Can Women Lead and Teach in the Church? (Part 4)

BIBLICAL FOUNDATION: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

Should women remain silent in corporate worship? As discussed in the previous post, the context of this passage is Paul writing to the Corinthians to respond to and clarify a number of matters. It is in chapters 11-14 that he turns his attention toward matters of corporate worship. The following exegesis will explore three sections: Context (14:33); Keep Silent (14:34-35); and Ask Questions at Home (14:35).

Context (1 Corinthians 14:3)

The context of corporate worship has been established above, yet a closer look at the more specific context is crucial for a responsible reading of this text. The immediate context of these three verses is confirmed primarily, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33). With a wider perspective, it is clear that all of chapter 14 deals with the orderly use of the spiritual gifts, specifically that of prophecy and tongues. “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophecies edifies the church” (1 Cor. 14:4). Throughout the chapter, Paul instructs on the appropriate use and benefit of each of these gifts. The passage in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 provides the specific context surrounding the way in which God is a God of peace in all the churches. These verses begin and end with statements that indicate their purpose. “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification,” (1 Cor. 14:26) and “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:40). Paul’s intention is clearly to demonstrate how to embrace the gifts of tongues and prophecy in an orderly way for the building up of the church. More specifically in the immediate context, he gives instruction on how to practice appropriate and organized interpretation of these gifts for mutual edification.

Keep Silent (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

As noted in the preceding discussion, Paul affirms that women can use the gift of prophecy in corporate worship gatherings, but are to practice it in a way that demonstrates her submission to male authority in the church (1 Cor. 11:2-16). Yet later in the same letter, Paul writes, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). How can Paul say that women can prophecy in public gatherings, but say that women are to keep silent just paragraphs later? This apparent contradiction has led to much scholarly debate. Three of these attempts present inadequate resolutions. First, some argue that the phrase, “let them ask their own husbands at home” demonstrates that Paul is only addressing husband and wife relationships, and how they are to relate to one another in public worship.[1] However this interpretation is far too limited in scope, for it does not address other single women or widows, suggesting that only married women need to be silent in corporate worship. A second attempt suggests that Paul is merely quoting a Corinthian concern before addressing it with appropriate instruction, though most scholars agree this to be an unlikely scenario.[2] Payne offers a third resolution by suggesting that verses 34-35 are a non-Pauline interpolation,[3] although his position has been widely refuted.[4] Carson effectively rebuts Payne’s position by stating that from a text-critical point of view, there is substantial evidence to show that these verses are original and in their original location.[5] Furthermore, Grudem astutely declares, “No Greek manuscripts of the New Testament lack these verses, and they do not necessarily contradict what Paul wrote elsewhere.”[6]

Even so, of the majority of scholars who treat these verses as Pauline and thus authoritative, attempts have been made to explain why Paul instructs the women to keep silent and subject themselves. Some assert that Paul is addressing a specific problem of women asking disruptive questions, or a purely cultural concern that women were uneducated, or a merely social issue of women offending conservative Roman and Greek men by speaking out in public gatherings.[7] Others take this position even further to claim that Paul’s stance on women in ministry is entirely based on acceptable cultural practice.[8] However, to argue that Paul bases his teaching merely on social and cultural concerns, overlooks the explicit evidence embedded in the text itself. In the middle of verses 34 and 35, Paul does not give disruptive behaviour, a lack of education, or social impropriety as the reason for women to subject themselves, but rather, “just as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34b). In addition to giving the Old Testament as foundational, Paul has already clarified appropriate conduct for women in corporate worship based on the doctrines of the Trinity and Creation just a few chapters earlier (1 Cor. 11:2-16).

The most substantiated interpretation relies on the textual evidence by seeing 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 in its appropriate context. As has been noted earlier, the setting of this passage is corporate worship, specifically with the orderly use of the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy, and more specifically how to practice these gifts with appropriate interpretation (1 Cor. 14:26-40). Given this context, Paul first gives instruction on the orderly interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 14:27-28), followed by instruction of the orderly interpretation of prophecy (1 Cor. 14:29-35). Within each set of teaching, Paul identifies those who should interpret and pass judgment, and those who are to keep silent. The same Greek word sigáō (keep silent) appears three times in this passage in verses 28, 30, and 34.[9] It is important to notice the connecting principle of each use with regards to interpretation of tongues and prophecy.[10] The first occurrence applies to the gift of tongues: “it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church” (1 Cor. 14:27b-28a). The second instance follows as he writes, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent” (1 Cor. 14:29-30). The third occurrence follows as an additional instruction for passing judgment on prophecy as he Paul writes, “The women are to keep silent in the churches” (1 Cor 14:34a). What then is the connecting principle of these three instructions? In each of these instances, Paul is giving specific instruction for orderly conduct in interpreting and evaluating tongues and prophecies, so that all things are done for edification (1 Cor. 14:26b) and in an orderly manner (1 Cor. 14:40).

