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. 1Corinthians 14:33b-35
Whew! That’s a tough passage. It stirs up a lot of thoughts and emotions just by reading it. What does it mean? How does it apply to me and to my church? Are Christian women never to open their mouths inside the church building?
Before we tackle tough passages like this, it’s important to ask ourselves a few equally tough questions, search our hearts, and answer honestly:
1. Do I really believe God’s word has the final say when it comes to what I (and the church) should believe and do?
2. If so, am I truly willing to “put my money where my mouth is” and back up that belief with action and obedience, even if I don’t initially like or fully understand a certain biblical concept or command?
3. Is this passage a tough one for me because it challenges my preconceived notions and opinions? Am I willing to put my ideas aside and hear what God’s word has to say so I can obey it?
Sit with those questions for a few minutes before you move on. Pray over them and answer them honestly.
The most important thing to remember about rightly handling and understanding God’s word is that we must study it in context. Paul is writing 1 Corinthians as sort of a “user’s manual” of Christianity for the fledgling church at Corinth. Remember, this Christianity thing was brand new to them. The new Christians at Corinth were coming out of paganism or Judaism. They had no idea what they were doing when it came to church and the Christian walk, and they counldn’t run down to their local Christian book store for a copy of “Christianity for Dummies.” They didn’t even have the New Testament yet, for goodness sakes!
So, for the first 13 chapters Paul has dealt with a variety of things, from the centrality of the gospel to unity to church discipline, marriage, idolatry, the Lord’s Supper- a smorgasbord of things the Holy Spirit thought the church needed instruction about. And chapter 14 is just more of this type of “Christianity 101” instruction.
If you read the entire chapter – which I encourage you to take a minute to do right now – you can see that the overall topic Paul is addressing throughout is keeping order in the church meeting (worship service). He spends the first 33 verses talking about tongues and prophecy and how those should be properly expressed in the service. Whether you’re a cessationist or a continuationist, I think we can all imagine that it would be mass chaos for multiple people to simultaneously stand up and speak out in these ways in the meeting, especially when the first priority was supposed to be listening to apostolic instruction.
This theme of keeping order in the worship service carries over into the last portion of the chapter, as well. (My Bible even has a heading prior to verse 26 which says “Orderly Worship”.) The key verses showing this focus on orderly worhship are 33: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace,” and 40: ” But all things should be done decently and in order.” Those verses sort of “bookend” what Paul is saying here in the passage about women.
We saw earlier in the chapter that Paul talks about people prophesying and speaking in different languages with and without interpreters and how that can cause confusion and disorder. Likewise, in verse 26 he says, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” You can probably imagine the resulting hullabaloo with all of those people trying to get a word in edgewise! My MacArthur study Bible adds the cultural note: “Apparently, certain women were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services.”
So, zooming out and taking a “big picture” look at this passage, we can see that the main issue here was not women speaking in church, per se, but rather a focus on orderliness in the service. Paul is trying to establish a structure for the worship service and a hierarchy of church leadership, and one of the main ways he can quickly and neatly cut a lot of the chaos (just as he earlier put limitations on speaking out in prophecy and other languages) is to tell the women to be quiet and hang on to their questions until they get home and can talk freely, in more depth, and at greater length, with their husbands. We can see from the rest of the passage that he doesn’t want men being disorderly either. In fact, he’s trying to create an atmosphere where apostolic teaching can take place that will both answer a lot of the women’s questions and equip their husbands to answer their wives’ questions later at home.
So, taking this passage and other passages about God’s design for worship and for men’s and women’s roles in the church hand in hand, it doesn’t seem that what Paul is saying in this particular passage is that no woman can ever say a word out loud in the church meeting simply because she has two X chromosomes. There are occasions when women can speak – in an orderly way – in church, as long as they are not doing it in a way that violates any other Scriptures (e.g. instructing men in the Bible or holding improper authority over men, as prohibited by 1 Timothy 2:12).
For example: if you go to a church (as I do) where people are prone to saying the occasional “Amen” when the pastor says something especially important in the sermon, it would not be a violation of 1 Corinthians 14:34 for women to say “amen” along with the men.
Neither would a woman be disobeying this verse if she stood up to make a general announcement if the church has a designated time of the service for that. Saying something like, “Just a reminder- we’re having a potluck on the 23rd. We could really use some guys to help move tables, and we need some volunteers to bring desserts,” would be fine. What would be disobedient to 1 Corinthians 14:34 is if she suddenly remembered this announcement during worship service and interrupted the pastor’s sermon to make the announcement. (Sounds crazy, I know, but I actually once saw a man do this in church, which means he was violating the biblical principle of orderliness in 1 Corinthians 14).
These are just two small examples. There are probably many other instances in which it would be fine for a woman to say something in church, assuming, as I mentioned, she is not being disruptive or violating any of the other Scriptures that define God’s plan for women in the church. But if there is any question about the biblical appropriateness of the situation, it’s best to have a godly man handle things (in an orderly way) instead. Because the primary focus here, as with any other situation in the church, should not be on how far we can stretch God’s word without breaking it, but on the way we can best glorify God by denying self and submitting to and obeying His word.
As we think about the roles of women and men in the church we would do well to remember how often Jesus said things like this:
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-28
We, and the church may prize leadership, position, and recognition, but Jesus prizes servanthood, anonymity, and humility.
This article is part of the Rock Your Role series at Michelle’s blog
examining the Scriptures dealing with women’s roles in the church.
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