Women and "Whole Church Meetings"

Jeff Smelser

Exton, PA
(revised March, 2010)


Among those congregations called churches of Christ, twentieth century attitudes concerning the role of women in the church illustrate two contrasting and competing tendencies of religious movements. On the one hand, there is a tendency for a movement which begins among people whose convictions are derived from open minded study to evolve, or devolve, into a movement characterized by people whose convictions are tradition bound. On the other hand, with the passing of a generation or two, there is a tendency for such a movement to adapt itself to the changing mindset and mores of society. The latter tendency is driven by a desire to be respectable, normal. It is simply another case of peer pressure, where the peers are society at large. The former tendency is driven by a desire to maintain identity. Again, it is a case of peer pressure, but in this case, the peers are the members of the movement itself, and particularly, those viewed as standards of orthodoxy within the movement.

In particular, during the twentieth century, American society has seen the women's suffrage movement, the influx of women into the workplace, the feminist movement, unisex trends, the indictment of masculinity, the advancement of women to places of leadership and power in the corporate, academic, and political world, and the departure of women from the home. As might be expected, among a people who still adamantly claim to follow the Bible as the word of God, corresponding changes have not taken place to the same degree, and where they have occurred, they have lagged behind the pace of American society in general. Nonetheless, among these Bible professing people, we hear of many who put their children in day care so that the mother can work, and of many women who fondly relate their accomplishments in the business world as if such were the noble work God had planned for woman.

More to the point of the present writing, we hear of many congregations where women feel free to speak up in the assembly, although not many years ago, such would have been recognized as a violation of 1 Corinthians 14:34 in those very same congregations. Now, it is argued by preachers that 1 Corinthians 14:34 is really just instruction for first century wives of prophets, or that the passage doesn't really mean a woman can't speak, but merely that when she does so, she must not "usurp authority." Accordingly, women speak up to offer information, to correct announcements, to request that certain songs be led, and so on. And this is happening even among many of those congregations that have shown the greatest resistance to societal changes.

But at the same time, we see quite a different phenomenon occurring. While women are speaking up more, there is a domain which has been secured as a male bastion. Although unknown in scripture, The Men's Business Meeting is viewed as the arena where no woman has a place. I do not have reference to any and every occasion when the men in the congregation may meet to discuss various topics of concern to the church. Rather I have in mind specifically that entity which in numerous congregations functions as a governing body in lieu of elders. It is here, with respect to this entity unknown in scripture, that 1 Timothy 2, if not 1 Corinthians 14, is adamantly cited as the basis for excluding women. And when this resistance is questioned, some of the very people who now permit the woman to speak in the assembly, cry out against those who would follow after the ways of the world. This rallying cry for orthodoxy does not reflect true allegiance to God's word, but rather allegiance to a movement, a snapshot in history.

It is not my desire to defend or indict a religious movement's character, whether it be of the twentieth century, or the nineteenth, nor even to claim identity with a particular movement as a historian might define such. It is my desire to call attention to the teaching of scripture, and to exhort all to be willing to stand for what God's word teaches without prejudice, and without moderation due to society's influence or modification due to a misguided sense of heritage.

This material grew out of a discussion that took place in an electronic forum, an e-mail list called "Markslist". Another participant in that forum submitted the following request:

I have an immediate need for comments on the question of women participating in the "whole church" affairs mentioned in Acts, especially after the death of the apostles. Is there any evidence that women did in fact speak out and give opinions and judgments as to rightness or wrongness of proposed action by the elders. and, if appropriate, deacons?

The background of this is a situation where several men are refusing to permit ANY meeting where women would be present. If permitted to attend, would this be to just listen and be informed? In our situation here many of the women are quite knowledgeable, and are principle givers. There is no indication that anyone wants to cause any trouble, only to clarify at this time as we begin an elder selection process. Thanks for your quick response.

The present work is adapted from a series of posts I submitted in response to the above request, and benefits (I hope) from having been edited and enlarged.

In short, what I am going to say is, I believe the scriptures allow women to attend such meetings (else it is not the "whole church"), and that the scriptures teach that they must be silent in such meetings, because such meetings are assemblies of the sort where women must be silent.

As to the specific circumstance of selecting elders, wisdom suggests that there be sufficient time allowed for anyone (not just women) to approach those who desire to serve with whatever objections they may have. Given the qualifications and work of elders, I think it would be an unusual situation where names were first put forward, and men appointed, all in the context of one assembly, with no time permitted for consideration, discussion, and, if necessary, objections, apart from the assembly.

Concerning the broader question of women and congregational meetings, some would try to distinguish between a "business meeting" and a "worship service". With respect to the presence and role of women, I believe such a distinction is arbitrary, and suggests a conclusion based on tradition rather than on scripture.

PART 1 - The Assembly

That 1 Corinthians 14 distinguishes between what is proper "in the church" from what might be proper elsewhere should be clear to all. Though Paul thanked God that he spoke with tongues, he said, "howbeit, in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding...than ten thousand words in a tongue" (1 Cor. 14:19). Without an interpreter present, the one with the gift of tongues was to "keep silence in the church" (1 Cor. 14:27). Similarly, Paul's instruction that the women should keep silence was applicable "in the churches." Paul explained that "in the church," it was a shame for a woman to speak. Now, certainly Paul was not prohibiting the women from ever speaking anywhere. If there were any doubt, it is removed when Paul said, "let them ask their own husbands at home." Thus we see a very specific setting in which Paul's instruction is applicable. But if there is an instruction that pertains to one who is "in the church," we must assume that being in the church is not an indefinite status. We can know what it means to be "in the church."

