Should Women “Be Silent in Church?”

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. (KJV, 1 Cor. 14:34–35)

The Clarity Versus the Consensus

These verses in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians are seemingly crystal clear. Paul gives an unambiguous command, “let your women keep silence in the churches,” then he forcefully backs up his command with two further and equally unambiguous statements, “it is not permitted unto them to speak and it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

With such clarity, one would think that Bible-teaching churches around the world would be filled with silent women. But here is your challenge: find a Protestant, Evangelical, or Fundamentalist church that does not allow women to speak in church. In my almost 30 years of ministry, I have never known of such a church. I am not talking about churches that do not allow the ordination of women (those are many) nor about churches that do not allow women to teach men (which are equally many). I am talking about churches that instruct their female members to “keep silence in the churches and in which “it is not permitted unto them to speak” because it is considered “a shame for women to speak in the church.” While I am sure that there are some exceptions, I am equally sure that Christians and church leadership on every end of the non-Catholic spectrum have rejected this teaching.

How can it be that “people of the Book” can reject something so clear?

The Failure of Evangelical Scholarship

I am a not an evangelical, but since evangelicalism is the largest segment of Bible-believing churches, I’ll focus on this segment of the Christian community. It is even likely that fundamentalists have taken the same failed evangelical approaches to “bypass” this biblical instruction. I will mention three of these approaches.

The passage is cultural and can therefore be ignored.

One approach is to consider the passage as relating to local culture. While my argument that follows has a cultural ingredient, simply relating the culture does not honor the verbal-plenary nature of Scripture. These same people take a cultural approach to head covering (which has an equally valid and non-cultural basis found in the text itself).

This wasn’t originally written by Paul but inserted later.

A number of critical evangelical scholars point out that there is a textual variant in these two verses, solely related to location (not content) of the passage. They argue that since the words are sometimes at the end of the chapter and, more traditionally, after verse 32, then the words must have been “interpolated.” That is the fancy word that the theological academic elite uses for “inserted by someone else.” In reality, however, there is not a single copy of any Greek text that does not include these words.

This is only in reference to certain kinds of speech.

Other evangelical scholars give a loose argument from context that the prohibition is only related to certain kinds of speech, for example, that which would be disruptive. It is hard to imagine why only women would need to be reprimanded against disruptive speech, but such is the argument. Eugene Peterson’s book, The Message, which is loosely based on the Bible, has integrated this interpretation into his narrative: “Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking” (The Message, 1 Cor. 14:34–35).

The Presupposition Problem

I think the problem in understanding this verse is the presupposition we bring into the verse, namely that it is speaking about the church. Of course, this presupposition comes based on the English text itself, which says, “Let your women keep silent in the churches,” and “it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” This makes it all clear as day yet is really what causes us to stumble.

A Little History

The English word “church,” commonly used to translate the familiar Greek word ecclesia did not actually come from ecclesia, but from another Greek word, kyriakon, which is a combination of kurios (Lord) and oikos (house). From at least AD 300, houses of Christian worship were called kyriakon, which later entered the English language via German (kirche) and Dutch (kerk). The English word has always been an exclusively Christian word in the same way that the word kyriakon was exclusively Christian in its 4th Century Greek usage. For more information on the etymology of church, click here.

The problem came in later English translations when they began to use this exclusively Christian congregational word for ecclesia, which was not an exclusively Christian congregational word.

In the Latin Vulgate (4th Century), the Latin transliteration of ecclesia was used.

In the Tyndale Version (one of the first English translations, approx. 1500), verse 34 reads (retaining the old English), “Let youre wyves kepe silence in the cogregacions.” The use of the modern equivalent of congregations is equivalent to the Greek ecclesia.

Martin Luther’s German translation used the word Gemeinde, which was community and not the exclusively Christian word kirche.

The Geneva Bible (1599), which was the Bible of the English reformers, was the first to use the English words church or churches in these verses. In addition, the Geneva added a footnote which said, “Women are commanded to be silent in public assemblies, and they are commanded to ask of their husbands at home.”

And since 1599, all commonly used English translations have used the word church.

