The following questions come from the passage 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Is the women not speaking directive aimed at church governance and involvement in teaching, or is it just a general command to be quiet during service? I’d hope it’s not the latter because I know the women at our church are not mute every time they come to church. I’ve read that there are like three main explanations for these passages – just wondering if you could shed some light on it? It’s a bit spooky to read things like ‘it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church’ (14:35) and I can definitely see why people would point to Christianity or the church and label it as oppressive and misogynistic, so could you please explain? Is Christianity truly oppressive to women? Thank you!

Here is the passage in view:

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 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. 

1 Corinthians 14:33-36

Once again, we stumble across yet another notoriously difficult verse that has brought never-ending tension to modern readers today. Over the course of church history, despicable men have justified their mistreatment of women through the mishandling of this text. Hence, it is unsurprisingly that those who encounter this passage would begin to brush off the Christian faith as a religion for misogynists. 

Even within our pews, Christians today who are blessed to have the sort of modern rights and freedoms that Western culture brings, are swift to dismiss the relevance of this biblical teaching to our contemporary society. Though I can personally see where the criticism is coming from, we must ask God in prayer to help us set aside our prejudices towards the text if we are to truly understand what He wants to communicate to us. 

An initial reading of the passage seems to strongly imply that under no circumstances whatsoever should a woman speak during church gatherings (1 Cor. 14:34). But is this what this passage is truly saying? 

1. The demand for silence is not absolute

A significant point to make against the view that this demand for silence on women is absolute is the fact that the text never says that women should *always* remain silent in the churches. That is an assertion made beyond what the text is saying. In fact, women do have a platform to speak in the church and this is strongly affirmed when Paul exhorts the women in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 to wear head-coverings when they pray and prophesy in the church. This exhortation is driven by the assumed notion that women are allowed to speak in the public forum, provided they wore culturally appropriate dress wear in corporate worship. This is why it is implausible to suggest that this was indeed an absolute restriction on women speaking in the church. 

One significant point to add on top of this is that this prohibition is not only imposed on women. We see in the same chapter that two other groups of people were told by Paul to remain silent as well: tongue speakers (14:28) and prophets (14:30). When one tongue speaker is speaking, the others should remain silent. If there is no one to interpret the speaker, they must also remain silent (14:27-28). So we mustn’t get the impression that this prohibition is given strictly to women!

So when should women remain silent? They are not to speak when there is no interpreter (14:28), or when other people in the congregation are evaluating the veracity of the prophecies (14:26).

2. The reason for the silence

So why should women remain silent in these particular situations? There are a number of reasons that can be found from the passage, but I’ll highlight the two most significant ones:

a) God is a God of order and created us for relationships with order

In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul addressed the topic on gifts two chapters prior in chapter 12, and that these gifts were not to be used for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole church. And although every believer has received a gift in order to serve the church, these gifts must be utilised along these lines where there is an intelligible orderliness within corporate worship that fosters spiritual maturity and unity “whether you have a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26). God is not a God of disorder, but a God of peace (1 Cor. 14:33) and so He incorporates structure within our fellowship gatherings to exemplify the divine attributes of His self-consistency.

This, of course, means that believers must discern wisely on which occasions should they exercise their gifts in corporate worship. This meant knowing when to speak out and when to refrain from speaking, in order to enable others to hear the recapitulation of gospel truths in congregational worship and to be filled with encouragement (see 1 Cor. 14:31). Claire Smith helpfully frames it like so, “If you have ever been in a room full of people, this will mean that some people will have to remain silent.” [1]. 

And to be frank, this whole idea of remaining silent shouldn’t bother us as much as we make it out to be. Remaining quiet in the church is analogous to zipping your lip when your teacher is speaking. It is one of the fundamental rules of classroom management. And conversely, your teacher would also have the courtesy to listen and remain silent when you are asking a question or making a contribution after you have put your hand up! Teachers reinforce this classic classroom rule to establish order, so that they can limit disruptive behaviour that would otherwise compromise student learning within the classroom. It is primarily for the benefit of the students!

b) The “law” says so

In verse 21, Paul cites a reference from Isaiah by saying it comes from “the Law” and makes that reference again in verse 34, “[Women] are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”

Paul is not referring to the Mosaic Law when he says “the Law,” for the quote from verse 21 came from the book of Isaiah (which is a prophetic book, not a book of law). It is more reasonable to assume, by this clause, that Paul uses the term to refer to the whole Old Testament. 

