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.