Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 14:34-36

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible. Read more about the series here.

1 Corinthians 14:34-40
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

If there ever was a problem passage, this is it. It sparks more questions than answers:

Can women talk at church? If so, when? Where? About what? And to whom? What about those who aren’t married? How are they to get their questions answered? These are the questions that have plagued churches that wish to include women in public worship, yet can find no unified voice around what appears to be a “plain meaning” in this passage.

Only pages earlier, Paul acknowledges a woman’s authority … whether you believe it is her own or given to her through a man. He assumes they pray and prophecy. Why does Paul blatantly contradict himself here? Does Paul change his mind so easily and want all women to be quiet? Is this what the Spirit of God wants?
This passage is hard to divide into neat Complementarian and Egalitarian lines since there are Comps and Egals all over the place. Instead, here are three common interpretations.

  1. It’s a local restriction. Paul wants only the Corinthian women in this church to be quiet.
  2. Women should not speak in public worship. No teaching, no praying, no testimonying, and no singing.
  3. This passage did not originate with Paul. It is not what God wants for women.

 A Local Problem

Not all Complementarians interpret this passage literally for today’s church. Some Complementarians and Egalitarians agree that since Paul allows women to pray and prophecy three chapters earlier, this situation must be a local one that does not apply to all churches. Hence, this restriction does not apply to women today.

Historically, Jews worshipped segregated, much like the Papua New Guinea church I visited 10 years ago. Women on one side and men on the other. Or, women in the back and men in the front. Some theologians speculate this was the source of the Corinthians disorder: a segregated meeting room and uneducated women. Women, who were learning as they went, were shouting across the room asking their husbands a question about the sermon. If you’ve ever been in a developing country church service, you can understand the likelihood of that happening! There is little decorum, but much sincere excitement. Women, uneducated but now allowed this new freedom of learning alongside the men, were abusing their freedom and causing chaos. Could this be what was happening?

Many scholars think so; especially given the context: how to conduct public worship in a fit and orderly way. (verse 40) (Some note that Paul is referring to how women should learn. The issue here is not silencing of teaching, but asking questions in public.)

But, others have a problem with simply disregarding this bit as cultural. They argue ancient men were often just as uneducated as the women. They wonder if this interpretation will lead to picking and choosing what is for today’s church and what is irrelevant. Should we treat the Word of God so lightly?

Surprisingly, the next two interpretations both agree to the negative answer. No. We should follow the Word as it is written and not lightly disregard any command.

 A Literal Interpretation

The stricter, traditional Complementarians (Patriarchal) follow a literal understanding. Women should not be heard in public worship, should not ask questions or appear more knowledgeable than the men around them. Again, the central principle is that women are created to be in submission to men. They must learn in their proper place. If a woman is unmarried, she can ask her pastor or father in lieu of a husband.

Those who believe this interpretation tend to be consistent across board. The women will wear head coverings or long hair, no jewelry or expensive clothes, and they will work hard to keep the men more knowledgeable than the women, so both genders can obey this passage.
They believe the “law” Paul references is found in Genesis 3:16. Of course, they interpret this verse as a command for men to be the authority in their marriage. The husband should rule the wife. To accurately obey this “law,” women should not join in the vocal aspects of church worship.

Admirably, they do a good job of following the “plain” meaning, and for making no apologies for what they believe is God’s Word for women.

Paul did not write this paragraph.

There are two theories that source someone else besides Paul. The first is that Paul quoted either a Corinthian slogan or a Jewish oral law, and then rebuked its sentiment in verse 36. The second is that this paragraph was added at a later date as a marginal note.

 1. Paul quoted another source.
Some Egalitarians also believe we should not disregard God’s Word simply because we don’t agree with it according to our culture. Since Egals believe God does not restrict women’s roles, the answer must not lie in faulting God’s Word itself. The fault lies with our translation or interpretation of the original limitations of the Greek language.

Paul is not restricting women, he is quoting a common understanding of how a woman should behave in that culture. He rebukes this worldly thinking in verse 36-38, and points them back to his instruction in Chapter 11. Read more about this in a previous article.

2. Due to a discrepancy in the ancient manuscripts about where these verses go (either after verse 33 or verse 40?), some scholars conclude this section is not original to Paul, but was added from a very old marginal note.

Further Reading:

1 Corinthians 14:34-36

Egals Believe… Comps Believe…
Can women speak in church? Yes. Yes and no. A woman’s voice is restricted differently depending on the local church.
What limits a woman’s voice? Keeping order in public worship. The submission principle and the “law.”
What law? probably refers to either a Greek/Roman law or a Jewish oral law. Either Genesis 3:16 or Gen 1:26

12 thoughts on “Problem Passages: 1 Corinthians 14:34-36

  1. The Comps writing the NET Bible footnote on these verses suggest that Paul is referring to the “law” — specifically right at Genesis 2:18 — as “the submission to male leadership that the OT calls for.”

    Some Egals note that in Korinth, Greece men (and their wives) were living under the woman-silencing customs and laws of the Roman empire. Paul, a citizen of Rome, a writer of Greek, and one working for the liberties that the Hebrew Scriptures promoted, could have been working against these censoring laws:

    In De Re Public, Cicero (c. 106 – 43 BCE) records this very interesting set of laws:

    VI. The judgment of the censor inflicts scarcely anything more than a blush on the man whom he condemns. Therefore as all that adjudication turns solely on the name (nomen), the punishment is called ignominy.

