Answering Difficult Bible Questions

What does it mean for women to keep silent in the churches? (1 Timothy 2:8-15; 1 Corinthians 14)

Introduction:

There has been a large movement over the past number of years that has affected even churches of Christ, to allow women to take leading roles both in Bible classes and worship assemblies where men are present. Worship leader teams consisting of men and women leading singing are now seen in many churches. There is also an opposite extreme where some brethren and not a few women have believed that women are not allowed to speak under any circumstances where men are present, whether in a Bible class or an assembly of the church. And, among many, a common argument is made that if the assembly is for “worship” (meaning a Sunday morning or evening service) then women can’t speak. But, if the assembly is for Bible class, then women can speak. Yet our whole lives are considered worship to God, so this argument proves too much and is not valid (Roman 12:1). God does not make such a differentiation. Our study will look directly to the scriptures for an answer. We will study two main texts: 1 Timothy 2:8-15; and 1 Corinthians 14:26-35.

1 Timothy 2:8-15

The context

My understanding of 1 Timothy 2 is that it is referring to our whole sphere of Christian life. Notice verse 8 “that in every place the men should pray.” The text does not say in the assembly or when you come together. Prayer is to be in every place. Verse 9 speaks about modesty. Will anyone argue that Paul was teaching that modesty is only in the assembly? Certainly not. So wherever men are to be praying, women are to dress modestly and decently. Otherwise women must only be dressed modestly when Christians come together.

Even further, if the text refers to only in the assembly, the consequence is that women can lead in prayer everywhere except in the assembly. Another consequence is that women can teach and usurp authority over a man everywhere except in the assembly. Let us go a step further. Do the qualifications of elders and deacons in chapter 3 only include a man’s actions “in the household of God” or in the assembly only? Of course not and no one would argue such. The qualifications apply not only in the household of God but to their whole lives. Why do we want to limit the commands of 1 Timothy 2:8 15 only to the assembly, when the text clearly is speaking about how we act everywhere? Paul is speaking about every place, including our actions in the household of God (1 Timothy 3:15).

The meaning of silence

Paul then says in verse 11 “let a woman learn in silence.” Can this mean complete silence if the context is speaking of in every place? Of course not. Even further, the word for silence (Greek word: hesuchia) here means “quietness, not meddling.” And that is the way the NASB, NIV, and ASV translate the word. Paul was not teaching women to learn in absolute silence. Instead, Paul teaches women to learn in quietness. 1 Peter 3:4, 1 Timothy 2:2, and 2 Thessalonians 3:12 all use the same word to indicate the disposition of the person. It is not a total absence of words, but a submissive, undisturbing disposition. This fits with the rest of 1 Timothy 2:12, which says, “with all submission.” If, as some argue, this means absolute silence in the assembly, then we must be consistent. This would mean that a woman cannot sing songs in the assembly, confess her sins, confess Jesus Christ as Lord, or say amen at the end of prayer. This is not the case. Women are to sing songs of praise and confess their sins to God and to one another. Paul is not teaching women to be absolutely silent.

1 Timothy 2:12-15:

Submission is the key to the woman’s role. She learns with all submission while at the same time she is not permitted to “have authority over a man.” This passage is not saying that a woman cannot teach, or that she cannot teach a man. Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:24-28). Instead, she is not to teach over a man but be in subjection. Subjection is again the key. She can teach as long as she is under subjection and not taking authority. Remember, the word “silence” means “quietness” and submissiveness, and is not referring to not speaking a word. Whether learning or teaching, a woman is not be in authority but in submission. These admonitions were established in the very beginning (vs. 13-14). In other words, this is exactly what the Old Testament taught and God has not changed this principle. This text does not forbid a woman to speak in any assembly or any Bible class, but authorizes her to do so in a submissive, non-leading way. Remember! This text cannot be teaching women to keep absolutely silent otherwise she could not teach and admonish in singing songs, she could not confess Christ, or confess her sins. It only refers to her taking a leading role in teaching or authority.

1 Corinthians 14:26-35

Illustration of 1 Timothy 2

Let us turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 14:26-35. What we are going to see in this text is an illustration of how 1 Timothy 2 can be violated. Paul is emphasizing the same principles as before, but we will now see a picture of women usurping authority over men. Remember that 1 Timothy 2 taught the principle of a woman’s subjection whether in an assembly of the whole church or in any place. 1 Corinthians 14 deals with a violation that takes place in a particular kind of assembly in which the church came together. This is seen in verse 26 where Paul says, “when you come together.” This is an instructional assembly much like we would traditionally have as our assembly on Sunday morning, where everyone who speaks before the congregation is either leading the assembly or instructing the assembly.

