1 Corinthians 14:34 – “Silence” in the Church
A number of years ago, a faction arose within the church which argued that it is sinful for women to teach the Bible to children in the class arrangement when the church comes together. This practice, they alleged, violates Paul’s instruction for women to “keep silence” in the churches (1 Cor. 14:34).
Some of our old debaters responded to this argument in this fashion. They contended that the Greek word
sigao (“keep silence”) demanded absolute silence — not a sound. Since such a prohibition would be inconsistent with injunctions regarding regular meetings of the church, e.g., singing, they reasoned that 1 Corinthians 14:34 did not pertain to normal church meetings, hence, this context must not be applicable in our time. By such reasoning they felt they avoided a conflict with 1 Corinthians 14:34.
Some today are making this same argument — but with a different purpose. They want an expanded role for the woman in the assembly. But they, likewise, see 1 Corinthians 14:34 as an obstacle; hence, the context is again dismissed as irrelevant. The argument was unsound in the past (regardless of the respectable names associated with it) and it is equally erroneous today.
The entire case hinges upon the meaning of the Greek verb
sigao. This word never did demand an absolute, unqualified silence. Rather, the nature of the silence is determined by the context.
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; they thus 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 — as he “kept silence” (Psa. 32:3) — he was not speaking of general silence, but silence regarding his sin.
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.
Now to 1 Corinthians 14. The verb
sigao is used three times in this chapter.
(1) One who has the gift of tongues is to keep silence if he has no interpreter to use with his alien audience (28).
(2) If a brother is speaking, and another receives a more current revelation, the former is to keep silence (30).
(3) Finally, women are to keep silence (34).
The first two prohibitions demand silence only in the matters being discussed. They do not forbid these men to otherwise speak consistent with their divine obligations.
This does not demand that a woman be absolutely silent at church. 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 a group containing adult men. In assuming this official capacity, she has stepped beyond her authorized sphere, and she violates scripture.
Thus, mark “silence” in verse 34. Draw arrows back to verses 28, 30, and note: Silence not absolute, but qualified by context.
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.