Having seen that the scriptures support congregational government, and that congregational voting is an integral part of that government, we were also able to see how the female members took part in such voting. So, whatever a woman's being "silent" in the church involves, and whatever not "speaking" therein condemns, it does not forbid her from voting; Nor, as we have seen, does it disallow her speaking in every way.
In this and the next posting we will examine the chief passages of scripture that demand that women keep silence in the assemblies and that forbid them to speak.
"If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all (the members - SG) speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all (the members - SG) prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you (the members - SG) of a truth. How is it then, brethren? (does Paul here switch from addressing all the members to addressing only the male members? SG) when ye (ye all the brothers, or ye all the members? SG) come together, every one of you (who is the "you" here? SG) hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. If any man ("man" here is not in the original Greek, rather it is literally "anyone" SG) speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him (masculine gender in Greek - SG) keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God. Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all (all the members or just male prophets? - SG) prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. 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." (I Cor. 14: 23-35 kjv)
The interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is by no means easy. The difficulties, as it relates to a woman's silence, are obvious. With that in mind, let us begin with some initial observations about this passage.
First, note that the apostle is giving instructions about times when the whole church assembles or congregates. He speaks of the time when "the whole church be come together." Paul more than once speaks of the time when the members "come together" as a church. Whether any of his instructions are applicable to smaller sub groups, within the church, that may assemble, is not directly under review. Paul is discussing what occurs "in the churches," or "in the assemblies," in mixed assemblies of men and women, when they are assembled for worship and for instruction.
Second, generally the apostle seems to be addressing all the members, male and female, and the pronouns should be viewed with that fact in mind. However, at times, in the above words, as well as in the epistle generally, he seems to speak only to the male members by his saying "brothers."
Third, the command to be "silent" is also, in one instance at least, addressed to all, men included, for certain circumstances. When a speaker is speaking, he is not to be interrupted. A person should wait till a speaker is finished before attempting to speak. Take turns, says the apostle. Until it is your turn, do not speak.
Fourth, the words "as in all the churches of the saints," should not be viewed as a part of verse 34 rather than verse 33, as many commentators have observed. In the original Greek, there were no chapters and verses, and no punctuation. Thus, each person must judge, based upon rules of interpretation, where periods, commas, colons, semicolons, quotation marks, parenthesis, etc., are to be placed. This being so, what Paul says about the woman's place in the general meetings of the church is not for Corinth only, but for all the churches. So, we read "as in all the churches of the saints, let your women keep silent..."
Fifth, "speaking in tongues" and "prophesying" were not strictly male activities. This, as we will see, is clearly seen from other passages of scripture, and seems indicated even in these words from I Corinthians chapter fourteen.
Sixth, it seems that Paul's prohibition against women speaking, and his command for them to be in silence, contradicts not only what he wrote elsewhere in his epistles, but what he has already stated in this very epistle.
Women Speaking in Tongues & Prophesying
"And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven." (Acts 2:1-5 kjv)
Who is designated by Luke the historian when he says "they were all"? Clearly it was the 120 who, by Christ's instruction, were tarrying in Jerusalem and waiting for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 1:13-15) And, many women were part of that special group, including Mary, the mother of our Lord. Luke writes that the apostles, in this waiting period of time, were "with the women." So, when the text says "they were all," there can be no doubt that the sisters were included. What occurred on this day was not restricted to the male members. "They were all" alike "filled with the Holy Ghost," and they all, male and female, spoke in tongues, in Spirit given "utterance." So, clearly, the sisters were not silent in the church at this time, and did not refrain from speaking.
Certainly the apostle Paul knew these things. Surely he was not condemning what the sisters did on that glorious day. How could he when the sisters spoke by the moving of the Spirit? In Peter's explanation of these things to the Jerusalem crowd, he said:
"But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:" (16-18)
Notice that women, "daughters," the Lord's "handmaidens," not only spoke in tongues, uttering in the assembly glorious things, but they prophesied too. A person cannot speak in tongues and prophesy in silence. Nor was it a shame for the women to so speak in the assembly on the day of Pentecost. Luke also records these words at the close of his account of that Pentecostal day.
"Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." (vs. 47)
Certainly the "praising" was done by all the Jerusalem assembly's members, both male and female. Further, it is hard to believe that this "praising" was done in silence, with no audible words spoken. But, more on that later. Now let us look at Paul's words in I Cor. 11, just three chapters before his remarks of chapter 14.
"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. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven." (11: 3-5)
Though speaking in tongues is not mentioned, it is included. Paul says that "every woman," every Christian woman in the congregation, is to pray, prophesy, or speak in tongues with a head covering. But, the problem is this: how can he give approval for women to do these things, which involve speaking and not being silent, and yet later command women not to speak and to remain silent? Is this not clearly a contradiction?
Years ago, when discussing these things with my father, who was against women voting in church, and was somewhat strict on his interpretation of I Corinthians 14: 33-34, I asked him about Paul's allowance of women prophesying and praying in church per 11: 3-5 and how he harmonized the two passages. His reply was that the praying and prophesying that women may do, with the head covering, was to be done in silence. Now, I realize that a person can pray in silence, without speaking aloud. But, it is kind of hard to think that the prophesying Paul has reference to was something women were permitted to do, but only in silence. Father's explanation is in line with what the learned Baptist commentator wrote.
Wrote John Gill:
"Not that a woman was allowed to pray publicly in the congregation, and much less to preach or explain the word, for these things were not permitted them: see (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) (1 Timothy 2:12) but it designs any woman that joins in public worship with the minister in prayer, and attends on the hearing of the word preached, or sings the praises of God with the congregation, as we have seen, the word prophesying signifies."
