Women in the church: Silence is golden?

Bible studyIn 1 Corinthians, Paul spends time answering questions sent to him by the Corinthians and time responding to reports that he received from members of the Corinthian church who visited him. In chapters 12 through 14, he addresses the issue of spiritual gifts and the church.

The last section of chapter 14, beginning with verse 26, Paul addresses the assembly. The section reads as follows:

“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 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 should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Corinthians 14:26–40)

There is some controversy as to whether Paul, in verse 26, is describing the assembly as it is in Corinth or as it should be. Whichever the case, Paul sees the need for correction.

He tells three groups of people that they need to be in control of themselves and be silent at times:

  • Tongues speakers
  • Prophets
  • Women

The tongue speakers were to speak one at a time. If no interpreter was present, they were to be silent.

Prophets were to speak one at a time. If another received a revelation, the first was to be silent. Paul reminds them that their spirits are subject to them (same word used for “submit” in other passages); that is, inspiration from the Holy Spirit did not override the ability of the prophets to control themselves.

Women were to remain silent in the assembly. Paul brings back the concept of shame, which he used when discussing women wearing a head covering in chapter 11. It is shameful for these women to speak. They are to ask questions of their husbands at home.

Several things lead us to think that Paul is addressing a specific problem. The instructions come in the midst of teaching about correcting a chaotic worship service. Paul seems to have in mind here women who are shaming their husbands (similar to chapter 11). The commands are somewhat hyperbolic; Paul talks about women being completely silent in the assembly, which would include singing and other activities. Yet as he explains, the problem appears to have been women asking questions in a disorderly fashion.

I don’t believe in pitting one passage against another. The silence imposed on women in chapter 14 wouldn’t keep them from doing the things mentioned in chapter 11: praying and prophesying.

However, we mustn’t overlook the fact that Paul once again has different instructions for the different sexes. Galatians 3:28 doesn’t change that fact, at least it didn’t for Paul. Women were not to shame their husbands; the same instruction could have been given to the men… and it wasn’t.

Note: There are textual problems with this passage. Patrick Mead (here and here) and Jay Guin (here) have discussed this recently. Guin notes:

I agree with Patrick that 1 Cor 14:34-35 should be considered a part of the original text. However, those who take the opposite view aren’t “liberals” or unworthy of fair consideration. Some very conservative scholars who are experts in textual criticism reject these verses as unlikely to have been in the original.

Mead concludes:

As I mentioned before, these two verses are found in every early manuscript of which I am aware…but not in the same place.

There’s no reason not to deal with these verses. They may occur in a slightly different place, but there is little doubt that they were in the original text.

15 thoughts on “Women in the church: Silence is golden?

  1. laymond

    The first century Jewish man thanked God that he was not born “a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” This was one element in a prayer of thanksgiving that was in the ancient Jewish prayer book.
    And we seem surprised at the things Paul wrote about women.

  2. nick gill

    In the honor/shame culture into which Paul was writing, husbands were far more vulnerable to public shame. It was the husbands, not the wives, who gathered at the city gates. (The reality of life in these cultures must at some point be wrestled with by the one who consistently asserts that Scripture shaped culture more than the culture shaped how God revealed himself and his will in Scripture) It was the husbands who went out and engaged with the outside world, while the wives remained cloistered behind the household walls. How could husbands shame their wives in this situation, when by the mere fact of making and keeping them wives, the husbands granted them honor from their own supply of honor?

    Further, if (as I think we agree) this is a situational mandate, there is no need to expect Paul to give a corrective on husbandly behavior. He’s trying to fix an actual problem being created by certain wives/women (daughters could go ask their fathers at home as well) — he’s not trying to “cover all the bases,” if you will. He will do that in Eph 5.

    And while we agree that men and women are different, I still don’t think you’ve addressed Jen’s (JTB’s) critique that complementarian thinking assumes that all men are one thing, while all women are another thing — that the Spirit checks our DNA before handing out certain gifts.

  3. JTB

    hi Tim,

    I think we’ve established pretty well that we diverge in our hermeneutic substantially enough that duking it out over interpretation of passages is probably a repetitive prospect, so I’ll be reading rather than commenting, except to say that I do see the biblical text(s) as complicated and plurivocal on the subject of the status of women, and that taking the witness as a whole seems to me to land us in a place where we must necessarily make interpretive judgments about which passages represent the original/eschatological intent and which do not. This kind of necessity tends to get shrugged off as “slippery slope,” but it is the kind of interpretive judgment the text regularly forces on any faithful reader, even when we are unaware of it. Faithfulness is a slippery slope, I guess.

