Posted by: Bob Clark | July 19, 2011

Restrictive passages, part 2 — 1 Corinthians 14:34

“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. 

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but 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 14:33-35).

This is the second of two NT passages in which Paul restricts the roles of women. Whereas in 1 Timothy 2:12 Paul writes that women should be “quiet” (ASV, NASB, NIV, NLT, MSG), in this passage Paul calls for “silence” (ASV, KJV, NASB, NIV, NLT). Let’s consider two possibilities for reading this passage.

The first reading: Paul is restricting women in all congregations to silence. If the women have questions, they are to ask their husbands at home.

The second reading: Paul is restricting to silence the talkative women who are disrupting the gathering. This would apply not only to the church in Corinth, but to all congregations because God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. Rather than interrupting the gathering (perhaps due to not understanding the language – remember, this is a tongue-speaking context), they are to ask their husbands (who apparently do understand) when they get home.

Take a moment to imagine how church gatherings would change if reading number one were accepted. No altos or sopranos singing because women are silent. No comments. No questions. No greetings. No talking. No shushing the babies. No whispering to explain the bread and cup to children. Just silence.

But our reading (understanding and practice of the passage) needs to be determined by something greater than how it affects our current practice. Crucial in the decision as to how to read this passage is seeing how the two reading options fit with the immediate and broader contexts. For example: how do you square the first reading with what is happening in 1 Corinthians 11 where women are praying and preaching (prophesying) in what seems to be a mixed gender gathering (after all, they are told to wear their head coverings which would seem to rule out a female-only gathering)? For that matter, how do you square Paul calling for “silence” in 1 Corinthians 14 when he calls only for “quiet” in the other restrictive passage – 1 Timothy 2:12?

As for the broader context, it seems we have a decision to make. Put one way: are the two restrictive passages an indication of how God always intended for men and women to relate or are they exceptional restrictions based on specific problems in the congregation or church gathering?

Or put another way: are the examples through scripture of women leading, teaching, singing, preaching, and praying the exceptions and women being quiet or silent the rule? Or are the examples through scripture of women leading, teaching, singing, preaching, and praying the rule while the two restrictive passages are the exceptions?

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Responses

  1. I have always struggled with this passage more than the verses in Paul’s letter to Timothy. The vast majority of congregations obviously don’t practice the first reading (total silence) on communication that is perceived as non-authority based (singing, teaching other women/children, commenting in a class setting). We seem to pick and choose what speech is permitted and what is restricted. Across the broad range of our fellowship this is done to varying degrees. The congregation I serve is fairly open to women make mission presentations, announcements and commenting in Bible discussion; however, our congregation (most of the women as well as men) would largely not be comfortable with a woman presenting the sermon or teaching adult men. I believe this is where we often fall into the “tradition trap.” Is it possible for us to completely step outside of our normative and view Scripture without social and cultural bias?

    Also, what part do you think family roles play in this? It was assumed by Paul that a woman would have a husband to ask. Many times in our day the woman is single, divorced, widowed or married to a non-believer. I believe this is important to understanding the situation in Corinth versus the situation in our 21st century congregations.

    It has been and will continue to be a challenging issue for believers that want to do all they can in and for the Kingdom but still be within the bounds of what Scripture approves.


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