WOMEN IN CHURCH LEADERSHIP
More Seemingly Restrictive Prohibitions
In seeking to arrive at a balanced, biblical perspective on the role of women in church leadership, we need to come to terms with several of paul’s seemingly prohibitive statements. What are we to make of them? Last week we examined 1 Timothy 2:11-14. This week we will examine another contentious passage.
1 CORINTHIANS 14:34-35
“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 enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14:33-35).
Is this a universal truth for today, or an obsolete cultural practice from the 1st century? This is another hotly debated passage which continues to polarise Christian opinion. There are some historical and cultural issues, however, that we must consider as we seek to interpret this seemingly prohibitive statement by Paul.
In 1st century Jewish society, women were viewed as inferior and ignorant, and were kept that way through lack of access to education. Only boys were educated. Women were, therefore, not allowed to speak in synagogues or any other public meetings, because they were regarded as having nothing worthwhile to say; their uneducated opinions were not welcome. A woman’s silence in a public meeting was also a symbol of her subservience to her husband. A woman who spoke in a public meeting was considered brazen and disrespectful; she brought disgrace upon herself and dishonour upon her husband, because she was not “in submission” to him (v34).
Paul is referring to these entrenched cultural standards when he says, “it is a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Cor 14:15). By insisting on women’s silence in church he is demanding that Christian gatherings conform to accepted societal conventions. He is calling for cultural congruity so that there may be no impediment to the proclamation of the gospel. For us to insist on women’s silence in church today would be incongruous with our society and would create a cultural barrier to the proclamation of the gospel.
We must also interpret scripture with scripture. What exactly does Paul mean by saying that women should “remain silent” (v.33) and not “speak” (v.35)? Three chapters earlier, in 1 Corinthians 11, he has already indicated that women can “pray or prophesy” in church (v.4), which clearly involves speaking. His demand for women’s silence, therefore, cannot be interpreted as a prohibition of orderly public ministry, but, instead, appears to be an injunction against disorderly interjection. This interpretation is corroborated by Paul’s recommendation to wives that “if they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home” (v.35).
Elsewhere, Paul recognises the valuable contribution of women in public ministry: Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchrea (Rom 16:1-2), Junia, a female apostle (Rom 16:7), Priscilla, Paul’s co-worker in the Gospel (Rom 16:3), and Euodia and Syntyche, whom Paul described as his “loyal fellow-workers” who “contended at my side in the cause of the Gospel” (Phil 4:2-3) – expressions recognised by most evangelical Bible scholars as referring to Gospel preaching.
Taking all of these factors into account, Paul’s instructions, in 1 Corinthians 14, concerning women’s silence in church appears to be:
- A product of first century cultural standards which are now obsolete.
- Limited to disruptive behaviour specifically, rather than to public ministry generally.
Of course, there are those who disagree with this interpretation; they view the call for women’s silence in church (1 Cor 14:33-35) to be universally binding. Strangely, many of these same people choose to interpret everything else in chapter 14 as culturally obsolete and no longer applicable: that everyone who comes to church should be allowed to share “a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” [v.26]; that two or three should be allowed to speak in a tongue provided there is an interpreter [v.27]; that two or three prophets should speak [v.29]; that they should not forbid the speaking of tongues [v.39]. On what basis are these instructions discarded as culturally or theologically obsolete, yet the demand for women’s silence is retained?
Next week we will deal the the third and final contentious passage thought, by some, to prohibit women from participating in teaching or leadership within the church.