May Women Speak in Church?

James W. Scott

New Horizons: January 1996

Women Speaking in the Church

Also in this issue

What Is Orthodoxy?

A Look at Promise Keepers

“As in all the congregations of the saints, 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. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?” (1 Cor. 14:33b–36 NIV)

For many people, especially in the developing “Christian feminist” movement, the question asked in the above title is not only astonishing but infuriating. Nonetheless, 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36 does seem to teach that women should not speak in church. But is that really what the passage teaches?

The Extent of the Passage

The Greek New Testament was written without any punctuation or division into verses. As a result, it is not always easy to determine where one sentence ends and another one begins. This problem faces us in verse 33. Does the second half of the verse, “as in all the churches of the saints,” conclude a sentence or begin a new one?

When Robert Stephanus worked out the verse numbers for the New Testament in 1551 while on a journey from Paris to Lyons, he combined this clause with the preceding one as verse 33. Accordingly, the translators of the KJV put the two parts of the verse together into one sentence. But modern Greek editors, most modern translations (RSV, NASB margin, NIV, NRSV), and most modern commentators recognize that verse 33b actually begins a new sentence.

The word “as” in “as in all the churches of the saints” indicates that something is the same as the general practice of Christians. It makes good sense for that something to be the practice that Paul prescribes for the Corinthian church in verse 34. He declares, in effect, “I want the women in Corinth to do what the women do in all the other churches.”

On the other hand, verses 33a and 33b do not make any sense together. What can it possibly mean that “God is not a God of commotion, but of peacefulness, as in all the churches of the saints”? The character of God is not comparable with the general practice of the churches.

We conclude, then, that verse 33b is part of our passage.

Verses 34 and 35 are the heart of the passage, containing Paul’s instructions for the Corinthian church.

But where does a paragraph break come? Clearly, verses 37–40 form a conclusion to the broader discussion that precedes, but does verse 36 belong with verses 33b–35 or with verses 37–40? This does not matter too much, but it fits better with verses 33b–35. The first word in verse 36, “or,” provides an immediate connection with what precedes, whereas there is a clear break between verse 36 and verse 37.

Our passage, then, is verses 33b–36.

The Context

Chapters 11–14 constitute a well-defined section of 1 Corinthians. In those chapters, Paul discusses various matters pertaining to what should and should not go on in the public assemblies of the church—what is proper when Christians have assembled (11:20; 14:23, 26) “in church” (11:18; 14:19, 28, 35). He begins by discussing head coverings in connection with prayer and prophecy (11:2–16; note that verse 1 belongs with chapter 10) and the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34). Then he gets into his main subject, the exercise of spiritual gifts (especially speaking in tongues), in chapters 12–14.

The discussion of how to exercise spiritual gifts, which begins at 12:1, ends at 14:33a. There is a lot of argumentation from 12:1 to 14:25. Then in 14:26a Paul asks, “So, what is the result, brethren?” A series of conclusions and instructions follows in verses 26b–32 about how spiritual gifts should be exercised in the assembly. This discussion is capped by the final warrant for his instructions, an appeal to the very character of God: “For God is not a God of commotion, but of peacefulness.”

Then, in verses 33b–36, Paul turns briefly to another topic—the role of women. There is no mention in these verses of spiritual gifts, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, or any related matter. Paul is still discussing what is proper behavior in church, but the specific subject matter changes at 14:33b, just as it changed at 11:17 and 12:1.

Finally, in 14:37–40, we come to Paul’s concluding remarks, which refer in a general way to all that he has been saying in chapters 11–14. He demands a recognition that “the things that I am writing to you” are commandments from the Lord (vv. 37–38). He urges the Corinthians to continue prophesying and speaking in tongues (v. 39), but he wants everything to be done properly and in order (v. 40). Paul refers specifically to prophecy and tongues in this conclusion (but not head coverings, the Lord’s Supper, or women speaking) because that was the main subject of chapters 11–14.

Thus we see that 14:33b–36 is a distinct unit in the larger discussion of propriety and order in the church assembly (11:2–14:40). Paul wants the Corinthians, when they assemble together, to behave properly in certain areas where they have fallen short: (1) with respect to head coverings when praying and prophesying, (2) with respect to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, (3) especially with respect to the exercise of spiritual gifts, and finally (4) with respect to the participation of women.

The Rule of Silence

The basic meaning of this passage is quite clear: when Christians gather together in church, women are not to speak, but instead are to keep silent. They should even save their questions and ask them at home. Any speaking by a woman in church is shameful, and contrary to the Law’s requirement that women are to be in subjection.

But Who Says So?

