Today there is much controversy over the role of women in local churches. The major controversy that I have encountered is whether or not women should be allowed to speak in the meeting of the church. Historically this has not been an issue in Bible churches. From the time of the Reformation in the 16th Century, until some time in the 1970s, there is virtually no record of women speaking in Evangelical churches. However, today, with increasing frequency, churches that have historically been Evangelical are allowing women to speak at the meeting of the church. A growing number of churches are also changing to advocate women teaching in the church meeting. Others go a step further and permit women to be elders or pastors.
My position is that the Scriptures teach that a woman should not speak in the meeting of the church. Before looking at important passages in detail, I would like to give a testimony about how my thoughts on this issue have evolved.
I was raised in a liberal Protestant church in the 1950s and 60s. At that time, women generally did not speak in any churches, except Pentecostal ones. I grew up going to Sunday School and believing in God. But there was no power in my church, and in my late teen years I was not sure whether or not God existed.
In my first year of college, 1970-71, I lived the typical life of a university student. In my second year I became tired of that life. Some Christians in my dormitory talked with me about the Gospel, but I rejected what they said. In my third year of college I remembered what the Christians had told me and how they were living. I began reading the Bible and praying more seriously. By God’s grace, I then received Christ as my Lord and Savior.
I entered seminary in the Fall of 1975 with the goal of becoming a minister in the Presbyterian Church, the church in which I had been raised. However, there were practices in that denomination with which I disagreed. One was that I would be required to ordain women as elders. Also, I disagreed with the doctrine of infant baptism and with involvement in the World Council of Churches. Within a few years I decided to leave the Presbyterian Church.
I was not sure what church group I should join. I decided after my second year in seminary to spend a year in Spain as a self-supporting missionary. I taught English as a second language and began to fellowship in an assembly. I had never had contact with the assemblies in the United States. I came to realize that it was scriptural to have a true plurality of leadership and a weekly Lord’s Supper. I was baptized in a chapel in Barcelona in October, 1977. I am thankful that the Lord led me to Spain and into the assemblies.
In the great majority of assemblies in Spain the women did not speak at the Lord’s Supper. However, in the assembly in which I fellowshiped in Barcelona in 1977, they did. Not being from an assembly background, and being unfamiliar with the weekly Lord’s Supper, I assumed that women speaking was the common practice in assemblies, it would not be until I had more contact with other assemblies that I realized that women speaking at the church meeting was a recent and minority practice.
At that time I had not thoroughly studied the scriptures regarding the role of women at the church meeting. As I began to do this in 1980, my views began to change from acceptance to non-acceptance of women speaking at the meeting of the church.
How to Interpret Scripture
In order to properly interpret scripture, one must follow basic hermeneutical principles (principles of interpretation). One key principle is that unclear passages of the Bible should be interpreted in light of clear passages. Doctrine should be based on explicit teaching in scripture, not inference. All the great Christian doctrines—justification by faith, the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of scripture—are based on explicit statements in the Bible.
Incorrect doctrine is frequently based on inference that conflicts with explicit teaching. For example, the question of whether infants should be baptized is easily answered by looking at explicit verses in scripture on baptism. It is explicit in various passages (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:41, 8:36-38) that believers are to be baptized.
Those who say that babies should be baptized base their belief on inference from scripture. There are no explicit scriptures commanding those who have not confessed Christ, such as infants, to be baptized. Christians should submit to the explicit commands of scripture and therefore should hold to the doctrine of believer’s baptism. It is theologically dangerous to base doctrine on inferences that contradict explicit statements. The Christian should always interpret unclear passages of scripture in light of the clear ones.
It is with this hermeneutical principle that we should address the question of whether or not women should speak at the meeting of the church. Those who believe women should be able to speak at the church meeting base that belief on inference and reject explicit commands. Those who believe that women should not speak at the church meeting follow explicit commands rather than inferences.
The Explicit Command in 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35
I Corinthians 14:34,35 reads, “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. 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.”
This passage is explicit regarding speaking in the church meeting. The women are to keep silent; they are not permitted to speak; they are not even to ask questions; it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church meeting.
Point by point, I would like to look at the objections of those who would limit this command so that women can speak at the meeting of the church.
