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

Let’s first remember that our relationship with God as Christians is defined by the overriding principles of love and grace. God doesn’t just make up arbitrary rules and impose them on us. It is, therefore, entirely proper to ask if our usual way of reading this passage actually makes sense.

For example, if it is disgraceful and wrong for a woman to speak in the worship assembly, wouldn’t it be equally disgraceful and wrong for her to speak in a Sunday school class? Most Churches of Christ prohibit female speech in the assembly but permit — and even encourage — female questions and discussion in a classroom setting. I mean, Paul was particularly clear that women are not to ask questions — but we traditionally only allow question asking in Sunday School. We don’t even allow men to ask questions in the assembly! If there is some eternal principle prohibiting women from asking questions in the assembly, why not in Sunday school classes?

The distinction has often been suggested that woman are not to speak or ask questions in a “public” setting, and the Sunday School classes are said to be “private.” But this is plainly wrong. We advertise our Sunday school classes to the public just like we advertise our assemblies. Our classes are in no real sense private.

Of course, in the First Century, the meetings were normally held in private homes and “advertised” only by word of mouth. The classes were held in the very same room as the worship. No one would have seen one as private and other public.

Another distinction made is that, in context, Paul is addressing the assembly, not a class, as is evident from all of 1 Corinthians 11-14. And I agree that this is true, but the answer to my question must come from more than context. It can’t be just a rule! The question is why are Sunday school classes different from the assembly — if indeed they are? Why is speaking in the assembly disgraceful and speaking in a Sunday school class okay — even good?

If we can’t come up with an intelligent answer to that question, we are forced to confess that we really just don’t understand this command. Paul didn’t just order women to remain silent. He gave reasons, and he surely meant for those reasons to be well understood by his readers.

First, Paul explains that women “must be in submission, as the Law says.” We will spend some time discussing the meaning of “the Law.” Plainly, Paul believes that asking questions in the assembly is unsubmissive. Now, I ask again, what makes a woman unsubmissive when she speaks — particularly when she asks a question — in the assembly but perfectly submissive when she asks a questions somewhere else? What “magic,” if any, does an assembly have that compels female silence?

Next, Paul states that it is “disgraceful” for a woman to “speak in the church.” Why? Must women be more submissive at church than at the workplace? More submissive in the assembly than in the foyer? Is the requirement to be submissive purely about the assembly? And how can “the Law” — surely a reference to some part of the Old Testament — create a rule for the Christian assembly that doesn’t apply to other gatherings of Christians? I mean, there were no comparable assemblies in Old Testament times. The synagogue was not invented until after the completion of the Old Testament.

Finally, Paul refers to the sensibilities of those from whom the “word” — meaning the gospel — originated, certainly a reference to the feelings of Jewish Christians. And what possible impact could the feelings of First Century Jewish converts have on the eternal pattern of how men and women are to relate to one another?

And what on earth does this passage have to do with love and grace? Is this just an arbitrary rule, with no real purpose, or does it somehow further the overarching command to love my neighbor?

Is Paul saying that woman are too stupid or foolish to be allowed to speak before a large group? Surely not! And besides, why allow women to speak in a class of 100 members but deny her the right to speak before a worship assembly of 25?

And it’s not about her assuming an authority-role. After all, Paul is speaking specifically of asking questions — which is not a position of authority.

And what about “ask their own husbands at home”? How does Paul intend for this to work? What about the woman who is unmarried? or whose husband is not a Christian? or whose husband wasn’t at church that day?

Notice that Paul does not tell the woman to ask the preacher about his sermon in the lobby after services. He tells her to ask her husband at home. Why not allow questions of other men in private after services? Why may she only ask her own husband?

Let’s be honest enough to admit that we have never really enforced this passage as it’s written. I’ve never attended or heard of a church that requires women to only ask questions at home of their own husbands! Indeed, we quite often encourage women to ask questions in the hallways, in the foyer, and certainly in the classroom. After all, we really encourage Bible study, and it would make no sense to deny a woman the ability to sincerely inquire into the Word with the help of her fellow Christians.

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” (Questions)

  1. Alan says:

    The question is why are Sunday school classes different from the assembly — if indeed they are? Why is speaking in the assembly disgraceful and speaking in a Sunday school class okay — even good?

    If we can’t come up with an intelligent answer to that question, we are forced to confess that we really just don’t understand this command.

    I don't derive my convictions from the traditional practices of churches of Christ. So the fact that churches of Christ permit women to speak in Sunday School classes carries *zero* weight for me in establishing the correct interpretation of the scriptures.

    Let’s be honest enough to admit that we have never really enforced this passage as it’s written.

    But let's also be honest and acknowledge that there are individuals who practice this passage as it's written.

    For churches that believe in leadership by a plurality of elders, one person cannot impose his views on the church. That is a good thing. In our case, I have taught on several occasions what I believe on this subject, while acknowledging that others disagree. And we've all called individuals to wrestle with the passage honestly and to obey what they believe it says — and to respect those who come to a different honest conclusion. And so we have a variety of understandings and practice at the individual level. And we have mutual respect between the different points of view.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    Are you saying that we shouldn't let women speak in classes where men are present?

