The Women Are to Keep Silence in the Churches

By Weldon E. Warnock

Quoting 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, we read: “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.”

This passage has been greatly misunderstood. Some have interpreted it to mean that women may not teach women or children in our Bible classes, nor even ask a question or make a comment in a mixed class where a man is the teacher. A few have gone so far as to advocate that women may not even sing in the public assembly where men are present. Such views are radical and extreme and exhibit a warped and an erroneous concept of the verses being discussed.

A Special Meeting

The assembly in 1 Corinthians 14 is special in function and temporary in nature. The context shows explicitly that it was in assembly for the exercise of spiritual gifts. We read, “If any man speaks in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret” (v. 27). We have nothing like this today.

In verse 29 Paul further states, “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.” We cannot duplicate this. Hence, in this setting he instructs the women not to speak but to be in silence, and not to disturb those speaking by divine revelation.

Except for the principle, “but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” (a principle stated in the Old Testament and reaffirmed in the New Testament), these circumstances have no bearing on our assemblies today. We have no tongue-speakers or prophets. If we apply it to the church presently, how do we determine what two or three men take the place of tongue-speakers and what two or three take the place of prophets. These women were commanded not to interrupt when men spoke in tongues or prophets prophesied.

An “If” Meeting

That this was a special meeting of the church is indicated in verses 23 and 26. In verse 23 Paul uses a conditional particle “if ” that shows uncertainty as to when the assembly will take place. Thayer states the word “if ” (Gr., ean) means, “A conditional particle which makes reference to time and experience, introducing something future, but not determining, before the event whether it is certainly to take place” (Greek-English Lexicon 162).

In verse 26 Paul says, “… when you come together, everyone of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.” Thayer says of “when” (Gr., hotan), “A particle of time, at the time that, whenever, used of things which one assumes will re-ally occur, but the time of whose occurrence, he does not definitely fix, often also of things which one assumes can occur, but whether they really will or not he does not know; hence like our in case that” (458).

Contrast the “if ” meeting with the assemblies in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2. There is no indefinite article (ean) or adverb (hotan) in these assemblies. They were not “if “meetings, but definite regular meetings. Let us not be guilty of applying the rules for special and exceptional assemblies as the norm for all assemblies.

What women may do in the regularly scheduled assemblies, such as Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; 16:2 is not restricted, regulated, or regimented by the prohibitions in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, except the principle that she is to be “under obedience” or as stated in 1 Timothy 2: 12, “not to usurp (exercise) authority over the man.” Women are to sing in our regular assemblies. Paul wrote, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart unto the Lord” (Eph. 5:19) and “… teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). Notice that Paul says when we sing we speak and that we teach. However, in 1 Corinthians 14:34 the women may not speak, but are to be silent. Therefore, it is apparent that the prohibitions in 1 Corinthians 14:34 are not applicable to the other regular assemblies. Paul declares that the women are to keep silence.

To Keep Silence

The word “silence” in this text means to be quiet; not to speak. The Greek word is sigao, which, according to Thayer means, “to keep silence, hold one’s peace” (574). Silence is used in contrast to speaking or addressing the assembly. Furthermore, this also precludes her from interrupting the inspired revelations by asking questions.

The word “speaking” in verse 34 is from the Greek word laleo that is found several times in this chapter (cf. vv. 2,3,6,9,11,13,18,19,21,23,27,29,39). In the immediate context Paul writes in verse 27, “If any man speak in an unknown tongue” and in verse 29, “Let the prophets speak two or three.” Here, the men are speaking, that is, addressing the special assembly. They were told also to be silent under the circumstances as prescribed in verses 28 and 30. In this kind of meeting the women were not to speak, but to remain silent. Paul goes even further and states that if she would learn any additional thing than what she learned by listening to the inspired revelations, let her ask her husband at home.

Identifying the Women

The question is: Who were these women? There are various schools of thought. 1. They were the prophetesses who endeavored to exercise their spiritual gifts in the special public assemblies. 2. They were the women in general in the churches. 3. They were the wives of the prophets.

In regard to number one it seems to me that if Paul had meant prophetesses he would have so stated, rather than using the word women. When he spoke of men prophesying, he designated them as such (v. 29). It would logically follow, therefore, that the women should be so identified. James MacKnight comments, “The prohibition standing in this connection implies that the Corinthian women were not to pray and prophesy in the church as teachers, on pretense of being inspired and unable to restrain the emotions of the Spirit” (Apostolical Epistles 196). Though this position is possible, as advocated by MacKnight, it lacks compelling evidence in my estimation.

In reference to number two, taken at face value, this position has a great amount of merit. This is what the text says: “Let your women keep silence in the churches.” The difficulty with this view is why would their husbands know more than they do? What about the women who had no husbands or whose husbands were not Christians? The solution may be that Paul is focusing on those who had husbands who were Christians. The women could discuss with them things of personal religious interests outside of the special assemblies.

As stated in number three, perhaps he was referring to the views of the prophets who were interrupting the services. The same Greek word for women is also used for wives. We know that these women had husbands, but apparently the husbands could answer the questions of their wives. Hence, the husbands could well have been the prophets  spiritually endowed men to reveal the will of God. We cannot know for certain which of these views is correct, because the situation at Corinth is not totally reconstructed. I am inclined to agree with the latter view. Regardless, one thing is sure, none of the women was to speak or to ask questions in this type of meeting, but rather to be silence because of the principle  “to be under obedience as also saith the law.” To have done otherwise would have been shameful and disgraceful.

Let us not be more restrictive and limiting than what the Bible enjoins. Women are free in the church to teach ladies and children, and she may ask questions, make comments and seek information in a mixed class with a male teacher. She may be a servant of the church like Phoebe (Rom. 16: I ), or a helper like those who assisted Paul in the gospel (Phil. 4:3), or those who are enrolled in the church, perhaps, for special functions (1 Tim. 5:9-10). Women may do anything in the church that does not violate the prohibition of 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12. However, this divine principle does not allow women to be pastors, preachers, song leaders, teachers of a mixed class of men and women or lead public prayer.

Those who have a problem with these regulations will have to take it up with the Lord!

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 3 p. 6-7
February 2, 1995