I Corinthians 11:2-16
The major objection is usually based on 1 Cor. 11:5, which reads, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.” Some say this means that it was acceptable for a woman to pray or prophesy as long as her head was covered. But that view is only an inference. Explicitly the verse says that a woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. There is no explicit sanctioning of women speaking with their heads covered. The inference that women may speak with their heads covered contradicts Paul’s explicit command in 1 Cor. 14:34,35 not to speak at the church meeting. Since the Christian should submit to the clear commands in scripture, the teaching of I Cor. 14:34,3 5 should be followed. What, then, is Paul saying in I Cor. 11:5? In order to answer that question it is necessary to look at the context. The broad context of I Cor. 11-14 is proper conduct at the meeting of the church. The immediate context of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is spiritual headship, i.e., God’s order of authority. Paul writes in v. 3, “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” He then goes on to discuss the head covering as a symbol of God’s creative order, i.e., women being under the headship (authority) of men. “Head” is mentioned eight times, sometimes referring to headship and at other times referring to the physical head. “Covering” (or “covered”, “cover”, and “uncovered”) is mentioned seven times. In contrast, praying is only referred to three times, and prophesying is only referred to twice.
I Cor. 11:2-16 is part of a whole passage (chapters 11-14) regarding proper order at the church meeting. In 11:2-16, Paul writes that women should have their heads covered. Paul addresses the question of women speaking, later, in chapter 14. I agree with Dr. John Robbins, who wrote regarding I Cor. 11:5 in his book, Scripture Twisting in the Seminaries. Part I: Feminism. In quoting from John Calvin’s commentary, Robbins wrote,” ‘By here condemning the one (speaking with uncovered head) he does not commend the other (speaking).’ “ Robbins then says, “If one were to say, it is wrong to go through a red light while speeding, he cannot be understood to say that it is right to speed. It is wrong both to speed and to ignore red lights. So it is with women speaking in church uncovered. Women speaking uncovered in church is wrong, and so is women speaking in church.”1
Some argue that Paul would have immediately commanded women not to speak in chapter 11, if that had been his desire. However, Paul speaks on one subject, changes to another related subject, and then returns to the original subject elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.2 For example, in I Corinthians 8 he speaks on the subject of liberty and eating meat offered to idols. Then in chapter 9 he speaks on the related subject of his rights as an apostle. (Our spiritual rights are related to our spiritual liberty.) Then at the end of chapter 10, Paul returns specifically to the original subject of eating meats offered to idols.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul speaks about women praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered, emphasizing that the head should be covered. God’s authority and the head covering, not praying and prophesying, is the central theme of this passage. In chapters 12-14, Paul’s theme is the proper use of spiritual gifts. He goes into detail on how to use the verbal gifts correctly: tongues, interpretation of tongues, teaching, and prophesying. It is much more appropriate for Paul to regulate women speaking at the end of this passage, which deals primarily with the speaking gifts, than in the middle of a passage which deals with the head covering.
I Corinthians 14
Let us now return to the explicit command in I Corinthians 14. Those who believe that women should be able to speak at the meeting of the church try to explain the command in verses 34 and 35 in a number of ways. One view is that the prohibition of speaking refers only to the judging of prophets. 1 Corinthians 14:29 reads, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.” Those who hold to this view apply Paul’s command to one half of a verse, 29b, which says to “let the others judge.” They say that women were not to judge the prophets but that it was otherwise permitted for them to speak.
But on what basis can one argue that the command to keep silent refers only to v. 29b? The whole passage before v. 29b also deals with people speaking. Verses 23-28 deal with the ministry of spiritual gifts in the church, including teaching. Verses 1-22 deal with tongues and the interpretation of tongues. I Corinthians 12 discusses the exercise of spiritual gifts, including teaching. 1 Corinthians 11 makes reference to praying and prophesying. There is nothing in vv. 34 and 35 which would indicate that these two verses do not also refer to the subject matter written prior to 29b: prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, the speaking ministry of apostles, prophets, and teachers (I Cor. 12:28,29), and praying.
Additionally, there is no basis not to apply the command to one half of a sentence in the passage (29a) but to apply it to the other half (29b). Nor is there any basis for switching again and not applying the command to the verses immediately after 29b. Those verses, 30 and 31, again refer to prophesying. Proper interpretation does not permit one to apply the command for women’s silence to only one four-word phrase and not to apply it to every other reference to speaking in the whole passage on the church meeting.