Yes, says Gilbert Bilezikian, in Beyond Sex Roles (2nd ed., Zondervan, 1985, pp. 144–53), this passage of “shocking brutality” does indeed tell women to remain silent. But, he insists, Paul is not stating his own views, but rather is quoting “a deviant teaching” disapprovingly! That is, Paul gives the false view in verses 33b–35 and then in verses 36–38 rebukes those who hold that view.

Bilezikian’s interpretation is completely fanciful, and there are strong reasons for rejecting it. First of all, there is no indication in the passage or its context that Paul is quoting someone with whom he disagrees. Without such an indication (as in 1 Cor. 1:12), how can the reader know what is happening?

Various other passages in 1 Corinthians are sometimes thought to state a position with which Paul disagrees (see 6:12, 13, 18; 7:1; 8:1, 4, 8; 10:23; note the quotation marks in the NIV in some of these passages). If this is ever true (and I doubt that it is, although in some cases Paul may be adopting the language of his correspondents and then putting his own twist on it), the only way to tell is if Paul immediately proceeds to contradict or refute that statement. (For example, in 6:12, “Everything is lawful for me” could be considered to be rebutted by “but not everything is beneficial.”)

But in our passage, no such contradiction or rebuttal follows. Paul simply preempts objections by reminding the Corinthians that they are a relatively young church. He asks two rhetorical questions, both introduced by “or” (a common Greek idiom). Either he and all the other churches are right, he implies, “or”—if Corinth alone is right—the word of God (that is, the Christian faith) must have originated at Corinth or else been received only there. Obviously, the Christian faith came to Corinth from elsewhere, and so the Corinthians should conform their practice to that of the rest of the church.

Furthermore, the alleged quotations of Paul’s opponents elsewhere in 1 Corinthians are always single, and usually pithy, sentences; 1 Corinthians 14:33b–35 is much longer and more elaborate.

If Paul is quoting his opponents, he is defeating himself by quoting the words of verse 33b (which Bilezikian recognizes as belonging with verse 34). Paul can challenge the Corinthians’ claim to authority (v. 36), but surely he is not going to oppose the practice of “all the churches of the saints.” Quite the contrary, he elsewhere appeals to the settled practice of the churches as normative (see 11:16). We can be sure that any argument that begins with “As in all the churches” is Paul’s own.

If “your women” is the correct reading in verse 34, as we believe (see below), then we clearly have Paul speaking to the Corinthian church about the women in their church. His opponents would speak of “women” in general or “our women.”

We conclude, then, that Paul presents his own view, or rather the commandment of the Lord (v. 37).

To Whom Does the Rule Apply?

Paul addresses his instructions in verses 34–35 to “your women” at Corinth. The word “your” is omitted by the Alexandrian family of manuscripts upon which most modern translations are based. This seems to leave the instructions addressed to “women” in general. But in order to complete the comparison with verse 33b, a specific reference to Corinthian women must be understood in 34–35.

However, it should not be imagined that the rules of verses 34–35 are special rules applicable only to the women of Corinth. Paul begins by appealing to what women do at all the other apostolic churches: “As in all the churches of the saints, your women are to . . .” Paul is appealing here to the rule that was recognized in the universal apostolic church, and simply telling the Corinthians that they needed to abide by it too.

Because Paul is stating a universal rule, we reject the view of Richard and Catherine C. Kroeger, in I Suffer Not a Woman (Baker, 1992), that Paul is merely addressing the local situation in Corinth, where women had supposedly brought the wild excesses of paganism into the church. The passage says nothing about that. Paul does deal with commotion in the previous section on spiritual gifts, but nowhere does he single out women as being especially unruly.

The expression “the saints” in verse 33 could refer generally to Christians (as in 1 Cor. 1:2, and usually in Paul) or specifically to the original Jewish Christians (as in 1 Cor. 16:1; cf. Eph. 2:19). In this case, the word “all” indicates that the general meaning is intended, especially since there is no hint in the context that the more limited meaning is intended. An appeal merely to the practice of the churches of Judea would not mean much if the other churches in the Gentile world were allowed to follow a different practice.

Since Paul is stating a rule that was recognized throughout the apostolic church, it follows that he is not merely instituting a special rule for Corinth because of some special problem or circumstance there. Paul states that the rule is universal in the church, which can only mean that it was instituted by general apostolic direction and remains in force in the household of God built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

When Does the Rule Apply?

The apostolic rule is that women must remain silent “in the churches” (v. 34). In verse 35 Paul explains that he is referring to what takes place “in church” as distinct from “at home.” This can only be a reference to the public assemblies of God’s people (v. 23, 26), which at a bare minimum would mean what we today call worship services.

