This article explains one reason why 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says “women should remain silent in the churches,” does not exclude women from reading scripture, leading singing or prayer, preaching, or otherwise participating fully in a worship service.
It is part of a series regarding the Churches of Christ’s general exclusion of women from serving in worship services, viewed through the eyes of a young woman considering colleges.
Spoiler alert: She figures out what 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 means.
Mary, 17, a high-school senior who has attended a Church of Christ all her life, recently discovered that most Church-of-Christ colleges have chapel worship-services in which women actively serve. Women at three of the schools to which she was admitted serve in all roles along with men. She is worried about this, as her home church taught her that God does not want women serving in worship services.
Mary, along with her friend Julie and Julie’s mom Kim, is visiting a Church of Christ college to which she has been admitted. This article begins with the trio having lunch on campus while on their way to sit in on a college class.
Before the lunch, Mary determined that passages to which people point as prohibiting women from serving in the worship service—1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12— do not have their “plain meaning” in English (as described in the previous article). This scripture says “women should remain silent in the churches,” for example, but other scripture commands women not to stay silent, women in her church do not remain silent, and even very conservative scholars do not give this scripture its “plain meaning.”
Now, Mary turns to determining the meaning of 1 Cor 14:34-35.
At Lunch with Kim and Julie During a Campus Visit
Mary: “People have told me it is wrong to go to a college that lets women speak in chapel because of what 1 Cor 14:34-35 says.”
Kim: “Honestly, Mary, those people are being ridiculous. Scripture must be viewed in context. Context shows women should speak in worship assemblies and Paul, in 14:34-35, just asked married women to take care not to ask disruptive questions during them.”
Mary: “But it says, plain as day, that “women should remain silent in the churches ….”
Kim: “Didn’t you tell me on the drive here that 1 Cor 14:34-35 does not have its plain meaning? No one who has studied the issue and has any credibility says it has its plain meaning.”
Mary: “Oh, yeah! I forgot. It’s really easy to keep going back to plain meaning.”
Kim: “It is. That’s the number one mistake people make when interpreting these verses. People who haven’t thought about it much or who look only at vv. 34-35 or who are just trying to persuade you will say ‘plainly’ or ‘clearly’ these verses mean women are excluded. Really common.”
Mary: “How do I figure out what those verses mean?”
Kim: “Context is key. Pull out your tablets and let’s look. I use the NIV. Pull up chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians. Ask yourself what is that chapter about? I’ll pull it up on my phone.
Mary: “OK, I’ve read it. Part of its context is that when Christians come together they should speak but do so ‘in a fitting and orderly way.’ (vv. 33, 40).”
Kim: “Yes! Paul writes about this from the first verse, saying ‘follow the way of love.’ He emphasizes edifying and building up the church (vv. 5, 12, 26). His emphasis is proper procedure, not exclusion.”
Julie, Kim’s daughter: “Maybe excluding women is part of proper procedure?”
Kim: “<Laughs.> Telling half the people they can’t speak to the other half when they are all together is following “the way of love”?!? Has doing that “built up” the Churches of Christ or does it repel? Does it edify all to exclude some? Sex-discrimination might be “orderly and fitting” in some folks’ view, but it’s not what Paul says he wants and is certainly not the ‘way of love’!”
Mary: “I’ve never heard someone look at scripture around those two verses for context. I’ve just heard vv. 34-35 ‘plainly’ and ‘clearly’ says ….’”
Kim: “It’s strange to me that anyone in the Churches of Christ, a ‘Bible church,’ says that. We can do better. One has to look at context.”
1 Cor 14 Tells Women to Speak in the Churches
“1 Cor 14 not only does not prohibit women from speaking in the church, but it encourages—some would say commands—them to do so,” Kim tells Mary, and points to scripture as she explains this:
Paul recognized women are prophets earlier in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:4-5, 16). The New Testament cites women prophets elsewhere, too. (e.g., Acts 2:15-21; Acts 21:8-9; Luke 2:36-38).
Having this recognition, Paul said, in his letter to everyone in the church at Corinth (1 Cor 1:2):
- “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. …” (1 Cor 14:5) (all NIV)
- When the “whole church” comes together, it is great “if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying.” (14:23-25)
- “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each—“every one” (KJV)—of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. …” (14:26)
- “Two or three prophets should speak, ….” (14:29) (i.e., of all women and men who are prophets)
- “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (14:31)
Thus, Paul is telling “every one,” the “whole church,” “brothers and sisters,” “all”—women and men—to speak out “when you come together,” e.g., in the church.
