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Women Should Remain Silent in the Churches (?)

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This past week, we wrapped up a sermon series on spiritual gifts from 1 Corinthians 12-14. For weeks, I looked at one passage in 1 Corinthians 14 with fear and trembling. Would I talk about 14:34-35? Could I just ignore it and pretend it wasn’t there? Maybe people wouldn’t notice? I mean, sure, I’ve covered every other verse in this whole section, but people don’t really pay that much attention, right? In the end, I took the approach of not addressing these verses in the sermon, since they don’t directly relate to the topic of spiritual gifts. However, I mentioned on Sunday that I might write a post with an explanation of what’s going on here. So that’s what you’re getting right now.

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Here are the verses: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but they 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 Corinthians 14:34-35)

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Yep. That’s a challenging text!

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Some scholars have suggested these words aren’t actually original to the text. The reason is because in some ancient copies, these two verses are inserted at the very end of chapter 14. And if you read straight from verse 33 to 36, it’s pretty smooth. “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace- as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people…or did the word of God originate with you?” That’s maybe an even smoother transition than what exists with verses 34-35. So some think verses 34-35 were a note put in the margin by some scribe, but later was incorporated into the text itself. However, if that had happened, we’d probably expect some ancient copies to be missing the verses altogether, and that isn’t the case. They all have these verses, and the most reliable ancient manuscripts have them right where they are in the NIV translation.

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Other scholars have suggested that Paul is quoting the Corinthians. There were no quotation marks in ancient Greek, so you have to rely on other clues when a citation is taking place. For example, 1 Corinthians 6:12 says “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say- but not everything is beneficial…you say, ‘food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however…” Here, Paul indicates that they’ve written something to him, and he provides a clear and usually extensive response. Some think that Paul is quoting the Corinthians in verses 34-35, and that his response starts in verse 36. However, there are none of the usual signals that he’s quoting them, and if verses 36-38 are his response, they would seem somewhat inadequate to address such a bold statement as in verses 34-35. 

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The truth is, these words can’t really mean what they seem to mean on the surface, because Paul very clearly expects women to be speaking in the gathered church. In a verse that is almost equally confusing for different reasons but at least clarifies this point, Paul writes that “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head.” (1 Corinthians 11:5) He expects that women will be praying and prophesying in the church. On a couple of occasions in the book of Acts, the prophecy of Joel 2 is alluded to in order to illustrate what is happening in the early church. Joel 2:28-29 says “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” Daughters. Women. Prophesying. Speaking. And then you have passages where Paul names women as his co-laborers or as leaders in churches. Priscilla is one notable example (Acts 18, Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19). There can’t be much doubt that women played a significant role in the early church, including in verbal capacities.

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So, what do these verses mean? If they can’t be easily dismissed as a later interpolation or a quote, and if they can’t mean what they seem to mean on the surface, WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? (Those capital letters are an approximation of how you might be feeling if you’ve made it this far.)

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I’m going to draw on some insights from Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, which I found really helpful on this point. They write that “we should assume that unless there was a clear reference in the Corinthians’ letter to Paul that a particular kind of women’s speech in worship was creating a problem in the church, the Corinthians would have found Paul’s statement that women are not permitted ‘to speak in church’ just as unclear as modern readers.” At numerous points in 1 Corinthians, Paul alludes to issues that the Corinthians have raised in a letter they wrote to him (eg. 1 Cor. 7:1). Ciampa and Rosner are saying that there is likely an issue that the Corinthians have written Paul about, and that we’re missing this piece of information. We’re listening to one side of a phone call. However, from the context of what Paul writes here, it likely has to do with some particular disruptive pattern in the church in Corinth. It would seem that there are women who are disrupting corporate worship by asking all kinds of questions of men who are teaching (v.35).

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We can draw on some cultural context here as well. We know from ancient writers of the time that women were not to publicly converse with men who were not their husbands. To do so, including asking questions of other men, was considered scandalous in that culture. It may have been especially scandalous when their own husbands were right there, watching as their wives engaged another man in that way. When Paul alludes to what “the law” says in verse 34, he’s probably referring to the general concern in the Old Testament law that wives not behave in an insubordinate way that bring shame on her and her husband. Again, given the cultural context and Paul’s reference to “inquiring” about something in verse 35, that “insubordinate” speech is probably what Paul has in mind. 

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Ciampa and Rosner then turn to our current cultural context, where what is considered socially inappropriate or scandalous is quite different. They write that “the principles underlying Paul’s counsel, that women (and men) not act disgracefully in public, or in ways which reflect a lack of respect for the dignity of their spouses, may well call for a different set of concrete behaviors in our churches than would have been expected in first-century Corinth.” The underlying principle is similar to what Paul has been emphasizing throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14: we are to love one another. We are to build one another up. We are not to bring disgrace and dishonour to one another, least of all our spouses! In first century Roman culture, that meant that wives should refrain from discoursing with other men in public, including in the church. In 21st century Canadian culture, that particular situation isn’t an issue, but other behaviours will be.

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I know there’s a lot there. Some of you are getting a taste of some challenges in interpreting the Bible for the first time. You might not have heard that different ancient copies of the Bible might have slight differences. You might be hearing for the first time that cultural context is crucial in understanding the Bible and how to apply it to our lives. I would love to talk more with you about these things! That might be a good article series in the future. But hopefully this helps even a bit in giving clarity to a difficult text.