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Let Her Lead Theology

1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Should Women Be Silent in Church?

We’re almost at the end of our biblical exploration of what the Bible has to say about gender roles in ministry. This post will be the last on that topic. Then in just one post, I’ll address what gender roles, if any, should be held in the family. Finally, I’ll close out this series with a few posts on application and personal reflection as I’ve journeyed through this process of changing my view.

One of the most controversial passages from Paul on gender comes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Here it is in the ESV:

[T]he women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

This seems so harsh of Paul, doesn’t it? What in the world is going on here? Let’s dig in.

Two Verses, So Many Possibilities

When we look around at how Christians have interpreted these words, we find that there are no less than seven major interpretations on verses 34-35![1] Seven!

Any time a verse or passage has that many possibilities, it’s a big clue that we shouldn’t build a doctrine or practice on that passage. Christians can “agree to disagree” on this text.

Let’s get one thing clear right away, however: Paul cannot be saying that women are not allowed to speak in church. Why? Because 1 Corinthians 11:5 implies that Paul expects women will pray and prophesy in church! Paul wouldn’t contradict himself.

Whatever 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is saying, we can be sure it’s not a timeless prohibition against women speaking in church. So what does it mean?

A Common Complementarian View

One of the more common views among leading complementarians goes like this: Paul means that women are to be silent in reference to the evaluation of prophecy.[2]

I believe complementarians need to interpret this passage this way in order to maintain their practice of not allowing women to “exercise authority over men.” Is the complementarian view accurate though? I think it fails to take into consideration several things:

  1. While Paul mentioned weighing prophecies in verse 29, that’s not in close proximity to verses 34-35. Would the Corinthians have made the connection between verses 29 and verses 34-35?
  2. If women can prophesy (11:5; 14:26, 31), why wouldn’t they be allowed to judge a prophecy?
  3. The women in quesiton are not in a place to evaluate prophecies. Paul words clearly call them to learn at home by asking their husbands. It seems they don’t understand what’s going on in the worship gathering at all!
  4. The larger theme in chapter 14 is order-disorder in worship. If women did evaluate prophecies, that would actually contribute to order. The issue must be some other kind of disruptive speech.

I believe there are at least two better interpretive options for Christians who want to be faithful to the text of Scripture. Let’s look at both of those options.

Option 1: Purposeful Silence For Undistrubed Worship

Paul’s priority in chapter 14 is to help the Corinthians understand that disorder in the worship gathering keeps people from being edified. Put positively, well-ordered worship benefits everyone because then everyone can understand what’s going on.

First-century worship gatherings were much more participatory than ours today. There was plenty of opportunity for confusion and chaos to break out because everyone–not just one man on stage–was involved in speaking, teaching, and, yes, even leading. Hence the call for silence on certain occasions.

The word “silent” (Gk sigaō) occurs in verse 34 and two other times in this chapter:

  • In verse 28, someone speaking in another language must be silent if no one can interpret for everyone else to understand.
  • In verse 30, if multiple people want to prophesy, the prophet who has already spoken should be silent when another is ready to speak.
  • In verse 34, if women want to learn something, they are to be silent during the gathering and ask their husbands at home.

Any kind of speech that disturbs worship should stop until it is appropriate.

Each of these occurrences of sigaō is in the present, active indicative. By using this verb form, Paul calls for particular individuals to pause speaking for a specific reason at a specific time–not for all time. Any kind of speech that disturbs worship should stop until it is appropriate.

Sigaō is only used ten times in the New Testament. It is never used in a way to command silence forever. It’s always immediate and occasional.

Bill Rudd writes, “By addressing these groups, Paul did not assume that every tongues-speaker, prophet, or woman was part of the problem. It is likely that these three parallel scenarios involved a few people who needed to stop speaking so others could participate.”[3]

The female prophets referred to in chapter 11 are not called to stop prophesying![4] After all, they don’t need to learn something from their husbands at home. They are actually the ones doing the instructing alongside male prophets![5]

Why does Paul emphasize female silence? What about men? Is this where we see Paul the Middle Eastern chauvinist rear his ugly head? I don’t think so.

