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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: Why Were Women Told to Keep Silent in Church?

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Why Were Women Told to Keep Silent in Church? Were They Allowed to Speak in Tongues? (1 Corinthians 14:33, 34)

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 17

In a passage in the Book of Corinthians, Paul commanded that women were to keep silent in the church. He put it this way.

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says (1 Corinthians 14:33,34 NASB).

What does this mean? Is Paul saying women should not speak at all in the church?

Some take this to mean that women were not to exercise the gift of tongues. They see that the restriction was not only for the church in Corinth but it was for all of the churches. In other words, the gifts of tongues were only to be exercised by men in the church. Is this what this passage is teaching?

The Case against Women Speaking in Tongues

The following arguments are usually made for this position. However, we must note that not everyone who holds this position would necessarily use all of these arguments to establish this position.

The Subject of the Passage Is Speaking in Tongues – Not Speaking in General

The subject of the section is speaking in tongues. Paul is giving a number of regulations for the proper use of the gift. In the midst of the regulations he orders women to keep silent. No other explanation for his order for women to keep silence makes sense – he must have been referring to speaking in tongues. Thus, the context favors this view.

Women Are Allowed to Speak in Church

Earlier in his letter to the Corinthians Paul gave rules for women praying and prophesying in the church. He wrote.

But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved (1 Corinthians 11:5 NRSV).

Since women are allowed to speak in the church, this passage must mean something other than women are to keep in total silence. The obvious explanation is that women were not allowed to speak in tongues. While they may pray and prophesy they have not been given the gift of speaking in tongues.

Tongues Were to Bring New Revelation: This Was Limited to Men

One of the purposes of tongues was to bring new revelation. Paul said that speaking in tongues was a greater gift than the gift of prophecy only when it was interpreted. He explained it this way to the Corinthians.

Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (1 Corinthians 14:5 NRSV).

The forbidden of women to participate in bringing in new revelation by means of speaking in tongues is consistent with the rest of New Testament.

As far as we know, men wrote all the New Testament documents. The authorship of twenty-six out of the twenty-seven books is generally agreed upon. All of the known authors were men. The only anonymous work was the Book of Hebrews.

Furthermore, the apostles were special people that Jesus selected to be His unique representative to the world. They were all men.

There Is No Clear Record of Women Speaking in Tongues

We do not find any clear record in Scripture of women exercising the gift of tongues. The following are the only recorded accounts in the Book of Acts when the gift was exercised.

The Day of Pentecost: Only the Twelve Disciples Spoke in Tongues

On the Day of Pentecost, it was only the twelve apostles who spoke in tongues. This is clearly taught in Acts 2. After the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they began to speak in languages they had not previously learned, a crowd gathered. At that point the Bible tells us who it was which had been given the gift of tongues.

But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words” (Acts 2:14 NKJV).

Here the gift is limited to the Twelve Disciples of Jesus – all men.

There Is No Evidence That Women Were Present in Caesarea

At Caesarea, when the Gentiles first received the Holy Spirit, it was Cornelius’ household who spoke in tongues. There is no record of women being among those who spoke. Again, it was just men who were present when the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles.

We Are Told That Only Males Were Present in Ephesus

The twelve disciples at Ephesus who spoke in tongues were specifically called men. The text reads as follows.

There were in all about twelve men (Acts 19:7 NASB).

Therefore, in this case there is no question that women were not involved.

Consequently, it seems that in the historical circumstances, only men were given the gift of speaking in tongues.

There Is No Record That Women At Corinth Were Allowed To Speak With Tongues

This only leaves the situation at Corinth. If Paul said women were not to exercise the gift of tongues in Corinth, as in all of the other churches, then the gift was never given to them.

Other Gifts Were for Men Only

It has been argued that other gifts, apostle and pastor, were also given to males only. Therefore it should not be surprising or inconsistent that we find only males speaking in tongues.

In sum, it is the conclusion of many that the gift of speaking in tongues was something that only males were to exercise.

The Case for Women Speaking in Tongues

There are many people, both male and female, who reject the idea that speaking in tongues was for males only. They argue in the following manner.

It Was the One Hundred and Twenty, Not the Twelve, That Spoke in Tongues at Pentecost

On the Day of Pentecost the gift of speaking in tongues was not limited to the twelve disciples. We read the following account.

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said (Acts 1:14, 15 ESV).

Specifically listed in this group was Mary the mother of Jesus. She was among the company of disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit to fall.

This is the group that spoke in tongues. The Bible records what happened.

When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1 HCSB).

Mary was among this group that spoke in tongues.

There Were Probably Women in Cornelius’ Household

The idea that only men were at Caesarea, when the household of Cornelius spoke with tongues, cannot be justified. To begin with the passage says the following.

While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people (Acts 10:27 TNIV).

This large gathering of people should not be assumed to have been limited to only males. Cornelius, most likely, had a family. In addition his household servants would have also included both males and females.

Furthermore, we are told that the Holy Spirit fell upon all that were gathered. Scripture explains it in this manner.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles (Acts 10:44-45 TNIV).

It would be odd if the first time the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentiles that there would only be males present.

Therefore, when the Scripture says that Cornelius and his household spoke in tongues we should assume that this included women.

New Revelation Was Not Limited to Men

It is also wrong to assume that only men were allowed to bring new revelation. Paul also said that women could prophesy. Again, we read his words to the Corinthians.

But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved (1 Corinthians 11:5 NRSV).

Women certainly had the right to speak forth the Word of God.

The Bible also says that Philip the evangelist had four daughters who could prophesy. We read of this in the Book of Acts where it says.

He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9 NLT).

Therefore, prophecy, or speaking forth the truth of God, was not limited to men.

The Law Does Not Refer to Speaking in Tongues

Paul says that the law forbids that women were not to speak in church. He wrote the following to the Corinthians.

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says (1 Corinthians 14:33, 34 ESV).

There is absolutely nothing in the Law about speaking in tongues. Therefore, this cannot be what he is referring to in this passage. Whatever this passage may be referring to, it is not speaking in tongues.

The Prohibition for Speaking May Refer to Judging Prophecies Not Speaking in Tongues

The prohibition of women speaking does not refer to speaking in tongues. A better answer seems to be that women were not allowed to speak out and judge the prophecies. This was a job for the leadership of the church – which was limited to men.

Consequently, there are arguments given by Bible-believers that women were not allowed to speak in tongues as well as arguments that they were allowed to exercise this particular gift. While nobody can be certain which answer is correct, it may seem better to assume that women, in some instances, were allowed to speak in tongues.

Summary – Question 17
Why Were Women Told to Keep Silent in Church? Were They Allowed to Speak in Tongues? (1 Corinthians 14:33, 34)

There is controversy among believers as to whether the gift of tongues was given to both men and women or merely limited to men. Paul said that women were forbidden to speak in church. The question is, “In what sense were they forbidden to speak?” There are those who believe that women were forbidden to speak in tongues.

Those who argue against women speaking in tongues give the following reasons as to why they hold this position.

First, they say there are no clear examples in Scripture of women speaking in tongues. Every time we find tongue-speaking occurring in an historical situation, it is always the men who are doing the speaking.

There is no record of women speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost. In fact, we are told specifically that after the believers spoke in tongues Peter stood up with the other eleven disciples of Jesus to address the crowd. This indicates that only Jesus’ Twelve Disciples exercised the sign of tongues on that day.

Neither is there any evidence of women speaking in tongues in Caesarea when Peter spoke the Word of God to the Gentiles. It seems only men were gathered to hear Peter’s message about the Lord Jesus.

We are told specifically that it was only men who spoke in tongue in Ephesus when Paul preached Jesus to them.

Thus, each historical situation finds only men speaking in tongues, never women.

Some argue that the giving of new revelation was the task of men only. Since all of the books of the New Testament were written by men, and that Jesus chose only men as His inner circle of disciples, it is consistent to believe that only men were given the gift of tongues to bring new revelation to the people.

However there are others who believe that women were indeed given the gift of tongues.

For one thing, it was the one hundred and twenty that spoke in tongues on the Day of Pentecost – not merely the twelve disciples. Among this company was Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Moreover, we should not assume that there were only men present when the Word of God first came to the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius. Since his entire household was present we would naturally assume that women were among the group. Indeed, it would be strange if only men heard the good news about Jesus and not women also.

In addition, it is not correct to limit the giving of new revelation to men only. There were women who had the gift of prophecy. Scripture specifically tells us this. Therefore, if one of the purposes of the gift a tongues was to give new revelation, and this is a debatable question, we should not assume that the gift was limited to men.

It is possible the speaking in this context refers to speaking out and judging prophecies – not speaking in tongues. The leaders of the congregation were to be men. Thus, it is likely that women were told not to speak out in the sense of judging prophetic words given in the church. That was the job for men only.

In sum, when all the arguments are considered, it seems more likely that women did indeed speak in tongues on certain occasions. However, this is something which cannot be demonstrated beyond all doubt.

Does the Bible Allow for Believers to Give Messages in Tongues? ← Prior Section
What Is the Proper Procedure for Using Tongues in a Meeting? Next Section →
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