by Steve Atkerson
Continued from Part One
A Different Interpretation
One must be careful in this debate to not lose sight of a more fundamental issue. Many brothers who apply 1 Corinthians 14:33b-34 in ways other than I do still hold to a divinely created gender distinction. They still uphold the value of masculinity and femininity. They reject the position that homogenizes men and women and transforms them into bland, sexless “persons.” They appreciate role differences in the marriage and the church. They believe the Scripture teaches these role distinctions. The issue upon which we disagree is the application of the Scripture to these role distinctions.
Many limit the required silence of the women to the judgment of prophecy. Specifically, 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 (“remain silent”) is taken to apply to the judging of the various prophecies mentioned in 14:29-33a. In 14:29a, Paul commanded that two or three prophets should speak. In 14:29b, Paul ordered that the prophecies be carefully judged. He regulated how prophecy was delivered in 14:30-33a. Finally, he regulated the judgment of the prophecy in 14:30b-35. Thus, just as tongue speakers are to be “silent” under certain circumstances (14:28 – i.e., only with regard to speaking in tongues when there is no interpreter present), and just as the prophets are to be “silent” under certain circumstances (14:30 – i.e., only with regard to prophecy when another prophet receives a revelation), so women are to remain “silent” under certain circumstances (14:33b-35 – i.e., only with regard to the judging of prophecies). For women to judge prophecy in the church would be to assume an authoritative posture and, hence, would be to violate the requirement to be in submission found elsewhere in the Scriptures (see 1 Ti 2:11-13 and Paul’s allusion to “the law” in 1 Corinthians 14:34). Notice how Paul links the silence of women in this passage to “submission” (14:34), indicating that this “silence” is in regard to exercising authority. Accordingly, women are not allowed to quiz, question, or interrogate the prophets as to their orthodoxy. To do so would place them in a position of authority over the prophets. Instead, they should ask their husbands at home, after the meeting, as to why certain prophecies went unchallenged (14:35).
While I find the above explanations to be somewhat convoluted, I nevertheless respect those who hold to it. Many honorable men, trying to deal honestly with this text, hold to it. However, it is noteworthy that from the early church fathers forward, the church has generally held to the silence of women in church. This “judging prophecies” interpretation seems to have originated only in the latter part of the 20th century.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why would God gift some women with the ability to prophesy if He did not want them to use the gift in the 1 Corinthians 14 church meeting? To do this is not inconsistent with God’s economy. According to 1 Corinthians 14, God sometimes gave some prophets a prophecy that was not to be delivered at the time of revelation (“And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop”, 14:30). The same held true for tongues speakers: the fourth man with a tongue was not allowed to speak it (14:27), even though it was from God! (The same was true for even the first tongues-speaker if no interpreter was present). This principle of the holding back of divine gifts is also true for the women. Though capable of prophecy, there were to be silent in this particular setting. Further, there are many venues apart from the 1 Corinthians 14 meeting when a woman prophet could enjoy the free exercise of her gift (private gatherings, evangelism, etc.).
In 1 Corinthians 14:35, what if the woman is not married or has an unbelieving husband? First, it must be noted that there is no Greek word for “husband.” “Husband” (in 1 Corinthians 14:35) translates andras, and fundamentally just means “man.” Here it most probably does refer to a woman’s husband. However, it could also refer to whatever man was in her life (brother, father, husband, uncle, or an elder). Either way, married or not, a woman is to remain silent in 1 Corinthians 14 gatherings.
Women in general are not called upon to submit to men in general. (Indeed, no man in the church has authority over any over man or woman). Instead, women are asked to be submissive to their own husbands. On the other hand, women are not to take on leadership roles reserved for men in general: teaching the church, serving as elder, judging prophecy, contending with a teacher, etc. Here, in 1 Corinthians 14, the right to address the plenary assembly of the church seems to be categorized as an activity that is associated with male leadership, the opposite of submission.
