Should Women Not Speak One Word in Church? A Close Look at 1 Cor. 14:34-36

One older commentator says the prohibition in those verses seems “absolute.” Yet how do we properly read them?

The interpretation of the verses are of utmost important because they do appear to absolutely restrict women’s vocal involvement in the church service.

Christian Post reports in August 2022:

Most pastors responded that women at their churches may teach coed adult Bible studies (85%) and serve as deacons (64%). In comparison, a slight majority (55%) stated that women can become senior pastors at their churches.

Only 1% of the sample led churches that forbid women from serving in all of those roles. (Source)

Those results tell me things are changing, yet influential pastors and teachers with large ministries tell us women are not permitted to speak up in any circumstance, let alone teach men and become pastors. Some of these pastors and teachers must be part of the one percent, yet they are vocal and claim they have biblical warrant.

As usual, I write to learn for my own growth and clarity.

The translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.

If you would like to see the larger context (as I see things), please go here:

What 1 Corinthians 14 Really Teaches

Let’s get started.

TRANSLATION 

1 Corinthians 14:34-36
34 αἱ γυναῖκες ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις σιγάτωσαν· οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτρέπεται αὐταῖς λαλεῖν, ἀλλὰ ὑποτασσέσθωσαν, καθὼς καὶ ὁ νόμος λέγει. 35 εἰ δέ τι μαθεῖν θέλουσιν, ἐν οἴκῳ τοὺς ἰδίους ἄνδρας ἐπερωτάτωσαν· αἰσχρὸν γάρ ἐστιν γυναικὶ λαλεῖν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ. 36 ἢ ἀφʼ ὑμῶν ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐξῆλθεν, ἢ εἰς ὑμᾶς μόνους κατήντησεν; 34 Women are to be quiet in the assemblies, for it is not permitted for them to speak, but let them be submissive, just as the law also says. 35 If they want to learn something, let them inquire of their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate from you or come to you alone?

QUESTIONS ABOUT AUTHENTICITY

Let me briefly say the following.

Gordon Fee may have convinced me that these verses were not original. They appear in two different places; one manuscript tacks the verses on at the end of the chapter and another in the margin. These odd placements are unprecedented in all of the Pauline manuscripts, says Fee; hence, they were inserted by a scribe and then simply passed on (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Rev. ed. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2014, pp. 780-89).

Further, the verses do not fit the flow of Paul’s argument about uninterpreted tongues and startle the readers. The verses are jarring and disruptive. (And for many other reasons Fee rejects them.)

However, since most churches and translations don’t discuss the issue of manuscripts but keep the verses, I will assume that they are genuine.

See NET’s excellent discussion on why the verses are genuine:

1 Corinthians 14 (note 15).

Finally, I decided not to offer the option that Paul is quoting a belief in Corinth, which he does not share and which he refutes. It seems most scholars don’t accept this hypothesis.

COMMENTARY

As usual, I like to number my points for clarity and conciseness.

(1). Paul assumes women can pray and prophesy in public (11:5), so his prohibition here in vv. 34-36 cannot be universal, that is, it does not apply to all women of all generations in all places.

Further, this next verse says that “each one” spoke out in the assembly: […] “When you come together, each one has a song, has a teaching, has a tongue, has an interpretation—let everything be done for edification” (1 Cor. 14:26, my translation, emphasis added). “Each one” could even offer a teaching. I see nothing prohibiting women to be included in “each one” but are included in “each one.” But something interrupted this participation. These Corinthian wives / women must be a special case. Some of them must have been disruptive. But in churches today that have order and peace, women / wives should pray and prophesy.

Then these verses say that God gives gifts to everyone, men and women, because the Greek does not exclude women:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Cor. 12:4-6, NIV, emphasis added)

Then Paul lists nine gifts in 1 Cor. 12:7-11. Women too can let them flow through them, by the Spirit’s power, in the assembly. Also, 1 Cor. 12:28 includes a variety of gifts, including apostles, prophets, and teachers. which coordinates nicely with 14:26. quoted just above. (Yes, Rom. 16:7 clearly says that Junias, a woman, was noteworthy among the apostles.)

Yes, Junia Really Was a Female Apostle: A Close Look at Roman 16:7

And I say they can offer a teaching in public (14:26). And I also say they can teach men in public, as a careful look at Titus 2:3-5 shows:

Are Older Women Restricted to Teaching (‘Only’?) Young Women? A Close Look at Titus 2:3-5

At that link, I reached this conclusion:

Women teachers existed in the New Testament. In Titus 2:3-5 Paul was writing from a cultural point of view. Women occupied their own household and had to manage it. And older women naturally taught young women how to manage their own household, to love their husbands, and children and develop the virtues, because young women also occupied the domestic sphere. But we must not over-read Paul’s words, when the church met in their household. It is easy to imagine that when the church service was going on, walls of separation between men and women sharing their faith, their songs, their revelations and their teachings collapsed.

We saw in other posts that women really were teachers (if one understands Greek). In Colossians 3:16, Paul writes generically:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col. 3:16, NIV, emphasis added).

