It is written:
I Corinthians 14:34-35-Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
Does the Apostle Paul here teach that women are not allowed to speak in worship service?
The first thing to consider when studying any passage of Scripture is the context.
In 1 Corinthians 11-16, Paul deals specifically with matters pertaining to the public worship of the church. He shows this by using the Greek phrase en humin throughout 1 Corinthians, where the meaning is clearly “in the church assembly.” The Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament has this:
“En humin ‘among you’ in the communiy etc. is common in Paul. Of 18 instances in 1 C., 13 p;ainly have this sense: 1:10 f.; 2:2; 3:3, 18,; 5:1; 6:5; 11:18 f., 30; 14;25; 15:12, and it is implied in 3:16 and 6:19 on the basis of 14:25. In 6:2 the meaning is certainly not ‘within you,’ nor ‘for yourself’ in 11:13.” (Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament: Volume VIII, 498 (footnote 63); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company)
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul was dealing with a specific situation involving disruptions in the church caused by members (both male and female). Notice that Paul tells several in the church assembly to be quiet for a time:
1 Corinthians 14:28-But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.
1 Corinthians 14:30-But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent.
Those in the assembly who possessed the gift of tongues were to practice respectful silence in order to allow the other Christians the opportunity to speak. If there was not anyone in the church present who had the gift of interpretation (i.e., translating the foreign language into the common language of the assembly), the person with the gift of tongues was to remain silent and not disrupt the assembly.
The issue in Corinth was that there were people in the assembly who were disrupting the assembly. The women were not being told to remain perpetually silent in the assembly; instead they were to be respectful and orderly. That the women in the church at Corinth were authorized by the Apostles to pray and prophesy publicly in the assembly is made clear earlier in Paul’s Epistle:
1 Corinthians 11:5-But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.
Paul insisted that the women who prayed or prophesied in the assembly were to do so wearing their veil. In first century Roman society, a married women who did not wear her veil was often viewed as promoting temple prostitution. Paul said-don’t allow that to happen in the church!
Some suggest that 1 Corinthians 11:5 is not talking about the worship assembly. Yet the context suggests otherwise. Notice that Paul discusses “prophesying” and “praying” in this text. Throughout 1 Corinthians, the “prophesying” and “praying” were done in the church assembly:
1 Corinthians 14:24-But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all.
1 Corinthians 14:31-For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged.
1 Corinthians 14:39-Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.
Please notice that Paul’s concern was not with women preaching and prophesying in the assembly. His focus was on the fact that they women needed to wear their veils.
Indeed, if Paul had wanted to forbid women from speaking in the assembly, he would have done so in 1 Corinthians 11!
Second, there is another important thing to consider regarding the cultural context of this statement. In the early church (following the pattern of both Judaism and some pagan religions), those in the assembly were often separated between male and female. The men would sit together in one place, and the women in another: as such, we can readily see how this arrangement could lend itself towards creating division in the assembly!
“A common practice in many ancient worship gatherings (and in some contemporary cultures) could also elucidate Paul’s instructions and prohibitions in these two passages. Little is known with certainty about church buildings in the first and second centuries. Property ownership may not have been permitted and the church was very focused on using its resources to help the poor and to purchase freedom for slaves rather than to procure permanent facilities. Acts and the New Testament letters reference churches meeting in homes. Acts 19: 9 speaks of a “lecture hall” Paul used for instruction. Wherever the church met, by the fourth century there are multiple references to the practice of separate seating for men and women in the church meeting places. This gender-separating practice was widespread as evidenced by positive references to it by early church fathers in Jerusalem (Cyril, 313-386), North Africa (Augustine, 354-430), and Turkey (Chrysostom, 349-407). 216 The Orthodox Church (among others) continues this practice today and claims it to be a 2000-year church tradition. On this basis some argue that this separation of the genders in church was the background for 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35. They suggest that as the chatter from the women’s section grew in volume, it would become necessary for the leader to call out, “Will the women please be quiet!”—resembling Paul’s admonitions for the women to be silent. Then, if the women began to interact about their questions or call out loudly across the room to their husbands regarding their questions, the leader might have responded like Paul, “If you have questions, ask your husbands at home.” This portrayal, they suggest, is consistent with Paul’s concern for orderliness in the gatherings. 217” (Dr. Bill Rudd, Should Women Be Pastors and Leaders in Church?: My Journey to Discover What the Bible Says About Gender Roles, 227-228 (Kindle Edition); Bloomington, IN; WestBow Press)
“It is likely that the men and women were segregated during worship, as in synagogues, and as in some churches to this day in the Middle East and elsewhere. But if public worship was conducted in the main formal language of the day–in Corinth, obviously, mainstream Greek–many of the women, who might only understand their local dialects, would not always be able to grasp what was being said. (Like some other things in this letter, this isn’t to say that Paul approves of a situation where women would be less educated than men, but he has to deal with the real problems he faces, not with an ideal situation.) As still sometimes happens today in such cases, the women might become bored and begin to talk among themselves. Or they might start calling across the central division to their husbands to explain what had been said. Either way, Paul says, this can be disruptive and should not be allowed. That is one possibility.” (N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (The New Testament for Everyone), 199 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)
Third, the “silence” of this passage was not a continual and absolute silence. Instead, the grammar of our text shows that it was temporary.
