“Ask a Priest: Why Does St. Paul Seem so Sexist in 1 Timothy 2?”

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Q: I came upon 1 Timothy 2:8-15 where it talks about women and men praying in church. It says, “Women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men; they must keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and broke God’s law. But a woman will be saved through having children, if she perseveres in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” I have several questions about this segment. How come it details that women should learn in silence but not that men should? Why should women not teach or have authority over men? Yes, Eve broke God’s law, but then Adam broke God’s law too. Adam sinned just as Eve did, so why is it implying that Eve was the lone sinner and that Adam was innocent? If a woman does not have children, does that mean that she won’t be saved? Did Jesus endorse these verses, or are they solely Paul’s opinions? These verses are showing gender biases, which I thought Jesus had come to abolish. Why are such biased (sexist) things said in this segment? Thank you so much if you would reply, I appreciate your time! -R.R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: That’s a good question! There is good reason to think that 1 Timothy 2 is a response to a rather particular cultural situation in parts of the Roman Empire during the first century, and is not meant to outline universal norms valid for today. Scholars have identified two situations particular to Paul’s era that can help explain why he wrote these instructions to the church in Ephesus, and why they don’t necessarily apply today.

The first was the “new women” movement. Ephesus, where Timothy lived, was a very rich city, and in the first century there was a movement among upper-class women called the “new women” movement. This movement in some ways was positive, promoting women’s role in the public sphere, for example. But most texts that we have about the movement emphasize that it promoted things such as abortion, sexual promiscuity and permissive clothing.

The movement came to be strongly associated in public opinion with promiscuity and licentiousness. The negative perception of the movement was widespread enough that the Roman Empire even legislated against the movement.

In 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Paul describes how 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.” This is the exact opposite of how the “new women” were seen in Roman society, and indicates that Paul’s instructions should be understood as a response to that movement. He doesn’t want the church in Ephesus to become associated with a movement that is widely thought to promote promiscuity and bad morals.

The second situation is the physical space of the churches of that time. 1 Corinthians 14:23 imagines an unbeliever simply walking in on a Christian worship service. That was because the worship services took place in the reception or atrium areas of larger homes, which were considered public areas open to all. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul is worried about that someone will walk in on a worship service while a Christian is speaking in tongues and think that Christians are crazy. This could then make it more unlikely that person could come to know Christ. So, Paul tells the Corinthians to be careful to avoid these situations.

A similar worry might be present in 1 Timothy 2. In the particular situation of Roman society at that time, women speaking in public was associated with the “new women” movement. Paul is worried about given scandal and becoming associated with that movement. In a situation in which the church is still very small – very much “outsiders” – Paul knows that becoming associated with the “new women” movement might seriously damage the possibility of sharing the faith with others in Ephesus who could get the wrong impression about Christians.

While Paul’s indications were valid only for a specific historical and cultural moment, there is a deeper message that is valid for all times and places. It is expressed well by Paul when he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

An analogous situation at times occurs today for Christians living in Muslim countries, where Christian women oftentimes wear the hijab because it is what is expected by women in their culture. Doing so doesn’t mean that they agree with it, but is rather a recognition that adapting to cultural norms is sometimes necessary – even if we might try to work to change them long-term. As long as what the cultural norm asks us to do is not evil, this can be permitted. [Answered by Father Devin Roza, L.C., author of Fulfilled in Christ: The Sacraments. A Guide to Symbols and Types in the Bible and Tradition].

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