A Literal Translation

When you look at strictly literal translations, you see that they exclusively use a word that is not limited to the Christian faith. For example, Young’s Literal Translation says, “your women in the assemblies, let them be silent” (v. 34) and “it is a shame to women to speak in the assembly” (v. 35). The Darby translation also uses assembly. No scholar could make a case from grammar alone that ecclesia should be translated with the exclusively-Christian congregational word church. See Acts 19:32, 39, & 41 for three examples in which ecclesia is definitely not a church.

A Literal Understanding

If we agree that the verse prohibits women from speaking in the assemblies, then we must ask of which assemblies does Paul speak? To presuppose he speaks of churches would require some sense of proof. The only “proof” that has been given is that “we’ve taught it this way for at least 500 years.” Yet, even in the most conservative circles, only a handful of local churches have applied this teaching to themselves. What’s up with that?

It is time for us to reconsider this 500-year-old teaching and go back to a 2,000-year-old teaching.

It is my belief (which I will try to verify) that Paul is prohibiting Christian women from speaking when they go to the Jewish assembly, not when they are in their Christian congregations.

Paul’s ministry was clearly to the Gentile world. However, his passion was to see the salvation of the Jewish people. To interpret Paul’s writings without seeing them through the lens of his constant burden for the salvation of the Jews will lead to error. Consider the following—

  • He says he has a “continual sorrow in my heart” and would even “be accursed” if it would bring the Jews to salvation (Rom. 9:1-3).
  • He says he would never eat meat again if it would bring his brethren (the Israelites) to salvation (1 Cor. 8:12-13).
  • He agreed to abstain from eating meat and blood and animals strangled in order to be non-offensive to Jews (Acts 15:29). This was in context of his strong argument that the Jewish law was not an obligation to gentile believers.

Is there any evidence that Paul is speaking about Christian, gentile women who enter the assembly of Jewish believers or even the synagogue? Yes! First, Paul bases his comments on the Law (“as also saith the law,” a reference to the Hebrew Law, v. 34). How could Paul, who argues so strongly in other places about the believer’s freedom from the Law now use the Law as a basis for the prohibition of women speaking in church? Is the church free from the Law, or is it not?

Second, if this is an instruction for Christian worship, Paul is contradicting the instruction he has previously given. In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul has given instructions for “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth.” Since this is undoubtedly done in public, why would Paul give instructions for doing that which cannot be done? Those who reject my interpretation must deal with this contradiction. In one place, Paul gives instruction for speaking in public gatherings of the church, and in another, he tells them never to speak in a public gathering of the church. Does the Bible carry contradictions, or are we reading the passage with our own bias?

Third, Paul has just previously talked about “the churches of the saints” (v. 33). Though this article does not give opportunity to totally defend the position (which I can do), I am convinced that saints are neither those canonized by the papacy as Catholics teach, nor “all believers,” as Protestants teach, but rather are the believers of Israel during the days in which she was offered her Kingdom. If this position can be proven, then the immediate context is not gentile churches but believing apostolic assemblies. Why would the Gentiles go to these assemblies? Primarily, they would go because they would be brothers and sisters in Christ. But secondarily, they would go to learn! The Gentile is unbelievably blessed by learning about the historical roots of his or her faith and by the insights gained from the Hebrew Scriptures, for “unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). It is this learning motivation that leads Paul to say, “if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home” (v. 35). Paul lets them know that, in the apostolic Jewish assembly “it is a shame for women to speak.” Though a woman might speak in church (under the authority of her husband, as taught in chapter 11), she should not feel free to do so in the Jewish assembly, for their Law and customs do not allow such. Paul’s desire for the salvation of the Jews is so strong that he forbids anything that would hinder that effort.

Conclusion

When the Word of God is studied with precision, there is no need to apologize, excuse, nor skip over a passage of Scripture. To study with precision, you must rightly divide the Scripture. To do so, you must distinguish between dispensations, and in the Apostolic age, you must also distinguish between that which pertains to the Jewish assembly and that which pertains to the Gentile/Pauline assembly.

© 2018 Dispensational Publishing House, Inc. Reposted with permission.

