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Published Date: November 1, 2020

Published Date: November 1, 2020

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A Time to Speak

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

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.

Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. (1 Cor 14:33–38 NIV)

Did you hear that? “For it is disgraceful—it is shameful—for a woman to speak in church!” (1 Cor 14:35b). How many of you like that part of the Scripture you just heard? Some of you have spoken in church already today, haven’t you!

I want you to know that I’ve labored over this passage from 1 Cor 14 for several years. I’m passionate about it, and I’m going to be honest with you: I’m a little bit biased. I can’t help it—all of us bring some sort of bias to our reading of the Bible. However, I also want you to know that I have approached this text cautiously, because I don’t want to project what I think and feel onto the text, but instead to pull truth out of the text.

When I first came to this congregation a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how I felt about women being in professional ministry or other types of Christian leadership. The church I previously attended did not promote women in ministry. In fact, it was forbidden. However, I began to notice some inconsistencies. Women could be “directors,” for example, but not “pastors.” They could fill the function of a pastor, but they weren’t awarded that title. The church leaders claimed their stance was based in what the Scriptures say. But I wasn’t so sure, so I started doing some research, and my mind slowly began to change. There are reasons for that change, and I want to explore those reasons here.

Misusing Scripture, Hurting People

I recently read a heartbreaking story in Christianity Today.1 The article detailed the author’s story about leaving her marriage, including what led up to it and what resulted from it. She wrote about how her father was the pastor of the small church she grew up in, and how she ended up marrying her high-school sweetheart. People assumed she had a solid marriage. Her relationship looked good on the outside; she submitted to her husband and he made good decisions for the family.

Then she started to describe what was really going on “underneath it all.”2 Her husband had been abusing her for a long time, verbally and physically. She wasn’t sure what to do, so she stayed quiet. She eventually started seeing a therapist. Nevertheless, she stayed in the marriage. Finally, after years of the same behavior, she decided to end the relationship, with her father’s blessing. To be sure, this was the healthy choice.

But here’s what happened afterward: The congregation’s elders decided she needed to be put under church discipline. To make matters worse, they did not discipline the abusive husband! Finally, adding insult to injury, when it was learned that the pastor had supported his daughter’s decision to divorce, he was fired. Tragically, tales like this are widespread.

Part of the reason for the reaction of the elders may have been that, whether we know it or not, we bring our own baggage—our own history, assumptions, biases—to the biblical text when we read it. In fact, many women will themselves hear teaching or preaching from 1 Cor 14 and, even though it’s being taken out of context, will believe they need to be silent in a relationship or in the church, that they don’t have any authority, that they need to stay under the authority of their husband. They may believe this to the point that they completely lose their voices. This is not right, and we’re going to walk through this passage and explore why it is not right.

God Did Not Curse Women with Silence.

As was read aloud earlier, 1 Cor 14:33–34 says this: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (NIV).

Notice what the text seems to say here. You who are women should be silent within the church—not merely peaceful, calm, reserved—but silent. Why? Because the law says so.

Let me ask you a question: where does it say that in the law? Where in the OT Torah does it say women are to be silent? The answer: it doesn’t! Some study Bibles, some websites, some Christian leaders, would direct you to Gen 3:16 in search of this OT command,3 so we’re going to look at Gen 3:14–19 together, taking the verse in its context. While I read, notice that, though there are indeed consequences to sin including curses and harsh realities in this passage from Genesis, there is no mention of silence:

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (NIV)

I won’t deny that there are curses and harsh realities in Gen 3. But again, there is no mention of silence here! Nevertheless, some interpreters will say Paul, in 1 Cor 14, is referring back to the curse of Gen 3 and that is why women cannot speak in the church.

Here’s another question: Are we supposed to live under the curse? We sing a worship song that includes the line, “Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.”4 It’s important for us to understand, when we say women can’t speak because “your husband . . . will rule over you” (Gen 3:16b NIV), that this is a product of sin, not a product of the freedom that comes in Christ. In addition to this, if we’re going to be consistent, I want to ask: Are women allowed to use epidurals when they are giving birth? Yes or no? According to the curse, the answer would be no. 

Men, if we’re going to be consistent, we need to toil by the sweat of our brow (Gen 3:19). That means we can’t use air conditioning. And we certainly shouldn’t be using tractors or any other farm or gardening equipment, because we need to be struggling out there in the field.