The word church is a translation of the Greek ἐκκλησία. This same word is translated "assembly" in Acts 19:32, 39 and 40. Some have said that ἐκκλησία means called out. While it may have been derived from two words, one meaning call and the other meaning out, even this is not certain. A footnote in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament cites an article by A. Jehle who "correctly emphasises the doubtfulness, if not the total irrelevance, of the etymology of ἐκκλησία." (TDNT, vol. 3, p. 530, n.91.) For his own part, K. L. Schmidt, who cited Jehle's article, wrote,

Whether Paul and other Greek speaking Christians were thinking of those "called forth" when they used the word ἐκκλησία, we cannot tell. It is not impossible, but not probable. (TDNT, vol. 3, p. 530.)

In the standard lexicon of New Testament Greek, the entry for ἐκκλησία contains no mention of "called out" as a meaning or possible translation of the word. Rather ἐκκλησία is rendered assembly, assemblage, gathering, meeting, congregation, church, church meeting, etc. (Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich, 2nd ed.)

That God's people are called out of darkness is incontrovertible. But in the first century, there was no thought of "called out" in the word ἐκκλησία, whatever its derivation may have been. If ἐκκλησία was in fact derived from the expression "called out," we can see all the more why the Holy Spirt saw fit to use this word. However, we must always keep in mind the meaning which the word had in the first century.

Why should the word "assembly" have been used? First, because the one church, the one body of Christ, is a people spiritually assembled in the mind of God. Hebrews 12:23 speaks of "the general assembly and church (ἐκκλησία) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven." In this sense, ἐκκλησία is used in Matthew 16:18 and Ephesians 1:22.

But the word is also used of Christians who literally, physically assemble. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul not only has reference to such Christians, but to their being assembled. He says, "if therefore the whole church be come together into one place..." (1 Cor. 14:23).

Now some speak as if it is unrealistic to be able to know what is an assembly and what is not. Particularly as we begin to consider 1 Corinthians 14:34f, some suppose that we really cannot ever prohibit speaking on the part of women for we cannot ever know with certainty that the whole church is come together in one place. Such reasoning is to mock Paul and the Holy Spirit, for 1 Corinthians 14 presupposes that we can know.

The church was an identifiable group, not just a random gathering of saints. Paul could address the "church of God at Corinth" and it's particular problems. Similarly, those occasions when the church (assembly) is assembled are scripturally identifiable. They are not unidentifiable, nor are they to be arbitrarily identified.

The Whole Church, Assembled for "Business"

(Acts 6, Acts 14, Acts 15, 1 Cor 5)

Is it an assembly if the activities are primarily concerned with what we might call business? Or to ask the question another way, is there business of the church that needs to be brought before the assembled assembly for consideration?

First of all, consider Acts 6, where the "multitude of the disciples" were called together in order to choose out seven men. It was not just the men, being called for a "Men's Business Meeting." Consider also Acts 14:27 where they "gathered the church ( ἐκκλησία) together" so that Paul and Barnabas could report on the things God had done with them. Consider Acts 15:22 where "it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church (ἐκκλησία)" to send men to Antioch with a letter. And finally, consider 1 Corinthians 5:4, where Paul admonishes the Corinthians to note the fornicator, delivering him to Satan, "ye being gathered together." It wasn't done behind closed doors in a "Men's Business Meeting" and then announced after the fact to the congregation.

This is not to say that all "business" related to the church requires the attention of the whole church. Indeed, the appointing of the seven, though itself a concern of the multitude of disciples, was intended to establish a means whereby some, specifically the apostles, would not need to be concerned with the arrangements for feeding the widows. Surely those seven men coordinated their efforts. Did they meet to discuss menu, to discuss helpers, to discuss the particular needs of the various widows? One would suppose they must have done some of that. Did every such discussion require the participation of the whole church? Surely not. They were appointed over the business of serving tables.

Many of the topics discussed in "men's business meetings" are rightly the province of deacons. There are other topics that do not involve the sort of ongoing tasks to which a deacon might be appointed, but certainly do not require the attention of the whole church. Some of these topics might best be addressed by groups of brethren smaller than the whole church, perhaps the song leaders, or maybe those who prepare the Lord's Supper, or perhaps even the men of the congregation. In other words, I do not mean to suggest that any meeting that does not involve the whole congregation is wrong. But when there is a topic that should concern the whole congregation, let the whole congregation be concerned.

In What Assembly are the Women to Keep Silent?

As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:33b-35)

Some suppose this instruction was a unique limitation made necessary by circumstances peculiar to Corinth. But it begins, "As in all the churches..." Furthermore, the words, "for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church" are stated as a fundamental fact, not as a circumstantial judgment. And finally, Paul says, "let them be in subjection, as also saith the law." These are hardly words indicating a unique limitation made necessary by circumstances peculiar to Corinth.

The appeal to the law is not a reference to some Old Testament passage that required women to refrain from speaking. When Paul said, "as also saith the law," he was not talking about application, but principle. The law was subjection. The principle of subjection holds even though varying settings may call for varying applications. For example, the wife is to be in subjection at home just as certainly as she is to be in subjection in the assembly. And yet the application of the principle is different. What she is told to do at home, she is forbidden to do in the assembly: "Let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church." If the principle of subjection had the same application everywhere and in every relationship, then if asking a question in the assembly was a breach of subjection, it would be also at home.

Now, if the application of the principle can vary from assembly to home, it can also vary from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and yet the principle be constant. No, I don't believe I can show that Israelite women were to be silent in the holy convocations of the Old Testament, or in whatever might be construed to correspond to the assembly in 1 Corinthians 14. However, it is the principle, not the application, wherein Paul finds common ground with the Old Law.

Having said that, Paul does not give us the latitude to apply the principle however we see fit. Paul, writing by the Holy Spirit, tells "all the churches" what application to make: "Let the women keep silence."

