Women should be silent in the church? (Women in Church Leadership – part 3)

Silent?  Does the Bible really say that?  Yep, it does – 1 Corinthians 14 gives the entire context.  As chapter 14 begins Paul is in the process of wrapping up a wonderful treatment of spiritual gifts and the overarching importance of love in guiding them (chapters 12-14).  If you’ve ever had questions about the reality and appropriateness of the gift of “tongues” you should give it a read…

He begins in verse 26 to clarify how his previous instruction regarding the gifts looks when it comes to the public worship of the church.  I encourage you to read the entire 3 chapters before reading on, so you understand the context.  It’s in verses 33-35 that the controversial statement comes.   Here’s what it actually says,

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, 34 women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35 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.

Sounds pretty absolute, doesn’t it?  Pretty clear-cut…  until you consider another statement Paul made previously in this very same letter to the Corinthians – chapter 11, verses 4-5…

4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…

I’ve already dealt with the actual issue of “head coverings” in a previous post – so I won’t go into that again.  However, here’s the point we need to notice.  Paul is giving instructions to men and women here about the practice of two things in the context of worship – prayer and prophecy.  Prayer can be practiced in a silent way, so that could still fit with the “remain silent” command we are considering from chapter 14.  But prophecy is a different thing altogether.  Prophecy is public, out-loud… in other words, it’s not something that can be done silently.  And Paul specifically says, “every woman who prays or prophecies…” indicating that a woman IS allowed to speak a prophecy aloud in the worship gathering.  Hmmmmmm…

So… what are our options?  Either Paul is blatantly contradictory (which would cause us to wonder about the ‘inspiration’ of this text,” or he is meaning something other than absolute silence in chapter 14.  Given the tension that the first option would produce, I believe the second is the more simple and reasonable assumption for us to make.  But if so, we still have to be able to understandably (and without stretching the text) explain what he does mean…

Here’s my take on it.  It seems like the greater point Paul is making in the portion of chapter 14 we are considering, is that of order in their worship gatherings.  Notice by the entire context, how closely he ties this issue of whether women should speak out in worship with the issue of worship being orderly.  As part of that discussion Paul says that a woman should ask her husband in private if she has a question.  This implies (more than implies) that questions during the service may have been the specific issue he was addressing.  This could explain why it was tied to the “orderliness” of the service.  I think that assumption makes sense, given the culture they lived in.  Let me explain…

It was common in their culture (both Roman and Hebrew) for boys/young men to be schooled, both religiously and academically, while it was almost always the case that girls/young women were not.  Given this understanding, we can imagine that there may have been quite a bit of “disturbance” going on during the worship gatherings because of women who may have understandably had more questions of various sorts than the men did.  As well, up until the time of Christ, women and men worshipped entirely apart.  Jesus’ approach to ministry was much more considerate and open toward women overall, including “joint” worship between men and women.  These woman no doubt felt a great sense of relief that they were finally allowed into the worship meetings along with the men.  Perhaps they were taking advantage of that fact, to the detriment of the entire church.  It could have been that more time was being spent in answering random questions than in worship and prayer.  (If you’ve ever led or been a part of a discussion group, you know how counter-productive those “rabbit trail” conversations can be.)

I believe that this is an ample, believable explanation for Paul’s comments about women remaining silent which fits both their cultural circumstances and the context of the letter.

Having said that, I want to clarify how I apply this in our day.  Since Jesus ushered in an inclusion of women in the context of worship (which was the right thing to do), the church has continued in that pattern.   Over the centuries, being a part of worship and being included in education overall, women have become just as learned and astute as the men in their church communities.  So, the guidelines have changed as those cultural circumstances have changed.  What I’m saying is this… women are no longer uneducated and novice in the church, and therefore there is no longer a “reason” for women to ask their husbands about religious/theological issues at home, since their liklihood to be disruptive in the church is no more than that of the men.

As always… comments are welcome…


8 thoughts on “Women should be silent in the church? (Women in Church Leadership – part 3)

  1. Hi,
    I’m afraid I have to disagree with you when you use 1Cor. Chap 11 vs 5 as an argument for women being able to speak aloud in the churches. Paul did not elaborate here, but where do you suppose women were praying and prophesying and where did it say they were doing it aloud? Later Paul makes the distinction that women are to keep silent in the “Churches” He did not make that same distinction in Cor Chap 11 vs 5. God still wants women to pray of course and to prophesy, just not in Churches and therefore putting men in subjection. He did go on to give the reasons for their silence from Genesis. One other argument women and non backbone men espouse is the Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside and taught him. Emphasis on taught versus the key word “aside” from the assembly. In addition, the fact that Priscilla taught a man was a fact, but there are many other facts recorded in the bible than ended up for the good. It doesn’t mean God sanctioned what she did just because she wasn’t struck by lightning when she taught him, just as Abraham wasn’t struck by lightning when he lied and said Sara was his sister, or any other event where sin was committed but never “officially recognized as sin.

  2. Hi Carl, thanks for the reply,

    Your insistence that this passage too has a connection to the created order is simply not true. It DOES reference the created order regarding the covering of heads, but not at all in relation to the act of speaking aloud in church.

    You also assume that a woman speaking aloud in church is putting a man under subjection, which is very simplistic. Authority does not have to do with speaking in church, it has to do with teaching or leading in church. If we categorize all speaking or even prophecy as “leadership or authority” then we are going farther than scripture does.

    Regarding Aquilla and Priscilla, I agree with you that it really has nothing to do with whether women should be allowed to teach in the church or not. It was outside a gathered church context and therefore does not apply similarly.

  3. All I want to know is where on earth do I find a church that supports this belief??? Almost all that I’ve seen encourage women to lead. It’s very disturbing.

  4. Hi Mrs MJW, thanks for the comment…

    You are right, it’s becoming more and more common for churches to support women in church leadership rather than stick to the clear Biblical pattern. I think it’s a cultural pressure they are caving in to more than anything else, though I must say that many feel they are doing what is right in doing so – but it’s hard to understand that when the scriptures are so clear.

    If you’d like – I might be able to help you find a church that adheres the the scriptural teachings on this issue, but I’d have to know what area you are in..


  5. Ok ,so as I understand your synopsis, Women now, in todays culture, lead us in worship, women are now as well educated as men, so women can lead and instruct the church and be a very viable part in church direction right? . I know many phenominally brillant women as judges and lawyers. I can easily take instruction from them.

    are we good with that?


  6. Hi Carl, thanks for joining in…

    My synopsis is what the Bible simply and clearly teaches – woman CAN lead in the church in many areas, just not in the primary roles of Elders where they would teach or have authority over men.


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