To Speak or not to Speak
Today’s professing Church is “progressive”: the customs of centuries are being discarded in a wave of “fresh–thinking”. Often those courageous enough to demur at the rapid dismantling of what was once held to be right are dismissed as “legal” or “out of touch with current movements of God’s Spirit”. Now one hardly grieves at the brushing aside of mere customs, but protest is surely to be made on the brushing aside of those Scriptures on which the customs were based!
The surge in desire for women to have an equal and identical public role in the Assembly to that of men is one example of this. In publicly evangelising the world, in teaching the Church, in leading the Assembly in prayer, in discharging the office of an elder, and on all occasions when speaking of any kind occurred in the Assembly, only men were ever recognised in the early Church as qualified and called to such roles. Throughout the Acts and the epistles there is not the slightest hint of any woman being called to perform such functions.
Today, however, things are widely different: Women praying publicly, women teachers, women preachers—in short, women vocal in all kinds of ways in the modern Church. This is commonly justified by citing Gal. 3: 28: “there is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. We are told too that when the apostle Paul speaks of “women” being prohibited from exercising authority over “men” he actually means “wives” and “husbands”. Similarly when he expressly forbids women speaking when the Assembly is convened, he really means “chattering” and not “speaking”. Such are the perversions of Scripture employed to support a suspect theology!
It seems to me that the whole argument over woman’s place in the Assembly all turns on the simple question of whether she is to be permitted to speak there or to be silent. If she is not to speak, then neither can she preach or teach. (by “in the Assembly” I mean the assembling or coming together of God’s people for worship and ministry—see 1 Cor. 14: 26).
1 Cor. 14 is plain enough: “let [your] women be silent in the assemblies, for it is not permitted to them to speak; but to be in subjection, as the law also says”, (Compare Gen. 3:16, Num. 30), “But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is a shame for a woman to speak in Assembly”, (1 Cor. 14: 34, 35).
It is important to notice that this total ban on female speaking in Assembly is not simply the opinion of the apostle Paul—a biased bachelor as some would say. “It is [the] LORD’S commandment”, (v37). Rejection of any Scripture is serious, but especially so where it is a direct instruction of my professed Master.
Some may feel that in this matter they have the liberty to make up their own minds—perhaps rejecting this Scripture as “out of date”. The apostle refutes this notion:: “Did the word of God go out from you, or did it come to you only?”, (v36). The Word of God is what comes from God to us; it does not proceed from us. We do not formulate and send out church law, we accept what has come to us from God rather than thinking we can make up the “rules” ourselves. A mark of spirituality, (and spiritual wisdom), is to recognise, (and accept), the commandments of the Lord here outlined, (see v37, 38).
It is sometimes asserted that the word here used for “speak” only means to “chatter” or “whisper”, (so disturbing the Assembly proceedings), but this is a gross perversion of Scripture. Are we to assume that if it is “a shame for a woman to chatter in the Assembly” that it is perfectly legitimate for the men to do so? Or are we saying that the words “for a woman” are superfluous since the statement is general? Does God use unnecessary words in His Word? Furthermore, the word here used for “speak” is used 25 times elsewhere in the chapter, among them verse 21: “By people of other tongues, and by strange lips, will I speak to this people; and neither thus will they hear me, saith the Lord”. Who is speaking here? The LORD! Does the LORD chatter? Only foolish irreverence would suggest such a thought! Yet the word here used for “speak” is the same as that in verse 34! Similarly, are we to imagine that when the prophets stand up in verse 29 that they chatter? Again it is the same word. The Scripture means what it says, “it is not permitted to them to speak”—that is, the women are to be silent. No questions, no vocal prayers, no ministry, SILENCE! They were forbidden even to ask their own husbands in Assembly: “let them ask their own husbands at home.”
Some claim of course that this prohibition against women speaking in Assembly applied only to the Corinthians, yet the very beginning of the epistle states that it is written unto “all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, (1: 2). Its bearing is universal, and its application thus binding on you and me.
1 Tim. 2: 8–14 is also clear: “I will therefore that the men pray in every place, lifting up pious hands, without wrath or reasoning. In like manner also that the women in decent deportment and dress adorn themselves with modesty and discretion, not with plaited [hair] and gold, or pearls, or costly clothing, but, what becomes women making profession of the fear of God, by good works. Let a woman learn in quietness in all subjection; but I do not suffer a woman to teach, nor to exercise authority over man, but to be in quietness; for Adam was formed first, then Eve: and Adam was not deceived; but the woman, having been deceived, was in transgression.” (Exercising authority means taking a leadership role).
