Concise Lexicon of Christianity

Ken Collins’ Website

Teachings, worship, rites, sermons, and terminology

Should women be mute in church?

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. 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 inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
—1 Corinthians 14:26-35, NIV

Many feel that Paul prohibited women from speaking publicly to the congregation. However, if this is Paul’s teaching, this is not the proof text for it.

We must bear in mind that this epistle is addressed to the church of God in Corinth, not to anyone who happens to read this. (1 Corinthians 1:2) We are reading this epistle, as it were, over the shoulders of the Corinthian church, to which it is immediately addressed. Any interpretation of this passage that applies it directly to us without taking the circumstances in Corinth into account is faulty and—well—unbiblical.

This passage deals with the general issue of when people are to speak and when they are to defer to other speakers during a worship service. If you are looking for the qualifications for leadership, you have to look in other places, in particular 1 Timothy and Titus.

The women who are speaking in this passage are not addressing the assembly in a leadership role, they were talking while the worship service was in progress, disrupting it with questions about the proceedings.

Paul says that the questions should not be asked during church, but afterwards at home.

The Greek verb translated here as speak is λαλεω, which indicates the activity rather than the content of speech. (It is the verb that regularly introduces quotations.) Thus, we could better translate this as saying that it is a disgrace for women to talk in church and they are not allowed to talk.

The Greek verb λαλεω appears in the present infinitive, so we could improve on our translation even further by saying, it is a disgrace for women to be talking in church and they are not allowed to be talking. If Paul had meant to say, it is not permitted for women to preach, he would have used a different verb, and would have cast it in the aorist infinitive.

The Greek verb translated remain silent means to refrain from talking out of respect, just as we do not chatter during prayers or the sermon or a choir performance.

As for the submission, the most we can get out of the passage at hand is that women, like everyone else, have to submit to the general rules of order and decorum. Decorum in worship is in fact one of the main themes of this epistle. The topic here is order in the church, not the intrinsic value of women, not the qualifications for church leadership, and not ordination.

Since the general context is about speaking out of turn in church, we can only conclude that Paul is saying that it is disgraceful for women to disrupt the service by asking questions of the other parishioners. They are not allowed to be talking, they should hold their questions until afterwards. Given that the women of Corinth were disrupting the service with their chatter, hardly anyone would disagree with Paul’s advice. Inserting any other meaning is eisegesis, not exegesis; it fallaciously conflates the text.