The crucial distinction is between “in church” and “at home.” The point would seem to be that Christians gather publicly (as called together by the minister and elders) and privately (chiefly as families and their guests). In the public assembly, Paul says, it is shameful and out of character (that is, not being “in subjection”) for a woman to speak. But at home (and, by extension, in other private settings) women may speak (in the “gentle and quiet” manner that adorns a woman and is precious to God, 1 Pet. 3:4–5—that is, in a gracious, feminine manner). This is presumably how Priscilla (with her husband, Aquila) instructed even the mighty preacher Apollos (Acts 18:26).

The “at home” principle would apply when Christians have gathered together on the Lord’s Day (or at other times), but are not assembled formally. (By “formally” I am referring to the official or “stated” character of the meeting, not to the style of worship or the location of the meeting.)

With the wide variety of church meetings that we have today, it is not always easy to determine when the rule of silence applies. However, it is the responsibility of each session to apply that rule when appropriate—and of each woman to consider when it may be pleasing to God for her not to speak. We may be confident that if we sincerely and prayerfully seek to understand and apply biblical principles in these matters, God will lead us into his truth and bless us.

What Speaking Is Forbidden?

As we have already indicated, the speaking that is forbidden to women is public speaking, or speaking out, in the church assemblies. Speaking in general seems to be prohibited.

Praying (that is, leading in prayer) must be included in this speaking. Indeed, 1 Timothy 2:8 specifically states that “men” (in Greek, “males,” not “people”) are to “pray in every place [of worship], lifting up holy hands [that is, leading in prayer].”

Since singing is a form of “speaking” (Eph. 5:19) and “teaching” (Col. 3:16), it would also come within the scope of activity prohibited to women. This would rule out “special music” sung by women.

However, it is important to distinguish between an individual addressing the congregation and the congregation as a whole worshiping God audibly in the recitation of a prayer or the singing of a hymn. One aspect of such congregational speech is that the members of the congregation speak to one another (Eph. 5:19), but in this case no individual teaching or leading is involved.

Would it be right for a minister to read a sermon or congregational prayer written out for him by a woman? Clearly not. Consider, then, whether it is right for him to lead the congregation in singing a song written out by a woman. As much as we may like the sentiments expressed by, say, Fanny Crosby, her words should not be given authority in the worship of the church. To sing her hymns in public worship is to make her a teacher, a worship leader, and a prayer leader in the church assembly.

Is there any way to escape the relentless logic of the rule of silence? Yes, says James B. Hurley, in Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Zondervan, 1981, pp. 185–94): the speaking prohibited to women in verses 34–35 is the judging of prophets mentioned briefly in passing way back in verse 29. And since prophecy has ceased, so has the judging of prophets, and thus this passage can now be ignored (pp. 185–94)!

However, verses 33b–36 form a distinct unit, not a continuation of the previous discussion of spiritual gifts. Thus, the previous discussion cannot be imposed on the passage to provide a limitation on its language.

Second, there is not the slightest hint in verses 33b–36 that the judging of prophets is in view. If Paul merely didn’t want women to judge prophets, why didn’t he simply say so?

Third, verses 34–35 are much too far from verse 29 to suppose that a reference there to evaluating prophets would control the subject matter of verses 34–35. Various kinds of speech are mentioned in verses 26–32; why should anyone think that verse 34 harks back to verse 29?

For these reasons, Hurley’s view must be rejected.

The only possible qualification that I can see in the rule of silence is that the verb “speak” has the nuance of “assert one’s views” or “express oneself.” The similar instruction in 1 Timothy 2:11–12 also requires women to remain silent, but more specifically prohibits teaching and other leading.

If this is so, it would be proper for a woman to give a personal testimony, report, announcement, or prayer request to the congregation, provided that it does not become exhortation, teaching, or leading in worship. (Whether such activity is appropriate in a worship service is a separate question.) The woman must be careful to remain “in subjection” (that is, not leading the assembly).

In the complexity of modern church activity, many questions will arise about how to apply Paul’s rule of silence. Some may think that it is more important to encourage participation than to abide by a seemingly out-of-date rule. So the question becomes, are we seeking to obey the Word of God or seeking to satisfy ourselves and placate others?

Women Praying and Prophesying

But wait! When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that a woman should keep her head covered “while praying or prophesying,” isn’t he presupposing that women will be speaking in church?

Not really. In 11:5 Paul is referring to the situation where women are exercising the special spiritual gifts that chapters 11–14 focus on. Thus, the praying and prophesying in view in chapter 11 is inspired utterance, in which God is speaking through his chosen human instrument (2 Pet. 1:21).

