May Women Speak in Bible Class?
I will never forget the time that I had just begun to work with a new local church, and was waiting, on a Sunday morning or afternoon (I cannot remember which) to deliver one of my first sermons. Immediately before the worship began, I was herded and pinned in by a group of older men who had all grown up in a certain part of Kentucky. They asked me whether I believed women could speak in Bible class, and, practically before I could utter a word, they inundated me with their own arguments why they thought women could not. One of them even went so far as to say something to the effect of, I would rather have musical instruments than women speaking in Bible class, because the Bible doesnt say not to have them, but it does say women cant speak. After having been thoroughly, verbally assaulted by these men, meaning well no doubt, I was hardly in a frame of mind to deliver a good sermon! But, the fact that this question meant so much to these men made me realize that it is not merely some intellectual, theological question, but a valid question which local churches must study and answer. To merely ignore or avoid the question is to have congregations where women do not know what to do, and some are afraid to speak, and some feel that they have something worthwhile to contribute to the class, while some men sit fuming, believing these women to be in sin.
I shall attempt to set forth my conclusions on this question, based on a year or more of careful thought and study, for your perusal. I shall then attempt to answer every contrary argument that I have ever heard, in the hopes of meeting oppositional thoughts before they speak.
This entire question even exists because of a passage in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, which reads: Let your women keep silent in the assemblies, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in the assembly. Now, at first glance, this verse is fairly straightforward! Women are to remain silent, because it is shameful for them to speak in the assembly. Who can deny this? I do not disagree that the passage clearly forbids women from speaking in a certain context, and I cannot agree with those good brethren who argue that silent does not really mean silent, merely because the word is sometimes used to refer to a non-exclusive quietness in other places. Context determines word meaning, and every word has a range of meaning. The context of this passage clearly defines silence as not permitted to speak, and shameful to speak. Brethren, this is a very real, and very complete, silence.
So, the question is not really whether the silence is partial or total, for the context clearly argues for a total silence. I would gladly sit and allow someone to explain to me how a silence in which one is not permitted to speak is not really a silence, but I do not see how it could be done. The real question, then, deals with what Paul meant by the word assemblies. For, wherever these assemblies occur, women may not speak, but there is no prohibition from women speaking outside of these assemblies. Thus, I shall attempt to define this assembly, using only the context of 1 Corinthians.
It seems silly to have to begin by demonstrating that women are not forbidden from speaking in every case, in every place, at every time, and in every situation, but unfortunately, some brethren seem to believe this, so I shall first negate it. The first thing I would ask would be this: if women may not every speak in any situation in life, then why did the good Lord create them with functional mouths, vocal chords, and the organs of speech? But, we have many clear, approved biblical examples of women speaking in certain contexts. For example, in Luke 1:41, 42, we read of Elizabeth: And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out and said, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb... (emphases mine, MRM) Now, it does not take a brilliant man to see that, if Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, who is actually God, and by that Spirit she spoke, then God approved of her, a woman, speaking. Thus, women may speak in certain situations in life, and therefore women are not categorically forbidden from ever speaking. We have other such New Testament examples of women speaking (such as Priscilla), but surely we can see that, in this case, God Himself approved of a woman speaking.
Thus, of necessity, the speech prohibition in 1 Corinthians 14 is limited. The crux of the issue is that of exactly how much, and in which cases, it is limited. Women may speak sometimes, and sometimes they may not speak. When may they not speak? Well, Paul says that they may not speak in the assemblies. Nowhere else in the New Testament, that I know of, are women prohibited in any other situation. Obviously, there are times when it is appropriate for women to remain quiet and humble, and we know that a woman cannot teach a man in an authoritative manner, (1 Timothy 2:12) but we are discussing the total prohibition of speech. I know of only one total prohibition of speech for women in the New Testament, and that is in the assemblies, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35. So, whatever Paul means by the assemblies will answer our question for us.
