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Do women have to remain silent in church?

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Question: "Do women have to remain silent in church?"

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). At first glance, this seems to be a blanket command that women are never allowed to speak at all in the church. However, earlier in the same epistle (1 Corinthians 11:5), Paul mentions situations where women are allowed to pray and prophesy in the assembled congregation. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 must not be an absolute command for women to remain silent at all times in all services. The prohibition must be limited in some way by the context.

The concern of 1 Corinthians 14 is the orderly assembly of the congregation. The church of Corinth was noted for the chaos and lack of order rampant in that assembly (verse 33). Everyone in the church service was participating with whatever expression they desired, whenever they desired, as loudly as 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 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 were characterized by chaos, and no one was being edified or instructed (see verses 5, 12, and 19). To remedy this problem, Paul instructs a number of people/groups to “be quiet” at certain times and under certain conditions:

• Verses 27–28a, “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church.”
• Verses 29–31a, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one.”
• Verses 34–35, “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

As we have already noted, women are allowed to pray and prophesy in church in 1 Corinthians 11:5, so 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 cannot be an absolute prohibition against all types of speaking by all women at all times. As evident from the commands to tongues-speakers and prophets, certain other people are also prohibited from speaking at certain times and for certain reasons. The context gives us some clues as to what is going on.

First, the command for women to remain silent seems to deal with two important issues: proper order in the church and proper demonstration or acknowledgment of authority. Apparently, some women were speaking out in a way that did not acknowledge the spiritual authority of either their husbands or church leaders. This issue is addressed in 1 Corinthians 11 as well. Women are allowed to pray and prophesy, as long as they have their heads covered to show proper respect for spiritual authority. (In the first century, the head covering was the sign of a chaste, respectful woman, so women in the church were not to cast it off; to do so was to convey insolence or impropriety, according to the contemporary culture. Today, head coverings do not communicate the same message, so most evangelical interpreters stress that the attitude of respect, displayed by culturally significant symbols, is important, not a head covering specifically.) We might envision Paul saying, “If a woman wants to pray or prophesy in church, let her do so while showing the proper respect for church authority; otherwise, let her remain silent.”

The Greek word gunaikes in 1 Corinthians 14:34 can mean either “woman” or “wife,” depending on the context. The mention of husbands in verse 35 might indicate that “wife” is intended and that only married women are to be silent in the church. However, limiting the application of the Paul’s injunction to married women doesn’t really solve the problem: in the ancient world marriage was usually seen as an elevation of status. If married women are enjoined to be silent, how much more would single women have been expected to sit quietly?

The various possible interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 are too numerous to recount here. The best explanation takes into account the surrounding context and resolves the tension between 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. The immediate context has to do with the delivery of prophecy and the deliberation about the prophecy. If someone offers a prophecy to the church in the public meeting, the church is to pass judgment upon it (1 Corinthians 14:29). That is, the church is to weigh it and evaluate it to see if it is truly from God and, if so, what actions should be taken. It seems that the best contextual understanding is that women are to keep silent in this deliberative process, since evaluating prophecy is an exercise of spiritual authority. Further complications could also arise: what if a wife questioned her husband’s prophecy or disagreed with her husband’s evaluation of a prophecy? In that case, it would be proper for her to hold her peace in the assembly and ask him about it privately at home (verse 35). This would show respect for her husband’s spiritual authority and minimize the possibility of disorder in the church. (Although not mentioned in the passage, a husband may have found it wise to “recuse himself” if his wife’s prophecy came under scrutiny!)

Paul’s original intent in 1 Corinthians 14:33–35 seems to be that a woman must not take part in the deliberative process of evaluating prophecies. The question remains about how this command is to be applied today.

In both 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Paul is keen to maintain male spiritual leadership in the home and church as a universal principle (see also 1 Timothy 2:12). Pastors and elders are men, and women come under that authority with the rest of the church. How this submission to authority is acknowledged and applied may differ based on current cultural practices. If a head covering (as in chapter 11) is the culturally appropriate symbol of a woman’s chastity and submissiveness, then a head covering should be worn. If that symbol passes from currency, then it may be discarded in favor of other culturally relevant symbols. In modern Western culture, modest clothing would certainly be a relevant symbol. Other symbols, such as a wife taking her husband’s last name, might have held much significance at one time in American culture but may now be less significant.

There may be another reason, rooted in culture, for the command for women to remain silent in the church. For a first-century woman to participate in a deliberative action in any assembly would have been considered a usurpation of authority. Perhaps in today’s culture, where women are invited to participate, their silence is not required in the church in order to show proper respect to their husbands or church leadership. The interpretation offered here maintains that, as long the male leadership in the home and church is honored and female acceptance of it is expressed in culturally relevant ways, then the spirit of the passage is fulfilled.

Recommended Resource: Women in Ministry: Four Views by Bonnidell & Robert Clouse, eds.

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