Paul wrote that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be silent.” But what lessons can we draw from such an instruction today, when such a message seems so abhorrent to our modern culture. Are we supposed to follow Paul’s letter to Timothy as though it was written directly to us, ignoring the distance in time and geography that separates us from Paul? Many say yes. It doesn’t matter why Paul said what he said. Since he said it, we must obey. But to me this argument seems to rely solely on legalism, following the letter of what is written, rather than trying to discern a spiritual principle from it. Should we follow the spirit of the law, or its letter? This is a fundamental question that much of Christianity wrestles with, and is too great to go into here. But personally I do not believe Paul was attempting to set down a new law for the Church in his letters, not so soon after the joyful fulfillment of the old law. I believe he was advising the early churches based on underlying spiritual principles, and it is those that we should follow.
Firstly I believe that Christianity has to recognise the fact that the Scriptures were written in a time and culture when patriarchal dominance was both the standard and expected form of ordering society, family, and religious communities. Like the institution of slavery, it was very difficult to both imagine a different form of ordering human relationships, and to practically encourage such a counter-culture. Especially while at the same time ensuring that the fledgling religion wasn’t perceived by its neighbours as being detrimental or dangerous to the existing order.
The early Christians struggled with the tension between needing to set themselves to a different standard than the authorities of the world in which they lived, while not seeking to, or being seen to desire the revolutionary overthrowing of this established order. They were strictly a religion of peace, and they could not set themselves against the authorities they lived under otherwise not only would they be persecuted even more than they were, but they would be fundamentally going against their founding principles.