Published: 4 July 2022

“Women Are To Keep Silent In The Churches”

Keep Silent

If 1 Timothy 2:11-15 isn’t a prohibition against women teaching or having leadership roles in the church, then surely 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a prohibition since it tells women to keep silent, right?

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. (1 Cor. 14:34–35 ESV)

As with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, this passage has historically been understood to say that women cannot speak in a church assembly. Although this interpretation has been debunked in recent decades, there are still lots of Christians who think it is sinful for women to speak in the church assembly. Like most verses that Christians take out of context, there is more to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 than meets the eye. 

Hard questions

The historical belief that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 bans women from speaking in church assemblies creates unanswerable questions. For example, do vv. 34-35 apply to all women, or only married women? Historically it has been applied to all women, but Paul’s instruction was clearly addressed to married women. Since this is true, is it permissible for unmarried women to speak in church? What about widows? What about women whose husbands are not Christians? 

If Paul really intended women to be silent, why have church leaders allowed women to sing in church? Why have they allowed women to verbally confess their faith that Jesus is the Christ before the congregation? Church leaders who espouse the traditional “keep silent” view always make exceptions for singing and professions of faith. Yet, these exceptions flatly contradict their interpretation of the passage. 

Similarly, these same church leaders always answer Bible questions asked by female congregants. If they consistently applied Paul’s commands (as they understand them) they would tell inquiring women to ask their husbands Bible questions when they get home (v. 35). So, they obey some of Paul’s instructions (again, as they understand them), but not all of them.

Absurd conclusions

You see, plucking verses out of context leads to absurd conclusions and inconsistent application. On occasions when I have had the opportunity to ask the above questions of church leaders who are in the ‘keep silent’ camp, it was abundantly clear they had no answers. Not only that, they had never even considered these questions nor had they heard them asked!

“Keep silent” in context

First, we must consider the context of the entire Corinthian letter. The letter is a running correction of the behavior of the Christians in Corinth. In the opening chapters Paul addresses problems regarding divisions amongst the Corinthian brethren. Chapter five corrects their lack of discipline regarding issues of immorality. In chapter six he corrects their practice of suing each other in the civil courts. Chapter seven deals with marriage and divorce, and so on.

When we come to chapter eleven we have entered the immediate context which leads to Paul’s remarks in chapter fourteen. Namely, beginning in chapter eleven, Paul discusses the behavior and practices of their church assembly. Chapters twelve and thirteen are parenthetical departures from the main subject, but Paul picks back up his main thought again in chapter fourteen.

In 1 Cor 14, Paul addresses abuses regarding speaking in foreign languages when there is no one to interpret. Their church assembly was chaotic because Paul tells them not to interrupt while another is speaking (v. 30) and to speak one at a time when teaching (v. 31).

“Let all things be done for edification”

Paul’s overriding concern in 1 Cor 11 and 14 is that the church assembly was to be edifying. In the KJV and NKJV, some form of the word (edify, edification, etc.) appears seven times in the chapter. In fact, in v. 26 Paul says, “Let all things be done for edification.” 

The word “edify” in this context simply means to build up spiritually. Paul wants Christians to strengthen and encourage one another spiritually. Paul knew that the church gatherings in Corinth were, in fact, NOT edifying. Their meetings were chaotic and even detrimental. It is clear from the passage that people were speaking out of turn, speaking in ways that no one could understand, and multiple people were talking at once!  It’s in the context of all these corrections of abuses that we arrive at vv. 34-35.

Instructions to married women

As we noted earlier, vv. 34-35 are plainly aimed at married women. Why would Paul single out married women and tell them to keep quiet? Paul wrote these two verses because he knew there were certain women, who happened to be married, who were being disruptive during the assembly. Based on v. 35, we may infer they were being disruptive in the way they asked questions. The specific manner in which their inquiries were disruptive is unknown. Perhaps they were asking questions in a sarcastic way. Perhaps their questions were embarrassing someone or maybe they were misleading or deceptive in nature. Maybe they were just silly or ignorant questions.  Regardless of what manner of questions they were asking, the point seems to be that they were causing disruption and were not edifying.

