scripture aloud, open discussion, “leadership” roles, leading Bible studies or speaking “from the platform” in any context. Recently, many members of the Christadelphian community, men as well as women, have questioned this interpretation and believe it to be detrimental to God’s design for the body of Christ and a source of disillusionment for current and potential members.

In addressing this interpretation of these two passages, I make three assumptions fundamental to good exegesis. Verses must be interpreted in context, rather than in isolation from their place within the immediate text and within the canon. Secondly, scripture should not contradict scripture; if it seems to, we must review our interpretation. Thirdly, Jesus Christ is central, and a final interpretation must be consistent with the gospel. Initially, the exegete must establish the text, that is, look for variants in the extant manuscripts. With reference to the UBS Greek NT textual apparatus, there are no variants for 1 Tim 2:11–14. The text for 1 Cor 14:34–35 is rated as “almost certain” according to the majority of significant manuscripts, with minor variants. The following is my translation, based on the discussion below.

Let a wife (gyne) learn in quitetude (hesousia), in all subjection (hypotage), for I do not permit a wife to teach nor to dominate (authentein) her husband (aner) but to be in quietude (hesousia). For Adam was formed first then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but his wife (gyne), having been wholly deceived, resulted in (became) transgression.” (1 Tim 2:11–14)

Let the wives (gyne) in the assemblies (ekklesias) be silent, for they are not permitted to speak in/for themselves, but let them be in submission (hypotasso), just as the law says. But if they are wanting to learn anything, let them ask (eperotao) their own husbands (aner) in the home, for it is shameful for a wife (gyne) to speak in assembly (ekkelsia).” (1 Cor 14:34–35)

Wives and Husbands
Are these passages speaking about men and women generally, or about husbands and their wives? Both 1 Tim 2:11–14 and 1Cor 14:34–35 use the terms gyne (woman, wife) and aner (man, husband). Whether the words are translated man/woman or wife/husband depends on the context. The more general term for “man” is anthropos, which can also mean “human being” of either/both sexes. Jesus is ho hios anthropou, the Son of Man, in that he shares our humanity. Aner and anthropos are both frequently translated “man,” but only aner is translated “husband” in the NT. Gyne can be used of any adult woman, including a wife and a virgin. From 1 Tim 2:8 through 3:12 each mention of man/husband or woman/wife is aner/gyne. The context is appropriate oversight of the ekklesia where Timothy is an elder/overseer. It seems likely that Paul is consistently discussing husbands and wives here, certainly in chapter 3 where an overseer or deacon is to be (literally) a “one-woman man.” This is the right and proper use of sexual relations, in contrast to those mentioned in 1:10.

1 Corinthians 14 is also discussing appropriate behaviour in the assembly (ekklesia). Here it is possible to be more definitive; the women/wives are to ask tous idious andras, their own men/husbands at home, which is clearly a marriage context. Elsewhere, when aner and gyne appear together, the meaning is invariably husband and wife (1 Cor 7, 1 Cor 11, Matt 1:16–19; Mark 10:12; Luke 2:36; 16:18; John 4:16–18; Acts 5:9–10; Rom 7:2–3; 2 Cor 11:3; Titus 1:6; Rev 21:2). So we’re on pretty safe ground regarding 1 Timothy 2 to be speaking of husbands and wives and it would be straining the sense to argue otherwise.

Headship and authority
This helps make sense of another controversial passage, 1 Cor 11:3–15. The word for “man” is aner throughout. The passage is speaking about husbands and wives in the assembly, not men and women generally. Christ is not only head of the ekklesia (Eph 4:15–16; Col 1:18) but is head over everything (Eph 1:10, 22; Col 2:10). The husband covering his head would be symbolically covering Christ, his head. Man and woman were both created in the image of God so it is not a superiority-inferiority issue (Gen 1:27) although only Christ fulfils this image and truly glorifies God. Conversely it is appropriate for the wife to cover her head, which represents the husband. This passage, with its reference to “authority (exousia) on her head because of the angels” is difficult to understand today, but presumably made complete sense to the first century Corinthians who were a predominantly Gentile assembly (and probably didn’t have many Nazirites who, of course, had “disgraceful” long hair). Graeco-Roman matrons wore a kalumma, a type of veil, on their head. This signified that they were not a mistress, prostitute, pagan priestess, slave or adulteress (the latter having their heads shaved). There are strong cultural elements here which obviously had a great bearing on the interactions between the sexes in this strife-ridden, schismatic congregation. This whole section from chapter 10 through 14 is a taking to task of the Corinthians for all manner of indecent and disorderly community activities, from turning the fellowship meal into a bun-fight, to undisciplined exercise of spiritual gifts, with chapter 13 a reproof against their lack of love. This lovelessness lay at the centre of their competitiveness, greed, showmanship, and partisanship. In contrast, their behaviours should have been kind, patient, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on their own way, etc.