Notice at the end of the passage that Paul says “my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy ….” (v.39).
Walking from Lunch
Julie: “Wow, I never noticed! I read chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians backwards, starting at 1 Cor 14:34-35, and thought the prophets and tongue speakers in verses 1-33 must be men. Of course, 1 Corinthians is a letter and should be read forwards, not backwards. Context!”
Mary: “So, Julie and I—and you, too—should be eager to speak in the assembly! You know, now that I think about it, I am.”
Julie: “I suppose we should be eager. It’s a chance to grow and become closer to God and to serve other people.”
Kim (finishing lunch): “Let’s find a place to sit outside.”
Julie (while walking): “Mom, what did you major in when you went to school here?”
Kim: “Bible. I loved it. Learned a lot; great friends. Met your dad.”
Julie: “You never told me you were a Bible major! I know you are a Bible wiz, but why haven’t you mentioned this before?”
Kim: “Well, I had nearly perfect grades, but I couldn’t find a job with a Church of Christ. They wouldn’t hire a woman minister. I got a couple of offers to come be the church secretary, but that’s it.”
Julie: “That’s awful!”
Kim: “There are more Churches of Christ hiring female ministers these days, but, still, very few. I believe it will change soon.”
Julie: “I don’t know what I will major in. I would love to major in Bible, but I need a job when I graduate.”
Kim: “Let’s sit here; it’s a great day to sit outside.”
A Bench on Campus
Mary: “So Paul told women they should speak in the assembly! It seems like he then takes it all back in vv. 34-35 and tells women not to speak.”
Kim: “That is what ‘plain meaning’ can indicate, but we’ve already figured out that those verses do not have their ‘plain meaning,’ right? It’s easy to keep going back to that because, well, it’s so easy! Would it make any sense for Paul to repeat multiple times that women (and men) should speak throughout verses 1-33 of 1 Corinthians, but then take half of it back?”
Julie: “It is hard for my mind not to just use plain meaning, even though I know it isn’t what it means.”
Kim: “It can be, but it becomes easier. We know what it doesn’t mean (plain meaning), but we should try to figure out what it does mean. How do you think we figure that out?
Mary and Julie: “Context!”
Kim: “Right! In the context of the short passage in which vv. 34-35 resides, 1 Cor 14:26-40, after Paul says everyone—women and men—should speak out in the assembly (v. 26, 1-25), Paul addresses three specific situations in which people should not just speak out.”
“Pull up the NRSV translation on your tablet, as it’s closer to a word-for-word and it’s easier to see this point there.”
“The first situation (vv. 27-28) is this: Paul says if a woman or man wishes to ‘speak,’ not just normally, but ‘in a tongue’ when ‘there is no one to interpret,’ then ‘let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.’”
“The second situation (vv. 29-33) is this: Paul says if any woman or man is speaking a prophecy when someone else receives a revelation, then ‘let the first person be silent.’”
“In both instances, Paul uses the Greek word sigato as the word that is translated ‘be silent.’”
Julie: “What does sigato / “be silent” mean?”
Kim: “This is a very important point: ‘be silent’ is not used in 1 Cor 14:26-40 to mean the woman or man should not speak at all, but instead it is used to mean that the person should (a) not speak in the specific way referenced (rather than not speak at all) if (b) particular circumstances exist. And then Paul tells them (c) what to do as an alternative.”
Mary: “I get it. When Paul says ‘be silent’ as to tongues here, he is telling the person not to speak in the specific way referenced—tongues—and not to not speak in all ways—the person can still pray and speak a prophecy, for example.”
Julie: “I get it, too. The tongue-speaker who was told to be silent when an interpreter left the assembly can start again when another interpreter came. Or the tongue-speaker could pray in the assembly or could prophesy, even if no interpreter is around.”
Mary: “Otherwise, if we read verse 28 like some people read vv. 34-35 today, since verse 28 says ‘if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church …,’ a man or woman who speaks in tongues would have to be completely silent in the church even for speaking in a normal (no-tongues) way—the person could not pray, not sing, not prophesy, not make announcements, nothing …–unless there was an interpreter present.”
