Image for On Gender and the Bible: Why Do Women Stay Silent in 1 Corinthians 14? (Part 3)

On Gender and the Bible: Why Do Women Stay Silent in 1 Corinthians 14? (Part 3)

Photo of Renée SprolesRenée Sproles | Bio

Renée Sproles

Renée Webb Sproles is from Murfreesboro, TN, where she directed The School of Christian Thought for five years at North Boulevard Church. She is a 15-year homeschool veteran. She is also a founder and co-director of the Discipleship Tutorial in Murfreesboro, where she has taught government, economics, personal finance, health, study skills, English grammar, and writing. She is the mother of two grown children, Houston and Emma, who is married to Thomas Goodwyn. With her husband, David, Renée has co-taught parenting classes for 20 years and currently teaches a marriage and family class of 100 students each week. Renée is the author of On Gender: What the Bible Says about Men and Women (Renew, 2019).
Photo of Rick OsterRick Oster | Bio

Rick Oster

A highly respected teacher at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years, Dr. Richard Oster helps prepare students for work in Christian ministry (and a smaller number for doctoral studies elsewhere) by teaching courses in New Testament Greek and courses in the content of the New Testament. These courses include Acts of Apostles, Pauline letters, book of Revelation, NewTestament Theology, and historical and cultural backgrounds of the NewTestament. He is also an expert on ancient Ephesus. 
Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.
Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He has his bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), his master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and his PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His master’s thesis was on apologetics to atheists, and his doctoral dissertation was on apologetics to Buddhists. In 2014, he co-authored The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw with Norman Geisler. Daniel works as editorial director for the Renew Network. His passion is to help people understand that they can totally trust Jesus. He plays guitar and piano and occasionally enjoys writing songs. daniel@renew.org

This will be another in-depth post where we examine what the Word of God teaches about men and women in the church. It is the third installment in a series engaging with John Mark Hicks’s book, Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story, and Scot McKnight’s book, Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. We picked these two men because they are influential in the circles of Renew.org leaders and they serve as common examples of the posture many are taking today. We encourage readers to engage the series from the beginning, as we critiqued the methods and tools used by both authors to understand and interpret key texts (click here for Part 1) before moving to specific exegesis on 1 Corinthians 11 (click here for Part 2).

Our culture is putting tremendous pressure on church leaders and churches to explain away what the Bible teaches regarding the lead male teachers/preacher in a church and the role of elders. Cultural pressures and sometimes-confusing passages help us see why these questions deserve solid focus. Our desire at Renew.org is to “renew the teachings of Jesus to fuel disciple making,” so we feel compelled to speak up for the classic, historic teaching on these two points and for soft complementarianism from Scripture.

For those just joining this conversation, here again is Renew.org’s postion:

We believe both men and women were created by God to equally reflect, in gendered ways, the nature and character of God in the world. In marriage, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, yet there are gender specific expressions: husbands model themselves in relationship with their wives after Jesus’ sacrificial love for the church and wives model themselves in relationship with their husbands after the church’s willingness to follow Jesus. In the church, men and women serve as partners in the use of their gifts in ministry, while seeking to uphold New Testament norms which teach that the lead teacher/preacher role in the gathered church and the elder/overseer role are for qualified men. The vision of the Bible is an equal partnership of men and women in creation, in marriage, in salvation, in the gifts of the Spirit and in the ministries of the church but exercised in ways that honor gender as described in the Bible.

Our understanding of Scripture has positioned us in contradistinction to a “traditional patriarchy” on the right and to “progressive egalitarianism” on the left. So, in the gatherings of many of our churches you will find women using their gifts as they publicly pray, read Scripture, serve as ushers, worship leaders, etc., but they honor the principle of male headship as they take on these public roles, and they do not serve in the role of the lead teacher/preacher. Our churches also uphold the New Testament norms that only qualified men serve as elders/shepherds and that husbands follow Jesus as the servant leaders of their wives and families in the home.

Circling Back to 1 Corinthians 11

Harrington: We want to start with a few comments that serve as a bridge from our discussion in the last post on the man being the “head” from 1 Corinthians 11, before then focusing this post on 1 Corinthians 14.