Paul encourages the Hebrews not to forsake their assembling together, but to encourage one another all the more, and to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. This “one-anothering” is not gender-specific. Do you believe Paul meant for this to happen outside of the meetings? The main time for this to occur is, of course, the weekly Lord’s Day church meeting. Remember that the 1 Corinthians 14 time (when only one person at a time may speak to the whole church and when women are to be silent) is just one phase of the gathering. The other phase is the Lord’s Supper, a time of tremendous one on one interaction and fellowship, with a party atmosphere, when women could speak freely to anyone they please. The objective of both aspects of the meeting is edification. Edification is achieved during the Supper through fellowship; it is a beehive of talking and one-anothering. Edification is achieved through the 1 Corinthians 14 time through the exercise of the more public ministry gifts (teaching, prophecy, tongues, singing, etc.).
What is the practical difference (from a female perspective) between a house church where the women may not speak in the 1 Corinthians 14 meeting and a traditional church in a building, since for her neither would be participatory?
1.) She can still have input into the meeting through her husband.
2.) Her marriage will be strengthened as her husband learns to be a leader and expresses his thoughts by participating in the meeting himself. The women are to practice a dynamic silence that encourages the men to speak. One brother cautioned, “a real concern is that house churches will become a haven for lead-taking women, and that once again the God-given authority of the men will be subverted; this time not by the pastor, but by unquiet women. The open, Spirit-led meeting is only half of the matter. We cannot be careful to take 1 Corinthians 14: 26-33a at face value, and then treat 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 with altogether different sensibilities. The unquietness of the women, both in church and out, is only a reflection of the church as the bride of Christ, and that we are not subject to our Husband in everything.”
3.) Holding her questions until she can ask her husband at home also serves to encourage her husband to be the spiritual leader in his home. What a wise course God counsels, and He accomplishes so much with one simple order. If only our obedience were as great as His wisdom!
How can things be so regimented that the women are not allowed to make even a single little comment in the informal living room atmosphere of a house church meeting? Such a question ascribes too insignificant and informal a nature to the meetings of the house church. First, when we come together as a church, we are “assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus” and in such meetings it is possible that the “power of our Lord Jesus is present” (1Co 5:4). In fact, special care should be taken “so that when you meet together, it may not result in judgment” (1Co 11:34). James warned that not many brothers should presume to be teachers because “we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jam 3:2). Church meetings are so important that the Scriptural guidelines for them are referred to as “the Lord’s command” (1Co 14:37). Peter wrote in general that, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (1Pe 4:11). How much more should this apply to speaking to God’s assembled people? Just as the Lord’s Supper is no ordinary dinner, but rather a sacred, covenant meal, so too the meetings of the home church are not just informal chitchats over coffee, but rather holy assemblies in the name of the Lord Jesus with Him present in power.
How would the silence requirement of 1 Corinthians 14 apply to the Lord’s Supper portion of a church meeting (1Co 11:17ff)? There were two phases to every New Testament Lord’s Day church meeting: the Lord’s Supper phase and the Interactive Meeting phase. Both result in the edification of the church, but there are differing rules for each phase.
1. During the Lord’s Supper, no one person typically addresses the entire church. This is because the Supper is a full meal, a time of fellowship and informal one-on-one interaction. It is to have the atmosphere of a wedding banquet. No songs are typically sung (it is difficult to sing with a mouth full of food). As it is a fellowship meal, no one would teach during the Supper (listening to a message would necessarily squelch conversation). Though all partake of a common cup and loaf, church members may not actually eat the meal in the same room (some may be in the dining room, some in the kitchen, some in the den, and still others on the front porch outside the home).
2. 1 Corinthians 14, on the other hand, deals with rules regulating times when it is appropriate to address the entire church in plenary (full) session. Everyone is necessarily in the same room. Only one person at a time is to be allowed to speak. In the early church, the 1 Corinthians 14 phase followed the Lord’s Supper phase (1 Corinthians 11b). Thus, the silence requirement of 1 Corinthians 14 would not apply at all to the Lord’s Supper portion of a church meeting.
If the women are not permitted to speak at all during the 1 Corinthians 14 style of meeting, then when would they have the opportunity to express their praises, testimonies, prayers, prophecies, etc.? One proper forum for the expression of all or any of these is during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper as a full meal (which is to occur weekly). Also, if a church has the type of community (body life) that it is supposed to have, the members will see each other regularly throughout the week and during these frequent contacts many outlets for communication will exist.