But sin has lost its grip on us! We have been set free. “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free,” Jesus says (John 8:32 NIV).

House Churches

Coming back to 1 Cor 14, the text goes on to say, “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 Cor 14:35 NIV). Here’s still another question. Where did the early church meet in Corinth? Was it in a beautiful church building? A cathedral? No, they met in homes.

Over the centuries, many Christians have said that women’s place is in the home. But in Paul’s day some women hosted churches in their homes! So this part of the text requires a closer look. Back to the opening line of this sermon: “It is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Is that true? Is it shameful for a woman to speak in the church? Or “in the assembly,” as some translations put it? What if the assembly is in a home? In a verse some of you are aware of, Acts 18:26, we learn that Priscilla and Aquila, a husband and wife, together gave guidance and instruction to a Christian leader named Apollos. Where did this happen? In their home! It reads, “[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately” (NIV).

First Corinthians 11

We can get some guidance from a section of 1 Cor 11, just three chapters earlier. Paul writes:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Cor 11:2–12 NIV)

Verse 3: “the head of the woman is man . . .”

The first part of that passage someone might point to if they were making an argument against women being able to speak and teach in the church is in v. 3: “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man. . . .”

A common interpretation is that Paul uses the word “head” here to talk about authority, as if he were saying, “the leader of every man is Christ, and the leader of the woman is man.” But we need to call this interpretation into question, because our word “head,” as we use it in words such as “headmaster,” brings baggage that is not necessarily implied by this biblical word “head,” which is kephalē. In the Greek language of the NT era, “head” is rarely used to identify someone as an authority figure. This idea may be new to you, and I can point you to some resources if you wish.5

So, what does the word “head” actually mean here? I would argue, along with many scholars, that it means “source.” Instead of reading, “Christ is the leader of every man, and the husband is the leader of his wife, what if we read it like this: “Christ is the source of every man, and the husband is the source of his wife”?

When we ponder this passage, we need to remember that Paul is referring to Gen 1 and 2. When Paul says, “God is not a God of disorder,” in 1 Cor 14:33, the very first verse of the sermon text read aloud today, he is thinking of when God creates the heavens and the earth, as recorded in Gen 1. God does something surprising: God speaks . . . and light is made. God speaks . . . and order comes out of chaos. Paul’s affirmation that God creates order, not chaos, brings Gen 1 to mind.

Paul uses the creation account, including the creation sequence, to make another related point. And that point is this: Christ was the source of the first man. Remember John 1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1 NIV). Christ is the Word of God who John says was “in the beginning.” And remember Col 1:17, which says that Christ “is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (NIV). The pre-incarnate Christ was active in the creation of the world!

Christ is the Word of God who spoke humanity into existence. Then, in Gen 2, out of the side of man, woman came (Gen 2:22). Remember, now, that we’re talking about “head” and whether understanding it as “source” makes sense. Yes, it does make sense, and part of the reason we know it doesn’t refer to authority or hierarchy is what Paul says at the end of the 1 Cor 11 passage that I read: “everything comes from God.”

Verses 11–12: “But everything comes from God.”

Moving forward, Paul continues to have Genesis in mind. Verses 11–12 say this: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (NIV). So, the first woman came from the first man, but every subsequent man comes from a woman. Paul is showing that equality existed in the Garden of Eden and claiming that it should still exist today. Why? Because men and women come from one another and, ultimately, God is the source. Again, v. 12 ends, “But everything comes from God.”

Verse 5: “But every woman who prays or prophesies . . .”

We’ve been looking at specific details of 1 Cor 11, but let’s not forget an overarching aspect of this passage: Verse 4 begins, “Every man who prays or prophesies,” and v. 5 continues, “every woman who prays or prophesies.” This passage is about speaking to God (praying) and speaking to one another (prophesying) in church gatherings, and Paul says that both men and women should do it. Yes, he does say more than that, but he first says that both women and men should speak. And they can’t speak if they are silent.

First Corinthians 14

So, Paul teaches that women can speak in church! How, then, should we understand today’s sermon text, 1 Cor 14?

One way to help our understanding here is to have a better sense of what prophecy is, for prophecy is part of Paul’s concern in both ch. 11 and ch. 14. Too often we think about teaching as what happens in the pulpit. But prophecy in the NT is more akin to a message from God through certain gifted community members. We should also note that, in the early church, they didn’t typically have someone with great oratorical ability addressing house churches; they were average people, many of whom had only a basic education.