On the other hand, the speech in view in 14:33b–36 is ordinary, uninspired utterance. Clearly, rules governing ordinary speech would not necessarily apply to inspired speech. And yet, as a reminder to all that she remains in subjection as a woman, the inspired woman is to give utterance to God’s word with her head veiled (11:10). It is this situation, not that in 14:33b–36, that is no longer with us.

Prophesying is always inspired speaking in the Bible, as it is in chapters 12–14. The word “praying,” by itself, could refer to inspired or uninspired speech, but, when coupled with inspired “prophesying,” it should be understood as inspired as well.

This is borne out in chapters 12–14, where the only praying that is mentioned, alongside prophesying, is praying “in a tongue” (14:14) and “with the Spirit” (14:15). Here the praying is equivalent to speaking in a tongue. The point of linking prayer and prophecy may be that some inspired utterance is directed toward God (prayer) and some is directed toward man (prophecy).

Since 14:33b–36 is a separate section, not a continuation of the discussion of spiritual gifts, there is no reason to think that the speaking in view in it is anything other than ordinary speech. The appeal to the Law in verse 35 also indicates that ordinary speaking is in view.

Therefore, chapter 11 is best understood as regulating the circumstances for delivering inspired speech in church, while 14:33b–36 forbids ordinary speech by women in church.

The Textual Question

Advocates of women speaking in church have one final way to get rid of our passage: declare it inauthentic. But there is very little evidence that supports such a drastic solution.

All known manuscripts of 1 Corinthians contain 14:33b–36. However, a few manuscripts in the “Western” textual tradition place verses 34–35 after verse 40, where they obviously don’t belong. Ordinarily, no one would suggest that this dislocation in the Western text (which is otherwise known for its sloppiness) casts any serious doubt upon the authenticity of the passage, since it is uniformly attested by both the Alexandrian and the Byzantine textual traditions (see my article on texts and translations in the June 1995 New Horizons).

However, some have seized upon this textual “problem” as evidence that the two verses are inauthentic. The Pentecostal scholar Gordon D. Fee, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 699–708), argues that a nefarious interpolator wrote verses 34–35 in the margin of a very early manuscript, which copyists then inserted in two different places. But this would mean that all known manuscripts of 1 Corinthians are descended from this one corrupt copy, which is highly unlikely. More likely, an early copyist in the West accidentally skipped verses 34–35 and a corrector then wrote them in the margin, which the next copyist understood as belonging after verse 40. Or, the first copyist may have realized his mistake a few verses down, and decided just to stick the skipped verses back in after verse 40. (Others have suggested that the verses were moved deliberately.)

However the dislocation arose, verses 34–35 must be authentic because verse 36 makes no sense coming after verse 33. As we have already seen, verse 33b is half of a comparison, and only verse 34 supplies the other half of it—not verse 33a and certainly not verse 36. The authenticity of verse 33b confirms the overwhelming textual evidence that verses 34–35 are original right where they are.

Why Should Women Be Silent?

Our passage is rather abrupt and gives little explanation of why women are to remain silent in church. The answer lies in the nature of mankind as created male and female, especially now that sin is in the world. Paul hints at this when he says that women “must be in subjection, just as the Law also says.”

This reference to the Old Testament may have in view the account of the creation of woman (Gen. 2:20–23). There the subjection of women is implicit, according to 1 Corinthians 11:8–10 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15.

The man and the woman were created to function best as a closely knit partnership, led by the husband. But Satan was able to get Eve thinking independently, and deceived her into eating the forbidden fruit. Adam then ate in response to the urging of his wife. By maneuvering them into reversing the roles that God had created them for, Satan was able to lead them into sin (Gen. 3:1–6).

To correct this situation, God made the subjection of women explicit in Genesis 3:16, which is usually translated, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

The reference to “desire” is difficult to explicate, but the meaning of “he shall rule over you” is clear. The man rules, and therefore the woman is subject. Paul is probably referring to this verse in 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Note finally that whereas the Bible ordinarily speaks of wives being subject to their own husbands, Paul here speaks of women in general being subject to men in general (obviously in a restricted sense). Men should treat women with special kindness and consideration (compare 1 Tim. 5:1–2), and women should treat men with special respect—at least “in church,” but also, according to the situation, wherever the grace of God can bless our relationships.


The Bible teaches that women are not to speak in church. This is an apostolic rule that is based on the created order. The fact that our society is in rebellion against the biblical teaching regarding women does not make the Bible obsolete; it makes us who adopt the world’s values shameful and dishonoring to the Lord.

The author is the managing editor of New Horizons. He supplies his own Bible translations. New Horizons, January 1996.

New Horizons: January 1996

Women Speaking in the Church

Also in this issue

What Is Orthodoxy?

A Look at Promise Keepers

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