In particular, it seems that Paul points his readers back to the creation order in Genesis 1 and 2, which he has already done on a few occasions in this epistle (see 1 Cor. 11:8, 9). He implies that since the man was made first and women was made for man, this established dynamic between the two sexes lays down some sort of pattern regarding how men and women are to relate to one another in church. Woman is to be subject to man (or at the very least, the wife must be subject to the husband) and Paul contextualises the Genesis 1-2 relationship dynamic to this situation where women should remain silent as the prophecies are being evaluated. It would have been seen as a challenge to authority if a woman participated in the weighing of prophecies.

3. Should women remain silent in our churches today?

So which is it: custom or principle? Should we still apply this practice within our churches today? Or should we scrap this cultural custom altogether?

No matter how uneasy and uncomfortable this passage might be, we need to recognise that Paul was not merely imposing a cultural practice to the church in Corinth that is now irrelevant in our time. He reasons from Genesis 1 and 2 to set firmly the foundational principles for how Christian men and women should relate with each other in corporate worship. Man is the head of woman; woman is the helper of man. God has given different roles for men and women and this is a principle that is to be applied universally.

However at the same time, it seems as though that when you observe the cultural landscape of our churches today, our liturgies have taken a certain form where we won’t often witness people prophesying and others evaluating these prophecies in congregational worship. Few modern evangelical churches replicate the sort of liturgical worship that we see in the early Christian church.

So perhaps our application of this principle to the world we live in today is not as obvious as it seems. Nevertheless, here are some ways that might help our women apprehend this biblical teaching in their own spiritual walks.

a) Women are to cultivate an attitude of submission

This doesn’t mean submitting to every man in your congregation. But it does mean, at the very least, that you should submit to those who are called by God to watch over your souls. When you ask your pastor questions about his sermon during Q&A, don’t phrase your question in such a way that you are challenging his authority on the pulpit. When your pastor is preaching, acknowledge the authority God has given to Him and don’t interrupt his preaching (even if you might find disagreement with what he preached)! Do all things in the spirit of gentleness and submission and show no indications by your behaviour that you possess the spirit of rebellion!

Now this isn’t to say that our men shouldn’t be doing any of these things (they certainly should be submitting to their leaders as well!), but for women in particular this means asking questions in a way that is “respectfully feminine and quietly submissive – notwithstanding the fact that our questions are hopefully intelligent, thoughtful and thought-provoking!” [2]

b) Use your gifts for others, not for your self-promotion   

Just because you have a gift or an ability to do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you have the right to exercise it however and whenever you please. You have to consider the common good of the people who are sitting in the pews. Think about what is best for our congregation. Is it helpful to be playing some of your exotic music instruments in the band as you lead others in worship? Or if you are a woman, should you really be given a place at the pulpit to preach, just because you are gifted in teaching?

Depending on the way that we utilise our gifts, we may be distracting others from being taught and encouraged by the Word, and from worshipping God with all their heart, mind and soul.

Order and structure are integrated into the fabric of our worship to facilitate ways for others to express their love and commitment to each other. And nothing pleases God more when He sees His people loving one another by serving each other through the gifts He has given them in orderly worship!


I recognise that this biblical teaching can still be quite unsettling to us. It goes against the grain of our culture, especially when we Westerners are coming from a place where we embrace personal freedoms and choice. As Christians, we might typically profess to give up our lives for Christ… but to give up our autonomy and to submit to others…? This was not the sort of cross that we were expecting to bear. 

But God has given us this teaching “for our good, not for our enslavement” [3]. So ladies, please don’t get the impression that this biblical teaching paints a overall picture of the Christian faith as a religion for misogynists. The gospel freed Christian women from the dehumanising social perceptions of the Greco-Roman world, where they were seen purely as slaves, animals, and inferior beings to men. The gospel revolutionised the view of women in the first century, as it placed emphasis on their value as those who bear God’s image, and those who trust in the Lord Jesus for salvation are also pronounced as those who belong in the divine kingdom as heirs of the one true God. Women have a vital place in the life of the church (see Acts 12:12; 16:15; 17:4, 12; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:5), and Paul regards their contributions with admiration and respect (see Rom. 16:3-5). But in saying all that, God also maintains the distinction of the gender roles, not to enslave or oppress women, but to enable both men and women to flourish together as they commit to living their lives in accordance with His wise and good design.

References

[1] – Smith, C. (2012). God’s Good Design. Matthias Media, p.91.
[2] – Ibid, p.100.
[3] – Piper, J. and Grudem, W. (1991). Recovering biblical manhood and womanhood. Crossway, p.153.

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