Q: Why does the Bible say that women should be silent when in church?
A: Good question! You are referring to the writings of the apostle Paul, who instructed the Corinthian church to, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:34). Verse 35 then adds, “And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” Ouch! To his young protégé Timothy, instructing him in ecclesiastical practices, he wrote, “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11, 12).
A cursory reading of these texts, and some 2000 years on, they appear to indicate that women should not make any vocal contribution in the church. However, if we consider these verses within their wider context, this conclusion is at odds with what Paul earlier wrote to the Corinthians (11:5, 13), where he acknowledges that women will both pray and prophesy in public!
So is this an ecclesiastical mixed message or is there a logical explanation?
First, we need to keep in mind that Paul was writing in the context of the early Christian church, and the early church—the one in Corinth particularly—had issues, as we put it today. Which would explain why Paul wrote things like, “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). That said, not only were there issues in the church, but the church looked different to how it looks today. In Paul’s day, men and women traditionally sat on opposite sides of the church. This means that if a woman heard something she hadn’t heard before, or if she didn’t understand what was being said, we could expect that she might call out to her husband on the other side of the church or lean across the aisle to ask him about it. This is a likely possibility, for Paul is saying the talking is distracting and needs to stop. Women had the privilege to learn in the church, but they were expected to learn quietly. (Good advice for their male counterparts too.) They were to acknowledge the authority of the teacher, submit to it and abstain from assuming the role of the teacher.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 14 deals with order in the church. Paul even calls for people to consider if the tongue they were going to speak with, within the church, would be understood by those listening. No doubt, if someone spoke in a foreign tongue in church, a woman might be tempted to call across the aisle to her husband who was probably more educated, as men were in those times, for help in understanding.
In any case, Paul’s admonition for silence seems intentionally aimed at addressing women who were seeking to judge, test and silence the prophetic utterances of their husbands and other men during public worship.
Every month, our Discovery Bible correspondence school instructors, Wayne Boehm, Charissa Fong and Sharon Martin, delve into the Bible to answer some of life’s and Christianity’s deeper questions.