In the context of male “headship” (1 Corinthians), should we see the the word head (kephale in Greek) as meaning “source,” or does the word more connote “authority”? We have asked Rick Oster to add more of an in-depth perspective on this issue below, but before he does that, I want to describe a hermeneutical approach which can guide the scholar but which can also make sense of things for the everyday disciple. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion on hermeneutics, or even a direct challenge to Hicks’s or McKnight’s hermeneutical methods, but rather a big-picture principle which everyone on every side of these issues should consider when engaging in these types of theological debates.

I call my hermeneutical approach a “plain reading hermeneutic,” and here is what I mean. My dad has been a truck driver all of his life. (He recently retired at 85 as the oldest class-one truck driver in Alberta, Canada). He received only a 5th grade education. Yet he has a certain kind of street smarts that enabled him to build a multi-million dollar trucking company that at its height included countless trucks and over 100 trailers. I grew up with truck drivers—working with them daily through high school and university, and then when I managed my dad’s trucking company for five years after my first seminary degree. These experiences helped me to work at contextualizing my understanding of the teachings of the Bible in the lives of everyday people.

A plain reading hermeneutic means that most things in Scripture, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, can make sense to average people. Yes, as Peter said, some things are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). But with prayer and earnest Bible reading, most biblical teachings, especially central teachings, can be understood by average Christians filled with the Holy Spirit. When my dad and other truck driver friends hear some of the sophisticated ways that theologians explain away certain passages on these issues, they will naturally wonder, “Is that a natural way to read these passages?” Most truck drivers I know do not have a lot of higher education, but they often have the ability to see the obvious better than intellectuals can. So, for example, if a series of dozens of Scriptures and some key words in multiple parts of the Bible have to be explained away, and each time, in a progressive direction, they are going to flag it. I can almost hear their words out loud right now: “Either some agenda is influencing those scholars, making them explain away what the Bible teaches, or I just can’t understand what the Bible teaches for myself anymore.” Think about that last sentence. It is one of the common statements that average people say when they have been discipled by liberal and progressive denominations.

In my work with the leaders of international disciple making movements, I have learned how the kingdom of God rapidly spreads because everyday people get to read and believe the Bible, they understand its basic message, and it radically changes their lives. Yes, they sometimes need help with the languages, background history, etc., but, more often than not, the truth emerges through using a plain reading hermeneutic combined with obedience. In fact, they often end up with a more robust biblical understanding than many theologians.

Now let me clarify, I am all for theological education (otherwise I would not have gotten four theological degrees). I also believe that Scot McKnight, John Mark Hicks, and others like them are excellent theologians, helping myself and many church leaders. They are among the best today. Moreover, we are all (Hicks, McKnight, ourselves) making the case that the weight of Scripture leads to our own particular conclusions—and that, understood correctly, a plain reading of all of Scripture would lead people there too. To the reader, we want to say thanks for engaging these articles in order to wrestle with what, given historical background, etc., is the more natural reading of these texts.

The Richness of Headship

Sproles: As we continue our discussion on “headship,” I’d like to add that a common shorthand in the church can go something like this: “Husbands should lead their wives, and wives should submit,” as if that’s the sum total of the marriage roles. This was always a cringe-worthy, overly simplistic description for me. Leadership and authority are, of course, part of the idea of headship. But when reading what God says about gender in marriage and the church, these words are inadequate synonyms for headship. “Leader” and “authority” fail to fully capture the richness of the biblical word kephale (head).

Those who see no gender distinctions prescribed in Scripture (e.g., egalitarians), often insist that kephale means “source” so that men are seen as the source of women, just as Adam’s rib was the source of Eve. As we will see, this interpretation misses important connotations of kephale. On the other hand, it is possible for those who see gender distinctions in Scripture to so rigidly emphasize that kephale means “authority” that they assert an authoritarian leadership of men in all ways at home and in the church. Neither approach is a faithful interpretation of the biblical concept of headship.