So when in 1 Timothy 2:12 the wife is instructed not to govern or have authority over her husband, it would seem to be an appropriate reflection of decency and order in the marriage relationship as exhibited in the assembly. The word translated “govern/have authority over” is not the usual word for authority, exousia, but authentein, which is used only here in the NT and nowhere in the canonical books of the OT. It is found twice in the LXX apocrypha, in 3 Maccabees 2:29 and Wisdom 12:6. The lexicon meaning covers a semantic range of having autocratic power, or absolute authority over, to dictate to, give orders to or even (as in the apocryphal references) to have the power of life and death over someone. With no other NT usage we need to dip into its secular usage to understand it, but also appreciate that it is a hotly debated word. A good rule of thumb in such instances is to not build a major doctrinal point on a word or phrase whose meaning no one can really agree on. However, it does seem that Paul is forbidding an overbearing sort of authority of a wife over her husband, bossing him around, dictating to him, perhaps overriding and contradicting him. That is not the way a wife should treat her husband (nor, incidentally, how a husband should treat his wife if he follows Eph 5:25, 28–29). Christ is our supreme ruler, our head, and he has every right to tell us what to do, and has the power of life and death — all exousia in heaven and on earth in fact (Matt 28:18). However he doesn’t wield this as authentein type power, but “while we were still sinners, he died for us” (Rom 5:8).

This passage is surely commending a state of “decency and order” in the assembly, where no one is shouting anyone else down (in tongues or otherwise) and everyone takes turns. It certainly doesn’t preclude the wife saying anything, nor from praying or prophesying.

Quietness and subjection
So, rather than exercising independent authority, dominating her husband, the wife should be “in hesouchia and learn in all hypotage.” Hesouchia means a state of quietness without disturbance; rest, peacefulness, saying little or nothing. It may mean silence, but not necessarily. Hypotage is a state of submissiveness, subjection or subordination. Note that the passage does not specify that the woman must be in subjection to men generally, in fact it just says “in subjection.” It could mean to her husband, or to whoever is teaching at the time. In immediate context, it presumably means the husband, whom she is not to rudely contradict or dominate. (Picture the scene in Bible class; George is leading and his wife Mabel yells, “That’s not what it says, George, you idiot! Don’t listen to him, brothers and sisters, my husband has no idea! Here, let me explain the passage…” Rather, Mabel should hold her peace and query George politely at home, or find a way of exploring the meaning without putting him down or exercising a greater authority. In fact, by tactfully steering the discussion Mabel might actually save George from an embarrassing mistake!)

To whom are women to be subject? Well, to the same people as men; the governing authorities (Rom 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13) to fellow-labourers in the gospel (1 Cor 16:14) the Father of spirits (Heb 12:7) to our masters, if we are house servants (1 Pet 2:18) and to our elders (1 Peter 5:5). All these use variants of hypotasso (a related word to hypotage, meaning to submit or be subordinate). Paul in Ephesians 5:21 says that wives and husbands are to submit (hypotasso) to each other and further emphasises that for the wife this is to be as to the Lord (vv22, 24). The reason being, that within the family, the husband represents Christ. 1 Peter 3:1 likewise says that wives should hypotasso their own husbands (tois idiois andrasin) — not just any man or all men, but to their own husbands. 1 Peter 3:1 is interesting in that it is discussing the specific case of a believing wife with an unbelieving husband. Doubtless she wouldn’t learn much by asking that husband at home (!) but God requires her to submit to him (unless it conflicts with God’s principles) even if he’s no better than a servant’s master or a secular authority. The object being that the unbelieving husband might be won over by the conduct of the Christian wife — surely a form of teaching?

The appeal to Creation
1 Timothy 2:13–14 gives the reason for the woman’s quiet, respectful behaviour. Adam was formed first, then Eve. This takes us back to creation, predating the Law and any particular culture or custom. This fits with the “husband as the head of the wife” principle; she was made a fitting helper for him (1 Cor 11:3; Gen 2:21–24). The man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh, submitting to each other, loving each other and modelling Christ and his ekklesia. The problem was, the woman was deceived by the serpent, and she influenced her husband and that caused “transgression.” It’s interesting that Adam always cops the blame for the first sin and the entry of sin into the world. 2 Cor 11:3 mentions Eve being deceived by the serpent’s cunning (as a warning to both men and women) but apart from that, Eve doesn’t rate a mention in the NT; the blame for the sin is laid on Adam; in Adam we die. I don’t think the Bible is saying Eve didn’t sin; she did. She disobeyed. But she was deceived. And in her state of deception she exerted inappropriate authority over Adam; she gave him the fruit, and he ate. Why? Because she — and he — wanted to be like God, making their own decisions about good and evil (Gen 3:5–6). Ultimately, sin comes down to humans trying to be God, exercising autonomy. But Adam, as her husband, should have exercised authority over her and he didn’t, he went along with the disobedience (Gen 3:17). That same sort of inversion of the husband and wife relationship can lead to the authentein, the inappropriate dominance of the wife over the husband. That is the problem, not the wife “speaking,” per se. Eve wasn’t told to be silent, after all. One consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was the corruption of their relationship. The pendulum was to swing back the other way, and husbands would thereafter tend to rule over and dominate their wives (Gen 3:16) sometimes with violence and humiliation, contra the model of Christ. This sinful behaviour is a consequence of the fall and it is not the ideal.

