Do Women Have to Keep Silent in the Church?

Wayne Jackson
Must a woman keep silent in the church? The term “silence” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is often misunderstood and misapplied.

A number of years ago, a faction arose within the church which argued that it is sinful for women to teach the Bible to children in the class arrangement when the church comes together. They alleged that this practice violates Paul’s instruction for women to “keep silence” in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34).

Some of our old debaters responded to this argument in this fashion. They contended that the Greek word sigao (“keep silence”) demanded absolute silence — not a sound.

Since such a prohibition would be inconsistent with injunctions regarding regular meetings of the church (e.g., singing) they reasoned that 1 Corinthians 14:34 did not pertain to normal church meetings. Thus, they reasoned that this context must not be applicable in our time. By this argument, they felt they avoided a conflict between women teaching children’s Bible classes and 1 Corinthians 14:34.

Others today are making this same argument — but with a different purpose. They want an expanded role for the woman in the church assembly. They also see 1 Corinthians 14:34 as an obstacle to their desired practice of women worship leaders. So, again, the context is dismissed as irrelevant to today.

The argument was unsound in the past (regardless of the respectable names associated with it), and it is equally erroneous today.

What Kind of Silence Does First Corinthians 14:34 Demand?

The entire question hinges upon the meaning of the Greek verb sigao. This word never did demand absolute, unqualified silence. Rather, the nature of the silence is determined by the context.

The verb sigao isn’t found very frequently in the Bible — only nineteen times in the Greek Old Testament and less than a dozen times in the New Testament. But a careful examination of the word reveals that the context identifies the nature of the silence under consideration.

For instance, when the Israelites were pursued by the Egyptians and arrived at the Red Sea, they were terrified. They complained of their plight to Moses. He told them that Jehovah would fight for them, and so they were to “hold [their] peace,” (i.e., be silent; Ex. 14:14).

Obviously, that didn’t mean that they were forbidden to speak at all. Rather, the kind of silence commanded was that they were to cease their faithless whimpering.

When David described certain hardships associated with his transgressions, he “kept silence” as his bones wasted away (Psa. 32:3). But he was not speaking of general silence but keeping silence regarding his sin.

After the disciples witnessed the transfiguration scene, they “held their peace” (i.e., remained silent; Lk. 9:36). That doesn’t mean they didn’t talk at all. Rather, they did not discuss with others what they had seen on the mountain.

The Context of First Corinthians 14

Now to First Corinthians 14. The verb sigao is used three times in this chapter.

One who has the gift of tongues is to keep silence if he has no interpreter to use with his alien audience (1 Cor. 14:28).

If a brother is speaking and another receives an immediate revelation, the former is to keep silence (1 Cor. 14:30).

Finally, women are to keep silence (1 Cor. 14:34).

The first two prohibitions demand silence only in the matters being discussed. They do not forbid these men to otherwise speak consistent with their divine obligations.

So similarly, Paul’s direction to women does not demand that she be absolutely silent at church. Rather, in harmony with what the apostle taught elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:12), the woman is not to speak or teach in any way that violates her gender role.

She is not to occupy the position of a public teacher in such a capacity as to stand before the church and function as the teacher (or co-teacher) of a group containing adult men. In assuming this official capacity, she has stepped beyond her authorized sphere and she violates scripture.

Thus, mark “silence” in verse 34. Draw arrows back to verses 28, 30, and note: Silence not absolute, but qualified by context.