Should Women Function as Translators in the Assembly?

By Wayne Jackson

With the fall of the iron curtain, thrilling evangelistic opportunities have opened up in Russia and Eastern Europe. Our hearts have been genuinely warmed as the news reached our ears that thousands have embraced the gospel of Christ and have organized congregations after the New Testament order. May Jehovah bless such efforts, and may we lend our support to these new kinsmen in the Lord.

Whenever the church is introduced into a new cultural environment, problems are bound to arise. Such were the circumstances during the first century, and it is no less true today. One difficulty that we are encountering in formerly communist nations has to do with the role of women. In those countries women have long been a force in the educational and industrial aspects of society. They have assumed a great variety of leading roles. Accordingly, it may be difficult for some of our new sisters to adjust to the idea that woman’s public role in the church is limited. The divinely imposed restriction is grounded in spiritual principles that are universal and ageless, not in cultural peculiarities.

As our brothers have worked in Eastern Bloc countries in recent years, they occasionally have encountered situations in which no male was present to translate for the American preacher. Accordingly, some have employed native women who, standing alongside the evangelist before the assembly, translates his message for the group. I have been told that on occasion a woman was selected to do the interpreting even when a qualified man was present. I have no doubt that those who are operating in this way are very sincere and honestly believe that they are not compromising the teaching of the Scriptures. But are they? Perhaps the pressing demands of these new opportunities caught us unprepared, without our having had the opportunity to study these matters as carefully as we might. This study is offered in the hope that we can calmly examine the biblical data and draw only such conclusions as are consistent with truth.

That women were employed as teachers of the gospel in the early church is beyond controversy. No one will dispute the fact that the Great Commission applies to women, who are required not only to submit to the gospel, but to proclaim it as well (Matt. 28:19,20). On the day of Pentecost, Peter hinted of woman’s teaching role in the Christian economy (Acts 2:18). Priscilla, along with her husband Aquila, was involved in instructing the eloquent Apollos more accurately in the way of the Lord (Acts 18:26). The evangelist Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Women in the church at Corinth prophesied (1 Cor. 11:5). Older Christian women were responsible to teach younger women the duties of domestic demeanor (Tit. 2:3,4). Women taught.

While the foregoing passages indicate that women functioned as teachers in the primitive church, it is equally clear that their instructive capacity was restricted by additional inspired information. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul required that women, in a certain sense, remain quiet in the church assembly (34). In the apostle’s first letter to Timothy, he declared that the woman may not teach in a situation during which she acts as an authority-figure over the man (2:12). For a further discussion of this matter, see the author’s article, “Woman’s Role in the Church” in our “Archives” section.

First Corinthians, chapter 14, has frequently presented a difficulty for Bible expositors. To what extent does it prohibit a woman speaking in a church assembly? Some, focusing upon the term “silence” (sigao – vs. 34) contend that the assembly under consideration is one in which a woman could not utter a sound. It was, they allege, a unique first-century situation, hence the restriction of this passage really is not applicable today.

These brethren, I believe, have overlooked an important point. The term “silence” of verse 34 is not employed absolutely, but relatively; i.e., it is qualified by the context. For example, in his discussion of the abuses of spiritual gifts, Paul says that the brother who has the gift of tongues should keep “silence” if there is no one to interpret for his alien audience (28). That obviously does not mean that he could not utter a word during the entire church service; rather, he was to keep silence insofar as the matter under consideration was concerned (cf. 30).

Similarly, the woman’s requirement to keep silence was not absolute. There was only a certain sense in which she was not to “speak.” No one will argue that the women at Corinth were forbidden to sing, and yet singing is a form of speaking (see Eph. 5:19).

Some respond by suggesting that the assembly of this setting was not the public worship assembly. That does not seem to be true, however, since teaching, praying, and singing are all mentioned within the context (cf. 14:15).

Furthermore, reference is made to “the whole church” being assembled (cf. 11:18,20) — with even unbelievers being present (23). It is obvious that this was a public assembly. But consider this — even if it could be established that the meeting of 1 Corinthians 14 was not a public gathering, how would this alter the basic instruction? If the apostle forbade a woman to teach in this allegedly private situation, does it stand to reason that he would condone her serving as a teacher in a public gathering? Surely not.

Moreover, even if one could somehow dispense with 1 Corinthians 14, he would still have to reckon with 1 Timothy 2:12, which disallows a woman to assume the role of a teacher in the assembly.

What then does the injunction regarding silence mean in the Corinthian context? Many scholars would argue that Paul is teaching these saints the very same truth that he later enunciated to Timothy.

Here is an interpretive principle that is worthy of reflection. Whenever a biblical writer addresses the same topic in different places, and yet one context is clearer than the other, the more obscure should be viewed in light of the plainer.

When 1 Corinthians 14:34ff and 1 Timothy 2:12ff are placed side-by-side, it is obvious that they deal with the same general theme. The Corinthian correspondence is the more difficult to comprehend due to its lack of details. Thus, let the apostle’s more lucid instruction in his letter to Timothy bring the former passage into focus. There are striking similarities in the language.

