Buried Talents: “Women should remain silent in the churches” (Introduction)

A. Introduction.

Let’s take a closer look at the passage.

“Women should remain silent.” What does this mean? As tempting as it is to say, “Means what it says; says what it means,” no thinking Christian can believe this passage really means that women must be silent during the assembly. Why not?

First, we conventionally allow women to break their silence in the assembly for any number of reasons, including:

1. Singing. We allow women to sing even when men do not accompany them. Many songs have not only female leads, but also female section solos.

2. Speaking in unison. There are many occasions where the congregation speaks in unison. Some churches say the Lord’s Prayer or some other prayer in unison. Others recite scripture in unison. Some do responsive readings. In each case, the women are not silent.

3. Praying. Many of our favorite hymns are prayers. For some reason, some have fallen into the habit of omitting the “amen” at the end of such songs, but the song is a prayer nonetheless. Women sing these prayers out loud, in the presence of men, and our only justification is that the women do so to a tune. I suppose we justify it due to the commands to sing, but these commands do not command women to sing apart from the men, nor do they even require singing in the assemblies. They just say sing with other Christians. They don’t say when or where (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

Of course, if the general commands to sing grant women license to sing in the assembly, one might argue that the general commands to teach, preach, spread the gospel, pray, etc. would also grant women the right to obey these commands in the assembly.

4. Greeting. How many times have you attended a church where the service was interrupted while the members were asked to greet one another and the visitors? Were the women required to stay silent?

5. Confessing Jesus. When a woman comes to the front to be baptized, do we make her fill out a card to say that she believes in Jesus? Or does she say it out loud? I’ve never seen anyone make a candidate for baptism wait until after services or write down the answer to this question. And yet the passage says “silent.” It doesn’t say members only. It says “women.” And there is really no necessity for a confession during services. After all, we could wait until after the closing prayer. But that’s not our way.

So what’s my point? Those who insist on a strictly literal interpretation of this passage must admit that their interpretation is neither strict nor literal. I have just offered a truly literal interpretation, and yet common sense tells us that this is not what Paul meant. So while we are searching for the truth of the matter, let’s remember that no one at all occupies the “high ground” of literalness or even strictness. And while the interpretation that I will offer of this passage may not be very traditional, it is stricter and more literal than the traditionalists.

Second, the Bible’s text itself, and not our culture or tradition, raises certain questions that must be taken into account in whatever conclusion we reach:

1. 1 Corinthians 11 is a discussion of appropriate headcoverings for women while they prophesy or pray in an assembly with men present. If it is a sin for a woman to pray or prophesy in the presence of men, why didn’t Paul simply condemn the practice? If it is a sin for a woman to pray or prophesy in the presence of men, then Paul’s instructions are on the order of instructing women on what to wear while committing adultery! If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and Paul has no business discoursing on appropriate dress during sin.

2. There is nothing in the text that suggests that the assemblies under discussion in chapter 11 are different from those in chapter 14. As pointed out above, there is good reason to believe that the same assemblies are under consideration. After all, chapter 11 is part of the same discussion that concludes in chapter 14. But if we conclude that only one chapter is discussing the general assembly, comparable to our Sunday morning assembly, and the other is discussing some special assembly, it is much more logical to conclude that chapter 11 is discussing the general assembly since it is most closely tied to the discussion of the Lord’s Supper.

Moreover, the reference to angels being present in the assembly in 11:10 indicates that much more than a casual gathering is at issue. Every commentator I’ve read says the reference to angels is likely to the fact that the Jews considered angels to be present where God is worshiped.

To argue, as many do, that chapter 14 deals with the Lord’s Supper assembly and chapter 11 is dealing with something more like our Sunday School classes is to ignore the textual evidence and impose our traditions on the scriptures. The argument simply has no support in the Bible.

3. That the assembly is in mind in chapter 11 is also plain from our own history. Until the last few decades, Church of Christ women felt compelled to wear hats (and even fashionable veils) to the assembly. If chapter 11 doesn’t apply to the Sunday morning assembly, why did we require women to wear hats to such assemblies for nearly a century? I grant that the hat interpretation is false, but the assembly interpretation is actually quite sound.

And so we have what appears to be a perfect contradiction. Chapter 11 indicates that women may pray and prophesy in the presence of men in the assembly, but chapter 14 compels them to be silent in the assembly. How can both be true? How are we going to get out of this fix? And I must hasten to point out that the problem derives, not from any effort to impose modern culture on the text, but from the text itself. Commentators were struggling with this issue long before the women’s liberation movement began.

