What does the apostle Paul mean when he says women are to keep silent in the churches? Many see this as a prohibition against females saying anything in the gathered assembly. But is that what Paul intended? We find his instruction about such silence in 1 Corinthians 14. Let’s begin by taking a look at the context:
1. Notice the topic is spiritual gifts. Paul’s readers, the church in Corinth, are to be eager for the gifts, especially that they might prophesy. Note there are no gender limits given on any gifts. And read his words in light of three chapters earlier, where Paul assumed women would pray and prophesy in the gathered assembly (11:5).
2. Why does Paul say his readers should especially “desire prophesy”? Because, “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation” (v. 3). He connects prophesying with using the Word to encourage, comfort, and build up. Notice he does not connect it necessarily with predicting the future. Also notice the emphasis on using spiritual gifts in the gathered assembly: the maturation of the body of Christ. He is arguing that in a group context, this gift is better than tongues, because when someone speaks in another language, everyone may not understand. And in the gathered assembly, everyone should understand.
3. What contrast does he make between speaking in tongues and prophesying (v. 4)? Tongues build up the speaker; prophesy builds up the church.
4. Notice he restates the superiority of prophesy over tongues: “I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened” (v. 5). Why? Because the good of the whole church is better than the good of the individual. But notice he uses “all.” Not “all men” or “all males.”
5. Paul goes on to talk about the inferiority of a message no one can understand. Since the Corinthians are eager for sign gifts, he wants them to have one priority: “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (v. 12).
6. He goes on for another six verses talking about how to exercise spiritual gifts in public: “but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (v. 19). He has instruction on his mind because it is through instruction that believers mature. Prophesy is connected with instruction. And if that is the case, he is assuming (based on what we saw three chapters earlier and his use of “all” here) that women will be included in giving instruction in the gathered assembly.
7. Tongues provide a sign only for unbelievers, not believers. Yet in the gathered church, prophesy can benefit both: “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or uninformed person enters, he will be convicted by all, he will be called to account by all. The secrets of his heart are disclosed, and in this way he will fall down with his face to the ground and worship God, declaring, ‘God is really among you’” (vv. 24–25). Again, Paul emphasizes that all can prophesy.
8. Paul again says what should be the guiding principle: “Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church” (v. 26).
9. He says if someone speaking in tongues has no interpreter, that person should remain silent—based on what Paul has just said—because the goal in the gathered church is for all to benefit: “But if there is no interpreter, [the one speaking in tongues] should be silent in the church. Let that person speak to himself and to God” (v. 28). Notice how Paul uses “silent” here. Such silence in this context includes speaking—not the absolute absence of any words.
10. Having laid out instructions about tongues, Paul turns to talk specifically to those who prophesy: “Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said. And if someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude. For you can all prophesy one after another, so all can learn and be encouraged.” So presumably a person with a revelation would stand while everyone listened—and in this way, people would take turns. Notice again the use of the word “all” when Paul talks about his desire for prophesy and the exercise of the gift.
11. Indeed, “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (v. 33). I.e., the person with a prophesy is not “channeling” God. The person’s mind is engaged and he/she never loses control. That person can control the utterance, taking turns.
12. “For God is not characterized by disorder but by peace” (vv. 29–31). Paul grounds his instruction in the character of God. Chaos in the church does not accurately reflect the peace of God.
13. So to summarize the context, three chapters earlier Paul assumed women/wives would pray and prophesy in the assembly (see chapter 11). He also wished everyone could prophesy as he did (14:1, 3, 5, 39), and he told the church to desire that reality. When he limited prophecy, he did not add gender limits.
14. Then suddenly out of nowhere, the one who assumed women would prophesy three chapters earlier and who had been telling all his readers that he wanted them all to prophecy, writes this: “the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.”
15. What’s going on here? Within the context, we have some translation issues not apparent in a quick read of the English version. First, the word gunh in Koine Greek, translated “woman” here, means either women or wives. The Greek did not have separate words to distinguish the two. Only context tells which. If there is a husband in the context, “wife” is preferred. And in this context, interestingly enough, the word “husband” shows up.
16. Another hint that wives, not all women, are in view, is the presence of the word “submission.” Submission is something all humans are called to in relation to our Creator. But apostolic teaching also linked submission to wives (see Eph 5, 1 Peter 3). So, what would it change if we read “the wives should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says…ask their husbands at home”?
17. What does Paul mean when he says “as in fact the law says”? (Some translations even capitalized the word “Law.”) There is actually no statement in the Old Testament Law that says wives were to submit to their husbands, and certainly nothing to suggest all women were to submit to all men. In fact, elsewhere the apostle is careful to limit wives’ submission to their “own” husbands rather than to all men (Eph 5:22). And divorcees and widows did not require a male “covering” (e.g., Num. 30:9). The teaching that all women must always be under a male’s authority is based in nineteenth-century English coverture law, not Scripture.
18. Yet Roman civil law at the time did require wifely deference to husbands in public, according to Bruce Winter (Roman Wives, Roman Widows). Elsewhere, Paul teaches that Christians are not under the Jewish Law (see Galatians). But he is sensitive to keeping civil law, especially when disobeying it might affect the church's testimony.
19. Additionally, when Paul tells wives to ask husbands at home, the word for "ask," is not the word for a simple inquiry arising from curiosity. It has more the sense of grilling or interrogating or questioning. This use of the word fits with the practice of judging prophesies that Paul has just mentioned.
20. Put these observations together, and one could read the verses about females as follows: “Let the wives be silent in the churches, for these wives are not allowed (according to civil law) to speak in a certain way—that is, to publicly question husbands' prophecies. Rather, let the wives be in submission, as the (civil) law also says. If they want to vet their husbands’ prophecies, let them do so at home.”
21. In reading the text this way, we see a consistent Paul—one who does not tell Christians to go back under the Law, who assumes wives will pray and prophesy in the assembly, who calls women his co-workers elsewhere, who wants the church not to despise prophecies, and one concerned that Christians obey legal authorities for the sake of testimony.
22. Having added the lines about wives, Paul returns to talking of prophesy with a summary statement: “So then, brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid anyone from speaking in tongues. And do everything in a decent and orderly manner” (vv. 39–40, NET).
Now then, Phillip Payne, author of Man and Woman, One in Christ, has written extensively on the passage in question. His concern is that the verses about women/wives appear in different places in different early manuscripts. This has led many to believe they were a scribe’s gloss written in the margins; and later scribes, not knowing where to place the lines, added them in different parts of 1 Corinthians 14. Hence, something not in the original got added to the canon. Some outstanding exegetes who have a high view of scripture hold this view.
So, to summarize key interpretations of the “woman” verses in 1 Corinthians 14:
· Some read “let the women keep silent” as a prohibition on women opening their mouths in the gathered assembly, and especially limiting them from instructing anyone in such a context. The problem with this view is that it contracts its own context of women prophesying in chapter 11 and Paul’s constant statement of his desire that “all” prophesy here in chapter 14.
· Some see the women’s speaking limited here as a reference only to speech that is asking disruptive questions that stem from a desire to learn.
· Some see the speaking as referring only to judging prophesies.
· A subset of the judging-prophesies interpretation is seeing the injunction to silence directed toward wives judging husbands’ prophesies in public—which might break civil law.
· Some see the verses as added by scribes and thus not even part of the original.
This survey of the context and summary of interpretive options reveals the absurdity of taking “let the women keep silent” as the prohibition of all women ever using their voices in the gathered assembly. Understanding Paul as saying women cannot open their mouths at any time in church actually contradicts his repeated desire that all prophesy and his earlier assumption that women would prophesy. Hopefully, by seeing that there are a number of options for how we understand "let the women keep silent," we will lose our misogynistic interpretations and recover the spirit of the apostle’s instructions.