by Matthew W. Bassford
Recently, I’ve been engaged in an email discussion with a brother on the subject of women participating in our Bible classes. He sees inconsistency in many congregations between Bible classes, in which women may read Scriptures, make comments, etc., and worship services, in which they are required to remain silent. He believes that the appropriate way to resolve this inconsistency is to bar women from participating in Bible classes as well.
In a time in which all too many churches have chosen to ignore I Corinthians 14:34-35 and I Timothy 2:11-12 altogether, I appreciate this brother’s zeal for God. However, I believe his analysis overlooks some key aspects of our worship services and misunderstands the contextual meaning of silence in I Corinthians 14.
First, although many find it convenient to overlook the fact, I doubt there is a single church of Christ in existence in which women are literally silent during worship services. They sing. Indeed, according to the language of Ephesians 5:19, they speak to the rest of the congregation in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Women speak in our assemblies!
This practice is uncontroversial. I’ve never heard anyone argue seriously that women should not participate in our song worship. Indeed, I’ve never heard anyone argue against alto-lead choruses, during which women often are the only ones singing. It’s impossible to argue that women literally are being silent in the churches during “Paradise Valley”!
This leaves us with two choices. We can read I Corinthians 14:34-35 as a flat contradiction of Ephesians 5:19 so that Paul is divided against Paul (and the Holy Spirit against the Holy Spirit). Alternatively, we can quit using I Corinthians 14:34-35 as a proof text isolated from its context and consider if there is anything in that context that ought to inform our understanding of silence.
Indeed, though this commonly is overlooked, women are not the only group told to be silent in I Corinthians 14. In I Corinthians 14:28, those with the gift of speaking in tongues are told to keep silent unless an interpreter is present. In I Corinthians 14:30, if, while a prophet is speaking, a second prophet receives a revelation, the first prophet is to be silent and allow the second to speak.
It makes little sense to take “silent” here literally, especially in the case of the tongue-speakers. Tongue-speakers were allowed to participate in song worship. If men, they were allowed to lead public prayers, as per I Timothy 2:8. Paul means only that they were not allowed to be the sole speaker, to hold the floor in a situation in which they could not edify the church. Similarly, Prophet #1 was not allowed to be the speaker, to attempt to maintain the floor in the face of Prophet #2’s revelation.
Contextually, then, the injunction of I Corinthians 34-35 to women to keep silent does not mean that women cannot speak. It means that women cannot be the speaker. They are not permitted to exercise authority in the assembly as a man may.
We glimpse the nature of the problem that Paul is addressing in the instruction of I Corinthians 14:35 for women to ask their husbands at home if they have questions. Questions seem innocuous, but if I learned anything in law school, it is that the one asking the questions has the power! The questioner is the one in authority, the one controlling the conversation.
We see this displayed throughout the gospels. Jesus uses questions to great effect to humiliate His enemies, and He commonly replies to trap questions by asking another question. It stands to reason that women in the Corinthian church were using questions to similarly dominate assemblies, and it is indeed disgraceful for a woman to speak thus!
This reading of I Corinthians 14:34-35 resolves the apparent contradiction with Ephesians 5:19, and it also harmonizes more closely with I Timothy 2:11-12. There, Paul instructs women not to teach or exercise authority over a man, but rather to learn quietly and submissively. In times past, I made much of the difference between “quiet” in this passage and “silent” in I Corinthians 14:34, but a contextual reading of the latter minimizes the distinction. Instead, both texts become about issues of authority and submission rather than I Corinthians 14:34 being about whether women are making noise or not.
Together, these two texts provide a useful framework for understanding the role of women in our assemblies. First, it is firmly complementarian. Men are men, and they are to behave like men, but women are women, and they are to behave like women. As Paul’s analysis of Genesis 1-3 in I Timothy 2:13-14 makes clear, from the beginning it has been true that men, not women, are responsible for exercising spiritual leadership. Though scholars may construct fanciful arguments about how these rules don’t apply to us anymore, we must seek the ancient paths and walk in them.
Second, it supplants an inconsistent bright-line rule (“Women can speak in Bible classes but not in worship services.”) with an opportunity to exercise spiritual discernment. The woman singing an alto lead is behaving in a quiet, submissive fashion under the authority of the song leader. By contrast, the termagant who is attempting to control the Bible class from the same pew where she’s been sitting every Sunday morning for the past 45 years is neither quiet nor submissive, even though she is talking during the women-speaking-allowed hour.
As with most of the laws of Christ, this framework can be abused by those who want to act in bad faith. I am reminded here of the Jehovah’s-Witness practice of essentially allowing women to preach sermons in response to open-ended questions from men. Though formally complying with the letter of God’s word, such behavior is a Pharisaical perversion of its spirit, and we can expect it to be judged accordingly. However, for men and women who sincerely seek the will of God, this reading will give them all they need to suitably honor Him.