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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 Cor. 14:34-35 (NIV)

Claim: In 1 Cor. 14:34-35, Paul tells all women to sit down and shut up in church.

OR

Claim: 1 Cor. 14:33b-35 restricts women from preaching.

Short Answer: 1 Cor. 14:34-35 isn’t about preaching at all, nor is it directed at all women. It was an injunction against a small group of Corinthian wives who were interrupting congregational meetings with (probably uninformed) questions. It should be translated, “Let the wives remain silent when the congregation meets; they are certainly not permitted to speak out. Rather, let them submit themselves, as says the law. If there is something they want to know, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a wife to speak out in a congregational meeting.”

Long Answer: Earlier in the same epistle, Paul stated quite specifically that women in attendance could both pray and prophesy (11:5), which are certainly forms of speech (and potentially authoritative speech at that!). He says that those who prophesy do so for the edification of the entire assembly (14:4) and that prophecy is meant to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the people (14:3)—and if you’re looking for a meaningful distinction between prophesying and preaching, you won’t find one, and the hierarchists [1] have never been able to find one, either.  While some people are fine with believing that Paul was addle-brained and it completely slipped his mind that he had just given women permission to speak in church not four chapters earlier, I’m going to assume a little bit more coherence in his epistle.

Paul references many other types of speech in church throughout the letter in addition to prayer and prophecy: hymns, words of instruction, revelations, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (14:26). It would be extremely odd if Paul had only men in mind for all of these forms of speech. So, what type of speech is he prohibiting in 1 Cor. 14:34-35, then?

We actually don’t have to wonder about that, because v. 35 tells us: “If they [i. e. the women in question] want to inquire about something, they should ask their husbands at home.” It’s women—specifically, married women—asking questions during the assembly that’s proving to be a disruption and a distraction. That may seem like an odd situation to modern-day ears, but it was a common and encouraged in ancient didactics for the student to interrupt the instructor with questions. The catch is that it was expected that said questions be informed questions. [2] Any college professor can attest to what a major distraction it is when students who did not do the reading or slept through the first half of the lecture disrupt the class with silly or uninformed comments and questions. Most women in antiquity would not have had the opportunities for theological or philosophical education that were wide open to men, yet Christianity was wildly popular among women because of its fair treatment of them. Paul shows concern for the education of these women by instructing their husbands to answer any questions they may have in a setting that won’t disrupt the congregational meetings.

An interesting, lesser point of contention: what exactly does Paul mean by “be in submission, as the law says”? Many, many options have been proposed by different authors concerning this passage, none of them completely satisfactory. The Law (of Moses) doesn’t actually say anything about women needing to be in submission to men or wives needing to be in submission to husbands, though this was a common cultural misunderstanding of Gen. 3:16b (“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”). For example, Paul’s contemporary Flavius Josephus cited “the Scriptures” as saying “A woman is inferior to her husband in all things” (Against Aphion 2.25), something that “the Scriptures” never actually say. There were many general admonitions in Greco-Roman and Jewish culture for women to be submissive, whether to their husbands or to other institutions in society. The best I can make of this cryptic reference is that it’s an appeal to the cultural understanding of what “the law” said about women rather than an appeal to the actual Law, and that Paul uses his audience’s understanding of the matter to solve the problem of the Corinthians wives. This does not necessarily mean the wider culture’s understanding of “the law” and Paul’s are one and the same; see 1 Cor. 9:20.

It should be pointed out that the passive form, ὑποτασσέσθωσαν (“let them be in submission”) is identical to the middle form (“let them submit themselves”); only the context can tell us which to use. Osburn explains that there is reason for prioritizing the middle translation:

“In 14:32 [which also uses ὑποτάσσω], voluntary submission is obvious in the directive that a prophet willingly control the prophetic spirit. Since the entire context of chaps. 11-14 evidences Paul’s appeal for voluntary submission in the Corinthian congregation and is specifically the point in 14:26-40, “submit yourselves” in v. 34 should be taken to refer to same sort of deferential behavior to the congregation demanded of the clamorous tongue-speakers and prophets [elsewhere in these chapters], who are castigated for emphasizing freedom at the expense of Christian mutuality.” [3]

Finally, I think it’s poor form that so many translations insist on “[the] women” (v. 34) in 1 Cor. 14, rather than “[the] wives]” (v. 34). While the Greek word for “woman,” γυνή, can mean either “wife” or “woman,” v. 35 leaves no doubt as to which option is in view here. These are often the same translations that insist on “wives [of deacons]” for γυναῖκας in 1 Tim. 3:11 rather than acknowledging the possibility of female deacons by translating the passage with a plain “women,” even though, in that case, “NT linguistic usage strongly suggests that [the author] would have written τὰς γυναῖκας αὐτῶν rather than just γυναῖκας had he wanted to indicate wives of deacons. [4] The ESV, aka the abusive boyfriend of Bible translations, is of course a prime example of this mix-up. [5]

In my view, the Complete Jewish Bible has the most accurate translation of this passage. Making minor modifications to the CJB in [brackets], my perfect translation of this passage would say:

[L]et the wives remain silent when the congregation meets; they are certainly not permitted to speak out. Rather, let them [submit themselves], as also the [law] says; and if there is something they want to know, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for a [wife] to speak out in a congregational meeting. ~ 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 CJB

To be frank, I am in 100% agreement with Paul. When I was doing my chaplaincy field education with a local retirement home a few years back, I had a morning where I was giving a brief, 10-minute sermon to a group of about 20 residents, most of them women. One of the residents kept on loudly interrupting my sermon to complain about my hair; I had wisps of hair hanging down around my face, which she apparently hated. I do not know whether she had mental health issues that predicated her poor behavior that day, but the disruptions were a good reminder of why order and submission in any Christian assembly are sorely needed. I found myself wanting to quote 1 Cor. 14:34 to this woman that day (though I refrained), because the disruptive situation was similar to why the passage was written.

