What about the role of women in the church? Some people use 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35 to say that women should not have leadership positions. What was Paul saying in that passage?
In this passage Paul clearly stated that women are to keep silent in church. If that prohibition is interpreted absolutely, as some do, women would basically disappear from church. It would mean they could proclaim the gospel to friends and relatives, but whenever they went to church their freedom to proclaim God’s goodness would end. Such an understanding of the role of women in church is not supported by the Bible.
Throughout history God has used women in different roles. Particularly important is the fact that prophetesses proclaimed their messages to God’s people in public (Ex. 15:20; Judges 4:4-16; 2 Kings 22:14-20; Acts 2:17; 21:9). Paul himself acknowledged that a woman can pray and prophesy in church; that women are not strictly forbidden to speak in church. God, through the gifts of the Spirit, granted them that right and privilege (1 Cor. 11:5). The question is, What did Paul mean when he stated that women should be silent in church? We should keep several things in mind.
1. Tensions during worship: One of the problems Paul had to meet in the church at Corinth was deciding proper behavior in church. Different groups with different ideas created confusion and tensions (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:10, 11; 14:26). This suggests that the speech of women that Paul prohibited was in some way contributing to that state of confusion. That is supported by the fact that the speech of women Paul referred to was related to questions they were asking and possibly comments they made that did not contribute to proper order in the church. This is indicated by the fact that Paul told them that if they had questions they should ask them to their husbands at home.
2. Preaching is not the subject: The discussion was not whether women should preach or occupy important leadership positions in church, but about the proper attitude in church when instruction was being given. To forbid women to preach or teach in church or to hold leadership positions is to misuse this text. Paul was dealing with a very specific situation and was advising church leaders how to deal with it. He was regulating the only kind of speech directly mentioned in the text, namely, asking questions.
3. Women should be instructed: Paul’s advice didn’t deny women the right to learn, but regulated the form the learning should take. He stated that in church they are to learn in silence, without speaking, subjecting themselves to the instruction being given. In the ancient world it was impolite for students to interrupt teachers with questions that in some cases showed their ignorance of the subject and disrupted the learning experience. In this case Paul proposed that women should not interrupt the teacher by asking disruptive questions; their education could also take place at home. In that more private setting they could ask their husbands questions and be properly instructed. The fact that husbands were expected to share their knowledge with their wives indicates that it was not their exclusive possession. In principle, Paul was affirming women’s right to learn. This right to learn about the gospel did not simply have the result of increasing their knowledge for personal self-fulfillment. It implies that they were being trained to teach others.
This text simply suggests that in some of the churches there were tensions between women and their instructors. Paul tried to control that situation by controlling an abuse but not removing the privileges of praying, learning, and prophesying in public (1 Cor. 11:5). In fact the Greek verb sigao, “to keep silent,” could be also translated “to be still,” in the sense of not being too outspoken. We should not read Paul’s statement to mean that women are permanently forbidden to speak in church. The reason Paul gave for his counsel is that such conduct is unbecoming to Christian women in church. The church is not the place for a person—man or woman—to enter into verbal controversies with those in charge of instructing the congregation. Christian harmony is the rule.