Is keeping women silent in the church biblical?
The practice of keeping over half of the Body of Christ under a perceived ‘command’ that women need to refrain from ‘speaking in the church’ and, therefore, doing very much ministry in their churches, is essentially problematic.
This belief system needs to be examined in light of New Testament teachings to determine whether it is a valid belief and practice in the Church for today. This continuing persuasion remains a source of frustration for godly women who sense Christ’s call on their lives–to serve him by serving in the Church.
Are women who feel called by Christ to preach and teach, wrongly hearing Christ’s voice and so are potentially at risk of living in sin for doing so?
Unfortunately, some Christian groups would prefer that women “recognize their place.” These groups would affirm that the biblical teaching about women in the church is just plain ‘black and white,’ that it is quite obvious from the New Testament passages of Scripture, and that this is how godly women in each generation should continue to behave.
Tackling this perception and practice, among various Christian groups today, is not based solely on the fact that women appear to be having opportunities to use their giftings in the work place, in public service, or even that the culture is now open to women in various capacities. Since the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians have based their beliefs on the New Testament references regarding the place of women in the Church. This is where the problem lies—in how the passages about Christian women and their ministry in the local church have been interpreted.
With a cold reading and instant interpretation of a very few biblical passages, without further investigation, a belief system has been structured. The danger with this method of biblical interpretation is that it leaves many things imprecise and unexplained. It creates a cut and dried Christian faith conviction that is fraught with textual inconsistences.
Men and women must dig deeper when it comes to ingrained views about the role of women and men in the local church. It is necessary for Christians to examine this issue more fully in order to have answers for themselves and for others.
Stifling women’s voices in the church, based on faulty interpretations of the Bible, does a disservice to women and to the Body of Christ as a whole.
The following article is aimed to help you with your personal research of this important topic.
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I [Barb] attended a stimulating conference that honored scholarship and wrestling with Scripture in order to understand passages and Christian practices in deeper and richer ways. I was privileged to attend a session and sit next to a professor who presented a paper on a familiar, yet perplexing passage about women remaining silent in the church. This passage is First Corinthians 14:34-35.
Dr. Waldemar Kowalski did a masterful job of peeling back the issues one by one and getting to the context and understanding of this passage. His paper included many footnotes from other authors as well as references regarding the Greek language.
I will not include all of Waldemar’s many references in this article but will cover the central points. If people have an interest in checking out the cited works and Greek references, this paper could be made available to them.
I have Dr. Waldemar Kowalski’s permission to share the ideas from his paper in a reader-friendly format for my website. I am delighted to share Waldemar’s insights regarding this passage.
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Wrestling with the Text
“Silent Women” in Charismatic Context
Doctor Kowalski engages the reader in the first paragraph of his paper by stating:
“Paul’s command, silencing women in the congregation (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), continues to perplex the reader. How is this instruction to be understood in light of the previous guidelines on how women are to pray and prophesy in a congregational setting where men and spiritual powers are present (1 Cor. 11:3-16, esp. v. 10)?”
The reader is reminded that the context of this passage is the mixed worship among the Corinthian believers and that the instructions are given equally to men and women. This eliminates the idea of single-gender worship, which would make no sense.
Scholars have offered various solutions for the 1 Cor. 14:34-35 passage. The following are a few samples:
Some treat these verses as a non-Pauline interpolation, most likely those who are antagonistic to female ministry or to women in general.
Some choose to remove the verses, relegating them as architectural artefacts (segregated worship spaces).
Some see these verses as an intrusion of pagan practices in Christian worship.
Some scholars treat this passage as a problem to be removed.
Therefore, one must ask: Do these approaches have merit?
Dr. Kowalski answers this enquiry methodically:
The idea of a Holy Spirit-given interpretation that contradicts what Scripture itself says is clearly wrong.(Gal. 1:8-9)
While disruptive pagan cultic practices and questions shouted out from a segregated seating area may have occurred as disorderly intrusions in Corinthian worship, the text does not indicate this and this suggestion does not have traction in current scholarship.
Craig Keener observes: “Distant seating of men and women would be difficult in a house church, and we currently lack evidence for gender segregation in early synagogues.”
That contemporary culture differs from that of Paul’s Corinth is clear, but discarding the Pauline instruction on that basis is dangerous. There is nothing in the text to indicate that this was localized either geographically or temporally.
The stress on “all the churches” (v. 33) and the broader Christian community (vv. 36-38) argues to the contrary.