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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0 Responses to Buried Talents: “Women should remain silent in the churches” (Introduction)

  1. Alan says:

    …no thinking Christian can believe this passage really means that women must be silent during the assembly

    I hope you didn’t really mean that. This is exactly the kind of dismissive statement that Paul warns us against in Rom 14:1.

    Just because someone disagrees with you about 1 Cor 14:34, that doesn’t mean they are not a thinking Christian. It would be better to acknowledge that some thinking Christians disagree with you on this topic, and that you are fallable too.

  2. Alan says:

    One more thing. On your preceding article in this series, I posted a long comment explaining why the discussion of head coverings is not limited to the context of the assembly.

    I point this out because you did not respond to my reasoning there, nor did you address it in this article — yet you said:

    To argue, as many do, that chapter 14 deals with the Lord’s Supper assembly and chapter 11 is dealing with something more like our Sunday School classes is to ignore the textual evidence and impose our traditions on the scriptures. The argument simply has no support in the Bible.

    My arguments came directly from 1 Corinthians 11. So it seems disingenuous to say those arguments have no support in the Bible — especially since you have not addressed those arguments specifically.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Alan,

    This post was written many months ago and is not directed at you. I understand how this came across and apologize for it.

    I had meant to rewrite it to take your thoughts into account but had to go out of town. I'm going to go rewrite it right now and address your arguments while I'm at it.

    However, you are taking out of context my statement "no thinking Christian can believe this passage really means that women must be silent during the assembly." I argue that women are not silent during the song service or many other events. Therefore, we don't really require them to be silent.

    Unless your congregation prohibits women from singing and from confessing Jesus during the service, then you don't require women to be silent — putting you squarely in the "thinking Christian" camp, which is very much where I'd expect you to be!

    I'll address the textual evidence in the post when I revise and update it here shortly.

  4. Alan says:

    “no thinking Christian can believe this passage really means that women must be silent during the assembly.

    In the interest of unity (and in obedience to Romans 14) we need to be accepting of those who disagree with us. This is an excellent example of such a topic. There actually are some people (not including myself) who have held that women are not permitted to sing or to participate vocally in any of the other ways you described. I disagree with them (and will get to why that is in just a second). But I would not say of them that they are not thinking Christians. There is even the possibility that they are right and I am wrong. Of course I think I am right (and am “fully convinced in my own mind”). But I’m not going to treat those who disagree as anything less than thinking Christians. Being a faithful obedient Christian isn’t all about reading comprehension skills. (And that is not to say that correct reading comprehension always leads to my conclusions). I do the best I can and I suppose that others do the same.

    Verse 26 is an important verse in chapter 14. Paul specifically lists what he is talking about in this context: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” Various Christians contribute in each of those ways during the assembly. However, so that there would be no misunderstanding, he explains that these forms of participation are not appropriate for women in the church. So a woman would not stand up and lead a song, nor instruct, nor give a revelation, nor speak in tongues, nor interpret a tongue. She would hold her peace. The same word is used as for tongue speakers who have no interpreter. They also were instructed to hold their peace. That didn’t mean they couldn’t join in the group singing, nor that they could not speak in fellowship. It only addressed the kinds of things Paul listed in verse 26.

    So, yes, I take this passage literally and in context. I don’t have to come up with creative and complex explanations. The passage does not seem difficult to me, because I see no need to avoid the obvious meaning.

    Similarly, I don’t see the discussion of head coverings in chapter 11 as a difficulty for chapter 14, because I recognize that the discussion of the assembly began in verse 17 of that chapter, not in verse 2. So chapter 11 is not giving women permission to prophesy in the assembly–and therefore is not in contradiction with chapter 14.

  5. Patricia Harrod-Wyrosdick says:

    Hello Alan,
    I just read you posts and am curious about this statement – You wrote:
    “I recognize that the discussion of the assembly began in verse 17 of that chapter, not in verse 2.”

    How can you say that when the previous verse clears up what the verses 1-16 and continuing were referencing:

    1 Cor. 11:16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

    That actually seems pretty clear to me that the head covering, praying, or prophesying were all in an assembly setting.

    1 Cor 14:23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in [those that are] unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

    1Cor 14:24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or [one] unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:

    The word “all” in both verses mean:
    Strong’s Lexicon – pas

    individually,each, every, any, all, the whole, everyone, all things, everything

    ALL is just that ALL – includes everyone….men and women; therefore, since the Bible does not contradict itself…women can not be ordered to be silent.

    This is just my perspective.

    Blessings,
    Patricia

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