Silence of Women in Church

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul, Paul


Some of the writings in the New Testament that are attributed to Paul state that women should not speak in the temple (church?). These writings have been interpreted by some denominations to mean that women should not speak in a church or address men in a church environment. I had once heard that the reason they were asked not to speak (in Paul's day) was because they were illiterate and had little or no comprehension of what was going on - consequently they talked among themselves not unlike children. Can you give me your thoughts on this? I am a Sunday School teacher and don't know how to explain this to my students (all girls).
Fran Hall, New Jersey


The passage in question appears in I Corinthians 14:34-35. It says: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." (KJV)

It's statements like this one (found in an authentic Pauline letter) that cause scholars much consternation. Debate rages as to whether Paul was an advocate for women or simply another male interested in domination and suppression of women's roles. Paul also wrote in Gal 3:28, "In Christ, there is...neither male and female." More than one scholar has noted the inherent inconsistency between these two statements.

The biggest challenge, however, is not to take either statement out of context, but to study it within the larger letter. What were the specific issues Paul was dealing with in those communities, and what point was he trying to make? Considering this all happened 2000 years ago, there is some level of speculation.

But we do know some things about the Corinthian community. One is that there were divisions in the church (Chloe's people have told him that). Another is that the church was very stratified - wealthy people as well as slaves, men and women (he says, "not many of you were wise, powerful, and highly born", which indicates that some were). Another is that the church was very small, maybe only 50-60 people. (They were meeting in someone's house.) Paul's point throughout the whole letter is to help them become a church, a working community. In many instances, he seems to be trying to level things out, by taking the presumed leaders (read males here) down a notch while trying to elevate the lowly members (read women and slaves here) up a notch. He constantly talks about edification, about building each other up, working for the common good. He uses images of the body to illustrate cooperation and unity. Then there is that very parallel passage in 11:4-5: "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." People usually get sidetracked by asking why that would dishonor their heads, but the point is that men and women are both prophesying, or he wouldn't have said it this way. Prophesying involves speaking.

So if they're prophesying in Chapter 11, how do they get silenced in Chapter 14? Some scholars have determined that Paul simply did not write the words about being silent. It doesn't fit with what he says in Chapter 11 and it doesn't fit with his message throughout the rest of the book. That's an acceptable solution, but it shouldn't be the first option. The words are in the book and as the questioner has pointed out, they have been interpreted literally in many cases. Another solution lies in the translation of the words themselves. Most translators have several English words to choose from for each Greek word. In this particular passage, they've chosen the harshest option in every case. But then, too, for thousands of years most of the translators were men. For example, the Greek verb for speak is a common word and could mean "talk." As a matter of fact, if someone wished to write in Greek the sentence, "Please do not talk during the prayers," they would have to use this verb. Then the passage might be a rebuke against idle chatter. Since it comes in a larger section of proper decorum during the worship service, that interpretation makes some sense. However, it doesn't make sense that only women would be doing this. Again, throughout this letter, Paul has been very consistent about elevating the underlings, encouraging them to participate fully in the worship service. Telling them to be quiet (forever) doesn't fit.

Let's look at the next verse, which reads: "What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?" We read that as part of the previous statement, that it's addressed to the women who are doing something wrong and need to be silenced, as though they think they're the only ones who can speak the word of God. But the form of the word "you" in vs. 36 is masculine plural. That could be an inclusive term, including men and women. Or it could refer only to men. What it cannot do is refer only to the women. So it is textually clear that the question in vs. 36 is not addressed only to the women who have just been discussed in vss. 34-35. The choices are men and women (the whole congregation), or only men.

Additionally, what we don't know from our English translations is that at the beginning of vs. 36, there is a small Greek particle. It is é. When this particle is placed at the beginning of a sentence, it can be defined as a disjunctive conjunction. That means that the sentence following is contrary to the one just preceding it. In the preceding sentence, Paul basically said it is a shame for women to speak in church. The following sentence (addressed to the men) asks whether they think they are the only ones who can speak for God. The particle indicates that Paul does not agree with what has just been said, but vehemently disagrees with it. Men are not the only ones who speak the word of God, which means that women also have the right to speak God's word.

What would this mean? It could mean that vss 34-35 aren't addressed to the women at all. Paul could be repeating the opinions expressed by the members of the church. Perhaps they were written to him by members about the women in their congregation. Given the nature of the statements, those opinions are more likely to be held by the men who are being influenced by cultural attitudes towards women. This passage, then, is not a command to oppress women; it encourages active participation on the part of women. It removes the discrepancy between I Cor 11:5 and 14:34-35. Speaking and prophesying are similar activities. And lastly, this is consistent with Paul's statement in Gal 3:28.

Why isn't this more well-known or more accepted? For eons, translators have been comfortable with the traditional interpretations. It's only been in the last few decades that these passages have been seriously questioned and studied with an open mind. Scholars are still trying to sort things out, but the fact that they are finally taking these passages seriously should give some measure of hope to female students.

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