The idea that the Corinthian worshipers themselves were trying to curtail female involvement in worship and that Paul is countering them is dubious: this chapter is about curbing rather than encouraging disorder.
Kowalski reminds us that this paper’s task is to argue that the verses are not a textual or thematic intrusion. He clearly states the thesis of this paper:
“Rather than focus on refuting the interpolation theory, we will argue that vv. 34-35 are a continuation of Paul’s instruction on appropriate demeanor and practice in a charismatic worship service. This work will re-examine these passages to see whether the “obvious” meaning of the text, at least in the common English translations, is also the correct meaning of the text.”
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Since the bulk of First Corinthians is a response by Paul to a letter received from this church, the modern reader only has one half of the telephone conversation. This is one of the reasons for the readers’ confusion when reading this epistle. An issue can be determined along with Paul’s prescription, but there is minimum data from which to construct the causative problem.
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Dr. Kowalski suggests three observations as an aid in dealing with difficult texts, and this passage in particular.
Aids in Dealing with Difficult Texts
“The text does not care about the reader’s preference. We are not permitted to make it jump through hoops like a trained poodle simply because we do not like what it says. It is the Word of God, not of some theologian or scholar. We dismiss the text as not applicable to our situation at personal peril.
We can expect the text to have coherence and make sense. The whole is God’s Word, and we can expect it to be consistent. In the case of 1 Corinthians, it takes only a few minutes to read from chapter 11, where instructions can be found as to how women are to pray and prophesy, to chapter 14, where instructions can be found which seem to forbid any speaking by women in the church.
The writer expected the audience to make sense of this, so these passages must not be in conflict. We can expect God not to be confused about his message. We can expect a certain unity and agreement of message within Scripture, as God/the Holy Spirit is the overall author.
There are divine secrets (Deut. 29:29) as well as divine ambiguities (such as the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility), but we can expect Scripture to communicate and to make sense.
We need to understand something about the original audience (and particularly its culture) to understand what is going on and what the original hearers understood and were meant to understand.
For instance, 1 Cor. 11, with its instructions on hair, has to do with specific issues in Corinth. I recommend Bruce Winter’s book: Roman Wives, Roman Widows.
While other portions of Scripture likewise offer challenges of understanding, instructions on behavior, as found in these two texts, were intended to change behavior–not to confuse the audience. We need to understand what the original audience understood, in order to understand what it means in our situation today.
We, therefore, can expect to make sense of the text without bending it to our purpose. On certain points of doctrine there may be divinely intended ambiguity, but in areas of instruction there should be a clear intended outcome.”
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Understanding What the Original Audience Understood
In order to solve an interpretive puzzle, the reader is required to go back in an attempt to reconstruct the original situation.
1 Corinthians 14 is dedicated to the topic of:
Order in Congregational Worship.
In fact, this whole chapter is dedicated to:
the correction of various disorders in
charismatic congregational practice–
including instructions in vv. 34-35.
When it comes to checking out most English translations of this text, several issues come up.
The NIV splits v. 33 in the middle, making the universal rule: silence for the women.
The NASB, KJV, and others see the verse as a unit, making the universal rule that God is a God of peace rather than confusion (which is the topic of the whole chapter).
There are several reasons for rejecting the NIV’s punctuation:
It makes more sense that peace is the universal rule, observed in all the churches.
The repetition of the Greek word in vv. 33 and 34 is very awkward.
Another reason relates to the interpolation theories and textual variants. In some of the Greek manuscripts, vv. 34 and 35 appear at the end of the chapter rather than after v. 33 (one of the reasons why some scholars consider the text added later by a scribe). The newer edition of the NIV (2011) rectified this and renders v. 33 as one logical unit.
To summarize, Kowalski suggests:
The first correction to the English text is that v. 33 proclaims that God is a God of peace and not disorder and that this is to prevail in all congregations, including in Corinth.
The second correction to the text of the NIV has to do with Paul’s command itself.
It is noteworthy that three groups are told to be silent under specific circumstance, employing a single Greek verb for all three with identical inflection, varying only in that the third group is plural and the first two employ the singular form.
Let us look more closely at these three groups.
Speakers in tongues are limited to two or at the most three messages and then they are instructed to be silent if there is no interpreter present. (1 Cor. 14:27-28)
Prophets are limited to two or three messages then are to be silent while the others judge.
The practice may well have been that there were no more than two or three prophecies before discerning the message ensued, with more prophecies then permitted after such judging, given the references to all prophesying (vv. 26, 31).*
*Gordon D. Fee. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1987), 693.
