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Letter to Women

Chapter 10.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Not allowed to teach?

Some years ago I gave a course for Christian writers in the district of Multan in Pakistan. The adult literacy rate among rural men, I was told, is 70%; among women only 15%. Until the advent of TV, the only instruction most people got was the Friday sermon by the mullah in the local mosque. It made me understand why the mullahs enjoy such a lot of political power in Muslim countries. They have a captive audience. And the situation was not much different in the European Middle Ages. Most of the time only priests could read and write. They were the teachers who instructed the faithful through lengthy sermons at Sunday mass. The priests controlled the sources of information for only they understood Latin, the language of scripture, of liturgy, of church law and theology.


Erasmus (1469 - 1636) has left us a satirical parody of how some preachers would flaunt their erudition. He describes an experience he had while visiting England.

“Preachers begin with a clever introduction. I have had the privilege of being among the audience of a preacher who was 80 years old and who had such a reputation as a theologian that one could imagine having met Scotus in the flesh. After declaring that he would explain to the common folk the mystery of Jesus’ name, he stated with an amazing perspicacity of mind that all that can be said about Jesus’ name is already contained in the letters of the word. It was surely an image of the Blessed Trinity, he said, that the word Jesus in Latin can only be inflected in three cases. Next, an unspeakable mystery lies in the fact that the nominative case ‘Jesus’ ends in ‘s’, that the accusative case ‘Jesum’ ends in ‘m’ and the dative case ‘Jesu’ in ‘u’, because through these three letters it is indicated that he is summus (the highest), medius (the middle) and ultimus (the last). With a pair of compasses an even more profound mystery could be dug up in the word. He split the word ‘Jesus’ into two parts in such a way that the third letter remained as the pivot on its own. Then  he proved that this letter ‘s’ is called ‘syn’ in Hebrew. This word ‘syn’ means, if I am not mistaken, ‘sin’ in the English language from which, he said, it was a clear as could be that Jesus takes away the sins of the world. This kind of nonsense preachers call the introduction  .   .   . ”

“In the next part of their speech - which is actually the sermon part itself - preachers explain a small passage from the Gospel, but they do this quickly and superficially, whereas in fact this should have been their main task. Then preachers assume a new character and introduce a theological question, normally one which floats between heaven and earth obviously convinced that tackling such a question is also part of preaching. This is the moment when real theological pride manifests itself. Quoting each other, they throw about their splendid titles at this juncture, such as: sublime teachers, profound and super-profound teachers, indisputable teachers, etc. Then they bamboozle the simple people with syllogisms, majors, minors, conclusions, corollaries, suppositions and more such scholastic nonsense.”[154]


Since priests were preachers by definition, we need not be surprised that a presumed prohibition against female teaching in I Timothy was seen as a major obstacle to the ordination of women.

“I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men. She is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”[155]

It became part of church law:

“Even if a woman is educated and saintly, she still should not presume to instruct men in an assembly. A lay man, however, should not presume to instruct in the presence of the clergy, unless he is asked by them to do so.”[156]

From a study of medieval theologians we see that it became a standard argument which authors would copy one from the other. Compare these two texts:


Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274 AD)


Durandus a Saint-Pourçain (1270 - 1334 AD)


[Women cannot receive holy orders] for it is said (1 Tim. 2:12): “I suffer not a woman to teach in the Church, nor to use authority over the man.”[157]

“The office of teaching is conjoined to [holy] orders, but it is not fitting for women or children to teach, as to children because they lack reason and as to women because of the prohibition of the Apostle (Tim. 2.) I do not permit a woman to teach in the Church, nor to rule over her husband, etc.”[158]




Now we know that Durandus is quoting Aquinas, or both a common source, for 1 Timothy 2,12 does not mention ‘in the church’. The text is a conflation with 1 Corinthians 14:34 which says: “Let women keep silence in the churches”. The mutual dependence is even clearer with other scholars, as when we look at these two Franciscans.


John Duns Scotus (1266 - 1308)


Richard of Middleton (13th cent.)

“Every Order is received towards the priesthood and teaching. But teaching belongs chiefly to priests, as it is held in dist. 16. quaest. 1 We add: and not to Deacons, unless by commission, when a sermon or an instruction is regarded as the reading of the Gospel, which it is fitting for deacons to read. But that deed is prohibited to women, 1. Timoth. 2. ‘Let the women learn in silence’, and I do not permit them [women] to speak or to teach’, where a gloss [reads], ‘not only I but also the Lord does not permit it’; and this is so because of the weakness of their intellect, and the mutability of their emotions, which they commonly suffer more than men. For a teacher ought to have a lively intellect in the recognition of truth, and stability of emotion in its confirmation.”[159]

“The office of teaching belongs to [Holy] Orders and every Order is arranged towards the priesthood, to whom this office properly belongs (Dist 16, qu. 1). We add that it also belongs to the diaconate (Decret. Dist 25, ‘perlectis’ r. 92 at ‘In facta’), which should be interpreted thus: that the priest holds the principal office [of teaching] but the deacon by delegation, or that preaching for them means reading the Gospel. But teaching in public is not proper for a woman because of the weakness of her intellect and the instability of her emotions, of which defects women suffer more than men by a notable common law. But a teacher needs to have a vivid intellect to recognise the truth and stable emotions to persist in their expression  .  .  .

“These two reasons we can also extract from the very apt statement in 1 Tim 2: Let women keep silent in church in all submission - I do not permit a woman to teach nor to rule over a man.”[160]



These two Franciscan authors obviously reflect the common thinking of the time: women cannot become priests because Paul has forbidden them to teach in church. And Paul’s prohibition makes sense because women are emotionally unstable and intellectually not up to the demands of teaching.


The Congregation for Doctrine maintains that the Pauline prohibition still holds. Because women may not teach in the Christian community, they cannot be ordained priests.

“The Apostle’s forbidding of women ‘to speak’ in the assemblies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:34-35,1 Tim. 2:12) is [not socially conditioned], and exegetes define its meaning in this way: Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognises as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (cf. 1 Cor. 11:5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly. For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7; Gen. 2:18-24): it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact. Nor should it be forgotten that we owe to Saint Paul one of the most vigorous texts in the New Testament on the fundamental equality of men and women, as children of God in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:28). Therefore there is no reason for accusing him of prejudices against women, when we note the trust that he shows towards them and the collaboration that he asks of them in his apostolate.”[161]


So how to interpret 1 Timothy 2,12 and 1 Corinthians 14,34-35?

Anti-Gnostic measures against women

The prohibition for women to teach should be seen within its context.


Like the other pastoral letters, 1 Timothy is now generally accepted by biblical scholarship as having been composed by a disciple of Paul who wrote in the apostle’s name to indicate that he stood in the same tradition. Date: around 100 AD. Place: possibly Asia Minor or Greece. The main concern of 1 Timothy is to counteract the influence of Gnostic teachers.


The Gnostic teachings were of a mixed hellenistic and Jewish origin. Gnostic doctrine included dualism, contempt for material things, dependence on knowledge (=spiritual experience), not faith, as a way to salvation, secret wisdom reserved for the elite few and restrictive teachings about sexual practice.


The accusations made by the author are mainly centred around ‘speaking’ and ‘teaching’.

·        He warns of ‘fruitless discussion’;

·        ignorant assertions about the law;

·        ‘wordly fables’;

·        ‘godless philosophical discussions...’;[162]

·        see also: ‘wrangling about words’;

·        ‘talking nonsense’;

·        ‘...avoid foolish speculations, the quibbles and disputes about the Law...’.[163]


Gnostic teaching endangered men as well as women for we hear the biblical author complain about “contention and grumbling among the men” and about “backsliding and apostasy among the women”.[164] Yet, the author seems to be more concerned about women. In Gnostic circles women were upheld and glorified as ‘favoured channels of revelation’ and feminine imagery was freely applied to God and his/her emanations. The text about women’s ‘silence in the assembly’ should be read in this context.[165] I will comment on the text in some detail.


“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.” (verse 11)

To whom should women be submissive? Since in our text the object is not specified, it is inappropriate to assume that universally man is the object. The Letter was written to deter women from submitting to false teachers, and so “the admonition to learn with all submission seems to imply a learning from true teachers”.[166] “Just as wives (Titus 3:5), children (1 Timothy 3:4), and slaves (Titus 2:9) must be submissive within their households,  .  .  . so the community (especially women in our case), should not have contempt for their ministers.”[167]

“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men. She is to keep silent.” (verse 12)

There is no doubt about the fact that the author of 1 Timothy had imposed a prohibition on women that forbade them to teach or to have authority in his Christian assembly. However, the main question is: was this just a local and temporal prohibition, or a universal norm imposed under inspiration for all time to come? We can deduce that it was only a temporary and local prohibition from the following considerations:

1.      When the verb ‘to permit’ (epitrepsein) is used in the New Testament, it refers to a specific permission in a specific context.[168]  Moreover, the use of the indicative tense indicates an immediate context. The correct translation, therefore, is: “I am not presently allowing”;[169] “I have decided that for the moment women are not to teach or have authority over men”.[170]

2.      We know for a fact that Paul allowed women to speak prophetically in the assembly.[171] Women functioned in the Church as deaconesses.[172] We know, therefore, that women did speak in the assemblies. 1 Timothy 2,12 is an exception, a later ruling to counteract a specific threat.