Gardner tells us:
“The verb “to be silent” (σιγάω; cf. vv. 28 and 30) can mean to be silent, to become silent, to say nothing, or to hold one’s peace. Nowhere in the New Testament does it refer to total silence (cf. Luke 18: 39; Acts 12: 17; 15: 12). It may refer to silence for a time, or keeping quiet about a specific matter, or becoming quiet as others speak. This we have seen is the case in vv. 28, 30 where the silence enjoined refers to being quiet while someone else speaks. In this context, almost everyone is being limited in their speech in some fashion or another, all under the rubric of what “builds up.” If a person cannot interpret, “let each one keep silent” and “speak to himself and to God” (v. 28). If prophets speak, let two or three speak, then let the judging begin! If a person has something revealed to him, let the prophet currently speaking be silent (v. 30). This is because “order” and “conduct” in worship is the issue at hand for Paul. In fact, the type of “normal” speaking that Paul has in mind and that he argues is “shameful” (to be examined below) is indeed limited. Verse 35 tells us that “asking” questions should not be done “in the churches” but “in the home” and asked of their husbands. We shall develop this point shortly.” (Paul D. Gardner, 1 Corinthians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 635-636 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
Fourth, it needs to be investigated why women “asking” questions would be discouraged in the assembly of the church in this context. We have already seen that Paul’s concern here is the members of the church acting in such a way that the worship service is being disrupted. We have also learned how the social setting of the assembly could lend itself especially towards why the women were admonished to maintain temporary silence in the assembly (i.e., because they may have been yelling across the assembly to their husbands during the worship assembly).
So why may some of the women in the church have been discouraged from asking “questions” in the assembly?
“Perhaps more relevant to the context of the Corinthian church is the way public lectures were conducted by teachers in the broader Greco-Roman world. Plutarch says that it is important to ask lecturers questions only in their field of expertise; to ask them questions irrelevant to their discipline is rude.[ 60] Worse yet are those who challenge the speaker without yet understanding his point: But those who instandy interrupt with contradictions, neither hearing nor being heard, but talking while others talk, behave in an unseemly manner; whereas the man who has the habit of listening with restraint and respect, takes in and masters a useful discourse, and more readily sees through and detects a useless or a false one, showing himself thus to be a lover of truth and not a lover of disputation, nor froward and contentious.[ 61] This principle is particularly applicable to uneducated questioners who waste everyone’s time with their questions they have not bothered to first research for themselves: For when they are by themselves they are not willing to give themselves any trouble, but they give trouble to the speaker by repeatedly asking questions about the same things, like unfledged nestlings always agape toward the mouth of another, and desirous of receiving everything ready prepared and predigested.[ 62] So also those who nitpick too much, questioning extraneous points not relevant to the argument.[ 63] It was rude even to whisper to one another during a lecture, so asking questions of one another would also have been considered out of place and disrespectful to the speaker.[ 64]” (Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul, 1766-1780 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
The religious public groups of the first century would often be filled with people who would begin peppering speakers with incessant questions. This was shameful and needed to stop.
Interestingly enough, Paul’s use of the word “shameful” in this passage again reminds us that the matter being discussed was cultural and one that was primarily unique to Corinth. In discussing the issues of the veils in chapter 11, Ferguson makes this interesting comment (notice his words about the language of “shame” and it’s connection to culture):
“Notice how Paul’s reasons for the head covering for women and its absence for men are loaded with the language of culture. (1) Honor or shame (disgrace) for the man— “any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (1 Corinthians 11:4- 5). (2) Shame (disgrace) to the woman— “It is one and the same thing as having her head shaved…. If it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil” (1 Corinthians 11:5- 6). (3) What is accepted as a sign of authority “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Corinthians 11:10). (Angels are perhaps invoked as witnesses to the order of creation.) (4) What is regarded by human beings as natural (that is, what is customarily done)— “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Corinthians 11:13- 15). (5) The practice of the churches “We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). Honor and shame were major considerations in determining conduct in the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world…Since a culture tends to regard its customs as the “natural” way to do things, as the established order of things, “nature” ( physis ) had as one of its derived meanings “[accepted] custom.” 14 Observe that all of the considerations urged by Paul, with the possible exception of the fifth, refer to conditions or circumstances established by culture— having to do with honor, shame or disgrace, a sign or symbol, the natural or customary, and the customs of others. Where something is not considered a matter of honor or shame, has no symbolic significance, is not regarded as natural, then the specific expression has no force.” (Everett Ferguson, Women In The Church: Biblical And Historical Perspectives, 386-405 (Kindle Edition): Abilene, Tx; Desert Willow Publishing)
Finally, this last point helps us to understand the “law” which Paul mentions that discusses women being submissive.
Paul was referencing the local law at Corinth!
“As the law says” could then easily be understood as Roman law. Official religion of the Roman variety was closely supervised. The women who participated were carefully organized and their activities strictly regulated. The unrestrained activity and inclusive nature of oriental cults (such as the popular cult of Isis) made them immediately suspect, if for no other reason than the fear that such uninhibited behavior would adversely affect the family unit and erupt in antisocial behavior.” (Craig Blomberg, Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology Book 12), 77 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
In conclusion, Paul did not say that women must remain quiet in the worship assembly of the church. Instead, he praises them for prophesying and praying in a godly way in the assembly! He exhorts them to maintain temporary silence in the assembly in such a way that the worship is not disrupted and they are not shouting across the assembly to their husbands to try and gain insight during a sermon. The women at Corinth would be familiar with how the pagans would use questioning in order to disrupt services, because that is how some of the Romans in Corinth would behave. The Roman law at Corinth ordered women to be submissive to their husbands, and Paul agreed with this. At the same time, Paul’s language demonstrates that this was a cultural issue that he was dealing with in this particular area.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.