    I’ll take my responses off the air. Thanks again for hosting an important discussion here on your corner of the Interwebz. :)

  4. Tim Archer Post author


    I have addressed that critique, though maybe not well. And I will return to it. As far as God checking our DNA… well, he created it, so there’s no reason he can’t take it into account.

    Grace and peace,

  5. Wendy Cayless

    Tim, was just reading Jay Guin’s blog and I came across this comment of yours “But we know the gospels don’t matter; all that matters is what Paul said. For he was writing positive law, while the gospels tend to drift into that morality stuff that doesn’t count.”

    Seems ironic that this is what you seem to be doing wrt women?

    Or is that unfair of me?

    Are you going to blog about how Jesus treated women?

  6. Tim Archer Post author

    It’s never fair to use my own words against me! :-)

    I’ve said a bit about how Jesus treated women. Here are some quick thoughts:

    • Jesus treated women better than many other religious leaders did
    • Jesus treated women as valued members of the community
    • Jesus entrusted women with important tasks
    • Jesus didn’t put women into leadership roles within the community

    One telling moment occurs in Acts 1, when they are choosing a replacement for Judas. Luke has specifically told us that women were present in the normal gatherings of the believers (1:14), yet Peter stands and says:

    “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21–22)

    The ones who worked most closely with Jesus came away from that experience seeing the need for Judas’ replacement to be a man. Two thousand years later, we interpret Jesus’ ministry differently, but that’s what the learned from him.

  7. laymond

    A woman as one of the twelve, first off we need to read what the role of the Twelve would be in the future, and after considering the society at the time how effective do you think a woman apostle/preacher would have been during that age. As much as Jesus was seen as an agitator I doubt he would have unnecessarily, intentionally caused what would have been the most contentious of all issues raised. And the apostles knew Jesus, and what he wanted. If they didn’t nobody ever did.

  8. Tim Archer Post author

    Hmm… somehow I don’t see avoidance of offending Jewish sensitivities as a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. Acts 1 was the perfect time for breaking with tradition, had the essence of Jesus’ teaching called for that.

  9. JTB

    Tim, could I gently push back on item 4 in your bulleted list, “Jesus didn’t put women into leadership roles within the community”? Surely we can read the text’s mentions of various women as indicative of leadership roles within the community of the disciples? Mary learning at Jesus’ feet, the women at the tomb, the women who cared for Jesus and the disciples in their itinerant ministry…? What is there in the text that prevents us from seeing these as “leadership roles,” or is this phrase roughly equivalent to “one of the twelve?”

    (Sorry, I know I said I was lurking, not engaging. But this is a pretty straightforward question and I’m curious.)

  10. Tim Archer Post author


    I don’t mind your engaging at all. I guess I don’t see the “surely” that you see. I do know that there is an approach to the gospels that sees virtually every person named (male or female) as a future leader in the church. (I recognize that the term “leader” is somewhat fluid; leaders are servants, so anyone seen serving is potentially a leader) That’s not my way of reading those books.

    Given the level of “organization” of Jesus’ followers during his ministry and flowing into the beginning of the book of Acts, the Twelve do represent the leadership that Jesus left in place. Other leaders emerged over the next few years, like James the brother of Jesus.

    Acts 6 shows us a critical time in the church when food distribution to widows was an issue. A perfect time for women to be placed in an important role in the church. How many feminine names are among the seven mentioned there?

    Given the history of male dominance in the leadership of God’s people leading up to the time of Jesus, we should expect some sort of “they practice, but we do otherwise” or a “you have heard it said.” There is no such pronouncement. There is no “Philemon moment” where any New Testament writer points out the abrupt change in gender roles in the church.

    Those are the sorts of things that I see in the text. Thanks for asking!

    Grace and peace,

  11. Nick Gill

    As far as God checking our DNA… well, he created it, so there’s no reason he can’t take it into account.

    But that leads us right back into the question of ontological ineptitude (those with certain DNA, because they have that DNA, are incapable of receiving certain gifts from the Spirit) and limitation (those with XY chromosomes can receive any gift from the Spirit, while possession of XX chromosomes limit’s one’s potential giftedness).

    There is no “Philemon moment” where any New Testament writer points out the abrupt change in gender roles in the church.

    This is, for me, one of the most challenging points you’ve brought up, Tim. It has kept me up nights, wrestling with the idea. Here are a few things that stand out for me, though:

    For the New Testament writers, there were more pressing problems. Philemon gives us a model for how the kingdom is set up to address these concerns, but Jew-Gentile relations and slavery seem to be more pressing issues (especially considering the population ratio of free to slave in the Roman Empire at the time).

