What About “Women Be Silent in the Church”?

by Kristen Rosser

So far on this blog I have addressed nearly every Bible verse used to restrict women or keep them under male authority– except 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 The passage states:

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. 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.

The main reason I have left this verse alone is that I’m not completely sure how best to interpret it myself.  There are so many different positions about it, among complementarians and egalitarians alike.  The position of many complementarians is similar to the one presented in Got Questions.Org: that since 1 Corinthians 11:5 expects women to pray and prophesy aloud in church, the verse cannot require complete silence by women in church– but that the verse should be interpreted through the lens of 1 Timothy 2:12, in which Paul’s words “I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man” are interpreted to mean “God forbids any woman to ever teach or exercise any sort of authority over any man in church.” Thus,  in this view,1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is read closely with its immediate context of receiving and interpreting gifts of tongues and prophecy:

1 Corinthians 14:34 is not commanding women to be absolutely silent in the church all the time. It is only saying that women should not participate when tongues and/or prophecy is being interpreted and tested (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22;1 John 4:1). This is in agreement with 1 Timothy 2:11-12 which says that women should not teach or have authority over men. If women were involved in deciding whether a prophecy was truly from God, they would be disobeying what the Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Therefore, Paul tells women to be silent when tongues and prophecy are being interpreted so that they will not be disobeying God’s Word.


Another complementarian viewpoint is that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is to be read as virtually synonymous with 1 Timothy 2:12 — that it forbids women only from authoritative or pastoral speaking in church.  Wayne Jackson‘s article in The Christian Courier states:

This does not demand that a woman be absolutely silent at church. Rather, in harmony with what the apostle taught elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:12), the woman is not to speak or teach in any way that violates her gender role. She is not to occupy the position of a public teacher,in such a capacity as to stand before the church and function as the teacher (or co-teacher) of a group containing adult men. In assuming this official capacity, she has stepped beyond her authorized sphere, and she violates scripture.

Both of these interpretations aim for consistency between 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.  However, they both tend to gloss over the fact that 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 really aren’t talking about the same things.  The Greek words for “silence” are different in the two texts, for instance:  the Timothy verse is about women “learning” with quiet hearts and minds, while the Corinthians verse says nothing about learning and uses a word for “silence” which really does mean “shut up.”  They also ignore the fact that the word used for “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is not used anywhere in the New Testament to mean the normal exercise of legitimate authority, such as would be used to test prophecies or teach publicly.*  Additionally, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written many years before his first letter to Timothy, so how could he expect the Corinthians to use 1 Timothy in order to understand what he meant?

Hard complementarians/patriarchalists are much stricter.  They conclude that the reference to women’s prayer and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 11:5 must be interpreted in light of “women be silent” in 14:34-35, and not the other way around.  Thus, women can speak aloud in small-group meetings or prayer meetings, but are not to speak aloud in a regular Sunday meeting of the church at all– not even, apparently, to make a prayer request or give an announcement.  M.Div. Steve Atkerson at the NTRF website states:

[W]omen are to remain silent with respect to speaking to the assembled church. The context is clear about what is being regulated: situations where only one person is up addressing the whole church (“one at a time,” 14:27 & “in turn,” 14:31). . . that which is being prohibited is public speaking intended for the whole church to hear. . . In God’s household, it is disgraceful for a woman to speak to the gathering of the church. . . . Women may evidently pray in prayer meetings and speak or prophesy at evangelistic events. However, during the regular, weekly, Lord’s Day meetings of the whole church they are not to speak out publicly.

He does, however, give this qualifier:

The silence requirement would therefore not apply to congregational singing, whispered comments not intended for the whole church, laughing, playing an instrument, chatting during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, etc.

These views all agree that women are to be restricted from speaking to some degree.  However, they cannot agree on the extent of the restriction.  To some extent, though, all of the above interpretations forbid women’s full participation in the ministries and giftings of the church.

On the egalitarian side there are three basic camps.  The first is that since Paul’s context here is order in church services, he enjoins silence upon women because they were disrupting the service in some way: possibly by asking questions aloud which interrupted the speaker, which would be why he asks wives to wait and “ask their husbands at home.”  This is the position taken by Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith
in his blog The New Creation and the Ministry of Women.  He says:

But the word Paul uses for “remain silent” is sigaō, and . . . we can now make better sense of Paul’s statement in its context.

