weak-willed silly women 2 Timothy 3

For among them are those [false teachers] who worm their way into households and take captive “little women” (gynaikaria) who are weighed down by sins, led by various passions, always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. 2 Timothy 3:6-7

The “Little Women” (gynaikaria) in 2 Timothy 3:6-7

I’ve seen people express dismay that Paul[1] disparages women in 2 Timothy 3:6-7. However, these verses are talking about a certain kind of woman—probably those stuck at home with little education and limited life experience, including experience in how to learn and discern. Paul is not talking about all women, or women in general, in these verses.

The usual Greek word for “women/wives” (gynaikes) is not used here, but a diminutive form, literally “little women” (gynaikaria). This diminutive form is an uncommon Greek word and doesn’t occur elsewhere in the New Testament. The word can have a neutral or endearing sense, but Paul’s context in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 indicates a negative sense. Accordingly, it is variously translated into English New Testaments as weak women, vulnerable or silly women,[2] or gullible women. (Compare translations here.)

Paul doesn’t specify what kind of sins were weighing on the women, or what kind of passions they were indulging. A common trope or stereotype of the day was that men were better at controlling themselves than women, a stereotype perpetuated in the writings of men. And sometimes people live up to expectations and standards of stereotypes. Then again, Paul may be using overblown rhetoric to forcefully make a point. What is clear is that he was not happy with the behaviour of this group of women.

Strong Criticism for Depraved Men and Duped Women

The passage where these verses come from is not primarily a criticism of weak-willed women, however, but of false teachers who were infiltrating the Ephesian church (2 Tim. 3:1-9). Paul states that these people “resist the truth” and “They are men who are corrupt in mind and worthless in regard to the faith” (2 Tim. 3:8 CSB).[3] These treacherous men were manipulating apparently simple-minded, easily-led women.[4]

Paul doesn’t hold back and is scathing in his criticism of the false teachers and also, to a lesser extent, of the women who have fallen for their deception. He is angry at the teachers and exasperated with the women, and he wants Timothy and the Ephesian Church to know it! Paul had worked long and hard in Ephesus where he had faithfully taught the gospel, “the knowledge of the truth,” and now it was being undone by insidious predatory teachers.

Paul Respected Sensible and Gifted Women

Paul uses forceful language against the male teachers and their female students, but these words are no indication whatsoever of his general thoughts of men and women. There is no hint in his letters that Paul thought women were generally gullible, weighed down by sin, driven by unhealthy passions, or unable to learn.[5] In other verses of the New Testament, we see that Paul respected women and that he valued and endorsed their ministries.

He planted a church in Lydia’s home. He introduced Phoebe to the church at Rome as his sister, as a minister (or deacon), as a patron of many, and he entrusted his letter to the Romans to her. He valued the ministries of Prisca, Euodia, and Syntyche as his coworkers in the gospel. He positively acknowledged the ministry labours of Mary of Rome, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis—he loved Persis. He referred to Junia as a fellow Jew (or relative), his fellow prisoner, and as noteworthy among the apostles. Paul warmly mentions no less than ten women in Romans chapter 16.

There are still more women who Paul positively acknowledges in his letters. He took seriously a report from Chloe of Corinth’s people. He passed on greetings from Claudia of Rome, and sent greetings to Apphia of Colossae. He recognized the house church of Nympha in Laodicea and asked that greetings be passed on to her and her church. He respected the faith and teaching of Lois and Eunice.

Paul’s criticism of one group of women, the “little women” who were duped by false teachers in Ephesus, doesn’t change the fact that he respected more sensible women and their abilities.


Footnotes

[1] Many scholars believe 2 Timothy was written by an anonymous author writing in the name of Paul. I believe it was written by the apostle Paul.

[2] The gynaikaria were first called “seely women” or “silly women” in the Rheims New Testament (1582) and the King James Bible (1611). (Thank you to Andrew Bartlett who pointed this out in the comments section below.)
When these older translations were produced, the meaning of “seely/silly” had a broader range of meanings than it does today. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) takes into account early modern English, the language of the KJV. Definition 2 of “silly” in the OED is “Helpless, defenceless, powerless; frequently with the suggestion of innocence or undeserved suffering.” However, the OED, rightly or wrongly, cites the KJV translation of 2 Timothy 3:6 as one example of definition 6a which is, “Of a person: lacking in judgement or common sense; foolish, thoughtless, empty-headed; characterized by ridiculous or frivolous behaviour.”

[3] The context indicates the false teachers were all, or were mostly, men.

[4] Gynaikaria/γυναικάρια (“little women”) is grammatically accusative neuter plural in 1 Timothy 3:6, and the participles that mean 1. “weighed down,” 2. “being led,” 3. “[always] learning,” and 4. “[never] able” are all accusative neuter plural, and so they are describing the women. I’ve included this information because I’ve seen people incorrectly suggest these behaviours are descriptions of the male false teachers; the Greek grammar does not support this suggestion.

[5] The “little women” (gynaikaria) in 2 Timothy 3:6-7 are distinct from “a woman” in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 who needed to learn and not teach, and also not domineer her husband. Paul thought this woman was capable of learning (1 Tim. 2:11).

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Further Reading

Andrew Bartlett argues for a more sympathetic understanding of gynaikaria here.

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All my articles on Paul and Women are here.