Women Praying and Speaking in the Assembly

But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. (1 Cor. 11:5)

A couple of weeks ago I opened this passage to my Wednesday evening class and noted that women, in the first century, spoke and even prayed in mixed company. Perhaps even in the assembly. One inquired why I thought this was the assembly to which I pointed them to the following context of the Lord’s Supper appearing. However, some contend that a transition of settings appears to occur in 1 Cor 11:17–18 given the rhetoric. Others include all of 1 Cor 11 in an assembly text. The former might relieve the tension of whether or not women spoke in the assembly when worship occurred—as we’d tend to demarcate it—but it still doesn’t diminish the stress existing in churches of Christ wherein all cases only men should offer prayers in mixed company (cf. 1 Tim. 2:8).¹

Unfortunately, as we were given this careful study and as questions arose, time ran out, and we couldn’t settle the matter which, if the Lord wills, we shall do this evening. Some of the noted points were these:

  • Prophetesses existed in the early church as so prophesied by Peter in Acts 2:17–21.
  • These prophetesses obviously never only spoke to other women about their prophecies, else the church couldn’t be edified as Paul later lauded such (1 Cor. 14:1–5).
  • The whole issue in 1 Cor 11:2–16 was head coverings, so we shouldn’t make the point what Paul didn’t make it.
  • As I would be given to understand the whole context, prophetesses, were they in the formal assembly, should cover their heads when they prayed and prophesied to show themselves subjected to God’s order despite being gifted.

The whole of the issue, I believe, is concluded in 1 Cor 14:33–35 when all women were commanded to be silent in the assembly. Paul wasn’t only picking on women as some might suggests, but he had earlier even commanded those who spoke in tongues without an interpreter to be silent (14:28) as well as other prophets when one spoke (14:30). Therefore, this isn’t a case of a misogynist Paul holding women back. Instead, he aimed to bring order to the assembly, especially one that had become in such disarray (14:33, 40).

I have read other, egalitarian commentaries on this passage. They have many excellent points, but there have been enough that I disagree with to not myself see the matter as they do. Historically, women did not have the same places of instruction as men. They had offices in which they served, but that service so far as I know did not include formal instruction in the assembly. This isn’t to say that they couldn’t do it or lacked the knowledge, but that in the solemn assembly of the body of Christ, it wasn’t their station to do so.

¹ See the essay by Everett Ferguson, “Topos in 1 Timothy 2:8,” Restoration Quarterly 33 (1991): 65–73 where he argues that “everywhere” in 1 Tim 2:8 designated places of assembly for worship (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15). This would exclude other sites, understandably, and thus render it permissible for women to pray in mixed company so long as the church wasn’t formally assembled for the liturgy (cf. Acts 13:1–3).

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