Are Women To Be Silent in the Church?

Chris, I claim nothing but GOD illuminating SCRIPTURE to me. I usually use the King James Version and what use to sound like Greek to me, now seems to be so clear and obvious. I often hear people, men and women pull a verse out of context to make their opinion and then I suggest we go way back before their ‘proof’ verse and see who, what, when, where, what was going on, what was the topic being discussed, why, etc., etc. So many times men throw it up in my face that I am not a ‘preacher’ and should keep silent and not try to teach men, ‘that’s in a BIBLE’!!! Will you discuss what a woman is allowed to do when so many teach a false non-gospel, as Paul calls it. – Teressia

There are few issues more hotly debated today than the role of women in the church. I’m not going to try to settle the question in one simple post. For several reasons, I cannot give a list of what women are allowed to do, but I can try to put to rest some wrong ideas about what women are not to do. By nature, this discussion will be a bit longer than most, but I hope you will find it worthwhile.

Those who argue that women should be silent in church and not teach usually appeal to two passages: 1 Tim. 2:9-15 and 1 Cor. 14:33-35. We will deal briefly with each and then close with a few general observations about Paul’s overall worldview as compared with ours.

The important part of our first passage is 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” A few notes about translation are in order. First, the words “quietness” and “silent” are exactly the same word in Greek (hesuchia), but neither English rendition properly captures the idea. This is evident by the way it is used in 2 Thess. 3:12, which says, “Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down [hesuchia] and earn the bread they eat.” Here, Paul was talking about men refusing to work and is basically telling them to lead quiet lives of work and respect, to earn their wages and pay for their own way. The idea, then, is to be respectful and not contentious.

Second, the word “learn” (Greek: manthano) is directly related to the word “disciple” (mathetes). The idea here does not seem to be the learning of abstract biblical facts, as if one were preparing for a game of Bible trivia. Rather, it is referring to the discipleship process. This in and of itself is an extremely important point, as Paul’s idea of discipleship was hardly encompassed by a thirty minute sermon on Sunday morning and an hour long Bible study during the week! Discipleship was a matter of deep commitment and submission in which one learned to live out their faith. We will talk more about that in another post.

These two facts alone drastically change our understanding of this passage. Paul is not talking about women keeping their mouth shut during a worship service. He is taking about women submitting to the discipleship process. When disputes arose, as they commonly do, women were to step aside in submission. This is confirmed when Paul goes on to say that women are not to teach men or have authority over them. Notice my rendering. It is likely that the words “to teach” and the word “to have authority over” share the same direct object: men. Women certainly are allowed to teach (we can list biblical examples all day long of this). In the immediate context, though, this “teaching” refers to the discipleship process. Even then, it is not the mere discipleship process Paul has in mind, but that part of the process that requires the one party to submit to the other. The issue here is actually, then, one of headship.

Turning to 1 Corinthians, the important part is verse thirty-four, which flatly says, “Women should remain silent in the churches.” Here, the word for “silent” (sigao) has the idea of keeping one’s opinion or ideas to themselves.

First, whatever this means, it cannot be taken as an absolute prohibition against women speaking in a worship service, because 1 Cor. 11:5 expressly refers to women praying and even prophesying in the church.  Second, as always, context is important. This verse is found in the closing section of chapters twelve through fourteen, which deal with how spiritual gifts are to be exercised. The Corinthian church was deeply charismatic, and their worship services were very disorderly. They spoke over one another, argued, considered some people and some gifts more important than others, etc. In fact, Paul never once mentions any church leadership (elders, overseers, or pastors) anywhere in either of his epistles to the Corinthian church, which could well imply a lack of church leadership, which may in turn have contributed t the disorder.

To solve this problem, Paul demanded that if anyone prayed in a tongue, they should do so one at a time and then interpret, and if there was no interpreter, they were to keep silent. Likewise, prophecies should be given one at a time and then discussed by the church. It is in this context that women are told to keep silent. The issue, given the nature of the situation, seems plain enough. When contentions arose as to the meaning or reliability of prophecies, tongues, or interpretations, the women were to remain silent and let them men work out the problem. Again, for Paul, headship is the issue. If women had a problem, they were to talk to their husbands privately about the matter, and then he, as a representative of the family, could take his concerns to the public meeting.

Further, this prohibition does not even need to be absolute! If we are right and the issue is contentious speech, then there seems to be nothing that says that a woman could not ask a question or offer an opinion in ordered, open services. It seems that only when things got out of hand that women were to remove themselves from the discussion.

