In the last article, I shared some thoughts in regards to the ever-debated passage of 1 Timothy 2:8-15. Following on from that passage, some would point to 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 as another passage supporting the claim that women should be silent when the church gathers together. The passage is as follows:
33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 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.
1. Three Initial Points to Consider
Before we jump into this debated Scripture text, let’s consider three points:
First, interestingly enough, Paul had already spent some time teaching about men and women within the context of the church. This is found in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. But, in that passage, Paul had already allowed women the freedom to both pray and prophesy in public (see vs5; note: I will address head coverings in a few week’s time in this series). Thus, we can conclude that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 are not saying what might first appear as black ink on white paper, lest he be guilty of contradicting himself. He definitely wants women involved in the public gatherings of the body of Christ.
Secondly, some might claim that praying and prophesying are not the same as teaching. What Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is that women cannot teach the body of Christ in an authoritative way, which they would connect with the words of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 (though I have noted that this passage is also easily misunderstood). But the Corinthian text never uses the words ‘teach’ or ‘teach with authority’. Rather, it uses the word ‘speak’. Thus, I believe what some are doing is reading a faulty understanding of the words of 1 Timothy 2 into the text of 1 Corinthians 14.
Finally, we must take note of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:26:
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Paul says that, when the body of Christ assembles, ‘each one has’, and then he goes on to list a few things, which are obviously not all-inclusive. For those who would say that the word ‘brothers’ is only speaking of the male gender need to consider the background of the Greek word adelphoi. In almost every context, the word adelphoi is used to speak of both men and women who are brothers and sisters in God’s family, the church. This is a gender-inclusive expression. Hence, ‘each one has’, which includes women.
Therefore, we can see how Paul has already given room for women to pray, prophesy, sing a song, give a lesson (‘teaching’ in other translations), give a message in tongues and provide the interpretation. Women were allowed to be used in all of these functions within the public gathering of the church, and more. This gives precedence for the reality that 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is not saying what it first appears to state.
2. The Emphasis on Silence
In Why Not Women?, authors Cunningham and Hamilton point out Paul’s emphasis on silence in the larger context of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. The reason being is that Paul is not simply correcting women and women alone. Rather, he is bringing correction in regards to three particular areas:
- Silence to those who speak in tongues (vs28)
- Silence to those who prophesy (vs30)
- Silence to the women (vs34)
Paul is dealing with a church with a lot of problems, as you can see through the whole scope of the letter. One of those problems has to do with their public gathering. This is why we have Paul addressing such throughout chs.11-14.
Thus, noting that Paul states that there will be specific times when tongue-speakers (vs28) and those prophesying (vs30) need to be silent, we must deduce that Paul was asking women to be silent in regards to specific situations as well, not that they must be silent for all time. And, again, this is confirmed when considering that Paul already gave liberty for women to be involved in the public worship gathering (1 Corinthians 11:5; 14:26).
3. Paul’s Correction of Women
As we saw with 1 Timothy 2:11-15, it is not always easy to know the particulars of each church situation that Paul was addressing. Here are three probably reasons for why Paul brings such a correction to women in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35:
- Women, like the men, may have been ministering without the edification of the body at the forefront of their minds, thus, lacking in self-control.
- Women were uneducated in those days and, therefore, they may have been interrupting the gathering by asking inappropriate questions.
- Some women might have been acting in accordance with their pagan worship, specifically disrupting with loud noises.
Though we cannot be for certain, I might say it is highly likely that the second option best describes the Corinthian situation. But, in all, we can be certain that Paul was correcting a specific problem in regards to the women of the Corinthians gathering, which has bearings on how to understand these words even today.
Verse 34 goes on to tell the women to ‘be in submission’. Now, most will jump to conclusions and think this means, ‘Be in submission to your husbands,’ and use vs35 to back-up such a claim. But it might just be that we are reading the word husband into vs34, since the word is not found in that statement. Knowing that the word husband is not in the context, there are also three possibilities as to whom Paul was asking the women to be in submission:
- The churches, meaning either orderly worship in the church or the leaders of the church.
- God, which, oddly enough, all genders are to submit to Him.
- Themselves, meaning be self-controlled.
The most likely conclusion is that women were being called to submit to God. This is likely because of the full statement at the end of vs34: be in submission, as the Law also says. Of course, the Law definitely teaches that humanity, and especially God’s covenant people, are to be in submission to their Lord. This is evident from ‘the beginning’.
And actually, though we might be shocked, there is no particular teaching in the whole of the Law that says a woman must be in submission to her husband. Sure, they lived in a more patriarchal society during biblical times. But that does not mean there was a specific command for such submission. The only possibility could be Genesis 3:16, but I shared some thoughts on that back in this post.
But the Law definitely teaches that one (including women) should be submit to God, as Lord of heaven and earth, and especially God’s covenant people (i.e. the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
4. Inquiring At Home
Paul actually does something special for the women of Corinth. He does not want them to be completely silent for all time. He wants them to be utilised in the gathering. Thus, he exhorts them to ask questions when they are with their husbands at home. This is significant because women had no rights and privileges in those days. They were typically uneducated with no opportunities for improving their situations, even considered the property of their husbands. Thus, as I shared above in point 3, it is highly likely they were causing some disturbance with certain questions.
Therefore, Paul gives room for them to learn, but he wants them to learn in a more appropriate place – at home with their husbands. This would help combat some of the possible interruptions that were abounding in the public gathering. And with the words of vs35, Paul would expect the husbands to assist their wives and allow them to learn at home.
As a side note, it is interesting to recognise that Paul is speaking to married women in the passage, not single women. Thus, was Paul only trying to silence married women and not single women?
The answer is that Paul was not looking to silence any women in the sense of a ‘command for all time’. He was dealing with a specific situation. In the larger setting of Corinth, Paul was looking to correct wrong use of prophecy, wrong use of tongues, and women who were bringing confusion and disorder to the church gathering.
Therefore, we must allow for women to have their place to testify, prophesy, pray, sing, and even bring a teaching within Christ’s community (remember 1 Corinthians 14:26). The body of Christ would only be found lacking if the public edification and teaching is left solely to men, and even more, only to men who are ‘ordained’. We are called to share in the fruits and giftings of Christ’s people across the whole body. And it is ultimately the new creation that has come in Christ which has made this completely possible once again!