This part of 1 Corinthians is about maintaining good order in worship: “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” And so Paul says about those who would speak in tongues, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet (sigaō) in the church and speak to himself and to God.” Rather than confuse the group with unintelligible speech, would-be speakers should refrain from saying what they otherwise might. . .

We should understand Paul’s comments about women speakers in this light. It’s not that Paul is calling for “silence,” the absence of speech or sound, but rather for propriety and good order. Apparently there is something the women in Corinth would otherwise “want to inquire about.” (We’ll explore in our next post what this might have been.) But the community gathering is not the time or the place for this, so the women should refrain from questioning or challenging the speaker. Instead, Paul says, “let them ask their husbands at home”—a third-person imperative, granting them permission to do something that was not typical in this culture. In other words, rather than this being a restriction on women, it’s actually an empowerment of them.

This view allows women’s full participation in the church on the basis that the New Testament passage reflects a temporary, situational restriction that need not continue now that the specific situation has ceased.

A second egalitarian position is that these two verses were actually not in the original text.  This is the view held by Dr. Philip B. Payne, who has online articles here showing his detailed textual scholarship.  The fact is that our earliest dated manuscripts of this portion of the New Testament date after 300 AD.  All of these contain verses 34-35, but several manuscripts omit them from just after verse 33 and insert them at the end of verse 40.  This would indicate that they probably were written in the margin at some point after the original text was written.  Theologian Todd Derstine (who is actually a complementarian!) of America’s Prophetic Destiny endorses Philip Payne’s position that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is actually an interpolation:

The hypothesis that that these verses were not in Paul’s original letter helps to explain why none of the Apostolic Fathers—Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Polycrates—or Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Shepherd of Hermas, the Gnostic Gospels or second century pseudepigraphae, Tatian, or Clement of Alexandria or Hippolytus ever make reference to them. Clement of Alexandria has it in his head that both men and women should “embrace silence” at church, but extols Miriam as Moses’ associate in commanding the host of Israel as a prophetess, which together implies his text of I Cor 14 did not have vv. 34-35. Tertullian (Bap. 15.17) [early 3rd century], then, is our first Christian writer to clearly show his awareness, not to mention wholeheartedly acceptance of, this pseudo-Pauline policy of feminine silence. . . 

It is as if whoever invented these verses wanted the church of God to disqualify the role of women in the church and reinterpret the inclusiveness implied in 14.5, 14.18, 14.24, and 14.31. We are led to ask the question, “What part of all didn’t he understand?” If v. 34’s unqualified silencing of women were true, then the “all” and “every one of you” in vv. 5, 18, 24, and 31 force us to understand Paul’s letters as being only addressed to the men in the congregation, which is ludicrous in the extreme and contrary to the prominence given to women throughout his epistles and in the book of Acts written by Paul’s most faithful companion, Luke. Ironically, it reflects the same kind of thinking towards women reflected in Talmudic literature which had its inception during the second century, that women were somehow not endowed by their Creator with the same ability as men to appreciate the Torah or truth in general. And frankly, the church fathers, beginning with Tertullian and culminating with Jerome, display this very same kind of perverse marginalization of gender, sex, marriage, and women characteristic of all false religiosity.This view says we needn’t take this passage into account because it wasn’t in the original text, and thus reflects a rule that God did not intend to be there.The third egalitarian position is that verses 34-35 were actually Paul’s quotation of words written or said to him by the Corinthians themselves, which he then decisively refutes.  This view is explained beautifully by Pastor Wade Burleson of Istoria Ministries Blog, as follows:

Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians in Greek. The written Greek language does not use “italics” like we do in our English to identify a quote. To know that something is a quotation: (a). The author must identify that what he is writing is a quotation (something Paul does elsewhere), or (b). the quotation must be so familiar to the audience that no identification of the quote is necessary, or (c). the author uses a Greek eta after the quotation to then refute it. I believe the latter two ways are precisely how the Apostle Paul identifies he is quoting someone else in I Corinthians 14:34-35. . . 