To those who take Scripture as they find it, the meaning of this Scripture is obvious: Public speaking roles withheld from women and an injunction rather for them to be in quietness, (that is not to speak). To the objectors however, this passage is far from straight–forward. They claim that the word for “woman” in verse 12 should be translated “wife” and similarly that “man” should be translated “husband”. Their understanding of verse 12 “I do not suffer a woman to teach nor to exercise authority over man” is that far from it being a ban on women teaching, it is a reminder to wives that their husbands were over them in Christ, (1 Cor. 11: 3). Now to translate this verse in such a way is quite legitimate if the context allows. However, to be consistent verse 8 should be translated “I will therefore that the husbands pray in every place”—thus public prayer belongs to husbands alone, verse 8 being in clear contradistinction to verse 9: “in like manner also the wives....” The simple truth however is that the whole passage is about men and women not husbands and wives. The very verse we have just examined actually proves that there is a difference between the men and women—only the men are to engage in public prayer, (“men” there being in clear contradistinction to “women”). Again, our Scripture in 1 Cor. 14 could have been translated “wives” instead of “women”. Are we to imagine that since the wives are to “be silent in the Assemblies” that single women are to take part? Granted, verse 35 speaks of husbands: “and if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands”—yet this verse could quite easily have been translated with “men” substituted for “husbands”. It could mean a son, an uncle, or grandfather—in short any responsible male in the woman’s household.
Another Scripture, Titus 2: 3, 4, where the elder women are to “teach” the younger has been brought forward as proof that women can teach publicly in Assembly—yet the whereabouts of this teaching here detailed is unspecified. It could quite possibly take place at home. Similarly 1 Cor. 11: 5 speaks of women praying and prophesying— but this need not be in the Assembly! Philip’s four daughters, whilst able to prophesy outside the meeting, would have been disorderly if attempting to speak within it, (Acts 21: 9): Indeed most of the spiritual gifts outlined in Scripture could be possessed by a woman—but that is not the issue! What we are dealing with is whether these same gifts could be publicly exercised when the Assembly came together! It has been observed that women were employed as the first heralds to announce the Lord’s resurrection. Granted, but they were never commissioned to preach to the world about it! We know that Mary was sent by the Lord to tell His disciples of His approaching ascension. We know that the women were commissioned by the angel to advise the eleven of the empty tomb and that they discharged their mission faithfully. We know that the Lord appeared to them on their way to the city, and entrusted them with a message to His brethren. Yet we do not receive the authoritative announcement of that wonderful event on the word of women. It was gracious that, since Eve was the first who gave ear to the Serpent, women should be the first to announce the Lord’s victory over death; but in 1 Cor. 15 all mention of their testimony is omitted, and the proof of His resurrection is made to rest on what Cephas, James, others and last of all, Paul saw. Is not this silence about the women expressive? Was it forgetfulness on the part of Paul, or design on the part of the Spirit of God?
That women are to refrain from public speaking in Assembly should not in any way be taken to imply that women are inferior to men. A woman is no more inferior to a man than a wife is to her husband. It is rather a question of different roles. Indeed it is abundantly evident that in many cases women are spiritually superior to men: witness the woman with the alabaster box of ointment, (Matt. 26: 7–8), or Rhoda, (Acts 12: 13–15), who completely outshone supposedly more illustrious males. I repeat, the issue is not a question of worth but of roles. It would, for instance, be inconceivable for the Son or the Holy Spirit to send the Father, yet none but a cultist would deny their equality with Him. Public speaking, whether teaching or leading in prayer, involves authority, and Scripture plainly teaches that it is wrong for a woman to exert authority over a man. Lest there be any doubt over the meaning of this word “authority”, Paul there reminds us of the most tragic incident of a woman exercising authority over a man: Eve taking the lead in the garden of Eden with disastrous results, (1 Tim. 2: 12).
The role of women in public is to be in quietness. (As a point of fact, it is only a small proportion of the men that are so gifted for regular public ministry “in Assembly”, and it is only those men that are moved by the Holy Spirit that are free to say anything there.) Woman’s role is of equal value to that of the man, but its nature is private rather than public.
Finally what of the Scripture in Galatians: “there is no male and female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”, (3: 28)? Notice it does not say “in the Assembly” but “in Christ Jesus”. In “Christ Jesus” is the privilege side—we are all sons for instance. In “the Assembly” refers to our responsible position down here—and here we are not all equal. All are not evangelists, all are not teachers, (Eph. 4: 11), similarly the distinctive roles of male and female are maintained in Scripture, (1 Cor. 14: 34, 35). Let us make our theology fit Scripture, and not Scripture our theology!