So if headship is more than just authority and leadership, at least worldly notions of it, does it have anything to do with those words? Of course! For example, Christ is described as the head of the church, and all authority in heaven and on earth was given to him by God (Matt 28:18). However, headship, when it involves leadership and authority, should be strikingly different from worldly privilege and power. Why? Because in Christ, God redefines what leadership looks like. As we use the term “head,” we must use it as Christ demonstrates: as a shepherd who cares for his sheep. There is a sense of vulnerability and trust in the headship of Christ, who gave himself up for the church (Eph 5). He was fierce when facing the enemy and gentle when tending the flock. As we discuss headship, let us keep first and foremost that our Lord is the standard.

Harrington: Also, before Rick Oster delves further into the concept of headship, let me point out that Rick Oster’s description of “veils” in 1 Corinthians 11 in Part 2 (click here) is not some gloss or a fringe interpretation of scholarship on veils. It is seminal. As Preston Massey pointed out in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 2018, “Oster anticipated the discussion of male head coverings by a margin of over twenty-five years.”[1] 

One final thing before Rick’s comments. Some scholars eschew male leadership when it comes to translating “head,” by pointing to statements from church leaders in the 300s and later who had a “Nicene Trinitarian theology.” Some of these church leaders argued that submission in the Trinity will not exist in eternity, and that, therefore, it is inconsistent to see “head” as implying the authority of God the Father over the Son (see below). It is also pointed out that there are early church leaders who, in discussing the Trinity, understood “head” as “source”; their quotes in a Trinitarian context are then used to interpret headship as described in the New Testament, and ultimately cast a shadow on the ecumenical consensus of the early church that God calls men to a special Christ-like leadership in the church and in the home. We want to be careful when we quote ancient sources, including someone like Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, as an authority on this point. He lived approximately 800 years after the apostle Paul and is not a good guide on the meaning of a word from Paul’s time. It is not as though church creeds and Patristic sources are unhelpful; they are. But it is helpful to clarify that while we value Patristic resources, we at Renew.org reaffirm that Scripture is our ultimate and final authority.

Authority in the Trinity

Oster: Regarding the Nicene Council, I very much appreciate the need in the 4th century Church to oppose the errors of the Arians with their false understanding of Christ. I do not, however, therefore elevate those documents to a level of significance that they become the normative lens for interpreting Scripture on any topic. If this is my understanding of the Nicene Creed, how much less authoritative are ecclesiastical documents written by individual Church Fathers penned in some cases half a millennium after Nicea. Even when ancient authors are extremely significant or perhaps even a joy to read, they still fall far beneath the standard of being Sacred Writings.

Turning to Scripture, Paul teaches that Christ will be subordinate to the Father for all eternity, and rightfully so since this eternal posture of submission (hypotassō) best captures the heart of the relationship between God the Father and the Son.

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (1 Cor. 15:24).

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). 

Paul’s language of “Father” and Son” did not arise in the New Testament from some centuries-later mystical argot about the Trinity. There is a picture of the Triune God in the New Testament, although most New Testament scholars acknowledge that the ideas and wording of later Trinitarianism are not found in the New Testament. Regarding the language of the “Father” and the “Son,” these terms and this facet of the Triune God stem explicitly from the Royal (Davidic) Covenant which Jesus fulfilled as the royal heir of David and not from obscure metaphysical language of later centuries. As a reading of the New Testament makes clear, this Davidic covenant is one of the most important covenants in the Jewish Scriptures (2 Sam. 7:4-17, delivered by the prophet Nathan) and one of the most pervasive in the New Testament. The most relevant part of Nathan’s message reads,

“When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:12-16). 

This is the foundation for numerous Psalms about the Royal Covenant and God’s anointed and obedient king. Repeatedly the writings and sermons of the New Testament teach that Jesus of Nazareth is the last heir of David’s covenant, raised and enthroned to sit next to YHWH with the task of conquering enemies. All of this is the fulfillment of Ps. 110:1: “The LORD [YHWH] says to my Lord [the King]: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

In Paul’s brief description of this in 1 Cor. 15, he writes that when the End arrives, “He [Jesus Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24). This has been the millennia-long task of the obedient Davidic Christ (Anointed King), made clear at his enthronement in the first century by the clear teaching of Ps. 110:1 and Ps. 8:6 (among others). This is not peripheral teaching about who Jesus is, but is, rather, foundational to the first Petrine sermon in Acts 2 and the first Pauline sermon in Acts 13. Many New Testament scholars point out that Ps. 110:1 is either quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more than any other Psalm. Usually phrases like “at his right hand” or “under his feet/footstool” are clear indications that Psalm 110 is in mind.

