Crossfunction: 1 Corinthians 14: May women speak in church?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

1 Corinthians 14: May women speak in church?

1 Corinthians Chapter 14 (RSV)

14:33. For God is not the God of dissension, but of peace: as also I teach in all the churches of the saints.
14:34. Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak but to be subject, as also the law saith.
14:35. But if they would learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church.
14:36. Or did the word of God come out from you? Or came it only unto you?
14:37. If any seem to be a prophet or spiritual, let him know the things that I write to you, that they are the commandments of the Lord.
14:38. But if any man know not, he shall not be known.

Do You follow Paul’s decree in Your church? Does Your church hold that it is “shameful” for women to speak in church and therefore they must “keep silence” there, learning by questioning their husbands at home?

Don’t tell me this passage is difficult, because Paul is clear and straightforward in his writing. Some passages of Scripture are couched in mysterious language, but this certainly isn’t one of them. If we have difficulty with this passage it’s not because we don’t understand it, but rather because we do understand.

So if this passage is abundantly clear in its teaching that women must “keep silence” in church, why do we spend any time now debating the matter as if it were not settled in Scripture? The reason is that we are not accustomed to following Paul’s decree. For most of us our experience of church has been free from any such restriction upon women. Many of us perhaps have never even heard this matter discussed.

Upon finding this passage in our Bible reading maybe we continued on without seriously considering the possibility that our churches are in grave disobedience toward an apostolic instruction. And if we realized that Paul’s rule is contradicted or cancelled nowhere in Scripture, this too raised no serious concern. The rule was so foreign to our culture and church experience that it obviously must mean something other than its self-evident meaning, or at least is no longer binding upon the church today. Everyone apparently knew this, because nobody bothered to discuss it. This mindset was transmitted to us not from the pulpit, but non-verbally, as if by silent osmosis. But is this a scripturally sound position for us to adopt?

I put the question to my Protestant friends: Is it a biblical principle that our interpretation and acceptance of a solemn command of Scripture should depend upon the interpretations and traditions we have received from our church? Doesn’t the principle of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone is our rule of faith”) insist that we reject “traditions of men” that appear to us contrary to Scripture? Yet most Protestants and Catholics permit women to speak in church.

For Catholics this is not a problem, for we can simply answer, “Yes, it definitely is a biblical teaching that the authentic interpretation of the message of Christ is revealed through the Scriptures AND the preaching of the apostles AND their legitimate successors. And their successors for centuries have not continued to require women to keep silent in church.”

As a Bible-believing Christian I firmly believe that Jesus keeps His promise to preserve His Church from falling into error concerning the “commandments of the Lord”. It’s clear to me that the principal way in which He does this -“the Bible way”- is through the action of the Holy Spirit, Who preserves correct interpretation of God’s Word through the teachings of the apostles and those who have received the apostolic imposition of hands and remain united to the bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter.

But if one rejects this Catholic view and yet insists that women may speak in church… I just can’t imagine how one can defend that from Scripture.


  1. Recently a friend pointed out that this article left her wondering what I was saying. In a nutshell, I'm simply pointing out that without accepting the teaching authority of the Church on doctrinal matters, one is left much more vulnerable to the errors of private interpretation of Scripture. The example I raised was that of Paul's prohibition of women speaking in church. Catholics know that we are not presently bound by this rule, because the Church does not teach it is permanently binding. But how can non-Catholics who reject the Church's authority to interpret the passage get around having to assume that Paul's rule is permanently binding?

  2. Hi.

    I am a faithful Catholic in a protestant family. This very subject -- sola scriptura and women speaking in church -- has come up and I would REALLY appreciate it if you would contact me via email to discuss it privately because I would like your insight. Thanks.

    Lisa Graas

  3. I realize this was posted a while ago, but this site has a good explanation of the bible passage you are referring to:

  4. I suggest reading Dennis McCallum's "Against The Traditional Fundamentalist View On the Role of Women in the Church." I'm not a Catholic, but am a firm Christian, and believe that Scripture has a much, much deeper meaning than just a first glance and a little thinking can tell you. I reccomend researching Corinth and the issues in the church to fully understand why Paul is addressing this issue.

  5. Anon, You put it really well: "Scripture has a much, much deeper meaning than just a first glance and a little thinking can tell you." That's true, I'm sure, for this topic about rules for speaking in church, as well as for many other things. That's really the point of my blog entry on women speaking in church. I meant to raise that issue as an example to illustrate that: 1) a superficial approach to Scripture can lead to conclusions that can be contradicted by a deeper reading; and 2) in particular, reading Scripture with a 'sola scriptura' mindset -that is, ignoring the apostolic tradition- can lead to mistakes.

    I found this book very helpful in showing this: "By What Authority? -an Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition", by Mark Shea.


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