Let women speak (Part Three)… They’ve been taught to be silent

As a complementarian, I believe that men and women have been created equally but have been given different roles in the church and in the home. Therefore, as a complementarian who takes the Bible seriously I want to honour what it teaches. This series started in 2019 with this post, it was a result of me realising afresh that women weren’t being given the opportunities that they should be given to speak in Christian circles. I reposted the blog on my social media a few weeks back and was asked to expand on some of the reasons why women probably don’t speak much. I gave three reasons…

  1. Women haven’t been asked to speak
  2. Women have been taught that they must always be silent
  3. Women might think that they can’t contribute anything worthwhile.

So let’s dig into that second reason…

Over the years, and in various denominations, women have been taught that they must always be silent. This can look different depending on the context of the church. On one extreme it literally means that women will not speak or be able to so anything at all in church, maybe even not being allowed in the same room as men. On the other side it might look like women only being able to serve in practical ways like looking after the kids or making tea.

The idea that women should be silent in churches is most prominently based on a section of 1 Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 it says “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

From a plain reading of this text, some Christians and some churches have come to the conclusion that a woman should not speak at all in a church service. If the reasoning of such saints is genuinely to follow the Bible wholeheartedly, then that must be commended. Their heart behind their conviction might be right. However, I must say that I disagree with women being told that they must always have sealed lips in church services. Why?

  1. 1 Corinthians 11:5 suggests that there were women who were praying and prophesying in the church. Therefore, Paul cannot be arguing that women must always be silent, because he previously expects women to speak. To argue that women must be silent from 1 Corinthians 14 is a contradiction of 1 Corinthians 11 and other parts of the Bible.
  2. Peter speaks of the work of the Spirit in the New Covenant, referencing Joel 2, in Acts 2:17 where it says that “your daughters will prophesy...” and therefore, Peter (and Joel) agree with Paul that women have a role to play in the public life of the church.

What Paul seems to be teaching about in 1 Corinthians is that a church service should be orderly and 14:33-35 is speaking specifically about women having questions of a prophecy that has been said. Those questions should be asked privately to her husband at home, not because they aren’t important, but because her husband is the spiritual head of the home (Ephesians 5:23-28).

I have said this before, I am a complemenatrian. That means that I think the role of an elder and the public teaching of God’s Word is reserved for men who have been called by God and affirmed by a church to be fit for the role. However, this does not mean that women do not have a voice and actually robbing women of their voice, by telling them to be silent, is a terrible thing to do.

Why is this such an issue?

  1. Telling women to be silent in churches is not biblical (as we’ve just seen)
    I think that the case for biblical complementarity is strong, but telling women to be silent is not biblical complementarity. Let’s not be too quick to forget how the Lord used women in the Bible. For example Mary’s song in Luke 1, Anna in Luke 2, Phoebe in Romans 16, Priscilla in Acts 18 and Romans 16, Lydia in Acts 16, to name a few.
  2. Telling women to be silent in churches robs the whole body of the opportunity to hear from many saint (probably more than half of the church)
    I can think of so many older ladies who have been in this context for many years and they don’t feel that they can share their experiences or serve the Lord in any spiritual way in the church because of this damaging silence culture. It is heartbreaking to think that we have faithful believers, who have done wonderful things for the Lord but who feel unable to speak because of their sex.
  3. Telling women to be silent in churches assumes that men know better
    I believe that the Bible is clear that men should be the leaders and teachers in the church. But, women also need to be able to input and equip others too. Let women input into your sermon prep, into your Bible study, in your Bible discussion and learn from their Spirit given wisdom and discernment. Build women up to teach and equip other women. Create a culture whereby women feel comfortable and able to speak. Actively encourage it. Whilst men have been called to teach and lead, and I don’t think that this is to happen in isolation. We are a whole body who should learn from each other. A person’s gender does not mean that they have inferior knowledge about God and His Word. Telling women to be silent in churches is a form of over the top complementarity which thinks (or at least acts in such a way) that men are better than women, something that is not found in the Bible at all.

So how do we change this problem?

  1. Teach on it!
    Preach 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. Preach Ephesians 5. Preach 1 Timothy 2. See the problem and have confidence in God’s Word to tackle it head on. When faithful women in the Bible come up, preach on them faithfully and don’t let your theology chaperons the text, let the Bible shape your theology. But it goes beyond the pulpit too. Actively speak about it and live it out.
  2. Do it!
    Get women involved. Invite women to pray and read and do other things in church and teach as you go. Remember that the list of what women should be doing in church is much longer than the list of what they shouldn’t (I may do another post on this in the future, but no promises!). If they say they don’t want to because of the ‘be silent’ passages, meet them and talk about it.
  3. Rebuke it!
    When you see this culture being played out in a church, confront it. Graciously, obviously. This is part of the every day job of pastors, elders and Christians, make sure that what you’re saying and hearing is true and in line with the Bible. Do not put up with things that are not right. This also means shutting down wrong and sexist comments and jokes. Our whole lives should reflect the Bible’s teaching, not just our Sunday mornings.

There is plenty more that could be said on this topic, but I have to stop somewhere. Churches should be places that encourage and enable women to speak and serve the Lord in the way that He has gifted them to. Telling women to be silent is robbing them of that opportunity and is a disservice to the Lord.

2 thoughts on “Let women speak (Part Three)… They’ve been taught to be silent

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