What does it mean that "women are to keep silent in the churches"?

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What does it mean that "women are to keep silent in the churches"?

Mar 05, 2007 |Candice Watters
Question

I found your site a few weeks ago and have been eagerly devouring it. I see a lot of truth in your various columns, and it's reassuring to see a community out there who holds to the same beliefs I do. So when I came across a passage in 1 Corinthians that puzzled me, I thought maybe one of you could shed some light on it for me. I'm speaking of 1 Corinthians 10:33-35:

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 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.

I'm not sure if this is just my American-bred feminism flaring up (I'm a female engineering student), but I'm finding this verse a little hard to swallow. It seems like Paul is saying that women have no place in the church except to quietly listen — like we can make no contribution at all. Is there a historical context to this that I'm missing? Surely God can use us women for his purposes — men may be designed to be leaders, but not being a leader doesn't mean I can't contribute, does it? Any light you can shed on this would be helpful — thanks for your time.

Answer

Thank you for writing. Let me start by clarifying that the verses you're asking about are found in 1 Corinthians 14, not 1 Corinthians 10. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) says this:

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 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 says. 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.

You're right, to our post-feminist ears, this passage is hard to hear, hard to receive, hard to believe. Lots of passages are. Could anything be more antiquated than to suggest there is any venue where women should not have a say? Any role they should not fill?

I appreciate the fact that when you stumbled over the verses in 1 Corinthians, you stopped to ask why. Is it that the prohibition was only meant for the church in Corinth? Or is it possibly your "American-bred feminism" sensitivities? Too often we assume it's the former, motivated only by the latter. Best to assume nothing and dig into the text and commentaries about the text, in order to discover the original intent of the passage in question.

It seems this passage concerns both a timeless requirement for order and respect, as well as speaking to specific situations in the Corinthian churches.

I looked the passage in question up in scholar John MacArthur's study Bible. He had this to say about it:

The principle of women not speaking in church services is universal; this applies to all the churches, not just locally, geographically, or culturally. The context in this verse concerns prophecy, but includes the general theme of the chapter, i.e., tongues. Rather than leading, they are to be submissive as God's Word makes clear.... Apparently, certain women were out of order in disruptively asking questions publicly in the chaotic services.

Interestingly, Wayne Grudem and John Piper, of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, write that these verses do not suggest women must be completely silent in church. And so, though the prohibition against disorder is for all times, the example of unruly women that Paul was addressing was a specific one.

This should be enough to get you started on understanding these verses. I won't pretend to be able to get to the bottom of the meaning of these particular verses in this short Q&A. There are lots of good resources available to help you with that (and exegesis has never been our mission at Boundless).

My broader goal is to encourage readers to take the time to study God's Word, as God's Word. Your question is a pointed reminder of how easily we can be distracted from Truth, simply by what feels wrong or uncomfortable based on our cultural conditioning. What I think and feel ultimately must be weighed against the higher standard: the Truth of God's revelation.

There are two categories of Scripture that commonly beg for interpretative help: passages of Scripture that are, on their face, obscure and not easily understood, and passages that are not easily accepted or applied. The first includes Old Testament prophecies in books like Ezekiel and Daniel, and most obviously, the book of Revelation. The second includes anything that challenges current cultural trends — anything that ruffles feathers. Examples abound. Consider all the verses prohibiting homosexuality, premarital sex, too much food, drunkenness, lewd speech, rebellion, disrespect for authority, the list is endless.

It's this second category that concerns me. There's a growing trend that seeks to do away with these " hard-to-swallow" passages of Scripture by insisting they were only meant for a certain people, in a certain time and a certain place. While that's true of the Israelites' animal sacrifices and other ceremonial laws, it hardly stretches to all the sinful behaviors we want to rationalize.

To me it's axiomatic that God's Word is true. So when I bump up against it, finding that something I believe disagrees with it, I go back to that first principle and try to figure out if I've misread His Word or if I've been believing a falsehood.

The more I study Scripture, the more I'm amazed by the Bible's unfolding. Verses that at first seem impossible to understand or impossibly offensive find their explanation and resolution in deeper study. What we definitely shouldn't do when we stumble onto a difficult passage is avoid it. Scripture was meant to be studied. It's a life-long effort to hide God's Word in our hearts. And the more we do, the more the Holy Spirit works in us, revealing its meaning. There is great reward when we honestly wrestle with God's Word — instead of simply writing off what we don't understand or disagree with. The following verses are just a glimpse of the reason why.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:12-13).

The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Sincerely,
CANDICE WATTERS

Copyright 2007 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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