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.