“It is a shame for women to speak in church”

Another passage used to deny women leadership in fundamentalist churches is I Cor 14:34
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

This passage assumed that the woman who was denied the opportunity to ask questions in the assembly also had the opportunity to ask her husband at home. The Greek words the apostle Paul used for “man” and “woman” also double for “husband” and “wife”, as in many languages. So the translator looks at the context to decide which the word means in this passage. Looking at the context, verses 31 and 37 were talking about prophets. It would be strange for Paul to have inserted this passage about women in between talking about prophets, unless this passage was also about prophets. So we could understand the passage to have said: “Wives [of prophets] should remain silent in the assemblies. If they want to inquire about something, [they are not allowed to interrupt their husbands prophesying because] they should ask their own husbands at home. It is disgraceful for a wife to interrupt her husband in the church.”

This restriction may also have had to do with the fact that men were educated in Corinth, to read, write and debate, but women were only educated to be housekeepers and mothers, the same as in Ephesus. Wives of prophets may have felt empowered and elevated, when they themselves did not have any special knowledge, and may have interrupted and explained what their husbands were saying, and then an argument would ensue between the husband and wife right in front of the whole assembly. I remember a song leader teaching a small assembly of about 20 people, a song he had composed about the resurrection story. His wife became embarrassed when he had difficulty with the song, and she kept asking him to stop and give up teaching the song.

In South Africa in rural villages among the Tswana people, if a woman does not like the sermon, she will start singing in the middle of a sermon; everyone will join in and the poor preacher has to stand there and wait until everyone is finished with the song before he can continue his sermon. The writer Kari Torjesen Malcolm said that when her mother was preaching in China in the 1950s she would repeatedly ask the women to be quiet. The women were usually cooped up at home and when they got a chance to see each other they wanted to chat.African church

Another thing that is often ignored when reading this passage is the fact that three chapters earlier the apostle Paul said that women should not pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered or unveiled, again appealing to their sense of propriety and custom in Corinth. Some have argued that these women were not leading in prayer or prophesying in the assembly, only in private with other women. But the passage, from at least the second half of chapter 11 to the end of chapter 14 is all about the assembly. And these women were seen to have taken their veils off to pray and prophesy. It was not shameful for women to see each other without their veils at that time, as far as we know; it was men that were not supposed to see them without their veils. So it is fairly safe to assume that they were praying and prophesying in the presence of men. Why would Paul waste valuable vellum by saying women needed to leave their veils on when praying or prophesying, then three chapters later say they may not pray and prophesy at all? Why not just stop them from praying and prophesying, then he wouldn’t have to tell them to leave their veils on?

The answer I think is that the women were allowed to pray and prophesy in the assembly. It was only the wives of the prophets, who were interrupting their husbands as they were teaching, that Paul asked to be silent.

There are other difficulties with the passage: the interesting phrase “as the law says”. Usually when the apostle Paul used the word “law” he was talking about the Law of Moses. But no law in the Law of Moses specifically said a woman must be in submission, or a wife must be in submission. (See also the comment by AO below, with important passages referred to.) So we would have to figure out what Paul had inferred from the law. Perhaps a clue is his explanation of the covering in I Cor 11 when he said that the man was the head (or source) of the woman, by God’s creation, as he also said in I Tim 2.

But to use this passage directed to the Corinthians in the first century AD to say that all women everywhere may not speak in the assembly is a misuse of the passage.

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About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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14 Responses to “It is a shame for women to speak in church”

  1. ao says:

    Good points. NT scholar Ben Witherington proposes that “the law” might be referring to the OT prophetic command for God’s people to be silent and listen/learn when God’s presence is among them (Habakkuk 2:19-20, Zephanaiah 1:7, and Zechariah 2:13). And we know that “the law” doesn’t always have to refer to the first five books of the OT. Taking “the law also says” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 to refer to the Prophets in the OT is a natural reading, given that just a few verses earlier in 14:21, Paul referred to Isaiah 28:11 as “the law” as well.

  2. Thanks, AO, those points are really helpful!

  3. Please, allow me to challenge you some about this.

    You present that 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is specifically about the Assembly rather than all public occasions of praise and devotion where women would be leading women and children as we know they did (Titus 2:3-4). This passage does not permit women to publicly speak over men contradicting 1 Tim. 2:11ff. Men are to lead in speaking not because of talent or ability, since we know women are as capable and possibly more so. God said that He made man first in His likeness, and thus masculinity originates from God rather than man interpreting God to be masculine. Women even more so were created in God’s image, but also in the glory of men. We could presume many more reasons about God’s reasoning here.

    First Cor. 14 may well be referring specifically to wives, but what about other women: maidens, single women, and widows. Does not 1 Cor. 7:36-37 speak of virgins in the possessive form also? Therefore, the possessive of women is not just wives. Also, note that wives also possess their husbands in case someone is so prejudice to misunderstand me (1 Cor. 7:2-4). The context of 1 Cor. 14 is clear that speaking is public speaking. As you know, the leaders of the Church are qualified men (1 Tim. 3), who lead their homes (Eph. 5). Remember that the Word became flesh in the form of the man, Christ, who selected men to be His disciples.

    God certainly knows more about the nature of men and women and their roles than men and women know of themselves. Let us then trust the words of Christ and those words of His Spirit given to His Apostles and prophets presented in the Christian scriptures.

