Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “women should remain silent in the churches” has long puzzled interpreters, since earlier in that same letter he describes how women should pray and prophesy in the community’s gatherings, and in the very part of the letter where he talks about women remaining silent, only a few lines earlier he says, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (He doesn’t say “each of you, except the women.”) But the word Paul uses for “remain silent” is sigaō, and in light of our study of that term in the previous post, we can now make better sense of Paul’s statement in its context.
This part of 1 Corinthians is about maintaining good order in worship: “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” And so Paul says about those who would speak in tongues, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet (sigaō) in the church and speak to himself and to God.” Rather than confuse the group with unintelligible speech, would-be speakers should refrain from saying what they otherwise might.
In the same way, Paul addresses those who would offer prophecies: “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop (NIV; ESV “be silent,” sigaō). Once again, someone who might otherwise keep speaking (a person who has stood up to prophesy) refrains, so that speakers can take turns, in a “fitting and orderly way.”
We should understand Paul’s comments about women speakers in this light. It’s not that Paul is calling for “silence,” the absence of speech or sound, but rather for propriety and good order. Apparently there is something the women in Corinth would otherwise “want to inquire about.” (We’ll explore in our next post what this might have been.) But the community gathering is not the time or the place for this, so the women should refrain from questioning or challenging the speaker. Instead, Paul says, “let them ask their husbands at home”—a third-person imperative, granting them permission to do something that was not typical in this culture. In other words, rather than this being a restriction on women, it’s actually an empowerment of them.
And so we might paraphrase Paul’s words here along these lines: “Women are not to challenge or question the speaker in the churches. They are not allowed to speak [in this way], but must be respectful, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something [that the speaker says that they don’t understand or agree with], they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak [disrespectfully in this way] in the church.” No conflict there with anything Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.