Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that women should keep silent in church, and I was wondering if this verse is taken out of context? Did Paul mean that women can never speak in church?
That passage of Scripture is often taken out of context. Like most controversies in scripture, this one can be diffused simply by returning to the context – in this case, the context of 1 Corinthians 14. In that chapter Paul is addressing the proper nature and order of worship in the Corinthian church. From the entire chapter, it's clear that this church's worship service had deteriorated into a wild free-for-all. Men and women were speaking over one another, vying for a chance to offer a “word from the Lord,” often speaking at the same time as others, some even pitching themselves into a physical frenzy to gain greater attention. Others were speaking in tongues yet without an interpreter present. The whole service must have resembled a mob scene or even an insane asylum (see v. 23).
In chapter 14 Paul sets out to instruct the church in Corinth on how to conduct a proper, edifying worship service (see v. 12). Paul devotes the first half of the chapter to rebuking the Corinth church for focusing too much on the gift of tongues (a tendency still found in the modern-day Pentecostal movement), and as a result the church was misusing the gift during the service. After v. 25, Paul moves beyond the issue of speaking in tongues to talk more generally about the order of worship.
In v. 26 Paul says that a plurality of gifts is required for the edification of the Body, and he provides several rules for how the various utterance gifts are to be used in the service. Paul’s first requirement is that the act of speaking in tongues must be joined with the services of an interpreter. Secondly, the gift of teaching should be limited to only two or three teachers speaking during a service (Paul calls these teachers "prophets" in v. 29). Third, if God gives a teacher who is seated in the audience a revelation in the moment, then the teacher leading the service should yield the floor to the seated teacher (v. 30).
Finally, the “spirits of prophecy” are to remain subject to the prophets (vs.31-32). In other words, prophets (teachers) are to keep themselves under physical control while teaching. If the teacher loses control of his body while speaking (i.e., flies into a frenzy or foams at the mouth, etc.), then the spirit controlling the man is not to be considered from God (v. 33). Men under the influence of the Holy Spirit should remain calm and in control, but men under demonic influence often exhibit wild physical mannerisms, as is often described in the Gospels.
Then Paul turns to the subject of women. In light of what Paul’s been teaching to this point in the chapter (i.e., establishing order in the gathering), it's easy to understand why he instructs women to remain silent. Paul didn’t issue a general prohibition against woman speaking at all, but rather it was a specific prohibition against interrupting or contending with the teaching done by men. Paul was instructing women not to interrupt the teaching in the service. Remember, the problem in this church was the complete absence of proper order in the worship service, so Paul is laying down ground rules to help re-establish order.
Because men hold the authority in the church (under the headship of Christ), women may only teach (or contend with teaching) under a man's spiritual headship. When a man teaches in the service, a women should not interrupt the man nor challenge him in his teaching. If she has a question about the teaching, she should turn to her husband for the answer. If he can’t answer her, then the husband has responsibility to raise the issue with the teacher on behalf of his family.
We believe Paul's teaching still holds true for churches today, though the church rarely has reason to apply it since it's no longer customary for members of the congregation (whether men or women) to interrupt the speaker during a church service. If a church were to permit the congregation to question the teacher during the sermon, however, then we would expect the church to observe Paul's direction concerning women. Questions should only come from men, while women who have questions should ask the male head in her family (or another family) to bring the question forward.
Please consult our complete teaching on this topic found in our 1 Corinthians Bible study. If you would like more background on the Biblical basis for male headship in the Christian family and in the Church, we recommend you listen to our Genesis course.