Let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 has engendered controversy for years. What does it mean? Does it require complete and absolute silence? What does Paul mean that the “law also says” these things? What, precisely, is Paul referring to as “the church”?
When the answers to these questions are usually considered, they are done so assuming that Paul is speaking primarily about good and proper order within the church, and therefore the answers to the question must primarily involve “church matters.”
Based in the context, there is no doubt that Paul does have proper order within the assembly in mind. But what does a woman speaking in church have to do with proper order in the assembly?
To answer this question, let us consider God’s intentions for the roles of men and women.
We gain understanding from two passages: 1 Corinthians 11:3; 7-10 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God…For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels.
Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression: but she shall be saved through her child-bearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety.
1 Corinthians 11:3; 7-10 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15 explicitly refer to creation in Genesis 2 for the basis of the relationship. Adam was formed, then Eve; Eve was made for Adam from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:18-23). Eve was deceived and compelled her husband to eat (Genesis 3:6).
All of these passages help us to understand that God does have a divine hierarchy in mind as elaborated in 1 Corinthians 11:3: God -> Christ -> man/husband -> woman/wife. This hierarchy exists on the basis of authority and primacy. Man came before woman, and woman was made for man. Woman sinned and led man into sin.
This reasoning is powerful, and it means that we do not have the right to cavalierly cast off what Paul commands in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (or, for that matter, 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Timothy 2) as if it were “cultural.” The reasons go back to the creation and the order that God has established.
These are the general principles on account of which women must learn “in all quietness,” so that they do not “usurp authority” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). In this limited sense, all men have “authority” over all women, because it is not “usurping authority” for a man to get up and teach women in the church (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), but it would be for a woman to get up and teach a man. We can also observe that the logic in 1 Corinthians 11:3-12 demands that all men and all women are under discussion in that passage, not just husbands and wives, because what is true of Adam and Eve is true of all men and women, respectively.
From 1 Corinthians 11:3; 7-10 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, therefore, we understand the divine hierarchy and the reasoning for it. When we go back to Genesis 3:16, however, we gain a bit of understanding that also helps us better understand 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
Unto the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
This verse represents Eve’s punishments for eating of the fruit. While many have interpreted the woman’s desire in sexual terms, it is hard to reconcile such a view with the conclusion of the matter. Instead, it seems that desire does exist for a woman to have some kind of dominion or equal standing with their husbands, but God has charged that the husband will rule over the wife.
This command, coupled with the principles from the other passages we have considered, lead Paul to elaborate specifically on the relationship of the husband and wife in Ephesians 5:22-24:
Wives, be in subjection unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, being himself the Saviour of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their husbands in everything.
A wife is to be in subjection to her husband as to Christ– this respects the divine hierarchy (1 Corinthians 11:3). Please also notice that the wife is to be subject to her husband “in everything” (Ephesians 5:24).
Let us now return to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35:
Let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.
In our attempts to universalize the passage we forget that Paul seems to presuppose that the “women” under discussion are really “wives,” for if they desire to learn anything, they are to “ask their own husbands at home.” Why, then, is it shameful for a woman to speak in the church?
“Because they should ask their own husbands at home” would seem to be the answer from the text itself! This seems to entirely fit in with the picture we have painted so far: Paul’s concern indeed is the divine hierarchy and that the divine hierarchy remains respected, and part of that divine hierarchy is that the wife is to be in subjection to her own husband “in all things” (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 5:24). For a wife to ask a question and receive answer from another than her husband is a violation of Ephesians 5:24, and thus is shameful in the assembly!
I fear that sometimes “the family” gets missed in discussions regarding “the individual” and “the church.” God indeed has responsibilities for the individual and for the church, but He also has responsibilities for families. One of these responsibilities, as we have seen, involves the husband, and he is to have headship over his wife and his family. This headship is of great significance, for God even desires for it to be maintained within the assembly of the saints!
This would also make sense of Paul’s statement that wives are to “be in subjection, as the Law also says.” While the Law says no such thing about the assemblies of Israel, we do have Genesis 3:16 which describes how the husband is to rule over the wife, which requires that the wife be in subjection to her husband.