I know of no better way to define the assembly than to allow the very context of 1 Corinthians to define it for us. Of course it helps to know that the Greek word for assembly is ecclesia, and that it means the assembled, the called out. But, even old Thayer and the rest of the scholars only know the meanings of words because they have studied them carefully in context, for there is no 2,000 year-old Greek speaker to tell us exactly what the definition of ecclesia was when Paul wrote it! So, by studying the context and thereby deriving a definition, we are doing the very same thing that Greek scholars do, but just on a smaller scale. Therefore, dear reader, even if you are at first opposed to what I am saying about all of this, will you at least agree with me on this one thing: whatever the context of 1 Corinthians 14 tells us the assembly is, we are bound by that meaning? Will you at least agree that we cannot invent modern, manmade definitions of assembly and bind them on old Paul, who knew Greek and wrote the word down himself? If you will not agree to this, then go ahead and close this article, along with your mind, for you are beyond reach. But, if you will be reasonable, and just agree with me on that one thing, then I am confident that we can resolve this issue.
So, what then is the meaning of the assembly? Well, the word generally refers to any gathering of any group of people. But, already we know that this was a gathering of Christians, so that narrows it down some. How do we know this? Because 1 Corinthians, in Chapter One, Verse Two, is addressed to the church of God which is at Corinth. So, we have already eliminated non-Christians from our definition. So then, our definition thus far is a gathering of Christians. Now, let us narrow it down even further. What was it that the Corinthians were doing when they gathered together in this assembly? Were they roping cattle, or building houses, or sailing ships? Why no, they were worshipping God. How do we know this? Well, consider the following list of words and phrases from the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, and see if you do not agree with me: for if I pray in a tongue...say Amen...giving of thanks...if the whole church comes together in one place...each of you has a song...a teaching. Now I will ask you, dear reader, does this assembly sound like just any old gathering of Christians for any old reason, or does it sound like a gathering for spiritual, religious purposes? I would venture to guess that you will agree with me that this is not just a social gathering for any old purpose, but clearly a gathering for spiritual purposes, and for worshipping God. So, we have now narrowed down the definition of assembly from any gathering of any people, to a gathering of Christians for worship. We can thus already see that, when the church meets together for any other reason, it cannot be this assembly. For example, if the church meets together to eat a common meal, or to play a game, or to barbecue, or to rope horses, or anything else you can imagine, it is not the assembly which Paul had in mind, and in which women are prohibited from speaking. In fact, we would have to admit that, even if the whole church comes together, but not for the spiritual purposes discussed here, that women are free to speak. I have never in my life met a Christian who practiced a total prohibition of speech for women in all places, at all times, and for all purposes (though I have heard of something like that), and even the staunchest believer that women cannot speak in Bible class will always let women speak in his home, or at the restaurant, or in any number of other situations. Keep that in mind.
So, let us continue to narrow our definition of the assembly as Paul uses it. Now I do not doubt for one minute that the word assembly may be used in other ways, for it is used in Acts 19:32 to describe a riotous mob of pagans! We are not so much interested as to what the word can mean in general, but what it actually does mean in 1 Corinthians 14:35,35. Please bear that in mind. So, let us examine some of the things that the Corinthians were doing in this assembly. Now I understand that they were also practicing the miraculous spiritual gifts, such as prophesying, and speaking in tongues, but we understand that we do not have those gifts today, so we will not spend time worrying about those right now. Rather, we will look at the things they were doing that we still do today. So, they sang; they taught; they prayed and gave thanks are any of these things starting to sound familiar? Why of course they are, for they are three of the five acts of worship for the local church! In fact, all that is left out is the collection, and the Lords Supper more on those later. But, we can see that this assembly included singing, praying and giving of thanks, and teaching. Moreover, it was intended that the entire church be present, for Paul uses the line, if the whole church comes together in one place. So, we have now narrowed our definition even more: the assembly may now be defined as, a gathering of all member of a local church of Christ in one place, when there is singing, praying and giving thanks, and teaching. Well brethren, if that is not beginning to sound like our worship assembly, then Ill be a three-legged frog! But wait! Theres more! Remember that, if we just had the collection and the Lords Supper taking place too, we would have a bone fide, genuine worship service. Well, what about the general context of the Corinthian letter?