Psalm 2 is another Davidic Psalm that plays a clear role in the New Testament. For example, when both of the terms Lord and Anointed (Christ) occur together as in Luke 2:11 (“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord) and Acts 2:36 (“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”), it resonates with the testimony of Ps. 2:2: “The rulers gathered together, against the Lord and against his anointed (Greek, Christ).” The plot of the story mentioned in Acts 4:25-26 is found in Ps. 2. In addition, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” is also taken from Ps. 2:7 and applied to Jesus more than once in the New Testament (Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). This demonstrates again that the Scriptures read by Jesus and the Apostles are where one should look for guidance about terms like “Son” and “begotten” when considering the submissive and obedient Davidic King Jesus whom YHWH called to his throne. A final connection between Ps. 2 and the New Testament is the Davidic King’s submission to YHWH’s directive to break to pieces rebellious nations like a potter’s vessel (Ps. 2:9; Rev. 2:26-27; 12:5; 19:15).

Silencing Women in 1 Corinthians 14

Harrington: Rick pointed us to an excellent resource that the leaders of the church he attends created after extensive study with Rick and others, including their senior minister, Rodney Plunket, PhD. It is called a Study with the Shepherds:  Women and Men Serving the Church. As stated last time, we use this document extensively with permission. When quoted, we will reference it as SWS.

Oster: Let me remind everyone that when you plant the gospel in a pagan culture for the first time, almost everybody’s a new Christian. Nobody grew up in a Christian home. Nobody. The number of truths that would have to be taught is staggering. Nobody’s at the 50-yard line; everybody’s starting at zero except for those who came over from the synagogue. That’s what is happening at Corinth. Most of the Corinthians’ problems stem from their pagan background.

The reason the American church is in such trouble is that we can’t even see the way the church is being assimilated to our own cultural values and away from biblical truth. One of those truths is that God is the Creator of men and women, and that in His role as Creator, He gets to set the definitions and categories for them. People who continually listen to culture for its categories and paradigms will find themselves out of step with what Scripture says is true.

Sproles: At the same time, we want to be sensitive to where we’ve come from, especially within Restoration Movement churches (many Renew.org churches are a part of this tribe). As Hicks points out in his book, there have been many Christian men who argued that women were unfit for public life, being designed solely for domesticity. Others believed that women should be prohibited from practicing medicine, law, and politics, and should even be denied the right to vote. In my own experience growing up, I never saw a woman participate in public ways in the assembly.

I am grateful that those are not the prevailing attitudes toward women today. I am grateful for those who wrestled with these passages of Scripture to make sense of the fullness of what God says about men and women. I am grateful for those who had the courage to contradict, correct, and instruct men in their wrong attitudes toward women.

And yet, I am concerned. I agree with Dr. Oster that the American church is quickly assimilating to the culture around us in terms of gender and sexuality. Just this week, an online discussion of gender roles and the church was shut down because offering a soft complementarian viewpoint, as opposed to a fully egalitarian one, was considered harmful and toxic toward women. What I find in Scripture about how men and women should interact in marriage and in the family of God is good news. I am grateful for this series of posts at Renew.org to discuss such an important and emotionally-charged topic; if we stop talking to one another, if we stop studying and searching for the truth, if we say it’s just too difficult to really understand, then we are defeated.

Oster: And let me say that there will likely be some people who are going to push back against this who are sort of populist and say, “You know, why do we have to know any background at all to know the Bible? Can’t we just read it and obey? My grandmother didn’t know anything about all this. Are you saying she’s not going to heaven?” Of course I’m not saying that. My grandmother had a sixth-grade education and was a kind and godly woman. I’m not talking about who gets into heaven by understanding these issues.

