With the fall of the iron curtain, thrilling evangelistic opportunities have opened up
in Russia and Eastern Europe. Our hearts have been genuinely warmed as the
news reached our ears that thousands have embraced the gospel of Christ and
have organized congregations after the New Testament order. May Jehovah bless
such efforts, and may we lend our support to these new kinsmen in the Lord. Whenever the church is introduced into a new cultural environment, problems are
bound to arise. Such were the circumstances during the first century, and it is no
less true today. One difficulty that we are encountering in formerly communist
nations has to do with the role of women. In those countries women have long
been a force in the educational and industrial aspects of society. They have
assumed a great variety of leading roles. Accordingly, it may be difficult for some of our new sisters to adjust to the idea that woman’s public role in the church is
limited. The divinely imposed restriction is grounded in spiritual principles that are
universal and ageless, not in cultural peculiarities.
As our brothers have worked in Eastern Bloc countries in recent years, they
occasionally have encountered situations in which no male was present to
translate for the American preacher. Accordingly, some have employed native women who, standing alongside the evangelist before the assembly, translates his
message for the group. I have been told that on occasion a woman was selected to
do the interpreting even when a qualified man was present. I have no doubt that
those who are operating in this way are very sincere and honestly believe that they
are not compromising the teaching of the Scriptures. But are they? Perhaps the
pressing demands of these new opportunities caught us unprepared, without our having had the opportunity to study these matters as carefully as we might. This
study is offered in the hope that we can calmly examine the biblical data and draw
only such conclusions as are consistent with truth.
That women were employed as teachers of the gospel in the early church is
beyond controversy. No one will dispute the fact that the Great Commission
applies to women, who are required not only to submit to the gospel, but to proclaim it as well (Matt. 28:19,20). On the day of Pentecost, Peter hinted of
woman’s teaching role in the Christian economy (Acts 2:18). Priscilla, along with
her husband Aquila, was involved in instructing the eloquent Apollos more
accurately in the way of the Lord (Acts 18:26). The evangelist Philip had four
daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Women in the church at Corinth prophesied
(1 Cor. 11:5). Older Christian women were responsible to teach younger women the duties of domestic demeanor (Tit. 2:3,4). Women taught.
While the foregoing passages indicate that women functioned as teachers in the
primitive church, it is equally clear that their instructive capacity was restricted by
additional inspired information. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul required that women, in a
certain sense, remain quiet in the church assembly (34). In the apostle’s first letter
to Timothy, he declared that the woman may not teach in a situation during which she acts as an authority-figure over the man (2:12). For a further discussion of this
matter, see the author’s article, “Woman’s Role in the Church” in our “Archives”
First Corinthians, chapter 14, has frequently presented a difficulty for Bible
expositors. To what extent does it prohibit a woman speaking in a church
assembly? Some, focusing upon the term “silence” (sigao – vs. 34) contend that the assembly under consideration is one in which a woman could not utter a sound. It
was, they allege, a unique first-century situation, hence the restriction of this
passage really is not applicable today.
These brethren, I believe, have overlooked an important point. The term “silence”
of verse 34 is not employed absolutely, but relatively; i.e., it is qualified by the
context. For example, in his discussion of the abuses of spiritual gifts, Paul says that the brother who has the gift of tongues should keep “silence” if there is no one
to interpret for his alien audience (28). That obviously does not mean that he could
not utter a word during the entire church service; rather, he was to keep silence
insofar as the matter under consideration was concerned (cf. 30).
Similarly, the woman’s requirement to keep silence was not absolute. There was
only a certain sense in which she was not to “speak.” No one will argue that the women at Corinth were forbidden to sing, and yet singing is a form of speaking
(see Eph. 5:19).
Some respond by suggesting that the assembly of this setting was not the public
worship assembly. That does not seem to be true, however, since teaching,
praying, and singing are all mentioned within the context (cf. 14:15).
