Silence in Practice
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul first instructs men (not women) “to pray everywhere while lifting up holy hands”; 1 Tim. 2:8). The lifting of hands while leading God’s people in prayer followed the practice of Jewish priests and kings (Lev. 9:22; 1 Kgs. 8:22). Paul then instructs the women to wear discreet attire and to express godliness in doing good works (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Obviously, women are to dress modesty and engage in godly conduct beyond the church meetings, just as men were encouraged to lead in prayer “everywhere.” Clearly then, Paul’s instruction had a wider application than just meetings of the church. William MacDonald explains:
Wherever a mixed group of Christians is gathered together for prayer, it is the men and not the women who should lead in this exercise…Neither is a woman to have authority over a man. That means that she must not have dominion over a man, but is to be in silence or quietness. Perhaps we should add that the latter part of this verse is by no means limited to the local assembly (Believer’s Bible Commentary; 1 Tim. 2:8, 2:11-12).
Paul is addressing situations in which Christians might gather (for prayer, for Bible studies, for ministry events, etc.). For informal gatherings (when the local church is not gathered in one place), men should lead in teaching and in prayer, but in such settings women could read Scripture, contribute thoughts to the study, and ask questions. At such times, women are to be “settled down” or in “quietness” (the meaning of hesuchia rendered “in silence” in 1 Tim. 2:11-12), but audible non-leading participation is permitted. However, when the local church is gathered in one place, women are not to have a distinct voice but to “keep silent” (the meaning of sigao ensures that she is not to disrupt the male speaker in any fashion; 1 Cor. 14:33).
As home order poses no limitations on wives, mothers, or daughters praying or sharing scriptural thoughts with other family members, it can be difficult to discern what a sister’s audible participation should be during informal gatherings with brothers present beyond her family. Answering the question to whom would I go if there was a problem would likely determine if home order or church order best applies for that situation (e.g., the head of the house or the elders of the church). Yielding to church order is the safest approach, but is also the most limiting.
In church meetings, women are to sigao (i.e., have no singular leading voice). In other words, there should never be a time that someone might think a woman was leading the assembly. However, sigao does not mean total silence because both men and women should be participating in group singing and congregational amens (1 Cor. 14:16). Israel exhibited the same pattern when before the Lord in the Old Testament. God’s order for the church cannot be compromised, but we should be as gracious as possible for unique occurrences. A distraught sister sharing an urgent prayer request is not going to kick God off His throne!
The Double Offense
Some have suggested that a woman can speak in the church if her head is covered based on 1 Corinthians 11:6, but this interpretation would clearly contradict the command for women to be silent in such meetings. To ensure that this injunction was understood, Paul added, “for it is shameful for women to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35). This is not because women have nothing valuable to say (many of our beloved hymns prove otherwise), but rather it would be inappropriate for women to usurp God’s appointed authority in the church.
The basis of biblical hermeneutics is that the truth is in the whole of Scripture and therefore, Scripture interprets Scripture. How then should we understand the head covering offenses identified in 1 Corinthians 11:5-6? First, we realize that Paul is speaking about the head covering practice in chapter 11 and appropriate audible ministry in the church in chapter 14. Many in the church at Corinth had adopted a license mentality (i.e., all is permissible under grace); part of the resulting chaos was that some sisters had removed their head coverings.
Second, it is observed that Paul identifies two offenses that a woman can commit concerning the head covering practice. Each offense carries a different suggested penalty to illustrate the seriousness of each infraction (vv. 5-6). If a woman is not covered when prayer and teaching are occurring (the single offense), then she is to be shorn, but if she is speaking and uncovered (the double offense), then she is to be shaved. To infer that she can speak if covered is to twist the corrective tone of the passage and contradict what Paul would later write in chapter 14.
Two different Greek words are employed to show the difference between cutting a woman’s hair short or shaving her head bald. The latter action would remove her glory and leave her in a shameful state. Just as it is wrong to exceed the speed limit while driving, it is doubly wrong to speed through a red light; the double violation has a more severe penalty. Paul does not address the equally wrong offenses of a man’s head being covered during times of prayer and teaching or the double offense of speaking for God while his head was covered because the Corinthian men were not engaging in this behavior. As the devil demonstrated in Eden, those dissatisfied with God’s best for them usually work to cause others to spurn God’s best also.
The audible ministry within church meetings must be done by men, as they represent God in the meeting. When men and women gather for spiritual exercise; both genders are to salute the Lord as He commands (1 Cor. 11:4-7). The head covering practice is tied with the activities of prayer and prophesy (or teaching), not church meetings exclusively. When speaking for God, men must speak the truth as energized by the Holy Spirit or suffer judgment (Jas. 3:1). As worship and prayer come from the heart, both men and women are to be actively engaged in both when gathered together (Acts 4:23-31)—what God enables from a pure heart rises up to Him as sweet incense (Ps. 141:2).
In the Lord’s Supper for example, the Holy Spirit uses a male speaker to align everyone thoughts on the same thing. Although the brother’s words do not rise above the ceiling, all that precipitates from Christ-filled hearts does! God is looking beyond spoken words into each worshipper’s heart for something of lasting value to refresh His own heart. When a sister hears a brother publicly share her own secret mediations, it verifies to her that God is listening to her heart and also that the brother speaking is being led by the Holy Spirit. It is thrilling to hear my wife or one of my daughters say to me or another brother, “Thanks for sharing my thought during the Lord’s Supper.” Through such a simple testimony what was spoken by a brother was validated by God through a sister! This is why all men and women should come to the Lord’s Supper with full hearts of adoration and then seek to worship the Lord together. Our God is a God of perfect order and peace (1 Cor. 14:33). Seeing that God has intimately tied His own glory to the practices of the Church, may we seek to honor Him in the way He deems best and thereby enjoy His approval and His peace.