Randy White bio

Randy White Ministries began in 2011 as an online and radio Bible teaching ministry. Today, the ministry is focused on producing verse-by-verse Bible teaching resources for individuals. White has 25 years of pastoral experience—including 12 years at First Baptist Church of Katy, Texas, where he ministered to a large congregation and preached numerous times each week.

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There are 19 Comments

AndyE's picture

I certainly wasn't expecting this when I saw this article.  How about chapters 12-14 are about the use of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian church?  In the middle of all that Paul is going to plop in instruction regarding their attendance at a Jewish assembly?  There are a lot better ways of handling this passage. Unfortunately, none of them are mentioned in this article.

Jim's picture

ESV:

Since Paul seems to permit wives to pray and prophesy (11:5, 13) as long as they do not dishonor their husbands by the way they dress (11:5), it is difficult to see this as an absolute prohibition (cf. Acts 2:17; 21:8–9). Paul is likely forbidding women to speak up and judge prophecies (this is the activity in the immediate context; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29), since such an activity would subvert male headship

MacArthur:

The principle of women not speaking in church services is universal; this applies to all the churches, not just locally, geographically, or culturally. The context in this verse concerns prophecy, but includes the general theme of the chapter, i.e., tongues. Rather than leading, they are to be submissive as God’s word makes clear (see notes on 11:3–15; Gen. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:11–15). It is not coincidental that many modern churches that have tongues-speaking and claim gifts of healings and miracles also permit women to lead worship, preach, and teach. Women may be gifted teachers, but they are not permitted by God “to speak” in churches. In fact, for them to do so is “shameful,” meaning “disgraceful.” Apparently, certain women were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services.

Andrew R.'s picture

Anomalous word usages require clear contextual signals. Is there anywhere else in the NT (or, better yet, in the Pauline corpus--or, better yet, in 1 Corinthians itself) that ecclesia clearly means "Jewish assembly"? If not (and I can't think of any off the top of my head), then this approach is a non-starter.

JNoël's picture

Andrew R. wrote:

Anomalous word usages require clear contextual signals. Is there anywhere else in the NT (or, better yet, in the Pauline corpus--or, better yet, in 1 Corinthians itself) that ecclesia clearly means "Jewish assembly"? If not (and I can't think of any off the top of my head), then this approach is a non-starter.

But there are examples given where it does not mean "church" in the sense that we want to think of it.

Randy White wrote:

No scholar could make a case from grammar alone that ecclesia should be translated with the exclusively-Christian congregational word church. See Acts 19:32, 39, & 41 for three examples in which ecclesia is definitely not a church.

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Andrew R.'s picture

I never said (or implied) that ekklesia always means "church" in our sense--and thus the fact that Acts 19 uses it of a mob-assembly has precisely nothing to do with my question. If Randy had been arguing that ekklesia means "mob" in Acts 19, I would totally agree with him: because context clearly demands that we take it that way. And as I said in my original post, "Anomalous word usages require clear contextual signals."

But the point of Randy's article was not that ekklesia means "mob" in Acts 19, it was that ekklesia means "Jewish assembly" in one particular verse of 1 Corinthians 14. So, back to my question: does ekklesia ever (anywhere in the 1 Corinthians) denote a specifically Jewish assembly? Or anywhere in the Pauline epistles? Or anywhere in the NT? If not, then we'd better have some crystal clear contextual clues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that require us to take it that way. And so far, I have seen none.

JNoël's picture

Andrew R. wrote:

But the point of Randy's article was not that ekklesia means "mob" in Acts 19, it was that ekklesia means "Jewish assembly" in one particular verse of 1 Corinthians 14. So, back to my question: does ekklesia ever (anywhere in the 1 Corinthians) denote a specifically Jewish assembly? Or anywhere in the Pauline epistles? Or anywhere in the NT? If not, then we'd better have some crystal clear contextual clues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that require us to take it that way. And so far, I have seen none.

