Where and when are women to be “in silence”? Why does St. Paul give this command? Is it unseemly for women to speak up in a Sunday Bible class? How about head coverings? A selection from “On the Vocation of Women Teachers in Christian Parochial Schools” by George Stoeckhardt, translator S. B. (no affiliation with Old Lutherans) helps us consider these questions aright.
Old Lutherans has taken the liberty of inserting a few additional paragraph breaks in the following selection for ease of reading. Readers wishing to see the original paragraph breaks are encouraged to consult the full translation at Brosamlein, linked above.
In the 14th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul gives the Corinthian Christians an instruction on the establishment and order of the public divine service: how it should be held when they come together (v. 26,) especially on the correct use of the double χάρισμα of prophecy and speaking in tongues. He impresses upon them, that prophets should not speak over one another, but rather in order and that in every gathering about two or three should speak so that the hearers can correctly grasp what they are hearing. “For God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (v.29-33) And now he adds a prohibition which concerns the women. “The women should be silent in the congregation.”
It must have also occurred in the Corinthian congregation, which was torn into by so much disorder, that women emerged as teachers in the public divine services. The Apostle sees a disorder in this and takes it on with complete determination. The portion of the chapter that is in consideration here begins with the last words of verse 33. These words connect better with that which follows than the preceding. Accordingly, we translate verse 33b and 34a as: “As in all assemblies of the saints, so also your women should be silent in the assemblies.” With the expression ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις as well as ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις the congregational assemblies are meant. The εκκλησίαι of a Corinthian congregation can be nothing other than the public assemblies of the congregation. Indeed, the entire chapter deals with how the liturgical assemblies should be held. The localization ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, “in the assemblies,” set over against the other localization ἐν οἶκω, “at home” (v. 35.) The meaning of the Apostle is not that women should be quiet in the realm of the church in every respect or that they should not speak “on behalf of the congregation,” but rather that they should be quiet in the liturgical gatherings and should not speak, i.e. refrain from public teaching. That this and nothing else is the sense of the apostolic prohibition is evident from its justification. “For it is not permitted to them to speak, but to be submissive, as the law also says.” The emphasis is laid upon ὑποτάσσεσθαι. It becomes women to be submissive. To whom? Clearly to the men. This is the law. The apostle points to the word that God spoke to Eve while still in Paradise: “Your will shall be subjected to your husband, and he will be your lord,” 1 Moses 3:16. This was the will and command of God from the beginning that women should subordinate themselves to men in all things. Precisely for this reason it was not permitted to women to speak and instruct men in the public assembly and therefore in the presence of so many men. In this way, they would elevate themselves above men. Women should be submissive to men, they should be quiet in the liturgical assembly, piously listen, and let themselves be instructed by the men, by the teachers of the congregation. In this way, they submit themselves to the men. For the student is subordinate to the teacher. St. Paul adds: “If, however, they wish to learn something, they should ask their husbands [Männer] at home.”
Frequently a discussion connected to the instructional discourses, a sort of conversation on the teaching. Whoever had not understood something asked the teacher, and this point was discussed. The Apostle, however, does not even permit women to direct questions to the teacher and thus to occasion a public discussion and participate therein. They should rather ask their husbands at home. Paul gives the reason for this with the words: “for it is shameful for women to speak in the assembly.” From the subordination of women under men flows womanly discipline and shame, restrain in converse with men. However, women injure and deny this female propriety and modesty when they somehow seize the word in a public gathering, even by raising questions, participating in discussion and thereby drawing the attention and glances of so many men upon themselves. What St. Paul here forbids to women and to the congregation with respect to women, is a direct, apostolic prohibition. He speaks categorically: “Women should be silent.” “It is not permitted to women to speak.” But on top of that, he expressly asserts his instruction as God’s Word. “Or has the Word of God come from you? Or has it come to you alone?” (v. 36.) The word of God has not gone out from the Corinthians; it was handed down to them by others and not only to them, but it has come to many other places. But everywhere else, where the Word has come, in all other congregations, the public divine service is held in accordance with the Word of God, so that women may not act as teachers. Thus the Corinthians should follow the example of other congregations and comply with the Word of God in this matter as well.
Just how serious the Apostle is that the natural relationship which exists between man and woman, that of superordination and subordination, not be disturbed within the Church can been seen from another passage from 1 Corinthians, ch. 11:1-16. Here he is also dealing with the liturgical gatherings of the congregation and instructs women to appear with a covered head, men, however, with an uncovered head. It was the custom among Greeks that in public gatherings and especially in temples and the festivals of idols women wore a head covering, but men were seen with a free, exposed head. The covering of women’s heads was considered a symbol of the dependence upon men; the free, uncovered head of men as a sign of their dignity and grandeur. The apostle does not introduce what he writes here about the external attire and bearing as an apostolic command, as a Word of God, but rather he imparts good counsel to the Corinthians; it is a laudable custom, συνἠθεια (v. 16,) that is well established in all other congregations, which he here commends to them. He does not want to engage in further dispute with those who are of another opinion and contradict him.
Ultimately, Christian women can sufficiently maintain and signify their position toward men, their dependence upon men, even when they appear in the divine service without a head covering. For the Apostle, what matters is that everywhere they stay within their limits. So in this context he recalls the creation of man and woman and the relationship of the one to the other established in creation. “Man is not from woman, but woman from man. And man is not made for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” (v. 8,9.) It follows from this that the man is the head of the woman, but the woman is subordinate to the man (v. 3.) To be sure, in Christ there is neither man nor woman; woman are partakers of the same grace as men. But Christendom does not remove the distinction between man and woman that is grounded in the order of creation. In external converse, in gatherings with men, and also in liturgical [gottesdienstlich] assemblies, women should not forget, but rather prove that they are women, subordinate to men.