Therefore, Paul’s logic is that since a wife is to be in subjection to her husband, and the divine hierarchy involves God -> Christ -> man -> woman, it is shameful for a woman to speak in church, since in doing so she no longer subjects herself to her husband and violates the divine hierarchy.
When the passage is viewed in this way, all the pieces seem to come together, and Paul’s short tangent on this subject makes sense in context. A woman remaining in subjection is part of having a decent and orderly assembly, yet the main issue is respecting the divine hierarchy and the headship of the husband.
Therefore, any attempts to make delineations between a “Bible class” and a “regular assembly” would be entirely legalistic and contrary to Paul’s whole message. When we understand 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in terms of the divine hierarchy and the headship of the husband, whether or not a Bible class is “the assembly” is no longer the point. Instead, the point is whether a woman asking a question or making statements within a Bible class would respect the divine hierarchy and her husband’s headship.
Any such discussion about Bible classes is of great importance in terms of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 since it would seem that the events going on within the assembly in Corinth has many affinities with our Bible class system. After all, how does a woman violate 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? She would “ask a question” in an attempt to “learn.” Paul says that she would do better to “ask her husband at home.” Who asks questions during preaching? What forum is more conducive for questions? A Bible class. Christians came together to devote themselves to the Apostles’ teachings (Acts 2:42), and it would certainly seem that part of that devotion involved something akin to a Bible class. The delineations that many would like to make between a “Bible class” and “the assembly” do not seem to fit the situation as reflected in the first century, and certainly cannot stand up to Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
What, then, about singing and saying an “amen” to a corporate prayer? Many attempt to reason that Paul’s declaration of “silence” in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 preclude singing and saying “amen” to a prayer. Yet, when we understand what Paul is saying and why, this difficulty is resolved. By necessity, singing in the assembly and the corporate prayer are collective activities: we are to sing “to one another” in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, and we understand from 1 Corinthians 14:14-17 that a prayer led in an assembly is really a corporate prayer to which all give assent by saying “amen.” In these contexts, women are as much a part of the assembly as men since they are communal actions of the whole (Galatians 3:28). A husband’s authority is not in question in such communal activities, no more or less so than by the wife partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-28). Singing and saying “amen” to a prayer, therefore, are not in view in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
What about single women, spiritual widows, or widows indeed? By limiting the discussion in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to women with husbands (literally, “their own men”), are they entirely left out of the picture? Paul recognizes that they exist, considering he even advocates for women to remain single if possible in 1 Corinthians 7.
Yet, in this apparent silence, should we believe that they are automatically granted license to speak? We must remember the overall divine hierarchy as enumerated in 1 Corinthians 11:3. We must also remember that there is no such specificity about husbands and wives in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
By what authority can we say that unmarried women, spiritual widows, or widows indeed can speak in a Bible class or in the assembly? The only argument that could be made would be that it is a liberty. On the other hand, 1 Timothy 2:11 explicitly charges women to learn quietly “in the assembly” (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), and every Biblical principle would indicate that the women should remain quiet. If they want to learn, they can ask their fathers or the elders of the congregation. It is hard to understand how it would be any less of a violation of the divine hierarchy for a widow or a single woman to speak in the assembly than it is for a married woman.
Thus we can see that Paul’s main concern is the divine hierarchy with special emphasis on the role of the husband as the head of his household in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. This passage is no aberration, but entirely consonant with other Pauline discussions of the relationship between men and women. Furthermore, Paul is not acting as a spiritual maverick of sorts, but is entirely grounded in the relationship between man and woman as specified in the very beginning– Genesis 2 and 3. It is upon this basis that women are to remain silent within the assembly, that they do not violate the divine hierarchy, and that those who have husbands remain subject to their authority “in all things.”
These teachings are difficult in our feminist age; nevertheless, may God be true, and every man a liar. Let us strive to understand what God has said, even if it may be culturally unacceptable.