Buried Talents: “Women should remain silent” (Definitions)

With this cultural background in mind, let’s search out the meaning of a few words and phrases.

“Speak”

The Greek word translated “speak” throughout the chapter, lalein, takes its exact meaning from the context, and can refer to anything from silent meditation (v. 28) to disruptive speech of about any kind. There is nothing in the word itself to indicate what kind of speech is in mind. However, the verb is in present tense, indicating continuous action.

Thus, Paul is saying something like “they are not allowed to continually speak.” Osburn, Women in the Church 2, p. 199, citing F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Corinthians (Eerdmans 1971), p. 135. The present indicative refers specifically to continuing action.

“Silent”

The Greek word translated “silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34, sigao, does not necessarily mean “not speak at all.” Rather, the word may mean nothing more than “be quiet” or even “keep a secret.” The italicized portions of the following verses are all the other occurrences of the word in the Greek New Testament:

(Luke 9:36) When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.

(Luke 20:26) They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

(Acts 12:17) Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

(Acts 15:12-13) The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.

(Rom. 16:25) Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past … .

(1 Cor. 14:28) If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.

(1 Cor. 14:30) And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.

(1 Cor. 14:34) [W]omen should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.

Notice that in its normal use in the New Testament, sigao refers to a temporary silence, typically the courteous silence of not interrupting while another speaks.

In 1 Corinthians 14, sigao is used in verses 28 and 30 to refer, not to total silence, but to abstaining from rude or inconsiderate speech.

In verse 28 Paul told the tongue speakers to “keep quiet [sigao] in the church,” a phrase not significantly different from verse 34’s “remain silent in the churches.” And yet we readily see that Paul did not mean for tongue speakers to be completely silent, only that they should not speak in tongues when no interpreter is present. Other speaking by those with the gift of tongues is not banned by the “keep quiet” command.

Similarly, in verse 30 Paul tells the prophets to stop speaking, literally to “be silent [sigao].” But this command to silence clearly only means to stop talking long enough to let another speak. Thus, in each case, in context, sigao means “refrain from inconsiderate speech” of a certain type.

Thus, when Paul tells women to “remain silent” because they “must be in submission,” we should understand that the command to silence is limited to speech that is not submissive. After all, the Law only requires submission of women, as complements for their husbands, not silence. Women should be silent to the extent that speaking would, in the circumstance and at the time, violate the command to submission, that is, their role as suitable complements. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find women told to be silent in the presence of men.

But prophets and tongue speakers are given the same limited command — not that they should not use their gifts to God’s glory, but that common courtesy and mutual submission of Christians to one another requires the taking of turns, using gifts in a manner that edifies, and behaving decently and orderly.

Clearly, where considerations of courtesy and orderliness do not prevent speaking, tongue speakers and prophets are free to speak, even as stated in verse 28, “in the church.” Likewise, in a culture and place where a woman may speak in the presence of men without causing a scandal or being perceived as immoral, the command to silence has no application. This interpretation will become clearer as we proceed more deeply into the scripture.

“The Law”

Paul’s reference to the Law as supporting his command is either (a) the Law of Moses, (b) the curse pronounced on women in Genesis 3, or (c) a reference to the “one flesh” relationship that God created, described in Genesis 2. No one has plausibly suggested any other possibility.

But Paul cannot be arguing from the Law of Moses, since the Law of Moses never commands women to be silent in the presence of men or even to be submissive to men. And Paul cannot be arguing from the curse in Genesis 3, as many would suggest. This is a curse and not a command and is the result of sin, not a pattern for righteous living.

Thus, the only possible explanation is also the most appealing explanation. Paul is referring to the command that husbands and wives be one flesh and the role of women as suitable complements — for their husbands.

“Women”

The Greek word translated “women” is gune, which can be translated “wives” or as “women” — the distinction can only be found in the context. Translating gune as “wife” solves a number of problems and has much to commend it. First, only a wife can ask her husband at home. A widow, divorcee, or other unmarried woman could hardly do so.

Second, the Law (Genesis 1 and 2) imposes submission on wives, and then only to their husbands. Nowhere does the Law require all women to be in submission to all men. Genesis 2 only talks about husbands and wives. Eve was Adam’s helpmeet, not a helpmeet to all men. (Would you tell your daughter that she is to submit to every man she meets?)

“Inquire”

In the New International Version, Paul is translated as saying, “If they wish to inquire about something …,” but the King James Versions translates, “And if they will learn anything ….” In this case, the King James Version has it right. For reasons mentioned earlier, Paul makes it clear that while woman are certainly permitted to learn, he is unwilling to assume that they will.

