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.

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.

 

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.”

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