The quotation in I Corinthians 14:34-35 is consistent to the law of the Jews in Corinth, but it is absolutely contrary to the teaching and the practice of the Apostle Paul.Paul REFUTES the Jewish quotation in I Corinthians 14:34-35 twice in the very next verse (v. 36) by using the Greek letter eta. Go look in your interlinear Greek/English Bible and find the stand alone Greek letter eta in v. 36. You will see the eta twice in that one verse. It looks like this: η The Greek eta has two possible markings that cause it to be translated with either the English word “or,” or with the English equilavent of what we mean when we make a sound with our mouths like “PFFFFFFFFFFFFT!” This means “That’s ridiculous!” or “Are you kidding me?” or “Nonsense!” This latter meaning, in my opinion, is precisely what Paul is saying (twice) in I Corinthians 14:36 in response to the Jewish quotation he has just given I Corinthians 14:35-36. The original Greek text has no markings, so the translation of η must be made by translators based on other facts than the markings of the Greek letter. I believe the context, the culture of Corinth, and the radical nature of New Covenant worship taught by Paul (and resisted by the Corinthian Jews zealous for the Law) demands the η be translated with a “PFFFFFFFFFFFT!” instead of “or” (as is done in the NAS).M.Div. Dennis J. Preato, whose article on the God’s Word to Women website does an excellent job of summarizing the various positions on this verse, also holds to the quotation viewpoint.  He explains why the textual variant of the verses having been moved in some manuscripts might be compatible with this view:David W. Odell-Scott, Professor of Philosophy at Kent State University, offers a possible solution to the interpolation debate. He suggests that the editors of the Western manuscripts deleted the verses from their normal location between verses 33 and 36, and moved them in order to shield the verses from Paul’s rebuke that begins in verse 36. He suspects “the editors shrewdly manipulated the text to serve their purposes,” and that they “sought to render the text in such a way that it would be consistent with what the editors expected to find in scripture,” meaning that the editors of the Western text did not view Paul’s rebuke of the silence and subordination of women as a “viable possibility” given the historical culture and society’s norm of that day. Odell-Scott actually views verses 34-35 as a quotation that Paul repeats word for word in order to rebuke. . . .


A substantial body of internal and external evidence exists to conclude that verses 34-35 could not have been authored by Paul. Internally, there is not one verse in the Old Testament that Paul could quote to support such a declaration. Nor is Paul alluding to any general Genesis passage to support a view opposite from his stated declaration in 1 Corinthians that women can pray and prophesy in church.
As previously discussed, Paul is quite specific when referring to the Old Testament to prove his point. The extensive, eternal evidence points to the fact that Paul is quoting a saying from the Oral Law of the Jews that prohibited women from speaking in the synagogue.Oral Jewish laws do not constitute Scripture and are not authoritative for the body of Christ. Scholars also point out that Paul never appeals to the “law” as guidance for the Christian Church. Scripture tells us that God calls and uses anyone to minister regardless of gender. Paul has just finished telling the Corinthians that women can pray and prophesy in church. In verse 36, Paul corrects the Judaizers’ error. Therefore, interpreting verses 34-35 as a quotation with an immediate rebuke remains a contextually viable and the preferred option.This view shows that the rule need not be followed because Paul never intended to make the rule at all, but instead intended to refute it.

Each of these positions has reasons why they disagree with the others.  The hard-complementarian/patriarchal NTRF site linked above has extensive material attempting to show why all of the other positions, including those of softer complementarians, are wrong; you’re welcome to review his material further if you like.  But all of these views, as far as I can see, have one thing in common:  they accept (at least for purposes of argument) that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 should be read as some sort of rule that the New Testament sets forth, which either needs to be either followed in whatever sense it was intended, or dismissed as unintended.

For me, the fact that there is no actual place anywhere in the Old Testament that Paul could have cited as “law” where God commands women to be submissive to their husbands or forbids women to speak publicly; that Anna spoke publicly in the Temple on the occasion of Christ’s infancy dedication, and was not rebuked for doing so (Luke 2:36); that women such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1) would have had to speak publicly in the church in order to read Paul’s letter aloud to the church at Rome (and probably authoritatively answer questions about what Paul meant!); and that the words of Mary, Mother of Christ, are included in our New Testaments as definite speech that we receive as God-inspired and therefore authoritative– all do seem to indicate that Paul could not have intended to forbid women from speaking in church, and with teaching authority.

Another issue is that when we read these verses, we somehow miss what is happening in terms of the reason being set forth for the supposed rule.  But the passage actually says “FOR [the reason that] it is shameful [or disgraceful] for a woman to speak in church.”  And due to our historical and global distance from the passage, we tend to miss what was really being said.  The Middle East at the time of Paul was an honor-shame culture, and by definition, this meant that behavior was viewed in terms of “the opinions and norms of one’s group” rather than according to our more individualistic ideals of right and wrong.  No matter who wrote the words in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 into our Bibles, these phrases actually reflect a very real fact of the time/place in which they were written: it was actually considered shameful in the ancient Middle-Eastern honor-shame culture, for a woman to speak in a public place so that anyone but her husband or other immediate family members could hear her.