Furthermore, reference is made to “the whole church” being assembled (cf. 11:18,20) — with even unbelievers being present (23). It is obvious that this was a
public assembly. But consider this — even if it could be established that the meeting
of 1 Corinthians 14 was not a public gathering, how would this alter the basic
instruction? If the apostle forbade a woman to teach in this allegedly private
situation, does it stand to reason that he would condone her serving as a teacher
in a public gathering? Surely not. Moreover, even if one could somehow dispense with 1 Corinthians 14, he would
still have to reckon with 1 Timothy 2:12, which disallows a woman to assume the
role of a teacher in the assembly.
What then does the injunction regarding silence mean in the Corinthian context?
Many scholars would argue that Paul is teaching these saints the very same truth
that he later enunciated to Timothy. Here is an interpretive principle that is worthy of reflection. Whenever a biblical
writer addresses the same topic in different places, and yet one context is clearer
than the other, the more obscure should be viewed in light of the plainer.
When 1 Corinthians 14:34ff and 1 Timothy 2:12ff are placed side-by-side, it is
obvious that they deal with the same general theme. The Corinthian
correspondence is the more difficult to comprehend due to its lack of details. Thus, let the apostle’s more lucid instruction in his letter to Timothy bring the former
passage into focus. There are striking similarities in the language.
Woman not to speakWoman not to teach
Keep silence/subjectionBe quiet/subjection As saith the lawFor Adam was first
A consideration of these parallels suggests that the type of speaking forbidden in
the Corinthian letter was the same as the authoritative teaching prohibited in the
epistle to Timothy.
That being the case, it appears that Paul was cautioning the Corinthian women in
two respects: First, some were to cease interrupting their husbands during the services (perhaps they were inquiring as to the meaning of certain oracles; they
could satisfy their curiosity at home).
Second, even if a woman possessed a spiritual gift, she could not publicly exercise
it in the church assembly, for such violated her appointed role in the divine
constitution of things, as evidenced by the order of creation, and as a consequence
of her part in humanity’s original transgression (cf. 1 Tim. 2:13,14). Now to the issue at hand. Does standing before the assembly, translating a
message from God, constitute a violation of 1 Corinthians 14?
In this chapter, Paul discusses three spiritual gifts by which divine revelation was
conveyed to the congregation.
First, there was prophecy. This was the proclamation of truth to a group of the
same language as the speaker. Second, there was the gift of speaking in a tongue. This involved the supernatural
communication of revelation to an alien audience, the teacher having been
granted the ability to converse in a language he had never learned naturally.
Finally, there was the gift of interpretation (translation). This allowed a person with
a language gift to convey a message (by means of an inspired translator) to an
audience unable to discern the particular language gift which he possessed. What seems apparent from a consideration of all the details is this. Each of these
persons addressing the congregation functioned in the capacity of a public teacher
— whether by a message in the native dialect alone (as in prophecy), or by a
message in a foreign language (the case of tongue-speaking), or by a message, a
language, and a translation combined (the interpreter).
There seems to be no difference, from the divine viewpoint, in the teaching role being exercised by these speakers. Yet, it is within this very context that the
apostle plainly commands: “… let the women keep silence in the churches
[assemblies] ….”
If it was permissible for a woman to stand before the church and teach by means of
the translation process, just because the message did not actually originate with
her, but rather from a man ultimately, why did Paul not acknowledge that exception in his discussion?
Defensive Arguments
But some brethren -respectable brethren- believe the use of women translators is
defensible. The following is a review of some of the arguments being offered in
support of this practice.
“The woman translator is merely serving as an instrument-much like an amplifier. She is not actually doing the teaching.”
But the fact is, she is not a machine. She is a person, and she does not lose her
feminine personhood just because the message does not emanate from her.
Could a woman stand before an audience, receive her message from a distant
place via electronic transmission, and preach the gospel to a mixed group? If not,
what would be the objection? Here is an interesting question. Could a Christian woman memorize one of N.B.
Hardeman’s famous tabernacle sermons, deliver it to the church, and be justified
on the ground that the material did not originate with her — that she was merely
functioning as a “recording machine”?
