“As in all the congregations of the saints, 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” (1Co 14:33b-35).

 

In most churches today, the command that women be silent (1Co 14:33b-35) is irrelevant, since neither men nor women are allowed to speak freely. However, when the early church gathered, there was a principle of participation. Their meetings were characterized by “each one has” worship (14:26). The use of spoken spiritual gifts in the meeting was encouraged. Following are some considerations as to its original meaning and application. [1]

 

  • Although the command (1Co 14:33b35) seems absolute, consider that there are many statements in Scripture that could be easily misunderstood if interpreted in a literal, wooden fashion. This may be the case here as well. Exegetical finesse is always required of any text, even those we think we already understand. For example:

ESV Matthew 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.

ESV Acts 2:38 Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins …

ESV Romans 5:18 … as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

 

  • The silence was clearly limited. The context concerned situations where only one person was up addressing the whole church: “one at a time” (14:27) and “in turn” (14:31). The silence requirement would therefore not apply congregational singing, whispered comments not intended for the whole church, laughing, responsive readings, playing an instrument, etc. There are three possibilities to this limited silence: a) Silence with respect to any public speaking in church, b) Silence with respect to speaking in tongues and prophecy, or c) Silence with respect to judging prophecy.

 

  • Paul’s overall purpose in penning 1 Corinthians 14 is critical to an understanding of what was being prohibited. Even a cursory reading of 14:1-25 reveals that Paul’s goal was to make clear the advantages of prophecy over tongues. Untranslated tongues were not understood (14:2), were of no benefit to the church (14:6), and were not intelligible (14:9). Prophecy, on the other hand, always resulted in building up the church, in encouragement, and in consolation (14:3, 4, 5, 12, 19). Paul’s objective was to lay down guidelines for the edifying use of tongues and prophecy in church meetings (14:23). It is in the context of these instructions on tongues and prophecy that the command for women’s silence (14:33b-35) is found. Then, following the command, he offered a concluding statement about tongues and prophecy (14:39). How probable is it that Paul, in a passage focused exclusively on tongues and prophecy, would lay down a sweeping prohibition against every type of speaking that applied to any utterance potentially said in public (prayer, testimony, shared insights, words of encouragement, etc.)? The context suggests the more likely option that the silence had to do with some aspect of tongues or prophecy.

 

  • That the Spirit gifted some women with prophecy is clear from 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. One way to reconcile this fact with the silence required in 14:33b-35 is to argue that the women’s prophesying (11:3-16) took place outside the church gathering (14:23). However, a strong indicator that it did indeed take place in worship services is found in Paul’s use of a literary technique called a chiasm. A chiasm is reversal of grammatical structures in symmetry of successive phrases or clauses.[2] It could be described as a mirroring of written ideas about a topic: point A, point B, point C, the central idea, then mirror point C’, mirror point B’, and mirror point A’. 1 Corinthians 11-14 arguably constitutes a chiasm on the subject of order in church meetings:

 

/A. 11:2 Apostolic Traditions (for Worship)

 /B. 11:3-16 Proper Worship for Women: Submission/Heads Covered In Prophecy

/C. 11:17-34 Proper Worship: The Lord’s Supper

/D. 12:1-31 Spiritual gifts: In General

→E. 13:1-13 Love is Paramount

\D. 14:1-33a Spiritual gifts: In Particular (Tongues & Prophecy)

\C. 14:26-33a Proper Worship: Tongues and Prophecy

 \B. 14:33b-35 Proper Worship, Women: Submission/Silence in Judging Prophecy

 \A. 14:36-40 The Lord’s Command (for Worship)

 

The overall chiasm concerns order in public worship. Point B, above, required women to have a sign of submission on their heads when praying or prophesying. This is mirrored in B’, where women were to show their submission by their silence. The reason this argues against a blanket requirement for women’s silence is because point B assumes women may indeed prophesy aloud in a church meeting (if their heads are covered). Thus, the silence required in mirror point B’ would not be with respect to all public speaking. It would be limited to some aspect of tongues and prophecy (such as with respect to judging prophecy). Furthermore, the mention of a “practice” of the “churches” (11:16) strengthens the likelihood that the women were prophesying in a church meeting.