    Nor should a prefect be set over women, an officer who is created among the Greeks; but there should be a censor to teach husbands to manage their wives.

    So the discipline of modesty has great power. All women abstain from wine.

    And also if any woman was of bad character, her relations used not to kiss her.

    So petulance is derived from asking (petendo); wantonness (procacitas) from procando, that is, from demanding.

    In D.1.5.9., Papinian (c. 140 to 212) writes:

    “there are many points in our law in which the condition of females is inferior to that of males” (deterior est condicio feminarum quam masculorum)

    Your blogposts have prompted me to try to work through the interpretations of what Paul wrote.

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      1. I hope my work is helpful.

        I am inclined to believe that the “law” mentioned in 1 Cor 14:35 is Roman law. There were Roman laws designed to curb over-enthusiastic, out-of-control pagan worship.

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  2. From your lack of posts over the last 6 weeks I have to assume you’ve either died or become a hardcore Complementarian. Not sure which would be worse 😉

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  3. Well, if you read the whole section about the subject, verse 36 fits right after verse 33. So it seems likely that 34-55 was “added”.
    I have thought about this since a long time, and looking for answers. Hehe.

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  4. I’m fairly certain there is a missing exclamation at the beginning of verse 36. I have read that there is an omitted “What?!” right at the beginning of verse 36. If you read it with this exclamation it’s very clear that Paul is rebuking verses 34-35. He’s saying “This is what they told you before. WHAT?! They are not God, they are not prophets. All are equal”

    Essentially Paul is saying, It used to be Men who were allowed to speak, but that is archaic thinking, Paul is saying that Women are allowed to speak if they please.

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  5. Gen 2:18
    “And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” KJV

    That anyone would see a “law” that commands submission to male “headship” in Genesis 2:18 is beyond me! Do they really think God created a slave that man can boss around? If a wife’s function is to be in servitude to her husband like complementarians read into the word “helper”, then it is not male leadership or leadership of any kind for that matter. Leadership connotes that the “leader” is providing a benefit for the one receiving the leadership. If someone was created to be my servant, then I am not leading them any more than how a Master leads his slave! It is called lording over someone. I think complementarians have either not thought this through fully, or they are being willfully deceitful in their mincing of words. If you are created to serve me, then I am not giving you directives for your sake out of leadership, rather I am giving you commands on how to serve my interests because you are my servant. So please, let’s drop the “leadership” part of it.

    Some Comps believe there is a law in Genesis 1:26 that calls for the submission of women to men? I’m laughing tears! This is the verse where God speaks of creating men and women in His image and giving them dominion and rule over animals and the earth!

    In regards to Genesis 3:16, it is not a law or command given by God. It is spoken to Eve only in the descriptive voice of what would follow after sin entered the world, not a command or directive for Adam to act on. It is not a “Law” in any sense according to how Old Testament Laws were established. Complementarians themselves say that Genesis 3:16 is speaking of a sinful type of male-rule, not a good kind, so why would they turn around now and link it to 1 Cor 14:34 which they see as a positive thing? They are not consistent at all. They want Genesis 3:16 to be about bad male rule when it is pointed out that ruling over woman was a result of the fall, yet when they are questioned about what Law 1 Cor 14:34 is speaking about, which they see as an order of creation Law, they point to Genesis 3:16, the same verse they consider “bad” and post-fall in a different context.

    Also, I did not know Paul was so fond of the Law seeing he spend his whole ministry trying to set the Gentiles free from the curse of the Law.

    1Cor 14:36
    Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

    It certainly did not because “The Lord gives the word; the women who announce the news are a great host.”

    The most amazing lesson from Psalm 68:11 is that when “The Lord announced the word,” it was a group of women who proclaimed it. And what they proclaimed was the good news of what God had done for his people.

    My Belief is that 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an interpolation. In verse 32 and 33 it is speaking of the spirits of the prophets being subject to the prophet and doing things in order. Verse 36 carries on about the word not originating only from them and verse 37 says that anyone who is spiritual or a prophet should acknowledge that these commands [for order when prophesying] come from God. I don’t think it a coincidence that verse 37 mentions a “prophet” as it links to verse 33 perfectly and verses 34 and 35 are the oddballs that interrupt the text. Without verse 34 and 35 in there the train of thought flows smoothly and fits the context.

    Here is a perspective of how the text reads without verse 34 & 35 in there.31 For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.

    32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.

    33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

    36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?

    37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.

    38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

    39 Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.

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    1. ancadudar,
      I agree! It is frustrating that comps (or those with a traditional understanding) can’t seem to separate the Genesis passages with Paul’s writings. They use Genesis to interpret Eph. 5, 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2. Then, for good measure they use the same passages to interpret the Genesis passages. The circular logic of it is confounding! You say you are laughing tears, and I think that is my go-to response as well. Laugh and laugh.

      There are so many GOOD ideas of how these verses should be interpreted. Let me see if I understand you… Do you mean that verses 34-35 were added after Paul wrote? ie… the marginal note I listed above?

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