Notice that the passage does not say, "In the worship service..." It says, "in all the churches" i.e., in the assemblies. It is not "worship" that defines the occasion when the limitation applies, but assemblage. Paul stresses the idea of the assembled assembly by his redundant way of speaking in 1 Corinthians 11:20 ("assemble...together"how else would a group assemble?) and in 1 Corinthians 14:23, where the KJV properly reads, "the whole church be come together into one place." That's not talking about an hour during which some of the saints are in the auditorium, some are in this room, some in that, and each group unaware of the activities of the others. Hence, a woman speaking in one of several Bible classes, while others of the congregation are in various of the other Bible classes, is not speaking in the "assembly." But in regard to occasions when the whole church truly is assembled together in one place, there is no Biblical distinction whereby we might suppose that women are to be silent on one such occasion, and be permitted to speak on another such occasion.

The Activities of an Assembly:

"5 Acts" are Neither a Maximum nor a Minimum

To assert that we only have an assembly of the church when all "5 acts of worship" (itself, a phrase and a concept which is contrary to scripture), is to assert what one cannot find in scripture. Is the Lord's Supper mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14? No. And yet what is discussed there is an assembly wherein the women must be silent.

To assert that we only have an assembly when we only worship is to misunderstand the meaning of worship. From the standpoint of New Testament authority, to speak of worship meaningfully, one must associate this English word with one or more of the Greek words translated worship. The verb most frequently translated worship is προσκυνέω. But this verb is too narrow to include much of the preaching that is included in assemblies. On the other hand, perhaps we would have in mind the verb λατρεύω, which is translated worship four times in the King James Version of the New Testament. However, this word, also translated serve, is broad enough to include the conducting of what we might call business, if that business is what the Lord wishes his people to be doing. In Romans 12:1, where Paul speaks of the presentation of our bodies as a living sacrifice calling it our reasonable service, he uses the cognate noun λατρεία. One could hardly deny that assembling to conduct the business given to the church by the Lord is serving the Lord, and is therefore λατρεία, or "worship" in this sense. Turn to one Greek word, and some of the acts typically listed among the five don't qualify as worship. Turn to another Greek word, and worship can include much more than those five acts, and would include anything that is the business of the church. The fact is, it is not possible to come up with a scriptural definition of worship that will include preaching and collecting funds, but exclude choosing deacons, or dealing with the unfaithful. As a criterion for recognizing something as an assembly, the presence of "five acts of worship" is arbitrary and unscriptural. And therefore it is an arbitrary and unscriptural criterion for determining when women are to be silent.

My preference is to use the English word worship to represent the Greek προσκυνέω, and then to use it only with respect to those actions properly denoted by that verb. Thus, we worship in singing hymns of praise, but not in listening to a sermon. We worship God as we praise him in prayer at the beginning of what some would call a business meeting, but not in everything that is said during the ensuing discussion. If this be how we use the word worship, then neither the typical Sunday morning assembly nor the "business meeting" is characterized exclusively by worship, and neither is void of worship. Therefore, if our criterion is "worship," on what scriptural basis could we allow women to speak in one setting, but not the other? If someone wishes to speak of worship more broadly, only let him not be arbitrary in his use of the word, and he will still find it is applicable to the activities of either of these assemblies.

An Assembly does not Exclude "Business"

To assert that we only have an assembly of the church when there is no "business" discussed is also to assert what one cannot find in scripture. Is it proper to discuss "business" in an assembly where we worship? Yes. In Acts 6, the multitude of the disciples was gathered to choose 7 men who might be appointed "over this business" (serving tables), and they "prayed" (6:6). Who can imagine a congregation of God's people who would consciously separate conducting the God-given business of the congregation from acknowledgement of God's sovereignty?

In Acts 15, was it not the business of the Jerusalem congregation to deal with the issue of circumcising Gentiles inasmuch as some of its own number had taught error on this point? And yet the subject was discussed reverently, with a focus on God's will. James' argument (Acts 15:13-21) could well be a Sunday morning sermon, as could Peter's comments (15:7-11).

In 1 Corinthians 5, was it not the business of the church to deal with the fornicator? And should we suppose such serious action should be taken without prayer to God, and meditation upon his word? But some will say, that's not what we mean when we say "business." But what "we mean" may be the problem. We should mean what the scriptures mean. What business does the church have, other than that which God has given it?

Furthermore, even in those assemblies where we sing and eat the Lord's Supper, it is common practice to make announcements concerning such matters as the needs of the sick, tasks that need to be performed, etc. Therefore, any distinction between one assembly and another based on the conducting of what we call business would merely be a distinction in degree. We would be making a distinction based on what portion of the assembly was devoted to what we call business as compared to the portion devoted to worship, and the portion devoted to edification. That is an arbitrary distinction.

Women should be Present
when the Church (Assembly) is Assembled,


Because it is an Assembly, Women should be Silent

What I have tried to show is that there is nothing in the New Testament that indicates a hard, fast distinction between a "worship service" and a "business meeting" of the church such that we could claim that a meeting of the church to discuss its business is not an assembly. After all, what is the church's business? Is it not to do those things which the Lord has authorized it to do? Well, if it is doing those things at a time when it is assembled, or in Paul's words, when "the whole church be come together into one place" (1 Cor. 14:23, KJV), why is that not an assembly? Or to be more clear, why is that not the "assembly" assembled?

Now, there will be occasions when some business needs to be discussed, handled, or executed, and the immediate attention of the whole church is not required. Witness the work of deacons. Those seven men in Acts 6 would have had a hard time doing their job if they neither met together, nor met with helpers, nor met with widows. But when there is business that scripturally is the business of the whole congregation (for example, choosing the seven men in the first place) then let the whole congregation be assembled, including the women. Remember, we read about the multitude of the disciples being called together, but never do we read of a "Men's Business Meeting" wherein congregational decisions were made while women were excluded. But whenever the church is purposely assembled, let the women heed the instruction of 1 Corinthians 14:34ff.