 

  • Before writing about women’s silence, Paul had already instructed a would-be tongue speaker to be “silent” (sigao, 14:28) if no interpreter was present. He then required “silence” of a would-be prophet if a revelation was made to another (sigao, 14:30). In each case, the silence was confined to the specific activity of tongues or prophecy. Thus, when he wrote of silence (sigao) for the women, it too was likely confined to an activity that would be inconsistent with submission in relation to tongues and prophecy.

 

  • 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is a parallel passage dealing with the role of women in church meetings. There, women were prohibited from teaching or taking authority over a man (2:12). Instead, they were to be learn “quietly” (2:11) with all “submission” (2:11). The Greek for “quietly” (heschuia) does not fundamentally mean mute, but rather not causing trouble, not wrangling with the teacher. For example:

ESV 1 Timothy 2:1-2 … I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet (heschuia) life, godly and dignified in every way.

ESV 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12 … we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly (heschuia) and to earn their own living.

 

Thus, in the context of teaching in a church meeting, the sisters were to be settled down, not contending with or disputing the teacher. It is not that they could not make comments or ask questions during a lesson; rather, they were not to wrangle with or refute the speaker. To publically oppose or refute a male teacher was not a ministry to which women were called (that was the brothers’ responsibility).

 

What has 1 Timothy 2:11-12 to do with 1 Corinthians 14? Similar to the quietness required in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, the silence of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is related to submission. Since women were required in 1 Timothy 2 to have a quiet demeanor (rather than being mute), it is far more likely that Paul was not calling for a total ban on public speaking in 14:33b-35 either. Rather, he called for a limited silence that showed submission relative to tongues and prophecy.

 

  • One of the guidelines laid down for prophecy is that it must be judged (1Co 14:29). Pulling all the above considerations together, it is likely that Paul was requiring women to be silent specifically with respect to judging prophecy. He had already written about women prophesying if their heads were coved as a sign of their submission to their husbands (1Co 11:3-16), so women prophesying in church meetings was already acceptable. Paul instructed them to ask questions of their husbands at home rather than at church (14:35). The prohibited public questions likely had to do with the interrogation of the prophet as a part of judging process: “What, exactly, did you mean by that? How does what you said relate to this passage of Scripture over here? Wasn’t it you who long ago gave the failed prophecy of imminent nuclear destruction?” Women’s silence with respect to publically judging prophecy was an act of submission, and was in keeping with the requirement of 1 Corinthians 11 that their heads be covered as a sign of submission when giving a prophecy, and with 1 Timothy 2 that they learn in quietness and submissiveness (rather than challenging a teacher or pastor).

 

Conclusion

 

Arguably, the required silence of the women is with respect to the judgment of prophecy (1Co 1433b-35). 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. He regulated the judgment of the prophecy in 14:30b-35. Thus, just as tongue speaker was to be “silent” under certain circumstances (14:28—specifically with regard to speaking in tongues when there was no interpreter present), and just as the prophet was to be “silent” under certain circumstances (14:30—specifically with regard to prophecy when another received a revelation), so women were to remain “silent” under certain circumstances (14:33b-35—specifically with regard to the judging of prophecies). Notice how Paul linked the silence of women in this passage to “submission” (14:34), indicating that this “silence” was 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).  For women to judge prophecy in the church would be to assume an authoritative posture and, hence, would violate the requirement they be in submission found in 14:34 and elsewhere (1 Ti 2:11-13, 1 Corinthians 11:3-9).

 

Sometimes those who “explain away” those passages of Scripture that 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 bring 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 will cause 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. Paul presented us with a picture of Christ and His bride, the church, which is submissive to Christ as Head.

