On Being Quiet in Church

The Argument: I do not think that by asking questions of the preacher during worship services, or confronting him on some point of his homily afterwards, a woman is usurping authority or teaching anyone in the church. After all, she may only have wanted the spiritual head (under-shepherd) in the church to clarify some point of Scriptures.

The Response: The interesting thing is that this seems to be precisely the kind of speaking that Paul had in mind when he wrote these words:

34 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.
35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
--1 Corinthians 14:34-35, KJV [My emphasis]

He was addressing "asking questions in order to learn" in the assembly (church) and said that women were to ask their own husbands at home.

Permit me to suggest something to consider. Think on the arrangement of the Temple in Jerusalem. Women could enter only certain areas; which kept them from those areas where men carried out the functions of the Temple.

In the Temple proper the females occupied, according to Jewish tradition, only a raised gallery along three sides of the court. They were allowed to observe the ceremonies but never to participate in them.  

Rabbinic literature was filled with contempt for women. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted, or spoken to in the street, and they were not to be instructed in the law or receive an inheritance. A woman walked six paces behind her husband and if she uncovered her hair in a public place she was considered a harlot.--Women in Ancient Israel, "Bible History Online," © 2007 Bible History Online

Thus, in the Temple, women were kept apart from the men and from the center of religious activity. Archeological evidence strongly suggests that similar conditions prevailed in synagogues. One authority on the milieu in which Jesus lived informs:

The so-called 'Ark' would be at the south end; the seats for the elders and honourable in front of it, facing the people, and with their back to the Ark. Here two pillars are wanting in the Synagogue at Capernaum. The lectern of the reader would be in the centre, close to where the entrance was into the double colonnade which formed the Synagogue, where, at present, a single pillar is marked in the plan of the Capernaum Synagogue; while the women's gallery was at the north end, where two columns and pillars of peculiar shape, which may have supported the gallery, are traceable. For it is a mistake to suppose that the men and women sat in opposite aisles, separated by a low wall--Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883), Chap. 10.

I think it interesting that, in Orthodox Judaism today, women still are kept separate from men in the synagogue.

Well, not to worry, wives and daughters may have had to sit in the cheap seats in the Temple or synagogue in Jesus' day, but they were actively involved in religious activities. Or were they? One source informs:

Women could not play a significant role in the synagogue because they were levitically unclean for several days every month during their menstrual cycle. Women were not even counted as members in a synagogue count. They did not recite the daily shema, they did not read the Torah in the synagogue (Ber 3:3), they were not required to come to any feasts or festivals, and the Mishnah says:  

"The observance of all the positive ordinances that depend on the time of year is incumbent on men but not on women…"--Women in Ancient Israel, Op. cit.

What have we got thus far? Women could go to the Temple or synagogue, but they were kept out of the way in special courts or galleries while men handled the business of worship and teaching. As troopies used to say in Vietnam, “Don't mean nuthin.” Given that Israel was a theocracy, it would seem obvious that provisions had been made for their religious instruction. Like the old song goes, “'Tain't Necessarily So.”

Women were only allowed to receive very little education on religion and the main religious instruction in the home was given by the man and not the woman. They could not be disciples of any great rabbi, they certainly could not travel with any rabbi.--Ibid.

In the days of Jesus' ministry, it seems that women were second-class citizens--socially and in religious matters. A woman could go to Temple or synagogue to observe while the male priests and laity went about the business of sacrifice and religious training. She was provided minimal education about her religion. What instruction she did receive came from her husband, father or some other male member of the household.

Think about this: An Israeli woman is in the Temple or synagogue with other women. They watch and listen as the men sacrifice, pray, teach, etc., but they don't always understand what is going on or why it is being done. They could settle for not understanding; or they could ask their husbands about the matter when they get home. It seems likely that some women attempted to get the attention of their husbands in order to ask about what was going on. This certainly would have been viewed as disruptive. Why not ask the other women? Perhaps one of them understood what was taking place and could explain it. Imagine the inquiries and responses filling the women's area and spilling over into the place where the men were worshipping or teaching. Imagine the difficulty of concentrating on the message from the pulpit; punctuated by whispered questions and replies.

We know early Christians continued to study in the synagogue on the Sabbath, as had been their custom prior to conversion. On Sundays they would also gather in the synagogue for Christian worship. Given that they were Jews, accustomed to separating men and women in religious activities, it seems likely that the practice would have continued when they gathered for Christian worship in the synagogue.

Perhaps the women, whose 'Old Testament' education had been lacking, would have found it difficult to grasp some of the concepts being taught by elders, teachers and prophets. Perhaps they would have exchanged questions and answers with other women, which would surely have been upsetting to the men and disruptive of the services.

Or, it could have been something else entirely. If we read verses 34 and 35 in context, we might discover another reason underlying Paul's commands.

Chapter 14 of the Apostle's first letter to the church at Corinth deals with the matters of Prophecy and Tongues. Rather than launch an overly lengthy exposition of the entire chapter, I will examine a single point that is fundamental to understanding the overall message of the chapter. I believe that, given this information, the reader will be better equipped for exegesis.

I invite the reader's attention to the manner in which the words translated tongue and tongues are presented in the King James Version. Please notice in verse 4 the parenthetical insertion of the word unknown prior to the word tongue. Notice also the absence of unknown before the word tongues in the following verse. As you read all of Chapter 14, you will see that unknown precedes all but one use of the singular form of the word translated as tongue; yet never precedes the plural form. The single exception occurs in verses 27 and 28; and refers to a single individual speaking in a single genuine language. What could be the reason for this?

In your reading, consider that the Apostle uses the singular form of the word to distinguish pagan gibberish, a counterfeit gift, from the genuine gift of a foreign language, which is expressed by the plural form. Could this not be what led the translators of the KJV to consistently add (unknown) in every instance where the singular form is used?

Bear in mind that the church at Corinth was composed of people only recently delivered out of pagan religions. Those pagan religions were certainly carnal and frequently involved counterfeit ecstatic speech; customs that perhaps some in the new church had not completely set behind them. In Chapter 14, Paul makes clear a few issues concerning the authentic gift of speaking in languages:

1. The gift holds an inferior position relative to prophecy. (See verses 1-19).
2. The purpose of the gift is to be a sign to unbelievers—not to believers (See verses 20-25).
3. The gift is to be used in a systematic, limited and orderly manner (See verses26-40.

What was going on in the church at Corinth? It seems that carnal Corinthians were babbling in the counterfeit ecstatic speech of paganism. They apparently had no interest in being understood, but were interested only in putting on a dramatic show. The spirit that moved them could not have been the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it was their own human spirit or, perhaps, the spirit of some demon. Whatever the source, the mysteries they proclaimed must have been of the type associated with pagan mystery religions.

Looking at verses 34 and 35 from this background a different understanding seems likely. The context of these verses addresses prophecy, but it also includes the general theme of the chapter, which is tongues. Apparently, some of the women in the Corinthian congregation stepped out of line by raising questions in a disruptive manner. Perhaps some of them were attempting to lead worship, rather than being submissive as Paul directs in Chapter 11, verses 3-15.

Is it a coincidence that modern churches that have tongues-speaking and claim gifts of healings and miracles also permit women to lead worship, to preach and to teach? It is indisputable that many women may be gifted teachers; however, they are not permitted by God to speak in churches. For them to do so is, according to the Apostle, shameful.

Just a little food for thought.

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