Should women be silent in church?

Wednesday night Bible studies are a casual, interactive study during which questions and comments are made from all those attending, and I do my best to respond – sometimes with, admittedly, uneven results!

In light of this format, a question was recently raised regarding 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 (Note: this question was not raised by a man who was complaining about women's participation during our studies but, rather, by a woman who was concerned that she not engage in a way that was contrary to the Scriptures).

These verses read:

As in all the churches of the saints, 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.

Was our Wednesday night study in violation of this command? Women regularly ask questions and offer opinions- is this shameful for them to do so?

I responded briefly as it had been some time since I had thought about this subject and left with a promise that I would spend some time reflecting on it and what it means for the practice of CRBC.

Before I share my process of thinking on this issue and where I think we should land on it, I will tell you that coming to a conclusion was not as easy as I thought it would be. When I walked away from that brief conversation, I felt rather confident that, after few minutes of dusting off the old cobwebs in my brain, I’d be ready to render my opinion. But I was wrong.

As you see, a seemingly straight-forward reading of the text does leave one with the impression that women should be silent in church and that is exactly what many have taken it to mean. An essay on the subject published in New Horizons, the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, concludes,

The Bible teaches that women are not to speak in church. This is an apostolic rule that is based on the created order. The fact that our society is in rebellion against the biblical teaching regarding women does not make the Bible obsolete; it makes us who adopt the world's values shameful and dishonoring to the Lord. (

This really puts a fine point on the matter and forced me to ask, “Are we adopting the world’s values and acting in a way that is shameful and dishonoring to the Lord on Wednesday nights?” Certainly, that is not what I want for us to do, but this did point out just how strong the temptation is to follow the world’s lead.

I genuinely approach the Scriptures with a desire to be faithful in all ways to them regardless of the world’s opinion. I would be dishonest, however, if I didn’t say that there are some subjects that, when I go to the Scriptures, I go to them hoping that my mind is not changed. This happened when I gave it my best shot at becoming a Presbyterian some 15 years ago. At that point in my ministry, most of my ministerial friends were Presbyterian, most of the authors I read were Presbyterian and most of my historical heroes of the faith were Presbyterian (or at least paedobaptists). As a struggling church planter, I had two separate Presbyterian pastors tell me that if I would only change my view on baptism, they would hire me on as pastoral staff at their churches. You can understand why I had begun to question my ecclesiastical identity and why I might want to give Presbyterianism a shot.

No matter how hard I tried, however, I could never approach the pertinent biblical texts as objectively as I wanted to. I told God that I just wanted to approach the Word without any preconceived notions and to simply understand the truth and, in turn, do what God wanted me to do. But there was something in me that didn’t want infant baptism to be right. In fact, I feared being convinced of its legitimacy because that would mean a seismic shift in, not just my personal doctrine, but in my fundamental understanding of church life and my job! In the end, I obviously wasn’t convinced of paedobaptism and have never been more convinced that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the covenants than I am today.

All that said, I feel the same sort of tug here. Becoming convinced that women should be silent would mean not only a big change in the way I understand, not just the text, but the practice of my faith, and it would mean having some very difficult conversations in the future. This all adds up to a real battle of the flesh while my spirit is willing to be as objective as possible when approaching this passage. I have done the best I can and trust that what follows is honoring to the Lord as I have sought to seek His will and His truth above all else.

Again, the text reads:

As in all the churches of the saints, 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.

The first thing we want to do here is to make sure we understand what the words actually mean. There is no getting around the fact that translations are, in some sense, interpretations. Translators need to make a call on how the Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic is to be best translated into English and sometimes where they land depends on their own particular theological presuppositions. So, does “silent” mean “silent”? Simply put, yes. In fact, the ESV that is quoted above does a good job of translating the entire text in question.

So, next we want to try to determine if this is an absolute prohibition across all churches or is this a special situation at this particular church. Well, Paul makes it clear that this is a rule that was being followed “in ALL the churches” and was expected to be followed in Corinth as well.  