Another argument that some use to allow women to speak is that Paul was only commanding women not to chatter among themselves. Verse 33 reads, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” They say that this verse indicates that the women were being disruptive, and that the Greek word, laleo, translated “to speak,” means “chattering.” Therefore, it was their chattering that caused the disruption, and hence Paul is only prohibiting them from chattering. This interpretation is incorrect because laleo does not mean “chattering.” It does mean “to speak.” Regarding the possibility that women were chattering, Vine writes, “Laleo is used several times in I Cor. 14; the command prohibiting women from speaking in a church gathering, vv. 34,35 is regarded by some as an injunction against chattering, a meaning which is absent from the use of the verb everywhere else in the N. T.”3
A similar argument is that the women were being disruptive by calling across the room to their husbands. But if Paul only wanted to keep the women from speaking to their husbands, why did he not just say, “Women, ask your husbands questions at home.” Why does he also repeat the broad commands, “keep silent in the churches”,4 “they are not permitted to speak”, “they are to be under obedience as also saith the law”, and, “it is a shame for women to speak in the church”?
Paul is not saying, “Women, you can speak in the church except for asking your husbands questions.” He is in fact commanding, “women do not speak in the church; do not even ask questions.” In regard to the Greek, F. L. Godet wrote, “The particle eide, ‘and moreover if’, which begins v. 35, introduces not a simple explanation, but a gradation: ‘and even if they ‘would learn something, they ought to abstain from asking in the congregation; they should reserve their questions to be submitted to their husbands in private.’ The form ei de ‘and if’, is therefore founded on the fact that questioning was the case of least gravity, the one which seemed most naturally to admit of exception. But this very exception Paul rejects.”5
Paul’s Use of the Old Testament
It is important to examine Paul’s use of the law to support his prohibition. When an individual speaks in a church meeting, he is exercising authority. Paul’s belief is that it is wrong for women to exercise authority over men in the meeting of the church, and for that reason, they are to remain silent. Paul, in v. 34, bases his command on the law.
In the New Testament, the phrase “the law” usually refers to the law of Moses, which is the first five books of the Old Testament. It can also refer to the whole Old Testament (Jn. 10:34; 1 Cor. 14:21). Paul applies the Scriptures he had to the situation in Corinth. Women, according to teaching based on Genesis, were under the authority of men. (In Gen. 3:16 Eve is told that Adam is to rule over her. Therefore, she was to submit to him.) Paul is saying that due to God’s order as seen in the Scriptures, women are still under the authority of men in the New Testament church. He does not base this view of authority on the culture of the day, but rather on God’s Word, which transcends any worldly cultural patterns.
One should note that nowhere in his argument does Paul refer to the Corinthian life-styles, philosophies, or religious practices as a reason for not permitting women to speak. For example, Paul does not say, “Brethren, people in Corinth will be offended if the women speak in the church meetings. That practice would not be accepted in Corinthian society. We must be ‘all things to all people.’ It was for cultural reasons that I had Timothy circumcised (“because of the Jews,” according to Acts 16:3). And it is for cultural reasons that the women must keep silent in the church.”
Rather than make that argument, which would have been limited to Corinth, Paul referred to the Old Testament. Elsewhere in I Corinthians Paul bases his commands on the Scripture he had. In 10:7-11 he tells the Corinthians not to become idolaters, not to commit sexual immorality, not to tempt Christ, and not to murmur (complain). He refers to events which are described in Exodus 32, Numbers 25, Numbers 21, and Numbers 16. Paul says that what happened were examples that were written for our admonition (v. 11). In 1:31 Paul refers to Jeremiah 9:24 and says, “as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’”
In many other passages, Paul specifically refers to the Old Testament to defend his beliefs. Numerous verses in Romans and Galatians include quotes from the Old Testament. In l Timothy 5:18, Paul refers to Deuteronomy to command that Christian workers be properly supported.
No one argues that these teachings were culturally limited. Paul used the Old Testament to establish Christian practice, not just for the churches to which he wrote, but for all churches. Paul’s argument for women’s silence is explicitly based on the Scriptures he had. Therefore, the command is for all New Testament churches, not just the one in Corinth.
I Timothy 2
Paul also refers to the law (the first five books of the Bible) in I Timothy 2:13, 14. He says a woman is to learn in silence with all subjection (v. II) and is not permitted to teach (v. 12). This is a result of God’s created order (vv. 13) and the fact that the woman was deceived first (v. 14). Some have stated that Paul, in using the phrase in v. 12, “I do not permit”, is only stating his personal opinion, and for that reason, it is not authoritative for the church today. But that view has two weaknesses.