When 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is read in its proper context of orderly conduct in the interpretation and evaluation of tongues and prophecy in corporate worship, its meaning and implications become much clearer. These three verses should never be plucked from their intended context, but should be read, at the very least, as a seven verse unit including 1 Corinthians 14:29-35, if not a fifteen verse unit including 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. The text in verses 29-35 all relate to the judgment of prophecy:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:29-35).

Paul has already affirmed that women can prophecy in corporate worship (1 Cor. 11:2-16) and he is now providing clarification on who is able to pass judgment. The clearest explanation of verses 34-35 is that Paul is not permitting women to pass judgment on prophecies.[11] There are egalitarian scholars who affirm this reading as well.[12]

In addition to the reason of maintaining order in evaluating prophecies, Paul states, “just as the Law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34). As noted earlier in this discussion, he does not offer a cultural or social argument, but rather grounds the instruction in the Old Testament Scriptures. This indicates that “he views speaking aloud to judge prophecies as a ‘governing” or ruling’ function in the congregation, the opposite of being submissive to male leadership in the church.”[13] Paul reiterates what he has already affirmed about the functional difference of men and women through the doctrines of the Trinity and Creation just a few chapters earlier (1 Cor. 11:2-16). Given that the judging of prophecies carries an authoritative aspect, the Old Testament Scriptures have established that God has reserved this role for men only.

Ask Questions at Home (1 Corinthians14:35)

If women have questions about any prophecy or evaluation of such they are to ask their husbands privately. Paul states that others are to pass judgment in an orderly manner on the two or three prophecies that are given at a time. There would also be opportunity to ask questions at this time,[14] at which point there would be potential for women to ask questions that could challenge or evaluate what has been prophesied. Therefore, to maintain appropriate role distinctions and orderly conduct of spiritual gifts in corporate worship, Paul instructs women to ask their questions privately. Paul concludes by stating, “It is improper for a women to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35b), affirming the principle that for women to authoritatively evaluate prophecies in corporate worship would violate the role distinctions of male headship and female submission in the church.

Summary (1 Corinthians 14:33-35)

It has been shown that this passage must be recognized in its proper context in order to be interpreted responsibly. In 1 Corinthians 11-14, Paul gives instructions on appropriate and orderly conduct in corporate worship gatherings. More specifically, 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 is about the gifts of tongues and prophecy, and the orderly way to interpret these gifts for the edification of the church. Within this passage there are three instances where congregants are to keep silent in order that the appropriate interpretation may be given. Paul affirms that women are able to prophecy in corporate worship (1 Cor. 11:2-16), but clarifies here that women are not to pass judgment or publicly question the prophecies that have been spoken. The two reasons given for this are: to maintain orderly worship and to be consistent with the Old Testament Scriptures. The role of authoritative interpretation of prophecy in the church is reserved for men. Paul is providing further affirmation of his appeals to the doctrines of the Trinity and Creation in chapter 11: male and female are equal in nature, yet distinct in function.

     [1]Garland, 1 Corinthians, 667.

     [2]Though I disagree with his overall interpretation of this passage, Thiselton affirms that a Corinthian quotation is not likely in this case. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 1147; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 666.

     [3]Payne argues that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is non-Pauline and therefore, “it does not carry apostolic authority and should not be used as such to restrict the speaking ministries of women, nor should it influence the exegesis of other NT Passages.” Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 217-267.

     [4]See Robert W. Schaibley, “Gender Considerations on the Pastoral Office: In Light of 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-14,” Logia 3,2 (1994): 46; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 665.

     [5]D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987), 124.

     [6]Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, 236.

     [7]See Craig S. Keener, “Learning in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, eds. Ronald W. Pierce, et al. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 165-171.

     [8]“Permissible roles seem to have been established on the basis of cultural norms, not abstract theological considerations. How the culture viewed a role or activity of women appears to have determined whether or not it constituted insubordination. Conversely, any role that was not viewed as inappropriate by the culture was permitted by Paul.” James G. Sigountos and Myron Shank, “Public Roles for Women in the Pauline Church: A Reappraisal of the Evidence,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 26, 3 (1983): 293.

     [9]The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1993), s.v. “keep silent.”

     [10]See E. Earle Ellis, “Spiritual Gifts in the Pauline Community,” in Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity: New Testament Essays (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pulishers, 2003), 25-27. Cited in Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 720.

     [11]See Carson, Showing the Spirit, 129-131; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 668; Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, 230-232; and Kӧstenberger and Kӧstenberger, God’s Design For Man and Woman, 179.

     [12]See Sigountos and Shank, “Public Roles for Women in the Pauline Church: A Reappraisal of the Evidence,” 284. See also Perkins, First Corinthians, 136.

     [13]Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, 234.

     [14]Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 724.


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