PART 2 - Does Silent Mean Silent? (1 Corinthians 14:34)

In Part 1, we considered the arbitrary distinction made between occasions when the whole church is assembled together in one place and some business is discussed, and those occasions when the whole church is assembled together and little or no business is discussed. The upshot of those considerations was that, when the whole church is assembled together in one place according to the Lord's instruction, whether the activities include, on the one hand, prayer and discussion of the need for deacons, or on the other hand, songs of praise and a sermon, the women are to be silent.

But several questions arise. What does "keep silence" mean? Which women are to be silent? Is the teaching that women are to be silent applicable today?

σιγάω means "keep silence"

What we are going to find is that "keep silence" well conveys the meaning of the Greek word, σιγάω, which it represents. That is why the translators have so translated the passage! Now the English word silent does not mean, "speak in a non-authoritative manner" or any such thing. And yet some have supposed that is what "let the women keep silence" means. We will see that neither the word itself nor the context of 1 Corinthians 14 calls for such a meaning.

Let us consider each of the ten passages where σιγάω occurs in the New Testament. The last of these is 1 Corinthians 14:34. We will see that in every case, the word means not to speak, and that it usually means to be silent with reference to something, e.g., some particular occasion, audience, topic, or time frame. Then we will note that the occasion under discussion in 1 Corinthians 14 is the assembly, and the audience is the assembly. With reference to speaking out in the assembly, whether in the form of a question or otherwise, women are to be silent. In short, Paul is saying women should not take the floor in the assembly. They should not speak out. Not a word.

LUKE 9:36

We recall Peter's inclination to speak, even "not knowing what he said," when Jesus was transfigured and Moses and Elijah appeared with Him. In Luke's account of the transfiguration, we read,

And when the voice came Jesus was found alone. And
they held their peace, and told no man in those days
any of the things which they had seen.

The phrase, "held their peace" represents the single word, ἐσίγησαν, which is simply the 3rd person plural aorist active indicative, of σιγάω. Does this mean that Peter, James, and John continued to speak in a non-authoritative manner?


LUKE 18:39

Luke tells of a certain blind man who called after Jesus, saying, "Jesus thou son of David have mercy on me." The crowd rebuked him, telling him "that he should hold his peace [σιγήσῃ, 3rd per sing aor act subj. of σιγάω]." Did they mean that he should not say a word to anyone? That is doubtful. But they certainly did not mean that he should call after Jesus in a non-authoritative manner. They meant, with reference to calling out to Jesus, he should not speak; he should be silent.

It is worth noting that, contrary to the crowd's rebuke, the blind man continued to cry out. His words were reverent, pleading, and not at all authoritative. Nonetheless, he was not holding his peace. He was not being silent.


LUKE 20:26

When Jesus answered the question about giving tribute to Caesar, Luke says, "they were not able to take hold of the saying before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace." Now I don't suppose it is necessary to understand that those who had asked the question ceased to talk at all. However, with reference to arguing the point with Jesus, they quit talking; they were silent; they didn't say anymore, not a word.


ACTS 12:17

When Rhoda, the maid, excitedly announced that Peter was at the gate, the brethren who had gathered to pray were incredulous, some supposing that it was "his angel." When they saw Peter with their own eyes, they were amazed. Luke says, Peter, "beckoning unto them with the hand to hold their peace, declared unto them how the Lord had brought him forth out of the prison." The picture is clear - he held his hand up, perhaps palm down, raising and lowering the forearm, motioning for his excited brethren to be quiet so that he could speak. When Luke says that Peter signaled them to "hold their peace" he certainly does not mean that Peter wished they would speak in a non-authoritative manner. He means that Peter wanted them to quit talking and listen, so that he could speak to them.


ACTS 15:12-13

In the context of the meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, Luke writes, "And all the multitude kept silence and they hearkened unto Barnabas and Paul..." This is getting redundant, but once again, did that mean the multitude spoke in a non-authoritative manner? No, it meant they got quiet and listened, so that Paul and Barnabas could speak. While Paul and Barnabas spoke, a woman in the audience might have told her child to sit still, but the people in the audience allowed Paul and Barnabas to have the floor. Women, and for that matter, men, were not speaking out with comments or questions. They held their peace. They were silent.

Then Luke writes, "And after [Paul and Barnabas] held their peace, James answered..." Now it was James' turn to speak. Paul and Barnabas quit speaking. Paul and Barnabas did not continue to recite, in a non-authoritarian manner, what God had wrought among the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas gave up the floor. Paul might have whispered a comment to Barnabas as James spoke, but with reference to speaking out before the audience, Paul and Barnabas were silent.


ROMANS 16:25

Paul's reference to "the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal" does not indicate that if the revelation of the mystery had been previously made, it would have had to be made in a non-authoritative manner. God did indeed speak in Old Testament times, but with reference to revealing the mystery, He did not speak; He was silent.


The man who has the ability to speak in a tongue is to "keep silence in the church" if there is not one present who can interpret. This does not mean the tongue speaker can continue to speak in his tongue as long as he does so in a non-authoritative manner! Of course, it also doesn't mean that he can't lead a prayer if he does so in the common language. It means that, with reference to speaking in some other tongue, he is to refrain from speaking; he is to be silent. He is not to say a word.


One man is speaking what has been revealed to him. "But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence." That does not mean the first can continue to speak, ask questions, etc., as long as he does so in a non-authoritative manner. It means he is to shut his mouth.

Now in all of this, notice that σιγάω means "be silent". It does not mean talk in a meek voice. Contrary to some who present specious arguments designed to prove the word does not mean be silent, let me say that it means precisely that. Now this silence is usually silence with reference to something, e.g., some particular occasion, topic, or time frame. But with reference to that occasion, topic, or time frame, it means not to speak.



In this passage as well, when the women are told to keep silence, that means they are not to speak. Indeed Paul, says, "for it is not permitted unto them to speak."

Does it merely mean she cannot speak in an authoritative manner? That the word itself doesn't mean that is clear from all the passages where it is used, which we have discussed. Now let's turn our attention to the context, and see if there is anything in the context which suggests Paul means, be silent with reference to speaking in an authoritarian manner.

The meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34f

If the context of the whole chapter is considered, we recall that Paul was not saying the tongue speaker could speak in a non-authoritative manner in the absence of an interpreter, nor was Paul saying the first prophet could continue speaking if he did so in a non-authoritative manner when one sitting by received a revelation.

In the immediate context, notice that the women were not even to ask questions: "If they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home." Nothing in the context suggests that Paul's command to be silent only had reference to speaking in an authoritative manner.

Do notice that in the context, Paul does have reference to speaking out in the assembly, to taking the floor, to speaking out so to have the attention of the assembled brethren. That's what he was talking about in verses 4, 5, 6, 9, 13, 16, 19, 26, 27, 28, 29, and really, throughout the whole chapter. The instruction regarding the women is in this vein. Therefore, this passage does not prohibit the woman from whispering to her child that he needs to sit still. Nor does this passage prohibit the woman from adding her voice to the chorus of voices that offer praise to God and edification to one another. But with reference to speaking out in the assembly such that she has everyone's attention, she is to be silent, absolutely silent. She is not even to ask a question.

Given the context, it appears Paul has in view first of all silence with regard to prophesying and speaking in tongues. That is to say, the context suggests that "let the women keep silence" means that the women are not to prophesy, or speak out in a tongue in the assembly. Nonetheless, Paul gives the reason: "for it is not permitted unto them to speak." Paul's admonition that the women keep silence is based on the general principle that the women are not permitted to speak.

This prohibition against speaking cannot be limited to the exercise of spiritual gifts, for it even precluded asking a question. Paul writes, "And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church." Some stumble over this sentence, noting that not all women have husbands, and miss the point. Paul is talking about asking questions, and forbids women to do this in the assembly! How can it be construed that Paul is only speaking of the exercise of spiritual gifts when he speaks of seeking information?

What about the fact that not all women have husbands? It is as in 1 Corinthians 11:34, where Paul wrote, "If any man is hungry, let him eat at home." This was not to say that home is the only place a man could satisfy his hunger. But it was to say that a man should not construe the Lord's Supper as a meal to satisfy hunger, that there are other occasions where it is appropriate to satisfy hunger, and Paul mentioned the most obvious: "at home." So also in 1 Corinthians 14:35. Paul does not mean to say that a woman may not privately ask one of the elders, or an older woman, or whomever. But he makes it clear that she should not ask her question in the assembly, that there are others besides the assembled church to whom she can address her question, and Paul mentions the most obvious: her husband. (See this point addressed again under "objection #3" in Part 3, below.)

PART 3 1 Corinthians 14:34 - Objections to the Plain Meaning

(Objection #1) "Then she can't sing"

Some object: "If silent means silent, the women wouldn't be able to sing in the assembly!" If this were a true statement, our conclusion ought to be that women shouldn't sing in the assembly. A need to seek a forced interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34 in order to justify women singing in the assembly may reflect a greater reverence for long standing practice than for scripture. "We can't change the way we have always done it, therefore we'll have to change the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34."

However, the statement "If silent means silent, the women wouldn't be able to sing in the assembly" is a non sequitur. Does verse 30 mean the first prophet is not allowed to sing? Not at all. He is told to be silent with reference to speaking when another man receives a revelation. Does verse 28 mean the man with the ability to speak in a tongue is not allowed to sing? Not at all. He is told to be silent with reference to speaking in a tongue when there is no interpreter present. In both cases, speaking means speaking out in the assembly, and so throughout the chapter. Being silent is to yield the floor. Does verse 34 mean the women can't sing. Not at all. But she is to yield the floor. In what context? "In the church." To what extent? She is not even to ask questions (vs. 35). Does she take the floor when she adds her voice to the chorus of voices who sing praise to God. I don't believe so. Ephesians 5:19 does say we are to speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, by singing. But unless this means the woman is to sing a solo, it doesn't teach that she is to do what she is told not to do in 1 Corinthians 14. (To be sure, Ephesians 5:19 does not specifically mention the assembly, although I believe it applies to the singing in the assembly as well as singing apart from the assembly.)


(Objection #2) "Then she can't confess"

Here we have an egregious example of rejecting the word of God in order to keep the traditions of men. Is there ever any example, command, or instruction of any sort that teaches a woman must stand in the assembly and verbally, audibly, confess before the assembly her faith in Christ before she can be baptized? There is no example of such ever happening in scripture. There is not any command to that effect. You won't find it. To argue that such is required by 1 Timothy 6:12 or Matthew 10:32 (in spite of the fact that neither passage says such) is tantamount to arguing that baptisms can only take place in the assembly. The Eunuch would have been unscripturally baptized, for he did not confess his faith in and to the assembly. For the same reason, we would have to conclude that Lydia, the Philippian jailor, and Saul were not scripturally baptized. But it's the way things are done (in many congregations, not all). And because it's the way things are done, some are willing to distort the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Some believe that 1 Timothy 6:12, Matthew 10:32, and Romans 10:9 require that one make a verbal confession of faith immediately prior to being baptized. I'm not convinced that such is taught by these passages. But even if it were, and even if it is during an assembly that a woman indicates her desire to be baptized by walking to the front and speaking quietly to one of the men, it is an easy thing to accommodate her confession of faith without having to speak to the entire assembly. I marvel at the numerous attempts to justify women speaking in the assembly which are based entirely upon the supposed necessity of a woman speaking out in the assembly prior to her baptism. There is no such necessity, and if there is not necessity, there is no overthrowing of the plain teaching of 1 Corinthians 14:34.


(Objection #3) "Some women don't have husbands"

In Paul's admonition, "And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home" some see evidence that Paul could not have been referring to all women in Cor 14:34-35, because not all women have husbands.

