Quartz Hill School of Theology


Ted Bisceglia

I. Introduction

       Can women speak in church? Conservatives, evangelicals and liberals continue to maintain an open front on this issue. The battle cry swings as far right as it does left in this age with women seeking and obtaining ordination as pastors within some denominations and in others being denied even the most fundamental of human freedoms in America: the freedom of speech.
       Can women speak in church? For Christians the answer must lie within the confines of the text of Scripture. Unfortunately, within mainstream Christianity today, the Scriptures seem to have little relevance. Christians routinely hold dogmatically to certain interpretations of a single passage and lightly dismiss passages that are contradictory in nature even if they occur in the same letter. This attitude has led to church splits, heresy and apostasy.
       Can women speak in the church? This is the question that will be explored here. It should be stressed that this article does not suppose to answer or address a woman's role in church, or the order of authority in Christian homes or any other issues relating to male and female relationships.

II. The Question of the Texts

       To begin answering the question of whether or not a woman may speak in church one must turn to the scriptures used to support or deny the argument. The first question a Christian must always ask is "What do the Scriptures say?" The primary Scripture used to debate this point is 1 Corinthians 14:33b-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.

       It should be noted that the following passage in 1 Timothy is sometimes used to support or parallel the 1 Corinthian passage. However, since the question we'll be looking at -- whether women can speak in church -- is not specifically addressed in 1 Timothy 2:11, and only the amount of space necessary to demonstrate the difference will be used.

       A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

       At first glance, it would be tempting to think that 1 Timothy 2:11 addresses the same issue; however, closer observation reveals significant differences.

1. The Greek words for "silence" in the passages are different.

       In 1 Corinthians 14:34 Paul uses the word sigao, which is translated as "a physical refraining of speech." It also carries the sense of being "tight-lipped" as in "holding a secret" (cf. Luke 9:26). This is a command given in v. 34.
       However in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul uses the word hesuchazo which can be translated as "peaceable, restful, silently or quietly," but this word does not carry with it the same sense of verbal restrainment; on the contrary it carries the sense of "decorum" or "propriety." It is interesting to note that Paul uses this word in a similar command to the men of the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 4:11):

       Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (italics added)

       Paul tells them to make it their ambition to lead a quiet life. The word translated "quiet" is the same one used in 1 Timothy 2:11, yet nobody would assume that these men were to go about their business without ever uttering a single word. Yet, when 1 Timothy 2:11 is used to try and confirm 1 Corinthians 14:34 it is translated as if a woman should be mute when learning. How can you learn (and Paul says "let them learn") without asking questions of the one teaching?

2. The absolute nature of the command in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is completely different than what Paul writes to Timothy. Notice that in the letter to the Corinthians the backing of "the law" is given to justify his statement, while in 1 Timothy there is no such backing; rather Paul seems to be using an approach similar to the one he used in 1 Corinthians 7 where he alternates between his advice and the commands of the Lord. In 1 Timothy 2 Paul writes "I want", "I also want", "women should", "I don't permit".

3. It also appears Paul is talking about two things in the second chapter of 1 Timothy:

a) decorum and respectability.
b) the authority of teachers.

       In contrast, in the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul's statement is directed to one thing: women cannot speak in church.
       In light of the above, 1 Timothy 2:11-12 will not be used in this article to either refute or confirm 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 because clearly the two texts are dealing with two different issues.

III. Establishing the Problem

       As stated previously 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 appears absolute. It is precisely for this reason that a problem occurs. Just three chapters earlier, Paul makes the statement that women can pray and prophecy in like manner as men (1 Corinthians 11:4):

       Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. (italics added)

       Now, see how Paul defines prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:3):

But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. (italics added)

       Logically speaking, one can only take this apparent contradiction in one of three ways:

1. One must view vv 33b-35 as literal; that is, women are not allowed to speak in church, nor are they even allowed to ask questions -- period!
2. One can view vv 33b-35 in light of the contradicting verses and try to explain what Paul meant, thereby implying that he was incapable of expressing clearly what he meant.
3. One can assume that he or she is not understanding something or missing data pertinent to understanding this passage and the others around it.

