A modern, Western woman is likely to be taken aback when reading through 1 Timothy. After hearing 1 Timothy 2:11-12 for the first time, a teenage girl once remarked, "That's not really in there!" It reads in the New International Version, "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent."
Here we come to a point of inner conflict. On the one hand, we are reading Scripture, which as Christians we understand to have authority over us. On the other hand, these verses seem to conflict with the gospel of Christ, so well captured in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." Some of 1 Timothy borderlines on the harsh toward women. For example, at one point it tells church leaders not to trust widows who say they will not remarry, because "their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ" (1 Tim. 5:11).
It is hard not to put a comment like this one in the category of the "situation specific" rather than the "timelessly applicable." What was going on in the context of 1 Timothy to provoke such strong rhetoric, which seems significantly different from Paul's tone and practice toward women in his earlier letters? To the modern reader, some of these comments sound as strange as Psalm 137:8-9 ("happy is he who... seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks") or Galatians 5:12 ("I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves").
Both in Paul's earlier letters and in the portrait of him in Acts, Paul seems to have a significantly different attitude toward women and widows. For example, 1 Timothy instructs church leaders not to support younger widows materially but to have their families take care of them until they get remarried (5:9, 11, 18). The system seems to have worked in this way. When a woman became a widow, the church would support her for the rest of her life if she committed never to remarry (5:9, 11).
In practice, however, younger widows apparently tended to go back on their vow and remarry, clearly a source of great irritation. In the meantime, those widows who did not were perceived to be "idlers," "gossips," and "busybodies" (5:13). The instruction to remarry seems to assume that if such widows would remarry, the duties of the household, husband, and family would instead preoccupy them with "bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds" (5:10). So 1 Timothy instructs church leaders not to put a widow on the support list unless she is at least sixty years of age and has been a reputable wife and woman.
Again, such comments sound highly sexist to our Western ears. They are also quite different from what Paul has to say about widows in 1 Corinthians 7. There, he says that the ideal is for a widow not to remarry (7:40). Indeed, the instruction of the entire chapter assumes that the Lord is going to return very soon. "[T]he time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none... this world in its present form is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:29, 31).
Here is another major difference between Paul's earlier writings and the Pastorals. Writings like 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians seem to operate under the assumption that Christ will return very soon indeed, probably even before Paul dies. By contrast, at least 1 and 2 Timothy look to some future time presumably after Paul's death: "in later times" (1 Tim. 4:1) and "in the last days" (2 Tim. 3:1). The shift from Christ's imminent return to his prolonged delay is a major shift between Paul's earlier writings and 1 Timothy.
So at the very least Paul's sense of widows in the church has changed or alternatively we are witnessing a church some time after Paul hunkering down for the long haul of history. Other instruction about women in the Pastorals has a similarly different tone than we find either in Paul's earlier letters or in the depiction of his ministry in Acts. For example, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 seem to assume that church overseers and deacons will be male (e.g., 1 Tim. 3:2, 8, 11; Tit. 1:6).
But Paul's earlier letters and Acts are full of women seemingly at all levels of participation in the ministry of the church. For example, we already saw in chapter 5 that Romans 16:1 refers to a woman named Phoebe as a deacon of the church of Cenchrea. We also saw in that chapter that Paul seems to consider a woman named Junia as an apostle--someone who had witnessed the risen Lord and called to proclaim the good news (Rom. 16:7). We do not explicitly find Paul referring to a woman as an overseer or an elder, but individuals like Priscilla (Rom. 16:3); Euodia, and Syntyche (Phil. 3:2) might easily have held this office in Paul's churches.
Again, the tone of 1 Timothy is surprising in this light. We concluded in chapter 5 that Romans 16 likely greeted individuals at Ephesus, the same location to which 1 Timothy most ostensibly relates. If Paul did not have a fourth missionary journey, the proximity of these two letters in time would make his sudden silence on women in ministry there jolting...