 

The women’s silence with respect to judging prophecy 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. This is a serious issue with far reaching consequences regardless of how it is applied.  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).  In sum, Scripture requires women to refrain from taking authority over men, serving as pastors, teaching men, wrangling with a male teacher, and publically judging prophecy.

 

Other Considerations

 

  • Women’s silence was practiced in “all” churches. That women were in some respect “silent” in all other first-century church meetings (not just Corinth) is evident from the way the paragraph begins, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches” (14:33b). W. Harold Mare pointed out that 14:33b “emphasizes the universality of the Christian community. All the churches are composed of saints (those set apart for God), and should be governed by the same principle of orderly conduct.”[3]

 

Warfield put it this way: “‘It is not permitted’ is an appeal to a general law, valid apart from Paul’s personal command, and looks back to the opening phrase – ‘as in all the churches of the saints.’ He is only requiring the Corinthian women to conform to the general law of the churches. And that is the meaning of the almost bitter words that he adds in verse 36, in which – reproaching them for the innovation of permitting women to speak in the churches – he reminds them that they are not the authors of the Gospel, nor are they its sole possessors: let them keep to the law that binds the whole body of churches and not be seeking some newfangled way of their own.”

 

The Greek tense behind “should remain silent” is a present imperative, which generally commands the continuation of an existing condition, thus “keep on remaining silent.”[4] This indicates that the women in Corinth, as well as all other churches, were already in compliance with this instruction. It was not a new command; they were merely being confirmed in what they were already doing. Paul himself had founded the church in Corinth. He stayed with them about two years, teaching and making disciples. He orally, in person, had already instructed them about the proper roles for men and women within the church. They knew, before he ever penned his letter to them, exactly what he had taught about women addressing the gathered church.

 

The New Covenant brought new freedom and liberty not found in the Old Covenant. For example, all food is now clean. Believing Jew and Gentile alike are God’s people. All believers, men and women, are priests. After his departure, the Corinthians had written Paul many questions (1Co 7:1) about their new liberties in Christ.  Evidently, some in Corinth also questioned Paul’s previously given verbal instructions about the proper role of the sisters in a church meeting. The letter to the Corinthians is his response to their queries.

 

  • Paul was not prohibiting disruptive private conversations. “Speak” (14:34) refers to both public statements and not private comments. From laleo, “speak” is used throughout 1 Corinthians 14 primarily with reference to those who would speak (laleo) aloud to the assembled church (with a tongue, an interpretation, a prophecy, etc.). On the other hand, the solution for a would-be public tongue speaker (with no interpreter present) is for him to instead laleo privately to himself and to God (14:28). Such private laleo is encouraged, not condemned. However, as pointed out above, the regulations throughout 1 Corinthians 14 primarily concern instances of public laleo, not private laleo. Similarly, Paul is not here (14:33b-35) prohibiting private laleo (conversation) between two women or a woman and her husband. Instead, that which is being prohibited is some aspect of public speaking intended for the whole church to hear. Harold Mare commented that “some have explained the apostle’s use of the word “speaking” (v.34) as … not forbidding a public address. But this is incompatible with Paul’s other uses of “speaking” in the chapter (vv.5, 6, 9, et al.), which imply public utterances as in prophesying (v.5).”[5] B.B. Warfield added:

 

“It requires to be said at once that there is no problem with reference to the relations of laleo and lego. Apart from niceties of merely philological interest, these words stand related to one another just as the English words speak and say do; that is to say, laleo expresses the act of talking, while lego refers to what is said. Wherever then the fact of speaking, without reference to the content of what is said, is to be indicated, laleo is used, and must be used. There is nothing disparaging in the intimation of the word, any more than there is in our word talk; although, of course, it can on occasion be used disparagingly as our word talk can also – as when some of the newspapers intimate that the Senate is given over to mere talk. This disparaging application of laleo, however, never occurs in the New Testament, although the word is used very frequently.

