A Bit on Gender Roles – 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

by Roger McCay
25 October 2020
Sermon Passage: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
Link to Audio Version

There are some passages of Scripture you will not hear preached very often, if ever, depending on your church. This passage is one of them. I asked one of our elders, who has been part of this church for 70 years or so (Gee, who could that be?), and he couldn’t remember this one ever being preached, even here. Not that it hasn’t; that’s a lot of sermons to remember, after all. Maybe Henry Lewis Smith preached on it in the late 1950’s or early 60’s. But, as Robin clarified, the intent of this passage is generally not one that is in debate or disagreed upon at MPC these days. The denomination is clear on its stance concerning the roles of men and women when it comes to ordained, authoritative functions in the church, and we are PCA all the way.

But there are many things in churches that are just generally agreed upon (beliefs and practices), things that fall under the category of “That’s just the way we do it.” Yet, an understanding from God’s Word, as to why we believe or practice certain things or why we don’t believe or practice certain things, is very important. Everything, really, should be questioned as to whether it is consistent with God’s Word or not. Everything.

Considering the culture, the topic of gender roles in church ministry and leadership needs to be settled in our minds. We need to know why.

Relevant to the life of the church, considering we have just gone through officer nominations, maybe you’ve wondered, if maybe not “Why don’t we …” but “Why should we not nominate women for elder in the church?” We’re running short on elders, after all. No-one new has been nominated in years. Maybe the women can fill in the shortage. We have plenty of talented and gifted ladies, surely out of them there are some who would be fabulous elders. After all, denominations all around us have women elders or pastors. It seems a logical progression of the church. Why are we so old-fashioned?

Well, we don’t ordain women as elders, either ruling or teaching elder (pastors), because we still hold to the integrity of Scripture—the Bible. We hold that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is God’s Word, inspired by God’s Spirit, to the very letter (Matt. 5:18, 24:35; 2 Tim 3:16-17; 2 Peter 3:16). The Bible does not simply contain God’s Word; it is God’s Word. Do you get the difference? … “contain” vs. “is”? “Contain” allows for picking and choosing. “Is” is whole and inviolable. The Bible is God’s Word.

However, not every denomination has such a high view of Scripture. They play around with it, tweaking it to support their own preferences. It may be that they just ignore the teaching they don’t like. Or they cunningly twist its meaning. Or they might make or point to clever scholarly arguments to invalidate it, or downplay it (arguments posited and debated across a plethora of scholarly commentaries and journals, which, by the way, for the sake of intellectual honesty, should not just be ignored). Or they simply say the particular passage in view they don’t like, along with others, is not relevant today for whatever reason, because they don’t want it to be. Basically, abusing the tools of Biblical study.

And this latter, too, provides a particular challenge. Why, for example, should we hold to 1 Cor. 14:33-35 as a continual ordinance in the church and not the head coverings for women mentioned in 11:2-16?

But today we’re looking at 1 Cor. 14:33-35. It’s a passage that is really hated in our country’s woke society. Hated. It’s so much easier to conform. Why get cancelled by the cancel culture over something like this? There are some serious scholarly arguments out there that provide easy outs. Why hold to such a thing? Did God actually say …?

Well, the reason we hold to this teaching is because, as disciples of Christ, we follow Jesus in submission to him. He is Lord. Resisting God’s design, as revealed in the Lord’s Word, no matter what anyone else is doing, is willful disobedience. It is abandoning God’s whole counsel for our own and the world’s counsel. And this passage, when the dust settles from the various arguments attempting to invalidate it, stands strong where it has always stood—Scripture to the end.

The apostle Paul wrote the first epistle to the Corinthians sometimes towards the end of his three years of ministry in Ephesus (something we recently studied in our journey through Acts). He wrote it addressing various issues and divisions that had come up over in the Corinthian church he had planted. A particular issue that came up is God’s design when it comes to orderly worship (which Paul addresses in ch. 11 through ch. 14). God’s design includes positions of authority in God’s church.

As Paul says in v. 33, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” Thus, he grounds the guidance given in this passage upon the eternal character of God. God is not a God of chaos, disorder, but of peace—which order maintains. God has ordered all creation to his design.

Accordingly, his church, his redeemed and sanctified people, is called to reflect God’s design, not only in being, as that’s just who we are, but as an example to the watching world.

Let’s look at the passage again (vv. 33b-35):

33b As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Notice the command for women “to be silent” is here emphasized three times in three verses. This might seem strange, considering that Paul had already mentioned women praying or prophesying in 11:5, and that women were also included in corporate singing. However, these teachings, which included quite a bit of vocal participation by women in church, help to clarify what is meant in vv. 33-35. Paul is in no-way saying that women are to never, ever say a word in church. That would be an utter contradiction. Paul has in mind speech of a certain nature, much like his two other commands to be silent, including men, for the sake of order in worship situations, involving tongues and prophecy (vv. 28 and 30 of this chapter).

“Silence” in vv. 33-35 means “speaking with authority.” And that is really the issue at hand, speaking with authority in the church. How do we know this? We know due to the context of this passage and the consistent teaching of the Scriptures.