If you look in 1 Corinthians 11-16 as a whole, we see that the flow of topics is something like this, if we put it into our own, simple words: Women must be covered when praying and prophesying; the Lords Supper must be taken properly, and not as a common meal (ch. 11); your spiritual gifts too are confusing because you practice them the wrong way, so do things orderly (ch. 12); in fact, those spiritual gifts will pass away, and you Corinthians need to be concentrating on love, which is more important (ch. 13); but, even when you do practice them, you have it all wrong, so here is how to do it orderly (ch. 14); but lest you be discouraged by my rebuke of all these problems you have, remember that you are doing all of this to attain the resurrection from the dead (ch. 15); now, you need to remember to take that collection we talked about too, because it is about time to take the gift to the needy saints in Jerusalem (ch. 16). Can anyone deny that this is the flow of things, and that it is indeed a flow?
Now note: 1 Corinthians 14, in which is our prohibition of speech for women, is smack-dab in the middle of an entire discourse about how to behave in worship. Why, if we go back just a smidgeon to Chapter 11, and if we go forward just a tad to Chapter 16, what do we find but our missing collection, and Lords Supper?! There they are, and we know that the Lords Super is to be taken on the first day of the week, (Acts 20:7) and Paul clearly tells the Corinthians to take the collection on the first day of the week Does that sound familiar? Compare: when the whole church is gathered together in one place, in 1 Corinthians 14, on the first day of the week in 1 Corinthians 16, and the Lords Supper in 1 Corinthians 14, and friend, we might just have ourselves a genuine worship service! all I have done, is to define a Bible word in a Bible way. Isnt that what we are supposed to be doing anyhow?
So, if the assembly is what we defined it to be above, we see then that the assembly has three essential parts that make it the assembly. These are:
Now I hope you will see that all three of these conditions must apply if our assembly is to be the same assembly which Paul spoke of. Now, what if a man came along and said, I want to do everything scripturally, but I want to meet on Monday instead of Sunday. Would you object? Of course you would! Why? Because you know that all three conditions must be met to please God. What if he said, I want the whole church to meet on Sunday, but I want to leave out the collection and the singing. You would object, and you know it! What if he said, I want to meet on the first day of the week, and I want to go through the five acts of worship, but I only want one-third of the church to show up. Again, you know you would object! So, you and I agree that the worship assembly must meet all three of the above conditions.
So, in that very context, Paul says that women are to remain silent in the assembly. What assembly could he possible be talking about, friend? Well, even a blind mule could see that he is talking about the assembly where the whole church comes together on the first day of the week, and sings, prays, teaches, takes a collection, and takes the Lords Supper. So, when are women forbidden from speaking? Women are forbidden from speaking when the whole church comes together on the first day of the week and sings, prays, teaches, takes a collection, and takes the Lords Supper. I will agree with any man about that, because that is why Paul stated.
Now I ask you, by what authority do you forbid women from speaking in any other situation? Certainly your authority does not come from God, because God has only prohibited women from speaking in the assembly as we have seen it defined. So, if a man were to forbid women from speaking when the church met on Sunday afternoon at a restaurant for lunch, would that man be acting in Gods authority? No sir he would not; in fact, he would be teaching as doctrine the commandments of men, and I think we all know how Christ feels about that.
Now friends, what exactly is a Bible class which most churches hold on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights? Is it where the whole church comes together? Yes, that is the intention. Is it on the first day of the week? Well, Wednesday class is obviously not, but Sunday morning class is. So far, it meets two of the three conditions to make it the assembly. But wait! Do we sing, pray, teach, take a collection, and take the Lords Supper in Bible class? No, we do not. You and I both know that we do not carry out the five acts of worship in a Bible class! We may sing, we may teach, and we may pray, but I have yet to meet a church which takes a collection and takes the Lords Supper in Bible class, before the worship assembly! So, and please get this straight, a Bible class is NOT the assembly which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35! Why not? Simply because a Bible class does not meet the three conditions of the assembly. Are Bible classes otherwise authorized and good? Sure they are! We are commanded to teach the gospel to everyone, and Bible class is just that. But, is a Bible class the assembly? No it is not. Therefore, are women forbidden from speaking in Bible class? No, they are not. Therefore, women may speak in Bible class.
