Does Paul Require the Complete Silence of Women in Church? A Study of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-352
When some wish to insist that women should remain silent in church, they typically appeal to 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. There Paul wrote:
“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:33b-35).
What are we to make of this?
We have several indications in the NT that the prophetic gift was bestowed upon and exercised by women no less than by men. In Peter's speech on the day of Pentecost he explicitly said that characteristic of the present church age is the Spirit's impartation to both men and women of the prophetic gift:
"'And it shall be in the last days,' God says, 'That I will pour forth of My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even upon My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit,' and they shall prophesy" (Acts 2:17-18).
In Acts 21:9 Luke refers to the four daughters of Philip as having the gift of prophecy. And in 1 Cor. 11:5 Paul gave instructions regarding how women were to pray and prophesy in the church meeting. What, then, does he mean in 1 Cor. 14:34 when he says, “the women should keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak”?
Before I answer that question, observe that v. 33b goes with v. 34, not with v. 33a. It is customary for Paul to reinforce his teaching by saying that it is common practice among all the churches (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 16:1). On the other hand, if v. 33b is linked with v. 33a, we are left with the somewhat trite declaration that God is a God of peace in every church. But who would ever have questioned that?
How, then, do we reconcile 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 14:34-35? Here are the many alternatives.
(1) Some say 14:33b-35 is a post-Pauline interpolation, i.e., an insertion into the text of chapter 14 by some scribe after its original composition by Paul. Thus there is no conflict with 11:5. Those of us who believe in the textual integrity of 1 Corinthians will find this singularly unappealing, as well as unnecessary.
Those who embrace this view appeal to the fact that there are a number of ancient manuscripts that place vv. 34-35 at the end of the chapter rather than between vv. 33 and 36. However, this is somewhat understandable given the seemingly intrusive nature of vv. 34-35. One can see how later scribes, convinced that these verses interrupt Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts, would move them to the end of the chapter where they might function as the beginning of a new discussion. We should note, however, that there are no manuscripts whatsoever that omit vv. 34-35 from Paul’s argument.
(2) A few liberal scholars argue that Paul simply changed his mind. He initially permitted women to speak in 11:5 but upon further reflection reversed himself in 14:34-35.
(3) Another argument is that in 11:5 Paul does not actually endorse women speaking in church. He says only that if they were to do so with uncovered heads it would be a disgrace. He withholds condemnation of the practice until chapter 14.
(4) Some suggest that 11:5 describes an informal meeting different from the public, corporate gathering of the church. Thus women may pray and prophesy in smaller, private groups but not in the public assembly.
(5) Others say that only wives are in view in 14:34-35 and that single women may therefore pray and prophesy in church. However, chapter 11 also has wives in view, and it permits them to speak. Also, why would Paul prohibit the most likely older and more mature married women from speaking while allowing the younger and possibly less stable single women to speak? See Titus 2:3-5.
(6) James Hurley articulates and then responds to yet another view:
“Cultural factors have been seen [by some commentators] as the cause of Paul's remarks. Women were not well educated in his day and may well have been seated apart from the men in the church. It has been suggested that they called out questions to their husbands, disrupting the worship, or that they became noisy in times of charismatic expression by the congregation, not having the sense of order which their husbands had. The plausibility of this explanation fades somewhat when the following observations are made: (1) there is no indication elsewhere in the letter that the women in particular were unruly; (2) Paul does confront unruly situations in the letter (11:33-34; 14:27,29,31). He meets them by establishing order rather than by silencing the unruly completely; (3) the rule which Paul sets out is one which he says applies in all his churches (14:33b). It seems unlikely that the problem of noisy women had arisen in all of them; (4) it seems unlike Paul to silence all women because some are noisy or disruptive. His actual handling of other disorderly people provides concrete grounds for arguing against wholesale action when only some individuals are in fact violators” (Men and Women in Biblical Perspective, 187-88).
Blomberg responds to this view in similar fashion, arguing that it “fails to explain why Paul silenced all women and no men, when presumably there were at least a few well-educated, courteous, or orthodox women and at least a few uneducated, less than polite, or doctrinally aberrant men” (280-81).
(7) Others have argued recently that vv. 34-35 are a Corinthian slogan which Paul quotes, only to refute it in vv. 36-38. Blomberg cites seven reasons why this is unlikely:
“Unlike all the other widely acknowledged slogans in 1 Corinthians, these verses (1) are not concise or proverbial in form; (2) do not reflect the libertine wing of the church; (3) require the assumption that there was a significant Judaizing element in the church, which little else in the letter supports; (4) are not qualified by Paul but rejected outright; and (5) as best as we can tell represent an explanation that was never proposed in the history of the church until the twentieth century. In addition, (6) this view requires taking the Greek conjunction e (‘or,’ left untranslated in the NIV) at the beginning of verse 36 as a complete repudiation of what has gone before, even though no other use of e in Paul functions in that way. Finally, (7) it assumes that ‘the only people’ in verse 36, a masculine plural adjective (monous), refers just to men rather than to both men and women, even though no other plural reference to the Corinthians ever singles out the men in this way without explicitly saying so” (280).
