Does the Bible teach that women must be silent during church meetings?
Few topics can stir up as much emotional response among Christians as that of gender roles within the church.
In this article, we examine what the Scriptures teach regarding women's participation in church assemblies.
There are two primary Scriptures we need to examine regarding the subject of women's roles in church meetings.
1 Cor. 14:26-40
26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
(1 Cor. 14:26-40 NIV)
1 Tim. 2:8-15
8 Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. 9 I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
(1 Tim. 2:8-15 NIV)
The headship principle
I believe that the principle being taught in 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2 is that, in GOD's arrangement for collective worship, spiritual leadership should come from men.
This fits with the headship principle which is from the beginning (see Gen. 2:20-22; 3:16), as Paul explains in 1 Cor. 11:3:
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
If we zoom in solely on 1 Cor. 14:34-35, our English translations of the text seem to be plainly stating that women are never to utter a word in any assembly of Christians, whatsoever. In the past, I’ve been guilty of not looking deeply and broadly enough at the whole context; perhaps you have too.
1 Cor. 14:26-40 is specifically addressing how things should be handled when the church assembled.
As is the case with most of this letter, Paul was correcting a problem with the church in Corinth—in this case, the fact that their assemblies were chaotic and people weren't being properly edified (vv. 27, 40).
The overall message is to do everything in such as way that people are built up.
Women or wives?
The root word gune is defined by Strong’s as "wife, woman." It can mean either "woman" or "wife" and the context must determine whether the reference is specific to wives or women in general.
The exact Greek word used in 1 Cor. 14:34-35, γυναῖκες, is found 15 times in the NT. Four times the New King James Version (NKJV) translates the word as "wives," and in all four cases the word "husbands" is also found in the same verse. In the other cases, with the exception of 1 Peter 3:5 (which contains the word "husbands"), it is not completely clear whether the women referenced were married.
In 1 Cor. 14:35, by using the phrase "let them ask their own husbands" (NKJV) it seems clear that the Holy Spirit is instructing married women, and therefore that the word in v.34 should be translated "wives" rather than "women."
Thus, the verses would/should read:
34 Let your wives keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for wives to speak in church.
When the verse says, "Let your wives…," to whom specifically is the Holy Spirit speaking?
The specific answer is found in verse 29:
29 Let two or three prophets speak…
The verses immediately preceding the instructions to wives (v.29-33) as well as those immediately following (v.36-39) are discussing the subject of prophecy.
It seems highly illogical that the Holy Spirit would leave the subject of prophesying in order to issue a couple of instructions to all women and then go immediately back to discussing the subject of prophesying.
Putting these things together, I have concluded that the Holy Spirit is instructing the wives of the men who were prophesying not to interrupt, but instead, to wait and ask their husbands at home.
And, since we don’t have men receiving new revelations from GOD during our assemblies, it is my conclusion that the specific command for prophets’ wives to be quiet does not apply to us today.
In other words, we don’t have the problem of women interrupting their husbands while prophesying in the assembly.
The broader principle
However, it seems equally clear that Paul is teaching a broader principle of how public assemblies are conducted versus what may be done privately at home—specifically, that men are to lead the assemblies of the church.
But let's consider the alternative conclusion for a moment.
Either women must be completely silent during church meetings or not—I see no room for middle ground here.
Suppose the proper interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is that whenever Christians assemble, the women are to be completely silent.
Although these verses don't specify why the brethren were "coming together," it seems clear that the entire chapter of 1 Cor. 14 is dealing with what happens at the church assemblies (that is, meetings with a spiritual focus).
From 1 Cor. 14:3 through the end of the chapter, Paul's focus seems to be on the edification of the church.
Therefore women would have to be silent whenever the Christians assembled for spiritual purposes, so long as men were present.
This would mean women couldn't sing (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19), prophesy (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5), speak while serving (Rom. 16:1, 7) or during Bible study in church assemblies.
Also, in order to be consistent, the first man prophesying in 1 Cor. 14:29-30 would have to be completely silent for the remainder of the assembly. (It seems clear to me that this is not Paul's point in these two verses; rather, simply to allow the prophet who receives new revelation to speak first.)
In my opinion, the conclusion that women must be totally silent whenever there is a gathering of Christians does not seem to harmonize with the rest of Scripture.
Whatever your conviction, however, we each need to ensure we apply it consistently. Church culture and tradition plays a significant role with regard to this.
Consider the following scenarios to illustrate.
You have a group of twenty Christians, including men and women:
- The group gets together at a restaurant for dinner. This is not a spiritually-focused gathering, although spiritual matters may be discussed. Naturally, women participate in conversation (frequently more so than the men), sharing and visiting with one another. I don't know of anyone who has an issue with this or views this as a violation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35.
- Suppose that same group gathered at one of their homes to visit or play games. Same deal. Everyone participates in the conversation and no one has a problem with women participating.
- Now, suppose the same group gathers at one of their homes for a singing or a Bible study. Now the situation changes. My experience has been that in this setting, many, if not most, women still feel perfectly comfortable participating in the study or suggesting hymns to be sung.
- But then you take the same group of Christians and put them together in the setting of a church building and the behavior changes again. Most, if not all, of the women will participate during a period of Bible study, but afterward, as soon as the "worship service" begins, most women would feel that they must not speak at all except when singing.
What causes this sudden behavior change between the Bible class and the "worship service?"
The instructions in 1 Cor. 14:35-36 didn't change.
The people didn't change.
The purpose of the gathering has not even changed.
The answer is that our church culture and tradition has led us to make a formalized distinction between Bible class and "worship services."
The Bible does not make this distinction.
It's okay for us to have this distinction, as long as we understand that it's a tradition and that it isn't the only way things can be done.
Otherwise, we are in danger of doing precisely what Jesus got so irritated with the Jewish religious leaders regarding—binding their traditions associated with man's interpretations of GOD's law.
They had elevated their traditional interpretations of what was and was not lawful to do on the Sabbath, for example, as being of more importance than what GOD had said.
Recall Jesus' rebuke in Matt. 15:8-9:
Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Sadly, too often we may be more like the Pharisees than we'd like to admit.
A few thoughts on 1 Tim. 2:8-15
So far I've focused exclusively on 1 Cor. 14, so let me offer a few concluding thoughts regarding the instructions in 1 Tim. 2.
First, unlike 1 Cor. 14, we find no indication that these statements from Paul to Timothy are referring to church meetings.
In fact, the opposite seems clear—"I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere..." (v.7).
Second, the Greek word that is translated "silence" in 1 Tim. 2:11 means "quietness, stillness, silence," per Strong's Concordance.
In Acts 18:26 Aquila's wife Priscilla helped teach Apollos (a man) the way of GOD more accurately, so clearly 1 Tim. 2 isn't saying that women can't participate in privately teaching others, including men (see also Phil. 4:3).
Third, we again find the same previously-discussed "women/wives" issue.
And once again, I believe the context reveals that the better translation here would be "wives" (referring to 1 Tim. 2:12 specifically).
Paul would be introducing a new doctrine if he were stating that all women must be submissive to all men, for Scripture had only taught submission of a wife to her husband (see 1 Cor. 7:4; 11:3 Eph. 5:23, 33; Col. 3:18).
I conclude that the overall message of Scripture with regard to the roles of men and women in the church (the body of Christ) is for Christian men to lead—both daily in their homes (with a Christ-like sacrificial love towards their wife) and when the church gathers, and, for women to respect and submit to their husbands' leadership at home and participate in a quiet and respectful manner during church meetings.