Women Should Keep Silent in Church
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
Must women be silent in the church? What did Paul mean when he gave this instruction?
Not permitted to speak
One of the puzzling instructions Paul gave in the Bible was for women to keep silent in the churches. This can be found in His first epistle to the church in Corinth.
1 Cor 14:34 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.
Why did he say that? Does it apply universally to all women in all churches through all ages?
One thing we need to understand is most of Pauline epistles were occasional. In other words, the apostle wrote those letters to tackle certain issues that arose in certain congregations. 1 Corinthians is no exception. Since Paul wrote this message primarily not for us but for the Corinthian Christians, in order to understand these verses correctly, we need to take into account their literary context.
1 Cor 14:33-35 is nestled in the context of the operation in the gifts of prophesying and tongues. That Paul says in 1 Cor 14:33 that God is not a God of confusion but of peace gives us an implication that there was a confusion in the church, which was caused by 1) people speaking in tongues without interpretation (1 Cor 14:5, 13, 23) 2) more than one person delivering messages from God simultaneously (1 Cor 14:27-31). In this context, some women in the congregation engendered chaos by their speaking.
When the word church is mentioned, many of us in the 21st century would think of a formal church service in a church building. However, in the first century church meetings were run in people’s houses (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 2). In view of persecution from the authorities, it makes all sense that believers gathered in houses rather than public places.
One of the main reasons believers gathered was for each individual to bring something, e.g., a song, a lesson, revelation, a tongue or an interpretation, to edify the congregation (1 Cor 14:16). When any revelation, or prophecy, was delivered, it must be weighed. Paul’s mention in verse 34 suggests that some women asked questions seemingly when a prophecy was evaluated, thus disrupting the meeting.
In Ancient Greece, people visited a place called Delphi to seek advice from the oracle known as Pythia. Her mysterious words would be given in the form of answers to the seeker’s questions such as whether a war should be undertaken, whether some land should be purchased, or questions about one’s birth or origin, marriage.
It is probable that some women in the Corinthian church, being familiar with the Delphi oracle, followed its way by asking questions to prophets in order to induce prophecy. However, to Paul Christian prophecies are prompted by the Holy Spirit and not pushed by humans.
Actually the main point Paul is making here is not whether women could speak in the church in a generic sense but rather that they must not disrupt the meeting with their speech. He discouraged them from keeping questioning during the worship service, as that would disturb others. His prohibition is not universally on women’s public speech but particularly on the disruption of the meeting regardless of the perpetrator’s gender. In this case, the chaos was caused by some women and they should rather be submissive in silence to preserve the order of the meeting.
His prohibition is not universally on women’s public speech but particularly on the disruption of the meeting regardless of the perpetrator’s gender.
The Greek word for should be in submission in 1 Cor 14:34 means be subjected. The phrase silence and submission is used by people in the Near East to imply willingness to heed and obey instruction.
Ask their husbands at home
1 Cor 14:35 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.
One of the objectives of prophecy was for the hearers to learn and be encouraged (1 Cor 14:31). The Greek word for learn in verse 31 means gain knowledge or be educated. However, some of the women did not fully grasp it and they noisily asked their husbands about it while the meeting was in progress.
In the Jewish culture, formal education was for men and not women. Unless they were from a wealthy family, women on average would be less educated than men. Women were neither used to listening to lectures nor engaging in theological debate.
In the ancient times, it was quite common that students interrupted the teachers with questions, be it to ask them to elaborate or challenge their teaching. This was also common among the Jews. However, only those who learned sufficiently were allowed to ask questions. The rest must remain quiet. Women’s outspokenness could also deem offensive to Roman and Greek men, especially in the house church setting of Corinth. In addition, it was socially unacceptable for a woman to have a conversation in public with any man other than her husband unless they gave a formal talk or a speech believed to be divinely inspired. Speaking to a male stranger would be considered immoral and therefore shameful.
Paul did not stop women to speak, teach or preach. He simply stopped them from disturbing the meeting. And this was due to their insufficient education at home. In other words, they did not study enough before they came to the meeting and they asked questions they should not have asked.
In Paul’s time, believers gathered for worship and Bible studies at individual’s houses and not in public places due to the extensive persecution. In those meetings in Corinth, some women asked questions that disrupted the meetings. Some of them were influenced by pagan oracle at Delphi and questioned prophets, in order to induce prophecies. Some women who generally were not very educated asked simple questions as they wanted to learn something. Paul therefore stated that God is not a God of confusion but orderliness. As a consequence, he encouraged those women to ask their husbands at home, as their men would be able to educate them.
Paul did not forbid women to speak at all in the congregation. He rather stopped them from disrupting the meeting by asking questions. Therefore one cannot use this scripture as a basis to prevent women from any public speaking in the church.
Paul did not forbid women to speak at all in the congregation. He rather stopped them from disrupting the meeting by asking questions.
Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version
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