Women’s Limitations In Worship

By Joe D. Schubert

That women played a significant role in the work and worship of the first century church is apparent from a casual reading of the New Testament.

In the first decade of the history of the church, there were many women who became members, and, by the time of the first scattering of believers from Jerusalem, Christian women are mentioned as particular objects of persecution (Acts 8:3). Acts 18 tells of Priscilla who, along with her husband Aquila, were valued teachers in the early church, teachers who led the eloquent Apollos to a fuller knowledge of the truth. The four daughters of Philip were well-known in the church because of their gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). and in I Corinthians 11:5 Christian women who prayed or prophesied were instructed to do so with heads veiled. Euodia and Syntyche, in spite of their quarrel, were women who, in Paul’s words, “labored side by side with me in the gospel” (Phil. 4:3). The aged women were to teach the younger women (Tit. 2:3,4). Romans 16 mentions the names of several women who were workers In the church, among whom was the deaconess Phoebe, a close working associate of Paul (Rom. 6: 1,2),

But if it is apparent that women were an active part of the life and worship of the early church, it is equally apparent that the Bible sets forth some regulations and limitations on women’s activity in the church. It is these limitations that are the concern of this paper.

The two main passages that speak of women’s limitations in worship are I Corinthians 14:34,35 and I Timothy 2: 11,12. Let us look at each of these in turn. I Corinthians 14:34,35 reads as follows:

The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted To speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

In order to understand the intent of this passage, it is important to notice the context. The subject being discussed in chapters 12, 13 and 14 of I Corinthians is spiritual gifts. The indication is that in the Corinth congregation there was much abuse of the spiritual gifts of tongues, interpretations, prophesies and revelations. To eliminate this confusion and to provide assurance of doing all things “decently and in order” (14:40), Paul sets forth certain rules. He says first of all: “Let all things be done for edification” (14, 26). Secondly, “if any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret” (14:27). Thirdly, “if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence” (14:28). Fourthly, “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (14: 29). Fifthly, “if a revelation is made to another sitting by, let them first be silent” (14:30~. Finally, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak” (14:33,34). Women were: not to interfere with the speaker or disturb them by so much as asking a question “for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (14:35).

It is clear that the instructions in this passage are limited in application to a formal public assembly of the church. Verse 23 says, “If therefore the whole church assembles.” Verse 26: “When you come together.” Verse 28: “in church..” Verse 34: “The women should keep silence in the churches.” Verse 35: “It is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Paul says that, in the formal assemblies of the church, speaking by women is forbidden. The apostle adds that this rule applies, not only to Corinth, but to “all the churches” (14:33).

It seems that in the early church it was customary to ask questions at the public assemblies, but in this passage women are forbidden even to ask questions at such gatherings. “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home” (14:35).

Lenski observes that Paul conceives the congregation as being composed of families in which the women have their family connections, husbands, brothers, fathers, etc. The exceptional case of a lone woman without male connections of any nature in the church is not considered in the formulation of a general directive. There is no need to add in order to meet such exceptions: “Let such inquire of the elders or friends.”l

It is argued by some that since the assembly under consideration in I Corinthians 14 was an assembly for the exercising of spiritual gifts, and thus was not the Lord’s Day worship as we know it at all, that the prohibitions expressed have “no application today.”2

While it is most certainly true that the assembly in this passage was a “spiritual gifts assembly,” it would seem that the principles would still apply to any formal assembly of the whole church.

Perhaps what I Corinthians 14 does not forbid is more impressive than what it does. It does not forbid a woman’s speaking or teaching in situations other than when the whole church is assembled together. It does not forbid her teaching or asking questions in a Bible class provided she does not violate any other Biblical principle in so doing. It has also been universally understood that, even in the assembly, a woman is free to sing or to confess her faith in Christ, as both of these actions are specific commands elsewhere in the New Testament (Jn. 3:16; Matt. 10:32). But the general rule is clear: ”The women should keep silence in the churches.”

Some have seen in the reference to Philip’s four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9) and in the passage in I Corinthians 11:5 (“But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head”) an indication that women did pray and prophesy in the public assemblies of the church. Although apparently referring to public activities of prayer and prophecy by women, neither of these references connect this activity with the public assembly of the church. It can be assumed that whatever prophesying was done by Philip’s daughters or by the Corinthian women with covered heads, was done in such a way as not to violate the prohibitions of I Corinthians 14.

Before leaving this passage, let us notice that Paul states that even the Law of Moses taught that woman should be subordinate: “The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says” (14:34). Woman became subordinate to man after the Fall. Genesis 3:16 had stated: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This subjection became a part of God’s natural law along with the curse placed on the ground and against man. These three consequences of the Fall will continue to be binding as long as the natural order of things exist. During the Old Testament times, there were some exceptions to this principle of woman’s subjection, e.g. Deborah’s judge-ship of Israel.

Let us turn our attention now to the second major passage relating to women’s limitations in worship: I Timothy 2: 11, 12: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over man; she is to keep silent.”

The specific statement in verse eight that men should pray “in even place” is seen by Spain as referring to public gatherings of the church.3It is true that this same phrase in other passages (e.g. I Corinthians 1:2) does seem to carry the meaning of every place where a congregation meets, the I Timothy 2 passage cannot be limited solely to the public assemblies of the church; Paul undoubtedly had the church assembly in mind, but the general nature of the exhortations indicates he also had other situations in mind as well. The use of the specific word for men (aner) in verse eight simply means that men rather than women are intended to take the lead in prayer.

