May a Woman Ask a Question?

By Wayne Jackson

“May a woman ask questions in a Bible class consisting of both men and women? If she may, how is this to be harmonized with Paul’s command that the Christian woman ‘keep silence’ in the church (1 Cor. 14:34)?”

First, one needs to define the meaning of “silence,” as that term is used in the Bible generally, and then as it is employed in 1 Corinthians 14 in particular. The Greek term is sigao, and it is a word which has never demanded an absolute, unqualified silence. Rather, the nature of the silence is determined by the context in which the expression is used.

The verb sigao is found infrequently in the Bible (some 19 times in the Greek Old Testament, and less than a dozen times in the New Testament). A careful examination of the term reveals that the context identifies the nature of the “silence” under consideration.

For instance, when the Israelites, pursued by the Egyptians, arrived at the Red Sea, they were terrified; they complained of their plight to Moses. He told them that Jehovah would fight for them, but they were to “hold [their] peace,” i.e., be silent (Ex. 14:14). That obviously did not mean that they were forbidden to speak at all; rather, they were to cease their faithless whimpering.

When David described certain hardships in his life as a result of his weaknesses – and the fact that he had “kept silence” under the burden (Psa. 32:3) – he was not speaking of general silence, but silence regarding his sin. He had failed to acknowledge it with due dispatch.

After the disciples witnessed the transfiguration scene, they “held their peace,” i.e., remained silent (Lk. 9:36). That does not mean they did not talk at all. Rather, they did not discuss with others what they had seen on the mountain.

We now direct our attention to 1 Corinthians 14. The verb sigao is three times used in this chapter.

One who has the gift of tongues is to keep silence if he has no interpreter to use in conjunction with an audience of a different language (28).

If a brother is speaking, and another brother receives a more current revelation from God, the former speaker is to keep silence (30). These prohibitions demand silence only in the matters being discussed. They do not forbid these men to speak in a forum which is otherwise consistent with their divine obligations. Surely these men could sing, lead a prayer, or otherwise exhort any audience which could understand their speech.

Finally, women are to keep silence (34). This does not demand that a woman be absolutely silent at church; otherwise she could not even sing, for she surely “speaks” when she sings (see Eph. 5:18-19).

Rather, in harmony with what the apostle taught elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:12), the woman is not to speak or teach in any way that violates her gender role. She is not to occupy the position of a public teacher in such a capacity as to stand before the church and function as the teacher (or co-teacher) of the group. In assuming this official capacity, she has stepped beyond her authorized sphere, and she violates scriptural principle.

When a woman is granted permission to ask a question, and she does so with modesty and with the proper respect for her teacher, there is nothing on earth wrong with her framing that inquiry. Does anyone imagine that just because a student poses a question in class, or makes a comment, in the public school system, that he or she has somehow usurped the role of the teacher?

But let us anticipate an objection. Some, who have not understood the context of 1 Corinthians 14, and who have taken this matter to an unwarranted extreme, i.e., alleging that the woman may not make a comment at all or ask a question, contend that the text specifically says that if the woman would learn anything, she must ask her husband at home.

If this extreme, literalistic view is valid, the following conclusions surely must follow.

The woman must resolve not to “learn anything” during a church meeting, for that is what the text says.

If she were unmarried, she could then learn nothing at all – ever – for she would have no husband from whom to learn at home. If, therefore, she has a desire to learn, she must marry, or forever remain in ignorance. The conclusion is absurd, because the argument is invalid.

The overall context – of this concluding portion of 1 Corinthians 14 – suggests that there was a definite problem in the Corinthian church, and it had to do with aggressive women. Some of these Corinthian sisters were asserting themselves, speaking out in such a manner as to challenge the role of the male public teachers. Under the guise of wanting information, they likely were asking pointed questions that were designed to put the service-leaders on the defensive.

Whatever the manifestation of their conduct was, it was contrary to the principle enunciated by the apostle in his more comprehensive treatment of the subject, as found in his first letter to Timothy (2:12ff) (see our discussion of this passage in the “Feature”, ""The Role of Woman"," (June, 2000). See also my commentary, Before I Die – Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus.

Remember this. The Scriptures must be viewed as harmonious. It is not a legitimate method of interpretation to array the inspired documents against one another.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.