One of the most significant segments of Scripture relating to the subject of the work of God’s woman in the church is found in I Corinthians 14:34-35. There is no question that this text is dealing with a local problem going on in the church gatherings at Corinth. If you look at the context of these verses about women being silent in church you will see this it is part of a three point lesson Paul is offering them on conduct in the church gathering. It’s obvious that in each case there was something going on that shouldn’t have been and Paul both deals with the present problem and lays down principles on how to deal with similar issues in the future. His first point was about tongue speaking in the assembly. He declared that in those public gatherings, even when such tongue speaking was common among them, there should be two or at the most three to speak at any given time and then only if there is someone to interpret what is said. The church can’t be built up when they have no idea what is being said. Notice the specific point was about tongue speaking that was going on in the church. But there is a principle that nothing should be done in the church gathering that people can’t understand. You can’t be built up by strange voices that you have no idea what is being said. So tongue speakers were to keep silent if there was no interpreter.
His second point was about prophets. Prophets were receiving revelations from God and wanted to deliver them to the congregation. The word prophet simply means to “Speak forth God’s revelation” and can refer both to direct revelations from God or speaking the things he has revealed in His word. Prophets were to speak one at a time and no more than two on an occasion or the most three. If one is speaking and another receives a revelation then the first should keep silent and allow the other to speak so the whole church can be built up. The immediate point was prophets should think more about what is best for building up the church instead of just getting to say what they felt God wanted them to say. The principle is that in every aspect of worship we should be more concerned with the whole body being built up than that each person gets to stand up and say what they wish to say.
Then as the third point he deals with the topic of women speaking in church. Notice in verse 33 at the close of the teaching to the prophets he gave this statement that applies to all three situations. “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace – as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.” This verse has been placed as the beginning of the discussion on women in worship and as the close of the teaching to the prophets. But the point is to be applied to all three. Confusion, disorder and disruption are all hindrances to the building up of the body and should be avoided and each of the three illustrations are about ways they are causing such disorder in the assembly.
In verses 34-35 he said, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.” It’s obvious there was a specific problem going on in Corinth that Paul is addressing. Some women were disrupting the worship and likely the proclaiming or prophesying the revelation of God with their questions or comments. Brother C.R. Nichol wrote the book “God’s Woman” back in the 1940’s in which he argued that this was referring to the wives of the prophets since that was the only way it made sense for them to ask their own husbands at home. Many women would be there who had no husband or whose husband didn’t know as much as they did so it made no sense to tell all women to ask their husbands at home. I think he was right in his assessment. Likely the point was that the wives of the prophets were interrupting the preaching by stopping the proclaiming of the word with questions they had about what was being said. It may have been helpful to them but was causing others not to be built up so he told them to “Keep silent in the church”. Did he mean that a woman couldn’t say anything in the assembly? Certainly not, it was used in the same sense as with the tongue speakers and the prophets. They were to keep silent in the sense of not taking over or disrupting the worship. It was that they couldn’t stop the preaching to have their personal questions answered. To make it mean they can’t say anything would mean it is wrong for a woman to sing, to confess Christ or to amen the prayers or peaching. It isn’t used in that way anywhere in the context.
But there are several things in these two verses that arouse questions. One is “As also says the law.” Generally when Paul speaks of “The law” it is a reference to the Old Testament law. But where does the Old Testament speak on this topic. The general thought has been that it refers back to Genesis 3:16 after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden and God gave them the punishment that would fall on them as a result. “To the woman he said, I will make your pains in childbirth very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” It is that last statement that is thought to be the segment of the law to which Paul refers. It is interesting if that is the case that it wasn’t referring to worship or church gatherings or any such thing but about life in general. Also, if this is the law being referred to then we must look at how it was used in the Old Testament to follow that law. Think of three women that were prominent in the Old Testament as prophets of God. The first was Miriam the sister of Moses who led the women in songs of praise when they crossed the Red Sea. She was referred to as a prophet of the Lord. Second, one of the judges in Israel was Deborah who was a judge, a prophet and a mother in Israel. She judged the people for several years and when she challenged Barak to lead the army of Israel against the enemy he refused unless she would go with him. She agreed to go but said the result would be that a woman would get the glory for killing Sisera the general. After the victory Deborah and Barak sang together a song of prophesy for all Israel. The third was Huldah the prophet who lived in the days of Josiah and was consulted by him in days of trial. All these were called of God for their work as prophets so evidently the law of Genesis 3:16 didn’t mean that a woman couldn’t serve in such capacity. Note that Paul’s use of the phrase as the law says was about her speaking and being in submission. I take it then that what the women were doing was being done in a way that was not at all submissive but rather as taking over what was going on.
The other statement in these verses that challenges us is, “For it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Question one, is what kind of speaking is he referring to? It is worth noting that the word “Speaking” is in the present tense and likely indicates that it refers to the idea of “Keeping on speaking”. It wasn’t that she couldn’t say anything. It was that she couldn’t take over the assembly and keep on speaking thus hindering the church being built up. Also, remember that the context has been about speaking and silence all the way through. Tongue speakers were to follow a pattern that wouldn’t cause problems and keep people from being built up. Prophets were to speak in turns and be silent when another was speaking. So when he talks about speaking for women it is in the same usage and refers not to saying something in the assembly but to speaking as the leader of the assembly. But why was this disgraceful? It seems to me that in every passage where the work of God’s woman is referred to it does go back to the basic principle of submission. Before getting uptight about that word remember every Christian is called on to submit in multiple ways. We submit to God, submit to elders, submit to government officials, and submit to one another in the fear of the Lord. Wives submit to husbands and children submit to parents.
Looking through the New Testament there are obvious things that God calls on men to do that he doesn’t call on the woman to do such as being an elder in the church (I Timothy 3; Titus 1). He calls on the man to be the preacher or proclaimer of the word in the assembly. Remember Philip’s four daughters were all prophets of God but there is nothing to indicate they prophesied before the church gathering. So there are some limits on the work of women as there are on all people in some areas of life. But I think we have often made the limits tighter than God ever intended. We have often taken the circumstance and tried to bind the remedy to a particular situation to all time when we should have sought the principle being taught and bound it.