11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Compared to the apocalyptic utopia that Jesus paints for us in the gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven, a few of Paul's remarks towards women sounds a bit confusing. The role of women in the church, both early and modern, continues to be a contentious issue. Although both Jesus and Paul give messages that seems to liberate women from under the heel of a Greco-Roman patriarchal society there are still verses that seem to justify keeping women "in their place."
[Saint Thechla by Sarah Paxton Ball Dodson,1891, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian]
In Jesus' apocalyptic Kingdom of Heaven there will be no hunger, no poor, no sickness, no war, no loneliness, nor even marriage (Mark 12:25). For those on the lowest rung of society this is simply paradise, and both within Judaism and in the Roman world women were pretty low on the social ladder. So when Jesus came preaching that the current world order will be soon replaced by an Edenic Kingdom of Heaven, I can imagine women sneaking out of their homes, children at the hip, just to hear a snippet of his message. This was very good news for a women during that age was bound to their father's will, and then after marriage bound to their husband's. Yet we must remember that Jesus, Paul, and the early church were a part of a society that did not share some of the egalitarian views that some of us in the 21st century may hold.
Women were prominent in the early church and even Paul mentions and praises their hard work and dedication towards the movement in his letters. Outside of the Bible my favorite apocryphal text on a bold and daring female apostle is The Acts of Paul and Thecla. It is an intriguing text with a theme on asceticism, though considered fraudulent, about a young virgin who travels with Paul. Along with the late dating on the text, the confirmation by Tertullian of it being a fraudulent work, and its theme on asceticism it was probably also excluded from the canon because of it's positive view of an independent woman who even baptizes herself at one point in the text.
I believe that the New Testament text that speak about women in a submissive and even a negative light is a reflection of the anxiety that the church leaders were experiencing with the rising of women in leadership positions within the church in a patriarchal society. Frankly, men wanted to stay in power so they made sure that this possible pseudonymous letter was accepted into the canon. Although some verses may be interpreted as the Christian woman's role and duties in a family unit this is still within the context of 1st and 2nd century Roman society. Verses like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (similar to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) may be a variant of Jewish social laws, meant for a specific church and not universally across what would become Christendom, or even that the verses in 1 Corinthians was an interpolation inserted by copyist either by accident or intentionally from the verses in 1 Timothy (Early Church cut and paste?) to support and keep the male-dominated power structure (Also see Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, pg 182-183). This liberal view of the Bible helps to answer some of the more confusing, and at times contradicting, issues found within scripture although this may be difficult to swallow for others. I personally can not take scripture as infallible or inerrant, but this view allows me to better understand these verses in both a historical context and their 21st century application. Verses like these should be questioned, examined, and debated if they are to be applied to 21st century Christians.
Must we revert gender roles back to 1st century standards, as Christians being faithful to scripture, or can we transcend them? Would doing so cause us to question other parts of the Bible or just the parts that are unclear or silent on modern issues? The issue of gender equality within Christianity may not be an issue with many of us but we must not forget the impact and influence Christianity has had in the history of the Western World. It was less than a century ago that the 19th Amendment was ratified (thanks to Harry Burn of Tennessee who broke the tie as the 36th state to ratify the Amendment). I'm not saying that Christianity, and especially Paul, is responsible for "keeping women in the kitchen", but how these verses were interpreted throughout history may have caused humanity to walk with a limp instead of making leaps and bounds.