What, then, are the limitations on women imposed by this passage? First, consider some things the passage cannot teach. Paul cannot be saying that it is wrong for a woman to teach, because the same apostle, in Titus 2: 3,4 commands older women to teach younger women. Philip’s four daughters who prophesied would also be in violation of this verse if it means that a woman cannot teach at all. Further more, the passage cannot mean that a woman is forbidden to teach a man, for the case of Priscilla’s teaching Apollos in Acts 18 indicates that in some instances even this can be done. It is true that Priscilla was assisted in this teaching by her husband, Aquila, but the scriptures explicitly says, “they took him and expounded to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Thus, there are some situations wherein a woman can teach a man. Neither can the passage mean that a woman cannot teach publicly, for Paul’s directives to the Corinthian women to be veiled when they prayed or prophesied would be meaningless unless the women had been in the presence of others who would see and hear them (I Cor. 11:5j. Any interpretation of I Timothy 2:12 must be consistent with these other scriptural examples. What, then, is Paul prohibiting in this passage?

The key to understanding the verse correctly is to recognize that Paul here is concerned again with the subordinate position of women to men. He is prohibiting a woman from engaging in any activity which would put her in a dominant role over the man. She is forbidden to teach under any condition which would put her in a dominant role over the man. This would be sinful for it would repudiate the principle of subjection. Lenski argues from the Greek construction that the two prohibitions in the verse, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men” are not independent of each other, but that the latter phrase explains the reason behind the former.

He writes:

If this statement were positive it would be followed by an explicative kai; since it is negative, we have explicative houde, for “neither to exercise authority over a man” states the point involved in the forbidding “to teach . . .”4

In many situations, then, a woman may teach, but in no situation where she will “have authority over” a man by her teaching. She must always remain in subjection to man.

This understanding of the passage is consistent with the other approved examples in the New Testament of women’s teaching. It is obvious, for example that Priscilla in her teaching of Apollos did not “have authority over” him or dominate him. By teaching Apollos privately, and in cooperation with her husband, she was careful to honor the principle of subjection. Dr. Thomas’ observations are well-put when he states:

All of this means, that women can scripturally teach-they can teach other women and children, and even in careful situations where there is no usurpation of authority, a woman can teach a man! These two passages, then, do not prohibit women teachers! The only prohibition on women teachers is in teaching men, and that in situations where they would have dominion and authority and psychological control of the situation and where the principle of subjection of women to men would be repudiated.5

Some object to this interpretation on the grounds that the passage states that a woman is to “learn in silence” (verse 12) and to “keep silent” (verse 13).

They see the word “silence” as an absolute prohibition of any speaking at all on the part of the woman. Not only does the word “silence” in this passage not have this meaning, but, if it did, it would prohibit a woman’s speaking anywhere in any learning situation at home or anywhere else, because this passage cannot be limited in application to church assemblies. It is general in its nature. However, the Greek word for “silence” in this passage, hesuchia, refers, not to the absence of speaking, put to an attitude, a spirit, a disposition, and is more properly translated “quietness” as in the ASV.6

This is the same word used in Timothy 2:2 to describe the quiet and peaceful life, and in 2 Thessalonians 3: 12 urging Christians to walk in quietness. Incidentally, this is a different word from the one rendered “silence” in I Corinthians 14:34. There the term is a form of siago, which does properly mean absolute silence.

Perhaps it should also’be observed that the Greek authentein, “to have authority over”, denotes authority over another in general, and not simply usurped authority as the rendering in the KJV seems to indicate. Women are prohibited from having, authority over men, whether that authority is usurped by them or delegated to them. It cannot be argued, for example, that a woman could preach if she were authorized to do so by the elders. While in such a situation she might not be guilty of ”usurping” authority, she would still be guilty of “having” authority over men because a preacher is commanded in the New Testament to speak “with all authority” (Tit. 2: 15). This is why a woman cannot be a preacher, even- if I Corinthians 14 did not forbid her speaking in the assembly.

Paul concludes his passage on women’s limitations in I Timothy 2 by showing that the woman’s position of’ ubmissiveness is bound by God for two fundamental reasons: (1)”Adam was formed first, then Eve” (2:13). The very chronological order of creation proves that the man was to be over the woman. (2) Paul’s second reason is the fall. “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became .a transgressor” (2:14), This should indicate that the subordinate position of the woman cannot be considered as simply a Jewish custom, but rather that it is rooted in the very’ nature of the sexes and was put there by God Himself.

To sum up, the New Testament passages limiting women’s participation in worship lead us to the following conclusions:

1. Except to obey the specific commands to sing and to confess faith in Jesus, a woman is forbidden to speak in the formal assemblies of the whole Church (l Corinthians 14: 34).

2. In no situation is a woman to speak or act in such a way as to be in a place of authority over a man (I Tim. 2:12).

3. A woman, however, may teach (I Cor. 11: 5).

4. She may teach other women and children (Tit. 2:3,4).

5. She may teach a man in a situation where she does not have authority over him (Acts 18:26; 1 Tim. 2: 12).

6. She may teach publicly, as did Philip’s four virgin daughters and the Corinthian women who prophesied (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5).

7.The principle of woman’s subjection to man has applied since the Fall and is a part of God’s eternal law (I Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2: 13,14).


1. R C It Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Columbus, O.: Wartburg Press, 1946), p. 618.
2. C R Nichol, God’s Woman (Qifton, Texas: Nichol Publ, Co., 1938), pp. 124, 140.
3. Carl Spain, The Letters of Paul to Timothy and Titus (Austin, Texas: R B. Sweet Co., 1970) p. 46.
4. R. C. H. Lrnski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians to the Thessalonians to I Tmothy, to ~itus, and to Philemon (Colombus, Ohio: Warfburg Press,~946), p. 563;
5. J. D. T homas, We Be Brethren (Abilene, Texas: Biblical Research Press, 1958), p. 125
6. W. E, Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol, III (Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Reuell Co., 1940), p. 242.


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