I am talking about people who are trying to be responsible teachers, people who are talking about these issues. If we’re going to talk about these things and try to interact with what Scripture says in context, then we need to be as well-versed as we can regarding what was going on in the day and age when Paul wrote. Like it or not, Jesus did not come back during the Roman Empire, which means the church since then has to put out some effort to learn about antiquity in order to have translations of the Bible in our language. So we must spend time learning about the ancient world.

Sproles: That’s a great point. So, let’s get started.

Q: Why does Paul say the women should keep silent in the assembly in chapter 14 when in chapter 11 it is clear that women are speaking and Paul does not disapprove?

Oster: Because Scripture does not contradict itself, serious students must view both chapter 11 and chapter 14 as theologically consistent one with the other.

SWS: Since we believe in the inspiration of Scripture and affirm the resulting commitment to sound principles of biblical interpretation, we cannot say chapter 14 trumps chapter 11 or that chapter 11 trumps chapter 14. . . . We cannot ignore 1 Cor. 11:2-16, which reveals women are praying and prophesying in the assembly . . . [and] we cannot ignore 1 Cor. 14:34-35 in which Paul states women should remain silent in the assembly.

The challenge for every student of the Word is to step back from a given text and review it in its entirety. With this in mind, it seems the structure of 1 Cor. 11-14 reveals that the problems addressed in these four chapters all relate to the assembly.

  • 1 Cor. 11:2-16 addresses problems associated with praying and prophesying in the assembly.
  • 1 Cor. 11:17-34 addresses problems associated with the Lord’s Supper in the assembly.
  • 1 Cor. 12-14 addresses problems associated with spiritual gifts in the assembly.

This same commitment to consistency in interpretation makes it difficult to regard 1 Cor. 11:2-16 as about non-assembly occurrences of praying and prophesying while knowing that 11:17-34 is about the assembly.

Q: Okay, so let’s take a broader look at this whole chapter for a moment. Can you help us understand what is happening in 1 Corinthians 14?

Oster: 1 Corinthians 14 is part of a three-chapter block of information, chapters 12-14, and the focus is spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:1). All of 1 Corinthians 14 is about spiritual gifts, except for verses 34-35, which we’ll talk about later. Paul is addressing the use of spiritual gifts in an orderly way in the assembly; he ends by insisting upon it in verse 40.

Q: So, what is going on in particular?

SWS: In 1 Cor. 14:26-33, Paul silences tongue-speakers and prophets with no gender references. 1 Cor. 14:34’s instructions to women are parallel to Paul’s instructions to the other two groups. All three sets of instructions use an imperative form of the same Greek verb (sigao) for “be silent.”

  • The first occurrence (14:28) is employed to command a tongue speaker to be silent when no interpreter is present.
  • The second occurrence (14:30) is employed to command a prophet to be silent when another prophet receives a revelation.
  • The third occurrence (14:34) is employed to command women to be silent instead of being vocally disruptive.

Each of these commands calls upon a different group within the assembly to cease certain types of audible disruptions. Therefore, the instructions in 14:34 do not constitute a universal prohibition of women speaking in the worship assembly; instead, just like the two preceding “be silent” commands, the command in 14:34 is intended only to call for silence relative to vocal disruptions.

Oster: Yes. In the first two instances, no one understands the imperative “be silent” to mean the people can’t say anything. It’s understood that anytime they’re violating this particular area they have to stop. The only reason they’re told to be quiet is because they are being disruptive and straying from the norm of what God expects for the assembly to accomplish in terms of edification, instruction, and concern for others.

Q: So, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is talking about order in the assembly when exercising spiritual gifts. What would you say to someone who believes it’s clear that “silent” means “silent”—for all women, for all reasons, and for all time in the assembled church?

Oster: When correcting tongues speakers, prophets, and women, Paul uses the same Greek verb sigao, which means be quiet, be silent. As I mentioned before, no one understands the first two instances of the imperative “be silent” to mean the people can’t say anything forever. It’s understood that anytime they’re violating this particular area they have to stop. Additionally, we have good reason to believe, from the wording Paul uses, that this is a particular problem with some married women.

SWS: Paul says the women should ask their questions of “their husbands” at home. The Greek word translated as “husbands” is andras (plural accusative of aner), a word that can mean either “men” or “husbands.” However, the two-word Greek phrase, translated here as “their own husbands” (NIV), occurs five other times in the NT where it always refers to a husband or husbands. It should be translated and understood the same way here.