“As the Law also says”

What does Paul mean when he says in v. 34, when he refers to “the law? Interestingly, there is no explicit command in the Old Testament where women in general were told to be in subjection to men except for one possibility: Gen 2:18. In this verse, God revealed that the purpose for creating the woman was to be a helper for Adam. It was not good for him to be alone. He needed someone to be his companion and helper, not his boss or overseer. 

Since it would appear that Paul alludes to the first husband and wife in making his point, this is additional evidence that Paul isn’t ordering all women to remain silent in an assembly of Christians. Paul directed his remarks at married women in Corinth who were causing a disturbance. 

Like 1 Tim 2:11-15, the context is not about men and women in general, but husbands and wives specifically. Could these wives have been disrupting their own husbands while they were speaking? There is no way to tell, but if so, they certainly weren’t being the suitable helper (Gen 2:18) that God intended for wives to be.

Unedifying behavior is forbidden

If the above conclusions are correct, and I’m persuaded they are, then Paul is telling not only women to cease being disruptive, but by inference, men as well! Is it acceptable for a man to speak in the congregation when it would be inappropriate? The earlier verses of chapter 14 make it clear that Paul permitted no one, regardless of gender or marital status, to create a chaotic atmosphere in the church assembly.

The takeaway is that Paul isn’t ordering all women to be silent. In reality he is just telling those who are guilty of being disruptive to behave. Therefore, we can conclude that it is just as acceptable for a woman to speak during the assembly as it is for a man assuming it is done in a way that is edifying. 

Paul approved of women who did not “keep silent” 

In 1 Cor 11, Paul corrects how women were praying and prophesying in the assembly of the church. Specifically, their adornment was inappropriate given the circumstances. If Paul had concluded they shouldn’t have been speaking in the assembly he would have said so in chapter eleven. It wasn’t their active participation in the church gathering that he corrected them about. It was because they were not wearing a head covering when they prayed and prophesied. In fact, we know these were wives thanks to v. 5:

but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Cor. 11:5 ESV)

Does it make sense that Paul would tell them the proper way to pray and prophesy in chapter eleven and then in chapter fourteen tell them to sit down and shut up? Does it make sense that God gave these women the gift of prophecy and then told them not to use their gift? Paul makes no distinction between men and women who prayed and prophesied in the assembly except to point out that the wife must not dishonor her husband while doing so.

Private worship?

Some have argued that 1 Cor 11:1-16 is not about the full church assembly, but about private worship or a meeting composed only of women. First of all, the text does not say these instructions applied to solitary worship or semi-private gatherings. The remainder of 1 Cor 11 is definitely about the church assembly because Paul is correcting abuses related to the Lord’s Supper. There is no indication in 1 Cor 11 that Paul switched thoughts from a private assembly to a public one. Besides this, why would Paul care about what men and women were doing with their hair and heads if they were praying and prophesying privately where people cannot see or hear? 

Paul allowed more freedom than some churches do today

For his day, Paul was very permissive by including women in church affairs. Paul “has no qualms about women praying and prophesying in gatherings of male and female followers of Jesus Christ.”1 In fact, we know of at least one woman who was a deacon in the church.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (Rom. 16:1 NIV) 

Phoebe probably carried Paul’s letter of “Romans” to the church in Rome.2 Such a responsibility usually carried with it the reading of the letter to its recipients and expounding to them what the writer’s full intentions were and answering questions. 

In the churches which Paul worked with, he encouraged female workers.

“We should note Paul’s references to a number of women who held leadership roles in his churches. In Romans 16 he commends nine women. He encourages two female coworkers, Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2), to agree with each other. Lydia established a house church in her home (Acts 16:15, 40). Paul’s good friend Priscilla taught Apollos (Acts 18:26). Paul’s churches, then, had men and women leading, teaching, and making decisions in the church.”3  (emphasis added)

We tend to think of ancient times as eras of the oppression of women. It would appear Paul allowed women more freedom to participate in the mission of the church than many congregations permit today!


  1. Still, Todd D.; Longenecker, Bruce W.. Thinking through Paul (p. 126). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
  2. R. L. OMANSON, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Revised), s.v. “P,” 3:853.
  3. Burge, Gary M.; Cohick, Lynn H.; Green, Gene L.. The New Testament in Antiquity (p. 369). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.