Next, is this an absolute prohibition of women speaking at all times? Does this prohibition include every time a woman walks into church? Is she not to say anything until she walks back out of the church again? That may sound ridiculous but, taken at face value, these few verses might lead us to conclude that. This is where we need to take a step back and examine the broader context of the passage. In other words, how do the surrounding verses, surrounding chapters, the entire book of 1 Corinthians, the entire New Testament, and the entire Scriptures help us to be sure that we are understanding these few verses correctly. This is called the “analogy of faith.” Letting Scripture interpret Scripture.

It seems that this cannot be an absolute prohibition based on several passages:

• First, 1 Corinthians 11:5 says that “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head….” In vs. 13 he repeats, “Is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?” Without getting into the question of head coverings and the meaning of prophecy at this juncture, these verses clearly imply that women were permitted to pray or prophesy. This means that the silence could not be absolute. Now, some such as John Calvin, argue that just because Paul prohibits them from praying with their heads uncovered it doesn’t necessarily follow that they were permitted to when their heads are covered. Other intellectual giants of the faith, such as Benjamin Warfield, follow this line of reasoning as well. As hesitant as I am to argue against such intellects, I have to conclude that just doesn’t make any sense. There would simply be no reason for Paul to write 11:5 if women were not permitted to pray or prophesy.  

• In 1 Corinthians 11:26 and 31, it is clear through Paul’s use of the phrases “each one” and “all,” that everyone in attendance at the Lord’s Supper is said to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” and to participate in the judging of “ourselves.” This is an argument from silence (pardon the pun!) but might we conclude that it is possible that women may have been speaking during the meal?  

• In 1 Cor. 16:19, Paul sends “hearty” greetings from Aquila and his wife Prisca (Priscilla) who have a church that meet in their house. That alone doesn’t mean much, but we know that Paul met them in Corinth (Acts 18:2) and he took them with him to Syria (vs. 18) leaving them in Ephesus (vs. 19). While in Ephesus, we are told that Priscilla and Aquila met Apollos and “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (vs. 26). It is not only interesting that Priscilla is named as one who taught Apollos but that she is named ahead of her husband. Again, this may not mean much, but it certainly strongly implies that she was not standing aside silently while Aquila did the teaching. It may even indicate that she was actually doing more of the teaching than Aquila.

• In Acts 21:9 we are introduced to the four daughters of Philip the evangelist who had four daughters who “prophesied.”

• In John 20:11-18, the risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene and tells her to go announce to the disciples that He has risen. She does so, announcing, “I have seen the Lord,” and telling them what Jesus said to her. Now, it is to be admitted, that this was not in a church context, but it was a gathering of God’s people, men and women and Jesus chose a woman to announce His having risen from the dead.    

• In Acts 1:14 we are told that the disciples were “with one accord…devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus.” We don’t know if these were “silent” prayers and, so, we cannot make too much of this, but it certainly implies, especially given the instructions regarding prayer in 1 Cor. 11, that they were praying aloud.  

• In Colossians 3, the charge which is made clearly to the entire church, is to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (vss. 16-17). Certainly, these things were to be done by men and women alike. This does not speak to the occasion or setting in which these were done, but it is hard to avoid the idea that the singing was done during congregational worship. The letter closes Paul giving greetings to “Nympha and the church in her house” which, as above, does not lead to any strong conclusions as to her role in church-related activities, but it is hard to imagine that she remained “silent” in her own home with a gathering of people in it.  

• 1 Timothy 2:11-12 could be seen as a parallel passage to 1 Corinthians 11:33b-35. Here Paul writes, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” In this passage Paul doesn’t say that she must learn “in silence” but “quietly.” These are two different Greek terms. The use of “quietly” is pointing to the idea that she is to sit under the teaching of the men in the church, not taking the initiative herself to teach them. Paul grounds this prohibition in the creation narrative: Adam was formed first, and it was Eve who was deceived (vss. 13-14). Both of these considerations lead Paul to charge that women are not to “teach or exercise authority over a man.” The point being that Paul’s concern, at least here, is not for the women to be silent but simply to respect their God-given roles and for the practice in the church to reflect what God instituted since the beginning in terms of how men and women relate to one another.    