David A. DeSilva’s book Honor, Shame, Patronage & Purity examines 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in light of this misunderstood dynamic:


Readers living in the United States or Western Europe may recognize immediately that we live at some distance from the honor culture of the first-century Greco-Roman world (including the Semitic peoples in the East). . . Typically we do not talk about honor and shame much. . .
[W]e should mention the ways in which gender roles impinge on conceptions of honorable behavior. In the ancient world, as in many traditional cultures today, women and men have different arenas for the preservation and acquisition of honor, and different standards for honorable activity. Men occupy the public spaces, while women are generally directed toward the private spaces of home and
hearth. When they leave the home, they are careful to avoid conversation with other men. . . [W]e do find a good deal of space given over to promoting (or simply reflecting) the larger society’s view of female honor within the pages of the New Testament.



[Passages like 1 Cor. 14:34-35] continue to be the topic of endless debate, but relevant for our concern here is the fact that they reflect the same conviction articulated by Plutarch, namely that a woman’s words are for her husband’s ears, not for the public ear.

I would consider it likely that the passages limiting women’s public voice and presence are introduced as part of the early church leaders’ attempts to show outsiders that the Christian movement is not subversive but inculcates the same “family values” (with regard to women, children and slaves in the household) as the dominant, non-Christian culture. The 
reason for this is first to diminish the slander against the Christian group (namely that it “turned the world upside down” and was a source of instability and trouble for “good” people), and second, to make the group more attractive to the people around it.The fact is that in modern Western cultures such as that of the United States, it cannot be said by any stretch of the imagination that it is actually “shameful” or “disgraceful” (which again are by definition references to human social values, not to moral standards, whether divine or human) for women to speak in church! Even in Christian subcultures like evangelicalism, we may have some sense from the text that a woman standing up in church to speak may be breaking some sort of divine rule– but we have no deep-seated, culturally inbred sense of human shame or disgrace– no feeling that something dishonorable in the sight of society is happening.   In fact, what really brings shame on the church in the eyes of the surrounding culture today is when women are forbidden to speak.   Christians in fact often feel defensive or protective of women-silencing traditions precisely because we know how bad these practices look to outsiders. Our sense of shame, as far as it goes in our non-honor/shame society, works against silencing women, not for silencing them.When the reason for a rule ceases, what does/should that mean for the rule?  If whoever wrote these words was trying to prevent cultural shame and disgrace upon the church, should they now be used as a reason for the church to incurshame and disgrace?So I don’t think this verse should be read as restricting or silencing women today.  But the real issue for me goes even deeper than this.  The fact is that not even the strictest hard complementarian reads this verse as forbidding women to say anything in church at all.  And yet this is what the “plain sense” of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 does in fact say.  Women are to “keep silent” for they are “not permitted to speak.”  Not “not permitted to speak publicly.”  Not “not to participate in the interpretation of tongues.”  Not “not to speak as a teacher of adult men.”  Not to speak.  That’s what it says.

Apparently even hard complementarians today recognize the dehumanization and disenfranchisement from their own centers of worship and Christian community which women would experience if they were required to be completely mute from the time they walked into the church meeting until the time they walked out again.  So– no one takes this verse at its “plain sense.”  Everyone decides that that can’t be what it means.  Everyone allows some compassion, some feeling for women, some sense of Jesus’ commandment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) to soften the absolute prohibition set forth in the “plain sense” of these verses.  In short, we allow ourselves to be guided by a sense of right and wrong, as Jesus Himself taught right and wrong, in our reading of these verses– no matter what the actual words say about what is shameful.  Because the fact is that though Jesus often ignored His society’s assessment of what was shameful– from the woman at the well to the woman who cried on His feet, He did it to affirm women and lift them up, not to silence them.

So here’s what it boils down to for me.  Did Paul, in writing his letters, really intend to impose a new, much stricter Law on the people of the New Covenant– particularly with regards to the behavior of women– than ever was pronounced by Moses to the people of the Old Covenant?  And if all of us find a particular supposed “law” to be so harsh/unjust in its literal understanding that we find some way to soften it and make it at least a little more equitable– could obedience to law really be what the New Covenant is about?

Should we even be reading the New Testament in this way? 

