Should Women be Silent in Church?
An Exegetical and Dispensational Consideration of 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 Dr. Randy White this blog was originally published at DispensationalPublishing.com
“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.” (1 Corinthians 14:34–35, KJV)
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” (1 Corinthians 14:34–35, The Message).
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 is 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.
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.
Randy White is the founder and CEO of Dispensational Publishing House. He teaches the Bible online, verse-by-verse each Thursday night at www.youtube.com/randywhite. He also has a Tuesday morning Ask the Theologian broadcast, also at YouTube. He is the author of numerous books, booklets, and study guides.