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

CLAIM: Paul writes, “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 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 [sigaō] in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor. 14:27-28).

Paul uses the same word “keep silent” (sigaō). This is the same word he used to refer to women “keeping silent,” but here, Paul writes that men are supposed to “keep silent.” Is this because men are inferior to women? No, 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 [sigaō]” (1 Cor. 14:29-30).

Once again, Paul uses the same word “keep silent” (sigaō). 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 main point of the context: 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 and intelligible 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 word “keep silent” (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 word for “speak” (laleō) 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. Johnson writes, “In this context, as argued above, it specifically refers to the uninspired raising of questions in a manner that disrupted the service.”[2]

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.[3] 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”). At the very least, women were interrupting the meeting by asking questions loudly. Johnson agrees, when he concludes, “Certain women/wives were interrupting the service by asking questions during prophetic speech. These questions may have been legitimate learning inquiries, but the manner in which they were being asked was in some way inappropriate and disruptive. From the standpoint of the great principle of Paul for judging the practices of the gathered church, everything must be done so that the church may be built up (v. 26) and that all may learn (manthanō, v. 31).”[4]

The Roman philosopher Plutarch (writing around the same time) describes how husbands should actively teach their wives. He wrote, “And for your wife you must collect from every source what is useful, as do the bees, and carrying it within your own self impart it to her, and then discuss it with her, and make the best of these doctrines her favorite and familiar themes” (Plutarch Bride 48; Moralia 145B, LCL[5]

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. For instance, it is a good quality to listen, rather than incessantly speak: “To me they listened and waited, and kept silent for my counsel” (Job 29:21). Johnson writes, “The Law could mean the whole Old Testament’s repeated emphasis (especially in the Pentateuch) on the principle of order and differentiation whereby God turns chaos into order.”[6] 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.[7]

Seventh, women are supposed to be submissive to God—not men. When Paul writes that women “are to subject themselves” (v.34), this doesn’t refer to subjecting themselves to their husbands, but to the Law. Johnson writes, “‘Must be in submission (hypotassō, v. 34) lacks any object. It is too readily assumed that the object is ‘their husbands.’ In verse 32 the same word is used for prophets’ being self-controlled in their prophetic speech.”[8]

For further reading, see our earlier article “Christianity and Women.”

[1] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 225.

[2] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 275.

[3] 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.

[4] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 274.

[5] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 274-275.

[6] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 276.

[7] 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.

[8] Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, vol. 7, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 275-276.