Julie: “Oh, yeah. And if we read verse 30 like some people read vv. 34-35 today, since verse 30 says ‘If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent,’ a man or woman who has prophesied some in church would have to be completely silent afterwards even for speaking other things—they could not read scripture, not sing, not make announcements, nothing at all!”
Now, 1 Cor 14:34-35
Kim: “Right! Having already established how he is communicating twice—how he is communicating regarding when to be silent in the assembly—that is, referring with sigato (be silent) to tell people (a) not to speak in the specific way referenced (rather than not to speak at all) if (b) particular circumstances exist and then giving (c) what to do as an alternative—Paul then addresses the third situation, the one in vv. 34-35:
Women should remain silent (sigatosan) in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.
“Remember we know this does not have its plain meaning, so put that out of your mind. The word silent there is the Greek word sigato (in its plural form).”
“Do you see similarities between vv. 34-35 and the way Paul communicated in vv. 27-28 and vv. 29-33?”
Mary: “Yes! I see it. He uses sigato and references (a) a specific way, (b) a particular circumstance, and (c) an alternative.”
Julie: “I see it has the same elements, too. But in the first two situations, Paul tells them to speak, but in vv. 34-35, Paul does not say to speak. So, isn’t that different?”
Mary: “Ah, but Paul has told women to speak—in verse 26, in verses 1-25, in verses 29 and 31, and elsewhere already! Also, Paul isn’t telling people for the first time to speak in vv. 27-28 and vv. 29-33—he did that in verses 1 – 26— … he is setting limits on the speaking, saying only two or three should, etc.”
Julie: “Oh, yes, and I keep forgetting that vv. 34-35 does not have its plain meaning.”
Kim: “Notice that the verses in the first two situations say ‘be silent’ (v. 28 for tongues, v. 30 for prophecy) just like v. 34 says ‘be silent’ for this third situation in vv. 34-35. We realize that ‘be silent’ means to be silent relative to the specific way referenced in both of those first two situations (and not for other ways).”
“So, since ‘be silent’ is used in that manner in the first two situations, ‘be silent’ was almost certainly used in that manner for the third situation. In other words, ‘be silent’ alsmost certainly means be silent relative to the specific way referenced in the third situation, described in vv. 34-35, too, which is non-submissive questions, and not relative to all ways. That is, the ‘be silent’ in vv. 34-35 does not mean to be silent as to prophecy, prayer, singing, tongues, instruction, or any other way besides non-submissive questions.”
Julie: “I see it now! 1 Cor 14:34-35 means women are not to speak (a) non-submissive questions, if (b) they wish to inquire about something; instead they are supposed to (c) ask their own husbands at home. This is because that is what the context, particularly the way Paul uses language in vv. 26-33, shows.”
vv. 34-35 is About Married Women
Mary: “I see it, too! But didn’t you say vv. 34-35 is just directed at wives instead of all women?”
Kim: “That’s right. That the woman is married is part of the particular circumstances requiring silence.”
Julie: “How do you know?”
Kim: “The ‘they’ used in the third sentence of vv. 34-35 (‘they want’ and ‘they should’) have husbands since Paul says ask your ‘own husband.’ It is well recognized that when Greek text says ‘women’ and ‘woman,’ it means ‘wives’ or ‘wife’ if the context suggests they are married. The ‘they’ and ‘women’ in the first two sentences are the same people referred to in the third. So, this passage refers to married women.”
Julie: “I see that. Some of the married women in Corinth were just speaking up with their questions during the assembly in a way that was disruptive?”
Kim: “Yes, we do not know if they were not ‘in submission’ (i.e., not orderly) relative to their husbands or relative to their fellow Christians in the assembly or to themselves (or their spirit). It was probably their fellow Christians and themselves (or their spirit) because — remember the context — Paul is emphasizing avoiding disorder throughout chapter 14. In any event, for them to just “speak out”—jumping in in a disorderly way with a question, for example—during the assembly was considered disgraceful.”
Mary: “Why was it disgraceful?”
Kim: “It might have been because it embarrassed their husbands or maybe the whole group or maybe themselves. Some say that the questions were specifically about their husband’s prophecy. Whether vv. 34-35 is directed only to wives or not is not a determinative point regarding whether Paul wanted to exclude women from speaking in the worship assembly—they are not excluded either way. But it is helpful to see that it was directed to wives for context.”
“I Get It!”
