First Corinthians 14:33–35 states, “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (ESV). In 1 Timothy 2:11–12, we have similar instruction: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. . . . She must be quiet.”
At first glance, these passages seem to issue a blanket command that women never be allowed to speak in the church, for any reason. In both cases, a closer examination of context is necessary.
The whole of 1 Timothy 2:11–14, quoted only partially above, is this: “A woman a should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” Note that Paul specifies the subjects of teaching and assuming authority. A woman is to “be quiet” in that she does not teach men in the church, and she shows her submission to authority by learning. In other words, this is not an absolute command for women to remain silent at all times in all services.
There are also some contextual considerations in the 1 Corinthians 14 passage. Earlier in the same epistle, Paul mentions situations where women seem to be allowed to pray and prophesy in public: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved” (1 Corinthians 11:5).
Commentators suggest various ways of reconciling 1 Corinthians 11 (women pray and prophesy) with 1 Corinthians 14 (women are silent):
• Chapter 11 gives the rule for a smaller group of believers; chapter 14 gives the rule for the entire assembly.
• Chapter 11 focuses on dress (head coverings) as a symbol of submission without regard to the propriety of a woman praying or prophesying—the subject of prophesying being addressed later, in chapter 14.
• Chapter 11 acknowledges that, in the Corinthian church, women prayed and prophesied, but Paul reserves his condemnation of women prophesying for chapter 14.
In each of the above interpretations, the conclusion is the same: 1 Corinthians 14 teaches that women are to be silent in the general assembly of the church.
Taking a closer look at 1 Corinthians 14, we see the overall concern is orderly assemblies. The church of Corinth was noted for the disorder rampant in that assembly (verse 33). It seems that everyone in the church service was participating whenever and however they desired. Those with the gift of tongues were speaking simultaneously, and no one was concerned with interpreting what was being said. Those with a supposed revelation from God were shouting out randomly, even if what was said could not be heard above the din, and apparently no one was evaluating what was being offered as prophecy. The meetings in Corinth were characterized by chaos, and no one was being edified or instructed (see verses 5, 12, and 19). To remedy this, Paul instructs a number of groups to “be quiet” at certain times and under certain conditions:
• Verses 27–28a, Those who would speak in a tongue must “keep silent” if someone else is speaking or if there is no one to interpret what is said.
• Verses 29–31a, A prophet must “be silent” if someone else has the floor.
• Verses 34–35, The women should “keep silent” to show proper submission.
The command for women to remain silent in the church service is, as commentator Albert Barnes puts it, “positive, explicit, and universal. There is no ambiguity” (Notes on the Bible). The two specific matters discussed in chapter 14 are speaking in tongues and prophesying, and it is these two things that must be included in the prohibition against women speaking in church. Both tongues-speaking and prophesying involve teaching and require some measure of spiritual authority. Scripture consistently teaches that spiritual authority in the church resides with men, based on God’s order of creation (1 Timothy 2:13); therefore, women are not allowed to speak in tongues or prophesy in the general assembly of the church. To do so would be to take a position of spiritual authority over the men in that assembly.
First Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 Timothy 2 all teach male spiritual leadership in the home and church as a universal principle. Pastors and elders are men, and women come under that authority with the rest of the church. Women should be careful to maintain the order God has designed for the church and show her submission to authority in culturally appropriate ways (in Corinth, a head covering). There are many roles a woman can fill in the church, and Scripture does not forbid her from singing or praying or otherwise participating in the service. But bringing the Word of God to the entire congregation is not one of her roles. That task is reserved for men.