Should women remain silent in church?
In our local church, we have been discussing about the meaning of the passages where Paul counsels that a “woman… must be silent” in church (1 Timothy 2:12, NIV). How should we understand and apply this instruction today?
A study of how Paul used the Greek word for “to be silent” in this and other passages will help us better understand what Paul meant. The verb form hesuchazo, “to be silent, be calm,” is used five times; the noun form hesuchia, “silence, rest,” is used four times; and the adjective hesuchios, “quiet, tranquil,” two times.
The verb is used to express three main ideas. First, keeping silence in order to avoid an open confrontation (Luke 14:4). Second, being silent in order to bring a discussion or confrontation to an end or under control (Acts 11:18; 21:14). Third, in the sense of being inactive, to rest. This is illustrated in Luke 23:56, where the women “rested [were silent] on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (NIV). To Paul, the word conveys an ethical content, a Christian virtue; something to which all believers should aspire (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Christian life should be a silent/quiet one—free from senseless controversies or offenses to God.
From studying the different usages of the verb we can draw the following conclusions: The verb is used most of the time in contexts in which there are tensions and/or controversies. In a few others it implies that through silence an offensive behavior is avoided. The verb designates a way of speaking that disrupts social interaction; in other words, a specific type of silence and not necessarily the absence of all speech.
The church in Jerusalem listened to Peter, and as a result they kept quiet (stopped arguing with him) “and praised God “ (Acts 11:18, NIV). Since the verb does not necessarily mean the absence of words but rather the absence of controversial speech, the verb can be used to express the ideas of calmness and tranquillity, thus making real communication possible.
The noun is used basically in the same way. First, it refers to the silence that brings to an end controversial language (Acts 22:2). Second, it avoids controversial and disruptive speech (1 Timothy 2:11, 12). Finally, it designates the quietness of the Christian life that avoids disrupting the community of believers.
It is this last usage that we find in the case of the adjective, “tranquil, quiet.” According to Peter, women are to adorn themselves with a “gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4). But according to 1Timothy 2:2 this type of quietness should be a characteristic of all believers. They are all to live “quiet lives in all godliness.”
Having examined the New Testament evidence, we can now take a closer look at 1 Timothy 2:11, 12. There is no doubt that Paul is concerned about controversies in the church. In verse 8, he exhorts men to pray “without anger or disputing.” In the case of the women, the apostle is also concerned about behavior and attitudes that could be disruptive.
In order to avoid problems, he exhorts them to “learn in quietness and full submission” (verse 11), something expected of a first-century disciple (male or female). The implication is that women are described here as students, disciples, and they are being reminded of their duties as such. Paul is forbidding the speech of a student that disrupts the learning process, thus protecting the rights of others to hear and learn. The phrase “she must be silent” (verse 12) does not mean that she must remain speechless, but that controversial speeches are unacceptable, because they create unrest. This agrees perfectly with the use of the noun and the verb in the rest of the New Testament.
Why did Paul single out women? Possibly because some of them had become the target of false teachers and their instructions (2 Timothy 3:6). As a result, they were bringing controversies into the church. Paul forbids this type of controversial and divisive speech when he says that “a woman…must be silent.”
Angel Manuel Rodríguez (Th.D., Andrews University) is the director of the Biblical Research Institute. Website: http://biblicalresearch.gc.adventist.org.