The kind of assembly

Question: Do the instructions in this text apply to assemblies of Christians where only part of the church is gathered? Yes, if the purpose of the assembly was purely instructional as in the use of this spiritual gift assembly. Would anyone say that if a small group of Christians met for the use of spiritual gifts that they would be allowed to interrupt one another, or have only tongue speakers speak, or have tongue speakers speak without interpreters, or do things indecently and disorderly? The rule here is not whether the whole church is present but the kind of assembly in which anyone who speaks is taking authority.

Silence

Notice that certain individuals were to keep silent (in this case “silent” is a different Greek word sigao, here meaning “not to speak a word; absolute silence”). Paul uses a different Greek word to communicate absolute silence than the word used in 1 Timothy 2, further verifying that Paul did not mean absolute silence in 1 Timothy 2. The tongue speaker must keep silent if there is no interpreter. Allow me to ask a question. Could the tongue speaker lead a prayer at an appropriate time in worship if he did not use the tongue? Why of course he can. Why? Because the command for him to keep silent has only to do with his leading the assembly with the use of the tongue,and not in the absolute silence throughout the entire period of worship. His silence is conditional.

What about the prophets? Two or three may speak in a given assembly. What about the fourth prophet? He must keep silent. Could the fourth prophet lead singing at some time in the worship? Sure. Why? Because his silence is only regard to leading the church with his gift of prophecy. What about a prophet speaking while something is revealed to another prophet sitting by? The speaking prophet must keep silent. Could the speaking prophet wait on the Lord’s Supper later in the worship? Sure. Why? Because the silence spoken of here has only to do with the leading of the assembly!

The women

Now we come to the women. They are also told to keep silent. Let’s see: does that mean that cannot sing in this assembly? Confess Christ? Confess sins? No, they can do all of these things and must. Then keep silent to the women is conditional! What are the conditions? The same as 1 Timothy 2, and the same as the tongue speaker and prophet: she must keep silent in regard to leading the church. Just like the tongue speaker and the prophet, the absolute silence is in regard to leading the assembly, teaching or usurping authority over a man. Notice how the words of verses 34-35 are similar to 1 Timothy 2: “Let your women keep silent.” “It is not permitted for them to speak.” “They are to be submissive.” “As the law also says”. Paul said the same things in 1 Timothy 2.

Now let us ask a question: If your wife speaks to you, is she unsubmissive? Not necessarily. It depends upon the circumstance and what is said. What if she spoke to a man taking authority and control and berating the husband? Is she submissive? No. What if on Sunday morning I am preaching and a women stands up and says, “I disagree and I think this is what the passage teaches” and then proceeds to teach her view. She is not in submission. That is exactly what was happening at Corinth. The wives of prophets were asking questions and interrupting an instructional assembly and when she did she took the lead and took authority. In any assembly where her speaking would be construed as taking authority, she must keep silent! She is not to have authority over a man.

Notice something else: She is not to speak, but be submissive as the law also says. What Old Testament passage teaches the principle that Paul just taught? Genesis 2 & 3 just as Paul said in 1 Timothy 2. For a woman to keep silent is to be submissive as also the law says. The same law that teaches this “silence” in regard to this assembly, teaches the same “silence” in regard to a wife with her husband. There is only one kind of silence that law is teaching. Silence in regard to leading or taking authority. How could a woman speaking in that assembly at Corinth be violating the principles of Genesis? Because when she spoke she was taking the lead in the assembly. Taking the lead in the assembly, having authority over, and teaching over men is what is condemned in both texts. In 1 Corinthians 14 we see an example of this taking place and Paul is trying to correct the error.

There are other passages where we have examples of women speaking in an assembly, but not usurping authority and maintaining their submissiveness. In Numbers 27:1-11 and Joshua 17:3-4 we read that the daughters of Zelophehad addressed the whole assembly. In 2 Chronicles 34:22-28 we read of the prophetess Huldah speaking as the mouthpiece of the Lord.

What’s the rule? A woman cannot speak in any kind of assembly where her speaking would be teaching over or taking authority over a man. This is her only restriction. As long as she does not violate this, she can speak, ask questions, and make comments. While doing these things, she must remain in submission.

Conclusion

Be careful that you do not make these passage prove too much. If you say, “Silence is silence!” Then she cannot teach and admonish in song, confess Christ, confess her sins, or say amen. The only kind of silence these texts refer to is silence in regard to leading and having authority over the man.

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