I Corinthians 14: 34, 35, An Exposition


     I suppose that relative to every truth, there are extremes. Extremes are not seen on God's part, but they enter in as a result of man. Man's failures to correctly understand and teach God's word are the product of many things. Some having a preconceived idea only use the Bible in an effort to support their belief, some approach the scriptures with attendant bad study practices, and some set out to deliberately distort the word of God (Matt. 13: 15; 2 Tim. 2: 15; 2 Pet. 2: 1). In addition to these cases, some verses are admittedly difficult and require extra care in effecting a correct exegesis (cp. 2 Pet. 3: 16). One passage that has certainly had its share of abuse is I Corinthians 14: 34, 35. The passage reads as follows:

     "34: Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. 35: And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church" (I Cor. 14).

     On one end of the spectrum, we have the teaching today that women may serve as preachers and elders in the Lord's church (cp. I Tim. 2: 12; I Tim. 3: 1ff.). The antithetical position is women are not even allowed to speak in the assembly. We are told that I Corinthians 14 verses 34, 35 preclude even speech on the part of godly women in the assembly. Some present I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 in a way that manifestly contradicts what Paul taught in I Corinthians 11: 4-16 regarding the prophetesses and how they were to "pray or prophesy." One view is that after telling the prophetesses how to do what they were doing in public places in chapter eleven, Paul now decides to change his teaching and tell the prophetesses to be silent in the assembly. Some have introduced these two texts as an example of ambivalence and indecision. Others, based on I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 have concluded that public places such as the assembly were not included in the text of I Corinthians 11: 3-16. If this be the case, how could there have been the doing of the same thing and in the same circumstance that occasioned the need for the head covering enjoined by Paul in the case of the prophetesses (I Cor. 11: 4-16)? Could it be that I Corinthians 11: 4-16 and I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 are addressing entirely different people and circumstances? We shall attempt by careful exegesis to ascertain exactly what Paul is and is not teaching when he penned I Corinthians 14: 34, 35.

     "Let your women keep silence in the churches…."  The original is, "Let the women in the churches be silent" (sigatosan ai gunaikes en tais ekklesiais). The King James translators infer "your" from the idea of the Corinthian women being addressed. However, it is evident that the women being addressed are not limited to Corinth. I say this based on the plural "churches" (ekklesiais, see also vs. 36). By "churches," the local church is meant. More precisely, "in a church" (en ekklesia, vs. 35) refers to the assembly as opposed to "at home" (en oiko).

     Chapter fourteen of I Corinthians is a chapter in which we find regulation that especially pertained to the assembly. The use of spiritual gifts, especially tongues and prophesy, had a special utility and function, therefore, Paul is stressing how these miraculous gifts were to be exercised. As a consequence, we read such language as, "in church" (en ekklesia, vs. 19; 28). Paul speaks of "the whole church be come together in one place" (he hole ekklesia sunelthe epi to, vs. 23).

     Such spiritual gifts as prophesy were designed for the edification of the church and were used in the assembly to edify the saints (vs. 3, 5, 22). Hence, we read of, "But if all prophesy, and there come in…" (vs. 24). To "come in" (eiselthe) means to enter the assembly where prophesy was being done. Paul delineates the protocol and order for the exercise of spiritual gifts in the assembly (vs. 26-32). It, therefore, was in the assembly that these women were told to "be silent." "Silent" is from the Greek sigao and means, "To be silent" and "to keep silence, hold one's peace" (Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words and Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, respectively). Sigao is used nine times in the Greek New Testament and always with the idea of silence as opposed to sound (see Lk. 9: 36, "kept it close," KJV, is from sigao). In fact, sigao is used twice in the context of I Corinthians 14: 34, 35. Paul wrote, "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church…" and, "If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace" (vs. 28, 30). "Keep silence" (vs. 28) and "hold his peace" (vs. 30) is translated from sigao.

     "…for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law." Paul with this explanatory injection states the reason why these women were to keep silent in the church. The applicable teaching to which Paul alludes probably looks to Genesis 3: 16 as its inception. There was something that these women were doing that was in violation of this general law of submission.

     "And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home…." All were to learn and be edified, but there was a circumstance in which Paul tells these particular women that they should ask their husbands at home. The original is literally, "…let them question at home their own husbands" (eperotatosan en oiko tous idious andras). Hence, these were women at Corinth who had "their own men" and they had, therefore, the opportunity to question their own men at home (they lived together as husband and wife).

     "…for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." Paul ends this with another statement of explanation as suggested by the introductory word, "for" (Greek, gar). The question remains, who were these women and what were they doing that constituted a violation of submission and resulted in shame?  The answer, "…they were speaking" is simplistic.

     It is obvious that I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 demands qualification and stipulation. In the first place, to take this passage and simply say women are not allowed to speak in the assembly negates the general command to, "speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…" (Eph. 5: 19). Hence, qualification is necessarily inferred. As mentioned, to insist that women, all women and in all circumstances, be without sound in the assembly is to make Paul contradict himself (his teaching relative to the prophetess, I Corinthians 11: 4-16). Consider the statement found in the Pulpit Commentary regarding the prophetess being the obvious "exception:"

     "…At the same time, it is fair to interpret it as a rule made with special reference to time and circumstances, and obviously admitting of exception in both dispensations…." Reference is then made to different prophetesses, "Judg. 4: 4; 2 Kings 22: 14; Nehe. 6: 14; Luke 2: 36." (The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 19, pg. 460, exposition of I Corinthians 14: 34, 35).

     We have engaged in an exegesis of the passage and now let us look to the context for additional meaning.

     I Corinthians chapter 14 is replete with instructions as to how to conduct themselves to avoid and obviate confusion (vs. 5, 6, 9, 16, 19, 23, 26-31). Paul plainly and cogently informed them that they were to be in control of themselves, even those who possessed spiritual gifts (vs. 32). I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 is sandwiched between verses that forbid confusion and disorder (vs. 33, 40). I, therefore, submit that what these women were doing was asking questions (the specific speaking) in the assembly of their husbands in such a way that both precipitated confusion and also resulted in lack of subjection to their husbands. These "women" were not all the women at Corinth, but they were married women. It is also implied that their husbands of whom they were to inquire at home and not in the assembly were in a position to provide the answers to their questions. Moreover, it is highly likely that their husbands were the prophets concerning whom the immediately preceding verses pertain. Hence, these women were to remain silent or without sound (as opposed to speech) IN THE MATTER contextually being discussed, confusion and lack of submission to their husbands. As to other regulating teaching that is broader in its scope, we must look to such texts as I Timothy 2: 12-15.

     While I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 is characterized by specificity, women today can also create confusion in the assembly and be guilty of not being in subjection to their husbands by speaking out in such a way to similarly cause confusion. This is the paramount lesson found in I Corinthians 14: 34, 35. However, to simplistically, arbitrarily left verses 34, 35 out of their context and contend that there is contained in these verses a blanket requirement of the silence of women in the assembly is to defeat and ignore Paul's original application of I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 and make the passage collide with a number of other matters.  (You may read an exchange that I had regarding I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 at the following internal URL:  "An Exchange on I Corinthians 14: 34, 35 .")  To read a related article, click on "I Timothy 2: 8-15, An Exegesis")