    You don’t see Gentiles being introduced into kingdom leadership in Acts 1 or Acts 6, either — and I can certainly imagine someone presenting your argument (“A perfect time for womenGentiles to be placed in an important role in the church”) at the Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15. Why aren’t there any Gentiles (not Hellenistic Jews, but Gentiles) in the list there? Because the church is still resisting the Spirit on preaching to Samaritans at that point… how much more are they resisting the Spirit on the full eligibility of Gentiles?

    Finally — what if Peter’s quoting of Joel in Acts 2 is the Philemon moment and we’ve all just blown past it on our way to “baptism for the remission of sins?”

  12. Tim Archer Post author


    I won’t claim to fully understand spiritual giftedness. I do know that there is an inherent arbitrariness to it, that is, the Spirit gives gifts as he sees fit. Yet I’ve noticed that giftedness often follows what is already in the person. That is, I haven’t seen a person who before their conversion couldn’t sing suddenly become a gifted worship leader because the Spirit transformed them in that way. God takes the talents, abilities, and limitations of each person and works with that. God looks at the person and gifts them based on who they are. We accept that in so many areas, but balk at it when it comes to gender.

    The history of God’s interaction with mankind also tells us that his choices don’t always follow an apparent logic. Was Israel chosen because they were the most qualified? Deuteronomy says no. The tribe of Levi was set aside for the priesthood largely because of Levi’s sin! Aaron doesn’t seem like the holiest man in all of Israel, yet he and his descendants were set aside as priests. Were the apostles the best and brightest of all of the Jews?

    So I wouldn’t say that men are inherently the best leaders nor the worst leaders. They are the ones that God chose.

  13. Tim Archer Post author

    You don’t see Gentiles being introduced into kingdom leadership in Acts 1 or Acts 6, either — and I can certainly imagine someone presenting your argument (“A perfect time for womenGentiles to be placed in an important role in the church”) at the Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15. Why aren’t there any Gentiles (not Hellenistic Jews, but Gentiles) in the list there? Because the church is still resisting the Spirit on preaching to Samaritans at that point… how much more are they resisting the Spirit on the full eligibility of Gentiles?

    The difference being, of course, that Gentiles were fairly recent converts. Women had been a part of Jesus’ ministry for many years. As some have pointed out, some sat at the feet of Jesus, traveled with him, were given important tasks by him. And none were placed in roles of public leadership, at least not that is reported. (Jen stated her belief that many women were active among God’s people and that it’s just not reported. That’s a possibility, but not one I’m willing to shape my practice around)

    Your point about Acts 2 is a good one. It did take Peter years to realize that his own words in Acts 2 opened the door to Gentile Christians. Yet, to extend the analogy, I don’t see the Cornelius moment either. If God wanted to change the way his people had done things for hundreds of years, I still think he would have made it more clear.

  14. JTB

    This has come up before several times over the course of this series but it seems particularly crucial in this thread: what notions of leadership and authority are we assuming when addressing whether or not there are reasons for interpreting women named in the text as “leaders” in a way that is relevant to today’s doctrine and practice regarding public worship and leadership in the church… Tim’s addressed specifically the gap between our notion of public leadership (standing up in front with a mic) and notions of leadership and authority in the text itself. I do think that is one really important thread to pull on when trying to untangle this. So my question is, what makes “leadership” “public,” and what is it about “public” that excludes women (completely or at least enough that the women who do serve publicly must be seen as exceptions to the rule)? If we can identify that, then we can ask the further crucial hermeneutical question–is this something that reflects God’s will for us in the body of Christ?

    All that, of course, is a faith-seeking-understanding train of thought, and that in itself (as Nick’s comment anticipates above) brings us back to one of our earlier divergences regarding arbitrariness–that gender is just somehow something that either prevents or empowers one (depending on which gender you’re identified with) to serve in public ways without reference to giftedness/fitness and that’s just inexplicably how God wants it. I continue to find that very difficult to reconcile with a God who is “no respecter of persons;” the unpredictability (or arbitrariness, or sovereign will if you like) of God’s choices of leaders through the biblical witness has indeed tended to upset conventional thinking and expectations regarding fitness and aptitude–boy kings and mush-mouthed prophets and babe in manger and fishermen and you name it. But this seems to me to function better as an argument for including women among the unlikely candidates rather than reading a gender-exclusive principle of male leadership. Why would a God who is neither a respecter of persons nor conventions respect an arbitrary divider of persons in gender? There is great cognitive dissonance for me in this. I certainly don’t require that my theology be all systematically neat and tidy; I will never write a Summa in Roman numeral outline form; but I do think that theology requires the character of God to be consistent and faithful, and that’s precisely where this breaks down for me.

    Tim, thanks for this ongoing conversation. I suspect we will continue to diverge but this has been immensely helpful for me in terms of trying to understand how another view holds together. Now that is golden. :)

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