Q&A: What’s with women having to be silent in church in 1 Corinthians 14?

This article was originally presented as a brief talk at the Christians for Biblical Equality Perth chapter gathering on 2 September, 2017.

One thing that is commonly claimed by complementarians is that they simply follow the “clear meaning of the text” (with the inference that egalitarians are making up difficulties that distract from the text’s real meaning). 1 Corinthians 14 looks pretty clear and simple – women are to be silent in church and ask their husbands at home, full stop and good night. Easy, right?

So is there any good reason for egalitarians to say, “Hey, we need to look again at this text”? Well, you probably already know that you should never take any text in isolation,  but instead, you should consider it in its immediate context (chapter and book) and within the larger witness of Scripture. When we apply this principle to 1 Corinthians 14, we immediately encounter a number of problems for the “plain and simple” reading. Firstly, 1 Corinthians elsewhere gives instructions about how women should pray aloud and prophesy in church – which is clearly assuming women won’t be completely silent in all circumstances. Then if we consider Paul’s incredible track record of working with women in ministry (who quite certainly weren’t silent in church), we have another problem to work through. These factors cause us to stop and say, “Haaaaannnng on a minute – what’s going on here then?”

So let’s find out if this text really is as clear as we might think. To begin with, let’s take a look at the verses in question:

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 enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

The Conflict Between Complementarian Theology and Practice

Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room of complementarian theology and practice – no matter how “clear” complementarians claim this passage is, this doesn’t seem to gel with their actual practice. You can see that the passage says, “women should remain silent…they are not allowed to speak…” Have you ever attended a church where women weren’t allowed to join in the singing? But look, this passage says silent, not “silent, except for singing.”

Women are usually allowed to talk in other contexts in the pews – “turn around and greet someone near to you!”, the congregation might be told. Or they might quietly give instructions to their kids (“shhh…sit still and listen while we talk to Jesus”). Those things aren’t silence and they are definitely speaking!

But those things aren’t formal speech and don’t occur on the platform or behind the pulpit. (Never mind that the house churches of Corinth wouldn’t have had platforms or pulpits…) However, even here, most complementarians allow women some opportunities. Women might give the announcements, or be interviewed about their chaplaincy job, or do the Scripture reading and so on, even if they might be restricted from such formal functions as preaching or presiding over communion. But the passage doesn’t say, “Women must be silent in the church on biblical matters…they may not preach a sermon.” So any church which allows women to do certain kinds of speaking but claims to be fully literal on the “clear meaning” of this passage isn’t practicing what they preach.

1 Corinthians 14 in Pauline context

So our contemporary application of 1 Cor 14 is often contradictory. What about in Paul’s day? As we’ve already mentioned, Paul worked closely with women in various ministry roles. Phoebe was a deacon and patron from Cenchreae (about 10km from Corinth) who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is almost certain that she was the first person to interpret the epistle to the Romans to a congregation. Junia was an apostle whom Paul considered to be outstanding in that role. Priscilla, together with her husband Aquila, spent at least a year and a half living with and learning from Paul in Corinth before travelling with him to Ephesus. After a short time, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, presumably with oversight of this young church. A few years later, they were house church leaders in Rome, and some years after that, they pop up in Ephesus again at the time when Paul is writing 2 Timothy, quite likely to troubleshoot the church’s ongoing problems.

Everywhere Paul went, he worked with women in leadership roles. It seems contradictory that such a champion of women in ministry would expect all women to remain completely silent in the church, neglecting the gifts given to them by the Holy Spirit. That fact gives us pause and causes us to ask, “Is there something else going on in this passage in 1 Corinthians?”

1 Corinthians 14: Not So Clear

We are told this passage is “clear” in its meaning, but it is anything but! Here are some key reasons why:

  • It contradicts how this passage sits within 1 Corinthians. In chapter 11, Paul has spoken about the manner in which women pray and prophesy in the church – he is directly instructing them about their participation in those very clearly non-silent things.
  • He references the Law – but what Law? There’s nothing in the Old Testament law forbidding women to speak in a religious context. Does he mean rabbinical law? (Why would Paul assume that the people in the largely Gentile congregation of Corinth would be familiar with rabbinical law?) Or, in writing to this Gentile congregation, does he mean the Roman law, which governed many aspects of religious observance? It’s also possible to translate nomos (law) as norm or principle – it may have been that some aspect of the behaviour of Corinthian women went against cultural norms, so Paul may have cautioned them against breaking cultural norms in a way which would make people look down on the Christian faith. This last option seems to fit better than the other possibilities.
  • It may refer to the women behaving inappropriately in worship. It is possible that ignorant women were calling out in the service with their questions. Some have suggested that Christian congregations were segregated, with men on one side and women on the other, copying the practice of synagogues, and that women on one side of the building were calling out to their husbands on the other for explanations. This does not seem to be likely, because the evidence does not seem to support the idea that synagogues in the first century were segregated. Perhaps a more likely reason is this: culturally, it was appropriate for learned persons to ask questions of the speaker, but it was shameful for the ignorant to do so. Women, on the whole, would not have had the educational opportunities that men had, so there may have been all kinds of conversation going on all around the room as women tried to understand details of what the speaker was going on about.
  • It is also worth mentioning that there is increasing evidence that these verses may never have been part of the original text. However, for now, I treat these verses as part of Paul’s letter.

Paul worked extensively with women in ministry contexts and in the case of Priscilla, actually in Corinth, it seems that he heavily invested in educating a woman to become a leader and teacher. In 1 Timothy, he asks a woman who is a false teacher to be quiet and learn for a time – he wants her to correct her ignorance and get educated as a prerequisite to any possible future teaching. Maybe Paul wanted some women in Corinth to be quiet for a time while they learned, as he did in 1 Timothy. When Paul says “women” in this passage, he likely means “the women you referred to in your letter who are ignorant and doing the wrong thing,” rather than all women in that church, given that he has already given women some instructions for speaking in the church in prayer and prophecy.

Worship in the Corinthian Church – It’s All About Participation

Contrast this with what Paul says about what a worship gathering looked like at this time, earlier in this same chapter (with italic notes from me in brackets):

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you (plural – men and women) come together, each of you (plural – men and women) has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone (of either gender) speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone (of either gender) must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

29 Two or three prophets (of either gender) should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.

Paul assumes that men and women will actively participate in worship by sharing in a manner consistent with their gifts of prophecy, instruction, and so on. Numerous people would speak. It doesn’t appear that there was an equivalent of the modern sermon, where one person talks for anything from 10 minutes to 45 or more, depending on your tradition, while others listen. We know that women were prophets. Perhaps some women were ignorant and calling out, but overall it seems that women and men were active participants in teaching one another, in a manner consistent with what we know of Paul and his interactions with women.

Three Key Points to Understanding 1 Corinthians 14

In addition, here are 3 really important points:

  • Epitrepō is the word translated “permit” in this passage. However, when we look at its usage across the New Testament, we discover that it is in every case related to a specific and limited set of circumstances. So in other words, Paul is saying, “For now, I’m not permitting the (or some?) women to speak. In time, when they’re more educated, this won’t be a problem anymore.”
  • Chapter 14 is about orderly worship. It doesn’t make sense that a woman preaching would cause worship to be disorderly! Women calling out with disruptive questions would be a distinct impediment to orderly worship. These instructions are for disruptive women.
  • Women are not the only people told to remain silent. Marg Mowczko says, in her article “1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in a Nutshell“,
    • A tongues-speaker is to be silent (sigaō) and stop speaking in tongues if there is no one to interpret (1 Cor. 14:28).
    • A prophet is to be silent (sigaō) and stop prophesying if someone else receives a revelation (1 Cor. 14:30).
    • Women are to be silent (sigaō) and stop asking questions if there is anything they want to learn; they should keep their questions for home (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

Conclusion

So here’s a better way of looking at this text – not an attempt at translation, but a rough rewrite in the Aussie vernacular, pulling in some of what we know from other parts of this chapter and from chapter 11. (Imagine this is Paul speaking!)

“I’ve been writing to you about orderly worship. I’ve already told two categories of people who are being disruptive that they need to be silent at certain times. Now I want to address a third category – those women who are calling out and asking uneducated questions during worship. Look, it’s not on! Those women need to stay silent in church. They need to do what is right, and ask their more educated husbands at home, so they’re not causing a disruption. Properly educated people simply don’t go around behaving like this! Please show a bit of respect. Clearly, this doesn’t apply to women who know what they’re on about and who do the right thing and who are led by the Holy Spirit to participate in the service by doing things like prophesying.”

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