There is one interpretation that does not work well for 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and that is the notion that the passage restricts women from preaching and only preaching. The average evangelical hiearchist church allows women to sing hymns and worship songs, lead worship (or at least assist in leading worship), bear testimony, deliver announcements or church business, offer prayers, and often teach adult Sunday school. If the hierarchist church is charismatic, women are usually permitted to speak in tongues or offer interpretations of tongues (though few churches these days do the latter). How can they extract from this passage that all of those other forms of speech are acceptable in church, but female preaching alone is verboten? Answer: they can’t. Which is just as well, because the passage says nothing of the sort.

As a final note, in addition to women prophesying for the entire congregation in 1 Cor. 11:5, we have a clear biblical example of a woman who preached in public: the prophet Anna, the first Christ evangelist, who “spoke about the child [Jesus Christ] to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” [6] Whether preaching in public, prophesying before a congregation, or listening in reverent submission to a word of instruction from another, rest assured that a woman’s place is in the Body of Christ. [7] [8]

About the Author: Bridget Jack Jeffries has a bachelor’s degree in classics from Brigham Young University (long story!) and a master’s degree in American church history from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Follow her on Twitter.


Other Online Resources:

Print Resources:

  • Craig S. Keener, “Learning in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, 161-71, edited by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2005).
  • Carroll D. Osburn, “The Interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity Vol. 1, 219-42, edited by Carroll D. Osburn (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1993).

Notes:

[1] Christians who oppose the ordination of women do not all call themselves by the same homogenous term. Evangelicals who take this position currently tend to identify as “complementarians,” but that label is a fairly recent innovation, having been adopted c. 1986. Prior to that they were known simply as “traditionalists” or “hierarchists.” Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and a good number of Anglican Christians who oppose the ordination of women tend to identify as none of the above; for them, advocacy for female ordination represents a feminist incursion into what is or has been their standard position and there is no need to create a special category for what they consider to be historic orthodoxy. For the purpose of this article, I have identified those who oppose the ordination of women as “hierarchists.”

[2] See Craig S. Keener for a list of sources in the ancient world. Keener explains: “I had always found most plausible the view that women were interrupting the service with questions. But I never could imagine what circumstances provoked these public questions until I read Plutarch’s essay On Lectures. Then I realized that listeners regularly interrupted lectures with questions, whether to learn more about the subject or to compete intellectually with an inadequately prepared lecturer. I quickly realized that questions were common in Jewish settings as well and were a regular part of ancient Mediterranean lecture settings in general.” From “Learning in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, edited by Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2005), 165.

[3] Carroll D. Osburn, “The Interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity Vol. 1, edited by Carroll D. Osburn (Joplin, Mo.: College Press, 1993), 238.

[4] Barry L. Blackburn, “The Identity of the ‘Women’ in 1 Tim. 3:11,’ in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity Vol. 1, 308. An blog article on female deacons in the Bible that will cover 1 Tim. 3:11 as well as Rom. 16:1-2 is forthcoming.

[5] The ESV pairs 14:33b with 14:34, translates “law” with a capital “L,” uses “women” in 14:34, and has no footnote letting readers know that v. 34-35 come after v. 40 in some manuscripts. In contrast, it translates 1 Tim. 3:11 as “Their wives, likewise” and grudgingly allows a footnote for “Women likewise,” but does not let readers know that this would mean female deacons. If there’s a way to translate a passage that will help keep women out of church leadership, the ESV will find it.

[6] Luke 2:38 NIV. The full story of the prophet Anna is covered in v. 36-38.

[7] Some egalitarians address this passage differently. Some think Paul was quoting a Corinthian opponent who was trying to silence women, with v. 36-40 serving as a rebuke of this person. Others—especially Pentecostal scholar Gordon D. Fee—believe that v. 34-35 are not authentic to 1 Corinthians because, in some manuscripts, v. 34-35 come after v. 40. I think these arguments have their merits, but ultimately I do not feel they are the best explanation of the passage. For the “quoting a Corinthian opponent” argument, see: Glenn Miller, “Women in the Heart of God: Paul and Women,” Christian Thinktank, 25 January 1997, updated 12 November 2012; and Cheryl Schatz, “Scriptural Fences,” Women in Ministry, 14 May 2008. For the “not authentic to 1 Corinthians” argument, see Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987), 699-705.

[8] There is disagreement as to whether v. 33b, “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people,” should belong with v. 34-35 or v. 33a. The fact that v. 34-35 sometimes appear after v. 40 in some manuscripts, but not v. 33b, shows that in antiquity, v. 33b was seen as belonging to v. 33a. However, whether it goes with v. 34-35 or not does not affect my explanation of the passage. I do think that in all the congregations of the saints, wives (and everyone else) should refrain from speaking out and interrupting an assembly with ignorant questions or comments, so the matter of where to place v. 33b is a non-issue to me.

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