This reference to “their own husbands” in 14:35 is most naturally interpreted as an indication that the women Paul is addressing in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 are all married. Some resist that interpretation, but to interpret it any other way creates a problem. We know there were unmarried women in the Corinthian church (see 1 Cor. 7). If Paul is viewed here to be telling all women to be silent, he is giving only the married ones a means of appropriately seeking the information he indicates it is legitimate for them to seek; they are just not to seek it by asking interrupting questions during the assembly. Are we to conclude that the unmarried women had no questions or that Paul wasn’t concerned about their questions? In line with the previous two “be silent” exhortations, it is far more likely Paul is only addressing all or some of the married women because they are the ones guilty of creating vocal disturbances.

Therefore, this command is not addressing all the Christian women in Corinth but only the married women or, more likely, some group of married women. In light of the context, he does that because only they are creating disorder comparable to that created by tongue speakers without interpreters and prophets who speak simultaneously rather than one-at-a-time. The disorder appears to be the asking of interrupting questions during the assembly. Paul commands them to quit; instead, they are to ask their husbands when they get home. Even if 1 Cor. 11:2-16 were not part of 1 Corinthians, 1 Cor. 14:34-35 would still be best interpreted as a passage applicable only to married women.

So, in these verses, Paul is not prohibiting women from ever speaking in the assembly. He is commanding them to quit creating disorder by vocal disruptions. Why does he do that in 1 Cor 14:34-35? Because the purpose of this section is to bring order to the Corinthian assemblies.

Q: So, must wives always learn from their husbands at home?

SWS: No. Paul is not saying wives can only learn from their husbands at home. He is saying if they cannot participate in the assembly in an orderly way, then they need to take their inquiries home. It is as if Paul is saying, “Don’t learn so loudly in the church!” Paul uses this same kind of construction in 11:34: “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment.” He does not mean no one should eat at the Lord’s Supper or that it is wrong to be hungry when one gathers in church; his point is that it is better to eat at home than to disrupt the Christian community by the way one eats at church. In 14:34, Paul commands some or all married women to be silent in church to stop them from asking interrupting questions that bring shame upon them and others.

Q: The concluding clause in 14:35 is, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Could this clause be Paul’s way of revealing that the silence of women applies to the entire assembly?

SWS: Acts 18:1ff reports Paul’s planting of this church and living and teaching in Corinth for a year and a half. What explanation could possibly be offered for that church now having women praying and prophesying (as reported in 1 Cor. 11:2ff) and being vocal in some other way (as reported in 1 Cor. 14:34-35) and not already knowing that women speaking at all was “shameful?” If Paul had indeed taught them that any speaking by a female was shameful and they were ignoring it, why does he not remind them of that in 1 Cor. 11? Why does he make the discussion in 1 Cor. 11:2ff all about headship and head coverings and never mention it was shameful for women to be vocal at all? Why wait until 1 Cor. 14, and why say it in a clause following an exhortation only addressed to married women? The answer to these questions is clear. In 1 Cor. 14:34-35, Paul is instructing all or some of the married women to stop their shameful behavior of disruptive speaking in the assembly. He is not prohibiting these women or any other women from ever speaking in the assembly. The larger context reveals that Paul’s intent in this final clause of 14:35 is to report that “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” as these women are speaking. They are speaking non-submissively and disruptively.

Q: So, to interpret the “keep quiet” mandate as a prohibition of women ever speaking in the assembly requires us to ignore the actual context and content of these verses?

Oster: Yes. Paul is saying that male headship is being dishonored by the way some of the women are interacting with some of the men. If they wanted to learn something, those particular women had to be quiet and wait until they got home to ask their husbands, because they obviously didn’t know how to learn correctly, in an orderly way.

SWS: Paul’s message in vss. 34-35 is that women must act that way just like the corrected tongue speakers and prophets must act in that way (14:27-33).

To argue that Paul in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is commanding all women to be silent at all times in all the church’s assemblies in a section of 1 Corinthians explicitly correcting disorder in the assembly requires us to believe that anytime women speak they are disorderly.