And he writes:

When you come together, each one has a song, has a teaching, has a tongue, has an interpretation—let everything be done for edification. (1 Cor. 14:26, my translation, emphasis added)

The author of Hebrews also uses the general, inclusive pronoun:

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (Heb. 5:12, NIV, emphasis added)

In Greek, “you” and “each one” is generic, which means everyone in the assembly, that is, men and women. The only way that traditionalists or restrictionists (who call themselves Complementarians) can exclude women from those generic words is to presuppose that women cannot be teachers in the first place. But this is the question under discussion, so let’s not assume the answer in advance.

Further, in 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul lists three gifts to the body of Christ, even numbering them: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers. That verse comes in the context of everyone experiencing the gifts flowing through them as the Spirit distributes them (vv. 4-7).

Women could be prophetesses, not only in the OT (Exod. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Is. 8:3; Joel 2:26), but also in the NT: Anna (Luke 2:36); all women (Acts 2:17); Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9).

So it is easy to believe that women could be teachers of a broader group than just young women. Priscilla was a teacher, functionally speaking, so her real-life role clarifies Paul’s general instructions in 1 Timothy 5:9-10. Female teachers who clarified doctrines or teachings did exist, though the majority of widows may not have belonged to this group of teachers. Yet functionally, in a household setting, it is easy to imagine, as noted, that at least one widow–particularly former priestesses in the temple of Artemis who had really powerfully converted and learned not to dominate in their teaching–taught some gospel truths on some occasions.

Women Really Did Work as–and Were–Overseers, Elders, Pastors: A Close Look at 1 Timothy 5:9-10

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

(2). The word women can just as easily be translated as “wives,” because of the next verses. It is a marital, domestic context. However, there were plenty of single women in the churches (see 1 Tim. 5:4-16 and the widows), so we do not have to limit the prohibition to wives. Some single women may have been speaking up disruptively. And Paul says that the wives (and single women) should keep quiet and not speak, but in what sense?

(3). In Greek, “subject themselves” means “self-subjection.” They should understand the flow of the assembly and not speak when it is not the right time. Then, they subject themselves to whom? As noted, the men can be their husbands, and this fits the domestic context. But single women should subject themselves to whom or what? I say both married and unmarried women are called to submit themselves to the order and decorum of the service (vv. 39-40) (Thiselton).

(4). The law probably refers to Gen. 3:16 and the created order after the Fall, though commentator Paul Gardner says the law refers to the pre-Fall narrative of Gen. 2:20b-24, for reasons explained in his comments in the Commentary section, below. Since “shame” is important in Mediterranean culture, women / wives must maintain decorum and order and not speak disruptively.

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

(5). The context says that wives (or women) at Corinth were being disruptive, so Paul tells them to ask their own husbands (or the men) questions at home. Thiselton notes that the verb “inquire” or “ask” may have a forensic or legal quality to it, as in “cross-examine” or “interrogate,” as if the women had turned into “prosecutors” (my word, not his). This would shame the men and especially the husbands. Paul insists on women not being “shameful,” that is not shaming the men or husbands.

(6). In v. 36, Paul anticipates objections raised by the more vocal members of the assembly, and Paul asks whether they are the source or font of all wisdom and the word of God. They need to surrender to Scripture and the pre-Fall created order. They must not act independently of other churches and Paul’s commands. This rhetorical question possibly corresponds, then, with v. 33b, which says “As in all the churches.”  Some scholars recommend placing 33b at the front of v. 34, to introduce vv. 34-36. I did not do this, owing to Brookins and Longenecker’s advice (Timothy A. Brookins and Bruce W. Longenecker, I Corinthians 10-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor UP, 2016, pp. 126-27).

(7). Women were less educated than the men, so their disruptive behavior needed tending to; therefore, Paul tells them to ask questions at home. They cannot ask their questions while the message was going on. Think of an expressive eighth grader (about fourteen years old) attending a class with seniors (about seventeen to eighteen years old). If the eighth grader keeps asking question to the point of interrupting, the exasperated teacher will tell him to ask his questions to a tutor or a kind-hearted senior outside of the classroom. Maybe the teacher will volunteer his services. But the eighth grader cannot be so disruptive while the class was going on.

COMMENTARIES

A community of learning provides me with ideas, some of which I don’t agree.

Paul Gardner:

It is at this point that clear sense of the passage begins to take shape […] If simply prophesying or praying in church is not automatically “shameful” […] provided the women have appropriate head covering (11:10-15), then the limitation on their speech at this point must be even further contextually restricted. (p. 637, emphasis added).

In other words, these prohibitions are specific to the context in Corinth and not universal.

