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.
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 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.
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.
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?)
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]?