Summary: We consider the role of women in worship and the church.
We now close up the section about worship. Our passage leads us to consider the role of women in worship and the church.
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
What is meant by keeping silent? From the context, we know that it is connected with the worship service, and does not apply to simply being silent inside the church building. Are women, then, to be silent throughout the worship service? That would an overstretch, since singing or speaking as a congregation has always been permissible in Jewish worship. It is evident that Paul is referring to worship activities in which individuals speak. Then, is it impermissible for an individual woman to speak in a service?
The big stickler in reaching an answer is the passage back in chapter 11, verses 2-16, which regulate women praying and prophesying individually. How could Paul regulate women speaking and then, just three chapters later, command they be silent? There are three basic positions taken.
One is that, in chapter 11, Paul is regulating a practice that he does not approve. Do you remember the Pharisees asking Jesus why Moses regulated divorce, if, indeed, God did not approve of it? Jesus answered that the regulation was due to their hardness of heart. If men were going to persist in divorce, Moses at least regulated it to prevent abuse. In like manner, Paul could be saying that if the Corinthians are going to persist in having women pray and prophesy in worship, then at least they should wear the appropriate signs of authority. I don’t think this interpretation is correct. If Paul really does think the practice is wrong, he at the very least would have indicated so in the chapter 11 passage. Furthermore, he goes out of his way to explain the reason for the regulation. Why would he not devote such effort to explaining why the practice should not occur at all?
The second interpretation is that the chapter 11 teaching does not refer to prayer and prophesying in a church-wide worship service. After the teaching on women prophesying with head coverings, the next passage about the Lord’s Supper begins with the phrase, “when you come together,” i.e. for worship. Verses 23 and 26 also have that same phrase to denote the gathering for worship. Thus, the chapter 11 passage refers to a context outside church worship, such as at a women’s gathering or a small group in a home. In such contexts women may prophesy, but they are to remain silent in formal church-wide services. That, I think, has more merit to it. There are distinctions between a formal church-wide service and other activities that may have elements of worship. The problem, of course, is that Paul does not speak clearly of one context and then another. It is possible that he and the Corinth Church already know the different contexts, but again, we have to make assumptions that we can’t prove.
The third interpretation considers the discussion that is taking place about prophesying and weighing the prophecy: Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. “Weighing the prophecy” can include judging what is of the Lord and what is not. Perhaps there is even conflicting prophecies; a judgment must be rendered as to which is valid. Weighing may involve deciding how much authoritative weight each prophecy has to enforce what is to be believed or practiced. Thus, a statement of prophecy could be regarded either as a command or as a concession. Back in chapter 7:6-9, Paul notes that he prefers widows and the unmarried to remain single, but he concedes that each has their own gift and thus does not command them to remain so. And then, weighing may include application of the prophecies. Someone in authority instructs the congregation as to what they are to do in light of the prophecy.
It is to this that Paul is speaking. When the time comes for weighing the prophecies, women should remain silent. If there is anything they desire to learn through discussion, let them do so at home with their husbands. And, I would think, that if they are single, then with their fathers, or with whomever outside the service.
For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. This is, for us, the most startling statement in the passage, as it seems Paul is going overboard in his objection to women’s participation in this portion of the service. But it actually provides a helpful insight into the issue. This is the same language he used in chapter 11 to describe the practice of a woman cutting her hair. Think back to that discussion. Paul was building a case for why a women must wear a sign of authority when she prays or prophesies. He appealed to a custom that the people of his day would accept as a matter of fact – women wear long hear and men short hair. For either to do otherwise would be shameful. In Paul’s day, another shameful occurrence would be for women to speak up in public assemblies. When it came to participation in public dialogue, they were to be quiet and out of sight. Is it shameful for a woman’s voice to be heard in the public assembly of a church? In Paul’s day it would have been as shameful in Roman/Greek society as a woman walking in with short hair.