1 CORINTHIANS 14

1 TIMOTHY 2

Woman not to speakWoman not to teach

Keep silence/subjectionBe quiet/subjection

As saith the lawFor Adam was first

A consideration of these parallels suggests that the type of speaking forbidden in the Corinthian letter was the same as the authoritative teaching prohibited in the epistle to Timothy.

That being the case, it appears that Paul was cautioning the Corinthian women in two respects: First, some were to cease interrupting their husbands during the services (perhaps they were inquiring as to the meaning of certain oracles; they could satisfy their curiosity at home).

Second, even if a woman possessed a spiritual gift, she could not publicly exercise it in the church assembly, for such violated her appointed role in the divine constitution of things, as evidenced by the order of creation, and as a consequence of her part in humanity’s original transgression (cf. 1 Tim. 2:13,14).

Now to the issue at hand. Does standing before the assembly, translating a message from God, constitute a violation of 1 Corinthians 14?

In this chapter, Paul discusses three spiritual gifts by which divine revelation was conveyed to the congregation.

First, there was prophecy. This was the proclamation of truth to a group of the same language as the speaker.

Second, there was the gift of speaking in a tongue. This involved the supernatural communication of revelation to an alien audience, the teacher having been granted the ability to converse in a language he had never learned naturally.

Finally, there was the gift of interpretation (translation). This allowed a person with a language gift to convey a message (by means of an inspired translator) to an audience unable to discern the particular language gift which he possessed.

What seems apparent from a consideration of all the details is this. Each of these persons addressing the congregation functioned in the capacity of a public teacher — whether by a message in the native dialect alone (as in prophecy), or by a message in a foreign language (the case of tongue-speaking), or by a message, a language, and a translation combined (the interpreter).

There seems to be no difference, from the divine viewpoint, in the teaching role being exercised by these speakers. Yet, it is within this very context that the apostle plainly commands: “… let the women keep silence in the churches [assemblies] ….”

If it was permissible for a woman to stand before the church and teach by means of the translation process, just because the message did not actually originate with her, but rather from a man ultimately, why did Paul not acknowledge that exception in his discussion?

Defensive Arguments

But some brethren -respectable brethren- believe the use of women translators is defensible. The following is a review of some of the arguments being offered in support of this practice.

“The woman translator is merely serving as an instrument-much like an amplifier. She is not actually doing the teaching.”

But the fact is, she is not a machine. She is a person, and she does not lose her feminine personhood just because the message does not emanate from her.

Could a woman stand before an audience, receive her message from a distant place via electronic transmission, and preach the gospel to a mixed group? If not, what would be the objection?

Here is an interesting question. Could a Christian woman memorize one of N.B. Hardeman’s famous tabernacle sermons, deliver it to the church, and be justified on the ground that the material did not originate with her — that she was merely functioning as a “recording machine”?

Exactly what is “teaching”? Does it not involve communicating an understandable message? Two people stand before an audience — a man and a woman. He speaks in a language the people do not understand; she conveys the message in a language that is understood. Who is doing the teaching? Not the man alone. A mere sound does not teach. It was on the basis of this principle that Paul forbade tongue-speaking to an alien audience when no translator was present. If the woman stops speaking, the teaching ceases. In concert, both are teaching. Paul attributes the edification to the interpreter (14:5,12,13,26-28). An interpreter instructs (cf. 19).

In logic there is a principle that states that things which are equal to each other are equal to the same thing. If it is the case that the man speaking to the assembly is preaching, and if it is likewise the case that the woman beside him is doing exactly the same thing that he is doing, then it logically follows that she is preaching as well.

Or to make the point even stronger — if it is the case that the man who speaks to the audience is preaching (even though the group understands not a word he says), then surely it is the case that the woman who speaks beside him (with the assembly understanding every word she says) is similarly preaching.

“The woman translator is not exercising authority over the audience.”

But if it is the case that she is functioning in the role of a teacher of the group (as the paragraph above clearly indicates), then she is exercising the type of authority that is prohibited by 1 Timothy 2:12. The grammatical construction of this passage demonstrates that the position of a public teacher is a role of authority.

Consider this analogy. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It was the authoritative Word of God in that form. Does it lose that authority merely because it passes through the translation process? It does not. Similarly, a mere change of language does not alter the fact that both the original speaker and the translator are teaching in the same authoritative way.

“If a translator is actually a teacher, when we hire a non-Christian translator (as has been the case in some mission situations), then we are hiring an unbeliever to preach the gospel.”

This is a valid point. The question is — is either practice right? When Paul discussed a situation in the Corinthian assembly where someone had the gift of tongues, but no interpreter was present, he told the tongue-speaker to keep silent. He did not suggest that some unbeliever, who might be present (cf. 14:23,28), could be employed as the translator if he were qualified.

When we go into a mission field, we need to go prepared to speak the gospel in the native language. Would it be permissible to go into a mission region, hire a non-Christian translator, leave with him printed materials, and tell him to do the teaching for us?

“Though Paul’s restriction of a woman’s speaking in the church assembly would prohibit the ‘interpretation’ of a language, it would not forbid simple translation. Interpretation and translation are different.”