If a prophecy (or possibly this could mean the judging/ discerning of a prophecy) is given to someone seated, the one currently giving the prophecy is to be silent.
The contextual suggestion is that a prophecy had been given but that it had been judged and was found to be lacking.
The third group are “the women” of 1 Cor. 14:34-35, who likewise are to be silent. Note that Paul is using the same Greek term.
The NIV along with several other modern English translations renders the same Greek verb in three different ways:
“keep quiet” (v. 28)
“should stop” (v. 30)
“remain silent” (v. 34)
Kowalski confirms that the change in translation brings about the logical separation of “the women” from the other charismatics being addressed in this section.
Therefore, if the reader is to make sense of this passage, it is imperative that the correlation of these three groups within these parallel instructions is factored in.
David Miller states that “this triplet is clearly a structuring device.” When there is inconsistent translation, the reader of the NIV may come to the conclusion that:
Paul offers mild and specific guidance to those who speak in tongues and prophesy, but
Paul offers stern and sweeping directives to women.*
*J. David Miller, “Translating Paul’s Words About Women,” Stone-Campbell Journal 2009, vol. 12, issue 1 Spring (2009).
Who Exactly Are These Women?
Another significant factor is in trying to ascertain the identity of the women purposefully referenced here.
While “women” can be an appropriate translation for the plural form, these particular women have husbands.These women are specifically wives in this context and are to interact with their own husbands.
The reader begins to see that all three of these groups are specifically commanded regarding silence rather than speech in a particular situation. We must remember that speech itself is not generally being forbidden.
“In fact, the first two groups are first instructed to speak, and secondarily told to limit that speech under certain conditions. The text does not instruct the wives to speak, however, but they are rather told to be silent, using the same word (in the plural form) used for the tongues-speakers and prophets.”
Common solutions to this passage are to suggest:
The women were chattering or being disruptive because of a segregated worship facility.
The women were mimicking pagan female worship activity, which could be quite profane and disruptive.
Kowalski suggests that these are an incorrect assessment since the word used for speaking in v. 34 is used for edifying speech earlier in the chapter. Not only that, but this word is also noted that the parallel groups also speak, vv. 27 and 29. Furthermore, this does not resolve the issue of the apparent abrupt change of topic in this chapter on order in charismatic worship.
At this point, the reader is forced to ask these questions:
Why should this command be limited to the wives?
Why are they to ask their husbands in private?
For answers, we are guided to consider the use of the word: ask. It is curious to discover that in the 56 times this word is used in the NT, the context is one of interrogation, that is, close to a judicial context.
For other uses of this word, we see it used a number of times when Christ was being tested by the religious authorities and also during his trial. To paint a picture of its use in the Corinthian church by these women, Kowalski suggests that it was used in public as a judgment/ interrogation by a wife of her husband. Simply stated, this would be offensive and need to be limited.
The context seems to demonstrate that:
Paul commanded judgment of prophecy.
Whether done by the entire church or only the prophets, the fact was that this was a normative practice, when the assembly gathered, this can be established.
While the number of delivered prophecies was being limited, there seems to be no such limitation on the succeeding judgments.
Hence, there is no limitation on the permission of women to judge prophecy–just not that of one’s spouse.
There is an obvious numeric limitation for the third group: each husband would have only one wife.
Although the English rendering seems to enjoin entire silence of “the women,” this is not actually the case, since there is prior identification of women as prophets. We see this in 1 Cor. 11:5.
“But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” 1 Cor. 11:5
Secondly, there is an instruction that prophets (or the entire congregation) were to judge prophecies.
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” 1 Cor. 14:29
Kowalski clarifies: “The charismatic wives are then a third category of those generally permitted to speak, but along with tongues-speakers and prophets, are commanded to limit that speech under specific circumstances.”
Kowalski asks a few questions about various terms.
What about the statement that it is “disgraceful” for a woman/wife to speak in church (v. 35)?
What about the instruction that the wives are to be “in submission” (NIV) in v. 34?
What about the reference to the Law in v. 34?
Let us look at the possible answers to these three questions:
The word used here for disgraceful is the same word as is used in 1 Cor. 11:6, where “it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off.” Both passages refer to things that are considered disgraceful or shameful in the culture of the time.
The context for 1 Cor. 11:6 is the speaking of women in the congregation, with disgrace being not in the act of speaking but in the inappropriate demeanor (an uncovered head). The disgrace of 1 Cor. 14:35 would also logically be related to inappropriate actions or demeanor (interrogating one’s husband in public) not the act of speaking in itself.
The repeated use of disgrace here in 14:34-35, echoing 11:5-6, reinforces that the activity in question has to do with charismatic worship, and specifically, prophecy.
Earlier Paul observed: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (v. 35)
Both the prophets and the wives are to be under control.
Prophets could control their use of their gift and likewise, the wives could control their speech.
Although the wives are instructed to “be subject” there is no specification of to whom they are subject or by whom they are subjected.
In this case, one thing seems to stand out from Kowalski’s look at the Greek words and their tenses: “the wives who are prophets are to be in a state of self-control.”
In 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to the law six times.
This use of “law” in v. 34 is not a reference to an identified prohibition in the Old Testament.
This use of “law” cannot be effectively argued as deriving from later rabbinic Judaism or Josephus.
If Paul is not referring to the Old Testament at all, but to the customs of the times, there is a link to the practice of “learning in a state of quietness.”
Kowalski concludes the possibility that: “If the submission of the women is not to some external force or object but rather is a reference to self-control, then the law here may be one of the many references in rabbinic material about learning in a state of quietness.”
From examining this passage, Kowalski determined the following:
This passage is not a change of topic.
This is not an intrusion.
The repetition of terms and parallel construction firmly embed vv. 34-35 as part of this charismatic instruction.
The topic is still the proper employing of spiritual gifts in building up the congregation.
Among the responsibilities of all the prophets was the need to judge or to weigh a prophecy being given, with no indication given that the female prophets were excused from this responsibility.
However, when it came to the issue of a wife judging her own husband’s prophecy, she was to abstain from doing so in the congregation, doing this at home instead.
The disruptive effect of such public action would be offensive in virtually any society!
In conclusion, Kowalski discerns:
“The instruction to these wives in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is therefore dealing with charismatic events not general behavior, and these verses belong in the general instructions of Corinthians 14.”
The attempt of various church assemblies to keep women in submission and to keep them silent in church is clearly based on faulty interpretive methods of the New Testament text.
This defective persuasion contributes to the practice of women being under-utilized in the Body of Christ and undervalued as gifted children of God to the Church.
Furthermore, when some groups demand that women be subject to all males in their church, without considering the New Testament message about women in the church as a whole, this misrepresents the biblical text. (Specific terms for this type of belief system are: patriocentricity or hyperpatriarchalism.)
This flawed belief system deviously provides ‘biblical grounds’ for abuse of all kinds against women and girls–both in the church and in the home. This is where the issue of gender inequality takes us!
A clear interpretation of the New Testament points to the fact that in the Kingdom of God, the equal value of men and women is a valid biblical view regarding gender.
What people believe about the roles of males and females in society is vital. What Christians believe about the place of women and men in the church and in the home is crucial. What people believe directs how they will actually live.
Entrenched belief systems are hard to dismantle. When a culture puts greater value on males, as being:
Central, Superior, and Deserving,
the converse is that females are of lesser value in that society:
Peripheral, Inferior, and Servants.
Has there been a church tradition that has been firmly in place for far too long that needs to be re-examined and then set right?
The answer to this question remains with you.
Change Begins When Faulty Belief Systems Are Changed!
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Paper presented by Dr. Waldemar Kowalski,
Professor of Bible and Theology, Northwest University
Presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies
Seattle Pacific University, March, 2013.
With many Thanks to Dr. Kowalski for permission to use insights from this paper for this website article.
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For Further Reflection
There are many books that are available for the serious researcher on this topic. There are also many online websites and blogs that offer resources and discussions around these topics.
The following is a small sampling of resources:
Grenz, Stanley J. Women in the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995.
Cunningham, Loren, and David Joel Hamilton. Why Not Women? Seattle: YWAM Publishing, 2000.
Bilezikian, Gilbert. Community 101. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
Tucker, Ruth A., and Walter Liefeld. Daughters of the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
Patricia Gundry’s book: Woman Be Free was named by Christianity Today as one of the most influential books for Evangelicals in the last 40 years.
This book is Free online at: http://noodlefactory.typepad.com/woman_be_free
Patricia Grundy’s book: Heirs Together: Applying the Biblical Principle of Mutual Submission in Your Marriage. This book was named by Eternity Magazine as one of the Top 25 books of the year.
It is also Free online at:
Christians for Biblical Equality
Arise Free Online Newsletter and other Resources
The Barna Group. “Women Are the Backbone of the Christian Congregations in America.” March 6, 2000.
New Life Marg Mowczko
Assemblies of God Website and Resources
Women in Ministry http://vimeo.com/62179573
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© 2013 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.