God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 14:35 It is shameful…
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, June 30, 2023
35 If they desire to learn something, let them ask their own men at home, because it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.
On the surface, Paul’s prohibition seems overly harsh. But everyone who has ever led a Bible study knows that there are ways of asking questions “that can easily give evidence of a rebellious and undisciplined attitude.” But more importantly, there are perhaps two main concerns for the sake of the congregation that Paul is weaving together. First, the congregation and especially those who preach and prophesy are commanded to judge one another’s messages: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should carefully consider it” (verse 29). The “others” there might not be limited to the other prophets, but open to the others of the congregations, the hearers. But as they question one another, a line of questioning could easily become judgmental, and a woman is not to have doctrinal authority over a man (1 Timothy 2:12). Second, Paul wants women to be able to learn and to ask questions, therefore he tells them that this should be with “their own men at home.” While it is possible to translate “their own husbands” here in verse 35, it doesn’t seem to be necessary. A married woman would automatically know that “her man” is “her husband,” but an unmarried woman or a widow would have alternatives, including fathers, sons, brothers or cousins, or privately asked questions of a church leader or a neighbor.
The bottom line is that “It is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.” This sentence must stand as the Word of God. But we need to draw some lines around it, asking where it applies and where it does not apply, while letting it stand and without doing damage to the prohibition.
- It cannot mean that a woman must not make any noise at all, stepping outside to cough or clear her throat. This would be absurd.
- It cannot mean that a woman must not respond in the liturgy of the congregations, such as when in Psalm 106 the leader says, “Let all the people say, ‘Amen!’” (Psalm 106:48). The response is natural and judges no one, and it takes no leadership role.
- It cannot mean that a woman cannot sing or even lead the singing, as when Miriam led the women in her song, Exodus 15:21, or when Deborah and Barak sang their duet, Judges 5:1-31.
- Can it mean that a woman is free to judge the preaching of the men in public worship? No, this would be taking authority, and therefore it would be forbidden.
- Can it mean that a woman is free to preach her own sermon or devotion in public? This is forbidden by the words of the Holy Spirit: “I do not permit a woman to teach” (1 Timothy 2:12a).
- Can it mean that a woman is free to preach a sermon written by a man, such as her husband, or one of the published sermons of Luther? No, and for the same reason: “I do not permit a woman to teach.”
- Can it mean that a woman is free to read a lesson? This can be a more challenging question. It is possible, even likely, that there are women who might do a better job of reading the lessons more clearly than some of our men who read the lessons. Yet reading a lesson often involves a certain amount of emphasis or interpretation. For example, whenever I read the Easter lesson from John 20, I have the habit of always translating the word Didymus by interjecting into the reading, “Didymus, ‘the twin’” (John 20:24). This and other natural insertions can easily lead to teaching moments, and we return to the verse: “I do not permit a woman to teach.” The verse before us answers the question: “It is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.” It might seem to some that this would be a possible area where an exception could be made, but there must be a line that is drawn, or else Paul and the Holy Spirit would never have made this exception. It is best to use the gifts of the women in our churches to the glory of God, but we must not do this in a way that transgresses the will of God, the authority he has given to men, or that gives offense to anyone.
Other passages in the Bible, especially Titus 2:4-5, give a command to older women to train the younger women and any children in any sort of setting. Acts 18:26 shows the woman Priscilla sharing information she had with a preacher but in a private setting (not public preaching). We should also remember that Acts 18:26 is not a command (as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are) but an historical narrative. Our doctrine is based on commands from God, not on descriptions of what some people did in Bible times. Otherwise we would say that the Bible permits polygamy simply because the Bible describes polygamy.
The zeal and talents of our dedicated Christian women is a blessing to the church and to each one of us. We must not trample on the enthusiasm of our people, whether men, women, or children, but direct it constantly in ways that give glory to God and build up God’s holy people. “From Christ the whole body of the church, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16).
Pastor Timothy Smith