Suppose a mother finds it necessary to call down her wayward child during a meeting; would this be a violation of the “silence in church” view? Not necessarily. It could be acceptable, though of course she should be as considerate as possible. The point of the paragraph is that a woman should not address the whole assembly. The discrete calling down of a wayward child may be overheard by the church, but since it was intended only for the child, and not for the church, it is not a violation of the passage.
Suppose someone requests a hymn be sung and two women rise simultaneously to play a piano accompaniment. Seeing each other, they briefly discuss which one will serve the church by playing. Would this be a violation of the “silence in church” view? It would be acceptable. Even though the church may overhear the exchange, the words were not intended for the whole church.
Why is it not inconsistent to forbid a woman from requesting a song, and yet allow her to request it of her husband, who then relays the request to the church? The reason this is not inconsistent is due to the fact that the requirement for women to be silent does not mean women may not influence the course of the meeting. It only means that they must do so through their husband, father, or other respected man present. Upon hearing his wife whisper the song request to him, the husband may, in turn, request the song of the church, or he may think it better to wait until a later time.
Suppose a house church had twenty members (“the whole church,” 14:23) and during the 1 Corinthians 14 meeting the women were not allowed to speak. However, if those same twenty people (“the whole church,” 14:23) gathered one evening for a prayer meeting or Bible study, the women presumably could speak. Why the difference? 1 Corinthians 14 deals with the more formal meeting of the entire church, when everyone is expected to be in attendance, gathered together on the Lord’s Day, the purpose of which is the edification of the church and (if necessary) to make binding decisions regarding the correct application of Scripture (see the study on the meaning of ekklesia). In contrast, other types of gatherings typically do not occur on the Lord’s Day (though they might), everyone in the church is not necessarily expected to attend (though they might), the rules of 1 Corinthians 14 are not applicable (it may be more of an apostolic meeting), and no binding decisions as an ekklesia would typically be made. Thus, there is a difference in purpose and authority between a 1 Corinthians 14 meeting and other, lesser, types of gatherings.
Some have suggested that the women sat on one side of the room during church and the men on the other. What Paul was really prohibiting, they say, is the disruption of the meeting when women would shout out questions to their husbands. How would you evaluate this suggestion? Absolutely nothing in the text of 1 Corinthians 14 suggests a physical separation between the men and the women. Further, there is no exegetical, archaeological, historical, or literary evidence that any early church ever separated the men from the women in their seating arrangements. Moreover, early church meetings were held in private homes, not special buildings. Such a small setting would make a separation of the sexes impractical. Finally, Paul instructs all women to be silent, not just some supposedly unruly ones.
In the book of Proverbs, God’s wisdom is personified as a woman preacher who stands in the streets and warns men about their sin (Pr. 8:1-21). If God was against women preachers, why would he offer us this picture? First, the metaphorical woman preacher in Proverbs was not preaching in a church meeting! She was calling out in the streets. Women may freely exercise their prophetic and evangelistic gifts in ministry to the lost. Second, no one (man or woman) ever preached in a New Testament church meeting anyhow. New Testament preaching is exclusively associated with evangelism and occurred apart from assemblies of believers.
Isn’t the “women’s silence” issue just a dead-end street, a distraction from things that matter, and fertile field for division and every type of problem? Was the Holy Spirit mistaken to introduce such a “dead-end street” onto the pages of Holy Scripture? Certainly some things are in the Bible are more important than others. Even so, God meant for us to do something with 1 Corinthians 14:33-34. Who are we to argue with our Master over what He wants of us? Who are we to decide which of His commands we will obey and which we will disobey? Or which of his precepts are a “distraction”? When the church obeys her Lord, despite what worldly culture thinks, “division and every type of problem” are often the result. But are we seeking to please the Lord, or the world? Or ourselves? Perhaps the best answer to this question is the one Paul gave, “If he ignore this, he himself will be ignored” (14:38).
At what point in the life of a church should this inflammatory topic be introduced? This topic needs to be patiently taught, and in love. One really amazing aspect of 1 Corinthians is that it was given as spiritual baby food to make its recipients grow. And what a diet they were fed, women’s silence and all! Yet in 1 Corinthians we see the effectiveness of not babying them (Paul did not avoid the many difficult issues raised) in the happy results described in 2 Corinthians 7:8-16.