With these definitions in mind, let’s try our hand at a clearer translation:

As in all the congregations of the saints, wives should not speak in a way considered rude or immoral in the churches. They are not allowed to [so] speak, but must be in submission, as Genesis 2 says [about wives being suitable complements for their husbands]. If they want to learn about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a wife to speak in the church. Did the word of God originate with you [rather than the Jews]? Or are you the only people it has reached [the gospel has reached many people who consider female questioning of men very immoral]?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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19 Responses to Buried Talents: “Women should remain silent” (Definitions)

  1. Brian says:

    Jay,

    I have just recently discovered your site because I am doing some restoration movement history for my own personal edification and I would also like to share accurate church history with fellow believers. I noticed the posting on this site earlier today about the Quail Springs, Oklahoma congregation having growing pains because of allowing musical instuments. I found it interesting that the people who took out the newspaper ad were immediately blaming the minister, Mr. Henderson even though every Church of Christ congregation I've been to really downplays the role of the minister and stresses the point that the eldership (always plural) is the authority for making decisions. In A church of 900 I'm sure there were about a half dozen.
    What made me think of this is that Robert H. Rowland was an elder at Quail Springs from 1973-???? . The reason this is relevant to the post above is that he published "I permit not a woman…" TO REMAIN SHAKLED. I found this book in a second hand store for 67 cents. If anyone wants to expound on your thoughts above this is a good read. I have never read anything like it from any other writer in the brotherhood from his time period. ( He was President of Columbia Christian College in Portland, OR from 1959-1969) The electronic copy can be found at http://www.freedomsring.org.
    I wonder if Mark Henderson knows Robert Rowland and was possibly mentored by him?
    Anyway,
    Thank you for your excellent site Jay. I look forward to coming back to it often and sharing it with others.

    Brian

  2. Alan says:

    With these definitions in mind, let’s try our hand at a clearer translation:
    As in all the congregations of the saints, wives should not speak in a way considered rude or immoral in the churches. They are not allowed to [so] speak, but must be in submission, as Genesis 2 says.

    There is nothing in the Greek text about the manner of speaking (rude or immoral). The Greek does not say they are not allowed to "so" speak. It says they are not allowed to speak. So we cannot call that a translation — much less a clearer translation. It obscures by adding ideas not in the original text.

  3. Alan says:

    Paul’s reference to the Law as supporting his command is either (a) the Law of Moses, (b) the curse pronounced on women in Genesis 3, or (c) a reference to the “one flesh” relationship that God created, described in Genesis 2. No one has plausibly suggested any other possibility.

    In verse 21, Paul says:

    1Co 14:21 In the Law it is written:
    "Through men of strange tongues
    and through the lips of foreigners
    I will speak to this people,
    but even then they will not listen to me,"[6] says the Lord.

    Pauls says that is written in the Law, but he quotes from Isaiah. So "Law" can be used to refer to any Old Testament writing. And therefore, later in the same chapter when he refers to "the Law", it is reasonable to interpret Law to mean the Old Testament. It does not mean there is a rule in the OT prohibiting women from speaking. He says she must be in submission as the Law says. It means what he is saying is consistent with the related teachings in the Old Testament about the role of women. Many, many commentators (I dare say a large majority of commentators) have written that this includes Gen 3:16, as well as Num 30:3-13 and others.

  4. Les McDaniel says:

    I have to tell you that the whole conversation of women's roles is really difficult to nail down. Sure this is a duh statement, however, I think an earlier point was made in the comments of someone that it is virtually impossible for us to take the reality of Paul's day and then try to make such comments dogmatically true for every community at every place in time. What I mean is, this will be different for every community. You have to ask yourself, what is an assembly? Well according to Acts 2, it was the daily gathering to break bread, to gather around the disciples teachings, to hear the gospel. Well for my context as a church planter, then women should never speak because almost every day I and others are gathering with men and women in a very similar mode. Dining together, breaking bread, speaking the gospel, having all things in common. To be honest, I am not sure our "assemblies" are even close to the situations we see Paul referring to. If you consider the assembly the place you "go" to church, I believe we may already be in err.

    Secondly, we must then ask ourselves if the proclamation of the gospel, the witness of the gospel should then be allowed by a woman to a man. For this is a witness, it is often proclamation/preaching, it is often authoritative, it is often in an assembled state with other believers. So does Paul then intend to make her witness irrelevant to men and thus potentially hinder the spreading of the gospel to others. Someone may say about this, well this is irrelevant to the topic at hand, because this is not the assembly. Well, I would argue, is it more important to silence our women on Sundays or for each person to live as Christ throughout the week. For I have seen the woman be silent card played far to often by those who are Sunday Christians and the rest of the time cheats, thieves and unethical business men who practice the ways of the world readily.