Admittedly, some of these examples may not be all that strong and some might still argue that nothing above presents a case against the silence of women in the church. When you piece them all together, however, the picture we have doesn’t seem to fit that narrative. Women were hosting churches in their homes (and anyone who has hosted a house church such as Michelle and I, as well as the Tyners, will tell you it involves a lot of talking); they were praying; they were prophesying; they were singing; they were ‘proclaiming the Lord’s death’ during the Lord’s Supper; they were participating in the self-judgment of the congregation during the meal as well; and Jesus chose a woman to burst into a gathered group of disciples to announce His resurrection. Were women really silent?

If it would be correct, then, that absolute silence is not what is being commanded, then what is being commanded?  

It is interesting to note the similarities between the concerns of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 and those of 1 Timothy 2. In 1 Timothy, Paul was concerned that women not teach or have authority over a man as God created us male and female to have differing responsibilities and roles in our marriages as well as in the church. Elders were to be men (3:2), not women, because men were given the God-ordained role of being in leadership over women. If a man is called to be the head of his household with his wife submitting to his lead, how can he, in turn, sit under her authority as his head in matters of faith? The two cannot be reconciled. Rather, the wife is said to be “saved through childbearing” (vs. 15). This is difficult saying for sure, but looking at the whole context, it seems that Paul is saying that the woman should be content to stay in her particular role and station of life. The man has been called to a certain role and she has as well. If she remains in her role, then she will find fruitfulness in life and faith.

Turning to 1 Corinthians 11, then, this same train of thought is being carried further. Since the man is the head of the household, the woman must be careful not to dishonor her husband. She demonstrates that she is under him by her attire. She may pray or prophesy, but to do so with her head uncovered is to declare herself to be independent of him. This cannot be done as that shames the one to whom she is bound in marriage and to whom she is to submit. And let’s be sure that as we read words such as ‘submit’ we don’t take them to mean what they don’t mean. Submission is not acting like a doormat and being willing to be abused. And a husband’s role is not that of one who lords over his wife. He is to love her as Christ loves the church.

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is making a further application. It seems that he has in mind the interpretation of tongues or the weighing of prophecies in vss. 26-33. In those instances when the church gathers corporately and someone speaks in tongues or utters a prophecy (even if that is a woman), the women are not to interpret or “weigh” the prophecies. Why? Because if they were to do so, they would be putting themselves in the position of teaching their husbands. Teaching, by the nature of the act, elevates someone to a position of authority. This understanding stands behind the prohibition of women teaching men in a formal corporate setting (it seems that an informal setting is a different matter given the example of Priscilla instructing Apollos) and so it is here. This would shame their husbands and it would be, therefore, shameful for this to happen in the church. Paul concludes this section by saying “So my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things must be done decently and in order.” In other words, when these things happen, let’s be sure that the proper role relationships are maintained. Just because things may get a little “ecstatic” doesn’t mean that all rules go out the window.  

A question can be raised as to what “Law” Paul is referring to in vs. 34. There is no formal law in the Mosaic Code or elsewhere that decrees silence for women. Our best guess is that he is appealing to the creation account as he did in 1 Timothy 2. The word “Law” could be used to refer to the Mosaic Law, but it can also speak to the Torah or, even, the entire Old Testament. The creation account provides the church with a principle that churches are expected to follow.

There are those who conjecture that the reason Paul is instructing the church in this particular matter is because this was a problem in Corinth. Paul has already declared that he must speak to them as “people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (3:1). He has had to warn them to not consider themselves as “wise in this age” (3:18). He condemns the Christians in Corinth as “arrogant” (5:2) even in the face of sexuality immorality among them and they take the Lord’s Supper unworthily by being divided among themselves, the rich humiliating the poor (11:22). Beyond this, there was a dispute among themselves regarding their spiritual gifts as they believed that some gifts were greater than others. All of this paints a picture of a church in turmoil and full of indecency and disorder (see vs. 40). So, Paul is having to remind Corinth that this is not the way it is in the other churches. When they gather, there is order. Women are praying and prophesying, but they understand that there remain certain protocols that are in place to protect the honor of their husbands and the witness of the church. This, in turn, serves to proclaim the gospel (Ephesians 5). The church in Corinth needs to grow up and follow the example of the others.

What does this mean for our practice at CRBC? How do we apply what Paul is saying here?

The role of teacher, whether that be an elder or an adult Sunday School teacher, etc. is limited to men. Women are, in keeping with Paul’s other charges, encouraged to sing and to pray (we’ll discuss prophesy some other time) in our gatherings. But should they not ask questions during a study? Should they wait until they go home to ask their husbands? I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to avoid the issue and come up with a culturally sensitive work-around, but I don’t think that need be a absolute rule. We need to understand Paul’s concerns here. It is for the wife to “respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:33) and not undermine his authority. In some contexts, even today, we may find that silence would be commendable just as certain apparel would be in certain contexts. If we were living in the Middle East, we would quickly learn that, in some countries, for a woman to go outside without a head covering would be to dishonor her husband as it would declare that she was independent and “available.” We might think that such social rules are silly but, given the context, would still feel obligated out of a desire to show respect where respect is due. In the United States, however, there are fewer conventions of that sort- although we are not without them. We would all think it is unseemly for a woman to go out in public with her husband dressed provocatively and acting flirtatious with other men. It would be indecent to begin with, but the shame it would bring on the husband only makes it worse.

In the context of today’s church, generally speaking, no one would take it as being a show of independence or an assertion of power over one’s husband if a woman were to ask a question during Bible study. No one would question the propriety of a woman quoting a verse to clarify a point that had been made. In this case, Paul’s concern is still valid and it is contextually honored.

This is truly a matter of conscience and should be decided on a family to family basis, however. If the husband does feel that his wife’s speaking up and asking questions makes him to appear weak, uninformed and less than the head of the home, the wife should respect him enough to rein in her public comments and save them for a conversation at home or a private conversation among the teacher, she, and her husband.

This all points to the fact that these commands are not for our harm but for our good. Ephesians 5 paints a beautiful picture of the relationship between a husband and wife and how it is to reflect the relationship between Christ and the church. Christ is said to wash the church with the “water of the word.” Paul then writes, “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (vss. 26-28). To maintain proper role relationships and to ensure things are done “decently and in order” is to create an environment in which men can love their wives the way that they are called to. I recently told my two sons and my son-in-law that the greatest gift that they could give their wives for Valentine’s Day is for them to be the spiritual heads of their homes. I explained that the number one concern and complaint that I have heard from women over my 20+ years of ministry is that their husband is not the spiritual head they long for him to be. I think this is why there are so many women who assert themselves in ways that are inappropriate and they are dismissive of proper role distinctives. They long for spiritual leadership in their homes and they know it should be their men who lead. If they won’t do it however, somebody must, so they step up to the task. Too many men, in response, step out of the way and are shamed by their wives. In turn, their children grow up in a disordered homes which translates into disordered churches.

We need to take the Word of God seriously and strive to honor God in our commitment to it. That means honoring our God-given roles both in our homes and in our churches. This takes thoughtfulness because we don’t live in the first century and sometimes there is not a clear correlation between what Paul, or another writer, is describing and our own contextual experience. That doesn’t mean we conclude that the Word is irrelevant. It is just as relevant today as it was then. It simply means we need to do the hard work of determining what the Lord has to say to the church today.

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