In May, 2017, The Gospel Message published an article entitled “The Church & Our Sisters” in which I offered what I believe to be the Bible’s answers to the following two questions: (1) What does it mean to be “in church” (1 Corinthians 14:28, 35)? and (2) What is the role of our sisters “in church”? In response to that article, as well as to public teaching on the subject before and since, several questions have consistently come up which deserve attention. In this article, I’d like to take up just a couple of those (and, perhaps, in a future article, we can address others).
Question #1: How do we reconcile Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Let your women keep silent in the churches” and “they are not permitted to speak”) with his command in Ephesians 5:19 (“speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”)? The command for sisters (along with the brothers) to “speak” through singing when the church is assembled seems to indicate that sisters are actually not required to “keep silent” in church.
This is an understandable question, but let us first remember that Paul could not have contradicted himself. Either a sister can obey both of these commands simultaneously, or she must always be disobedient to one of them. Since the second cannot be true, there must be some way in which these commands harmonize. What is it? Their harmony is revealed, I believe, by recognizing that the two passages are addressing different, and separate, spheres of activity. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing an individual act; in Ephesians, a group activity. In 1 Corinthians, his statements concern sisters; in Ephesians, both sisters and brothers. In 1 Corinthians, he is discussing ordinary speech; in Ephesians, singing. In other words, the two passages, when placed side by side, are really apples and oranges. They have nothing to do with each other. The command to “keep silent” pertains only to talking publicly in the hearing of the congregation. A sister may sneeze, cough, hush her child, or whisper to her husband with no fear of violating Paul’s prohibition. Those things make sound, yes, but not the kind of sound he was talking about. For the same reason, she may sing. Paul was never interested in silencing her singing.
But doesn’t Paul use the word “speak” in both passages? Yes, but there’s little to be made of that. For example, as I write this, the President of the United States is scheduled to address the nation on network television later tonight. The man who holds the office of President plans to speak from the Oval Office. But, of course, his office (position) is very different from his office (workplace). I might say of a man that “he loves to sing praises to the Lord.” Of another, however, I may be forced to conclude that “he likes to sing his own praises.” Again, the same word was used in both statements, but it did not mean the same thing. The first type of singing is loved by God, the second, hated. The use of the same word in two different commands does not necessarily mean the two commands pertain to the same thing. It’s illegal for someone under the age of 21 to drink, but then again, it’s perfectly legal for him to drink.
Question #2: What about the sisters mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:5-13? Weren’t they praying and prophesying in church?
Many think so, but such a conclusion would have Paul contradicting himself three chapters later (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). There must be another explanation. 1 Corinthians 11:17-18 provides that explanation, I believe. After concluding his thoughts about brothers and sisters praying and prophesying, Paul writes (and it is worth noting that the NKJV, NASB, ESV, and NIV—just to name a few—all begin a new paragraph here): “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse.” “These instructions.” What instructions? The ones he just gave about praying and prophesying, or the ones he’s about to give? Whatever set of instructions he means, they definitely concern the assembly of the saints, because he stated, “you come together not for the better but for the worse.” Verse 18 reveals which set of instructions he means: “For first of all, when you come together as a church….” “First of all.” In other words, in verses 17 and 18, Paul is just beginning to address the Lord’s Day assembly, that is, “church.” In the previous verses, he was not.
So, what then? Were sisters praying and prophesying in the first century, but just not “in church?” That must be the case. When would they have done so? Perhaps during occasions like those at Mary’s home, “where many were gathered together praying” (Acts 12:12). Or on occasions when brethren were together to “exhort one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). Just like today, members of the church were with each other more often than just when “in church.” Paul taught the brethren at Ephesus “from house to house” (Acts 20:20). Any of these times could have served as an appropriate occasion for a sister to pray or share an inspired word from the Lord. In fact, as we look at the whole of Scripture, we see that much of the praying and prophesying we read about actually happened outside of prescribed meeting times, not infrequently in individual and small group settings (e.g. 2 Kings 22:14ff; Isaiah 38:1; Acts 12:12; 20:36; and many others). The Sunday assembly wasn’t necessary for sisters to have opportunity to offer the fruit of their lips, inspired or otherwise.
In conclusion, there are certainly other questions that could be addressed. Perhaps, some that are even more important. Hopefully, the answers above are helpful, however. As always, I welcome any comments or questions.