(8) Christopher Forbes has argued that the key to this problem is the word aischron in v. 35, translated “improper” in the NASB. When Paul tells women to “keep silent” he is not prohibiting their making a verbal contribution to the meeting, whether in the form of praying or prophesying or the like. Rather, he is saying that if they “desire to learn anything” they should “ask their own husbands at home” (v. 35). To do otherwise is “improper” or “shameful”. According to Forbes, “the problem was that they were asking other peoples' husbands (or other people) on the spot” (274). What Paul prohibits women from doing in the public assembly is asking questions of someone other than their husbands.
But why would this be regarded as “improper” or “shameful”? Forbes says that
“there existed in the Graeco-Roman world in [the first century] . . . a strong prejudice against women speaking in public, and especially against their speaking to other women's husbands. In a society with strictly defined gender and social roles, and a strong view of the rights of the man over his wife, such behaviour was treated as totally inappropriate” (274-75).
Therefore, women are free to pray and prophesy within the assembly. But when issues arise that they don't understand, they must refrain from making probing inquiry. Why? For one thing, there is a limited time in any one meeting and Paul does not want anyone or any group to dominate the gathering (which seems to be at least part of the reason for his instruction in vv. 27-31 where he puts limits on how many can speak in tongues and prophesy). But more important, “to ask questions of the husbands of other women (especially as this might lead to extended discussions) would be grossly improper, and as such is not to be permitted” (276).
One could reasonably argue that, if this view is correct, Paul's prohibition in v. 34 on women speaking is no longer applicable. For all will acknowledge, at least in western society, that today there is no shame or impropriety in a woman asking a question in public of another woman's husband.
(9) Finally, there is the view which understands Paul to be prohibiting women from participating in the passing of judgment upon or the evaluation of the prophets (14:29). Consider the following evidence.
a. In the NT there are always contextual limitations on the verb “to be silent” (sigao). This word never implies total silence on all speech but is contextually restricted. The restriction may be temporal or topical. In the case of the former, someone is to be silent while someone else is speaking (Acts 12:17; 15:12,13; 1 Cor. 14:30). In the case of the latter, the one who is silent does not speak in a certain manner or on a certain topic, but he/she can speak in other ways and on other issues. See 1 Cor. 14:28 where the tongues-speaker could certainly participate in singing, praying, reading Scripture, while remaining silent in that realm of concern to the apostle. Cf. 1 Tim. 2:12 with Titus 2:3-5. Thus, on this view, Paul would be restricting speech designed to critique prophetic utterances, but would not prohibit other forms of verbal participation.
b. Further support for this view is found in the structure of the paragraph. Look closely at the following detailed outline of this paragraph (which I have adapted from Hurley, Grudem, and D. A. Carson).
General Topic (14:26) – “When you come together . . . let all things be done for edification”
I. Specific Issue #1: Tongues (14:27-28)
A. Restriction on the number speaking – “let there be only two or at most three”
B. Ensuring the edification of the congregation -
1. “each in turn”
2. “let someone interpret”
3. “but if there is no one to interpret”
a. “let each of them keep silent in church”
b. “and speak to himself and to God”
II. Specific Issue #2: Prophecy (14:29-35)
A. Restriction on the number speaking: “let two or three prophets speak”
B. Ensuring the edification of the congregation: “and let the others weight what is said”
(In vv. 30-35 Paul addresses in more depth the issues raised in v. 29. In vv. 30-33a he takes up v. 29a [“let two or three prophets speak”]. In vv. 33b-35 he takes up v. 29b [“and let the others weigh what is said”].)
1. Regarding the prophets speaking: “if a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent”
a. “for you can all prophesy one by one”
1) “so that all may learn”
2) “and all be encouraged”
b. “and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets”
1) “for God is not a God of confusion”
2) “but of peace”
2. Regarding passing judgment on prophecies: “as in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches” [i.e., during the judgment of prophecies]
a. “for they are not permitted to speak”
1) “but should be in submission”
2) “as the Law also says”
b. “if there is anything they desire to learn”
1) “let them ask their husbands at home”
2) “for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church”
If this outline is correct, Paul would be forbidding women to speak in church only in regard to the judgment or evaluation of prophetic utterances. Evidently, he believed that this entailed an exercise of authority restricted to men only (see 1 Tim. 2:12:15).
If one should ask why Paul would allow women to prophesy but not to evaluate the prophecies of others, the answer is in the nature of prophecy itself. Prophecy, unlike teaching, does not entail the exercise of an authoritative position within the local church. The prophet was but an instrument through whom revelation is reported to the congregation. People who prophesied did not officially (or authoritatively) interpret or apply Scripture to life. Non-apostolic prophets did not proclaim the theological and ethical standards by which the church was guided, nor are they portrayed as exercising governmental authority in the church.
But to evaluate or criticize or judge prophetic utterances is another matter. In this activity one could hardly avoid explicit theological and ethical instruction of other believers. If we assume that in 1 Timothy 2 Paul prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men, it is understandable why he would allow women to prophesy in 1 Cor. 11:5 but forbid them from judging the prophetic utterances of others (especially men) in 14:34.
This view also explains Paul's appeal to “the Law” (i.e., the OT) in v. 34. The OT does not teach that women are to remain silent at all times in worship (cf. Ex. 15:20-21; 2 Sam. 6:15,19; Ps. 148:12). But it does endorse male headship in the home and in worship, consistent with Paul's teaching here and elsewhere.
It seems to me that either view (8) or (9) would likely be the most accurate interpretation.