Women Speaking in Church

1 Tim 2:11-15 and 1 Cor 14:34-35 are often sighted as sexist verses in the bible that require women to be absolutely silent in church. However proper examination of the original language and context of this letter reveals that it’s not like that. First of all, if women weren’t allowed to speak at all, then why does Paul instruct them on how to pray and prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11:5, both of which require speaking? Women who were prophets in the bible can be found in Exodus 15:20, Judges 4:4-5, Luke 2:36, Acts 2:17, and Acts 21:9.

1 Tim 2:12 (NLT) I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly. 13 For God made Adam first, and afterward he made Eve. 14 And it was not Adam who was deceived by Satan. The woman was deceived, and sin was the result. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing, assuming they continue to live in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.

1 Cor 14:34 Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. 35 If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings

Remember Paul’s letters usually are addressing specific issues that specific churches are having. Paul was addressing the issue of disorder in the church, in chapters 11-14 of 1 Corinthians, this is summed up in 1 Cor 14:40. In fact, the entire letter is about keeping order on different issues like the division caused by the favoritism of specific preachers (ch. 1-4), sexual immorality and marriage (ch. 5-7), and eating idol meats (ch.8-10). Meanwhile, both letters to Timothy were written Timothy to help him deal with an uprising of false teachers in the church of Ephesus. These false teachers, Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus (these are the one’s Paul names) were not women, but they were influencing the women.

All believers are commissioned to speak the gospel and that includes women according to Paul in Gal 3:23-29, and Peter when quoting the prophet Joel about the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32).

The word guné (γυνή) can be translated as wife or woman. Likewise with anér (ἀνήρ) which can mean male, man, or husband. So the new testament context must be used to determine which meaning. In the case of “the head of the woman is the man” (in 1 Cor 11:3), it’s the husbands that are the head of their own wives. Men are not the head of every woman in the church, but it can be translated from either Man to woman or husband to wife. It was customary in the ancient Greek world that only married women covered their hair. In 1 Cor 11:5, it says a woman who prays or prophesies uncovered dishonors their head (in reference to husbands from verse 3). It dishonors their husbands, but not God, meaning that all of this was because of the social marriage custom. Ephesians 5:21 tells husbands and wives to submit to each other, not other men and women. So in 1 Cor 11:1-16, Paul tries to appeal to people to follow the customs of the day for the sake of Christianity’s cultural standing. However, in verse 16 he makes it clear that it is not a legalistic law from God but rather a customary thing that women should cover their heads in that culture and region.

1 Cor 11:16 But if anyone wants to argue about this, I simply say that we have no other custom than this, and neither do God’s other churches.

Early Christian Gentiles follows Jewish rules because the first Christians were Messianic Jews, even if they were deemed unnecessary for Gentiles. For example, circumcision was deemed unnecessary by Paul for Gentiles since that was not given to Noah but only to Abraham (1 Cor 7:19, Gal 5:2-12, Col 2:11). However even today many non-Jewish Christians still practice circumcision. It is not required by law for non-Abrahamic people, but it is done as a custom by Gentile believers because Christianity came from Judaism.

In modern synagogues women and men are separate, but in the 1st century, they sat together. However back then, in that culture women weren’t allowed to read the scripture publicly. This custom was likely based on the Jewish Aggadah. There are rules in the Talmud (Shevuot 30a) and Mishnah (Shevuot 4:1), that did not allow women to testify as witnesses. However, the Aggadah (specifically the Talmud) often contradicts the Torah on various grounds. Jesus actually rejected some of the rules in the Talmud and other teachings by Rabbis in the 1st century. For example, in Matthew 15:1-9 he rejects the Netilat Yadayim (ritual handwashing) custom of the Pharisees. In his sermon on the mount in Matthew 5, Jesus rejects the various divorce clauses that allow men to divorce their wives for stupid reasons in the Talmud. So since alternative laws are rejected by the Messiah Jesus, that means for Christians they are invalid. One can conclude that just like with the head covering custom, Paul was appealing to the social norms of the day, but these were not law absolute laws, especially if it is based on the Aggadah which even Jesus didn’t submit to because he only recognized the Tanakh (Old Testament).

On the issue of women keeping silent (1 Tim 2:11-15 and 1 Cor 14:34-35). In that era, synagogue services functioned like a classroom, so people could ask questions. Often times Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and asked questions by the Pharisees and he answered and asked them questions in return (Matt 12:9-14, Matt 21:23-46). He also received comments and questions when he taught outside of the synagogue (Luke 12:13) and even in the Temple (Matt 21:23-46). With the new Jesus movement, Gentile women were now a part of these originally Jewish religious activities and were not as educated in Jewish customs. Even Jewish women had some new freedoms in the new covenant and now we’re part of something more than what they were used to under 1st-century Judaism. Since women and men were all gathered in the same place in this new Christian meeting setup, women could now ask questions. However, it was less likely for a woman especially poorer women to be literate. So if women couldn’t read they would ask basic questions that could be answered by simply reading the bible.  This could become disruptive to the sermons if women were constantly asking questions that had simple resolutions. Also, some women were not used to being in a setting outside of the house so they didn’t know the social etiquette and would interrupt the speakers with loud comments. So Paul’s solution in 1 Cor 14:35, is for the women with questions to ask their husbands at home. The husbands were supposed to be teaching their wives the basics. This is a sacrifice of time and commitment, that the man should make for his wife. Paul says for men to love their wives like Christ (who sacrificed for the church) loved the church, and cherish/nourish as they do their own bodies in Ep 5:25-30.

One thing to keep in mind is that the modern Bibles are translations of translations and sometimes later translators interpret something one way instead of another based on the beliefs of the translators. Oftentimes, like with any language, there are a few different ways to translate one word or another. Sometimes the definitions that are chosen may not always take into account the cultural and historical context of the original script or may be under the influence of the culture of the time period in which the translation is made. This is all in addition to the pagan cultural baggage that comes with gentile languages.

Here is an example:

Many modern translations sound like this: (NLT) 1 Tim 2:11 Women should learn quietly and submissively. 12 I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.

The KJV translates verse 12 as saying, “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

The Greek word authenteó means usurp in the context of the letter itself. Usurping means to rebel or take authority like taking up arms to revolt. This is not the same as someone being permitted to speak.

Userp – Authenteó (αὐθεντέω)

Greek words for men and women:
Women guné (γυνή)
Man anér (ἀνήρ)

A sermon on the Subject of Women keeping silent in the church
Women in Ancient Rome
Women in 1st Century Synagogues
More on women and head coverings