Understood. So you believe his argument is fundamentally flawed? Personally, I find it to be a great answer to his point about the also completely unambiguous contradiction he presented. When there are passages of scripture which, in their current translations, clearly contradict each other and neither is at all ambiguous, then there must be more to it than just working our way around what is clearly stated in our language. He logically revealed the translation entropy - the word lost its meaning over time such that we, in the past few hundred years, are locked into thinking the word must be "church." IMHO, his analysis is the best answer to the contradiction. It maintains the inerrancy of scripture while not changing any doctrine of any kind. I see nothing lost from accepting his analysis. Do you?

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

AndyE's picture

Ekklesia basically means an assembly of some kind.  The context of the passage indicates the character of the assembly.  I'm not aware of any usage that would indicate an exclusive Jewish assembly, let alone anything in the text of 1 Cor 14 that would point that way.  His one argument based on the idea that the term "saints" means "the believers of Israel during the days in which she was offered her Kingdom"  is completely foreign to me.  I've never heard anything like that before and it seems quite unlikely to me. The whole context is concerning the use of spiritual gifts in the local assembly. Why would Paul, in the middle of that, say essentially, "Now, this doesn't have anything to do with what I'm talking about, but if women find themselves in an all-Jewish assembly, then they shouldn't say anything at all"?  That doesn't make any sense to me. 

The ESV solution mentioned above by Jim is essentially my position. MacArthur's is close but I don't see the idea of "Apparently, certain women were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services" in the text.  I don't think it's an issue of being disruptive but usurping proper authority (cf., verse 34, "...but should be in submission").

 

Ron Bean's picture

Here's a question for those of you who hold to the position that women should not lead singing, lead in prayer or read Scripture in the worship service, teach, or preach. Do you allow women to minister the Word in song as soloists? 

I was pastor in a church that had a practice where women could sing solos but were forbidden to "say" anything before or after they sang.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JD Miller's picture

In the classic passage of Matt 18, the final step is to bring it before the "church."  What complicates this passage is the fact that this was taught by Jesus BEFORE the cross, the resurrection and the post resurrection Pentecost (Pentecost had been celebrated for years, but that first one after the resurrection was special).  Some argue that the Christian church was formed in Matt 16 when Jesus told Peter that on "this rock I shall build my church."  I would argue that Jesus was saying it was future tense and that the Christian assembly (church) was not formally formed until after the resurrection during the Pentecost celebration.   That would mean that disputes for the cross would have to be handled by the Jewish assembly during the time of Christ's ministry (Matt 18).  This is not a new position, but it clearly shows precedent for ekklesia being used in such a way earlier in scripture.

JD Miller's picture

I just read I Cor 14 with the thought- what if this whole chapter was about the Synagogue and what if the "tongue/language" was Hebrew that was being read as the OT was being read and what if the need for interpretation was because the Gentile believers were showing up to the Synagogue to learn more, but they did not understand Hebrew?  The man reading the scripture would be speaking an unknown language, and would only be edifying himself with the word of God if all the others there were non-Hebrew speakers.  It made for an exciting read as I tried to imagine that setting.  It made it even more exciting when I saw how that could realistically fit the passage. 

I need to look into this even more and even do more research on the Synagogue to see if there were times when the Scripture was read there, but hardly anyone showed up.  If suddenly a bunch of Gentiles who did not speak Hebrew showed up along with some others like Paul who spoke multiple languages and could tell them what was being said, then you would have on the spot interpretation.  Remember that they did not have printing presses, so this would have been a go to place for the Old Testament scriptures and they were likely not translated into Barbarian.  I am just as excited about the implications that White's approach may have on the subject of tongues in this passage as I am on the subject of women.  

JD Miller's picture

Edit on my Matt 18 comment:  I meant to say disputes "before" the cross, not "for" the cross. 

As far as the Barbarians- I'm not even sure if they had a written language.  

1Co 14:11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.
 

Col 3:11 Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
 

Paul J. Scharf's picture

I do not believe that Dr. White is talking primarily about the synagogue here, but about "Jewish (Petrine) assemblies," as opposed to "Gentile/Pauline assemblies." This is the division of the early church within an extreme dispensational framework.

For documentation, check out his many videos on these subjects.

Ultimately in this theology, the "Jewish assemblies" have a different makeup, a different mission—even a different gospel. This really sets Ephesians 2:11-18 on its head—and overturns traditional dispensational theology.