3.      The immediate context of the prohibition was the danger of Gnostic teaching that at the time affected mainly women. Enlarging its purpose to including a permanent norm for all time goes beyond the literal sense of the text and the intended scope of the biblical author.

The overall meaning of this verse is, therefore: “Until women have learned what they need in order to get a full grasp of the true teaching, they are not to teach or have authority over men.”[173] 

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (verse 13)

And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (verse 14)

Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (verse 15).

It is clear that these verses are not carefully considered theological statements. Because, strictly speaking, they do not make sense. If Eve is subject to Adam because she was created later, Adam and Eve are subject to the animals because they were created after the animals.[174] Then, according to the first creation story Adam and Eve were created simultaneously: “God created him, male and female he created them”.[175] Also, Adam was equally deceived and equally guilty as the story makes clear.[176] Pain in childbirth and being dominated by their husbands were seen as punishments for Eve, but the victory of woman over evil is ignored by our author. Are these heavy doctrinal pronouncements?

Why then did the biblical author of 1 Timothy quote the second creation story in Genesis so clumsily to back up his opinion? No doubt, the use of Genesis to teach women a lesson was common among Jewish expositors, as we saw in the previous chapter. But the Gnostics also used the creation story. These verses may well have been “a polemic directed against several misconceptions concerning Adam and Eve”.[177]  “The gospel is struggling in Ephesus with Gnostic-influenced women trumpeting a feminist reinterpretation of Adam and Eve as a precedent for their own spiritual primacy and authority”.[178]

The polemic against Gnostic teachers may reveal the author’s real point. In Genesis Eve was deceived by the snake and transgressed; in Ephesus some women were deceived by false teachers, and for this reason they transgressed. Since according to 1 Timothy 2,14 the emphasis is on the fact that Adam was not the one who was deceived, it reveals the context in which the letter was written, i.e. women are the ones who were causing the trouble. Therefore the author of l Timothy was addressing a specific situation.


It is possible that it was just the author’s patriarchal prejudice against women, rather than the specific Gnostic context, that caused his rather anti-feminine outburst. If so, there is even more reason not to take this broken and clumsy interpretation of the creation story to be solemnly defined doctrine. These verses about Adam and Eve are typical rationalizations that is, as we have seen, ad hoc reasonings to undershore something stated. They could only be fully understood by a specific audience within the context of the letter, and therefore had a limited scope.


The tragedy is that these verses were extensively used in later tradition to justify contemporary prejudices against women. They were supposed to prove from the inspired Scriptures that God subjected women to men and that women are more susceptible to temptation and deception.

A gloss in 1 Corinthians

1 Corinthians 14,33-34 is usually quoted in tandem with 1 Timothy. It states:

“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.”

The passage has clearly been inserted into Paul’s original letter at a later time The interpolation can be inferred from the following facts:

·        Verses 34- 35 appear after verse 40 in a number of important old manuscripts: the Claromontanus of Paris , the Boernerianus of Dresden , Minuscule nr 88, and versions of the Old Latin translation (the Itala, 2nd - 4th cent.). It shows that the verses were a gloss written in the margin of the original papyrus which entered the body of the text in later copies.

·        The rule that women should “keep silence in the churches” (vs. 34) flatly contradicts what Paul says about women prophesying in church in 1 Corinthians 11,5. See also: “Whoever prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation”.[179]

·        The phrase “as even the Law says” (vs. 34) contradicts Paul’s teaching that we have been liberated from the Law.[180]


Although in 1 Timothy 2,12 the author used didaskein (= teaching) while in 1 Corinthians 11,35 the word used is lalein (= speaking), the parallelism of the two texts on women’s/wives’ restrictions is generally accepted by scholars. Probably 1 Corinthians 14,34-35 stems from a similar origin as 1 Timothy 2,11-14, an effort in Asia Minor of around 100 AD to counteract the Gnostic recruitment of women.


The limitation of biblical statements


The context of the passages restricting women from teaching in the assembly shows these texts not to have permanent validity for all time to come. They are passages with a limited scope. Is this rare in scripture? The answer is no: scripture abounds with statements, assertions, sayings, admonitions, prescriptions that only had a restricted reach.


¨      Remember Paul’s advice to Timothy: “Stop drinking just water. Drink a little wine. It will ease your indigestion and frequent illnesses.”[181] --- Was this a revelation from God to teach us about the benefits of drinking wine?