Consider 1 Corinthians 11:34 where Paul says, "If any man is hungry, let him eat at home." We have no trouble understanding that Paul was not saying the only place you can eat is at home. He was saying that the assembly is not the place to eat for the purpose of satisfying hunger. When one is hungry, there are alternatives to eating in the assembly. And Paul mentions the most obvious"at home." Does this passage mean we can't stop and eat at McDonald's on the way home? Of course not.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14:35, We should have no trouble understanding that Paul is not saying the only person a woman can learn from is her husband. He is saying that the assembly is not the place for a woman to ask questions. When a woman has a question, there are alternatives to asking it in the assembly. And Paul mentions the most obviousher own husband. Does this passage mean she can't stop and ask an elder a question after the assembly is dismissed, or that a woman who has no husband is not allowed to ask a question of anyone at all? Of course not.

(Objection #4) "Not applicable today"

Because Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 pertained to the use of spiritual gifts, which we do not have today, some suppose the instructions concerning women being silent have no application today.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul takes general principles and applies them to spiritual gifts. The general principles are still applicable today. For example:

GENERAL PRINCIPLE "Unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?...seek that ye may abound unto the edifying of the church."

Spiritual Gift Application

"For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth; but in the spirit he speaketh mysteries....if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God."

Shouldn't We Apply the Principle Today?

Does not this same passage inform us that it would not be right to have a speaker present a sermon in Mandarin Chinese to an English only audience today? We might be impressed, but we would not understand, nor would we be edified.

GENERAL PRINCIPLE "God is not a God of confusion but of peace....Let all things be done decently and in order."

Spiritual Gift Application

"If a man speaketh in a tongue, let it be by two, or at the most three and that in turn....And let the prophets speak by two or three and let the others discern. But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. For ye all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be exhorted."

Shouldn't We Apply the Principle Today? Does not this same passage inform us that, even today, it would not be right to have three or four speakers all speaking at once in the assembly? We would rightly consider that disorderly and not conducive to our being exhorted. It would be confusion. [For those who believe that the dispersed Bible classes are part of, or included in, the assembly, how do you justify various teachers, in their respective class rooms, speaking at once? 1 Corinthians 14:27-31 should make it clear that the assembly is what Paul defined when he said "the whole church be come together into one place" (KJV)].

GENERAL PRINCIPLE "It is not permitted unto [the women] to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law....it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church."

Spiritual Gift Application

[Remember, women did have spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy, Acts 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5] "As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches."

We Should Apply the Principle Today

Paul applies the general principle that a woman is not to speak in the assembly to the use of spiritual gifts. While women might prophesy, they were not to do so in the assembly. That application does not preclude all others. Even today, women are not to speak in the assembly.

To say 1 Corinthians 14 does not apply today is to say that we can have multiple speakers, speaking in unrecognizable languages, all at once.


(Objection #5) "'Your women' means prophets' wives"

This objection arises in part because of a textual variant. Not all Greek manuscripts which include 1 Corinthians 14:34 say the same thing. Following the Received Text, the KJV translates "Let your women keep silence..." while the ASV (and similarly, the Douay, RSV, NASB, and NIV), following older manuscripts, has "Let the women keep silence..." Where we find the word wife in the New Testament, it is simply a translation of the same Greek word that is everywhere used for woman. When it is translated wife, it is because something in the context indicates that wife is meant. A possessive pronoun (his wife), certain verbs (take a wife, have a wife, marry a wife, put away a wife) or correlation with a husband (as in Eph. 5:22,) are the kinds of things that indicate that we are to understand wife rather than simply a woman. The reading, "your women," could mean wives, and because the last men mentioned are prophets (vs. 32), some suppose that the prophets' wives are the ones who must be silent. A little imaginative speculation envisions a whole scenario: A problem had arisen in the church at Corinth, a problem involving unruly wives of prophets.

Consider, however, that even if the "your" is authentic, it is not necessary to assume Paul only addresses the prophets. Paul is giving instructions to the church at Corinth, not merely to the prophets. Furthermore, regardless of who it is that Paul instructs to keep silent in verse 34, as a reason for this instruction, Paul says in verse 35, "for it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church." He doesn't say your women; he says a woman. Now if one supposes Paul still has in mind wives, it cannot be only the prophets wives, but rather any wife. But what possible reason could there be for requiring the married women to keep silence while allowing the unmarried women to speak? We are left with the conclusion that Paul does not mean wife in verse 35. Rather, as translated in the KJV, ASV, NASB, NKJB, NIV, and NRSV, it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.

But the authenticity of the "your" in the text is doubtful. The United Bible Societies Greek New Testament mentions many variants, but not all. Those mentioned are "for the most part...readings significant for translators or necessary for the establishing of the text." Apparently, the variant reading, "your women" failed this test in the eyes of the committee responsible for the GNT (4th ed.), for it is not included at all. (For a full discussion of the manuscript evidence, see the Appendix.)

Some suppose that the reference to husbands in verse 35 is sufficient to justify interpreting verse 34 as having reference only to married women. I have already shown why Paul would refer to husbands even though he is instructing all women regardless of marital status. Otherwise, what possible reason could there be for requiring the married women to keep silent while allowing the unmarried women to speak? The sad truth is, those who argue that Paul is only talking about wives would not be happy with Paul's instructions even if he were speaking only of wives. They are not content to have the wives be silent and let only unmarried women speak. They wish to allow all women to speak!


(Objection #6) "'The law' didn't prohibit speaking"

On page 88 of Confusion or Consensus? Vance Trefethen lays out a syllogism:

1. Women in the new covenant are to be in subjection or under obedience "as also saith the law." (1 Cor 14:34)

2. Attending and speaking in a congregational decision-making assembly did not violate women's subjection or obedience under the law. (Num 27:7)

3. Therefore, women in the new covenant may attend and speak (submissively) in a congregational decision-making assembly without violating their subjection or obedience.

