Yesterday in our Bible Reading Plan, we came to 1 Corinthians 14 in which Paul states that "women should be kept silent in the churches" (v. 34). What are we to do with this? Are we really not allowed to speak in congregational settings? Must we really stay mute and hold our questions until we get home and can ask our husband or father?

To answer these questions, we must first analyze the text itself, and to do this, we must discern the context. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul addresses the misuse of tongues and prophecy in the Corinthian church and emphasizes that they are meant to build up the church. Essentially, they are beneficial gifts when used as intended by God, and they are even to be desired (see 1 Cor. 14:1). For corporate worship, Paul advocates that interpretation be given if someone speaks in tongues, and more than anything, he urges the believers to “strive to excel in building up the church” (v. 12). With regard to prophesy, Paul instructs the Corinthians to have others in the body weigh what is said by the prophet, which creates accountability by measuring the prophet’s words against Scripture.

The phrase in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that states “the women should keep silent in the churches” creates confusion and controversy among modern readers. When approaching difficult portions of Scripture, a good rule of thumb is to learn about the original audience, to learn about the situation being addressed in the passage and surrounding context, and to question how this passage fits with the rest of Scripture. Reading this statement in the context of 1 Corinthians 14 and the discussion of tongues and prophecy, it is unlikely that the statement means that women can never speak in church, especially since there are other passages in Scripture that mention female prophets as well as women praying in church (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). 1 Corinthians 14:34 most likely is instructing the women not to question, correct, or challenge a prophecy in the church assembly, especially since the preceding context has to do with the evaluation of prophecy in corporate worship.

The chaos of people speaking over one another (vv. 30-33) also provides insight into Paul’s statement. Much as a classroom teacher will tell students not to waste the time of the entire class by asking a question that is better suited in a one-on-one conversation with the teacher, Paul instructs the women not to speak or ask questions in front of the entire congregation but to discuss these with their male family members at home. This gives the impression that women had begun asking questions or challenging what had been said in a prophecy during corporate worship gatherings. David Garland explains the situation by stating, “The key phrase is ‘if they want to learn…something,’ which implies a situation in which they are reacting to prophesy…It also implies that they do not understand and have no positive contributions to make on the topic at hand” (1 Corinthians). Throughout his letters, Paul supports the learning and growth of all believers – men and women, so we should not take Paul’s words to either belittle women or to discourage them from asking questions about the faith. The overarching concern in 1 Corinthians 14 has to do with order in the church and everyone acting in a manner that promotes unity and edification among the body; therefore, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 should be read with this understanding.