1 Corinthians 14:33b-35:
“As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35 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.”
These words have long frustrated or confused God’s people. Most disregard them. A few too woodenly apply them. Let’s take a closer look.
In 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul said if a woman prays or prophesies, she should do so with her head covered. This assumes women can speak in public worship. She might pray silently, which would then not conflict with 14:34, but to prophesy silently is a contradiction. To deny women prophesied legitimately in the NT church ignores Acts 2:17-18; 21:9, and Luke 2:36.
So there must be something going on in the context of 1 Corinthians 14:34 to resolve the apparent contradiction with 11:5. And there is. Beginning at verse 26, Paul is giving instructions on order in public worship. Everything needs to be helpful which means no tongues left uninterpreted (27-28). The church needs to do things one at a time (30-31). Prophets who speak must then be discerned or judged (29). This last one shows us the distinction that resolves 11:5 and 14:34. While women prayed or prophesied, they were to refrain from judging the prophecies. The early church was in the process of sifting truth, through the apostles and through church elders appointed to rule. These offices were (and are) closed to women. So is the function of discerning and setting forth truths for the church to live by. But this does not rule out women speaking, prophesying, praying and singing in church. The context shows what manner of speech is not permitted by women. It is essentially the same as in 1 Timothy 2:12: do not teach or have authority, but be silent. The silence in both texts is not absolute, no-sound-from-your-mouth. Rather it is the silence of not asserting authority or challenging a speaker disrespectfully.
This does not mean the only application is for everyone to be respectful to others. There IS a Biblical gender role issue at play. It would be shameful for a woman to presume to publicly take part in ruling the church, or to question her husband’s judgment in public. How does that uphold a woman’s call to respect and submit to her husband? Paul appeals to the creation order, to the law’s principle that a wife is to be submissive. So this requirement of silent women is not a cultural expression of respect that has now passed and is no longer relevant.
So there is a real distinction between speaking at all and speaking to discern and judge publicly. This does NOT mean that women can only announce the ladies’ meeting or sing with the rest. It does NOT mean that they are excluded completely from theological discussion. Wives in private discussion over serious matters with their husbands honor God by asking questions respectfully and speaking their mind openly. A godly husband will not get defensive when she does, but will welcome the help that his helpmeet is giving. So it is in the church. Good church leaders aren’t offended at input from women, but welcome it. Affirming Biblical gender roles does not require absolute silence.
But Paul is not training blank slate believers in how to relate to each other as husband and wife; he is dealing with disorderly, overly talkative women. Good church leaders also know when to lovingly but firmly stop usurping women (or men). Paul does set down proper boundaries for the church, in principle. But there is also some circumstantial judgment happening, here. A woman prone to usurp authority needs to be silent for a while, pastorally. Ideally, she should help her husband by sharing her thoughts. Similarly, one prone to abuse alcohol needs to abstain for a time. But the usurping or just talkative woman context and how Paul deals with it does not leave us with no guidance in this passage. In principle, wives need to respect authority publicly at church. Women can contribute publicly to theological discussion, as long as they do not dishonor the authority of their husbands and elders.
The church today should consider these verses more than they do. There are two very practical meanings for the local congregation I serve as pastor.
1. Prayer – we often have a prayer time during public worship in response to the sermon when men pray publicly. This practice is to encourage their vocal leadership before their families and in the church. It is not an outworking of 1 Corinthians 14:34. Women CAN pray publicly in worship.
2. Sermon discussion – we also have a time after the worship service for the congregation to comment on the text or sermon, ask clarifying questions, etc. May women contribute to this? I believe so, though there is the potential for problems. Can a woman express a contrary thought to a man who already spoke? Not if it’s her husband! If it isn’t, and she is respectful and doesn’t dogmatically say how it is in the church, which is for the elders to do, then the church values and welcomes her input.