In closing, neither of these passages prohibits women from sharing the Gospel with men or with women. It does not forbid women from offering their own insights or thoughts on the Word of God or from sharing testimony as to what God has done in their lives. What they do prohibit is women exercising final spiritual authority over men.

It is difficult to know exactly how this applies in today’s culture. Paul does not give an explicit list of do’s and don’ts. Some argue that tongues and prophecies are no longer present in the church, and if so, it seems this entire discussion is moot. Further, it is unlikely that the first century church meetings operated in the same way ours does today (i.e., thirty minutes of music followed by announcements and a thirty minute sermon). Still further, when Paul wrote these words, the New Testament was not yet complete, and so doctrinal matters could not be resolved by pointing to what the apostles had already said. The words of elders had to be followed on these points. To further complicate the matter, Paul often taught the churches how to live in the social order they found themselves, rather than how to revolutionize it. For instance, he taught slaves to obey their masters. That does not mean that he condoned slavery! A final philosophical problem is found in the fact that Paul certainly had a generally different system of ethics than we do. He would not have been focused on the question, “Is this wrong” as we are, but rather, “How would a mature, virtuous Christian live?” That system of ethics, called “virtue ethics” assumes that to be moral is to act in accordance with the proper order of nature. In that case, we have to strive to understand the place of men and women in relationship to each other, society, the church, etc.  None of these things are immediately clear.

We should not use these passages, then, to forbid any woman from sharing what God has given to her to share. We should simply recognize that God has ordained the husband as the spiritual head of the household, and as such, women are, in some sense, not to be in spiritual authority over men. We should be open to all people’s thoughts and views of Scripture, regardless of gender, because at the end of the day, ultimately, it is to Christ that we submit.

What are your thoughts on this issue or these passages? As always, if you haven’t subscribed yet, be sure to do so.

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2 thoughts on “Are Women To Be Silent in the Church?

  1. You are correct, this will take some explanation. I’m sure in your clarification, you will point out things like, structuring of the family, the head of the household, the spiritual head, and so on. I think it is important for us to remember that scripture teaches us to not be unequally yoked. When you are speaking of marriage, if we are going to hold to “women are to remain quiet” and “ask their husbands in private”, we should make sure that marriage was based on scriptural premise of being equally yoked. That being the case, it would be easy for a woman to remain silent and allow her husband to take the spiritual reigns, whether at church or at home. I also believe much focus should be placed where you have stated that Paul was speaking of contentious situations and of allowing the men to handle those. We could all argue the point for days, but it wouldn’t change the fact that women have a completely different make up than men and because of that, will always handle a contentious situation in a totally different way.

    I would like to make a couple of side notes, and then I will be anxiously awaiting the responses, views, and lessons that will follow. Sometimes, it just pays to use common sense. We have all heard the statements like, “Women think with their hearts; Men think with their head,” and “women are the heart of the home; men are the head of the home”. I believe this is how God ordained life. Women are much more emotional creatures, as a general rule, than are men. Although we can certainly be equally intelligent, when confronted with an extreme situation, our approach as to a resolution will almost always be different. This can be best illustrated like this – There is a war going on. The Commander resolves that the only solution is to destroy every single enemy within a 500 mile radius. That means every man, every woman, every child . . . every tiny baby . . . every sweet old lady . . . you know the ones in the picture, the great, great grandmother with the tear on their cheek and the sad eyes. Alongside that picture, is the one with the children playing ball in the street . . . thin, sparsely dressed, barefoot. Sitting on the sidelines is a mother holding an infant barely a week old. She is cuddling the baby and gazing into its eyes. You know she will soon follow with a gentle kiss to the cheek. But, this is war. They must ALL be destroyed by whatever means it takes. Through gunfire or bombings . . . all must die. The Commander gives the order. We all know what would happen. The men would follow the order to the very last letter. The women would respond. . . how shall we say it . . . something like this. “Now let’s just wait. I don’t see why we have . . . . . . . . . . . . . ” Of course, if we follow our emotions, the terrorist grows up and then our great, great grandmothers and children become the targets.

    I do not believe that women are to be silent in the church when it comes to giving a testimony, teaching children, or other women. I believe the bible explicitly points out that women are not to be in authority over men – and that the men are to resolve the “arguments”. Can a woman ask questions, teach bible studies, sing, praise, testify, prophesy? Of course, she can. In my view, however, she is to stay out of the pulpit in the capacity of a pastor. That is, as they say, my opinion.

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