¨      And Jesus said:   “Do   not   call   yourself  ‘teacher’,  for   you   have   one   Teacher  and you are all brothers and sisters.  Call  no   man ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who  is   in heaven.” ---  Did Jesus really forbid these titles for all time to come?

¨      “I tell you, do not take any oaths  .   .   .    Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” ---Did Jesus ban the taking of sworn statements in court for all time to come? Was that his real intention?

¨      “Do not offer resistance to violence. If someone  strikes   you on the right cheek, turn to him the other too.” --- Did Jesus veto self defence? Did he prohibit a state to have police, or an army for all time to come?[182]


Why would a provisional and temporary prohibition have validity for all time to come? Can this really be considered a valid reason to exclude women from holy orders?



Readings from Women Priests web site


Richard of Middleton (13th cent.)

on women priests, introduction

on women priests, actual text


John Wijngaards

Discussion of 1 Timothy 2,11-15


Discussion of 1 Corinthians 14,33-34


Explaining the principle of limited scope
















[154]  Erasmus, Laus Stultitiae (1508), Dutch translation De Lof der Zotheid, Utrecht 1912, pp. 118-119; English translation my own.

[155]  1 Timothy 2, 12-14.

[156]  Decretum Gratiani, Distinction 23, Chapter 29. Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 86.

[157] Summa Theologica Suppl. ,qu. 39 art. 1.

[158] Durandi a Sancto Porciano In Petri Lombardi Sententias Theologicas Commentarium, Venice 1571, vol. 4, Dist. 25, Quaestio 2, f 364-v.

[159] Duns Scoti Opera Omnia, ed. Vives, Paris 1894, vol. 24, ‘Reportata Parisiensia’, Liber 4, Distinctio 25, Quaestio 2, §19, pp.367-371.

[160] Richard of Middleton, Super Quarto Sententiarum, Dist. 25, a. 4, n. 1, § 9-11; ed. Bocatelli, Venice, 1499 (Pellechet-Polain, 10132/9920), f 177-R.

[161]  Inter Insigniores, § 19.

[162]  1 Timothy 1,6; 1,7; 4,7; 6,20-21.

[163]  2 Timothy 2,14; Titus 1,10; 3,9.

[164]  1 Timothy 2,8; 5,14-15.

[165] P. W. Barnett, ‘Wives and Women’s Ministry’ (I Timothy 2:11-15): Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989) 225-238; B. Barron, ‘Putting Women in Their Place: I Timothy 2 and Evangelical Views of Women in Church Leadership’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990) 451 459; A. L. Bowman, ‘Women in Ministry: An Exegetical Study in I Timothy 2:11-15’: Biblical Studies 149 (1992) 193-213; R. Falconer, ‘I Timothy 2,14.15. Interpretative Notes’: Journal of Biblical Literature 60 (1941) 375 - 379.

[166] A. Padgett, ‘Wealthy Women at Ephesus. l Timothy2:8-15 in Social Context’: Interpretation 41 (1987) 19-31; G. N. Redekop, ‘Let the Women Learn: I Timothy 2 :8-15 Reconsidered’: Studies in Religion 19 (1990) 235-245.

[167] E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, SCM, London 1994, p. 289.

[168] Matthew 8,21; Mark 5,13; John 19,38; Acts 21,39-40; 26,1; 27,3; 28,16; 1 Corinthians 16,7; etc.

[169] A. D. B. Spencer, ‘Eve at Ephesus (Should women be ordained as pastors according to the First Letter to Timothy 2:11-15?)’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1974) 215-222; G. P. Hugenberger, ‘Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to I Timothy 2 :8-15’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 341-360.

[170]  Ph. B. Payne, ‘Libertarian Women in Ephesus: A Response to Douglas J. Moo’s article, I Timothy 2: 11 - 15: Meaning and Significance’: Trinidad Journal of New Testament Studies 2 (1981) 169-197; Redekop, l.c.

[171]  1 Corinthians 11,5.

[172]  Romans 16,1; 1 Timothy 3,8-12; more about this in chapter 17.

[173]  Redekop, l.c.

[174]  Genesis 1,20-27.

[175] Genesis 1,27.

[176] Genesis 3,17-19.

[177] G. P. Hugenberger, ‘Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to I Timothy 2 :8-15’: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 341-360.

[178]  Barron, l.c.

[179]  1 Corinthians 14,3.

[180]  Galatians 2,16; 5,1.18; 3,23-28; etc. etc.

[181]  1 Timothy 5, 23.

[182] Matthew 24,42-44; Luke 16,1-13; 18,1-8.

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