I find this a stretching of the text. To mentally "join in" the audible praying and preaching, or to "attend on" prophesying, cannot be what Paul intends. When a person says that so and so "prophesied," or "preached," we do not understand that such words mean only that someone heard and acquiesced prophesying and preaching. It seems that Dr. Gill chose to alter the meaning of I Cor. 11 rather than alter the meaning of I Cor. 14.
Two things seem clear. First, that it was not forbidden for women to speak in the assembly when filled with the Spirit and given utterance by the Spirit to either speak in tongues, pray, or to prophesy. Second, that in spite of these facts Paul nevertheless forbids women to speak in I Cor. 14. There is clearly an incongruity, and a seeming contradiction. Yet, we know, there are no real contradictions in God's word. In some way, both passages are true in spite of the seeming contradiction. Our job is to see how they harmonize. Further, it seems odd that Paul would forbid women to speak, whether as a prophetess or in tongues, and then say "Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues." (I Cor. 14:39) Is Paul, in verses 34-35 forbidding women to speak absolutely and without exception?
In the Old Testament we have Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses, who was a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). There were others as well. In the New Testament, another prophetess, Anna (Luke 2:36–37), spoke in the Temple to the people about the Lord Jesus. Four prophetesses are mentioned in Acts 21:9, being the four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist.
The Rule & The Exceptions
It is a truth that nearly all rules, if not all, have exceptions. This is a truth generally recognized by all and so we often hear it said - "There are exceptions to every rule." Let me give some proof of this in both scripture and in law and in every day conversation.
It is written in Scripture - "it is appointed for men to die once" (Hebrews 9:27). That is the general rule. However, there have been cases of people who died twice (1 Kings 17:22; 2 Kings 8:5, Matthew 27:52, Mark 5:25, John 11:44). The Bible tells us that these people were raised, but died naturally again. Further, two men, Enoch and Elijah, did not die even once.
"For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him." (I Cor. 15:27)
In this verse Paul gives the rule - "all things are put under his feet." But, he also gives us an obvious exception to that rule. Of course the one who put all things under the feet of Christ is not part of that "all things." He is the exception to the generalization.
"Art thou bound unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife." (I Cor. 7:27)
If a man is married, he ought not to seek a divorce. That is the rule. But, are there no exceptions? Yes. Jesus gave infidelity as a reason and Paul gave desertion as another. (Matt. 19:9; I Cor. 7: 15) Further, if one is single, Paul gives a rule (for the Corinthians at the time he is writing) - "seek not a wife." But, obviously the exception is - "But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." (I Cor. 7:9)
"Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency." (I Cor. 7:5)
The rule for married believers is - "defraud ye not one another" (in regard to sexual relations). But, there is a stated exception - "except it be with consent for a time..."
"Drink no longer water." (I Tim. 5:23)
Here Paul gives Timothy a rule to follow to help him with his weak stomach. Is it an ironclad rule? Is it an absolute without exceptions? Clearly not.
The OT law said "no work (or labor expended) on the seventh day." But, Jesus taught that if your animal fell into a pit on the Sabbath and needed to be saved, expending labor to save it was an allowable exception.
Not only do we have rules given in scripture that obviously have exceptions, but we have them all around us. For example, there are speed limit rules. Who does not realize that there are exceptions to those rules? You go into a library or a theater and the rule is to be quiet and not to speak. But, are there not exceptions? Of course there are. You go to the park and you see a sign that says "no vehicles in the park." That is the rule, but obviously there are exceptions. Does it forbid police vehicles or ambulances when necessary?
So, in regard to Paul's rule that says "sisters must keep quiet in church meetings," there are indeed exceptions. What we need to understand however, is that this is the rule. Some make the mistake of seeing women speaking in church as the rule and their being quiet is the exception! But, the reverse is the case. So, which is the exception and which is the rule? Is I Cor. 11:3-5, concerning women speaking in the church, the rule and I Cor. 14:33-34 the exception? Or, is it the other way around? Clearly the latter.
Women's Silence Not Absolute (without exceptions)
Many of those who are fairly absolutist about Paul's rule of silence for women will nevertheless allow exceptions. Father allowed exceptions in much the same way Dr. Gill did. Women could confess in church, and could sing, and could reply to questions when asked by the church or elders, etc. Wrote Dr. Gill (emphasis mine):
for it is not permitted unto them to speak; that is, in public assemblies, in the church of God, they might not speak with tongues, nor prophesy, or preach, or teach the word. All speaking is not prohibited; they might speak their experiences to the church, or give an account of the work of God upon their souls; they might speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; or speak as an evidence in any case at a church meeting; but not in such sort, as carried in it direction, instruction, government, and authority. It was not allowed by God that they should speak in any authoritative manner in the church;
See what Dr. Gill did? He stated the rule as given by the apostle - "women are not permitted to speak in the public assemblies." But, then he recognizes exceptions! He says "all speaking is not prohibited." Then he gives examples. So, nearly all allow exceptions to Paul's rule. Some allow more, some less. There are some, however, who are very strict on the matter and will not allow any exceptions to the rule. Wrote one historian on this matter (emphasis mine):
From Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas, commentators concluded that women could not even sing or pray audibly among men. Although the Reformers relaxed some of these restrictions, as late as the 1890s certain Presbyterians still forbade women’s singing in the context of church worship. (Grenz 1995:121) (see here for citations)
This same writer wrote:
"If Paul condones verbal ministry from women in chapter 11 it is very unlikely that he censures it in chapter 14. Paul was probably prohibiting a certain form of speech from the women in 14:34-35. Several theologians have tried to identify the type of speech that Paul appears to be disallowing."
Clearly Paul is condemning women teaching a mixed assembly that includes male adults. He is condemning women in any way "usurping authority over the man." But, more on that in the next posting when we look at Paul's words to Timothy in 2: 12 - "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence."