1 Corinthians 14 – “Let Your Women Keep Silent”

20 Apr

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?

It doesn’t.

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.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

20 responses to “1 Corinthians 14 – “Let Your Women Keep Silent”

  1. Micah Rose

    April 20, 2010 at 2:49 am

    You better preach, girl! OMG! You’re amazing! Thanks for breaking it down!

  2. brianbeattie

    April 20, 2010 at 10:02 am

    I have heard this sort of take on this passage before, but nowhere with such clarity or eloquence. I really appreciate your view, and totally thoroughly agree with you.

    So, someone in my memory suggested that the men and the women were segregated in the Corinthian church meetings, which would have made the women speaking and interrupting with questions a rather larger problem for maintaining order. I don’t really know, do you?

    • Amanda Beattie

      April 20, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      I don’t know. If the churches were meeting in homes (which is almost certainly the case), it would seem like there wouldn’t exactly be much space to be shouting across the room at each other. However, being a smaller gathering in a smaller setting always makes interpersonal chit-chat that much more distracting.

      Either way, I like that Paul’s meaning is pretty clear without having to sketch a whole big theoretical scenario.

  3. John Anngeister

    April 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Amanda, this is a mighty word! very weighty.

    It has long been my opinion that the sheer fact that Paul had occasion to write on this issue must be tacit evidence that women were indeed speaking in church as they had never spoken before. And often to the glory of God. A development which I credit to the spirit of their risen Lord, whose indwelling had opened both male and female hearts and minds with a truth like unto nothing that had been known before.

    But this bit about the disruptive asking of questions I had not noticed, and Paul’s recommendation becomes something more like a direction that they simply submit to a basic course of instruction before taking proper leading roles as prophets and speakers in church. Which is very well.

    Another thought: If Paul is addressing the leadership of the church, then ‘your women’ might refer to the leader’s wives. Such women, as perhaps de facto leaders of the women in general, are simply directed not to hold ad hoc catechism during services, but to imbibe ‘their husbands’ doctrine after church. In other words, Paul may not be here turning every woman over to the sole instruction of her own husband, but specifically those women called to leadership.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, and the blog – an occasion of reflection this morning.

  4. Hannah

    April 22, 2010 at 10:12 am

    this is SO enlightening. i agree with brian. i’ve never seen it explained with such clarity. thanks!

  5. Amanda

    April 22, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Thank you for this. Such clarity (as someone else stated above). I needed to hear it this way, especially as a woman called to leadership and how often that can cause us to question even ourselves with all the confusion over passages like this. I’m bookmarking this for future reference for sure and look forward to anything more you expound on regarding this subject!

  6. territippins

    April 23, 2010 at 7:37 am

    Please do not consider me to be a contrarian but, I believe that Verse 36 (which is usually just read and passed over with any thought) is vital to our understanding of what was going on in the Corinthian Church when the women are being considered. Verse 34. “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.” I consider this verse to be Paul quoting others…….and let me tell you why. First, the phrase, ‘they are commanded’ is an addition to the text. And secondly, ‘as also saith the law’, what law? I have not found an Old Testament law that silences women. Verse 35, “And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” First, there are no qualifiers for the widow or single women…… are they going to learn anything and who is going to answer thier questions as they don’t have a husband? Secondly, A womans voice is said to be a shame/shameful in the church. The word ‘shame’ is defined in the greek as ~base or filthy~. Now, is this how “Paul” felt about the voice of a woman? I say no because of verse 36. “What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? Three questions in short succession, now who was Paul directing that to? The word ‘What?” at the beginning of the sentence is a word of emotional rebuttal (a corrective if you will) What? came the word of God out from you? (corrective) or came it unto you only? (corrective). To me is seems that Paul was quoting and correcting someone or a group of people. Now, that is my take on therse verses, but who am I?

    God Bless

    • Amanda Beattie

      April 24, 2010 at 6:30 am

      Hi Terri,

      I have actually heard this interpretation put forth before, and I think it holds significant weight. It’s currently holds a near 2nd place in my mind as what I think a plausible look at this passage would be. I favor the version I put above simply for the fact that it is–well, simple. It means that even if, for the sake of argument, we assume that Paul wrote 34-35 as original stuff, it still doesn’t mean that women need to never speak publicly. That’s why I default to it personally.

      Again though, the idea that Paul is quoting someone else holds a lot of merit, and is well worth considering in the interpretation.


      • Latter Days Ministry

        June 21, 2010 at 3:39 am

        Paul also quoted from pagan sources in Titus 1:12, so it could be very true that he is quoting an extra-Scriptural source in calling out this law. However, I think it is also clear that the principle behind the law (if not the very law itself) is considered in line with God’s commands or else it would not have been referred to here.

        When dealing with the religious leaders of His day, Jesus often referred to the law as “your law” to make a distinction between what was from God and what was from man. Such is not the case here. Even if not a command from God, God still uses this example of that law to set a foundation for this teaching from God (which is more or less repeated in I Timothy 2:11).

      • Amanda Beattie

        June 22, 2010 at 12:54 am

        LDM – The problem with saying that this is Paul’s referring directly to God’s Law (as in the Biblical Law), is that nowhere in Scripture do we find a teaching regarding the silence of women. There are no Old Testament verses about it whatsoever, and only a very small number of New Testament verses that could be interpreted to mean such a thing.

        The fact that the word “law” enters the passage at all is one of the supporting arguments of those who believe that 1 Cor 14:34-35 are all quotes from an outside source, possibly even from a letter Paul received from the Corinthians themselves.

  7. Latter Days Ministry

    June 21, 2010 at 3:33 am

    I agree with the conclusion about what is meant by Scripture saying that the women must be silent. Such is not a command preventing women from uttering a word in church.