Q: 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is not found in the same place in all the ancient Greek manuscripts, and some scholars say someone other than Paul added it later. Is that true?

SWS: It is true that in some ancient Greek manuscripts the passage located in our English Bibles at 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is found after what we have in v. 40. However, no ancient manuscripts are absent of this material. Therefore, these verses should be regarded as authentic.

[In verse 34] women are told to keep silent in the congregations. Here we have some women who are acting in ways that are contrary to how the assembly is supposed to be conducted. We know from earlier in the book, clearly they can pray and prophesy, and because we have the word ekklesia 1 Cor 11: 16, we have to take seriously the fact that this is in an assembly. Now, we see, once again, the same kind of tenor, the same implications of the verb “be silent” as in the previous two occurrences.

Q: Hicks says that Paul does not say to whom or to what the women should submit. He adds that “Nowhere does the Torah explicitly command wives to submit to their husbands” (81, italics his). Is there any way for us to know what Paul is talking about when he says, “They must be in submission as the law says”?

Oster: Yes. Let’s address the law first; then we’ll move to the idea of submission. Paul is not the first in Scripture to use the term law [Greek nomos] to refer to materials other than those preserved in the books of Exodus-Deuteronomy, or to materials specifically related to priestly activities set forth at Sinai. My purpose is not to look at the context or exegesis of each of these separate verses, but rather to demonstrate that it is a well-known convention at the time of Jesus and the early church to use the term law [nomos] to refer to a lot more than Sinai materials or the literature of Exodus-Deuteronomy.

  • John 10:34 – Jesus asked, “Is it not written in your Law [nomos], ‘I said, you are gods’?” This quotation (“I said, you are gods”) is from Ps. 82:6.
  • John 15:25 – Jesus said, “But the word that is written in their Law [nomos] must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” This quotation (“They hated me without a cause”) is from Ps. 69:4.
  • Gal. 4:21-22 – Writing to his opponents, Paul says, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law [nomos], do you not listen to the law [nomos]? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.” The Law [nomos] that Paul cites is a summary from Genesis chapter 16 regarding Sarah and Hagar, an episode many generations prior to Mt. Sinai.
  • Rom. 3:19 – Paul concludes a Scripture-based argument with these words: “Now we know that whatever the law [nomos] says it speaks to those who are under the law [nomos], so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” The several Scriptures Paul cited in Rom. 3:10-18 which demonstrate “whatever the law [nomos] says” are from the Psalms and the Prophets, not from the Law of Moses.
  • 1 Cor. 14:21 – Paul writes, “In the Law [nomos] it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’” These words that Paul cites are a direct quotation from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 28:11-12.

Regarding your question, no modern interpreter of Paul should be stupefied that he would use the term law to refer to the creation story. Both Jesus and Paul in other places obviously used the term law to refer to non-Pentateuchal Scripture. As the above Scriptures demonstrate, the term law was easily used to refer to the Psalms and the Prophets. Significantly, it is shown above that the word law is also used in Genesis to refer to stories there.

Jesus and Paul, by our standards, were pretty free in their use of the term law [nomos]. In any case, it certainly proves beyond any doubt that in 1 Cor. 14:34 Paul could easily be referring to the creation story by his use of the term law [nomos].

SWS: Since Paul grounds male headship in the creation narrative (Gen 1-3) . . . just as he does in 1 Cor. 11:7-9 and 1 Tim. 2:11-15 . . . it is all but certain he is grounding the submission of women in that same narrative here.

Q: Hicks says that even if this silence in 1 Corinthians 14 is in submission to husbands, it does not necessarily imply some kind of authority or rank. Instead, Hicks suggests it could reflect a mutual submission akin to what Paul describes in Ephesians 5:21 or the mutual authority husbands and wives share in 1 Corinthians 7:4. Perhaps it’s about order in contrast to chaos. Could he be correct?