    Thirdly, at what point does this conversation become relevant to the lost, broken, sinful and sick. How does this relate to the life of Jesus who went before the most scandalous of women and invited them to speak? How does this relate to the church as the bride of Christ? The woman figure? We must not simply find ourselves as men outside of the larger picture of our larger body, the wife, the bride of Christ? What does it mean for men, to be the bride of Christ, corporately? Well, one might say well this is irrelevant? This is out of context. Well what of Paul in 1 Corinthians when Paul is referring to the marriage relationship but then quickly says, I am not really speaking of marriage but of Christ and the church.

    Fourthly, while it is true one can read scripture purely in a straight forward, literal manner. The problem with this is that it demands we twist the other texts that so often are held in such great tension. How can you read the text literally about women being silent and then hear Paul speak of women who prophesy? We cannot throw the baby out with the bath water. Neither should we simply ignore one for the sake of the other. Then we are merely supporting our own claims. Rather, we should be theologizing, reasoning, etc. in an effort to look at the whole of scripture. In fact, it is probably equally, if not more, important to look at the actions of Jesus as it is to listen to the words of Jesus. You see, even today, it is readily acknowledged that something like 80% of communication is nonverbal anyway. So are we going to allow the tension of Jesus who says, you without sin cast the first stone. Are we going to allow the tension of Mary and Martha speaking to Jesus at a gospel presentation because it wasn't one of our Sunday services? Are we going to overlook the work of the Samaritan woman who proclaimed the good news of Jesus and gathered the crowd? Are we going to overlook the fact that Jesus had compassion on the bleeding woman? All of these were highly illegal according to the law but Jesus revealed the greater call to love the Lord your God, to love neighbor, to love enemy.

    My point is this, while these do not deal directly with the nature of this argument perhaps we have given up seeking how such ancient principles and doctrines should move us to love. Perhaps, it is more loving sometimes to let a woman speak and share her testimony. Perhaps, it is more loving to allow women to grow closer to the kingdom life, where there is no male or female, gentile or jew. As far as I can understand we are called to be ambassadors of the reign of God. We are called to submit to the governing authorities at the same time. These two things are almost always in tension with one another yet this is our call. Perhaps, we should see Paul's writings in this same light. Perhaps, Paul was acknowledging God's freeing power in the Christian community for women, while respecting the laws and ways of his surrounding culture.

    Otherwise, we are always going to have to fight battles of inconsistency, not in our church but in our authoritative Word from God. For Paul, is not a man who is wholly consistent. So either he is completely false or he is theologizing for the sake of the kingdom come.

  5. Les McDaniel says:

    Forgive my misspellings and my perhaps unqualified reasoning. In my own head I have already done so but time did not permit and it was already way too long. God bless each of us as we seek what it means to live for the Truth.

  6. Mike says:

    It is interesting how some (alan) seem to enjoy shooting holes in the efforts to better understand the original text, but then turn around and "re-interpret" to their own liking such as "It means what he is saying is consistent with the related teachings in the Old Testament about the role of women."
    But, the problem is THAT IS NOT WHAT PAUL SAID (English or Greek)!
    Here is another question to add fuel to the fire..What does it mean when the same Paul writes that "there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Were females lost in the OT (and males saved)? Were only men chosen by God?
    Looking forward to the pot being stirred…and thanks Jay for rocking our comfortable little boats!
    MIke

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Alan wrote,

    It means what he is saying is consistent with the related teachings in the Old Testament about the role of women. Many, many commentators (I dare say a large majority of commentators) have written that this includes Gen 3:16, as well as Num 30:3-13 and others.

    Num 30:3-13 declares that an unmarried woman is not bound by her oaths or contracts unless ratified by her father and that a married woman's is not so bound unless her husband ratifies them.

    This principle was a part of the common law of England and in America until repealed by statutes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, married women were once declared incompetent to contract, along with minors, lunatics, and drunkards.

    Hence, for those paternalists who see women as too gullible to lead in church affairs, this is certainly a proof text. I've never heard it cited by a complementarian.

    Num 30:3 ff is a product of the debased state of women resulting from the Fall, not an indicator of how we should treat women today.

    Quite seriously: if your view is that we should build our doctrine of the role of women on Num 30:3 ff, why would we not also base secular law on the principle? Were we wrong to change the law so that a married woman can contract without the consent of their husbands?

