My three daughters are growing up in a country where women often reach the highest levels of leadership. In New Zealand we’ve had female heads of state and government and everything else besides. As a father, I am thrilled that my daughters will be able to do just about anything they put their mind to.
As long as they don’t aspire to preach, teach, or speak in church.
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (1 Cor 14:34-35)
This scripture, along with 1 Timothy 2:12 (which we will get to in the next article), has been used to muzzle women and deny the church of the gifts they bring. Is Paul really saying women should stay silent?
Forgive me for getting angry, but as a father and a husband, this idea that “women need to keep their mouths shut” boils my blood. I hope to make you angry too – righteously angry – so that you will speak up for those who have been silenced by religious traditions.
Why does Paul say women are not permitted to speak?
According to one tradition, women in church chatter like children and need to be hushed up. Um, yeah, that’s not offensive.
According to another tradition, the uneducated ladies of Corinth interrupted sermons with annoying questions. They lacked the common decency to remain silent when others were talking. In other words, they were dumb and rude, you know, as women tend to be.
Aside from being offensive to women and slanderous to Paul, these common interpretations are totally unsupported. There is zero evidence that the Corinthian ladies were church chatterboxes.
“Paul is giving a commandment. ‘Women must remain silent.’ It’s in the Law.”
Ah yes, about that Law. Search the Old Testament and you will find no law forbidding women to speak. It’s simply not in the Bible. Even if there were such a rule – and there isn’t – wouldn’t you find it odd that that the apostle of grace was preaching law?
So what’s going on here?
There was no law but there was a rabbinical tradition among the Jews that forbade women from asking questions in the assemblies.
The Jewish religion of Paul’s day was sexist in the sense that women were not allowed to participate in religious ceremonies or enter the best bits of the temple. (Ever seen a map of the Jerusalem Temple and wondered about the Women’s Court? That was as far as they could go. It was like going to church and leaving your wife in the carpark.)
The ideal woman, according to first-century Judaism, was silent and out of sight. If she went into the synagogue, she sat in crummy seats and kept quiet while the men talked.
Religion sought to silence women, but Jesus and the apostles encouraged them to speak. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on all, and those who spoke in tongues included both men and women. This shocked the Jewish onlookers, so Peter stood up and said:
This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. (Acts 2:16-17)
Evidently the Holy Spirit didn’t get the memo about women staying silent in church.
Then Paul came along and said this:
Now to each one (male and female) the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy… (1 Cor 12:7, 14:39, NIV)
Paul was eager for all, male and female, to prophesy and speak in tongues. So why does he say that women are not permitted to speak? He doesn’t. He’s quoting a question raised by the Corinthians.
An epistle of Q&As
The second half of Paul’s letter contains his response to several Corinthian questions:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote (1 Cor 7:1)
Now concerning virgins… (1 Cor 7:25)
Now concerning things sacrificed to idols… (1 Cor 8:1)
Now concerning spiritual gifts… (1 Cor 12:1)
Now concerning the collection for the saints… (1 Cor 16:1)
The Corinthian church was young and naïve. They didn’t have a clue about how to do communion, and evidently they had bought into this misogynistic Jewish rule that said women must be silent in meetings. The Corinthians asked Paul what he thought about this issue. In his reply to their question, Paul repeats what they had heard – that women were not permitted to speak, just as the (Jewish) Law says – before giving them his response:
What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only? (1 Cor 14:36, KJV)
In other words, “Are you guys nuts? By commanding women to be silent do you think you are speaking from the heart of the Father? Do you really think – and I’m shaking my head here – that you have heard from God?”
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. (1 Cor 14:37)
“If you think you’re so spiritual, stop heeding manmade traditions and listen to what I have to say about the matter.”
But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. (1 Cor 14:38, KJV)
“Let the ignorant yahoo who teaches this stupidity remain ignorant if he does not acknowledge that what I write is from the Lord.”
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. (1 Cor 14:39, NIV)
“I wish that you all – men and women – spoke in tongues, just as all did on the Day of Pentecost. Do not forbid it! And I wish even more that all – men and women – would prophesy” (1 Cor 14:5).
Read the whole letter and Paul’s message could not be clearer: every member of Christ’s body, whether male or female, young or old, is vital. Every part is needed. Of course, women can speak, prophesy, sing, shout, speak in tongues, and do whatever is proper and fitting in church. Indeed, we need them to because God has given every one of us gifts and talents.
“Strong words, Paul. But I’m not ready to overturn my precious traditions. If I gave the mike to my wife, there could be chaos.”
Then you need to repent and renew your mind because you are quenching the Spirit. You are missing out on the good things God wants to give to you through the fairer sex.
“I dunno Paul. You’re a lone blogger speaking against my denominational teaching. You’re going to stir up trouble with this modern message.”
This is no new revelation. It’s been around a while. It is even found in study bibles such as the 1991 Spirit-Filled Life Bible edited by Jack Hayford. Look it up. And then go look up all the influential women that Paul praised in his letters. Some were apostles, and some were pastors. Others were preachers who contended alongside with Paul for the gospel.
The first-century women who changed the world were many things. But what none of them were was silent.
Enjoy this article? Why not sign up to our free email list and we’ll notify you about new articles as soon they come out. No spam, we promise.