Oster: There is a word for order and orderliness in this text. We find it at the very end of verse 40; it’s the Greek word taksis. And so I’m wondering if that’s really what Paul is trying to say when he uses the word law [nomos]. Why didn’t he just use the word that means orderliness instead of the word submission? He’s got it right here in the text. He uses it in this chapter to refer to orderliness and doing things properly. It seems like a stretched argument to say that submission in this context is order versus chaos. According to Paul, the reason to be orderly is that wives should be submitting, as the law says.

Q: What would you say to someone who thinks that since 1 Corinthians 14 addresses disorderly women, so as long as women aren’t disruptive in church, they may fully exercise their spiritual gifts?

Sproles: It is important to recognize that spiritual gifts are not the only “measuring stick” for service in the body of Christ, as many egalitarians assert. In the exercise of spiritual gifts, gender must be taken into account. Paul continually points us to the creation account to remind us of this. Elisabeth Elliott noted that even though she had better gifts than most men for being a pastor, knowing the Bible in several languages, expositing it with much experience, attaining maturity through suffering, etc., there were biblical parameters for their use.

Oster: As we concluded in our previous post, we must be careful to distinguish between headship and leadership. All headship involves leadership, but not all leadership is headship.

SWS: We must not let modern meanings of the terms “leadership” or “leading” define NT headship. Currently the idea of “leadership” is used to refer to many activities that are not within the scope of headship as presented in Scripture. For example, 1 Cor. 11:2-16 makes clear that speaking does not always equal headship because Paul does not object to women’s speaking in that passage which clearly affirms the biblical doctrine of headship.

From early in the OT onwards, God used female “leaders,” as described in some detail in the previous sections. Please be reminded of the OT’s presentations of the roles of Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. In the NT, be reminded of the roles of women like Phoebe the diakonos and prostatis in Rom. 16:1-2, Prisca the “fellow worker” in Rom. 16:3, and Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis who “worked hard in the Lord” in Rom. 16:6, 12. In addition, we have seen that women were praying and prophesying in the assemblies in Corinth, and Paul affirms this vocal participation as long as the biblical doctrine of headship is displayed. And yet that same apostle Paul, in 1 Cor. 11:2-16, refers to the story of creation in Genesis to establish that man is the head of woman.

Q: Hicks concludes that Paul is silencing disorderly speech by tongue speakers, prophets, and wives, calling for order in all the assemblies of the saints. Each should control themselves and be silent in particular circumstances. Do you agree?

Oster: Yes, I agree. However, I do not agree with Hicks’s conclusion that women may fully participate in all ways in the assembly. We need to look at 1 Timothy 2 to understand what Paul means when he says no woman may be an authoritative teacher of a man.

SWS: Since God established the principle of headship at creation, and yet God has placed women in positions of leadership, not all instances of female leadership violate the biblical doctrine of headship, else God has acted inconsistently with his own order. Therefore, in the ministries and worship services of the church, the leadership gifts of women are to be employed in ways that conform to the examples in Scripture, ways that do not violate the biblical doctrine of headship.

Harrington: There is one thing that I would like to add as a concluding thought to this article. Within the boundaries of our shared faith statement at Renew.org, there are some of us who arrive at the same conclusions, but by different paths. For example, another reason Paul might have asked for silence from the women is that they are judging prophecies in 1 Cor 14:29. That is, they are judging truth from heresy, which was a task of the elders of the synagogue in Jewish worship. Therefore, Paul grounds his command for silence of women in the principle of submission found in the law, which as Oster pointed out earlier, is the Old Testament in general and the order of creation in particular (Genesis 2) as he did in 1 Corinthians 11. This, too, is consistent with how Paul points to the law to back up his principle.[2] This evaluation of prophecy would be reserved for godly male leadership, including the public teachers and elders, as described in 1 Timothy 2 and 3. Paul makes that argument explicit in 1 Timothy 2:12-14, where the teaching/authority role is only for men, which is the subject of our next article.

Look for our interview with Dr. Oster on 1 Timothy 2 next week for a discussion on authoritative teaching and what that means for today.

[1] Preston Massey, Veiling among Men in Roman Corinth: 1 Corinthians 11:4 and the Potential Problem of East Meeting West, Journal of Biblical Literature (2018): 501-517.

[2] For more on judging prophecies see Renée Sproles, On Gender: What the Bible Says About Men and Women and Why it Matters.