Exactly what is “teaching”? Does it not involve communicating an understandable
message? Two people stand before an audience — a man and a woman. He speaks in a language the people do not understand; she conveys the message in a
language that is understood. Who is doing the teaching? Not the man alone. A
mere sound does not teach. It was on the basis of this principle that Paul forbade
tongue-speaking to an alien audience when no translator was present. If the
woman stops speaking, the teaching ceases. In concert, both are teaching. Paul
attributes the edification to the interpreter (14:5,12,13,26-28). An interpreter instructs (cf. 19).
In logic there is a principle that states that things which are equal to each other are
equal to the same thing. If it is the case that the man speaking to the assembly is
preaching, and if it is likewise the case that the woman beside him is doing exactly
the same thing that he is doing, then it logically follows that she is preaching as
well. Or to make the point even stronger — if it is the case that the man who speaks to
the audience is preaching (even though the group understands not a word he
says), then surely it is the case that the woman who speaks beside him (with the
assembly understanding every word she says) is similarly preaching.
“The woman translator is not exercising authority over the audience.”
But if it is the case that she is functioning in the role of a teacher of the group (as the paragraph above clearly indicates), then she is exercising the type of authority
that is prohibited by 1 Timothy 2:12. The grammatical construction of this passage
demonstrates that the position of a public teacher is a role of authority.
Consider this analogy. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. It was
the authoritative Word of God in that form. Does it lose that authority merely
because it passes through the translation process? It does not. Similarly, a mere change of language does not alter the fact that both the original speaker and the
translator are teaching in the same authoritative way.
“If a translator is actually a teacher, when we hire a non-Christian translator (as
has been the case in some mission situations), then we are hiring an unbeliever to
preach the gospel.”
This is a valid point. The question is — is either practice right? When Paul discussed a situation in the Corinthian assembly where someone had the gift of tongues, but
no interpreter was present, he told the tongue-speaker to keep silent. He did not
suggest that some unbeliever, who might be present (cf. 14:23,28), could be
employed as the translator if he were qualified.
When we go into a mission field, we need to go prepared to speak the gospel in
the native language. Would it be permissible to go into a mission region, hire a non-Christian translator, leave with him printed materials, and tell him to do the
teaching for us?
“Though Paul’s restriction of a woman’s speaking in the church assembly would
prohibit the ‘interpretation’ of a language, it would not forbid simple translation.
Interpretation and translation are different.”
The Greek term hermeneuo, and its related forms, are used in two different senses in the New Testament. The word can denote an “explanation.”
Following His resurrection, Jesus encountered two disciples on the road to
Emmaus. In the course of their conversation, the Lord “interpreted” (explained) to
them the things that had been written concerning Himself in the law of Moses and
the prophets (Lk. 24:27).
On the other hand, these kindred terms can have to do with the “translation” of words from one language into another. For instance, at Joppa there was a disciple
whose name was Tabitha, which by “interpretation” (i.e., translation – from Aramaic
to Greek) was rendered Dorcas (Acts 9:36). The context must determine whether
an “explanation” or a “translation” is in view.
Clearly, in 1 Corinthians 14 the gift of “interpretation” was the inspired ability to
translate a divine message, initially given in a foreign tongue, into the vernacular of the audience. This is clearly evidenced by Paul’s allusion to the many kinds of
voices in the world (10), and his reference to the barbarian (a non-Greek-speaking
person) in verse 11 (cf. Acts 28:2). I have discussed the nature of these tongues
more fully in my tract, Speaking in Tongues.
Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider note that:
“Paul demands that tongue speakers express themselves in the assembly only when an hermeneutes is present and able to translate and make intelligible to the
congregation what has been said in the tongues” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New
Testament, Eerdmans, 1991, Vol. 2, p. 54).
I have examined a number of language authorities on the use of “interpretation” in
1 Corinthians 14. Those who suggest that the term is employed of “explanation”
invariably contend that the “tongues” of this chapter are “ecstatic utterances” — not human languages. And so, when the apostle enjoins a woman to silence, it is
within a context that includes audible translation.