 

The word is in its right place in 1 Corinthians 14:33ff, therefore, and necessarily bears there its simple and natural meaning. If we needed anything to fix its meaning, however, it would be supplied by its frequent use in the preceding part of the chapter, where it refers not only to speaking with tongues (which was divine manifestation and unintelligible only because of the limitations of the hearers), but also to the prophetic speech, which is directly declared to be to edification and exhortation and comforting (verses 3-6). It would be supplied more pungently, however, by its contrasting term here – ‘let them be silent’ (verse 34). Here we have laleo directly defined for us: ‘Let the women keep silent, for it is not permitted to them to speak.’ Keep silent – speak: these are the two opposites; and the one defines the other.”[6]

 

  • Submission, not silence, is what the Law teaches. An appeal is made for the women to be submissive “as the Law says” (14:34). The word “Law” sometimes refers specifically to Mosaic legislation. It can also refer to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures. Arguably, it is so used here. The silence of women is not what the Law teaches. However, as is clear from the tenor of the Hebrew Scriptures, starting with creation, women are to be submissive to their husbands. Men were the leaders in both Hebrew society and religion (e.g., only men could be priests, all the writing prophets were men, most of the political leaders were men, families were patriarchal, vows made by a wife could be revoked by her husband, Deborah rebuked Barak for wanting a woman to help him lead, etc.). Thus, the submission of the women, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 14 by their silence, is consistent with God’s truth revealed throughout the Old Testament.

 

  • Paul did not yield to the sinful chauvinism of first-century culture. In ancient synagogues, women were evidently not allowed to speak publicly. The first-century Greek biographer Plutarch wrote that the voice of modest women ought to be kept from the public, and that they should feel as much shame over being heard as over being stripped.[7] Furthermore, throughout the pagan world, women were generally regarded as inferior to men.[8] Finally, it is a fact that women were not allowed to speak at all in the gatherings of the secular Greek city-state ekklesia.[9]

 

Contrary to his culture, Paul certainly did assert the equality of the sexes (Ga 3:28), but he still maintained the God-ordained subordination of wives to their husbands (1Co 11, 1 Corinthians 14, Eph 5:22ff, Col 3:18, 1Ti 2:11-13). This family order is to be upheld within the realm of the church meeting also. It is a matter of function and order, not equality. As has been previously observed, the women were already in some way silent in church meetings, as a form of submission. Paul was not introducing a new practice.

 

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. The sisters are equal heirs with the brothers “of the gracious gift of life” (1Pe 3:7).

 

  • 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is not a quotation.[10] Some have argued that 14:33-35 should be in quotation marks. They posit that Paul was quoting from a letter the Corinthians had previously written to Paul (1 Corinthians 7:1), with 14:36-38 constituting Paul’s shocked response to such an absurd “law.” However, this is unlikely for several reasons:
  1. a. Such an approach is, to say the least, highly subjective and speculative.
  2. It would be different from Paul’s other quotations throughout 1 Corinthians, which were very short (this one would be long).
  3. Paul did not necessarily disagree with the actual quotations he did cite, but merely qualified them. Here, he supposedly would be completely refuting it.
  4. Recently some have published their belief that a “Greek symbol”, ayta, found in 14:35, is the equivalent to the English quotation mark sign, thus proving 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 to be not Paul’s own words, but merely a quotation. Can this be so?

(1) The ayta is not at all a “Greek symbol,” but rather the seventh letter in the Greek alphabet. It is also a common one letter word (Strong’s #2228) that is usually translated “or” (as in 14:5, 6, 7, 19, 23, 27, & 29).

(2) If it is true that the way to flag a quotation mark is with the ayta, then why does every major English translation (NIV, NAS, KJV, RSV, etc.) fail to treat 14:33b-35 as a quotation?

