Two passages in the New Testament have frequently caused misunderstanding regarding the application within Christian circles of the universal Biblical principle of spiritual male headship:
For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints, Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. (I Cor. 14:33-34).
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (I Tim. 2:12).
An amusing experience regarding one of these passages took place while I was growing up, as someone at a local church brought up the above verse from First Corinthians in a Sabbath School discussion. When the passage, “Let your women keep silence in the churches” was quoted, someone responded, “In the home too!” At which everybody laughed, of course.
But what in fact do these verses mean by “silence” so far as women in church are concerned?
Supporters of women’s ordination have used the above verses to culturalize the apostle’s counsel in this regard, insisting that if one takes the plain meaning of these passages as the marching orders for today’s church, without regard to the cultural setting of these epistles, women will be excluded from any vocal part in the public exercises of the faith community.
Silence, Quietness, and Submission
At least three other passages, in addition to perhaps others, help us understand the silence that is expected of women in the verses noted above. Two of these verses come from Paul’s writings, while another comes from the first epistle of Peter:
But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another, and indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia; but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more, and that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you. (I Thess. 4:9-11).
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, applications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that ye may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. (I Tim. 2:1-2).
Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. (I Peter 3:1-4).
One could hardly make a case that Paul’s exhortation to “study to be quiet” (I Thess. 4:11) was a command to church members to not talk ever. Indeed, it would be hard to “comfort one another” with the apostle’s words in this chapter regarding the coming of Jesus (verse 18) if one were forbidden to speak! What these passages are describing, on the surface and in context, is a spirit of judicious wisdom and submission to rightful authority. Paul’s warning to his Thessalonian readers to “be quiet” and to mind their own business is not a command to not talk, but simply to avoid meddlesome behavior. In First Timothy 2, quietness denotes a peaceful life in compliance—so far as conscience allows (Acts 5:29)—with the laws of the land. (I Tim. 2:2). And in First Peter 3, a “meek and quiet spirit” refers to subjection on the part of wives to husbands (verses 1,4), not a command to say nothing under any circumstances.
When we compare this use of language to the verses we cited at the beginning, it is clear Paul is not commanding women to never say anything in church. This point is equally clear in First Corinthians 11:5, where Paul speaks of women prophesying—in the same epistle, no less, where he commands them to be silent. (I Cor. 14:34). What Paul is saying in these verses is that women should submit to God-ordained authority in both the home and the church, just as he uses the word “quiet” in First Thessalonians to denote a judicious attention to one’s own affairs rather than a spirit of wrongful intrusiveness in others’ lives. The same holds true for his use of this language relative to secular authorities (I Tim. 2:2), as well as for Peter’s use of this terminology in his first epistle, relative to women submitting to their husbands. (I Peter 3:4).
In short, when the Bible is allowed to explain itself, Paul’s statements about the silence of women in church (I Cor. 13:34; I Tim. 2:12) refer not to vocal silence in all public affairs of the faith community, but rather, to a spirit of humility and submission to God’s order of gender authority in both domestic and ecclesiastical settings.