By Lanny Smith
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Anyone who has studied these verses knows that they are subject to varied interpretations and that these interpretations have caused problems among brethren. Surely these verses are like those “hard to be understood” things of which Peter spoke (2 Pet. 3:16). While not claiming to have all the answers, I would like to offer my thoughts on these Scriptures.
Some claim more for these verses than can be supported by the rest of the Bible. While I respect the convictions of these people, I believe that they have taken an extreme view of this passage. The claim is made that a woman should make no comment, nor ask any question in any teaching arrangement of the local church. Such an assertion ignores both the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 14 and the context of the rest of the Scriptures.
The thrust of the commands of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is the woman’s role of subjection to men (v. 34b; cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12). A contrast is drawn between “speaking” (whether inspired or not is irrelevant) and being “in subjection.” Hence, we should have some understanding of the concept of subjection before we can understand these verses.
The woman’s role of subjection is by no means limited to the local church, or to the assembly (1 Cor. 11:2-3; 1 Tim. 2:8-14). Hence, whatever subjection means in the assembly, it also means out of the assembly. How can it be that a woman who merely asks a question in the assembly is considered insubordinate, and yet the same woman with the same question is considered in subjection out of the assembly? Such reasoning makes distinctions where the Bible does not. We must not limit the woman’s role of subjection to the assembly, nor should we equate such subjection with being speechless. As I understand subjection, it is more significant how one speaks to someone in authority, rather than if one speaks. Consider that each one of us must be in subjection to someone (Eph. 5:21; 6:1-5; Heb. 13:17). Do such relationships demand that we refrain from all speaking?
Notice the significance of the words “speak” and “keep silence” in 1 Corinthians 14. These words do not carry the same significance in every context. For example, the word “speak” can mean anything from “utter” to “preach” (see Strong’s Greek Dictionary, p. 44). In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, especially from verse 26 onward, the predominate idea is to lead the public worship (i.e., as if to preach). Obviously, “keep silence” would have the opposite connotation. Herein lies the significance of vv. 34-35. Since preaching to the assembled church would cause the woman to “usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim. 2:12), she is forbidden to do so (cp. Tit. 2:15). Read 1 Corinthians 14:26-35 again with these ideas in mind.
In verse 35, the women are told further to ask questions of “their husbands at home.” Again, how can merely asking a question in the assembly be considered insubordinate, and yet not be considered so out of the assembly? Remember, wives are to be in subjection to “their husbands at home,” too (Eph. 5:22-24,32-33).
The answer which seems best to suit the context is that these questions were not asked in the proper spirit. The word “ask” (Greek: eperotao) used here can carry the significance of “demand” or “disputing” in some contexts. Consider these quotes from scholars on this word (all emph. mine, Is):
(1) Vine (p. 301): “to ask, interrogate, inquire of, consult, or to demand of a person.”
(2) Thayer (p. 230): “To accost one with an inquiry.”
(3) T.D.N. T. (abridged, p. 262): “. . . perhaps disputing rather than merely asking questions (Lk. 2:46; cf. v. 47). In Matt. 16:1 the sense is ‘request’ or ‘demand.’ In I Cor. 14:35 wives are to ask their husbands at home.”
Compare Luke 3:14 and 17:20, where this same word is translated “demanded” in the KJV. When we consider the citations above, and all that the Bible says about subjection, it is very likely that Paul is rebuking the manner in which they asked, rather than the mere asking of questions. Remember that Paul is correcting disorderly abuses (w. 26,33,40). Even though the women may have legitimate reasons for asking questions, they were speaking in such a manner as to disrupt the assembly and dispute with the men. Hence, they were insubordinate (v. 34b). Such boisterous conduct is “a shame” and “is not permitted.” The idea to “ask . . . at home” is parallel to “eat at home” in I Corinthians 11:22,34. There, Paul isn’t saying “eat at home” as much as he’s saying “don’t eat in the assembly” (cf. 11: 17-18,20,22,33-34). If we took his statement, “eat at home,” literally, then we couldn’t eat at McDonald’s. Similarly, “ask (demand/dispute) . . . at home” means “don’t be disputive in the assembly.” This is not to be understood as a command for women to be insubordinate at home; rather the stress is placed upon proper conduct in the assembly.
This interpretation harmonizes with all that the Bible says about the woman’s role of subjection, without placing undue restrictions upon her. A woman is not insubordinate simply because she modestly asks questions or makes comments in situations where men teach (cf. Jn. 4:1-27). The woman’s role in teaching (even teaching men) is evident throughout the Scriptures (Judg. 4:4ff; Jn. 4:28-30,39; Acts 18:26; Col. 3:16; Tit. 2:3-5). However, stress should be placed upon her disposition and conduct, especially when teaching men. She should always display the “meek and quiet spirit” of which Peter spoke (1 Pet. 3:4). She is not to “teach, nor to usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim. 2:11-12), which would forbid her from public preaching (cf. Tit. 2:15).
We should not force women into absolute silence, nor should we defend their “right to speak” to the extent that we go to the equally dangerous extreme of ignoring their proper place of subjection. There should be balance in our teaching on this subject, especially in our modem society where many women are unashamed to “usurp authority.” Let us stand only upon the Word of God.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 6, pp. 163-164
March 16, 1989