  3. Alan says:

    I think I am agreeing with you that we must be consistent. I'll admit I don't know exactly where the line is (Sunday school? Midweek Bible study? Home bible study group? etc…) In discussions like this we always end up trying to define the line we should not cross. But one really only needs to know the exact location of the line if they intend to get as close as possible to it without crossing. That is not my intention, so knowing generally where the line is suffices for me.

    However, there are women in my congregation (including my wife) who would not dream of asking a question during a mixed Sunday school class.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    Here are some thoughts to consider. Under every passage of scripture we should be asking deeper questions rather than where is the line we should not cross. Where the line is; is a presupposed legalistic mindset that has nothing to with the nature of God.

    I am sure that when Jesus was dying on the cross and suffering he was thinking about how he never wanted women to ask a question in a mixed Bible study, and never wanted instruments in assembly related to Him. You see if Christianity is just another rules works based religion that is mostly concerned over what may or may not take place, who may or may not do it and how it may or may be done during a one or two hour assembly once a week; then it is no different than any of the world's other four major religions.

    There are very few if any Christian denominations that keep their women silent all the time completely, no singing, and no questions in a mixed study etcetera. The Amish and or Mennonites may come close.

    Inconsistency is one of the major red flags that a religion is cultish in nature. Read any book on cults and it will tell you the first sign is inconsistency.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    The point of asking whether women may speak in class is an effort to derive a principle. Lipscomb taught that women may not speak in the worship service but could speak at any other time and place to men about the Bible. He had no interest in the underlying principle. The text says no speaking in the assembly, and to him, it meant neither more nor less. He was consistent.

    Most in the CoC today apply the text to the assembly but not to classes, giving the text the narrowest possible reading, because there's just no obvious reason why modern women shouldn't be allow to ask questions in a classroom setting. After all, the prohibition has no obvious connection with authority or spiritual leadership or headship and such.

    I look for the reason behind the command. I was taught in law school (much less legalistic than church, by the way!) that any document can only be interpreted in light of the author's intent. Until you figure out the intent, you can't interpret the words.

    There simply is no arguable eternal principle that says women may not ask questions during the assembly. Even under a hierarchical view, women would be allowed to ask questions if doing so was respectful of the spiritual leadership of the men. Indeed, asking men questions would seem to be in fulfillment of male spiritual leadership, wouldn't it?

    So why on earth did Paul issue this edict? If it's not built on hierarchical thinking or Genesis 1 and 2, or even on male rule per Gen 3:16, it has to be based on local conditions.

    Or you can take Lipscomb's position. But there's no way to argue that it's based on a timeless principle but we don't quite know what the principle is.

  6. Well since you are discussing the timeless principle of women speaking (to men) or not speaking (to men) during, before, or after the loosely defined term "assembly" on undefined days/times…….. maybe you could clarify the righteousness of a woman who prays with her head "uncovered" or better yet, maybe you could broach the undiscussed topic of MEN who pray with their heads covered & uncovered!…….. gasp!!
    Scott Stegall

  7. Bob Richardson says:

    To me it is not a matter of speaking. It is a matter of usurping authority. I understand all this to mean that a woman may ask a question to learn or clarify. However she may not "Lord" herself over a man in such a way as to take away the authority given the man.

  8. abasnar says:

    So why on earth did Paul issue this edict?

    If it is about the intent, then the passage is not silent about it. The following reasons are given by Paul:
    It has to do with peace (1Co 14:33)
    It has to do with the practice of all churches (1Co 14:33)
    It has to do with submission (1Co 14:34)
    It has to do with the Law (1Co 14:34)
    It has to do with the spiritual responsibilities of a husband to his wife (1Co 14:35)
    It has to do with a sense of shame (1Co 14:35)
    It has to do with unity among the churches (1Co 14:36)
    It has to do with a command of the Lord (1Co 14:37)
    It has to do with being recognized by the Lord (1Co 14:38)

    These are nine reasons I found.
    They all show, it was not Paul's idea or command, so we need not ask what was on Paul's mind other than the will to obey Christ in everything.

    What the reasons don't say however, is what exactly is meant by being silent and not to speak. If we (as I do) view 1Co 11:2-16 as a rule for the assembly, we see that praying and prophesying is not forbidden for women as long as they wear a headcovering.

    To me the only way to solve the puzzle is to read it in the light of 1Ti 2:12 as a prohibition to lead or teach the assembly. So this asking questions should be understood best in the context of:

    1Co 14:29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

    Before elders were appointed in churches, the congregations were led by prophets and teachers (comp. Acts 13:1), hence there are no elders mentioned in the whole letter, but prophets and teachers were next to the apostles (1Co 12:28). So the utterings of these two or three prophets represent the teaching ofthe leadership of the church, while propehsying that is open to men and women alike is never authoritative in the same way.

    How I understand it: It is not proper for women who are to submit to engage in evaluating doctrine. I believe, the prohibition to ask questions but rather ask the husbands, does mean exactly this. To me this is the best way to fit 1Co 14:34 to 1Ti 2:12 and 1Co 11:2-16.

    I might be wrong – maybe someone could present a more consistent view. We are still bound by the same nine reasons Paul was bound by, and we should try our best to make a consistent application to the glory of God.


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