Assistant: Dr. John C. Whitcomb — Writer: Regular Baptist Press, Answers Magazine — Associate: IMI/SOS Int'l

Andrew R.'s picture

What is lost by accepting his analysis is the principle of interpreting in context. 1 Corinthians is written to a church. A mixed Gentile/Jewish church. 1 Corinthians 12-14 is an answer to the Corinthian church's questions about the use of gifts given by the Holy Spirit to the church. And so on.

Fundamentally flawed? Absolutely.

JNoël's picture

Andrew R. wrote:

Fundamentally flawed? Absolutely.

Okay, so then what are we to do with his absolutely relevant point about the contradiction with I Cor 11:5?

Personally, I'm not arguing for or against the particular subject at hand, I'm looking at this from the perspective of overall scriptural interpretation, just like I did with Bert Perry in two previous posts related to wine, where his conclusions about some passages clearly differ from others despite the passages being entirely unambiguous. There is no ambiguity with I Cor 14:34-35, yet it conflicts with the also unambiguous I Cor 11:5. So everyone must be missing something. Randy refuses to bend on the plain, simple meaning of the passage at hand. After all, if we do gymnastics with this text in order to make it fit what we think it must mean (other than what it actually says), then where is the line drawn on any passage that is equally unambiguous yet causes us troubles in interpretation?

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

AndyE's picture

There is an apparent but not real contradiction with 1 Cor 11:5.

Randy solves it by introducing this non-contextual understanding of the ekklesia being a Jewish Assembly.  This is not the plain simple meaning of ekklesia in the context of 1 Cor 12-14.

The ESV Study Bible solves it by recognizing that the context limits Paul's prohibition to the topic under discussion.

Who is doing the exegetical gymnastics here?  Randy's solution is not as bad as Gordon Fee's (who dismisses the passage as a textual corruption) but still pretty bad in my opinion.

JD Miller's picture

Paul Scharf, thank you for sharing your concerns about White.  I didn't know who he was, but found this study interesting and have been digging a bit farther to see what I can learn.  I figure that I do not have to adapt all of White's position to still learn more on this subject.

The info I am sharing is not meant to argue a position, but just to pass on some of the info I have been gathering as I look into this subject.  First of all, Acts tells us that the early Christians continued in the temple, so they were still involved in Jewish worship activities for a time.  Further, history tells us that Christians were expelled from the Synagogues in ad 85 (about 30 years after Paul wrote I Cor).  That would imply that Christians were going to the Synagogues up until that time.  

Since both ekklesia (assembly) and sunagoge (synagogue) are used in the scriptures, I wanted to see if Paul used them both.  If he did, then we could more strongly argue that he was making a point to be more specific.  I was not able to find the word "sunagoge" in any of Paul's writings.  Acts 18 shows us that Paul did go into the Synagogue in Corinth, but that was in Luke's writings.  This does not prove that Paul was referring to the Synagogue, when he wrote about the assembly, but it does show that either he did not reference the Synagogue specifically, or else he referenced it with a different term.  More study is needed, and I am enjoying digging into the word as I do this.  I hope too many people don't get upset with me for digging into this instead of just going with past assumptions.  (I'm at the study stage, not totally convinced- just letting my iron be sharpened- sometimes the blade gets blunted as we sharpen it) Instead of getting upset, I hope those critical of this direction of study share their concerns with more info to further guide my study.  Thank you to those who already have.  

TylerR's picture

I've never heard this position before. I'm aware that Bro. White is a "Big D" dispensationalist, and I'm not. But, I thought his perspective is very interesting and worthy of consideration, which is why I suggested it for the front page. It makes us think!

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Steve Davis's picture

I would call it convoluted. His evidence is imagined. Paul doesn't base his argument on the Law. He uses it as an analogy. White strains to avoid an apparent contradiction with I Cor. 11. There is none. And there is no evidence that Paul refers to Jewish assemblies. His interpretation on "saints" is frankly ridiculous. There is speaking which is permitted of women (I Cor. 11) and speaking which isn't (whether disruptive or authoritative). This article may appeal to some on a popular level but it is a novelty which lacks any textual or historical basis. 

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