Julie: “I get it! Paul is saying as to the specific way referenced—disruptive questions—wives should remain silent, and not just speak such questions out in the assembly. Otherwise, it is disorderly and a disgrace, either to her husband or to the assembly. That makes a lot of sense and does not contradict what Paul said earlier in chapter 14 or in chapter 11 and elsewhere.”
Mary: “I get it, too! 1 Cor 14:34-35 means women are (a) not to speak disruptive questions (maybe questions about prophecy) if (b) they are married and wish to inquire about something; instead they are supposed to (c) ask their husbands at home. That’s what Paul was communicating to the Corinthians.”
Kim: “Yes! Don’t let people say it has its ‘plain’ meaning when it doesn’t.”
Julie: “We better get going to class — it’s almost time.”
(to be continued)
If you missed the beginning of this series, part 1 is here.
Part 4 is here.
Sources & Notes
See generally Two Views on Women in Ministry (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan). Also see generally sources cited in this recent blog post (in main text and in sources/notes section) and in the first article in this series and in the second.
I use “leading” and “serving” (by itself) occasionally to try to be succinct. “Serving” is a better description than leading.
“… conservative scholars …”: See, e.g., Everett Ferguson, Women in the Church, 2nd ed., Abilene, Texas: Desert Willow Publishing (2015), pages 21, 28-29, 118 (not all “speaking” is prohibited for women by 1 Cor 14:34-35, only certain “kinds of speaking” are prohibited; women can speak “Amen” along with the rest of the congregation, they can translate, they can speak by interpreting or translating for another, and they can speak their confession of faith at baptism); Ferguson, supra, page 46 (that the setting of 1 Timothy 2 is the assembly “is not so obvious”); Wayne Jackson, “1 Corinthians 14:34–‘Silence’ in the Church,” Christian Courier, Accessed May 15, 2018, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/471-1-corinthians-14-34-silence-in-the-church (“The first two prohibitions demand silence only in the matters being discussed. They do not forbid these men to otherwise speak consistent with their divine obligations. … This does not demand that a woman be absolutely silent at church. Rather, in harmony with what the apostle taught elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:12), the woman is not to speak or teach in any way that violates her gender role. She is not to occupy the position of a public teacher, in such a capacity as to stand before the church and function as the teacher (or co-teacher) of a group containing adult men. In assuming this official capacity, she has stepped beyond her authorized sphere, and she violates scripture. … Thus, mark “silence” in verse 34. Draw arrows back to verses 28, 30, and note: Silence not absolute, but qualified by context.); Wayne Jackson, “May a Woman Ever Teach a Man?,” Christian Courier, Accessed May 15, 2018, https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1569-may-a-woman-ever-teach-a-man (“In 1 Timothy 2:12, the grammatical construction of Paul’s prohibition clearly indicates that the term “teach” (didasko) in this setting is the type associated with exercising “authority.” The woman is not to teach in a situation wherein she exerts “authority” as “the teacher.””); John Piper & Wayne Grudem, 50 Crucial Questions, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway (2016), https://document.desiringgod.org/50-crucial-questions-about-manhood-and-womanhood-en.pdf?ts=1471551126, pages 38-39, 41 (“The reason we believe Paul does not mean for women to be totally silent in the church is that in 1 Corinthians 11:5 he permits women to pray and prophesy in church: “Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” But someone may ask, “Why do you choose to let 1 Corinthians 11:5 limit the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34 rather than the other way around?””; “This dynamic is significantly different from the public, authoritative teaching of Scripture to a congregation that Paul prohibits for women in 1 Timothy 2:12.”; “When Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” we do not understand him to mean an absolute prohibition of all teaching by women.”; “It is arbitrary to think that Paul had every form of teaching in mind in 1 Timothy 2:12. Teaching and learning are such broad terms that it is impossible that women not teach men and that men not learn from women in some sense. “); D.A. Carson, “Silent in the Churches: On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,” Chapter 6 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. by Wayne Grudem, John Piper, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books (1991), pages 133, 142 (“The interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 is by no means easy. The nub of the difficulty is that in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul is quite prepared for women to pray and prophesy, albeit with certain restrictions; but here, a first reading of the text seems to make the silence he enjoins absolute. The solutions that have been advanced are, like devils in certain instances of demon possession, legion. I can do no more than list a few and mention one or two of my hesitations about them before turning to the interpretation I find most contextually and exegetically secure. … Paul’s point here, however, is that they may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies.”).