Because, as has been set forth in this work, the activities of the particular assembly are not the criteria that determine when women may speak or must remain silent, we will simplify his syllogism, before showing its fallacy:

1. Women in the new covenant are to be in subjection "as also saith the law." (1 Cor 14:34)

2. Speaking in an assembly did not violate women's subjection under the law. (Num 27:7)

3. Therefore, women in the new covenant may speak in the assembly without violating their subjection.

Quite simply, principles that are common to the Old Covenant and the New may nonetheless have different applications. For example, faith is required of those under the Old Covenant as well as those under the New Covenant. But the applications are different. We would not fall for the following syllogism:

1. The righteous under the New Covenant are to live by faith as also saith the prophets (Rom. 1:17, Hab. 2:4).

2. Instrumental music in worship did not violate living by faith under the word revealed by the Old Testament prophets.

3. Therefore, God's people under the New Covenant may use instrumental music in worship without failing to live by faith.

Something is wrong, isn't it? Logically, the fallacy is that the conclusion does not follow from the major and minor premises. The confusion arises because of the "as also saith" which, in brother Trefethen's syllogism, is made to mean "in the same way as under." But Paul did not say, "let them be in subjection in the same way as under the law." Paul said something as also the law said it. What was that? "Let them be in subjection." The comparison is between two things saying "be in subjection," not between two methods of being in subjection.

Compare 1 Corinthians 10:6, where Paul wrote, "we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted." Now if the words as also in 1 Corinthians 14:34 require only that women be in subjection in exactly the same way as under the law, then should we suppose the words as also in 1 Corinthians 10:6 require only that we not lust in exactly the same way that Israel lusted? The incident referred to in 1 Corinthians 10:6 was originally related in Numbers 11:4ff. The people complained because they desired meat (flesh), having grown tired of the manna with which God sustained them. Surely we understand that Paul's as also in 1 Corinthians 10:6 does not limit the lusting that is prohibited to lusting for meat.

Trefethen cites Genesis 3:16 as do most, and that suffices to establish that there was a common principle in the teaching of 1 Corinthians 14 and the Law regarding subjection. It is the principle, not the application, wherein Paul finds common ground with the Law. But Paul, writing by the Holy Spirit, tells us what application to make: "Let the women keep silence."

PART 4 Quietness vs. Silence

Some interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34f are influenced by 1 Timothy 2:11-12, as if the latter passage defines the former. In the latter passage, Paul wrote,

Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness.

In truth, the two passages teach different things. One is specific, forbidding the woman to speak. The other is general, describing the overall demeanor of the woman. One is limited to the woman's role in the assembly. The other has to do with the woman's role generally in her dealings with her brethren.

It may be asked whether a woman who is present, and silent, in a congregational meeting might appropriately offer her counsel to an individual or individuals subsequent to and apart from the assembly. 2 John 1:1 (which I am inclined to believe refers to a woman, not a church), Philippians 4:2, Acts 18:26, 1 Corinthians 16:19, (it's hard to see how a man who dwells with his godly wife according to knowledge would unilaterally decide to have the church meet in his house) and Romans 16:1-4 all illustrate the role, influence, and yes I would go so far as to say counsel, of women.

But 1 Timothy 2:9ff, not being limited to the assembly, applies here. Women who offer counsel apart from the assembly must nonetheless be mindful of the demeanor taught in 1 Timothy 2. Abigail, the wife of Nabal, well demonstrated the ability of a woman to not only stand for what is right, but also to counsel a man, without abandoning her womanly demeanor. Her plea to David, as she fell at his feet, was first, "On me alone, my lord, be the blame. And please let your maidservant speak to you and listen to the words of your maidservant" (1 Sam. 25:24). After acknowledging her husband's folly, she advised David concerning the impropriety of personal vengeance (1 Sam. 25:25-26). After acknowledging the future of David's house, and that David was "fighting the battle of the LORD," she exhorted him that "evil shall not be found in you all your days" (1 Sam. 25:28). Even this was offered more as a statement of fact than as an admonition. After speaking of David's future as ruler over Israel, she reminded David that he would not want to look back on an incident wherein he had shed blood without cause. Though her words were so gentle as to endear herself to him (he took her as his wife after Nabal's death), they stayed him from his intended, wrongful course of action.

In comparing 1 Timothy 2:9 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, even the words that are used vary from one another in meaning, one having to do with demeanor, and the other having to do with speaking. The word σιγάω is a verb with a very specific meaning: "say nothing, keep silent" (Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich, 2nd ed.). However, ἡσυχία, the word translated "quietness," is a noun which is used generally of behavior and is not at all limited to speaking. The related adjective, ἡσύχιος, is also used in 1 Timothy 2. It occurs in verse 2, where Paul's words are translated, "that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity."

Its verb cognate, ἡσυχάζω, also occurs in the New Testament, and in the ASV, is translated "held their peace" just as σιγάω is elsewhere. However, the contrast in the meaning of the two words is pronounced. Consider Acts 11:18 where the brethren in Jerusalem have heard Peter's explanation and defense of his eating with the Gentiles. The text is clear in saying that the people were not silent even though ἡσύχασαν (3rd pers. pl., Aorist Act. Ind of ἡσυχάζω) is translated "they held their peace." The text says,

And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life.

Clearly, ἡσυχάζω does not mean "say nothing," for they "glorified God saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life." Rather, the word indicates that the brethren ceased contending. Prior to Peter's explanation, these Jewish brethren had "contended with him" (Acts 11:3). After Peter's defense, the Jewish brethren expressed their acquiescence by speaking. The significance of ἡσυχάζω is not merely that the Jewish brethren ceased speaking (which in fact, they did not). Rather ἡσυχάζω indicates the agreement that was achieved in contrast to the earlier discord.