Christian author and minister Frank Viola probably says it best:

The New Testament should never be handled as a manual of floatable doctrines and isolated teachings. The New Testament is a whole. It’s essentially a story. What is written in the letters of Paul and others is part of that story. The New Testament story contains a consistent message. It’s the message of the New Covenant. This covenant is not an updating of the Old Covenant. It doesn’t include a new set of rules to replace the old set of rules. . . 



In short, the New Covenant erases all social and class distinctions. And it has afforded all to receive the Spirit and serve as priests in God’s house. That includes women. . . [W]hatever the “limiting passages” mean, they cannot in any way overturn the New Covenant. Neither can they contradict the entire thrust of the New Testament. Hence, the idea that women are excluded from speaking in God’s house is a catastrophic breach of the New Covenant.Isn’t Christianity supposed to be about following Jesus?  Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, you are also to love one another.”  John 13:34.  And then He showed how He loved us– by going to the Cross.  Not by making restrictive rules to silence women.  In fact, His first act in the New Creation He had inaugurated with His Resurrection, was to commission women to testify of Him.His commandments are not burdensome, because they are about love, not law.  His yoke is easy– because it’s about love, not law.  Who were the ones who tied up heavy burdens for others to carry?  The Pharisees.  Not Jesus.”Women be silent in church” is a heavy burden.

So how can it be from Christ?

Therefore, I will take my stand here in the same place I took in my post “But That’s What the Bible Says”:

[T]here’s something wrong with the way we look at the Bible, when we read a small set of texts in ways that jar with its overarching truths. There’s something wrong with holding the nature or treatment of women, or the character of God, hostage to a verse.  There’s something wrong with righteously standing on obedience to the Bible while treating fellow human beings less than righteously.

Women shouldn’t have to “keep silent in church.”  It’s contrary to “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17).  And it’s contrary to “love one another, as I have loved you.”

For me, that’s all there is to it.

[Editorial Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based. Please refrain from this pertains to all Christians everywhere and show some respect for the writer please. For more info on the site please visit - Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

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Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

 

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 


About Suzanne Calulu
  • http:///krwordgazer.blogspot.com Kristen Rosser

    Hey, I appreciate your posting this! But it does have some paragraph spacing issues that are making it a little confusing. If you wouldn’t mind comparing it with the original on my blog and adjusting it accordingly, I’d appreciate it. Thanks! – Kristen

  • madame

    Kristen,
    What do you make of “as the Law also says” in the passage in 1 Corinthians?
    A few years ago, when things happened to challenge my strict complementarian views, I kept stumbling on those words. What law?

    • http:///krwordgazer.blogspot.com Kristen Rosser

      Madame, I believe that “the Law” doesn’t referred to Torah (because there’s no place in Torah where it says anything like this) but to the rabbinical commentaries and oral additions to the Law. That’s why I don’t think Paul wrote these words. He never advocated for following the rabbinical/oral law. He was either quoting someone else in order to refute them, or someone else wrote these words in the margin of the text.

      • madame

        Thanks, Kristen.
        Paul himself was a pharisee, right? He would have known the law well. If he mentioned the law of their day to his readers, it wouldn’t be a case of legalism, just reminding them that the law (which they are supposed to follow) gives them these limitations, so as in the case of wifely submission to her husband, I think he isn’t giving eternal regulations here, just reminding his readers to limit themselves for the sake of the Gospel.
        It’s interesting that read that way, these verses show sensitivity to the culture, something that conservative Christians seem to lack!

  • Calulu

    Hey Kristen, I am out of town with limited internet access. Will fix when I get in a spot with better internet

  • Mayara

    I’m not going to say anything about the content, but I believe the warning on the end of the text, about how this is for believers and all that jazz should be at the top, so people who would disagree, read it first thing… So they can stop reading and ignore it before they reach the end…

    • Mary C

      I agree. Its frustrating to read through something, and then get to a warning at the end that your point of view is not welcome. I wouldn’t have wasted my time on the blog if I’d realized that beforehand.

      • http:///krwordgazer.blogspot.com Kristen Rosser

        Mary C, I apologize if it comes across that your point of view isn’t welcome. The issue is not that people who aren’t believers aren’t welcome to say anything; it’s simply that those who feel, and would comment, that this whole post and others like it are just a waste of time because the Bible isn’t worth discussing, and why are we bothering trying to figure out what a passage means because doing so is really, well, stupid– comments like these don’t actually contribute to the post at all other than to recommend that it not exist. So the blog owners are trying to limit the conversation to those who actually want to talk about it and not just throw it out. Hope that clarifies.


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