When Men Should Be Silent in Church, According to the Apostle Paul

Coptic Church in Egypt

Photo courtesy of Katherine Nawar.

The apostle Paul is too often (and unfairly) criticized as being a male chauvinist (i.e., excessively displaying prejudiced loyalty for men over women).

One of the main remarks leveraged against him is what he says regarding the need for women to be silent in the church (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:33-35). While I could attempt to alleviate much of the discomfort or distaste you may have by providing you a lengthy discourse on the historical context of his statement and how it was understood by the early Christians, I would rather focus on leveling the playing field by telling you something you may not know: he told men to keep silent in church too!

But how can that be! If the women are silent, and men are silent, what kind of worship service would that be?

The answer to the question can be summed up in the following paraphrase of one of St. Paul’s letters, which teaches us: If you are reading, teaching, singing, or praying in church in a language that no one understands and you do not provide an interpretation for the edification of those listening, then you should keep silent.

Let me quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians so you can see for yourself. First, he tells us the overarching purpose of all that happens in church:

“Let all things be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26).

With that foundational goal in mind, we see several comments by St. Paul about the need for interpretation of languages utilized which are not understood by all, and then he tells us:

“If there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:18).

Is St. Paul just a spiteful person who desires to oppress the masses by demanding their silence for no purpose whatsoever? Of course not. For all things we focus on the edification of those we serve. He even tells us that that he applies the same rule to himself. This man of God, who established so many churches and converted the masses by his preaching, who wrote 14 out of the 27 writings in the New Testament, who was arguably the most vocal of all the apostles, whose words have reached our hearts to the present day, said he would rather keep silent than speak in a language that his hearers do not understand or which have no interpretation. He says,

“I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19).

As you see, the reason for this lies in a deeply rooted tradition within Christianity regarding one of the primary reasons for our gathering at liturgical services, which is to “teach others” (1 Corinthians 14:19). The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann of the Orthodox Church in America wrote a wonderful book on this subject entitled, “Christian Development Through Liturgical Life.” He describes how, before Sunday school and other modern day methods of teaching Christianity to the masses were employed, people used to be taught by oral instruction, which we refer to by the term catechesis (derived from the Greek word literally meaning teaching by word of mouth). The Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church was designed to offer a liturgical catechesis. If you look closely at the rites and order of the Liturgy, you will find how it was designed around the goal of teaching. Fr. Schmemann provides the example of the rites and readings during Lent and Holy (Passover) Week, which traditionally ended by baptizing those who had been receiving instruction through sermons and by means of the liturgy during a vigil the night before celebrating the resurrection of Christ. He also reminds us that the first portion of the Divine Liturgy is called the “Liturgy of the Catechumens,” not only because they were specifically designated to attend this part of the service, but because then and now it is meant to provide Liturgical catechesis for those present. Fr. Schmemann writes,

“‘Liturgical catechesis’ is not just an interesting custom of the ancient Church, but the traditional method of religious education, an organic part of the very nature of the Church and of its conception of spiritual ‘enlightenment.'”

People have forgotten that the assembling at church is not simply attending a service at some physical structure we call our church, but instead that our assembling is the Church, and that assembling has the goal of building up each member of the body of Christ. Fr. Schmemann tells us that Christians too often see their attendance at church as a means of deriving “satisfaction” for having “fulfilled their religious duty.”

“But the modern Christian has forgotten, or perhaps has never known, that these aims are secondary when compared to the main goal: the edification of the Church of Christ, the growth of all in the new unity in Christ that they received in baptism and always receive in the Holy Eucharist.”

