Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.
This is one of the passages that is used as a deal-clincher in the debate about women in ministry. As we see, Paul clearly is saying that women should not be the speakers in church.
Or at least, that’s what he is “clearly saying” if we only read one verse and stop.
One thing to remember about 1 Corinthians — as with all of the epistles — is that Paul did not sit down to write a book, building on it chapter by chapter with collections of theological sayings. He sat down and wrote (or dictated) a letter. This means that firstly, Paul is not skipping all over the map, addressing random topics as they come to him. This letter is a coherent piece of writing with a logical progression and thoughtflow.
Secondly, this means that Paul was not asking himself, “Hmm, what general principles should I send to Corinth today?” He wasn’t thinking to himself, “I bet this will be in the Bible one day. I’d better cover a lot of ground.” He wasn’t writing to theoretical issues in a theoretical church. He was addressing real issues that were really pressing upon the Corinthian church in that day and time.
So when we are trying to understand what Paul says in 1 Corinthians, we are quite unlikely to grasp the full sense of his meaning in one verse alone — simply because Paul didn’t write in a bunch of small verses; he wrote in one, fluent whole. The verse is related to what is before and after it, and was meant to make sense in light of its surroundings. So when we see a verse like the one above, before we either get offended by it or else codify it as church law, we need to take a step back and find out what the larger context is.
Space prevents me from trying to outline the whole book here, but let’s back up to chapter 12, where Paul gives us an indication of what his focus is for this portion of his letter. “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant…” (12:1).
Something tells me we can safely conclude that this next section is going to be about spiritual gifts.
Chapter 12:1-3 establishes the very basic protocol for discerning whether or not someone who claims to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit actually is. How do you determine if someone’s use of their gift is of the Lord? Basically, if they speak rightly about Jesus, it’s sure not a demon, and if they speak wrongly about Jesus, it’s sure not the Holy Spirit.
In 12:4-31, Paul discusses the diversity of spiritual gifts given to the whole body of Christ, and how they work together in unity. No one can boast in, or despise any gift — their own or anyone else’s — because we are all members of one Body.
Chapter 13, the famous chapter on love, dovetails right out of this subject. It speaks of how we, as a body, should interact with each other, showing us what real love looks like. This is not a random insertion — love should rule the way we exercise our gifts. We don’t judge the giftings of another (chapter 12) and we don’t run roughshod over people with our own (chapter 14). This requires patience, kindness, longsuffering, refusing pride, not boasting, and so on.
In chapter 14, Paul begins getting more specific on how love should dictate the way we exercise our spiritual gifts. Having set the overall principles in chapter 13, he is now beginning to hash out the practicals.
14:1-25 validates the gifts of tongues and prophecy, as well as sets some appropriate contexts for their use. According to Paul, the gift of tongues is great and edifying for an individual believer, but not edifying for the congregation as a whole (unless there is an interpretation). Prophecy is much more effective for ministering in a corporate context.
14:26-39 is following up on this theme. It is in this passage that we find the verse restricting women speaking in church. Let’s look at this one in a bit more detail:
Verse 26 does two important things for our understanding of this passage. Firstly, it gives us insight into the real problem at Corinth that Paul was addressing. Secondly, it shows us his basic exhortation for correcting the problem.
“How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.” (14:26)
The congregation at Corinth were eager to exercise their spiritual gifts. This was good, according to 14:1. What wasn’t good was that everyone had something to say, and everyone was determined to say it in front of the whole assembly, come what may. Everyone was feeling entitled to their own time in the spotlight.
Paul’s corrective exhortation? “Let all things be done for edification” (14:26). While it was great that the Corinthian believers were moving in the gifts, their public use of those gifts needed to be secondary to the edification of the Body. It was more important that everyone was edified than for everyone to have a turn to talk.
We see this worked out in the next several stanzas of the letter.
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.” (14:27-28)
Paul isn’t saying those tongue-speakers are bad, out of line, and unwelcome in the church. He limits their number — presumably to prevent and endless line of people sharing in tongues — and mandates that there be an interpreter. No matter how accurate and awesome the inspiration is on a tongues-speaker, if the congregation doesn’t understand, nobody is edified. If there are too many tongues-speakers to all share that week, or else there is no interpreter, the people are instructed to keep it between themselves and the Lord.
“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” (14:29-32)
So Paul again limits the number of people who may share to just two or three. He insists on accountability, to determine if the word is a genuine word of the Lord or not. He urges these prophets to use restraint, setting up somewhat of a prophetic right-of-way to determine who gets to speak when. The goal is again for all to learn and be encouraged — which can’t happen if ten prophets are energetically shouting over each other, because they have to deliver their super-anointed groundbreaking prophetic word RIGHT NOW. Paul reminds them that no matter how inspired they feel, they are to rule their own spirits (compare Prov 25:28), using self-control for the sake of the edification of everyone.
Verse 33 is really on the tail end of the above passage, but I wanted to pull it out by itself to highlight how good it is. It is another massive indicator of what Paul’s intentions are in writing this passage:
“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (14:33)
The problem in Corinth was not about the org chart, with uncertainty about who has authority over whom, and who gets to teach whom. The problem in Corinth was chaos. Simply trying to imagine the situation, just piecing together what we see here, is a little painful. If Paul has to tell the tongues-speakers and prophets to go in turn, what must they have been doing before? Undoubtedly, they were either talking all at once, or else fighting for the right to speak. If he had to tell them to only let two or three share, what kind of numbers must have been insisting on speaking before? Maybe five or six, maybe dozens. Just try to imagine a church meeting with a couple of dozen people all fighting for who got to go next, and some of them weren’t even going to speak in a language you could understand.