       The third alternative seems the more reasonable of the three because it doesn't operate to the exclusion of other Scripture references, as do options one or two. In other words, to take vv. 33b-35 as absolute negates what Paul writes in 11:5 where a woman is described as being allowed to pray or prophecy like the men (v 4). If one tries to explain vv. 33b-35 in light of what Paul wrote in 11:5 then we tend to minimize the absolute nature of vv 33b-35 and make an arrogant presumption that Paul either didn't quite know what he was talking about or he didn't express himself well.
       In the majority of the commentaries on 1 Corinthians, the expositors acknowledge the paradox between 11:5 and 14:33b-35. However, explanations vary, with the choices bouncing between the first two options given above. At this point it might be helpful to post some of the more popular views and then the problems regarding them.
       W. Harold Mare, writing in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, says the following regarding 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35:

       "The command seems absolute: Women are not to do any public speaking in the church. This restriction is not to be construed as demoting woman, since the expressions "be in submission" (hypotasso, cf. v. 32) and "their own husbands" are to be interpreted as simply consistent with God's order of administration (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:7, 8; Ephesians 5:21-33). "The law says" must refer to the law as set forth in such places as Genesis 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22; 1 Timothy 2:12, and Titus 2:5. Some have explained the apostles use of the word speaking (v34) as connoting only general speaking and not forbidding a public address. But this is incompatible with Paul's other uses of "speaking" in the chapter (vv. 5, 6, 9, et al.), which imply public utterances as in prophesying (v.5). A woman's request for knowledge is not to be denied, since she is a human being equal to the man. Her questions can be answered at home, and not by asking her husband in the public service and so possibly interrupting the sermon."

       At first glance this seems a palatable explanation. However, closer inspection reveals unpleasant discrepancies.
       First, Mare states that the command seems absolute, then he goes on to say that the restriction is not meant to demote women but rather that it is consistent with God's order of administration. However, this restriction is not found in the Old Testament.
       Second, this verse, taken absolutely, equates a woman speaking in church with lack of submission to her husband. If this is the case, then Paul is making a bold and arrogant assumption that all Christian men do not want their wives to speak in church.
       Third, there is the assumption that "the law" is in reference to other places where women are told to be in submission to men. However, nowhere in the Old Testament, which is what Paul would be arguing from, does it state that women are not allowed to speak in church; in fact women did more than just speak at the assembly. Deborah led Israel (Judges 4:4):

       Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.

       Miriam was a prophetess and was sent with Moses and Aaron to lead Israel (Micah 6:4):

I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.

       Additional problems exist in the passages Mare used to argue for silence; in describing the marriage relationship, the mutual submission to one another is conveniently left out. For example, he references 1 Corinthians 11:3 and 7 without showing verse 11: "In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman." Then he entirely overlooks 1 Corinthians 7:4; in a discussion on sexual relations between a husband and wife Paul states that their bodies belong to each other.

       The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone, but also to the wife.

       The verses Mare used to argue "the law says", when viewed independently of their surrounding verses, might give the image of "God's order of administration"; but when taken in context all we see is what marriage is supposed to be: a picture of Christ and the church, where the husband loves his wife as himself and sacrifices himself for her as Christ did for the church. Submission is mutual (see Ephesians 5:21). Nowhere does the description of marriage limit a woman's free speech.
       Bottom line: because of the fact that husbands and wives submit to each other and belong to each other, if this argument is to be taken seriously, then we must follow it to its ultimate conclusion: if a woman speaking in church is a sign of lack of submission to her husband, so too, a man speaking in church is a sign of lack of submission to his wife.
       Mare continues in the Expositor's Bible Commentary:

       The word gyne used in vv. 34, 35 has the general meaning of "woman", an adult female (cf. Mat 13:33, 27:55). But the same word is used to indicate a married woman (cf. Mat 14:3; Luke 1:5). Here in vv. 34, 35 Paul uses the word in the general sense when he declares as broad a principle that "women should remain silent in the churches." That he assumes there were many married women in the congregation is evident from his reference to "their husbands" (v.35). He does not address himself to the question of where the unmarried women, such as those mentioned in 7:8, 36ff, were to get their questions answered. We may assume that they were to talk in private (just as the married women were to inquire at home) with other qualified persons, such as Christian widows (7:8), their pastor (cf. Timothy as a pastor-counselor, 1 Tim 5:1,2), or with elders who were "able to teach" (1 Tim 3:2). At any rate, a woman's femininity must not be disgraced by her trying to take a man's role in the church.