What if I just can’t decide what the correct application of this passage is? If there is any doubt over the correctness of a stricter versus a more liberal application of a command, it is generally better to take the more conservative approach so as to be sure God’s intent is accomplished. In Knowing Scripture, R.C. Sproul wrote: “What if, after careful consideration of a biblical mandate, we remain uncertain as to its character as a principle or custom . . . Would it be better to treat a possible custom as a principle and be guilty of being over-scrupulous in our design to obey God? Or would it be better to treat a possible principle as a custom and be guilty of being unscrupulous in denoting a transcendent requirement of God to the level of a mere human convention? I hope the answer is obvious” (p. 111).
If the women speak during the Lord’s Table (but not the 1 Corinthians 14 time), how does one justify that? If the “meeting was a meating” and the meal is the purpose and focal point of the gathering, then wouldn’t any biblical restrictions on what is done in the meeting have to apply to the focal point of the meeting? Why would the biblical restrictions apply to the non-focal point of the meeting, but NOT apply to the focal point of the meeting? The main reason given in Scripture for a weekly church meeting is indeed to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11b). However, it is also evident from Scripture that when they met to eat, they also usually followed the meal with a time of teaching, singing, etc. (1 Corinthians 14). There are thus two phases to every church meeting: The Lord’s Supper phase followed by the Participatory Meeting phase. The goal of each is the edification of the church. However, each phase accomplishes edification in differing ways, under differing regulations. What is appropriate activity for one may not be appropriate for the other.
In Jewish thought, dining with someone was the perfect setting for fellowship. For instance, during the Lord’s Supper, since the Supper is a full meal and designed to be a time of fellowship, no one person typically seeks to address the entire church. Instead, it is a time of one-on-one interaction, multiple simultaneous conversations going on. It was a party atmosphere, like a wedding banquet. The fare is edification through food and fellowship, centered around one cup and one loaf. It is a sacred, covenant meal. Two of the main regulations for the Supper: wait for one another and be sure there are no divisions among you.
1 Corinthians 14, on the other hand, deals with rules regulating those who would seek to address the entire church in plenary session. This participatory phase of the meeting, originally following the Supper, is the appropriate venue for a brother to bring a teaching, to suggest a song, etc. Everyone is to listen as only one person at a time addresses the group. Edification is the goal during this time also, but accomplished through a much more structured time of teaching, singing, testimony, prayer, prophecy, etc. One of the main regulations for the 1 Corinthians 14 time: only one person at a time is to address the group. Personal, on-going conversions that were the norm for the Supper are inappropriate during the 1 Corinthians 14 time. Similarly, to squelch fellowship during the Supper and ask everyone to be quiet so as to listen to one person teach, forcing everyone else to chew in silence, would be out of place. It would also be hard to sing songs of praise with a mouth full of food (not to mention unsightly!).
In sum, the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is edification through fellowship. The Supper is to be like a beehive of buzzing and activity and interaction. Thus, the silence requirement of 1 Corinthians 14 would not apply at all to the Lord’s Supper portion of a church meeting. The purpose of the 1 Corinthians 14 phase of the gathering is also edification, but through the exercise of the more public ministry gifts (like teaching and prophecy). The 1 Corinthians 14 phase is also the time for decision-making, the time when the court is in session.
The New Testament teaches us that at the foot of the cross there is neither “male nor female” (Ga 3:28), and that women as well as men are “priests” (Re 1:6). Although the New Testament clearly teaches that “the head of woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3), it also teaches that in the Lord “woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1 Corinthians 11:11). Though it teaches that wives should submit themselves to their husbands (Ep 5:22), it also requires: “all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1Pe 5:5). Further, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:5, taught a “mutual consent” aspect of marriage. Since the sisters are equal heirs with the brothers “of the gracious gift of life” (1Pe 3:7), let’s hear what some of the sisters think about the Lord’s command that women remain silent in church:
“When God showed me His order — man as servant leader and the wife as his help mate — silence in the worship services was a relief. Before I understood this truth, I felt obligated to speak up because I thought this was my “Christian duty or responsibility.” After speaking I would feel agitated – “Did I say too much?” “Did I make sense?” But when I embraced God’s order, I no longer felt I had to prove my spirituality with words. Submission to God’s order was what He required of me. When I am under God’s authority, I am also under His divine protection, and to me this is true freedom of worship!”