Immediately before this command for a woman to be silent, Paul provides instructions concerning the prophets and weighing their prophecies. Without my going into great detail, please understand that the first century worship services were a bit different than ours in format. Not all the elements of worship they practiced do we practice, some of which are discussed in vv. 26-32. A perfect example of this is the point in their church service where people come forward with a prophecy, if they had one.

In those times, if a person had the spiritual gift of prophecy (or claimed to have it), and brought a prophecy before the church, the prophet was examined (vv. 29-32; consistent with 1 Thess. 5:20-21). Hence, there would entail “a spoken evaluation and judging of the prophecies in the congregation” (v. 29).[1] Did the prophecy harmonize with God’s Word and did it contribute to the building up of the people? The elders were responsible for the proceedings and oversaw them, making authoritative judgments concerning the prophecies. Women could prophesy, but, as Wayne Grudem puts it, women were “not allowed to speak up and give evaluations or critiques of the prophecies that have been given, for this would be a ruling or governing function with respect to the whole church.”[2]

Along these lines, the questioning forbidden in v. 35, seems to refer to a public questioning that would bleed into the authoritative realm of the men and elders—violating submissiveness (ch. 11). To avoid such unseemliness, the apostle says such questioning, by the women, is to be directed to their husbands in private, at home—fulfilling submissiveness.

Consistent with all this, Paul gives instruction to Timothy concerning church order and leadership in 1 Tim. 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Here, in 1 Tim. 2:12, these restrictions for women, concerning speaking and authority in the church, are tied together, consistent with the evident meaning of “to be silent” in 1 Cor. 14.

Now, despite protests, these commands are not patriarchal power tactics. Rather, these commands are grounded in God’s ordering of headship and submission in the family, which flows out of God’s order in creation and his reordering after the fall. Indeed, Paul directly ties the rationale for the command in 1 Tim. 2:12 with creation and the fall in vv. 13 and 14: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

Genesis 1 and 2 teach us that mankind was created both male and female, in the image of God, equal in being before God, but different. Woman was created to be the helper of man, and man was given headship with authority and responsibility. God further established and ordered the family, giving Eve to Adam as a bride, speaking the words of marriage over them.

But then came the fall recorded in Genesis 3. In the fall there was a reversal of roles. Eve, deceived by Satan, took upon herself headship, usurping Adam’s role, and then led the way into sin with Adam following her. Yet, as Adam was the God-ordained head, even though Adam capitulated his role to Eve by following her into sin, it was by his sin, and not Eve’s, that sin passed to the rest of us.

God’s particular judgment upon woman due to the sin of the fall, known as “the curse,” is given in Gen. 3:16. This curse was to be pain in childbirth and one other thing. God decreed, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Edmund Clowney clarifies, “The desire of the woman will be to dominate her husband, as she did in giving him the forbidden fruit, but that desire will be frustrated, because by God’s appointment and decree the man will retain his headship.”[3] As God’s decrees are law, this was, perhaps, “the Law” Paul alludes to in 1 Cor. 14:34.

This clear order of gender roles, established and reestablished by God, is reaffirmed in the NT. The teachings that husbands are the head of their wives, and that wives must be submissive to their husbands, are absolutely clear. Thus, 1 Cor. 11:3 states, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Then there are the numerous passages that command wives to be subject to and submissive to their husbands such as 1 Pt. 3:1; Col. 3:18 and Eph. 5:22. 1 Pt. 3:5-6 even connects this command with the submission of holy women of old: “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.”

As God has ordered the family, so goes the model for order in the church—the family of God.

To reverse or do away with, in the church, the order of authority that was established by God in creation, reestablished in the fall, and confirmed in the NT as the pattern for the family would be, as Bryan Chappell has said, “inordinate”—just plain wrong.[4] Indeed, when a woman takes for herself authority in the church that was given to man by God (similar to Eve), it undermines the order God has established. Paul calls such behavior “shameful” in 1 Cor. 14:35.

It is to the elders that God gives authority in the proclamation of his Word and judicial matters, both in doctrine and discipline, in his church. Always remember it’s God’s church, not ours. His house, his rules. The qualifications for one to become an elder (aka an overseer/bishop/or pastor) are found in Titus 1 and 1 Tim. 3, and are clearly specific to men. Not surprisingly, consistent with the family pattern of authority, some of the requirements for an elder are family related. An elder is required to be “a husband of one wife;” who “must manage his own household well;” and who keeps his “children submissive” … “for [as it says] if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”

To be clear, Scripture teaches that women are not to be elders, either in a teaching or ruling capacity. This includes what most people call a “pastor” today, which is a term taken from the command for elders to shepherd (i.e. pastor) the flock of God in 1 Pet. 5:1-2.

All this is not a new or strange understanding of God’s will, either. Like Paul says in 1 Cor 14:33b: “As is in all the churches of the saints…” Truly, as Wayne Grudem elaborates:

There is not one example in the entire Bible of a woman doing the kind of congregational Bible teaching that is expected of pastors/elders in the New Testament church. … [Indeed,] the overwhelming pattern through the entire history of the church has been that the office of pastor/elder (or its equivalent) has been reserved for men. [5]

Now, all this does not mean that women are to be put in a corner and told to keep to themselves, as if women have nothing to contribute to the body of Christ. In fact, Paul is absolutely clear that women, like men, have a great variety of Spiritual gifts that are to be fully used for the building up of the church throughout all of church life—women like Priscilla (Acts 18; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 16:19), who provides an encouragement for every woman.

Considering Priscilla, what about women, like her, who are Spiritually gifted as teachers?

Under the authority of the elders, according to God’s design, women, who have the gift of teaching, certainly have places to exercise that gift in the church towards the building up of the body of Christ. Examples abound in this very congregation, including Spiritually gifted and brilliant students of God’s Word who teach women’s Bible studies (Titus 2:4) and the youth’s Sunday school (2 Tim. 1:5). There are many noted ladies, both today and throughout this church’s (MPC’s) history that have used and continue to use their gifts in meaningful and impactful ways in the church. You know them, knew them, and many of you are them. And praise God for you! You are vital to this church—a gift to all of us.

Also, a woman’s use of her gift of teaching in the church is a broader field than just women’s Bible studies and the youth’s Sunday school. There are other contexts and forms of speech that are not a matter of authority. Remember how Priscilla and Aquila both instructed Apollos in private (Acts 18:26), explaining “to him the way of God more accurately?”

On this question, I’ll leave you with the words of Elisabeth Elliot, missionary to Ecuador and long-time Christian teacher and speaker. I was blessed to hear this amazing woman, a hero of the faith (as my Dad has called her), speak to our church when I was a kid. Well, she wrote concerning a woman using her gifts, in her article, “The Essence of Femininity:”

I would be the last to deny that women are given gifts that they are meant to exercise. But we must not be greedy in insisting on having all of them, in usurping the place of men. We are women, and my plea is Let me be a woman, holy through and through, asking for nothing but what God wants to give me, receiving with both hands and with all my heart whatever that is.[6]

So, another question raised on this topic might be “What if a woman senses the Spirit is calling or has called her to be a pastor—one who speaks and ministers with authority in the church?

The simple answer is that it is important to test the spirits with the Word of God (1 Jn. 4:1). The Spirit of God will not call anyone to do something counter to the teaching in his Word. While the experience of such a calling may seem very real, emotional, and, well, “spiritual” (and there may indeed be a spirit behind this experience) that spirit is not the Spirit of God. Was it not Satan who asked Eve, “Did God actually say… ?”

There is another side to this coin. Men, you are to step up! Men, you have a responsibility. It is by God’s authority that you have been given authority in your household and the church. When you fail in your responsibility, you make it very difficult for your wife to be obedient to the Lord in her submissiveness.

And, if you don’t know the Scriptures, how can your wife ask you questions concerning God’s Word and the teachings in the Church? Something she is told to do here in 1 Cor. 14:35.

Men you have a responsibility before God to be the spiritual leader of your household, and this includes the essential requirement that you know the Scriptures. Study the Scriptures. Know them, contemplate them, and discuss them with your wives. Take up the leadership and responsibility that God has put upon your shoulders in both the family and the church. Families need godly husbands and fathers and the church needs qualified elders, men. For when you leave a void in the place of authority you are supposed to fill, women will be sorely tempted to fill that void consistent with the God’s curse in Genesis 3:16. And so many women have done just that.

Further, men, if you vacate the place you were given by God, and women fill the void, who will fill the void left by the women?

Ladies, seek to find where you fit in the body of Christ with your particular gifts. God has a place for you in his family where you fit perfectly in his design. There, fulfilling your calling according to his Word and will, you will thrive, flourish, finding great blessing as the woman he created you to be. And you will bring great blessing upon his people, the church.

God has made his will known to us, in his Word, when it comes to how he orders his church, including the roles of men and women. This is a great blessing; it keeps us from chaos. We must also remember that the church is God’s church. He has not given us the right to decide to order things or to change the order of things contrary to his ordering for any reason.

It is a tragedy of our times that many churches have capitulated to the culture, when it comes to gender roles in God’s church, among other things. These errors very obviously stem from the pressures of the World upon the church to conform to its pattern, rather than conforming to the pattern that God has revealed in his Word. These churches have been deceived. But we must not let their error and their sin confuse us. For indeed, God did say not to eat of that tree.

Because God is a God of peace, we must submit to God’s order of gender roles.


[1] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 939.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 219.

[4] Bryan Chapell, “What Does 1 Corinthians 14 Mean When It Says Women Are to Keep Silent in the Church?”, published 30 June 2012, https://www.christianity.com/church/what-does-1-corinthians-14-mean-when-it-says-women-are-to-keep-silent-in-the-church.

[5] Grudem, 941-942.

[6] Elisabeth Elliot, “The Essence of Femininity: A Personal Perspective,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 404.