That doesn’t sound very edifying.
The reason I’m taking time to emphasize this is that this is the same thoughtflow Paul has in the next verses. He doesn’t magically jump gears and start talking about a totally unrelated issue, as if to say: “Whoops, hold that thought. I just remembered, be sure keep your women in line. Now where was I…?”
So here he goes:
“Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” (14:34)
Now remember: Paul is not laying out the leadership structure. He is reducing congregational chaos.
So what’s so chaotic about women speaking in church? Is a woman’s voice somehow more disruptive than a man’s?
Not at all. There are two main reasons I’m confident of this:
1) In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 — just three chapters earlier — Paul is talking about whether or not women should wear head coverings when they pray or prophesy. He’s not simply talking about how they should be attired when they show up to hear a sermon, but specifically for when they are leading out in public prayer or prophecy. That’s not silence. But it’s something that Paul fully expected, and seemingly endorsed, women doing. So already we see that in 14:35, Paul must be talking about something other than absolute lip-zipping.
2) The most obvious one to me — Paul tells us what he’s talking about. See 14:36: “If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home.”
“If they want to learn something…” Wait a minute, Paul, how does that relate to women preaching in church?
That’s the point. Paul is not forbidding women from ministry any more than he forbade tongues-speakers from it. He tells us the problem, right there in the passage. The women had questions that they should be asking their husbands at home. Logic tells us then, that they must have been trying to ask these questions at an inappropriate time — say, in church. During the meeting. During the time they were supposed to be listening. With their questioning, they had become another layer of voices contributing to the chaos in Corinth.
To show Paul’s intent another way, let’s look at the pattern that reveals itself in this passage. It’s not that hard to spot, especially when you look for a key word that shows up in his instructions to each of the three groups of people. I’ll give a hint: the word starts with “s”, ends with “t”, and has the letters “i-l-e-n” in the middle.
“…let him [the tounges-speaker] keep silent…” (14:28)
“…let the first [prophet] keep silent…” (14:30)
“…let your women keep silent…” (14:34)
Paul clearly wasn’t forbidding tongues-speakers and prophets from ever speaking in the church at all. Neither was he forbidding women from doing so.
With all three groups of people, we see two clear points being made. One point is demonstrating the inappropriate time and manner in which to speak, and the other lays out the appropriate time and manner in which to speak. Paul is not regulating the activity, but only the context in which it is done.
We also see that Paul was topically consistent when addressing each group. Paul didn’t tell the tongues-speakers, “Be silent in church. If you have something to say, give a prophecy between yourself and God.” He told them to be silent, and to speak (in tongues) between themselves and God. The type of speech/silence is consistent.
He didn’t tell the prophets, “Be silent in church. If you have something to say, go speak in tongues when it’s your turn.” He told them to be silent, and to prophesy in turn. The type of speech/silence is consistent.
So why should we then try to say that Paul is telling the women to be silent and not preach, and then if they have something to say, go ask their husbands at home? There’s no consistency in that statement. If Paul is redirecting the women’s speech into the appropriate context, he wouldn’t suddenly change the terms of what they were trying to do in the first place. Again, Paul is not regulating the activity, but only the context. Asking questions in the middle of the teaching was the wrong time and place. The right time and place was later, at home, when they weren’t going to disrupt the whole assembly.
Paul says that the women are to be submissive (v. 34), which is really no more or less than saying they need to be good students and forgo their desire to interrupt. The apostle was very much into general humility and submission of believers one to another, particularly to congregational leaders (Eph 5:21; Phil 2:3-4; 1Cor 16:16).
Paul says “it is shameful for women to speak in church”, but again, the context tells us what kind of speech he’s referring to. He’s not talking about experiencing shame over anything and everything said in a woman’s voice (remember chapter 11?). He’s talking about those interrupting questions that refuse to wait until later to be asked. If you’ve ever sat in a church service where the person behind you was talking the whole time, you might understand why Paul felt a need to address this. It’s distracting. It’s not edifying. It’s putting the wants of one person (or in this case, a group of people) above the edification of the whole body, which is exactly the problem Paul is addressing all through chapter 14.
In wrapping up his comments on this section, Paul makes four important points:
1) The word of God is (of course!) not exclusively limited to any one person in the congregation. Nobody gets to pull the, “But God spoke to me!” card in order to jump to the front of the line and deny others their turn to speak. (14:36)
2) Paul was commanding the prophets, and those moving in the spiritual gifts, to exercise restraint. He was speaking to them with the very command of the Lord (I liken it to “the royal law of love” in James 2:8; compare this to the principles of 1Cor 13). (14:37-38)
3) Paul again affirms the cultivation and use of spiritual gifts in the corporate context. These are not just permissible, but they are worth eagerly pursuing. He wants the congregation to continue developing their gifts, and he wants them to keep sharing those gifts in a public way. (14:39)
4) Paul bookends this section with the exhortation to let all things be done decently and in order, so that everyone may go away edified (14:40, cp. 14:26).
So in conclusion: We agree with Paul. The women in Corinth needed to be silent. The principle absolutely applies today — when we assemble to receive teaching, we should not be interrupting it at will because we just thought of an awesome question (or got a word in tongues, or received a prophetic utterance). We should be gladly submissive to the order of service and to the people leading it, preferring others above ourselves, seeking the edification of the whole body.