“I love to listen to my husband teach. I enjoy listening to and participating in the theology talks around my kitchen table. I ask thought provoking questions and often help him in the thinking process as he hashes through some points of scripture. Yet, I do not teach nor have a desire to teach during our church meetings.
It is not a question of ability, but one of where I fit into God’s plan of order. I submit willingly to His plan for the church and focus my attention on striving to be the best wife and mother I can and helping my husband realize his full potential as leader of our household and at church. My outlet for teaching comes in interaction with my kids, helping a less experienced mother with parenting, “wifing” and homemaking skills and in counseling a sister in a problem that relates to a path down which the Lord has already taken me.
I am doing the things the Lord set up for me as a quiet worker at home. So much of my time is spent doing the things I know for certain, scripturally, God has commanded women, that I have no desire to speak in the meeting. I gladly leave that to the men and rejoice as they grow and mature, following the plan God has laid out for them.”
I’m the outgoing one in our family. With a degree in Speech Communication and years of Bible teaching experience, you’d think the Bible would command me to speak in public meetings! (But then again, Moses thought God should choose Aaron.)
In past years, the biggest complaint I’ve heard from women is that their husbands would not lead at home. Over and over this was the case. We’d pray about it, agonize and wonder why our husbands wouldn’t follow our prompting to lead us! Women came to me looking for scriptural answers, bypassing the spiritual authorities in their life.
Eventually, God humbled me. The Bible commands me to “submit to” and “respect” my husband. I was to have a “gentle & quiet spirit.” When we are eager to speak our mind, we fail to follow our husbands and ultimately, God. How could my husband lead when that position was already taken by me?
When we came to understand the COMMAND of women’s silence in the Lord’s Day assembly, it was such a blessing! When the women keep silent, the men lead. As a result, my husband has grown so much in his knowledge of the Lord. He takes seriously his role to teach me and our children. No longer do I wrestle with the men over theology or with my husband over interpretation. We discuss scripture and he takes into consideration my thoughts, feelings and impressions. By keeping quiet and listening to him, God has elevated my husband in my eyes and heart. It is such a joy to hear my husband contribute each week as the Lord leads him. I’m not oppressed and I’m not a doormat. God still speaks to me and through me. God still uses my speaking talents, just in different arenas! I am so blessed to be under my husband’s protection. I’m so content in this role. It did take some getting used to – biting my tongue a few times – but God has shown me that to be silent on the outside can bring a wonderful peace on the inside.”
“For me, coming from an institutional church setting where everyone is quiet but the pastor, the concept of women remaining silent in church meetings doesn’t seem all that unusual. However, when you move into a first-century setting, this suddenly becomes an issue.
In my walk with Christ I have learned that God has a role for everyone, be they parents, children, husbands, wives, servants or masters. I feel that as a woman I have an important role in the church, but that role does not include addressing the entire body during the Lord’s Day church meeting. This is not because I am inferior, or less intelligent than a man, but because it is not my God-given role to lead, but to be in submission to my husband who is my head as Christ is his head. So, being silent in the church meeting does not make me feel subservient to anyone but to Christ and it gives me an opportunity every Sunday to be obedient to the command given to women in I Corinthians 14. In this way I am blessed to know that by the simple act of being quiet, I am in the center of God’s will for me.”
— Deedee W.
“After participating in a fellowship for eight years where the women are silent, I have come to realize in a greater way that being silent doesn’t mean being inactive. I feel like I have a very active supportive role in the meeting. Women’s silence applies to leading out rather than joining in. When we worship in song I sing with the others, and how I participate affects those around me. How I listen to those who share affects (encourages or discourages) them. Often when I feel like I have a thought or song that would be a blessing for the others I will pray and ask the Lord to share that through one of the men. Sometimes He does and it is a blessing to me to see the Lord’s hand working in or through me. The women being silent in our fellowship has been an exercise of faith that has truly been a blessing.