Imagine them sitting around in a circle, somewhat like Quakers do, waiting for a word from God. This is why Paul says, in vv. 29–31, “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” (NIV). The idea is that there is a group of people who are in a huddle, who are talking with each other, revealing the teaching of God to one another. That’s the first thing we need to know about prophecy.

Chapter 14, v. 1, says, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy” (NIV). We know Paul considers prophecy one of the most important spiritual gifts a person can have. Therefore, he says to strive for it.

The second thing Paul says is in v. 4: “those who prophesy build up the church.” Prophecy builds the church up. It is a message that will build up another person in the church or build up the entire church.

Continue on to v. 5; it says, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified” (NIV).

Move forward to v. 19: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (NIV). Paul is talking about the difference between prophecies and tongues. He would rather we speak five words prophetically than ten thousand in tongues, because again, it builds up the church.

Finally, move with me to v. 31, which helps us define what prophecy is. It’s not fortune telling. It’s not future telling. “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (NIV). Paul emphasizes two elements to prophecy—that someone is being taught and also that there is encouragement. This implies that prophecy has a lot to do with teaching. However, this isn’t new in the NT. We often forget this, but if we go back to the OT, we see that there were women prophets. There weren’t just male prophets, there were female prophets. And there are also female prophets in the NT.

Women Prophets

Does the name Huldah sound familiar? You can find her in 2 Kings 22.6 When Josiah finds the Book of the Law, they don’t go to Jeremiah or to some other prominent male prophet; they go to Huldah, a prophet, and she interprets what is essentially the book of Deuteronomy. And Huldah is not the only one: We also have Miriam, who is called a prophet; Deborah; Noadiah; Isaiah’s wife. And in the NT, Philip—one of the first deacons—has four daughters who prophesy. We also have Anna, whom we find in Luke ch. 2 constantly worshipping God at the temple center; she is called a prophet. 


Let’s tackle the big question as we approach the end of the sermon: What is Paul doing here? The answer, in part, is a type of argumentation called reductio ad absurdum. He’s taking an argument that certain Corinthians themselves have made and is “reducing it to its absurdity.” He’s actually arguing against what the Corinthians are saying. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul repeatedly refers to the questions and misguided ideas of the Corinthian Christians, often using rhetorical questions to drive his point home.

So, I encourage you to read it something like this: “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches? For they are not permitted to speak [even though I said earlier that they could], but should be subordinate as the law also says [though actually, it doesn’t say that]. If there’s anything they desire to know, let them ask their own husbands at home, for [some would say] it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you Corinthians, or are you the only ones it reaches?” Again, for many of you this will be a new take on this difficult passage, and I can point you to some resources if you wish.7

Finally, Eccl 3:7 says there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak” (NIV). For the women of this congregation, it is indeed “a time to speak.” May all of us, men and women alike, use both our silence and our words for the building up of the church, for, as the apostle Paul says in another of his letters, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28 NIV).

1. Autumn Miles, “How Southern Baptists Leaders Aided My Escape from Abuse,” CT (May 18, 2018).
2. When first preached, this sermon included an illustration presented in tandem with the Christianity Today story, based on the 2001 song, “Underneath it All,” by the band, No Doubt.
3. D. A. Carson, “‘Silent in the Churches’: On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 4:33B–36,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Crossway, 1991) 143, states that many interpreters point to Gen 3:16 in this context.
4. “In Christ Alone,” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, ©2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music.
5. Alan F. Johnson, “A Meta-Study of the Debate over the Meaning of ‘Head’ (Kephalē) in Paul’s Writings,” Priscilla Papers 20/4 (Autumn, 2006) 21–29; Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Baker Academic, 2016) 79–102.
6. 2 Kgs 22:14–20, cf. 2 Chron 34:22–28.
7. For more information on this approach, see Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b–38 as a Pauline Quotation-Refutation Device,” Priscilla Papers 32/1 (Winter 2018) 23–28; Loren Cunningham, David Hamilton, and Janice Rogers, Why Not Women?: A Biblical Study of Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership (YWAM, 2001).

This article is from the Autumn 2020 issue of Priscilla Paperswhich features sermons given by pastors on egalitarian topics. We encourage you to share them with your pastor!

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash