(1 Cor. 14:34-35) Are women supposed to keep silent?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “The women are to keep silent [Greek sigaōpronounced see-GAH-oh] in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak [Greek laleō; pronounced la-LAY-oh], but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says35 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). Are women allowed to speak during Bible studies or not? Does the OT Law really teach that women should be silent?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made regarding this passage:

First, the context of this passage is a confusing and unedifying meeting. The Corinthians were having wild and chaotic meetings, talking over one another. The immediate context shows this. Let’s consider the verses which lead up to Paul’s command to the women in verses 34 and 35. Paul writes,

“Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” (1 Cor. 14:23).

Paul wrote this, because the Corinthians must have been jabbering wildly over one another. Later, Paul writes,

“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26).

Imagine showing up to a small group Bible study and during the teaching, someone just started to sing loudly! Imagine how unedifying this would be. Paul was taking on this subject in this chapter. Paul goes on to write,

“If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent [Greek sigaō] in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor. 14:27-28).

Notice the same Greek word being used here (sigaō). Here, men are told to “keep silent.” Is this because they are inferior? Of course not. It is because they are being distracting and unedifying. Next, Paul writes,

“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent [Greek sigaō]” (1 Cor. 14:29-30).

Notice the same Greek word sigaō is used. Here, Paul explains that those prophesying need to do this in order. Was this because of their gender? Obviously not. Instead, he gave this command, because they were being unedifying and distracting. Finally, Paul writes,

“For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:31-33).

Here is the point. The small group meetings of the Corinthians were confusing and distracting, but “God is not a God of confusion.” Therefore, Paul was giving instructions to have more edifying, coherent meetings.

Second, earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that women were prophesying in this church. Paul writes, “Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head…” (1 Cor. 11:5). One rule of hermeneutics is that an author is not allowed to contradict himself—especially in the same exact letter. Clearly, women were allowed to speak; otherwise, Paul would never have written this.

Third, the Greek word sigaō could also be translated “keep quiet.” For example, Greek grammarians prefer this translation in Luke 18:39: “Those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet (Greek sigaō); but he kept crying out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” In other words, Paul was not telling the women to be permanently silent. He was telling them to be quiet for a purpose (i.e. they were being unedifying).

Fourth, the Greek word for speak is “laleō,” which could be translated as “ongoing chatter.” The use of the present tense implies ongoing chatter or even heckling.[1] Therefore, it was probably the case that these women in the church were being unruly, and Paul was telling them to be quiet for the sake of the meeting.

Fifth, historically, men and women did not sit together in synagogues. This would be equivalent to male and female Bible studies today. It’s possible that the early Christian meetings were the same way.[2] Therefore, if a wife had a question during the meeting, she would have needed to call across the room to her husband. This would explain why the wives should ask their husbands later (“let them ask their own husbands at home”).

Sixth, the OT never says anything about women being silent. Therefore, it is odd that Paul would write, “Just as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34). Paul must be quoting the Law in a general sense—not a specific sense. This probably refers to the Law telling everyone to be submissive and humble, rather than self-serving. It is also possible that Paul was referring to the Greco-Roman laws against Pagan, ecstatic worship.[3]

 

[1] Prior, David. The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A. : Inter-Varsity Press (The Bible Speaks Today). 1985. 225.

[2] See Yamauchi, Edwin M. The Stones and the Scriptures. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972. 202. James 2:2 uses the Greek word sunagoge (or synagogue) to describe the early Christian assemblies.

[3] Kroeger writes, “Although the cultic activities of women were far better accepted in the Roman era than they had been in the classical Greek age, still there were efforts to curb their free practice of religion. Furthermore, certain religions popular with women were considered politically dangerous. The cult of Isis, which made women the equal of men, was driven out of Rome no less than three times. Both Greek and Roman society had tried to regulate and restrain female piety by brute force as well as by legislative measures. The Roman senate took stern action against the cult of Dionysos, largely because the adherents were principally women, and Cicero forbade women performing sacrifices at night. It may well be a law such as this that is referred to in 1 Cor 14:35 requiring women to be in control of themselves.” Kroeger, Catherine. “The Apostle Paul and the Greco-Roman Cults of Women” JETS 30/1 (March 1987) 30.