       The problem here is Mare's assumption regarding Paul's assumption: why wouldn't Paul make the necessary distinction and explain what the single women were to do? Notice that Paul didn't hesitate to make a similar distinction in 1 Corinthians 7 when discussing marriage and fidelity.
       Finally, Mare addresses the contradiction -- but look at what he does:

       But what of the seeming contradiction between these verses and 11:5ff, where Paul speaks of women praying and prophesying? The explanation may be that in chapter 11 Paul does not say that women were doing these things in public worship as discussed in chapter 14.

       This explanation seems reasonable at first, but what Mare has done is argue from silence. Simply put, his argument is that since Paul doesn't say they are praying and prophesying in public worship they must not be. However, this argument works just as well in reverse -- that is, since he doesn't say they are, who is to say that they aren't? In fact it is more logical to conclude that since prophesying is generally verbal and not done for our own benefit but for that of others (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:3), that they must be prophesying in some sort of public assembly.
Raymond Bryan Brown, in the Broadman Bible Commentary appears to take even more liberties in his interpretation:

       It is clear that Paul permits women to speak in church, according to 11:5, 13. They are free to engage in prophecy because it is God who gives his prophetic word in revelation to whomever he chooses (cf. Acts 21:9). Therefore, men must not abridge the freedom of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, women are not permitted to engage in a lot of chatter and questions and violate rules of social decorum of that era that encouraged a quiet and unostentatious presence of women in public gatherings. Paul is merely following widely accepted Jewish and Roman practice in his insistence that women not intervene on their own volition in public worship. There is, therefore, no convincing reason to consider vv. 34-35 either an interpolation or in a dislocated position.

       The problem here lies in Brown's approach. He has used 11:5,13 to effectively negate the absoluteness of vv 34-35. Simply put, he argues that Paul didn't say what he meant. But then what of 2 Peter 1:20-21?

       Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

       Was Paul speaking from God or not? In other words, if we use apparently contradicting passages to explain something, we must be careful that we don't wind up denying the accuracy of the passages being explained (effectively saying that the word of God isn't flawless). A denial of inerrancy seems precisely what Brown's opinion could lead to. He argues that Paul allows women to speak in church, based on 11:5,13 and then explains vv. 34-35 as meaning a prohibition on "chatter and questions" that "violate rules of social decorum". This is an illogical conclusion because it denies the absolute nature of vv. 34-35. The statement in vv. 34-35 doesn't differentiate between chatter and prophecy, it just prohibits a woman speaking in church.
       F.W. Grosheide in the New International Commentary on the New Testament takes an absolute approach towards vv 34-35 .

       The view has been expressed that Paul does not issue an absolute prohibition of women's speaking in the church for 1) the verb the apostle uses connotes speaking rather than the giving of an address, and 2) it should be remembered that the special circumstances at Corinth may have demanded special measures.
       It should be granted that Paul writes of speech not of prophecy. But it is inconceivable in this context that Paul's words should imply no more than that women may not speak during the services. Such an admonition would ill accord with subjection as also saith the law. Does not the context speak of using the gift which God has given to the church's profit? Secondly, the expression "speaking in tongues" implies that "to speak" is more than simply expressing oneself. Much more plausible is therefore the view that Paul uses the general word "to speak" because he is of the opinion that any kind of speaking in the services is forbidden to women. Vs. 35 even forbids asking questions in the meeting. And as to the second argument, conditions were indeed unusual at Corinth, but at the beginning Paul stated that the rule which applies at Corinth applies everywhere. Our verse, it should now be clear, contains an absolute prohibition against women's speaking in the services. (italics added)

       Here we have a conservative approach that still, at best, manages to sidestep the issue. Grosheide too, handles the contradiction between 11:5, 13 and 14:33-35 by arguing from silence so there is no need to comment as this issue has already been addressed.

IV. Solving the Problem

       Various commentators have tried to attach different connotations to the word "speak", saying that Paul "writes of speech and not prophecy" but the question begs asking: how do you prophecy without speaking? In essence, they have either 1) held firmly to a literal approach to vv 33b-35 but end up denying 11:5 and 13, or 2) they deny the everyone in 14:3.
       But what about Acts 21:8-9?