    And on what basis do we decide that women are competent to run corporations and nations but not to vote in a church business meeting?

    Gen 3:16 is a product of the fall, an enemy of the Christ.

    (1 Cor 15:25-26) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

    (Rev 22:3) No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.

    If the curse is Christ's enemy, why would we encourage its continuation?

  8. Jay Guin says:

    Les,

    There is considerable wisdom in your post. Let me add this example.

    In a church plant in a highly secular parts of the country, the leadership will struggle with the role of women much more than we do in the highly-churched South.

    Discrimination against women is one of the great secular sins of our age. Most outside the church would find refusing to allow women to teach or to have authority immoral — just as bad as refusing to allow a black man to speak or have authority would be.

    Hence, the traditional view of these issues will have an effect on our ability to be evangelistically effective in many places. That doesn't decide the right and wrong of it, but it certainly means we can't preserve our traditions to be "safe" or to avoid controversy. And it demonstrates the urgency of re-thinking things in light of gospel principles.

  9. Jon Shelton says:

    Jay,
    I would add to your thoughts:

    "it certainly means we can’t preserve our traditions to be “safe” or to avoid controversy. And it demonstrates the urgency of re-thinking things in light of gospel principles"

    I think that whatever side of this issue we come down on, if we don't have a clear, precise, and I think most importantly – CONSISTANT doctrine and practice – it becomes difficult for us to shake the "discrimination" label. I would say that as one attending the church of Christ my entire life, I think one of our big problems is not being consistant with our doctrines and practices.

    I've been greatly appreciative of these discussions as I've been able to really study it in depth and I think that this is one area where we need to be studying more.

  10. Mary Nissley says:

    I am hardly qualified to submit an opinion on this. However, I have been studying it, as I am currently in a very traditional church which has recently “clamped down” on women speaking in church. They have taken the position that women should not take part in Sunday School discussions in mixed groups. However, they say that it is okay for a woman to give her testimony to the group. This seems to me to be highly inconsistent.

    I have recently come across a suggestion that makes sense to me. I Corinthians was written in answer to a letter from the church to Paul, which asked him many questions.
    All through book of I Corinthians, Paul deals with various questions they had asked him, and then gives his response or reaction.

    If I Cor 14:34-36 is looked at in this light, it seems that verses 34 and 35 are the question, and verse 36 is the answer. This begs the question– Could “as also saith the law” actually be referring to the Pharisees’ extra-Biblical law? In that day, the Pharisaical laws were only in oral form, but within 200 years, became part of the Talmud. Lo and Behold, the concepts in verses 34 and 35 are almost word for word from the Talmud! Is it possible that the Corinthian church was asking this because of the ever-present Judaizers trying to wreak havoc in the First-century church?

    If we see verse 36 as Paul’s answer, then his “What?” is consistent with the other places he uses that term. In fact, it is consistent with the way that Greek word is used throughout the New Testament. It always separates two opposing ideas, setting one against the other, and requiring the rejection of one, in acceptance of the other.

    I Corinthians 12-14 is Paul’s response to the questions the Corinthian church had about gifts. His overall direction was that ALL are gifted, and ALL should participate. In that context, Paul deals with the question of women’s participation, affirming that as the Spirit was poured out on both sexes equally, even so there is no separation of exercise of gifts within the church.

    Therefore, I am moving toward this explanation of this section of scripture.
    Verses 34 and 35 are not God’s direction for the church. They are instead against the very nature of God, and reflect a Pharisaical attitude toward women.

  11. Alabama John says:

    Ms. Nissley,

    So much was written in our New Testament for a different time, culture and thinking.
    What you referred to is also repeated in 1Timothy 9-14. I agree with your summation.

    Also:
    In Acts 2:17-18 it says in the last days, your sons and daughters shall prophesy.
    I believe we are in the beginning of last days.

    For those that think it must be just like it is in the Bible and I know that is coming!

    In truth, we pick and choose so many things mentioned back then and some we do at various churches and some we don’t at some churches.

    How things have changed in the Church of Christ in my lifetime in regard to women.
    They, just a few years ago all wore coverings, very plain clothes, no jewelry, no makeup. Some even wouldn’t cut their hair until they got to looking too much like the Church of God holiness women. Were not allowed to speak or pray out loud inside the building, but ironically could teach out loud by singing and on some songs, they really taught.
    We’ve changed a lot from what was sin and hell damnation and most being younger, don’t even realize it.
    We also have become far more educated and don’t depend on the Stone-Campbell thinking leading us as much.