In our family Jonathan is the outgoing one, so it is easy for me to sit back and let him take the lead. But I have noticed in families where the wife would (personality-wise) be the leader, in our fellowship settings, because she is expected to be silent, the husband of the family will take the lead and not feel threatened. I have had women come to me after a meeting expressing such gratitude that their husband has felt free to share because they know that is not his natural inclination. The women have seen growth in their husbands as leaders, that they have longed for.
The positive changes in the women have been gratifying, too. The women who would typically be the outgoing one in their family, but who really want their husbands to be the leader, are learning how to step back. They are finding that if they can learn to listen and wait, the Lord can do mighty things.”
Sometimes those who “explain away” those passages of scripture that seem to limit women’s roles in ministry fail to see the overall picture of God’s family order, set at creation, that encompasses both the Old Covenant and the New. The church is primarily made up of families. For church order to contradict the order of the family (Ep 5) would be disorder and chaos. The Lord created and gifted men and women with complimentary ministry roles. Truly understanding God’s order in both the family and the church causes us to realize that these “limiting passages” are not so much restrictive as protective. They protect women from the burden of leadership and of having to function as men. They also encourage men to be servant leaders. And, He is presenting to us a picture of Christ and His bride, the church, which is submissive to Christ as Head.
The women’s silence is both an object lesson and an application of the order that is to exist in the home and the church. It encourages the men to take the lead in the meeting, to be responsible for what goes on, to verbally participate, to begin to articulate their thoughts, to learn to be leaders, etc. For instance, one wife joyously observed that the quieter she was in the interactive church meeting, the more her passive husband spoke up and took the lead (see 1Pe 3:1-2).
Harvey Bluedorn makes this astute parallel: “Was there anything necessarily evil in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil? No, Scripture is clear that all things have a lawful use under God (Ge 1:31; 1Ti 4:4; Ro 14:14,20; 1 Corinthians 10:23,25,26). The fruit was not evil. The evil came from how the fruit was used. The fruit was a test of obedience. All that Adam and Eve knew was good. But once they ate from the forbidden fruit, they entered into the knowledge of evil also – the knowledge of non-submission to God’s revealed will. Mankind fell into sin, spiritual blindness, and death, because a woman talked in the midst of the garden while a man remained silent and deferred to the woman. There is nothing evil about speaking. Evil comes only from how the speaking is used. Women are natural talkers. On the whole, studies have shown that women are more articulate than men, and women say twice as many words as men. What better way to test women’s submission to God in the garden of God – which is the gathered assembly, the inner sanctuary – than to place in the midst of the garden the tree of speaking and non-speaking, and to say, ‘Women shall not speak, but shall learn in silence, deferring to their men; for it is shameful for women to speak in the gathered assembly.’ But then along comes the subtle suggestion, ‘Yea hath God said, ‘Women men shall not speak in the midst of the garden, but they shall learn in silence and submission, lest they be brought to shame?” They shall not be brought to shame, for in the day the women speak, their mouths shall be opened and they shall be as men, not being deprived of their right to speak the Word of God which comes in and goes out from them. If anyone is a prophet or spiritual, then let him acknowledge that women’s silence is not the commandment of the Lord, but is only a short-term accommodation to the shameful female oppressed, male-dominated culture of ancient times.’”
This is a serious issue with far reaching consequences regardless of how it is applied. We all have to do something about this passage at least on a weekly basis, and for me the simplicity of taking God’s words at face value is the only approach with which I am at peace. My purpose in writing has been to offer a biblical alternative to the prevailing approaches that are common today, not to attack those who hold views contrary to mine. It has not been convenient for me to hold to the above application and frankly, I sometimes wish I did not see it the way I do. Over the years I have received a storm of contentious protest over my understanding of this passage, wherein both my motives and even ancestry were questioned! According to some, I am part of a “devilish scheme” of Scripture “twisting.” I thus feel keenly the importance of being careful to respect those who sincerely hold to applications which differ from one’s own position. For those reading this who have not made a decision on how to apply 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, please realize that we cannot simply stick our heads in the sand and pretend this passage does not exist. As Paul warned, “If he ignore this, he himself will be ignored” (14:38).
— Steve Atkerson