First, Paul stated explicitly in v. 11 that a woman is to learn in silence. We are to follow explicit commands. Learning in silence and teaching are mutually exclusive. Second, it is wrong to assume that what Paul did not permit, on the basis of his interpretation and application of Old Testament scripture, is optional for today. As in 1 Corinthians, he is arguing for women to be silent, not on the basis of contemporary culture, but on the basis of Scripture. God’s order of authority was established in creation (Adam was formed first), and it was reaffirmed by the events of the Fall (the woman was deceived first). Paul is writing to establish that that same order of authority be maintained by those redeemed in Christ, the Church. Commands that New Testament authors were inspired to defend on the basis of Old Testament scriptures are to be obeyed. Paul’s reference to the scripture he had, the Old Testament, is the Lord’s way of showing that Paul’s commands transcend any local culture and are to be followed in all churches. If Paul did not permit a practice because it violated God’s order, then churches today should not permit that practice either, even if the contemporary culture is opposed to God’s order.
In I Timothy 2, Paul, in addition to commanding that women not teach, also indicates that the men are to pray at the meeting of the church. In 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul says that men are to pray everywhere. The Greek word aner translated here as “men”, means “males.” In all the other references to men in 1 Timothy (vv. 2:1, 4, 5; 4:10; 5:24; 6:5; 6:9), Paul uses the Greek word, anthropos, which means mankind, i.e., men and women. Paul uses aner in 2:8 to draw a distinction between men and women. The context of 1 Timothy 2:8-11 is that of a church gathering. Paul is saying that when the whole church meets together, the males are the ones who are to pray.
Since teaching is an exercise of authority, women should not teach men at the meeting of the church. For the same reason, Paul prohibits women from praying when the whole church is gathered: praying aloud is an authoritative act. The individual praying is speaking to God on behalf of the whole church. At that point the individual is leading the whole congregation. There is inherent authority in that act of leadership.
Some have argued that praying is not a form of speaking, and therefore, Paul is not prohibiting women from praying aloud in the meeting of the church. But prayer is simply the act of speaking to God. When one prays out loud, it is the same action as talking to someone. The distinction between prayer to God and talking to others is not the act of speaking, but rather the person to whom the speaking is directed. Prayer at the church meeting is speaking to God with others listening.
Related to the argument that prayer is not a form of speaking is the idea that speaking, (laleo), refers to both speaking and singing. The argument is that singing is a form of speaking, and since women are permitted to sing in church meetings, Paul is not giving an absolute prohibition against women speaking. Those who make this argument conclude that since the women can sing, they should also be permitted to do other forms of speaking, such as prayer and reading from scripture. This argument is incorrect because, laleo, “speak”, does not refer to singing. Laleo is used over 300 times in the New Testament, and nowhere is it translated “to sing.”6
Some people argue that perhaps Paul did not really write I Corinthians 14:34,35 and that an editor may have added those verses to the Greek manuscripts. They say that since it may not be authentic, we can ignore the command. However, there is no evidence from Greek manuscripts to support the view that Paul did not write verses 34 and 35. It is pure speculation, and quite dangerous, to arbitrarily reject the authority of these verses. This is an example of theological liberalism entering into churches which had in the past been Bible-centered.
In regard to women prophesying, some say that the daughters of Philip prophesied in the church meeting (Acts 21:9), and that therefore, women should be able to prophesy in the church today. However, the defense of women prophesying, based on Acts 21:9, is invalid because there is no evidence in the passage that the daughters of Philip were in a church meeting. Nothing in the New Testament limits the use of prophecy to church meetings. (Just as teaching and praying were not limited to church meetings.) In Acts 21:10,11, immediately after referring to Philip’s daughters, we read that Agabus, a prophet, prophesied to Paul. The verses indicate that this prophecy took place outside of the meeting of the church.
Some have argued that Paul in Galatians 3:28 is teaching that women should have the same role as men in the church. However, Paul in this passage does not in any way indicate a functional unisexuality. He does make the point that there is spiritual equality between men and women. This equality is the result of what he affirms in vv. 26 and 27: all are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus and all have been baptized into Christ.
Although there is spiritual equality, not everyone has the same role in the church. In Galatians 3:28 Paul is not saying, for example, that women should be elders in the local church. Those who believe that this verse allows for female eldership are basing their belief on an unclear inference that contradicts the clear teaching in 1 Timothy and Titus. Nor is Paul saying that women should speak in the meeting of the church. Such an inference would contradict Paul’s explicit teaching, and as this article has emphasized, one should base doctrine on explicit statements, not inference.