       Leaving the next day, we reached Caesurae and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. (italics added)

       Or again, what about Deborah in Judges 4:4-5? All refer to women who spoke in some sort of public assembly.
       What the various commentaries have demonstrated is that it is impossible to explain one passage without negating the other.
       Or is it?
       Can Paul's comment in 14:33b-35 be taken literally without creating a contradiction with other passages in the Bible? The answer is yes, if one takes an entirely different approach: if one views Paul's comment in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 as a quote from the letter the Corinthians sent him.
       Consider the background of the Corinthian church: this was a church which began to have difficulties with divisions (chap 1), sexual immorality (chap 5), lawsuits (chap 6), food sacrificed to idols (chap 8), Paul's rights as an apostle (chap 9), worship and the Lord's supper (chap 11), spiritual gifts (chap 12-14), the resurrection (chap 15) and the collection for God's people (chap 16). We know that Paul had written a letter previous to 1 Corinthians in which he had addressed the issue of sexual immorality (cf. 5:9-11) . We also know that at some point afterwards he received information from some in Chloe's household that there were problems in the church (cf. 1:11) and, in addition to the report from Chloe's household, we know he received a letter from the Corinthian church requesting his advice on some of the above listed subjects:

1 Cor 7:1a Now for the matters you wrote about:
1 Cor 7:25a Now about virgins:
1 Cor 8:1a Now about food sacrificed to idols:
1 Cor 12:1a Now about spiritual gifts,
1 Cor 16:1a Now about the collection for God's people:

       What is also obvious from 5:9-11 is that Paul's advice had been misunderstood in his previous letter:

       1 Cor 5:9 I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people -- not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. (italics added)

       It is also obvious, based on the divisions and Paul's defense of his apostleship, that the Corinthian church was confused. In still yet another example (6:12) of the church's misunderstandings we see Paul quote a Corinthian attitude then counter it with godly counsel; observe:

       "Everything is permissible for me"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"-- but I will not be mastered by anything. (italics added)

       Paul here reveals an attitude of licentiousness among the Corinthians. To at least some of them, grace was no more than a license to do what they wanted; but Paul counters with the appropriate response: that grace doesn't promote slavery to sin -- rather it promotes enslavement to righteousness (cf. Romans 6:16). As we read further, it becomes clear what the Corinthians were attempting to justify (1 Corinthians 6:13):

       "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food"--but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (italics added)

       Some of the Corinthians were apparently justifying their sexual immorality based on Christ having paid for all sin once and for all. The early heresy of gnosticism promoted a similar idea: that what is done in the body is of no consequence. This is not in keeping with Christianity, which teaches that we will be judged for things done in the body.
       It is easy to understand why sexual immorality might be a problem among the Corinthians. Temple prostitution was the norm among the cities of Greece and at one time the "temple on the Acrocorinth had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes)."
       Korinthiazomai (meaning "to live like a Corinthian in the practice of sexual immorality") was the expression used at an earlier time by Aristophanes (Fragmenta 354) to describe a person of loose life.
       Likewise, the trappings of idolatry might also be a problem -- thus the issue of food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:23-24):

       "Everything is permissible" -- but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" -- but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. (italics added)

       Since the Corinthians were trying to get their culture to coexist with Christianity, could it be that at some point they might also have misunderstood Paul's teachings regarding women in worship and intermingled ideas that would be natural to their society? Being Greek they would have a background in Greek tradition and culture. So what was the woman's role in Greek society?
       In Peoples and Nations -- A World History, Anatole G. Mazour describes family life in the Grecian world:

       A married woman had few legal rights. She could not make a contract or bring a suit in court. When a man died, his wife did not inherit his property. Because of poor medical knowledge, many women died in childbirth. If a family could not afford to raise a baby, it was "exposed ," that is, abandoned by the side of the road. More female babies were exposed than male babies.
       In social life, too, women were considered inferior to men. Their duty was to manage the household and the slaves and see to the upbringing of the children. They rarely appeared in public, and then only by permission of their husbands. If there was a banquet or entertainment in the home, the wife withdrew to another part of the house.

