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QUESTION: Is It Right for Women to Speak in Church?


Note: The following question came to me from The Question Box on my congregation’s web site.

Is it right for women to speak in church?

This question has about as many different answers as there are people answering the question. There are three passages of Scripture usually used in discussing this question, here given in the order of their appearance in Scripture:

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. – 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

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. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. – 1 Timothy 2:11-15

As a casual reading of all three shows, Paul seems to be inconsistent. Our problem is to determine what Paul means by these passages. Without careful consideration of the contexts, it is difficult (if not impossible) to know.

Take, for example, Galatians 3:28. Does he mean there is absolute equality of the sexes when he says there is neither male nor female in Christ? Some think he does. If so, what does he mean when he says women are not allowed to speak in the church nor to teach or to have authority over a man?

If Galatians 3:28 does not mean absolute equality of the sexes, what does it mean? Certainly, there are differences of circumstances in the other “equalities” in this passage: slave/free and Jew/Greek. There are also differences of circumstances between women and men. The question then becomes, “How much of the difference is inherent and unchangable – and how much of the difference is due to the influence of surrounding culture?”

Most interpreters of Scripture understand that surrounding culture does affect some practices and commands we read in the Bible. Few American or Western Civilization churches practice the holy kiss, yet it appears in several passages as a command (see, for example, Romans 16:16 and others). Most people understand Paul’s instructions concerning women wearing veils (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) with reference to the then current culture in Corinth where unveiled women were looked at as prostitutes.

Some look at “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14:35) as a reference to a surrounding culture in which women remained in their homes except when in the company of their male family members – much as in the Middle Eastern culture of today. In such a culture, it would indeed be shameful for women to speak in the church. Is that a correct understanding of what Paul says in the context? Many deny that it is. I freely confess that I am not sure.

I do know that the other “equalities” of Galatians 3:28 were regulated, to some degree, by culture. For example in Titus 2:9-10, Paul wrote concerning slaves:

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. [Emphasis added, JS]

Now, certainly there is much here that would apply to employees as well as to slaves. But there were free men in Paul’s culture who worked for others as well. Yet, he did not address them, at least not directly. For slaves to insist on equality with their masters in Paul’s day would have made the church even more odious than 1st century Pagan & Jewish culture found it anyway! It is interesting that he makes a similar comment about a wife’s subjection to her husband earlier in the chapter where he says wives should be submissive to their husbands “that the word of God not be reviled” (Titus 2:5). Would this same reason carry over to his instruction that women learn in quietness and submission in church?

In a similar way, Paul acted differently when he was with Jewish people than when he was with Gentiles. Why? Was he being a hypocrite? He explained himself in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

Now IF Paul’s instructions about women being silent and in subjection to men WERE culturally based, our conduct today in the churches of America should be quite different from what Paul said, understood literally (which is the normal way we should understand the Scripture). In our culture, it is more shameful for the church to forbid women to speak than for them to be permitted to speak. But, as I said above, I confess that I do not know to what extent (if any) we are to take these as culturally based instructions.

One reason I do not know is that in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul goes back to Creation to argue his point. In 1 Corinthians 14:34 he also says, “They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.” The only place where the Law addresses woman’s subjection to man directly seems to be Genesis 3:16 where God told Eve her husband would “rule over you.” That is not in the form of a command, but of a statement. Was God telling Eve that it was His will, that as a result of her sin, Adam would become her Master? Or was He telling her that because of opening the Pandora’s Box of sin, one of the results would be that women would be dominated by men throughout history? I have heard it argued both ways.

So, there are many questions about the three basic passages involved in answering your question.

Personally, I do not believe there is an absolute command of silence for women in the church. If there were, this would mean she could not open her mouth, even to sing, to ask a question in a class, or to make a comment in a class. We would also be left wondering about the sons and daughters who would prophesy when the Spirit came (see Acts 2:16-18). There are several references to women acting as prophets in both testaments, so there is a place for women to speak for God – though it may be that this is not in the assembly of the church.

At one time, I thought I knew exactly what God meant by what Paul has written. Today, I am less sure that I understand all of the implications of what is said in these texts.

I hope that this does not leave you with more questions than enlightenment. I have tried to be as honest as possible in answering your question. All I can say is that I invite you to wrestle with these texts as I still do.

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