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Let Women Keep Silent in the Churches

by W. Frank Walton

"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" (1 Cor. 14:34).

What is the silence Paul enjoins upon women? Is it absolute in every situation or is it qualified in a certain situation? This article will show that women keeping silent is in leading the assembly. The silence is qualified. She is not to speak beyond the point of being in subjection to male leadership.

"Keep silent" (Greek, sigao) means absolute silence, to hold one's peace, to not make a sound. Yet, women are commanded to sing in the assembly, thereby teaching others (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19). Also, if a woman desires to obey the gospel, she is to make "the good confession" (cf. Romans 10:9-10), which may be in "the presence of many witnesses" (I Timothy 6:12). If "keep silent in the churches" is absolutely unqualified, a woman could not sing, nor confess Christ, or even verbally correct her children in the assembly. In Acts 5:1-11, we have an example of Peter asking Sapphira to answer a question, thereby speaking, before an assembly (Acts 5:8). (Young men in the audience or assembly came forward to bury both Annanias and Sapphira after their fateful lie). Such speaking before an assembly was done while being in subjection to male leadership.

Defined Within Context. The context of I Corinthians 12-14 is the exercise of miracu­lous gifts before the whole assembly. "Speak" (I Corinthians 14:34) is used in this context of addressing, thereby leading, the assembly (cf. I Corinthians 14:27,29). A male tongue speaker, without an interpreter, and a male prophet, waiting his turn, were both enjoined to "keep silent" (I Corinthinas 14:28,30). They were forbidden to address the assembly in the specified situation. "It is a shame for a woman to speak in church" (I Corinthians 14:35) refers to the specific disruptive example at Corinth. It means women should not speak in a way that disrupts, controls or leads the assembly.

A Qualified Prohibition. "NOT permitted to speak, BUT are to subject themselves" means the NOT phrase is qualified (or modified) by the BUT phrase. We must not put a "period" in the middle of Paul's thought. We must not assert a full, absolute negative when God has revealed a qualified negative. The BUT clause modifies the NOT clause.

There are several "NOT...BUT" passages in the Bible that are relative, not absolute, prohibitions (cf. Matt. 6:19-20). For example, Jesus said, "do NOT work for the food that perishes, BUT for the food that endures to everlasting life" (John 6:27). If the NOT clause was not qualified, then it would be wrong to work. Jesus says one must not work for food to the neglect of working for spiritual food. So, "do not work" is a qualified prohibition, relative to what the BUT clause enjoins. In another example, Paul said "Christ did NOT send me to baptize BUT to preach the gospel" (I Corinthians 1:17). Yet, Paul said he did baptize a few people (I Corinthians 1:14,16). Did Paul disobey Christ? No, since baptism in context is an act where some thought they were baptized into Paul's name, contrary to pointing people to Christ. Yet, in due course of preaching, Paul may have had to baptize some people personally into Christ. Another example of the "NOT...BUT" contrast is in I Peter 3:3: "Let NOT your adornment be external -- braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses, BUT let it be the hidden person of the heart." Did Peter absolutely prohibit women from wearing dresses? I hope not! It is a qualified prohibition. She is not to be concerned with outward adornment to the neglect of her inner spiritual character.

The Women Causing Problems. "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" (I Corinthians 14:35). Paul had in mind a certain group of women with husbands. It is most probable that these were the wives of the prophets. The wives were adding to the "confusion" in the assembly (I Corinthians 14:33). They were probably "asking questions" while their husbands were prophesying, which was an opening for these "liberated women" to disrupt and direct the assembly.

The Underlying Scriptural Principle. Note that Paul's divine principle is nothing new. The underlying principle of female subjection is "just as the Law also says." What verse in the Old Testament does Paul have in mind? Since he refers to wives and husbands, he must be referencing God's admonition to Eve: "your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16). The brazen prophets' wives were speaking before the church, probably interrupting their husbands, thereby indicating they were not in subjection.

In the marriage relationship, as well as in the church, God has ordained male leadership and female followship. Men have the responsibility to lead and females have the responsibility to submit. God the Father is over Christ, Christ is over man, and man is over woman (I Corinthians 11:3ff). A woman is not to usurp authority over or teach over a man (I Timothy 2:11-12). Priscilla, in conjunction with her husband Aquila, helped to teach Apollos (Acts 18:26). A woman teaches when she sings, but she is not teaching "over" a man. A woman may make a comment in a Bible class, but she is not to speak beyond subjection to the male teacher (i.e. dominate or control the class).

Women may take the lead in teaching classes of children or other women (cf. Titus 2:3-4). Women have much God-glorifying work to do in their sphere designated by God. The silence Paul enjoins on women in I Corinthians 14:34ff is when women attempt to disrupt God's delegation of authority and male leadership by taking the lead in the assembly.