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
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And I quote… “Women should be silent.”

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Did Paul command women to be silent in church? What law tells women to be in submission and silent? Does it apply to women today? How can Paul change his mind so quickly? In chapter 11, he wants women to pray and prophecy. Now he tells them to not talk? Can’t he make up his mind?

Paul does not hate women. Quite the contrary. Paul liberates women from the social confines of his day. But the way his words have been translated into English, you might get the opposite impression of his strong language. Because not everything attributed as Paul’s words, were actually his.

Paul quoted others.

Written Greek does not use punctuation. No handy quotation marks designate another speaker source. Yet, Paul quotes slogans or the words from letters in a number of places in 1 Corinthians. Here are a few examples:

I have the right to  do anything,—but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything—but I will not be mastered by anything. 1 Corinthians 6:12

Really? Paul has the right to do anything? Do we have the right to do anything we want, too? Of course not. “I have the right to do anything” is a Corinthians slogan, not Paul’s declarative statement. Some English translations help us see this by encasing the slogan in quotes.

Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both. The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the  Lord, and the Lord for the body. 1 Corinthians 6:13

Does Paul liberate our stomach, yet restrict our body? No. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” was what the Corinthian church believed. Paul was setting them straight. English punctuation helps clarify Paul’s original intent.

Now for the matters  you wrote about: It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. 1 Corinthians 7:1

Wait. Sex isn’t good? But I thought Paul wants those who desire sex to get married 35 verses later? Is he flip-flopping on this issue too? Nope. “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” was what the Corinthian church was asking. It is good! And here Paul references the Corinthian’s question, so we know quotes are in order.

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34

Silent? But he tells the women to pray and prophecy in chapter 11! And Paul wants us to follow the law?  That makes no sense according to his letter to the Galatians and Romans. So, what if Paul never declared any of these things about women? Instead, he quotes the words of others?

Quotations in English translations

Quotation marks and speaker designation are added to some English translations of the Bible and not to others. It is a matter of interpretational clarity. Since we can’t know for certain if Paul was quoting another source, due to the lack of original quotes, it requires study and judgment to know what to attribute as his words.

What if Paul was quoting a slogan when he said women should be silent? Not declaring a command for women, but refuting one?

Silent Women contradicts other Scripture

In Acts 2, men and women spoke freely as the Spirit came upon them. In fact, it was fulfilled prophecy that women would speak as well as men. (Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28-29) Priscilla was not a quiet-ask-questions-of-her-husband-at-home, kind of woman, was she? She was a teacher; able to persuade and debate with learned men. (Apollos) Jesus encouraged women to learn – where? At home? No. At his feet, in public. Did he silence them? NO! He opened their mouths and encouraged them to tell others.

Neither is there an Old Testament “law” regarding the silence of women in worship, nor for women to be submissive to their husbands. If it was written there, Paul always indicates its authority with the words, “It is written.”  And he never asks Christians to base their behavior on law keeping. This appeal to the “law” is not consistent with Paul’s previous handling of Old Testament Scripture.

Next ask yourself this question: If this one only utterance of St. Paul’s is to be set up as a Scriptural “law” to silence women, then what is to be done with the hundred and one other “laws” in the O. T. opening the mouths of women, such as “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” “Praise ye the Lord” (repeated about a hundred times in the Psalms alone), “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” “Declare His doings among the people,” “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord,” “Tell of all His wondrous works”? For it is simply impossible for men to set up an effectual claim, that all these admonitions and exhortations in the O. T. were meant for themselves only.  (Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, para 200.)

But this “law” is consistent with either the Jewish oral traditions that were misogynistic toward women or popular Greek philosophy that was equally biased toward females. It is likely Paul was quoting a slogan from one of these sources that held influence over his Corinthian readers.

Adam Clarke (1762-1832) represents one of the earliest post-reformists biblical scholar who said that 1 Cor. 14:34-35 “was a Jewish ordinance” because “women were not permitted to teach in the assemblies or even to ask questions.” (source)

Rebuked.

How does Paul respond to this oral law about the silencing of women? Read verse 36.

What! Came the word of God out from you or came it unto you only? (KJV)

Did men alone receive the Spirit at Pentecost? Is the Word of God for men only? Hogwash. The totality of Scripture and Paul agree. Women should NOT remain silent. Let the redeemed of the Lord, speak!

Further reading from a better article than mine! http://www.godswordtowomen.org/Preato2.htm