When you are seeking to understand the words of the New Testament, it is important to distinguish between what is local and what is universal. The first layer of interpretation is the historical one, from which you derive the “translatable principle” by which the words can be applied to the business of following Jesus today.
What then is the historical context behind the first letter to Timothy? Paul is quite clear. He explains himself in 1 Timothy 1:3-4: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work – which is by faith.”
We’re not told who the “certain people” are, at this point, but clearly Timothy’s task was to stop false teachers who were causing problems in the church there. We also know that this is the only verse that apparently forbids women to teach–elsewhere there is every indication that women were free to bring a teaching (see previous post).
So we arrive at Chapter 2 knowing already that there’s an issue about the content of the teaching that the young church is receiving. Paul continues thus (in 1 Tim 2:8-15):
“I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self-control.”
Notice in this passage that sometimes the word “woman” is singular and at other times plural. Women (plural) are to adorn themselves modestly. However, “a woman” (singular) must learn in silence and is not allowed to teach or have authority over the man. She (singular) will be saved in childbearing, and women (plural) are to continue in faith, love and holiness with self control.
Here’s the likely scenario that would explain it: There was a woman who was promoting false teaching in the church in Ephesus. Paul wants to stop this, and so he commands that this particular woman is to learn quietly, and is not permitted to teach. This is a disciplinary action against a woman who, like the “Jezebel” mentioned in Revelation 2:20, was causing problems by false teaching. Paul had no intention of it being applied to other women, just the one causing turmoil in the church.
According to Philip B. Payne in Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, the verb “permit” with one dubious exception, never refers to a universal or permanent situation. So the conclusion is that this was a temporary disciplinary measure.
So here Paul is dealing with a particular local situation that needed dealing with, not a universal principle that was being enunciated.