The word “church” (including its plural form, “churches”) appears over 100 times in the New Testament, and is always a translation of the Greek word, ekklesia. Ekklesia was a compound word, combining the preposition ek (out) with the verb kaleo (to call); hence, our frequently cited definition, “the called out.” Interestingly, however, a first century Greek reader would not have thought of ekklesia in this way. A word’s meaning is often more than the sum of its parts (consider, for example, the words “pineapple,” “butterfly,” “hotdog,” “hogwash,” etc.). To the first century reader, ekklesia actually recalled definitions less abstract than “the called out.” Common meanings included things like: a legislative assembly, a gathering, a community, a congregation, or even some other definition, which one depending on context.
The New Testament apostles and prophets used ekklesia in at least five different ways. In Acts 19, it is used of non-religious gatherings in Ephesus, both the disorderly kind (Acts 19:32, 41) and the lawful kind (Acts 19:39). In Stephen’s discourse before the Sanhedrin, he uses it to refer to the ancient nation of Israel, calling them “the congregation (ekklesia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). We are familiar with how ekklesia is used to refer to the global community of Christians, the universal church (e.g. Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18, 24; Hebrews 12:23), as well as its application to local bodies of believers within that universal church: “The churches (ekklesia) of Christ greet you” (Romans 16:16; see also 2 Corinthians 1:1; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:1, etc.).
But there’s another way in which ekklesia is used in the New Testament that’s distinct (though not disconnected) from all of these. We encounter this usage in 1 Corinthians 14. There, Paul says that if there is no interpreter, a tongue-speaker should keep silent “in church” (verse 28). He also states that though he is able to speak in multiple languages, when “in church” (verse 19), he would rather speak just a few words that can be understood than the thousands of incomprehensible foreign words at his disposal. And, finally, near the end of the chapter, he says that it is shameful for women to speak “in church” (verse 35).
This final prohibition, particularly, should spur us to inquire: What does Paul mean by “in church”? None of the aforementioned definitions make any sense when inserted into Paul’s statements. There must be a fifth usage for ekklesia. How do we determine what it is?
Context is king. It’s often said that in real estate, the three most important things are “location, location, location.” In language, they are context, context, context (just think of all the different ways we use the word “run” in English, depending on context). Looking at the context of 1 Corinthians 14, we see that it is the conclusion of a four-chapter long discussion of what was transpiring—and what should have been transpiring—when the congregation at Corinth assembled on the Lord’s Day. From 1 Corinthians 11:17 to 14:26, the expression “come(s) together” appears seven times. This serves as the framework for Paul’s expression, “in church,” and elucidates its meaning. The brethren at Corinth were “in church” when they had “come together.”
But “come together” under what circumstances? After all, the church can come together at any time for any reason. Was Paul talking about Sunday evening birthday parties? Again, context clarifies. Examining the passages containing the phrase “come(s) together,” we discover that Paul had a very specific kind of gathering in mind. According to Paul, when the brethren at Corinth were “in church,” the following four items were true:
WHERE: The congregation was gathered “in one place” (11:20; 14:23). Can a group really “come together” any other way?
WHO: “[T]he whole church” (14:23) was gathered—that is, the gathering was intended for the entire congregation, and all who were willing and able were present.
WHY: The congregation was gathered “to eat the Lord’s Supper” (11:20; cf. Acts 20:7).
WHAT: The congregation was gathered to share songs, teaching, and words of edification (14:26).
Pretty straightforward. When the entire congregation assembled together in one place to eat the Lord’s Supper, sing, and share words of teaching and edification, they were “in church.” When gathered under different circumstances, and/or for different purposes, the implication is they weren’t.
This can be helpful. It may at first seem to create confusion, but ultimately, it may clear some up. Often, we’ve used the expression “in church” more broadly than Paul did. We’ve expanded its meaning. Take, for example, Sunday and Wednesday evening services. They can be wonderful, but biblically speaking, do they have us “in church”? Depending on the congregation, they may have much of the church gathered in one place for singing and teaching, but they’re not for the purpose of eating the Lord’s Supper (with the exception of a few congregations whose Lord’s Day assemblies are in the evening). And we seem to recognize they’re different, since we don’t treat habitual absence from them the same way we do habitual absence from Sunday morning. And classes. Classes are quite different from what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11-14. Rather than the whole church being gathered together in one place, members are divided into groups meeting in separate places, and for activities other than the Lord’s Supper and (with some exceptions) singing. Are these gatherings wrong? Certainly not! They exist as an exercise of our liberty in Christ, and can serve as occasions for edification. Getting together with saints and studying the Scriptures are good and God-glorifying activities (Hebrews 3:13; Acts 17:11). But we want to be sure we’re using biblical words in biblical ways. When we’re gathered in separate classes, or assembled on Sunday and Wednesday evenings for study, we are certainly being the church, but biblically speaking, we’re not “in church.”
Why go to so much trouble to point this out?
For the sake of truth…but also for the sake of our sisters, some of whom wonder if there’s ever a time when they can participate in discussions/studies on spiritual matters, and still please their Lord.
The Role of Our Sisters In and Out of Church
Paul states in 1 Corinthians 14 that women are to “keep silent in the churches” (verse 34), and adds, “it is shameful for women to speak in church” (verse 35). The word behind “keep silent” is sigao, a word which means to “say nothing, keep still…stop speaking.”1 It is used of Jesus when on the night of His betrayal, He “kept silent” (sigao) before the high priest and “answered nothing” (Mark 14:61). It is uniformly translated “silent” or “silence” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 in every major translation of which I am aware (KJV/NKJV/ASV/RSV/NRSV/NASB/ESV/NIV). That this is its intended meaning here is further evidenced by the verse’s surrounding context. Paul employs the word earlier in the chapter when commanding tongue-speakers and prophets to “keep silent” on occasion (verses 28, 30). He also offers additional explanation in verses 34 and 35 when he writes: “for they are not permitted to speak…And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home….” By “keep silent,” then, Paul means to disallow public speaking of any kind, even the asking of questions (this, however, in no way prohibits sisters from “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”).
God has determined that “in church,” sisters are to yield the floor to the brothers. This is certainly not because brothers are brighter, or better informed, or better communicators. It is quite conceivable that all the sisters could excel all the brothers in all these areas in a given congregation. That would be beside the point, however. What is at issue is God’s desire and design for the church, namely, that men serve as its leaders (1 Corinthians 14:34). The command to have the brothers handle the public proceedings when “in church” aids in the realizing God’s intent. Rather than giving men an out, God has given them responsibility.
But where does this leave the sisters? What about their knowledge, their wisdom, their questions? Are they consigned to be perpetual listeners, except at home? The Bible doesn’t say so. Paul’s prohibition concerns only a particular time—that is, when “the whole church comes together in one place” “to eat the Lord’s Supper” and to share in singing, teaching, and words of edification. Paul did not extend the prohibition further than that, and we cannot do so without going beyond what is written. Concerning Bible studies (which is what classes are), the Scriptures allow for sisters to participate in the discussion right along with their brothers in Christ. They, like their brothers, are governed by God’s commands to speak respectfully, lovingly, truthfully, slowly, in moderation and with self-control, but they are permitted to speak. And if fully persuaded of this in our own minds, we should be glad to hear them.
This by no means addresses all the questions that invariably arise with this subject, but hopefully, it adequately addresses a few. We dare not allow more than God allows, but neither do we dare restrict more than God restricts. In this case, by doing so, we could potentially put a stumbling block before some sisters, or at the very least, hinder their growth. If so, that is serious. I welcome any comments and questions via correspondence or phone.