No talking!
So we come to 1 Corinthians 14:34. This passage doesn’t just require the wife to not dominate her husband, but not to speak at all. The immediate context is, again, wives and husbands in the assembly (ekklesia) and the wider context is everything being done decently and in order. Paul wrote these instructions specifically to the Corinthians because of their dreadful behaviour. While we have to be careful not to haphazardly or selectively relegate passages of scripture to a particular cultural context, we do need to be aware that we do not now meet and worship in the first century Corinthian ekklesia. Otherwise we would have issues with food sacrificed to idols, master-slave relationships and be prophesying and speaking in tongues. We would be recent converts from paganism and be struggling with significant class issues and behaviours that pagan society regarded as normal. Our problems today might be similar, but they aren’t identical. So, is Paul’s instruction to wives to keep silent meant to be normative in all ekklesias in all ages? That’s the $64 question. We have already discussed the issue of subjection (it’s the same word hypotasso). Note once again that the verse does not specifically state to whom the wives are to be subject, but logically it would seem to be their husbands. There is certainly no case here for them to be subject to every man. The word for “speak” is lalein, which means regular speaking and does not necessarily mean prophecy or tongues; Paul uses the specific words for those. The wives are not permitted to speak in (or of/for) themselves (dative case) which could suggest they should not speak autonomously from their husbands, that idea of independent authority again. Instead, they can ask their own husbands. In fact, the word “ask” here is quite assertive; it can mean to interrogate or demand!

What law?
Paul adds by way of explanation, “just as also the law says.” When Paul uses the unqualified term “law,” nomos, throughout his writings, he means the Law of Moses and he is absolutely adamant that the Christian is free from that (Rom 3:27–28; 6:14–15; 7:4–6; 8:2; 10:4; Gal 2:19; 3:11–12; 3:24–25; Eph 2:15). Creation principles and promises are not “law.” However, the accounts of Adam and Eve and the establishment of marriage are written in the first book of Moses, which in Jewish parlance constituted “the Law” (e.g. John 1:45). So Paul is referring to the Genesis  creation ordinance of marriage and the disruption of it due to the fall, but that is not “the law of sin and death” or any other aspect of the Mosaic commandments and ordinances. Jesus made the point that the marriage covenant predates and supersedes the Mosaic Law (Matt 19:4–8).

Is Corinth normative?
So we are left with the clear imperative for wives, in the context of this passage, in the assembly with their husbands, to keep silent. Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the command transcends first century Corinth and is normative and universal, and overrides the lesser “restriction” in 1 Tim 2. This must pass the test of being consistent with the rest of scripture and here the problem lies. Even in Corinth women were permitted to pray and prophesy (provided it was orderly and with the culturally appropriate signification of their married state by the wearing of a kalumma). In Eph 5:19-21, in the very context of husbands and wives in assembly, Paul encourages them to address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is an admonition to non-silent mutual submission! Exactly the same association occurs in Colossians 3:16-19 where they are commanded to teach and admonish (exhort) one another!. So there’s at least two other ekklesias where Paul positively encouraged verbal communication between and amongst husbands and wives in the ekklesia. So no, the “complete silence” interpretation of Corinth’s special restrictions cannot be considered normative and applicable to all ekklesias in every age.

Women as servants and fellow workers
One final point; whatever one’s stance on whether women should lead the Sunday service or Bible studies, or “teach” in any situations, or have positions of “authority” in the ekklesia generally (and for the record, I think Timothy and Titus are clear that elders/overseers and “ordained” deacons should be male — and married ones at that, so they can demonstrate leadership in their households) there is certainly scope for women in the ekklesia to do a lot more than catering. The “assembly” is not necessarily restricted to one particular organisation with its constitution and arranging brethren, nor to Sunday morning memorial meetings. I said “ordained” deacons because the word diakonos simply means “servant” and Paul also used it in a more general sense for service in the ekklesia, including service by women (Rom 16:1). Although the eldership and episcopacy of the NT ekklesia were male, it seems that women played a role as hosts of house churches and their associated communities, in organisational and service roles (Rom 16:1; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15). Women prayed and prophesied (1 Cor 11:5) and ministered (Rom 16:1, 6, 12, 13, 15; Phil 4:2–3; 2 Tim 4:21) and, at least as husband and wife teams, taught and evangelised (Acts 18:26).

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Pet 3:7). If “prophecy” in its simplest form is speaking God’s word, then women should read the Bible in public. They aren’t reading their own words, they are reading God’s. If and when an ekklesia recognises the appropriateness of a sister giving an address or leading discussion, it behoves that sister to do so in such a way that she will not dominate, belittle or exert independent authority over her husband. She will not be quarrelsome or arrogant or present herself as superior, but “restful,” with a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4) because by God’s grace she has much to offer. A virtuous women (Prov 31) is worth more than jewels, the heart of her husband trusts in her and she does him good and not harm. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.


Lexicon definitions are taken from Danker, FW, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG) University of Chicago Press, 2000.


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