By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
A Caveat: Before we dive in, I want to acknowledge that this issue has earned a great deal of heat in the church from both sides—those who believe that women should have leadership roles in the church, and those who do not believe a woman should have the ability to do anything in the church besides lead Sunday school for the littles. I know, going into this article, that I will in no way solve the debate. But I do hope to offer a perspective that isn't often shared, that could perhaps shed some new light on the often-quoted 1 Corinthians 14. I also brace myself for the number of emails I tend to receive in these articles where people simply quote, "Women must be silent," and therefore, I, as a woman, must be silent. Not to worry...I am fully prepared for those.
With this in mind, let's dive in.
Now, Paul does, at one point, command women to be silent in church. Let's take a look at that passage.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35: "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."
People often follow up with this passage from 1 Timothy 2:11-12:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
That seems rather clear, doesn't it? Paul telling women not to talk in church. But how come women in the New Testament had roles within the church such as Priscilla, Phoebe, Cloe, and Junia? And what about women in the Old Testament who had prophecying and major leadership roles such as Deborah, Huldah, and Miriam?
Now I want to add an additional caveat. I know of a great deal of Christians who say, "I have no problem with a woman leading youth group, or even serving as an associate pastor. But I do not think they should be the head pastor of the church." To those who say this, I will not plan to address your viewpoint in this article. But I can definitely see the merit within it. To allow women to preach without allowing them to fully shepherd a church.
But this article plans to address the viewpoint that women should not have any speaking role in church whatsoever. Is that what Paul is saying here? If so, why is he contradicting himself? Or is there something bigger happening in this passage? Let's explore the cultural context of the Corinthian women for further insights.
Uneducated Women in Corinth
As stated in this Crosswalk article, a blanket rule that women cannot speak or preach seems to contradict the letter of Corinthians itself and the entire Bible. "In chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians, just three chapters before the supposed restrictions on women speaking in the church, the Apostle Paul gives both men and women instructions on how to pray and prophesy in the church assembly (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)."
So why does Paul tell women to be silent just a few chapters later?
Let's first take a look at the words Paul used, and keep in mind the verse that precedes this passage. According to the same Crosswalk article linked above, "According to Dr. John Temple Bristow, the answer lies in the words that Paul chose in 1 Corinthians 14. For silence, he could have chosen the verb phimoo” which means “forcing someone to be silent,” or hesuchia, which means “quietness and stillness,” but he didn’t. Paul chose the verb sigao, which is “a voluntary silence.” “Sigao is the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor.”
With this in mind, let's take a look at the prior verse to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
1 Corinthians 14:33: "For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people."
Take a look at the word disorder. It seems to imply it had crept its way into the Corinthian church. Disorder of what kind? Well, if we take a look at the specific word used for silence, we can see it as a disorder brought on by clamor.
Before we address this, let's see where else sigao shows up in Scripture.
Luke 9:36 (after the Transfiguration): "When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen."
Acts 12:17 (Peter motioning for the followers of Jesus to calm down after they discover he escaped prison): "But he, beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, Go shew these things unto James, and to the brethren. And he departed, and went into another place."
Acts 15:12 (The Council of Jerusalem quieting to hear stories from Paul and Barnabas): "The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them."
We should also note that Paul says the same sigao to those who speak in tongues but don't have an interpreter. And to prophets when someone else has a revelation. So what's going on here?
Notice how in all of these instances, it's never a forced silence. It's a silence of a crowd brought on when the main speaker indicates they need to hush. Or a hush falls over the crowd, as we would say. So why does Paul directly talk about the clamor of the women?
It seems to be that the women in Corinth specifically were disrupting the service. Whether through pagan Corinthian practices or through their pestering questions. The latter probably makes more sense considering Paul, a verse later, tells them to ask their husbands questions at home. To illustrate this, I'd love to bring up a story from my small group orientation.
We had a fellow who was new to the faith and eager to learn. But this caused him to stop our instructor every few seconds to ask questions. "Well, why did the apostles give away all their possessions in Acts 2?" "Why did Jesus do miracles in this way?" Etc. Although it was exciting to see a new Christian want to learn more about the Bible, we couldn't go through all of the material we needed to that day because of him. Part of me wished the small group leader would've said, "Those are great questions. Why don't you write them down and ask me them after this meeting or in an email?" Essentially seems to be the same thing Paul is getting at with the women.
We have to bear in mind that women received significantly less education than their male peers in Ancient Israel. Ancient Greece as well, and honestly, every civilization during that time didn't value the education of women. So it would make sense that Paul would tell them to hush during service, in the same way, that he would tell people who spoke in tongues (who didn't have an interpreter) to keep quiet. Because it disrupted the flow of service and didn't accomplish anything.
We can all think of that one student in our college classes who asked nonstop questions, long after the time of the lecture was over. Part of us wanted to throttle them and say, "These queries are really not edifying the whole group. Go ask the professor after class once we've left."
With this context in mind, do any uneducated or uninformed men get told to be silent in Scripture?
Uneducated/Uninformed Men Being Told to Be Silent
Apart from those who spoke in tongues without interpreters—many of which we can assume were men—do we have any examples in Scripture of someone pulling aside a man who didn't have all the facts and retraining him before he could speak again?
Let's turn to the example of Apollos. We find him in Acts 18, an eager new convert with great oration skills. Problem is he doesn't have all his facts down right—a danger considering the Bible has especially harsh judgments for teachers (James 3:1). So Priscila and Aquila (a woman and a man) pull him aside and help him to learn Scripture more accurately before he can preach Scripture again. He does speak, but only after correct instruction.
The New Testament church had a habit of trying to lower the clamor when people were not informed or had disrupted the learning of others. So why make a point about why Christians need to educate themselves as much as possible?
Why Does Bible Want Us to Be Invested in Scripture?
Women now have equal opportunity to have a good education, and can learn about the Bible just as much as men can. So why do both men and women need to spend as much time in the Bible before preaching it?
Caveat: We don't have to be apologetics experts with seminary degrees to share our story with others and to answer questions friends and family members may have about the faith.
Because Scripture warns that teachers will be held to a higher standard. Unless we truly know our facts or can provide several sources with the credentials to back up our assertions, we should approach teaching and preaching with humility. All we know is that we don't know everything there is to know.
For instance, whenever I write a 1200+-word Crosswalk article, I tend to dive into talking points from experts on both sides. I tend to investigate Scripture itself, the specific lexicon of words used, commentaries, etc. Because I know that I don't know everything. Even though I have 17+ years of Christian education, I still have so much more to discover and will not nearly scrape the surface by the end of my lifetime.
Something important to draw from the passages listed in the intro is many of us still have a lot to learn about the Bible. We should approach teaching with humility, whether we are a man or woman. And we should do our best to know the Word as much as possible.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Shurkin Son
Hope Bolinger is an editor at Salem, a multi-published novelist, and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 1,200 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her modern-day Daniel trilogy is out with IlluminateYA. She is also the co-author of the Dear Hero duology, which was published by INtense Publications. And her inspirational adult romance Picture Imperfect releases in November of 2021. Find out more about her at her website.