Gardner continues:

It is only the weighing or judging of prophecy that remains for further qualification. It is precisely here that it would be possible for the order of creation to be abused, if women were found ton be sitting in judgment, or contesting, or arguing with other men in the congregation, especially their husbands. This would bring shame on the family, but also it would bring shame on the congregation as a whole […] This view of the passage takes full account of the local context, but it also makes sense of the broader context. There is no contradiction with Paul allowing women to prophesy and to pray in 11:5. They have not been asked here to refrain from speaking prophecies. In fact “all” have been encouraged to do so. Rather, they have been refrained from speaking during the “judging” of those prophecies and, perhaps, specifically during the prophecies of their own husbands. (1 Corinthians: Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Zondervan, 2018, p. 637)

So the context is about disruptively and disrespectfully judging prophecies, implying that if they do so orderly and respectfully, they can speak up. They can fully participate in the church service, when order and decorum are restored.

However, I don’t agree that their disorderliness was only that they were judging prophecies and showing disrespect to their husbands, as if they alone were prophesying. Instead, v. 31 says: “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.All may prophesy.

Thomas Schreiner writes of v. 35:

Here we find evidence that wives were asking questions in the meeting that were either disruptive or perhaps defiant. It is possible that the questions were entirely legitimate but they were distracting or off-putting. If this latter scenario is correct, the wives perhaps insisted that they should be able to ask questions even when they were informed that they were disruptive. The shame does not consist of women speaking in and of itself. If that were the case, women could scarcely pray and prophesy in church (11:5) (1 Corinthians, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Intervarsity, 2018, p. 298).

Then he goes on to discuss the honor and shame of the first century; honor must be maintained and shame avoided, particularly when women shame the men. So the prohibition is culturally conditioned and not absolute or even universal for all times and all places–though honoring each other and not shaming each other is always relevant.

After discussing various interpretive options, Craig Blomberg says that Paul means that women were not the final arbiters in judging prophecies, for this role belongs to the elders, who were men in Paul’s writings and which suits the first century. This interpretation permits women to speak when order and decorum are restored, but not to be the final judges of prophecies (1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, 1994, p. 286).

But in my opinion, Blomberg’s comments are much too restrictive.

Finally, Anthony C. Thiselton in his excellent commentary writes:

[…] we believe that the speaking in question denotes the activity of sifting or weighing the words of prophets, especially by asking probing questions about the prophet’s theology or even the prophet’s lifestyle in public. This would become especially sensitive and problematic if wives were cross-examining their husbands about the speech and conduct which supported or undermined the authenticity of a claim to utter a prophetic message, and would readily introduce Paul’s allusion to reserving questions of a certain kind for home. The women would in this case (i) be acting as judges over their husbands in public; (ii) risk turning worship into an extended discussion session with perhaps private interests; (iii) militate against the ethics of controlled and restrained speech in the context of which the congregation should be silently listening to God rather than eager to address one another; and (iv) disrupt the sense of respect for the orderliness of God’s agency in creation and in the world as against the confusion which preexisted the creative activity of God’s Spirit. (The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000, p. 1158)

That excerpt is carefully reasoned. I especially like the fourth point. In Genesis 1-2 creation is about making order out of chaos, by the creative agency of God’s Spirit. Although the Corinthians believed they were following God’s Spirit, they were actually allowing confusion and chaos to take over their assembly. Women contributed to the disorder during their cross-examinations, along with the men, when they were speaking in tongues without interpretations. The whole assembly was out of order. The remedy is to bring order back into the assembly; then women could speak up in the operation of the gifts.

But I don’t believe that only men were prophesying. Recall: all may prophesy (1 Cor. 14:31; 11:5).

In any case, when both men and women brought the assembly back in order, they could exercise the vocal gifts.

CONCLUSION

And so to judge from the context of the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 14 and 11:5, the wives / women must have been asking questions about the prophecies or tongues or the teachings or revelations that were free-flowing. They were asking questions at the wrong time. They may have adopted a prosecutorial tone and demeanor, even when their husbands were prophesying. Since they were less educated than men, generally,  their questions were natural but also out of order. They had to wait until they got home, so they did not interrupt the flow of the service.

This looks like a problem peculiar to Corinth, a problem which can be coordinated with a confused public assembly, generally. Therefore, once again the command to keep quiet is not universal but limited to Corinth and culturally conditioned by a confused atmosphere. However, if it applies to other church contexts beyond Corinth (v. 33b), then the solution remains the same, as follows, in the next paragraph.

All of this implies that when the Corinthian church comes back into order, women can speak up at the right time, as they operated in the gifts of the Spirit, listed in 1 Cor. 12:7-11 and 12:28. (This latter verse includes apostles, prophets, and teachers.) The prohibitions in 14:34-36 were not absolute and universal. Therefore, women in all ages and cultures can speak up when order and decorum reigns in the church service and house churches.

Therefore, it is best to read those verses as if they were not written two weeks ago, but in their original cultural and textual context, two thousand years ago. Yet order and decorum are universal and must be maintained at every time and in every place.

RELATED

Are Women Allowed to Teach Men? A Close Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15

Women, Men, and Five Ministry Gifts in Ephesians 4:11

Women Teachers: New Translation and Reinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2

What 1 Corinthians 14 Really Teaches

Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and 12:28

And no, this is not a post advocating progressive, leftwing, postmodern feminism. I speak out against it and progressivism generally:

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Danger Signs

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Authority of Scripture

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Marriage and Sex

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Judgment Is Coming

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s