    • Hi Scott,
      I can’t follow your argument in your first paragraph. We have no record of women leading assemblies of women or assemblies of children in the New Testament. Titus 2 just says they teach the younger women, with no reference as to where or when they taught.

      My argument about I Tim 2:11 was that it was restrictive for women who had never learned the scriptures, and restrictive for women who were teaching what Paul referred to as “old women’s fables” or Diana cult doctrines (woman was created first, was superior to men as long as she was a virgin, or until she gave birth, at which point she was defiled), as many commentators write. I do not believe this scripture was for all women everywhere for all time. Paul is clear about why he is restricting the women in this passage. However, he encourages the women to learn–the first time we have a reference to a man of antiquity encouraging all women to become educated. It is presumed that once they were educated, then they could teach.

      I Cor 14 is speaking about wives of prophets speaking in the assembly, not unmarried women or widows or wives of nonChristians.

      The first people who were commanded to be evangelists by an angel of God were women. I Tim 3 says “Likewise, the women…” Meaning: “Everything I have said about the men applies to the women as well.”

      • Yes, I know that you cannot understand (John 8:43). So 1 Cor. 14 refers to wives only and 1 Cor. 7 reference to virgin daughters should not be considered?

        You believe that this was for a specific time, but without reason. Do you not believe that Christ’s revelation is not for today? First Corinthians was not just written to the Corinthians, but to “with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord”.

        Add to all of this that Paul said concerning women not speaking in the Assembly, “If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). God’s Word will never fade away.

        I find your personal interpretation to be a twisting of Scripture.

    • Shibboleth says:

      A widow can’t follow the command to ask questions of her husband at home.

      • She can ask her father, brother, or closest brother in Christ.

      • Mark says:

        You are adding to the Word of God here, Scott. The apostle Paul said that the specific women that were not to speak in the Church were the women who could ask their husbands at home. In order for this verse to say what you want it to say, you have added that she can ask any man at home that she wants to. So you really don’t like what the apostle Paul said in this verse at all.

      • What is the Greek word for “man” – anar or hupoandros?

        Even supposing these were the wives only, who were not to speak before the congregation, then the conclusion is that virgins and widows could preach to all for not having a husband. Yet, they still had a head in being of their father’s and in the oversight of elders, who are the husbands of one woman. Your reasoning has no relevance or application to the disorderly speaking in the Assembly.

        First Timothy 2.11-13 clarifies that women were not given the right in creation to teach or rule over a man.

      • None of this changes the simple statements in these Scriptures of 1 Corinthians 14.34-35. First, women are not to speak before all in the Assembly. Second, women are to ask their men including husbands at home. The latter reference to women asking does not reinterpret the former command of women to not speak (1 Cor. 14.37).

        Wisdom in applying the Biblical principle of women asking their men extends from asking husbands unto daughters to their fathers, sisters to their brothers, nieces to the uncles, and so forth. The Greek shows

      • Mark says:

        Scott, please read the blog before you write a reply. The word “wives” in most languages refers to all women, married or unmarried. Since they had to ask their men at home, in this context, it would seem the word means the “married women” of the prophets, because they were the only ones who definitely had men at home that would definitely know the answers to their questions. This could not include the women who had no men at home, or women who had men at home who did not know the answers to their questions. So the passage cannot be referring to all women. In chapter 11 Paul tells the women of Corinth who were praying and prophesying what they should wear while praying and prophesying, and chapters 11 through 14 are about the assembly. The proper attire in Corinth for a woman praying or prophesying was wearing her veil or head scarf, which was probably customary in Corinth.

      • Please read my comment before responding without careful discernment.

  4. Mark says:

    You haven’t read the article. I Timothy 2 is the first passage in antiquity to give the right to common women to be educated. This is a ground breaking idea for anyone from creation to the time of Paul. Of course they couldn’t teach–until they were educated.

    Paul was teaching against what he called “old wives’ tales”, which was the Diana religion in Ephesus, that taught that women were created first, that women were superior to men, until they bore children, at which time they were defiled. Paul opposed that teaching.

  5. Gary Cummings says:

    There is some doubt about where or even if 1 Cor. 14:34 belongs in Scripture. In Vaticanus, this verse is marked in the margin with Umlauts, which were used by copyists to indicate textual problems. Gordon Fee, a great scholar thinks this verse should be deleted from the NT Text, since it is of dubious origin. I tend to agree, but then Daniel Wallace, a NT scholar, pointed out that there is no NT text which does not have it, even though Vaticanus marks it as suspicious.
    So this one verse is used or misused, out of its original culture, to abuse women today with a male chauvinistic Bible interpretation. Mark is absolutely right. In that day most women were not educated, not many could read, and there were some trouble makers, as Paul indicates. The trouble makers should be silent, but then he says it is okay for women to prophesy. That is a form of preaching. I have no problem with women preaching, prophesying , praying, teaching, serving communion. There are no restrictions on women today, though there were some on women in Paul’s day. What was normal in that culture is not necessarily normative for us today. Normative has to do with the core teaching of the faith, not how they were practiced within a certain culture.
    It is easy to cherrypick scripture and string a necklace to prove certain things or to deny women their spiritual rights before God.

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