The Context of Women Being Silent

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This article is intended to get information in front of you for your own study and consideration. I pose a few questions in this article that I also hope you will wrestle with in an effort to have a view on this issue that is coherent, consistent and most importantly – biblical.

There are two passages in the New Testament that instruct women to be silent.

1 Timothy 2:11-12 says this,

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

1 Corinthians 14:34 says this,

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”

The words for silence in in 1 Tim 2:11 is Hesuchia (ησυχια). It can mean quiet or silent.

Here are the other times it is used in the New Testament:

Acts 21:40 – “After receiving the commander’s permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd. When they were all silent, he said to them in Aramaic”

Acts 22:2 – “When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet.”

1 Tim 1:11, 12 – above

2 Thess 3:12 – “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

There is a related word to ησυχια that also appears in 1 Timothy 2. This word is ησυχιος and it is in verse 2 – “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

Keep in mind, words have a range of meaning and in this instance it is from quiet or still to completely silent. The context helps us understand which one to use. You see the word translated anything from stop (speaking) to settle down to quiet to silent. Context is key and as always translation always requires interpretation. Crowds don’t get perfectly silent (Acts 21, 22). Christians living in the world won’t be perfectly silent (1 Tim 2:2), which is why we get the translation “quiet.” Do any of these instances require absolute silence?

Whatever we think on these things we need to attempt to have consistent application. As it stands in the traditional view we say women must be silent but what we mean is up front on the stage. We mean in the worship assembly not in Bible class. Women can sing. They can greet. No one is going to stop them from shouting “Amen!” during the sermon. Women are not silent in our assemblies and neither were they in the first century. Look at 1 Cor 11 where women are instructed on how to pray and prophesy in the context of the assembly. Some have inferred that Paul is instructing women on how to do that only with a group of another women but that isn’t obvious at all from the text. That view of chapter 11 has to be constructed from chapter 14 and 1 Tim 2 retrofitted back on 1 Cor 11:2-6. I am not saying that isn’t a valid approach. I am saying our having to create an assembly of women to make 1 Cor 11 work for us isn’t at all obvious in the text itself.

We uphold the silence of women in the assembly per 1 Tim 2:11-12 and 1 Cor 14:34 (a different word in Greek – we will get to next) but we then select when women can and cannot actually speak. Reading scripture – no. Greet – yes. Sing – yes. Pass communion – no. Some of these involve complete silence. None of those involve teaching. We are left with women not having positions of authority (how would communion passing be affected by any of Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Tim 2?). More on that in a later post. But we need to think through why we do what we do and why we allow and prohibit what we allow and prohibit. We need to make sure it all aligns biblically and is consistent in application. Are we at all consistent on this issue in traditional practice?

Let’s look at 1 Cor 14 next.

In 1 Cor 14:34 Paul uses a different word for silent – sigao (σιγαω). This word can mean silence or stillness. This word is used about a dozen times in the Greek New Testament. You can see some of the uses here –

Mt 26:63, Mk 14:61; Lk 9:36, 19:40; 20:26; Ac 12:17; 13:41; 15:12; Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 14:28, 14:30, 14:34.

You will notice three of those usages are in 1 Cor 14, our target passage. That is very important because context is important. Whatever you do with the silence of women, make sure you hear Paul’s whole point in both passages. Paul doesn’t just throw soundbites at you. He makes lengthier points that unfold over multiple chapters. We need to pay attention to more than a prooftext.

Here are all the uses of this word in that chapter,

1 Cor 14:27-28 – “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.”

1 Cor 14:29-30 – “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.” (the implication of someone who is speaking being silent is them stopping – same word as “silent/quiet” in Greek).

1 Cor 14:34-35 – “Women] should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

What we see in 1 Cor 14 is Paul giving order to the worship service. Apparently the Corinthians had a quiet a raucous worship service with people interrupting each other. Prophets butting in on each other. Tongue speakers having a revelation come when someone else was already busy speaking in a tongue. Apparently women were blurting out questions in the middle of the sermon (don’t you have husbands to go home and ask these things?)

Paul is giving instruction to bring order to the assembly through all of chapter 14. He instructs prophets when to speak and when to be silent. He instructs tongue speakers when to speak and when to be silent (again the same word in Greek as he uses toward the women in 14:34.

In both prophets and tongue speakers we recognize Paul is instructing against specific disorder in the Corinthians’ assembly. That does have universal, non-cultural application. We can’t just say this is cultural, ignore it. We should also embrace an orderly, understandable worship service just as Paul instructed. I am bothered by those who try to find ways to discount Paul’s instruction here or say that what he writes next about women is a textual variant so maybe he never wrote it. Let’s accept that Paul wrote all of 1 Cor 14 (even the variant is in all the manuscripts, if my understanding is correct) and deal with it as it stands.

Then we get to the women in 14:34-35 – what is Paul doing there? Is he doing the same thing he was doing with prophets and tongue speakers – giving instructions on order in the Corinthian assembly given a particular problem they were having – shouting things out rather than asking at home to retain order in the assembly (which men shouldn’t do either, by the way), which we should learn from as well? Or is Paul giving a universal prohibition against all women speaking at any and all times in the assembly (which he didn’t do with prophets or tongue speakers)? That has been the traditional interpretation (except of course singing, greeting, etc – where they are not actually silent in the assembly). We should note that he does construct his instruction to the women a bit differently than the other two situations by not giving them a “when” to do it instruction. He did that back in 11, it seems to me. We end up having to wrestle with whether or not we read chapter 11:2-6 through 14:34-35 or the other way around and how to make a consistent view that fits both passages. The women’s assembly is something people have created to smooth this over but that is not at all clear from the text.

Is Paul, like he has done throughout the chapter, also mentioning a specific situation he is correcting in regard to prophets, tongue speakers and finally the women in the Corinthian assembly because Paul does write this with a particular problem in mind that we find in 14:35 – “If they want to inquire about something they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

That question is for you to wrestle with.

I want you to form your own, educated, contextual opinions, about what Paul wrote here and then what that means for us today. I won’t tell you what to think. I believe you are smart enough to think through it for yourself and come to informed conclusions that take into account more than a soundbite or out of context passage.


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