Thursday, November 03, 2011

Women Should Remain Silent (?)

I've been preaching through 1 Corinthians this last year and recently covered chapter 14.  While there are many things which are heavily debated in this chapter, I particularly wondered how to preach verses 34-35.
 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. (1 Cor.14:34-35 NIV84)
 Interestingly, the NIV84 (CEB, CEV, ESV, HCSB, NAB, NET, NJB and NRSV) makes 34a "women should remain silent in the churches" a part of the preceding statement in verse 33 (which in full reads: "For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints,").  The KJV, NIV2011 (though see the footnote), NKJV, NLT, and TNIV read the last phrase of verse 33 with the first phrase and then end verse 33 with a period...thus separating 33 from 34.  I personally prefer the reading of the latter. 

Also, how does one preach "women should remain silent in the churches"?  I know the traditional explanations I've heard about women speaking up asking questions but being too far away from their husbands and thus disturbing the congregational meeting, but I find this utterly unsatisfactory on historical grounds for congregational settings.  How does remaining "silent" relate to Paul's earlier instruction that women could publicly pray and prophecy (1 Cor.11:5, 13; 14:31)?  I ended up essentially passing over this text with some comments about its questionable content and thus a need to not make doctrine of it in light of Gordon Fee's arguments (NICNT "The First Epistle to the Corinthians" Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987: pp.705-708) for verses 34-35 being an interpolation (since one of the issues is that in a number of manuscripts this text is placed completely after chapter 14 suggesting their was early question of the placement -- or authenticity???).

So how would you preach this text?


  1. Hey brother! I've also wondered about this one, especially with the possible contradiction between these verses (and Timothy's own rebuke), and Paul's own teachings you name here concerning public prayer. A friend of mine, who is also a Pastor, and I had this conversation a while back, and I will post his response right after this one! I liked the interpretation and biblical context, let me know your thoughts as well. God Bless!

  2. Anyway, in my view there are two keys to interpreting those verses. The first key is the word "speak". What does Paul mean when he says women can't "speak"? Well, as you mentioned, that doesn't mesh with 1 Corinthians 11 where he talks about women praying and prophesying in the church. So we have to ask ourselves, what TYPE of speaking is Paul forbidding. And the answer to that is this: disrespectful, non-submissive, argumentative speech. The women in Corinth were correcting the men who were leading the church, and they were doing it in public and they were even doing it in a way that disrespected them. Paul commands the same thing in 1 Timothy 2:12 where he says women must "remain quiet". Obviously he's not talking about volume or sound there. He's talking about being argumentative. Christian women are loud to learn (unlike so many other women back in those days), but they must do so in respectful way that doesn't disgrace the teacher. 1 Peter says that our godly lifestyles should "put to silence the talk of ignorant people" (2:15). The "ignorant people" there are those who argue against Christianity. If you look at the earlier verses in chapter 14, Paul tells those who speak in tongues and those who prophecy to be silent too. That's because the tongues speakers and propheciers were all trying to one up each other. Paul was trying to put an end to the disrespectful, disgraceful ways they were conducting their gatherings. So, "silence" and "quietness" in many contexts in the New Testament simply refers to being respectful in the way you learn and relate to others. It doesn't usually mean "You're not aloud to open your mouth!"

    How do we know the Corinthian women were correcting men in public? Because Paul tells them "from now on, if you have a question, ask your husbands at home in private!" (v.35) And we know that the women were also doing it in a disrespectful way because Paul refers to their type of speaking as a "disgrace".

    The second key to interpreting the passage is the context. If you read 1 Corinthians 14, they were not conducting their gatherings in an orderly manner (see vv.33, 44). And they were all trying to draw attention to themselves instead of God.

    If you put all of that together, you get a better picture of what was going on. Many Christian women "over-interpreted" the new freedom and dignity they possessed in Christ. They took that to mean that they didn't have to submit to men. That's why the Corinthian women were taking off their head coverings. In that culture a head covering demonstrated you were in submission to your husband. Paul tells the women of Corinth to put their head coverings back on in chapter 11. Just because Christian women are equal in worth with men, doesn't mean they are equal in role. Just like Jesus was equal in worth to the Father, but not equal in his role (Phil.2:6), and submitted himself to the father.

  3. I agree with Anthony's post. We recently translated 1 Timothy, and ran across Paul's similar passage. As a woman, who is in ministry, at first I was uncomfortable translating this passage - afraid my own feelings and such would get in incorporated in. But, I also wanted to understand the text well so we knew how to translate to make it clear in LHS. I mean imagine translating it incorrectly or surface level, how much problems you could start in a new church!

    But you know, as I studied the passage I was more and more comfortable with what Paul was saying (but I can only speak for the 1 Timothy passage, as we haven't yet translated Corinthians).

    1. At least in Timothy it is clear that this is Paul's personal guide and thought, and not canonical. BUT, that doesn't show up in a lot of English translations, but it's there in the Greek. On these verses Paul constantly says, "I don't allow ....". He doesn't say, "God forbids ...". Which says to me that this is not doctrine, Paul simply sees a problem in a particular church (which probably applies to more churches) and this is how he deals with it.

    2. Which brings me to the context. As Anthony quoted above it is clear from the context that the women were not respecting the speakers ... but at the same time Paul's teaching Timothy to find respectable leaders and not just anyone. So the people speaking should be respectable and knowledgeable, and thus the women should trust that the message and person is sound. It is seems clear from the text that the women didn't want to accept the speaker and spoke out in disrespect against the speaker in front of everyone.

    Often in English it sounds like the women can't say anything, but I don't think that is even close to what Paul was saying. I think they were stepping disrespectfully out of bounds and Paul was simply correctly this behavior.

    There's my thoughts. Amber Jasa

  4. Thanks for the comments Anthony and Amber. To be sure, some interesting thoughts on the subject that echo my own take (if it is original to Paul) that this concerns propriety.

    Why does Paul single out the women for disruptive speaking (if that is what was going on -- esp. since it would appear that the wider church at Corinth had issues with caring for one another and being disruptive)? Are only married women limited in speaking (as verse 35 would suggest) and if not...what should the single women do?

    It also makes me wonder why Paul does not use qualifiers in these verses. Certainly, "If they wish to learn let them ask their own husbands at home" is one qualifier, but it only qualifies if they "wish to learn" and not to the very open-ended "women must keep silent", "not permitted to speak", "shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly". It is still curious to me that Paul (if this is his hand including this) should have spoken in such unqualified terms given his earlier address to women speaking in the congregation.

  5. This is a vague memory from a book that I read quite some time ago. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the book.

    The author's argument went something like this:
    The women were uneducated and needed to learn.
    When Paul said that they should be quiet and learn in the same manner as the rabbinical students.
    Then, if they had questions, they should ask them at home, so as not to disrupt the service.

    I really can't remember anything else from the book. This was really the only part that still resides within my memory. But, if this was the case, this was not a prohibition upon women preaching or teaching. As with earlier sections of the book, this could have to do with order in the service. Since this was a corrective measure that Paul was implementing to correct the problem of disorder and chaos in services, the stricture need not have been held indefinitely even in the Corinthian church.


Your comments and questions are always appreciated. :-)