As we’ve discussed before, it’s a well-known fact that women in the first century were not as educated as men. Women didn’t enjoy the same social and business opportunities, and their understanding of Greek and other local languages was less refined than men because of it. Simply, women were at an extreme disadvantage in any social setting, including in the church.[6]

Add to all this the fact that Corinth was one of the most diverse cities in the Roman Empire.[7] This is why Paul spends an entire chapter addressing “languages” (aka “tongues,” i.e. languages other than Greek) and interpreting those languages for the benefit of everyone.

If the entire point of chapter 14 is the intelligibility of speech in the worship gathering, doesn’t it seem likely that there were some women who were confused at what was being said during worship? Isn’t it plausible, even probable, that some women started to interrupt with questions or chat among themselves as humans often do when they’re unengaged?

Kenneth Bailey paraphrases Paul’s message to the Corinthian women:

[Women,] I know your Greek is limited. But your husbands have learned a bit more Greek than you have managed to absorb. They have to in order to function on the job. You have not had this chance and it is not your fault. But things have gotten out of hand on a number of levels. Please be helpful and put your questions to your husbands after you return home. I have just told the speakers when to be quiet. This is a situation in which you also need to listen quietly even if you can’t follow what is said.[8]

Understood this way in the Corinthians’ context, we begin to see Paul as a compassionate and gracious friend willing to guide the Corinthians as they learn how to worship together.

Option 2: Paul Refutes a Corinthian Quotation

The second possibility is that Paul quotes a Corinthian belief and then refutes it. He does this often throughout the letter (6:12; 7:1-2; 8:1; 8:22-23; 10:23).

Verses 33b-35 is the Corinthian quotation; verses 36-38 is the refutation.[9]

I’ve heard the argument that this quote is “too long” to be an actual quote. Why? Because the other quotations Paul cites (see above) aren’t that long.

My response: haven’t you ever read an article with long and short quotes?

Who’s to say Paul can’t cite a four-word quote here and a four-sentence quote somewhere else? Why do we think we’re the arbiter of what Paul can and can’t do?

Is it a quote or not? We have good reasons to believe it is.

First, the end of verse 34 includes something odd. It says that women are to be in submission/subject “as the law also says.” But there is not one place in the Old Testament where women are told to be silent or to be submissive to men.

There is not one place in the Old Testament where women are told to be silent or to be submissive to men.

Complementarians argue that Paul refers to the Old Testament in general or Genesis 2 where Adam is the “firstborn.”[10]

But this doesn’t make the best sense of “the Law” (capital L for Torah Law), especially as Paul uses it in his letters.

This must be referring to some other law entirely.

Beth Allison Barr, in her book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, suggests an interesting possibility.[11] Barr says that the Oppian Law (in effect from 215-195 BC) is likely the background here. The Oppian Law was designed to limit female freedom, particularly their public displays of wealth.

Now, 195 BC is over two centuries before Paul writes to the Corinthians. That’s quite the distance in time! But Barr shows that even during the first century AD, the Oppian Law had left its mark on Roman society. Cato the Elder, who opposed repealing the law, gave a speech about the danger of women’s freedom. In that speech he said,

I walked through a band of women…I should have said, “What kind of behavior is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your own husbands the same thing at home? Are you more charming in public with others’ husbands than at home with your own?” (my emphasis).[12]

You can hear an echo of this reflected in 1 Corinthians 14 (see italics). What if the Corinthians, in an effort to bolster their position on limiting female freedom, particularly when it comes to speaking gifts, used a defunct Roman law as their foundation? Anything is possible for a church that believed sex between married couples was bad (see chapter 7) and getting drunk at communion was good (see chapter 11).

I’m very intrigued by this possibility. However, there’s another option available to us. It’s possible that “the law” is a reference to Jewish oral law. Not the written Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament), but rather the oral rabbinic tradition–God’s law that was not written down (according to the rabbis). The Mishnah, one of the major collections of the oral law, states that it’s sinful for a woman to speak with a man in the worship gathering.[13]

It’s pretty likely that the diverse Corinthian church would have dealt with a Jewish faction that impressed aspects of the oral law on it. We have reason to believe this happened to almost every church in the New Testament! These oral laws circulated among the house churches (“as in all the churches,” v. 33b), negatively influencing their behavior.

Second, in verse 36, Paul uses “Or…Or” as a signifier that he is refuting what he just wrote (verses 33b-35). In other quote refutations, Paul uses the words “but” instead (see 6:12-13; 7:1; 8:1, 8; 10:23-24).

Taking these two points into consideration, we now read Paul’s words in a different light. Consider this possible translation, which is almost identical to the NRSV. I have added the quotation marks to help us see what is likely the Corinthians’ quotation.

“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you men the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. 

You may have noticed the addition of “men” in the second “or” phrase (“Or are you [men] the only ones…”). The reason for this is that Paul uses a masculine plural pronoun here rather than a female one.

He chides the men, reminding them that they haven’t cornered the market on God’s word.

If he was correcting women in verses 34-35 for speaking during worship, then we’d expect him to use a female plural pronoun. But he doesn’t. On the other hand, if verses 34-35 is a quote the Corinthian men used to silence women, then it makes sense for Paul to address them directly in his correction.

Understood this way, we see that Paul refutes a false Corinthian belief that women are not allowed to speak up in the assembly. He chides the men, reminding them that they haven’t cornered the market on God’s word.[14]

Do you see the ironic twist? Complemetnarians have taken a passage meant to encourage women’s participation in the gathered church and instead used it against them.

Summing it All Up

Paul may be calling for a temporary silence on a select group of women who chatting or asking nuisance questions during worship. Or Paul may actually be correcting the Corinthian men who were trying to silence women.

At this point, if I had to choose one option, I’d probably lean toward option 2. But there’s also the possibility that verses 34-35 aren’t original to Paul and were added later on.[15]

Whatever option we go with, we know that Paul does not silence all women for all time in the church’s worship. He had just encouraged female participation in chapter 11 and never limited women in his discussion of spiritual gifts (chapter 12).

Both options are reasonable and don’t require playing fast and loose with Scripture to make it say something it doesn’t. These options, in my opinion, make better sense than the traditional patriarchal explanation.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Paul ends the chapter by encouraging both genders to use their speaking gifts: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (vv 39-40).


Notes

Feature photo: Kristina Flour on Unsplash.

[1] Marg Mowczko, “Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” 7/9/2011.

[2] This is the view of complementarians like D.A Carson, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper. See D.A. Carson, “Silent in the Churches,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 179-197, which represents this view. Carson writes, “Paul’s point here…is that [women] may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies.”

[3] Bill Rudd, “Context and Words Matter: Reexamining 1 Corinthians 14,” CBE blog, 9/29/2021.

[4] Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2011), 415.

[5] Notice the connection between prophecy and instruction/teaching/learning in 14:6, 19, and 31. Because of these verses, I try not to draw too thick of a line between “prophecy” and “teaching.” In Paul’s mind, it seems to me, there is quite a bit of overlap. But that’s for another post.

[6] Again, these are generalities. Priscilla, a member of the Corinthian church, was obviously a highly educated person who traveled with her husband. Lydia, a successful businesswoman in Philippi, likely didn’t face these obstacles. The point is that the typical first-century woman was at a tremendous disadvantage compared to the typical first-century man.

[7] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 412.

[8] Ibid, 416.

[9] Kirk MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b-38 as a Pauline Quotation-Refutation Device,” Priscilla Papers 23/1, 2018.

[10] See Mowczko, “Interpretations and Applications,” for more on Grudem.

[11] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001), 56-61.

[12] Quoted in ibid., 59.

[13] MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b-38.”

[14] For more on this, see MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 14:33b-38.”

[15] There is some evidence that this passage is not original to Paul and was added by a scribe later on. In fact, if you take out verses 33b-35 and jump from verse 33a to verse 36, the text still makes perfect sense. If youi’re curious about this, see Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2009, 216-268; and Gordon D. Fee, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 2014, 699-708.