Should Women Be Silent and Submissive in Church? (1 Cor 14:26-40)
There are, I would say, two primary texts that people use to prevent women from preaching and teaching over men in the church. One of them is 1 Timothy 2, the other is 1 Corinthians 14 (esp vv. 34-35). Here we will address 1 Corinthians 14.
The focus of our attention will be on these matters:
Are women really not allowed to speak? Why? (14:34)
Does the silencing of women relate to a universal standard of submission to men? (14:35)
There’s Something Fishy about This Passage…
If you are like me, when you read 1 Cor 14:34-35 you think: this just doesn’t sound like Paul. (This seems to contradict his attitude towards women elsewhere; e.g., Phil 4:2-3; Rom 16). Well, you and I are not alone. Some scholars believe it might be an “interpolation.” An interpolation is a piece of writing inserted into a text later by someone else. The best way to prove an interpolation theory is to have a later manuscript of 1 Corinthians with the added text, and an earlier manuscript without it. We don’t have that kind of evidence in this situation. But we do have some manuscripts that displace 14:34-35 by putting these two verses after 14:40. If 14:34-35 were original to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, why would a scribe move them? There are few cases I know of where a scribe would transfer a passage to somewhere else. So, we are left with two possibilities.
- 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an interpolation, i.e., not written by Paul, but added by a later scribe who wanted to include a message calling women to be silent and submissive.
- 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is authentic to 1 Corinthians (i.e., written by Paul), but some scribe(s) found it awkward and felt the need to move it.
Either way, it is a strange matter. For the last decade or so, I defended the second view (#2), but I am becoming more and more persuaded by (#1). Now, I am the last person who is tempted to start cutting stuff out of the Bible. (That is usually a self-serving endeavor.) And in this case, the evidence for interpolation is still not clear enough to merit removing these verses from modern English Bibles. But – I think this matter is highly relevant to the conversation on women in ministry, because we dare not base our attitudes on this subject on a passage where scholars are not clear on its authenticity.
Still, I will do my best below to offer what I think of as the most plausible reading if it is authentic.
Starting with the Context
This is one of the texts that gets pulled out of context a lot to reinforce female submission in the church. But it is crucial to recognize that 14:26-40 is not about gender roles in the church; it is about harmony in the church. Paul does not want it to be that some people do the talking (i.e., men) and others do the listening (i.e., women). Rather, each believer has something to contribute verbally to edify the whole church (14:26).
Tongues and Prophecy, not Preaching and Teaching
This passage is used as evidence that women shouldn’t preach or teach in ministry over men, but the wider context doesn’t actually deal with those matters; it deals with prophecy and tongues. Paul supports tongue-speech, but it should be orderly (14:27). The ideal is that there be an interpreter, or else the tongue-speaker should keep quiet so as not to distract others (14:28).
And what about prophecy? Prophets may speak, but believers should weigh their words carefully (14:29). Paul imagines spontaneous works of the Spirit in the midst of the church, but this should not lead to noise and chaos. All can participate in prophesying for mutual encouragement (14:31).
Verse 33 serves as a key summary of his message: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (NIV).
Silent about What?
All scholars are in agreement that Paul was not calling women to be pin-drop silent at all times in church. After all, even in 1 Corinthians, Paul assumes women will prophesy in church in a public manner (1 Cor 11:5). And yet Paul expresses here that they should not speak. It is logical to assume it is a particular kind of speaking in a particular context.
The best clue we have is in 14:35, which can be translated more literally as “If they want to learn about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.” In this context, Paul is rebuking women who disrupt the worship service with comments or questions.
It is crucial to catch the tone of 14:36: did the word of God originate with you? Are you the only people it has reached? There is a tone of correction or rebuke here. What these Corinthians women were doing in the church was not asking about the sermon, I assume. They seem to have had a more subversive attitude as if they were harassing or second-guessing the person speaking.
Paul makes it clear at the end of this passage that what matters most is not that women submit to men, but that prophesying and tongue-speech happen “in a fitting and orderly way” (14:40).
Should Women/Wives Submit to Men in Church?
The language of submission is used in this text (14:34), but there is something I hope you didn’t miss. Normally, Paul refers to the authority over the one submitting: submit to [so-and-so], but here he does not. So let’s not jump to any conclusions. It could be about submitting to God, but sometimes it can refer to submission to a thing, like the Law of God (Rom 8:7). My sense is that here the language of submission relates to respect for the church service, not submission to men in particular. If Paul wanted to say women should submit to men in church, he would have explicitly said so (because nearly always that is how the verb hypotasso is used; see, e.g, 1 Cor 16:16).
What Does This Passage Teach about Women in Ministry?
Nothing. Women should respect men when they speak in church. More spontaneous spiritual activity is expected and encouraged, but not at the expense of harmony.