“The context of 1 Corinthians 14, which forbade a woman to speak, dealt with the
miraculous. It is thus not appropriate to introduce that situation as a precedent for
the present circumstances.”
The fact that the speaking in 1 Corinthians 14 was miraculous has nothing to do with the argument. A woman’s silence is enjoined because of her gender, not the
miraculous nature of what is done. Are we to believe that the apostle would forbid
an inspired woman to exercise the gifts mentioned in chapter 14 (which included
translation), and yet he would allow the practice for an uninspired woman of our
day? Does that really ring true?
“If we can utilize a woman to ‘sign’ for the deaf, then we can employ a woman to translate for the preacher.”
First, in some situations, “signing” may not be parallel to publicly preaching the
word. A woman might sit silently, sign to a few nearby folks, and the arrangement
be more comparable to an informal conversation.
Second, if there is a parallel between public teaching (as in the translating
procedure) and signing, and the former is shown to be inappropriate, then signing should be limited to men. Two wrongs do not make a right.
What if there were a congregation composed of those who can hear and those
who are deaf. The only qualified preacher in that church is a deaf brother, and the
only person qualified to interpret sign is a woman. Can the brother sign to one
group while the sister audibly preaches to the remainder of the church? If those
who are advancing this argument would object, they must analyze why such should not be done.
“If we do not use women translators, many will be deprived of the gospel.”
The same argument could be made regarding women preachers. Suppose there is
a mission region ripe for the gospel, and the only available person to go is a
woman. Can she preach, establish a church, and direct its worship simply because
there is no man to carry on these functions? Again, we need to fully prepare to do the work upon which we have embarked. We
must not compromise the truth in order that good may abound.
Some are saying: “If there is no man to do the work, I don’t see the harm in it.” If it
is intrinsically right for a woman to serve in this capacity, then it is right for her to do
it regardless of whether there are qualified men to do the work.
“When we engage in ‘part singing’ within our assemblies, sometimes the women have parts where they alone are singing. This is comparable to the woman
translator circumstance.”
The analogy is false. The woman who is singing has not assumed the “teacher”
role over the male (as addressed in 1 Timothy 2:12). Paul did not forbid women to
sing in his letter to Corinth, but he did prohibit them from speaking in a context
where translating was being discussed (1 Cor. 14:15,33,34). That aside, this is the very argument that some have used in defense of women
preachers in general, and more recently it has been employed to justify women
singing solos in the worship assembly.
“The woman-translator is doing no more than the lady who comes to the front of
the assembly and confesses Christ prior to baptism.”
Surely this cannot be a serious argument. Suppose a woman responds to the invitation and states her desire to become a Christian. The preacher asks: “Do you
believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?”
She responds: “I do, and with your permission, I have prepared a presentation —
which will not take more than thirty minutes. It expresses the nature of biblical faith
as I see it. May I speak to the church?”
What do you suppose his response would be? There is a clear difference between making a simple confession of faith and functioning in the role of a teacher.
Brethren who are working in foreign fields need to give this matter some protracted
study. We do not question their motives. They are sincere and dedicated people.
We understand the situation of being caught in a novel arrangement without
having had the opportunity to carefully analyze the circumstances and make a more deliberate decision. Still, we must be scriptural.
The practice of using women translators in the public assembly should be
reconsidered for the following reason.
It is without scriptural authority.
It transgresses explicit apostolic instruction (1 Cor. 14:33,34; 1 Tim. 2:12).
The practice will create dissension among sound brethren. It is setting a precedent that will escalate and have long-range consequences in
the mission field and at home. Already we have heard of cases where women have
taken the initiative to lead prayers and singing because they felt they were the
best qualified.
May God help us to give serious and prayerful consideration to these matters.
SCRIPTURE REFERENCES Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 2:18; Acts 18:26; Acts 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5; Titus 2:3,
4; 1 Corinthians 14; Ephesians 5:19; 1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34; 1
Timothy 2; Luke 24:27; Acts 9:36; Acts 28:2; 1 Corinthians 14:15, 33, 34; 1
Corinthians 14:33, 34


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