The right and orderly exercise of the gifts of tongues and prophecy in public has been Paul’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 14, but this is not all that occupies his attention. In today’s passage, he addresses another issue—namely, women speaking in worship.
Paul explains that “women should keep silent in the churches” (vv. 33–34). However, it seems clear that the Apostle does not mean for women to be completely silent in every church setting or even in every worship service. For example, Paul apparently takes it for granted that at least some women will pray and prophesy in public (11:4–5), whatever that would have entailed in the first century context. Instead, the Apostle has in view women speaking as ordained teachers in the church. This comports well with 1 Timothy 2:11–15, where Paul gives a similar injunction for women to learn in submission and in silence and not “to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” Essentially, Paul is telling us in 1 Timothy 2 and in 1 Corinthians 14 that women are not to be ordained to the office of teaching elder. The Apostle may also be forbidding women from taking part in the evaluation of prophetic speech (see 1 Cor. 14:29), but as the gift of prophecy has ceased, the primary application for us regards the matter of women’s ordination to the public teaching ministry.
Paul’s justification for limiting the church’s public teaching ministry to men is grounded in the law’s teaching that women should be in submission (v. 34). The Apostle does not name the specific text to which he refers, but most likely he has in view Genesis 1–2, where the fact that Adam was made before Eve demonstrates that men have authority in the church and home (see also 11:2–16; 1 Tim. 2:11–14). In keeping with this, women, when they have a desire to learn, should ask questions of their husbands at home, since it “is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35). Most likely, women were somehow disrupting the Corinthian worship services with their questions and comments, so Paul gives this direction to preserve orderly worship.
Note that Paul does not say that men should never learn anything from women. His point is that when the church gathers for worship and to sit under the authoritative preaching and teaching of God’s Word, women are called to preserve God’s order.