  12. Pingback: 1 Corinthians 14:33b-37 (Wrapping Up) | One In Jesus

  13. John F says:

    “But Paul cannot be arguing from the Law of Moses, since the Law of Moses never commands women to be silent in the presence of men or even to be submissive to men”

    Numbers 30 certainly indicates a requirement of submisssion, does it not? Time to rethink, methinks

  14. Jay Guin says:

    The command to submit applies inside and outside the assembly, inside and outside the church. So why does submission require silence on in the church’s assembly? There’s nothing in Num 30 about silence. So where does Paul get.silence as the way to express submission? Eph 5 requires submission of wives. What other circumstances require your wife to be silent? Clearly Paul was referencing cultural norms because nothing else remotely requires that submission be demonstrated by silence. Otherwise your home life would be very quiet indeed.

  15. Dwight says:

    I think some of have isolated the scripture so much that we forget the context. In I Cor.12 Paul was writing to the Corinthians about thier gifts that they should apply to the body, then in I Cor.13 Paul argues that above all love is the greatest, then in Ch.14 Paul argues narrows it down to an assembly “If the whole church comes together…” to exercise gifts, then says that prophecy is better than speaking in tongues and if one wishes to speak in tongues they must have an interpreter or keep silent “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.” So Paul is telling one to allow the other to speak even though they both have the same gift of tongues, but one has an interpreter. This is an act of submission in being silent even though they share the same gifts. One had to suppress themselves in the presence of others. This silent is the same silent used in regards to women. So it is not a jump to a different thing, but Paul is addressing others that he implores to remain silent in submission. This implies a couple of things: that women were there and they might have been gifted. But let’s be clear both men and women were told to keep silent, but the men were told to wait for each other and the women were told to be silent “for they are not permitted to speak” at least not within the context of the gathering, but not that they couldn’t speak or use their gifts otherwise. In vs. 36-37 Paul says, “Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord.” So Paul is not only addressing vs.34, but all of the previous verses dealing with “prophet or spiritual” and Paul is saying that what he is telling them to do is “the commandments of the Lord.” This might be why some moved vs.34 to after vs.37, but then this would remove vs.37 as the answer to vs.34, but not remove it from the context of the the whole chapter. Whatever the case it doesn’t change much. Paul wrote what he wrote and expected them to do all of it as a command, otherwise he would have indicated just like at other times that it wasn’t a command.

  16. Dwight says:

    Jay, women weren’t told to submit by not talking in general outside of the assembly, ever. Silence isn’t a way to express submission, but is an example of it. Doing good isn’t for expressing Godliness, but Godliness makes us do good things. Paul isn’t saying this is how you show your submission, but rather that being silent is being submissive. The men told to be silent in deffernce to others who had the same gift were also being submissive as they placed the other in front of them. Your conclusion would also argue that Paul telling the men to be silent to allow others to speak was “Paul was referencing cultural norms because nothing else remotely requires that submission be demonstrated by silence.” You do not find Paul telling men to be silent outside of the assembly either when speaking in tongues. We are trying to argue that if something applies in specific then it should apply in general, but that isn’t how the scriptures work. God is not vague. The priest had to wear certain clothes while doing priestly duties, but this didn’t translate into wearing the clothes when not doing the certain duties even though they were still called priest.

  17. Monty says:

    Peter urged women to win their non-believing husbands, not by nagging him or complaining(domineering?), but with a quiet and meek disposition = being submissive. “For thus formerly also those Holy Women, who hoped in God, adorned themselves being subject to their own husbands.” Subject of course refers to someone who is under the authority of another.

  18. Jay Guin says:

    Dwight,

    Where we differ is I don’t believe Paul issued arbitrary commands. I believe his instructions were always rooted in something else — the gospel, Gen 2, Torah, etc. And I think this because he routinely gives the reasons for his instructions. In this instance, he says the reason is the requirement for women to submit as the Law says. Therefore, that is the reason. He didn’t just make it up.

    So we easily find reason for wives to submit to husbands in the Law. We do not find the least support for wives being silent around their husband in the law. It’s just not there. Hence, Paul skipped a step in his logic.

    Either it’s “because I said so” or “because cultural norms require this to avoid appearing shameful.” And lo and behold, he refers to the shamefulness of this conduct! And “shame” in an honor/shame culture is, obviously enough, cultural.

    Hence, there is no reason to adopt the “because I said so” theory. We can, based on the scriptures and not assumption, see culture as driving Paul’s decision.

    Those who insist that Paul makes up the rule out of the clear blue sky because somehow or other silence in an assembly honors the Law’s requirement to submit base their theory on assumption not scripture — because no scripture justifies that result.

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