May Women SPEAK in Church?

May Women SPEAK in Church?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 3:34pm

QUESTION: In view of 1 Timothy 2:12, are women forbidden to serve communion in a church service? Is a female song leader allowed? Can a woman lead prayers in a church service? Does this verse not say that a woman must “remain quiet”? Does not 1 Cor. 14:34 say that “women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak”?

ANSWER: Here I have combined several questions into one, namely, what limitations does the New Testament place upon women’s roles in the church? As I understand it, the only text that limits the activity of women in the church today is 1 Tim. 2:12, where Paul says, “But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” This basically says that women are not permitted to do two things: they cannot teach Christian doctrine to Christian men, and cannot exercise authority over Christian men (as in the offices of apostles and elders). (1 Tim. 3:15 shows that in this letter Paul is discussing what should be done within the context of the church.) For more detail about this verse see my book, “The Faith Once for All,” 431-440; and my book, “Feminism and the Bible,” 313-327.

Though it goes against a very entrenched tradition in Restoration churches, I do not believe women serving communion violates either of these prohibitions. This is a role of service, purely and simply. Here are two cautions, however. First, as with all permissible activities, the rule of expediency must be applied (see my commentary on Romans 14). I.e., even though it may be right in itself, we must always ask if it might cause harm to weaker brethren and thus to the church itself. In such a case it should be delayed until sound teaching can be done on the subject, showing why it is consistent with Biblical teaching. Second, giving the communion meditation is quite different from serving the emblems. The former usually involves teaching and thus falls under the first prohibition in 1 Tim. 2:12, while the latter does not.

Regarding leading singing and leading prayers in a church service, my opinion is that neither of these activities constitutes teaching Christian doctrine or exercising authority. We should not confuse “leading” in these contexts with “exercising authority.” Authority gives a person the right to tell others what to do, in the sense that the latter have a moral obligation to obey (e.g., Luke 6:46; Eph. 6:1; Heb. 13:17). This is not happening in leading singing or in leading prayer.

But what about the teaching that women must “remain quiet” and “keep silent”? Does not Paul specifically say that “they are not permitted to speak”? Here it is important to see that the Greek words in 1 Tim. 2:11-12 and in 1 Cor. 14:34 are different. In 1 Tim. 2:12 the word is “hesuchia,” which does NOT mean “be silent” (contrary to the NIV translation), but to have a quiet, submissive demeanor or attitude. This same word is used also in verse 11, “Let a woman QUIETLY [with a quiet spirit] receive instruction.” Thus this passage does not forbid women to speak in a church service.

But what about 1 Cor. 14:34? Here the Greek word for “keep silent” is “sigao,” which DOES mean literal silence; and the Greek word in the phrase “not permitted to speak” is “laleo,” which is the ordinary word for oral speaking or talking. However, the context of the verse shows that Paul is referring to a specific kind of speaking, namely, the public use of the miraculous spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying. In apostolic times women had such gifts and could use them outside the public assembly, (1 Cor. 11:5; compare v. 18), but not in the assembly or church service as such. That is the point of 1 Cor. 14:34; see 1 Cor. 14:26-33, where the word “laleo” is used three times for this special kind of speaking. (This prohibition would apply, of course, only as long as the special gifts existed in the church.)

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May Women SPEAK in Church? — 2 Comments

  1. Greeting Mr. Cottrell,
    My husband and I recently were able to hear you speak at the recent S.I.P.S seminar at the Palmyra Church of Christ. We much enjoyed your in-depth teachings and learned a lot. I have a question for you, and am hoping you may be able to shed some light on it. We go to a local Church of Christ that we have been attending for about a year. We recently found out that during the Children’s Worship hour, they are allowing the little girls to serve communion. I am not even sure if they are baptized. Also, while helping with the children in a Sunday School room the Communion is simply passed out with no prayer or meditation. We have small grandchildren attending and want to make sure they are being guided as the Good Lord wishes, so we are wondering what the Bible says on this subject. Any guidance and scripture references on this would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you and keep up the wonderful work,

    • Tonya, there is no biblical instruction on how to serve the Lord’s Supper. There is no instruction on WHO may serve the Supper emblems. Serving the emblems is a privilege and an act of service. Any church member could do it, male or female. The only qualification I would give is that if women are allowed to serve, that this be clearly explained that this is not a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12, since there is no teaching of men or exercising authority over men involved. The caution would be that this not be seen as a stepping stone toward false feminist doctrine. In children’s church, I think there should at least be a brief explanation and a prayer, and that only Christian youth be asked to serve the emblems. But remember: we have no specific biblical instructions on these details. In children’s church, I am assuming that only the children that have been baptized are taking the emblems. Anything else would be a travesty. Thanks.

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