Ferguson notes there are three situations addressed in a parallel structure in 14:27-36 with commonalities, but he uses “common properties,” a concept he borrows from Antoinette Clark Wire, and the common properties chosen by Ferguson are awkward and do not seem to fit. See Ferguson, supra, page 22-24. For example, he refers to them as three “groups”—“anyone who speaks in tongues,” “prophets,” and “women”—but ignores that people can be in more than one such “group” and in fact can be in all three and the “justify the rule” given by Ferguson for the first category (“speaks in tongues”)—“and speak to themselves and to God, and not to the church”—is not a justification. Ibid. There are multiple other problems with Ferguson’s formulation.
How do we know it is disruptive questions to which Paul is referring?
First, the textual context strongly suggests that it is disruptive modes of the type of speaking that is addressed throughout 1 Cor 14. A primary theme of 1 Cor 14 is avoiding disruption (e.g., “… the one who prophesies edifies the church. … try to excel in those that build up the church…. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, … Two or three prophets should speak, … For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed …. God is not a God of disorder but of peace…. … do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”)
The tongue-speaking a few sentences before is disruptive tongue-speaking, not all tongue-speaking (vv. 27-28). The prophesying banned there is disruptive prophesying, not all prophesying (vv. 29-33).
Thus, it is likely that the questions addressed in v. 35 are disruptive ones, not all questions.
Second, Paul tells us the kind of speaking he refers to in vv.34-35 is disruptive speaking.
- We know the “speaking” referred to is not all kinds of speaking.
- What kind of speaking is referred to as not allowed in vv. 34-35?
- The text tells us that it is the kind that involves (a) not being in submission (v. 34) (hypotassesthōsan) and (b) questions (v. 35).
- What is this hypotassesthōsan to which Paul is referring in v. 34? In submission to a husband? In submission to the congregation? In submission to one’s self?
- Paul has already told us what he is referring to with hypotassesthosan in v. 34 when he tells us in vv. 32-33 that “The spirits of prophets are subject (hypotassetai) to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.”
- In vv. 32-33, Paul refers to the person themselves staying in control and not creating disorder in the assembly. I refer to this staying in control and not creating disorder in shorthand as “non-disruptive.”
- Thus, the kind of speaking referred to as not allowed in vv.34-35 is the kind that involves disruptive questions.
Third, it makes no sense to say that all questions from women are banned. What about when a woman wants to ask to be prayed for? What if a woman wants to ask for prayers for her children? What if she wants to ask about being baptized?
Fourth, women are told to ask non-disruptive questions in the assembly. Many psalms ask questions of God. Hymns ask questions (“Would you be free you’re your burden of sin? There’s power in the blood.”). Paul said, to women and men, “… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord ….” (Eph 5:18-20; see also Col 3:16) Thus, women are directed to ask non-disruptive questions in the assembly via speaking hymns and psalms, suggesting that 1 Cor 14:34-35 does not ban speaking non-disruptive questions.
Fifth, praying involves asking non-disruptive questions (e.g., “give us this day our daily bread,” “forgive us our trespasses”), Paul approved of women praying in the assembly, and directed them to do so. The Apostle Paul said, to women and men, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy … so that the church may be edified.” (1 Cor 14:5; see also 1 Cor 1:1-2; 11:5; 14:23, 26, 39-40) Speaking in tongues included prayer. (e.g., 1 Cor 14:14 (“For if I pray in a tongue ….”)) Women were commanded to pray out loud in a mixed assembly by Paul, asking them to pray with “understanding” (out loud, regular way, not in tongues): Paul, after telling women and men, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy,” describes “build[ing] up the church,” including telling them “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.” (1 Cor 14:5, 12-17; see also 1:1-2; 14:6, 23, 26) Thus, since women are directed to ask non-disruptive questions in the assembly via praying, it is unlikely that 1 Cor 14:34-35 bans speaking non-disruptive questions.
Any one of these five reasons strongly suggests that the questions addressed in vv. 34-35 are disruptive questions. Indeed, all five point to disruptive questions. Even fundamentalists conclude that it is not all questions that are addressed by 1 Cor 14:34-35, but is instead disruptive questions, like overly demanding questions, that are addressed.
The underlying story of Mary is, of course, fictionalized. The scripture and her struggle are real.
[Update: fixed the formatting for (a) in all places and some typos/language; added more cites; added discussion in Notes regarding disruptive questions.]
All scripture quoted is from the New International Version (NIV) or New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise indicated.