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  • Amy MacKinnon

What Did Paul Really Say About Women and Teaching?

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.

1 Timothy 2:12 (RSVCE)

Paul said that in a letter to Timothy, but if he's telling Timothy that women can't teach or even talk in public, why does he send a man (Apollos) to Priscilla and her husband Aquilla, and recommend them both as teachers?

Why does Saint Paul speak so highly of Lydia? It's not because she remained silent...

And why have women been teaching others about Christianity since the beginning?

If the Bible is truly the Word of God, which it is, then it can’t be self-contradictory. God is both truth and goodness itself, so He can neither deceive anyone, nor be deceived.

“Through all the words of Sacred Scripture, God speaks only one single Word, his one Utterance in whom he expresses himself completely” (CCC 102)

There have been many women’s religious orders throughout the centuries that were formed to teach people about God, and this practice in general has always been endorsed by the Catholic Church.

From the earliest days of Christianity, women have been teaching the Faith, but Paul said: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. So is the Church itself rejecting the words of Paul? #christian women teaching #christian faith bible #paul bible study #teach #christian bible studies women #bible study paul #bible study for women spiritual growth
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From the earliest days of Christianity, women have been teaching the Faith.

Prisca (or Priscilla) and her husband Aquilla, were converts from Judaism and taught the faith to Apollos, who was also Jewish, and very well-educated (Acts 18:24-26).

The quote by Paul in 1 Timothy about women teaching can be compared with the times that he speaks very highly about women who teach. He specifically mentions Prisca in Romans 16:3-8. In that verse, he’s not criticizing her—he’s speaking very highly about her as someone he greatly admires.

So Is the Church Itself Rejecting the Words of Paul?

I don't think so...

No New Testament writer has been more criticized for his allegedly negative portrayal of women than the apostle Paul. Although Paul’s view that “There is neither male nor female in Christ” has been hailed as revolutionary, he has been viewed conversely as merely a child of his culture in other texts in which he appears to subordinate or denigrate women.

(Ralph P. Martin, Gerald F. Hawthorne, ed., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 583-4.)

How Do We Reconcile This?

By putting it into context, so we can understand the situation that he’s addressing.

When Paul says that women shouldn’t speak, he’s talking about that within a very specific context. By reading the rest of that passage, you can see that he’s talking about what takes place during the liturgy, and what should happen during the liturgy.

In that entire passage, Paul is talking about the Mass and the prayers that are said during the Mass. The homily in the Mass is to explain the Word of God and what He's revealed. It's not simply teaching the Faith, because that can be done at any time. The Mass is not like anything else on earth; we're in the presence of God and all the angels and saints in Heaven. Everything that we see and say during the Mass is a reflection or symbol that reminds us of who else is there with us, and how God has created us to be with Him in Heaven

That He's done that from the beginning of creation

The Homily

During the part of the Mass where the priest is giving the homily, there is a lot going on.

The homily is given after the readings from the Bible are read. The readings are in this order:

  1. Old Testament

  2. Psalms

  3. New Testament (usually one of Paul’s letters)

  4. Gospel

The passage for the first reading is paired with the Gospel reading. The Gospel reading reminds us of the words and actions of Christ while He walked the earth. During that time, He fulfilled many prophecies that were given by God to His people. One way to read the Old Testament is God:

  • Promising that He would send a savior

  • Showing His people what that savior would do

  • Teaching His people what to look for in that promised savior

The first reading shows one of the places where that day’s gospel passage was prefigured in the Old Testament.

When the priest gives the homily, part of what he’s doing is showing how those readings are connected. He’s imitating the actions of Christ, who did this very thing during His earthly ministry.

When the people are seeing and listening to the priest, they’re hearing the Word of God proclaimed by someone who is presented as a symbol of Christ.

This is why the priest is wearing vestments that remind us of the priests offering the sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem, which were in anticipation of Christ, the High Priest, making the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross.

The priest is speaking the Word of God when he reads the gospel to the people of God.

And then, while standing at the ambo (podium) with the words of God in the Bible before him, he explains the Word of God to the people of God, just as Jesus (the Word made flesh) taught the people of God during His time on earth.

So when we take all of that symbolism into account, it’s easier to see the importance of having the priest give the homily. He’s not just teaching people about God.

He’s acting in the person of Christ so that the people of God can understand what God has revealed, and what it means.

So when Paul tells Timothy that he doesn’t permit a woman to teach, he’s not making an absolute statement. He’s talking about the homily during the Mass, and reminding Timothy that this is a priestly role.

Teaching the Faith to people outside of the Mass is not limited to priests, it can be done by anyone.

This is why Paul speaks so highly of Prisca/Priscilla and Lydia, both as examples of living out their faith and as teachers of the Faith.

Whenever we run into passages in the Bible that seem hard to understand, or that seem to contradict other passages, this isn’t something we should run away from.

And yet, it’s not uncommon when it comes to passages in the Bible about women for people to do that.

Other times, they may dismiss the passage and say that the human author was a misogynist, completely dismiss those passages, or even think badly about God Himself.

I Think There’s A Better Way

I think that this is really an invitation from God.

He wants to draw us deeper into understanding Him, and one way to do that is to challenge us.

Whenever we’re challenged, it’s always an opportunity to grow by facing up to that challenge.

So if that challenge is in the area of our faith, and if God wants all of us in heaven with Him (which He does) then that challenge is grow in our knowledge and understanding of whatever difficulty it is that we’re confronted with.

We can’t love what we don’t know, but the more we know, the better we’re able to love. So the more we know about God, the better we’re able to love Him.

This is why He extends those invitations to us, and when it’s something that’s difficult or even extremely challenging, it’s because there’s some obstacle we need to overcome.

That obstacle could just be our own lack of understanding, or it could be an error we’ve made in our judgment or that we have in our beliefs.

Whatever that obstacle is, the challenge from God is also accompanied by His grace.

He’ll give us the grace to overcome that obstacle with His help, and the grace to grow in knowledge and love of Him.

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