The words σιγάω and ἡσυχία mean different things. The contexts of 1 Corinthians 14:34ff and 1 Timothy 2:12f are about different things. The meaning of "learn in quietness" and "not permitted to speak" are two different things. To insist that 1 Corinthians 14:34 be interpreted so as to say nothing different than 1 Timothy 2:12 is arbitrary, and does violence to God's word.

PART 5 Conclusion

On more than one occasion, I have heard someone ask, "What good does it do for the women to be present in a meeting if they can't talk?" One might as well ask, what good does it do for a woman to be present in the Sunday morning assembly if she can't talk!

There is much that makes sense about all members being present as congregational decisions are made. Though a woman does not speak, if she is present for the discussion she has a better understanding of the reasons behind a decision, the sentiments that were considered, pitfalls that were avoided, than she could have if she merely gets an after the fact account of the final decision. All of this will provide her with a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the final decision.

The "business" of the congregation should be that with which the Lord has given the church to be busy. And women are a part of the church, and were a part of the whole multitude of the disciples in Acts 6. If it is the church's business, is it not all the church's business?

But in the final analysis, whether it makes sense to us or not - both in the case of women being present, and in the case of women being silent, this is what the Bible says. And regardless of the times in which we live, and regardless of the artificial standards of orthodoxy, this is where we must take our stand.


As noted in Part 3, The United Bible Societies Greek New Testament (3rd ed.) cites many variant readings, but not all. Those mentioned are "for the most part...readings significant for translators or necessary for the establishing of the text." The variant reading, "your women" failed this test in the eyes of the committee responsible for the GNT (3rd ed.). Bruce Metzger, one of the members of the committee, wrote A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament in which he explained many of the decisions of the committee regarding variant readings. On the variant "your women" in 1 Corinthians 14:34, he wrote:

The Textus Receptus, following D F G K L many minuscules itd,g syrp,h with obelus al, reads ὑμῶν after γυναῖκες. The Committee regarded this as probably a scribal addition, and preferred the shorter text, which is strongly supported by p46vid ) A B C P Y 33 43 88 104 256 263 296 436 467 623 915 1319 1739 1837 2127 vg copsa,bo,fay arm eth al. (p. 565f)

The various manuscripts cited by Metzger include not only Greek mss, but also Old Latin, Syriac (Peshitta and Harclean), Latin Vulgate, Coptic (Sahidic, Bahairic, and Fayyumic) Armenian, and Ethiopic.

Here we will note in particular only the Greek manuscripts individually cited by Metzger. The name, date, and reading of each of these manuscripts are shown below:

manuscript date reading comments
P46 c. AD 200 women state of preservation makes reading less than certain
א=Sinaiticus 4th cent. women  
B=Vaticanus 4th cent. women  
A=Alexandrinus 5th cent. women  
C=Ephraemi 5th cent. women(?) Metzger cites Codex Ephraemi in support of "women". However, Kurt & Barbara Aland indicate that Codex Ephraemi is missing chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians
D=Claromontanus 6th cent. your women While Codex Claromontanus does have the reading, "your women", the text of verses 34-35 is removed from its customary position and is found instead at the end of the chapter, following verse 40.
F=Augiensis 9th cent. your women the text of verses 34-35 is removed from its customary position and is found instead following verse 40.
G=Boernerianus 9th cent. your women the text of verses 34-35 is removed from its customary position and is found instead following verse 40.
K=Mosquensis 9/10th cent. your women  
L=Angelicus 9th cent. your women  
P=Porphyrianus 9th cent. women(?) Metzger cites Codex Porphyrianus in support of "women". However, Kurt & Barbara Aland indicate that Codex Porphyrianus is missing chapters 12-16 of 1 Corinthians.
Ψ=Athous Laurae 8/9th cent. women  

Before noticing the minuscules cited by Metzger. It should be remembered that "your women" is supported by "many minuscules" which are not individually cited by Metzger. Here, I suspect we will encounter the debate concerning text type. Inasmuch as those who defend the Byzantine text type usually denounce the more modern text as being a part of the theologically liberal package, it would seem ironic to have someone argue for women speaking in the assembly based on the reading of the Byzantine text.

Because the minuscules are all of late date, their importance depends upon other considerations. Kurt and Barbara Aland (The Text of the New Testament) identify five categories of manuscripts grouped by importance. The first three are described as follows:

Category I: Manuscripts of a very special quality which should always be considered in establishing the original text (e.g., the Alexandrian text belongs here).

Category II: Manuscripts of a special quality, but distinguished from manuscripts of category I by the presence of alien influences (particularly of the Byzantine text), and yet of importance for establishing the original text (e.g., the Egyptian text belongs here).

Category III: Manuscripts of a distinctive character with an independent text, usually important for establishing the original text, but particularly important for the history of the text (e.g., f1, f13). (The Text of the New Testament by Kurt and Barbara Aland, p. 105f)

If we use these categories to evaluate the significance of the minuscules which Metzger cites as supporting the shorter reading (women, rather than your women) we see that 13 of these 15 minuscules are rated as belonging to category III or higher in the Pauline epistles. (I have no information about minuscules 43 and 1837.)


manuscript date reading category rating given by Aland & Aland
33 9th cent. women category I
43 12th cent. women not described by Aland & Aland
88 12th cent. women category III
104 1087 women category III
256 11th cent. women category III
263 13th cent. women category III
296 16th cent. women category III
436 11th cent. women category III
467 15th cent. women category III
623 1037 women category III
915 13th cent. women category III
1319 12th cent. women category III
1739 10th cent. women category I
1837 11th cent. women not described by Aland & Aland
2127 12th cent. women category II

When all has been said, the reading "your women" is supported by no Greek manuscript of earlier origin than the sixth century, and by only one Greek manuscript originating prior to the ninth century. The 6th century manuscript which supports the reading, "your women," as well as two of the ninth century witnesses, have the verses containing these words in the wrong place. From the ninth century forward, the evidence is mixed.