Questions From Readers
What did the apostle Paul mean when he stated that women should “keep silent in the congregations”?
Paul wrote to the Christian congregation in Corinth: “As in all the congregations of the holy ones, let the women keep silent in the congregations, for it is not permitted for them to speak.” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 34) In order for us to understand this correctly, it is helpful to consider the context of Paul’s counsel.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 14, Paul discussed matters relating to meetings of the Christian congregation. He described what should be discussed at such meetings and recommended how they should be conducted. (1 Corinthians 14:1-6, 26-34) Further, he stressed the objective of Christian meetings—“that the congregation may receive upbuilding.”—1 Corinthians 14:4, 5, 12, 26.
Paul’s instruction to “keep silent” appears three times in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. Each time, it is addressed to a different group in the congregation, but in all instances, it is given for the same reason—that “all things take place decently and by arrangement.”—1 Corinthians 14:40.
First, Paul said: “If someone speaks in a tongue, let it be limited to two or three at the most, and in turns; and let someone translate. But if there be no translator, let him keep silent in the congregation and speak to himself and to God.” (1 Corinthians 14:27, 28) That did not mean that such a person was never to speak at meetings but that there were times when he should be silent. After all, the objective of the meetings—to upbuild one another—would not be attained if he spoke in a language no one understood.
Second, Paul stated: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern the meaning. But if there is a revelation to another one while sitting there, let the first one keep silent.” This meant, not that the first prophet was to refrain from speaking at meetings, but that he had to be silent at times. Then the one having the miraculous revelation could address the congregation, and the objective of the meeting—that “all be encouraged”—would be achieved.—1 Corinthians 14:26, 29-31.
Third, Paul addressed Christian women only, stating: “Let the women keep silent in the congregations, for it is not permitted for them to speak, but let them be in subjection.” (1 Corinthians 14:34) Why did Paul give this command to sisters? To preserve order in the congregation. He says: “If, then, they want to learn something, let them question their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in a congregation.”—1 Corinthians 14:35.
Perhaps some sisters were challenging what was said in the congregation. Paul’s counsel helped sisters to shun such a disorderly spirit and humbly accept their position within Jehovah’s headship arrangement, particularly with regard to their husbands. (1 Corinthians 11:3) In addition, by keeping silent, sisters would show that they did not aspire to be teachers in the congregation. When he wrote to Timothy, Paul showed that it would be improper for a woman to assume the role of teacher: “I do not permit a woman to teach, or to exercise authority over a man, but to be in silence.”—1 Timothy 2:12.
Does that mean that a Christian woman must never speak during a congregation meeting? No. In Paul’s day, there were occasions when Christian women, perhaps impelled by holy spirit, prayed or prophesied in the congregation. On such occasions, they acknowledged their position by wearing a head covering.* (1 Corinthians 11:5) Further, in Paul’s day and today, sisters along with brothers are urged to make a public declaration of their hope. (Hebrews 10:23-25) Besides doing this in the field ministry, sisters declare their hope and encourage others during congregation meetings by giving well-thought-out comments when invited to do so and by accepting assignments to share in demonstrations or student talks.
Hence, Christian women “keep silent” by refraining from trying to assume the role of a male and instruct the congregation. They do not raise argumentative questions that could challenge the authority of those who teach. By fulfilling their proper role in the congregation, Christian sisters greatly contribute toward an atmosphere of peace in which “all things [at congregation meetings] take place for upbuilding.”—1 Corinthians 14:26, 33.
In modern times, mature sisters follow that example when, because of circumstances, they have to substitute for a baptized man in a congregation setting.—See The Watchtower, July 15, 2002, page 26.