The Greek term hermeneuo, and its related forms, are used in two different senses in the New Testament. The word can denote an “explanation.”

Following His resurrection, Jesus encountered two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In the course of their conversation, the Lord “interpreted” (explained) to them the things that had been written concerning Himself in the law of Moses and the prophets (Lk. 24:27).

On the other hand, these kindred terms can have to do with the “translation” of words from one language into another. For instance, at Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which by “interpretation” (i.e., translation – from Aramaic to Greek) was rendered Dorcas (Acts 9:36). The context must determine whether an “explanation” or a “translation” is in view.

Clearly, in 1 Corinthians 14 the gift of “interpretation” was the inspired ability to translate a divine message, initially given in a foreign tongue, into the vernacular of the audience. This is clearly evidenced by Paul’s allusion to the many kinds of voices in the world (10), and his reference to the barbarian (a non-Greek-speaking person) in verse 11 (cf. Acts 28:2). I have discussed the nature of these tongues more fully in my tract, Speaking in Tongues.

Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider note that:

“Paul demands that tongue speakers express themselves in the assembly only when an hermeneutes is present and able to translate and make intelligible to the congregation what has been said in the tongues” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1991, Vol. 2, p. 54).

I have examined a number of language authorities on the use of “interpretation” in 1 Corinthians 14. Those who suggest that the term is employed of “explanation” invariably contend that the “tongues” of this chapter are “ecstatic utterances” — not human languages. And so, when the apostle enjoins a woman to silence, it is within a context that includes audible translation.

“The context of 1 Corinthians 14, which forbade a woman to speak, dealt with the miraculous. It is thus not appropriate to introduce that situation as a precedent for the present circumstances.”

The fact that the speaking in 1 Corinthians 14 was miraculous has nothing to do with the argument. A woman’s silence is enjoined because of her gender, not the miraculous nature of what is done. Are we to believe that the apostle would forbid an inspired woman to exercise the gifts mentioned in chapter 14 (which included translation), and yet he would allow the practice for an uninspired woman of our day? Does that really ring true?

“If we can utilize a woman to ‘sign’ for the deaf, then we can employ a woman to translate for the preacher.”

First, in some situations, “signing” may not be parallel to publicly preaching the word. A woman might sit silently, sign to a few nearby folks, and the arrangement be more comparable to an informal conversation.

Second, if there is a parallel between public teaching (as in the translating procedure) and signing, and the former is shown to be inappropriate, then signing should be limited to men. Two wrongs do not make a right.

What if there were a congregation composed of those who can hear and those who are deaf. The only qualified preacher in that church is a deaf brother, and the only person qualified to interpret sign is a woman. Can the brother sign to one group while the sister audibly preaches to the remainder of the church? If those who are advancing this argument would object, they must analyze why such should not be done.

“If we do not use women translators, many will be deprived of the gospel.”

The same argument could be made regarding women preachers. Suppose there is a mission region ripe for the gospel, and the only available person to go is a woman. Can she preach, establish a church, and direct its worship simply because there is no man to carry on these functions?

Again, we need to fully prepare to do the work upon which we have embarked. We must not compromise the truth in order that good may abound.

Some are saying: “If there is no man to do the work, I don’t see the harm in it.” If it is intrinsically right for a woman to serve in this capacity, then it is right for her to do it regardless of whether there are qualified men to do the work.

“When we engage in ‘part singing’ within our assemblies, sometimes the women have parts where they alone are singing. This is comparable to the woman translator circumstance.”

The analogy is false. The woman who is singing has not assumed the “teacher” role over the male (as addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12). Paul did not forbid women to sing in his letter to Corinth, but he did prohibit them from speaking in a context where translating was being discussed (1 Cor. 14:15,33,34).

That aside, this is the very argument that some have used in defense of women preachers in general, and more recently it has been employed to justify women singing solos in the worship assembly.

“The woman-translator is doing no more than the lady who comes to the front of the assembly and confesses Christ prior to baptism.”

Surely this cannot be a serious argument. Suppose a woman responds to the invitation and states her desire to become a Christian. The preacher asks: “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”

She responds: “I do, and with your permission, I have prepared a presentation — which will not take more than thirty minutes. It expresses the nature of biblical faith as I see it. May I speak to the church?”

What do you suppose his response would be? There is a clear difference between making a simple confession of faith and functioning in the role of a teacher.

Conclusion

Brethren who are working in foreign fields need to give this matter some protracted study. We do not question their motives. They are sincere and dedicated people. We understand the situation of being caught in a novel arrangement without having had the opportunity to carefully analyze the circumstances and make a more deliberate decision. Still, we must be scriptural.

The practice of using women translators in the public assembly should be reconsidered for the following reason.

  1. It is without scriptural authority.
  2. It transgresses explicit apostolic instruction (1 Cor. 14:33,34; 1 Tim. 2:12).
  3. The practice will create dissension among sound brethren.
  4. It is setting a precedent that will escalate and have long-range consequences in the mission field and at home. Already we have heard of cases where women have taken the initiative to lead prayers and singing because they felt they were the best qualified.

May God help us to give serious and prayerful consideration to these matters.

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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.