Women Have an Important Ministry
Let me affirm that women do have an important teaching ministry today. In prohibiting women from speaking in the church, Paul is in no way prohibiting women from ministering the Word. Women are to teach women and children in groups. Informally, men and women speak about the Bible together. Acts 18:26 indicates that both Aquila and Priscilla taught Apollos. The key thing to observe is that they “took him aside”, and this shows that they were not in the church meeting. I am thankful for the many godly women who have taught me things from the Word of God in conversations over the 17 years of my Christian life.
I would like to briefly discuss the issue of women speaking in light of church history. The Bible is our only standard for faith and practice, but it is worthwhile to examine what other Christians have believed about the Bible in past generations.
From the time of the Reformation in the 16th Century, until the 20th Century, with rare exception, women were not allowed to speak at the church meeting. The widespread push for women to lead in church meetings began with the Pentecostal Movement in the early 1900’s. No other theological group accepted women speaking in churches until the 1960’s, when liberal Protestant churches began to permit this action. Thus, the vanguard of the movement to allow women to speak in the church was composed of Pentecostals, who base much of their doctrine on emotionalism, and liberal Protestants, who entirely reject the authority of scripture.
Since the end of World War II, certain philosophies have come to dominate Western Culture. Secular Humanism teaches that man is the highest being and that there is no God who reveals truth. Relativism teaches that there is no absolute truth and that people can choose to do whatever they please without any moral restraints. Feminism teaches that there are no significant distinctions between male and female and that the sex roles in society are interchangeable. All these views are antithetical to the Word of God. The Humanist, the Relativist, and the Feminist would all say that in any organization, including churches, women should do the same things as men and that men should do the same things as women. But the Bible does not teach this.
Today there is tremendous cultural pressure to compromise the Word of God. God’s commands are the opposite of what is generally accepted in society. This is certainly true of the Ten Commandments. It is also true of other commands in scripture, including those regarding the role of women in the church. In these last days, it is vitally important for Christians to believe and submit to what the Bible explicitly teaches.
1Dr.John Robbins, Scripture Twisting in the Seminaries, Part I: Feminism (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation, 1985), p.26.
2Donald L. Norbie, “Women in the Church” (in the “This I Believe” series), Kansas City: Walterick Publishers.
3 W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (McLean, Virginia: MacDonald PublishingCompany), p.1080.
4This command in v. 34 “to keep silent in the churches” is qualified by “Let your women keep”. That qualification is quite distinct from the one in v. 28a, “if there be no interpreter”. In that verse the command to keep silent is to those who would speak in tongues, even though an interpreter is not present. The qualification in vv. 29,30 to “keep silent” is also distinct from the one in v. 34. In v. 30 Paul says that “the first” should “keep silent”. It is clear from v. 29 that “the first” refers to a prophet who had already prophesied. In these two verses, then, Paul commands one who prophesies to keep silent when a subsequent prophet prophesies.
The command to “keep silent” in vv. 28 and 30 clearly does not mean that the speakers must be continuously silent throughout the church meeting. Some argue, then, that in light of the non-absolute commands in vv. 28 and 30 the command in v. 34 for the women to “keep silent” in the church also is non-absolute. Those who make that argument ignore the qualifications that Paul makes: in v. 28, tongues speakers are to keep silent in the church when there is no interpreter; in v. 30, prophets are to keep silent when another is prophesying; in v. 34, women are to keep silent in the church.
5 F. L. Godet (translated by A. Cusin), Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1957), p. 312.
6 Some have argued that laleo means “to sing” in Eph. 5:19. That is not necessarily the case. Many Christians have spoken—not sung—Psalms and the lyrics of Christian hymns to other people. Paul may simply be exhorting brethren to quote the words and to talk about the themes of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. (William MacDonald wrote in reference to this verse, “The divine infilling opens the mouth to talk about the things of the Lord, and enlarges the heart to share these things with others.” Believers Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1992, p.762. J. Vernon McGee wrote, “It is a good thing that the Spirit of God said it was speaking to one another. If he had said singing, it would have left me out.” Ephesians, Thru the Bible Books, Pasadena, CA, 1982, p.144.)
Even if laleo does mean “sing” in Ephesians 5:19, then Paul would have been using laleo in a figurative manner in that verse. Elsewhere in scripture the word is used in its literal sense. In I Corinthians 14, there is nothing to indicate that Paul is using figurative language. Therefore, the literal meaning of laleo, “to speak,” should be accepted. Those who would do otherwise, and would define laleo to include singing, are basing their view on an isolated, ambiguous usage of the word. Defining a word on the basis of one verse, rather than on the usage of the word in hundreds verses, is an error.