Now, before we deal with any objections to my conclusion, let me ask you this in all fairness: if you disagree with me, please do not immediately start throwing out objections, and heaping them on my head like those good old men I described in the beginning of this article. Rather, first go back through my argument, and show me specifically and precisely where I am wrong. If you can do that, using only book, chapter, and verse of the Bible, as I have done, then I will recant my position. But, if you cannot show me, from the Bible alone, why my conclusion is wrong, then I will stand by it, because it comes right from the Bible.
So, now that you have gone back and re-examined my argument for soundness (you did that, right?), let us finish by answering some common objections to women speaking in Bible class. I shall deal with these one by one, and they are all either objections I have heard with my own ears, or objections that I might imagine brethren making.
First, one might object by saying that the Bible class is the assembly, because the whole church is coming together on the first day of the week. But, remember, that is not enough to make something the assembly! If the whole church comes together on the first day of the week at a Chinese restaurant, is that the assembly, and must women remain silent? If you say no, then whatever reason you give is the very same reason why the Bible class is not the assembly: it does not include the five acts of worship.
Next, someone might object by saying that the Bible class is different because we meet in the church building. In fact, I know well-meaning brethren who object to women speaking in the Bible class in the building, but have no problems with women speaking in Bible classes in peoples homes! What is the difference? The building is not a holy temple, but mere a tool for use doing Gods work. Both worshipping, and studying the Bible, are Gods works, so we may use the building for either. Just because we happen to use the building for works of God other than only the worship assembly does not make everything done in the building a worship assembly! What if the whole church came together on the first day of the week, in the building, but it was to repair a broken toilet? Would women have to remain silent then? If not, then you are a hypocrite if you bind another non-assembly situation on women!
Next, some might object by saying that some local church include the Bible class as part of the assembly. And, if that is the case, then so be it: women cannot speak, but not because it is the Bible class, but because it is the assembly! If a local church decides that the way to accomplish the teaching part of the assembly is in a class format, rather than from a pulpit, then so be it. If the church clearly intends this to be in the assembly, then so be it. But, most churches I know make a clear and separate distinction between the Bible class and the worship assembly: in fact most pause for five minutes or so to allow everyone to use the bathroom, get some water, go upstairs, etc. This five-minute break cannot be a part of the assembly, for a five-minute break is not one of the five acts of worship.
Next, some might object by saying that the assembly is any time that the church meets together on the first day of the week for spiritual purposes. Friend, I would again ask that you go back and review 1 Corinthians 11-16, and see how the Bible context defines the assembly. We cannot simply invent definitions of words and force them upon the biblical writers! They have the right to define what they mean by a word, and we simply do not have a right to inject a meaning that does not fit the context. The context of 1 Corinthians 11-16 clearly demonstrates that the assembly is a gathering of the whole local church, on the first day of the week, during which time the church sings, prays and gives thanks, teaches, takes up a collection, and takes the Lords Supper. In that setting, and only in that setting, women are forbidden from uttering a word. But in all other settings, they are not forbidden from speaking, because God does not forbid them, and because we have clear and approved biblical examples of women speaking in other settings. When Paul wrote the assembly he did not mean any time the church gathers in a building for any purpose, or he would have indicated that by the context.
Finally, believe it or not, I have heard some brethren argue in this manner: Thats the way we used to do it back home, so how can it be right now? We need to remember that just because something is traditional does not make it right or wrong. Every practice has its own moral value, whether right or wrong. Just because something has been practiced in the past, or taught in the past, does not make it right. What if a Roman Catholic argued that infant sprinkling was valid baptism because that is the way we did it back home? Would you accept that argument? No, you would go to the Bible and try to show him the truth.
I have tried my best to share with you the fruit of my thought and study on this question. Surely some who read this will disagree with me. If that is you, then all I ask is that you show me specifically and precisely why I am wrong, using only the Bible. If you can do that, I will recant my position and begin teaching that women may not speak in Bible class. But, if you find that the Bible proves you wrong, I pray that you will do the same, and change your position. After all, in the Judgment Day, I seriously doubt that God will judge us based on Henry Thayer, or the words of scholars, or what we used to do back home. I have a sneaking suspicion that He will judge us on what the Bible says, and the Bible alone.