As in all the churches of the saints, 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. 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. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order. – 1 Corinthians 14:33b-40
This passage is a land mine of potential controversy. Over the centuries there have been a variety of attempts made to soften its content and diminish its potential impact on the modern church. It has resulted in Paul being labeled a sexist by many and has been used by some to prove their assertion that Christianity is archaic and out of touch with the modern world. There are those who claim that these words are simply the personal opinion of Paul and are not to be taken as a command from God. They use Paul’s similar statement written to his young protege, Timothy, as proof. “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11-12 ESV).
So what are we to do with this verses? Are we to simply ignore them, write them off as irrelevant, or take them as the word of God and apply them to our local fellowships? To make things even more difficult, it would appear that Paul is contradicting himself. Earlier in this same letter, he states, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 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 Corinthians 11:4-5 ESV). It would seem that the context he is referring to regarding prayer and prophesying is that of corporate worship. There would be no need to prophesy in private. Like all the other spiritual gifts, these two were intended for the edification of the body of Christ. So Paul seems to be saying that it is perfectly acceptable for women to pray and prophesy in a worship context. So why does he seem to change his mind and say, “women should keep silent in the churches”?
As always, when interpreting the meaning of a particular verse or verses, we must consider the context. That includes the context of the passage in which the verses are contained. But it also includes the cultural context with which the particular book of the Bible is dealing. We must always consider the original audience to whom the author was writing and the specific issues he was addressing. Here is this letter, Paul is writing to believers in the Greek city of Corinth, most of whom had come out of pagan backgrounds and who were relatively young in their faith. They are a gifted congregation, but because of their spiritual immaturity and the influence of their pagan past, they were experiencing a great deal of disorder and disunity. They were misusing the spiritual gifts and were failing to exhibit Christ-like love for one another. There was an overemphasis on their freedoms in Christ which was resulting in quarrels and contentions over everything from eating food sacrificed to idols to who had the most important spiritual gift.
One of the issues Paul addresses repeatedly is disorder. When it comes to corporate worship, there was to be an atmosphere of order and decorum. Yet, some within the church were using their gifts inappropriately, resulting in confusion and a spirit of competition. It is important to note that just before Paul states that women are to be silent in the church, he states, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33a ESV). For Paul, the issue of order was directly tied to that of headship and submission. God not only had a manner in which the body of Christ should operate when gathered together, He had established a hierarchy of leadership. Back in chapter 11, Paul discussed God’s ordained headship of the husband over his wife. “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3 ESV). This has nothing to do with value or worth. Christ and God the Father are co-equals and both members of the trinity. But Christ submits to the authority of God the Father. He does the will of His Father. In the garden, on the night of His betrayal, Jesus prayed, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV). The issue has to do with authority and order.
When Paul refers to God being a God of peace, the Greek word he uses refers to harmony and concord between individuals. There was a lack of harmony within the Corinthian church and their worship services were marked by disorder. So Paul is once again addressing an apparent abuse of God’s call for order and harmony.
It is clear from this that the apostle was not concerned about women who properly exercised their gifts in prophesying or in praying, but was greatly concerned about women who disrupted the meetings with questions and comments, and perhaps even challenged the teaching of apostolic doctrine with contrary views. – Ray Stedman, Should A Woman Teach in the Church, RayStedman.org
It would seem from the context that there were women who were stepping out from under their husband’s God-ordained headship and asserting what they believed to be their right to participate in the worship experience. But their actions were viewed as disruptive to the service and disrespectful of their husband’s headship. Paul states that is is shameful for women to speak in the church. It is important to note that the word he uses for “speak” means “to declare one’s mind and disclose one’s thoughts.” It has nothing to do with using their spiritual gifts. A woman using her spiritual gift would be under the authority of the Spirit of God. But for a woman to verbally “declare her mind” and state her opinion, seemingly in conflict with a spoken word of prophesy or revelation, would be out of place. Paul states that “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Corinthians 14:35 ESV). Once again, the issue has to do with order and authority. The wife would honor her husband by bringing her questions and concerns to him first. Even though he might not have the answer to her questions, she would be encouraging him to step up and fulfill his role as God’s appointed spiritual head of the home. Undermining his authority or that of the leaders of the church would accomplish nothing in terms of the edification of the body of Christ. Disunity and disorder are always destructive.
This passage, while difficult to understand, appears to be a simple to submit to God’s will regarding His preordained order for the church and the home. It is a call to unity and a warning to avoid disorder of any kind. Paul ends this chapter with the words, “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40 ESV). If we are not careful, we will lose sight of his main point and get hung up on what we believe to be inconsistencies or inequities in his teaching. But for Paul, the central concern was the well-being of the body of Christ, the family of God. There was no place for individual rights or self-seeking attitudes. Love was to be the primary motivating factor behind all that was done. The example of Christ was to be the focus of their attention, resulting in willing submission to God’s authority and a selfless desire for the good of others.