    However, I think it is also important to consider why this was addressed to women (not just some women and not any men). Didn’t any men have questions? Were all women speaking out of turn in this way? Why is this even in Scripture if ALL Scripture is profitable for the edification of the saints?

    My point is that while I agree with the article, I think there is a layer which has not been discussed, yet is critical to understanding why God gives these instructions. That answer has to do of course with the very root of your question regarding the roles established for men and women in the church by God.

    So I encourage you to continue looking into this topic, but as you study, I just wanted to note that these instructions are given for a reason. For as you show, while God is sovereign, our God is a God of reason and order.

    God Bless!

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 22, 2010 at 12:48 am

      “…consider why this was addressed to women (not just some women and not any men).” To be specific, this was addressed to the women at Corinth (“let YOUR women keep silent”).

      “Didn’t any men have questions?” – Either they didn’t, or they weren’t trying to ask them at an inappropriate time. We could just as easily ask of 1Tim 2:8, “Weren’t the women sometimes wrathful and doubting? Or did the women just not need to pray? Should their hands not be holy…?” etc., etc. We could ask of 1Tim 2:9, “Did men not need to adorn themselves modestly? Did men never dress inappropriately?” That’s not really the point; Paul wasn’t talking to everybody at once about any problem any of them might have — he was addressing specific problems with specific groups of people.

      We don’t know how the other gender was doing with these issues, because Paul apparently didn’t feel compelled to address it. He was addressing specific groups that had specific issues that needed specific correction. That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant to our day and time by any means. But Paul was not writing his letter to everybody everywhere for all time; he was addressing the specific congregation at Corinth with real-life issues they faced. (Again I must stress: of course this book is profoundly applicable to us today.) We can’t conclude from this verse that ALL women have lots of questions, or that no men have any. But we can guess that it was, at the very least, a much more widespread problem among the Corinthian women than it was the men.

      “Were all women speaking out of turn in this way?” Not necessarily. Some evidently were. And apparently there were enough of them were to warrant Paul’s attention. He gives us no indication whether this was all of them, most of them, or only an obnoxiously loud minority.

      “Why is this even in Scripture if ALL Scripture is profitable for the edification of the saints?” We could also ask why there are specific instructions to husbands, to slaves, to children, to wives, to teachers, to Jewish people, to priests, to kings, and to Timothy specifically (1Tim 5:23). Although these are all profitable passages to us as believers, the Bible is frequently unapologetically specific in whom it addresses. That doesn’t mean we tune it out — heaven forbid we ever dare to throw out any of the Bible as “irrelevant” or “outdated”. But it does mean that we take the time to seek out what Paul was actually saying, and what he meant by it, and then how we may rightly apply it to our lives.

  8. Latter Days Ministry

    June 23, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Hi Amanda,

    Yes, I completely agree that the “law” referenced does not seem to be the law given them from God. I was pointing out that in spite of this, the principle in that law was used to support what God was saying. Just as in Titus 1:12, the cited reference was not from God, but the context was directly relevant to God’s instruction.

    I also agree that, God forbid, we would ignore or dismiss any of the Scripture. In fact, the exact opposite, I completely believe that God gives all Scripture for a purpose which is relevant to His church throughout time.

    While man/men can be generic terms used to reference all mankind, this text is specifically calling out women – which is never used as a generic phrase for all mankind. There is a reason why God cites women in that text and as you stated, I also believe it is important to understand why that is and how that applies to us today.

    Thanks for responding!

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 29, 2010 at 3:18 am

      I agree with your first point. But is this “law” necessarily specific to women, or is it specific to people needing to learn in silence and submission to their teachers and leaders? As I pointed out in my post, to me, this seems to be Paul’s main point. And since Paul never spells out which law he’s referring to, we have to simply assume that it supports his main point.

      I also agree there is a reason women are addressed in the text — and I believe it’s simply because they were the ones causing the ruckus in Corinth. I mentioned a parallel example in my reply above: there was also a reason the Ephesian men were the ones exhorted to pray without wrath and doubting in 1 Timothy 2. It does not necessarily follow that only men must do this, or only men are more prone to fail in this. The men in Ephesus needed this exhortation, just like the women in Corinth needed the exhortation to silence and submission. It doesn’t require any kind of inherent male/female issue; it just means that those issues were specifically troublesome to those specific groups of people in those specific cities. But we all can benefit from the wisdom of that teaching and rightly apply it to our own lives today.

  9. justun

    June 25, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Question: can you explain what Paul means by saying all the churches of the saints?

    Does that mean that women can’t even speak in other churches outside of Corinth? Does that mean the prohibition of women speaking is actually not only confined in Paul’s context?

    Another question. Say Paul is hypothetically speaking to a certain context and prohibits women from speaking in the church of Corinth altogether, isn’t that considered oppressive?

    • Amanda Beattie

      June 29, 2010 at 3:01 am

      Hi Justun,

      My understanding of “all the churches of the saints” is that it goes with the preceding phrase… “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. Let your women keep silent…” This is the way the NKJV Bible translates it. However, since the language Paul used didn’t have punctuation, this is a point of a lot of dispute. Some Bibles (like the NIV), translate it instead, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, let your women keep silent…”

      I prefer the first reading, because in my opinion, it fits the pattern of the rest of the chapter better.

      To your second question, no, that would not be considered oppressive, but simply good leadership. Paul isn’t shutting down the women because they’re women; he’s shutting down disruptive talkers (who happen to be women) so that the whole church isn’t distracted and hindered by them. He’s addressing a truly problematic issue, not merely a broad class of people.

  10. Chaise

    March 6, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Can you talk about 1 Timothy 2:12-14?

    Ps I’m coming to ihop this summer 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: