What Did Uriah Smith Teach On Women Speaking In the Church?

“Let Your Women Keep Silence in the Churches.”

June 26, 1866 editorial by Uriah Smith, editor

Whether or not a woman has a right to take part in the public worship of God, has been with many, a serious question on account of the one declaration of Paul, found in 1 Corinthians 14:34, 35, of which the heading to this article forms a part, and which has been supposed to refer to this subject. The whole passage as follows: “’Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything let them ask their husbands at home; for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

Taken independently of its connection, and in a general sense, it is not strange perhaps that this passage should suggest itself to some minds as a prohibition of any public participation in the worship of God on the part of females. Taken however in connection with the other instruction of the apostle with which it stands, and in view of the part assigned to females in other portions of the word of God, the evidence is to our mind conclusive that it is not designed so to teach.

  1. In spiritual matters, women have, in almost every age of the world, had an important part to act. Go back about thirteen hundred years before Christ, and we find Deborah a judge of Israel. She was a prophetess; and Israel sought to her for judgement, and received counsel and instruction at her hand. Judges 4:4-9.
  2. About seven hundred years after this, another prophetess appears in the record, 2 Kings 22:14-20. When Hilkiah, the high priest, found the book of the law which had lain for long years concealed in the house of the Lord, and had caused it to be read before Josiah, the king; the king rent his clothes, and sent the high priest with others to Huldah, the prophetess, to inquire of the Lord concerning this matter. And the Lord gave to the king and people through her, a fearful threatening of the overthrow of Jerusalem on account of the sins which had been committed.
  3. We come down to the birth of Christ, and there we find another prophetess acting a conspicuous part in the public worship of God. When the infant Saviour was brought into the temple, Anna, a prophetess, “coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36-38. Here we have an instance of a woman’s publicly teaching in the temple, and giving instruction to all them who were looking for redemption in the city of Jerusalem.
  4. In the great prophecy concerning the spiritual features of the present dispensation, Joel 2:28, 29, daughters as well as sons, handmaids as well as servants, were mentioned as those upon whom the Spirit should be poured, and through whom its operations should be manifested. Now can we suppose that Paul would give directions concerning the same subject, to apply at the same time, and lay down a rule which would completely cut off the prophecy of Joel from fulfillment on the part of the daughters and handmaids? Certainly not.
  5. We read in Acts 21:8, 9, of Philip, the evangelist, one of the seven, who had four daughters who did prophesy. Paul and his company came into his house in the year A.D. 60, one year after he had written to the Corinthians to have their women keep silence in the churches; but we do not read that he uttered any rebuke, or urged any protest, against their following their calling, and speaking to the disciples, to their edification and comfort.
  6. Paul, in Romans 16, A.D. 60, mentions Phebe as a servant of the church, Priscilla as one of his helpers in Christ Jesus, Tryphena and Tryphosa, as those who labored in the Lord, and Persis as one who labored much in the Lord, all women and fellow-helpers of the apostle. In Acts 18, 26, we read further of Priscilla, that in connection with her husband Aquila, she took Apollos and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly—a woman expounding the way of the Lord, and that too to a no less renowned personage than the eloquent Apollos. In Philippians 4:3, Paul speaks of other of his sisters in the church as follows: “And I entreat thee, also, true yokefellow, help those women which labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlaborers, whose names are in the book of life.” Here are women mentioned as laboring with Paul in the gospel, and whom he ranks with Clement, as his fellow-laborers. Can we suppose that these women were altogether silent in the churches?
  7. In chapter 11:5, in this same epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives directions how the women should be attired while praying or prophesying in the public congregation, or “when they were come together in the church.” Verse 18. In verse 4 he says, “Every man praying or prophesying with his head covered, dishonoreth his head.” Then he proceeds to give directions in regard to the women, “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered, dishonoreth her head.” Here praying and prophesying are allotted to the woman no less than to the man. In chapter 14:3, he tells us what it is to prophesy: “He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification and exhortation and comfort.” In this way then it was designed by the apostle that women should speak in the church. There is no evading this conclusion; and the way some attempt to avoid it, is a little singular. Commentators of high standing, to save their position on chapter 14:34, that women should take no part in the public worship of God, explain Paul’s language in chapter 11:5, in reference to women’s praying or prophesying, by saying that Paul here “gave directions how it should be done, provided any such thing were allowable; but he did not mean to intimate that women ever would pray or prophesy; and in chapter 14, 34, he expressly forbids it.” We may be sure that the apostle indulges in no such trifling.
  8. No one will certainly contend that Paul excludes females from being members of the church. Yet in chapter 14:23, 24, he speaks about the whole church being come together, and all speaking with tongues, and all prophesying. This would include the sisters equally with the brethren.

We are thus brought to the question, What does Paul then mean by the language? “Let your women keep silence in the churches?” From the evidence thus far presented, we can take our stand positively on what he does not mean. He does not mean taking such public part in the service of God, as that of which we have such prominent examples in both the Old and New Testaments. He does not mean to cut off the prophecy of Joel from a great part of its fulfillment. He does not mean to contradict his own directions expressed in chapter 6:5. Hence he does not mean to forbid any kind of public exercise by which “edification, exhortation or comfort” is given to the church. If he does not mean any of these things, then there is a positive contradiction between Paul, and other sacred writers, and between Paul and Paul; which Bible believers will not be ready to admit; and if he does not mean any of these things, then his language is far removed from furnishing any objection to women’s taking part in the public worship of God, as conducted at the present day.

The question still remains, What does the language mean? On this point we may not be able to arrive at so definite conclusions, as on the inquiry, what it does not mean; but there are grounds for certain inferences, which are both fair and necessary.

  1. Paul is correcting wrongs and irregularities that existed in the Corinthian church. There were occasions when it was improper even for the men to speak. See verses 27-30. We may justly infer therefore that what he says in reference to the women, is of the same nature, and that the speaking he refers to is that which would be out of order, and cause confusion in the church.
  2. The antithesis of the command, “Let your women keep silence in the churches,” is expressed in these words: “But they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” This shows that the speaking which is prohibited, is of that kind which would show that they were not under obedience. But what is meant by being under obedience? The Scriptures represent, that a subordinate position, in a certain sense, is assigned to the woman, for the reasons that she was formed from the man, and at a subsequent time, was first in transgression. 1 Corinthians 11:8, 1 Timothy 2:13, 14. The leadership and authority is vested in the man. “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16. This order is not to be reversed, and the woman take the position which has been assigned to the man; and every action on her part which shows that she is usurping this authority, is disorderly, and not to be allowed. Hence Paul says plainly to Timothy, 1 Timothy 2:12, “But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” There is no doubt but it was the very same point, the usurping of authority over the man, that the same apostle had in view in 1 Corinthians 14:34.
  3. The following remarks from Dr. Clarke, doubtless convey the true idea: “It is evident from the context that the apostle refers here to asking questions, and what we call dictating in the assemblies. It was permitted to any man to ask questions, to object, altercate, attempt to refute, &c. in the synagogue; but this liberty was not allowed to any woman. St. Paul confirms this in reference also to the Christian church; he orders them to keep silence; and if they wished to learn anything, let them inquire of their husbands at home; because it was perfectly indecorous for women to be contending with men, in public assemblies on points of doctrine, cases of conscience, &c. But this by no means intimated that when a woman received any particular influence from God to enable her to teach, she was not to obey that influence; on the contrary she was to obey it; and the apostle lays down directions in chap. ix, for regulating her personal appearance when thus employed. All that the apostle opposes here is their questioning, finding fault, disputing, &c. in the Christian church, as the Jewish men were permitted to do in their synagogues; together with the attempts to usurp any authority over the man, by setting up their judgment in opposition to them; for the apostle has in view, especially, acts of disobedience, arrogance, &c. of which no woman would be guilty who was under the influence of the Spirit of God.” On the words, “It is a shame for women to speak in the church,” he says, “The apostle refers to irregular conduct as proved that they were not under obedience.”

That it was some such irregularity which the apostle was combating in the Corinthian church, appears further from the challenge he gives them in verse 36: “What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only?” That is, did Christianity originate with you? Or are you the only church that has received the true light, that things should be tolerated in your midst which are not allowed in other churches?

Such being the nature of the things prohibited by the apostle, who can say that he has any reference to such testimony as faithful Christian women bear when they rise to speak a word for the Lord and his truth, to the strengthening of themselves, and the comfort, edification, and encouragement of all the church?

Check out what J. H. Waggoner taught on this subject ~

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