Does 1 Corinthians 14:34 Prohibit Women from Speaking in Church?
1 Corinthians 14:33-35 For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 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. 35 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.
In Women in Ministry? Part 3, I addressed the so-called “prohibition” of women preaching and leading in the church from 1 Timothy Chapter 2. There we found that much of what Paul was addressing had to do with believers exhibiting proper respect for the cultural expectations of the city they were living in.
For those who see this passage as a complete and unconditional silencing of women in church, it’s important to note that such an interpretation of this passage would preclude women from speaking and teaching in all areas of church. Women speaking to or teaching other women or children, would also necessarily be outlawed. Some proponents of this view agree that, “This rule is positive, explicit, and universal. There is no ambiguity in the expressions; and there can be no difference of opinion, one would suppose, in regard to their meaning.1” I wonder, when the passage is taken this way, if it should preclude conversations in the lobby, in the parking lot, or in a home setting with other church members? I’m obviously asking facetiously, but where is the appropriate line drawn if there is “no ambiguity in the expressions and there can be no difference of opinion”?
Clearly, Paul was not prohibiting speaking of every kind but a specific type of speaking. Using the context of this passage and his other instructions to the believers in Corinth we will be able to discern which context he was addressing. Considering his instructions just a few chapters earlier regarding women speaking will help shed some light on what he was addressing in Chapter 14.
1 Corinthians 11:5 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.
In Chapter 11, Paul gives specific instructions for men and women who are praying and prophesying in the church. He details that women are to pray or prophesy with their heads covered as a sign of honor for their husbands (1 Cor 11:3). He further explains that women who pray or prophesy without their heads covered are the same as women whose heads are shaved. This was a reference to a woman caught in adultery or in prostitution in which part of the punishment would be for her to have her head shaved as a mark of disgrace. Paul’s instruction to the church at Corinth was that men and women ought to maintain proper cultural decorum as they ministered in the church through prayer and prophecy. (Prophecy in this context would be any inspired speech, which would also include preaching and teaching.) Because of space constraints I don’t want to delve into the issue of head coverings here. Instead I want to bring attention to one simple fact: Paul is giving specific instructions regarding the appropriate way women are to conduct themselves as they minister in church. He’s actually explaining the way women are to go about ministering! Since he is giving these instructions, he definitely is not contradicting these instructions later in this same letter by now telling women they cannot speak at all.
What then was Paul specifically addressing in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35? According to Jewish ordinance, women were not permitted to teach or ask questions in the synagogues. The normal order of instruction in a synagogue would include the reading of a passage, a teaching on that text and a back and forth discussion that at times might get rather heated. Men were permitted to ask questions, object, refute and dialogue in these moments. Women were not. It is evident that Paul, in keeping with the normal code of conduct of the day, is instructing the women not to engage in discussion and debate publicly, but instead to dialogue with their husbands at home if they have a question about the discussion. For a woman to bring a challenge of this sort to a man publicly would be seen as indecent, immodest, and bordering on immoral. What’s notable is that the women in the church had been given a level of freedom that wasn’t normal in the society. Apparently they had been engaged in the public discussion and thus Paul needed to address this activity in order to help them remove any confusion for unbelievers who may attend, maintain an appropriate witness, and keep the proper peace (1 Cor 14:33).
This guideline governing the public debate did not forbid women from preaching, prophesying, or praying publicly. Instead, Paul had given clear guidelines how the women were to operate in their public ministry. Adam Clarke explains, “But this by no means intimated that when a woman received any particular influence from God to enable her to teach, that she was not to obey that influence; on the contrary, she was to obey it, and the apostle lays down directions in Chapter 11 for regulating her personal appearance when thus employed. All that the apostle opposes here is their questioning, finding fault, disputing, etc., in the Christian Church, as the Jewish men were permitted to do in their synagogues2”
All in all, what is clear in this passage is that Paul was not forbidding women from speaking in the context of teaching, preaching, prophesying or praying. Please note that, the issues of head coverings and appropriate conduct regarding public speech for women are for other discussions and not my focus here. I believe it’s likely that those details can vary widely depending on the culture and era one lives within.
I know there are those who will reject the idea that this appeal for women to keep quiet is bound to a certain set of circumstances largely driven by cultural factors. I want to ask you to consider the broad base of the scriptural narrative which I have laid out in the previous blogs in this series and wrestle with all of those portions of scripture rather than reading any specific verse in isolation. Scripture must interpret Scripture. Allow the word to instruct and season your understanding rather than any specific doctrinal position.
In my next blog, I will sum up what women are called to do in the church. We will look at Scriptures that show principles and practices demonstrating how women are called to contribute to the ministry. Let’s move onward together!
1Barnes, Albert. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34“. “Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/1-corinthians-14.html. 1870.
2 Clarke, Adam. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:4“. “The Adam Clarke Commentary”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/1-corinthians-14.html. 1832.