       The Groliers Electronic Encyclopedia also paints a dim picture of the Grecian role of women:

       In keeping with its cultural hostility toward women, classical Greek civilization (5th-3d century BC) severely curtailed women's political participation. This trend reflected the transition from an aristocratic to a more egalitarian commercial society with a growing dependence on slave labor. Classical Athens firmly relegated women, with slaves and children, to the household, or oikos, which male citizens dominated and represented in the polity. The married woman nonetheless earned dignity and respect from her management of the oikos. The more authoritarian Spartans, who also displayed deep misogyny (hatred of women) and radically segregated women and men, allowed women defined public roles. The fear of and hostility toward women that permeated Greek culture was institutionalized in law and indirectly expressed in men's idealization and love of other men, particularly young boys. (italics added)

       If the Corinthians came from this societal background, even the most enlightened of them might still retain some of these biases. Would it not seem logical then that they took whatever Paul had taught regarding women and mixed it with their own cultural biases? We see this in Christianity today. Only in America can there be "health, wealth and prosperity" teachings because our culture allows it. But prosperity theology won't wash in Bangladesh, where people are thankful to get one meal of rice a day. In Egypt or other predominately Muslim countries one will find people who are "Christians" or "Muslims" because they were born that way. While this is totally contrary to the Scriptures, since nobody is "born a Christian", it serves to illustrate how the cultural biases of a given country or culture can affect the way one might view the word of God.
       If this negative attitude toward women is a cultural bias of the Corinthian church, it is logical to conclude (since they have done it in other areas) that they had intermingled their secular and social traditions with Paul's godly teaching, thus creating an error. If this is the case, then we might conclude that Paul's response to their error would be similar to his previous formula when faced with one of their errors: he would express their misconception first:

       "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."

       Then he would quickly refute their notions with the appropriate Christian attitude.

       Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? (1 Corinthians 14:36)

       Walter Kaiser, Jr. in his book, Toward An Exegetical Theology, writes;

       Paul's rejoinder is almost ruthless: "What! are you men, the only ones (monous - masculine; not monas - feminine) the Word of God has reached? Did the Word of God originate with you?

       The point Kaiser makes in his exegesis of the passage is that the word "monous" translated "only", is masculine not feminine. With this being the case, it further supports the idea that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, was denouncing a misconception on the part of the men of the Corinthian church. Apparently the Corinthian men believed women should be silent when the word of God was being taught -- even forbidding them from asking questions. It can be demonstrated from the encyclopedia article that there might even have been civic laws regarding the appropriate conduct of women in public. This then would be where they get their reference to "the law" since -- as was discussed earlier -- the Old Testament certainly doesn't teach the silence of women. Paul therefore simply responds that the Corinthian men don't have the right to claim God's Word as their sole possession, nor can they forbid women the right to learn from what was being taught.
       This solution does not diminish the inerrency of Scripture. The obvious conclusion of the matter is that Paul meant what he wrote in both chapters 11 and 14, and we can now reconcile the conflicting passages literally without creating a paradox. The "nail in the coffin" would be if we were to find a copy of the letter that the Corinthians sent Paul; that would end all speculation as to his motives behind what he wrote.
       The role of women in the church will always be a controversial one because of personal and cultural biases. Additionally, people will always try to use the Bible to justify their own preconceived notions. One example is the teacher who asked Jesus to sum up the law. Jesus replied: "love God, love your neighbor." At this point the text relates (Luke 10:29):

       But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (italics added)

       Can a woman speak in the church? Since 1 Corinthians 14 doesn't prohibit it and 1 Corinthians 11 confirms it, what then are the guidelines? They are the same for any Christian speaking in church, whether male or female:

       If anyone speaks he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:11 italics added)


Brown, Raymond B. The Broadman Bible Commentary. Nashville: Broadman Press. Vol. 10. 1970
Grolier, Grolier's Encyclopedia, Electronic Version. 1991
Grosheide, F.W. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1953
Kaiser, Walter C. Jr. Toward an Exegetical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1981
Liddel & Scott A Greek - English Lexicon Oxford: Oxford Press. 1990
Mare, W. Harold The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1976
Mazour, Antonele Peoples and Nations, A World History. Orlando: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanavich. 1983

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