Keep that in mind as I explain what prompted this blog post in the first place. All of my life, and just as recently as last Sunday, I have had to observe the unfortunately common occurrence which has me literally shaking my head more often that I should: men in the church who are leading the worship service chanting but edifying no one. In the Coptic Church, Egyptians use the ancient Egyptian language known today as Coptic. As with many Orthodox churches throughout the world, we maintain the use of our language preserved as part of our rich heritage (which I am in complete agreement with), but every so often we forget that if we do not properly interpret what is being spoken (whether in prayer, chanting, reading, or any other means), then it is better for us to remain silent. The Coptic Church has expended tremendous efforts providing an interpretation to what is being said, whether that be in Arabic, Coptic, or English. You can find those efforts in the form of not just Liturgical books with side-by-side translations of Liturgical texts, but also in presentations that are displayed during the service for all to see projected in front of them. Sometimes, however, a special hymn’s translation from Coptic to English and/or Arabic is not made available for everyone. Yet, you will still find the men chanting deciding that it is perfectly alright to continue chanting in a tongue that is not interpreted and is unknown to all present when they could have just as easily chanted in a known language. Imagine standing up in front of a congregation and singing the following words: “blah blah blah blah blah blah.” Imagine that what is being said was intended to serve the purpose of Liturgical catechesis, instructing them in order to build them up spiritually. Now tell me, what has “blah blah blah blah blah blah” done for you? St. Paul tells us what effect the chanting is supposed to have: the person attending should feel “convinced” and “convicted” by what he hears, so much so that he feels that the “secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).

Therefore, as St. Paul said he would do himself if he were standing up there with those men chanting in church, keep silent, or else provide an interpretation so that people will be edified and learn from what you have said. That is why you are there, to edify others and not just yourself.

7 thoughts on “When Men Should Be Silent in Church, According to the Apostle Paul

  1. Thank you John. This is excellent. I have recently become a member of a Coptic church that does all the hymns in English and seeks to make the liturgy and rites of the Coptic church accessible to everyone especially those in the community in which the church is located (city of Chicago). For the first time in my entire life of attending the Coptic church, despite knowing the hymns in Coptic, and growing up in a family of cantors and deacons, I truly understand and partake in the liturgy and liturgical worship because I understand it. God bless your efforts in this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amen! What a beautifully written piece. Fr. Alexander was someone who understood the transformative power of liturgy and the importance of the liturgical life in the life of every Christian. Language is the first step into helping us come to that understanding and way of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey john

    Thanks for this post, im really with you on this post but I feel as though the translation in written form is not really going far enough. There are several references in the bible to opening our lips and the words that come out of our mouths, especially when it comes to coptic I would dare to say that most people are not conscious of the meaning of the words they are saying at that point.
    So basically I feel like this is a compromise but I think that worshipping in spirit and truth would look a little different.
    On the other hand I mean at least we are making a joyful noise onto the Lord , but I think a prayer of depth means that everyone understands as a un debatable minimum so that we can even begin to
    Descend from the mind into the heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with the ideal, and I hope for it as you do, although even if we are not meeting the ideal I’m glad to see when we are at least headed in the right direction, doing what we can with what we have to move forward mindful of the right Scriptural principles. I definitely wish for very far-reaching reformations for a church tailored to those who do not feel comfortable with Coptic and Arabic, and with Egyptian culture (see my post about the American Orthodox Church of Alexandria).

      However, in the meantime, I would say there is no excuse that any person should not pray with depth, as prayer of depth depends on each person… Imagine the Saint Pope Kyrillos VI walking into a Russian Orthodox Church and not understanding a word, and not saying a word, but he could pray with such depth that a pillar of fire would be seen from earth to heaven. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to facilitate depth of heart by engaging everyone with appropriate accomodations, but I fear some use current circumstances and whatever inadequacies are regarded to be present as an excuse NOT to engage deeply in prayer. “I don’t understand anything” or “It’s all in Arabic” or “I don’t like Coptic” … all can be simply a means of justifying oneself not to engage. Think of all the Arabic-only speakers who have to sit in liturgies in the southern diocese that are almost always English… They could choose to disengage or they can engage on their own with depth of heart, with guidance from a book or the screen if they choose, until maybe in the future a better solution will be implemented to accommodate for them.


  4. Pingback: Get Rid of Coptic? When Coptic Is Not Edifying… | ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN MEETS WORLD

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