The Silence of Women in Churches
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
Does this mean that a woman is never to speak or say a word in a church assembly, or was this Scripture only applicable to the time and culture, as most people believe today?
I believe, ‘neither’, and that we need to learn to let the Bible speak for itself, taking the plain reading wherever it makes sense, as Miller applied. I believe there is a correct balanced view to many biblical understandings, including this one; as is so often the case, the answer lies between the two above extremes.
Context Is Key
Let’s look at Verses 27 and 28:
“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to GOD.”
Does this mean that a man with a gift of tongues was always to keep silent in the church? Of course not. The condition was speaking in an unknown tongue. But what about for the women? there are no conditions mentioned here.
Here is where the context will help; let us see how this section opens and closes:
“How comes it then, brethren, that when ye assemble together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation? Let all things be done to edification” (v. 26).
“Let all things be done with propriety, and orderly” (v. 40).
The problem with the Corinthian church was that of disorder. Too many people were trying to speak at once and it was disruptive. So, this gives us a foundation to work with. Women were not to speak as to disrupt the church service.
Women in the Synagogues
I have studied some on how the Jewish synagogues had their services in that era, which I believe will shed further light. As is well-known, the Scripture reading was of primary importance. Seven people were chosen to read, and they could be men, women, or children, though sages later (after the time of Christ and the apostolic church) forbade women from reading Scripture.
Now, the Jews of that time were very conservative and true to biblical, eastern culture. The apostle Paul would not have counseled for restrictions beyond what the scrupulous Jews practiced. And we can apply some good sense to this: The Scriptures are the Word of GOD. Whether a man, a woman, or a child reads them, they are still the word of GOD and not their own words, thus they would not be teaching, which is an exercise of authority, by reading them; thus, they women and children would be in line with the following apostolic counsel, consistent with biblical, eastern culture:
“Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion [exercise authority, SLT] over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).
Is Women Keeping Silence Just Jewish Culture?
Was that just cultural for that time? No, Paul bases it on Creation and the fall afterwards, similar to how he based his statement in 1 Corinthians on “the Law”:
“For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (vv. 13-15).
Reading vs. Teaching
Now, getting back to the Jewish synagogue service, Scripture readings were not the only part of it. Much like many Adventist church services today, after the Scripture was read, it was at least sometimes expounded upon by a speaker, whether the one who read the Scripture or not. This is what CHRIST did after reading a text from Isaiah.
The synagogue service was also interactive. Comments and questions were allowed. Christian churches would have continued in this tradition as well; thus, this is what Paul was referring to where women should not ask questions, which interrupt the service—fine for a man to do, since questions were allowed, but shameful for a woman to do, who are to be more modest, never interrupting a man.
Bible Commentary on the Silence of Women in Churches
Christian church services also included a social meeting, which was practiced in the first century of Adventism as well. I believe men and women both shared their testimonies in church in the apostolic era, thus I agree with the following part of Gill’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34:
“All speaking is not prohibited; they might speak their experiences to the church, or give an account of the work of God upon their souls; they might speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; or speak as an evidence in any case at a church meeting; but not in such sort, as carried in it direction, instruction, government, and authority. It was not allowed by God that they should speak in any authoritative manner in the church; nor was it suffered in the churches of Christ.”
The Problem Is Female Boldness
Strictly speaking of one’s experience at social meeting is not giving instruction; though, exhortation by men is a component of a social meeting. Women should be instructed to be cautious in sharing their experiences so that they do not expound on Scripture or give any instructions to the men present. It is easy to slip in this, since we are so used to female boldness in our Western culture; but this boldness is a dishonor to GOD—the GREAT HEAD over all, to whom even the highest angels show great humility and submission.
But now that I understand these passages better, in light of what I’ve shared, I no longer see a problem of women, or even children, reading Scripture or Spirit of Prophecy as part of church service; for they are simply reciting the authoritative Word of GOD, and are not exercising any authority by speaking their own words to teach or interrupt men. That is, as long as they don’t expound on what they read or give their own thoughts on it. And since the social meeting is specifically for everyone to share, women would not be interrupting by giving their testimonies.
Moreover, if there is a designated time for Q and A, which is good to have sometimes, I do not see a problem with women respectfully asking questions then as it is at its designated time. This is as long as they are not asking questions for the purpose of giving their opinion; this would be overstepping their bounds. In fact, men should not do this either; we should be asking questions to learn, not as an underhanded way to teach.
Biblical Church Government
We must always remember that a church is not just a club are a building; it is an organized government, including the order of headship. Even men are to be obedient to elders ordained to govern the church, though an elder should never overstep his bounds either by compelling conscience or making decisions for the church. Adventist churches, in the time of our pioneers, had congregational governance—that is, the congregation made all decisions through a vote. That is the biblical way, eliminating kingly power. Likewise, the General Conference is to be well represented with many delegates voting and not just a few men leading the world body as they see fit; but that is another subject.
I hope you see the biblical balance of the meek submission of women concerning the church. It may seem like a small thing, but disregarding it creates disorder, which GOD and His angels cannot bless. We have the instruction of His Word, and we are expected to follow it in all things, not just what is convenient or in agreement with our culture. So, let us strive to obey GOD in all things, including the meekness of women, which will teach even men to be meek towards one another and show submission to those who rule over them.
GOD is calling His people to return to the primitive apostolic practices of piety.
Before the final visitation of GOD’s judgments upon the earth there will be among the people of the LORD such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times. The Spirit and power of GOD will be poured out upon His children.
— Great Controversy, p. 464
Related: Two Forgotten Apostolic Ordinances of 1 Corinthians 11 — the first apostolic ordinance on women’s head coverings, which is required for women to publicly worship.