(3) Some actual quotations that do appear in 1 Corinthians are found in 1:12, 1:19, 1:31, 2:9, 2:16, 3:4, 3:19, 3:20, 4:6, 5:13, 6:12, 6:13, 6:16, 10:7, 10:23, 10:26, 10:28, 11:24, 11:25, 12:3, 12:15, 12:16, 14:21, 15:27, 15:32, 15:35, 15:45, 15:54, and 15:55. Does the ayta appear immediately after any of these quotations, as we should expect? It does not.  This is because there is no such grammatical rule about an ayta marking quoted material.

(4) The ayta is found repeatedly throughout 1 Corinthians, and in no case is it used to indicate a quotation. Arguably, ayta is used in 6:16 & 6:19 in a manner very similar to 1 Corinthians 14:36. In such cases, the ayta’s function is as a “disjunctive particle.” In short, this particular construction is a form of logical argument that is actually used to reinforce (not contradict) the preceding clause. The words that follow the disjuctive particle are used to enforce whatever statement precedes the disjuctive particle. In fact, it is sometimes employed when the audience is tempted to deny or reject the first statement. Examples include 1 Corinthians 9:5-6, and 1 Corinthians 10:21-22.

(5) It has been suggest that this supposed quotation comes from Jewish writings, such as the Talmud, which the church was following. First, the church at Corinth was primarily Gentile.[11] What interest would a Gentile church have in an uninspired document produced by Jewish unbelievers hostile to Christianity? Second, exactly where in the Talmud is this alleged quotation found? Chapter and verse, please! Third, the Talmud was not even written until A.D. 200. Finally, it is passing strange that no one, in the two thousand year history of the church, under the Spirit’s guidance, was smart enough or spiritual enough to have realized before now that 1 Corinthians 14:33-14 is actually an uninspired quotation.

 

  • 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is in every known Greek MSS. Gordon Fee has suggested that it is a gloss (addition) that should not be in the Bible at all. He suspects it was added later, by some overzealous (and chauvinistic?) scribe. However, gloss is usually detected when some Greek manuscripts omit what others include. This is not the case at all with 14:33b-35. The paragraph on women’s silence is moved to the end of 1 Corinthians 14 in a few mss, but it is nevertheless present and accounted for in every known Greek MSS.[12]

 

  • Limited Silence is the Lord’s command. It is not “just” Paul’s opinion, but rather it is the “Lord’s command” (14:37). Paul was an apostle, a writer of scripture, relaying what he received from Jesus Himself as a direct “command.” It is not up for revision any more than any other biblical command. To say that this isn’t binding on believers today is no different from saying that the New Testament commands concerning holiness aren’t binding. Jesus said: “whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves Me.”[13] All who love the Lord will take seriously the things He commands and seek to obey them to the best of their understanding.

 

  • This applies to unmarried women as well. There is no dedicated Greek word for “husband.” “Husband” (14:35) translates andras, and fundamentally simply 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). 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.

 

  • Men and women did not sit separately. Some have suggested that the women sat on one side of the room during church and the men on the other. They posit that what Paul was really prohibiting, they say, is the disruption of the meeting when women would shout out questions to their husbands. 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, nor 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.

 

— Stephen E. Atkerson

Revised 07/30/21

[1] I find it disappointing that every commentary I read that interpreted Paul’s command to require absolute silence was written by someone who was active in a church that did not practice open participation. In this sense, they are arm-chair theologians.

[2] “Chiasmus”, Wikipedia.com.  Accessed July 17, 2021.

[3] W. Harold Mare, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 276.

[4] W.H. Davis, Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1923),168.

[5] Mare, Expositor’s, 276.

[6] B.B. Warfield, “Women Speaking in the Church”, The Presbyterian, Oct. 30, 1919, 8-9.

[7] Fritz Reinecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 438.

[8] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1981), 774.

[9] John Piper & Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 153.

[10] Piper & Grudem, Recovering, 149-150.

[11] Edward Adams, “The church at Corinth”, bibleodyssey.org. Accessed July 20, 2021.

[12] The Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Society, 1975), 611.

[13] John 14:21