Women Must Keep Silent?
You may be aware that there are a few verses that, as traditionally interpreted, seem to completely contradict Paul’s recurring message of ‘freedom and oneness in Christ’, particularly in relation to women’s contribution to and participation in church ministry. The verses in question are found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.
1 Corinthians 14 is the only passage that (seems to) explicitly forbid women ‘speaking in church’ (and which is implemented in various ways, anything from complete silence required through to some participation allowable in limited roles). The other two passages are interpreted to be expressing similar ideas, just less specifically.
There are several rather lengthy explanations that provide alternative interpretations to these verses. The writers of these articles have, in some cases, devoted years to the study of this subject and are therefore supremely more qualified to comment than me. I am providing a brief explanation of these verses in my own words here, together with the relevant links to other writers’ articles, so that you, the reader, can decide for yourself how you think these verses are best interpreted.
What remains clear, however, is that we must faithfully reconcile the many occasions where women are clearly shown to have participated in the early church ministry with whatever explanation we choose to arrive at. We cannot simply choose to take verses out of context and apply them as best suits our (possibly already decided) position. And this is true, not just for this subject, but for many others. If this were the case, then, using this argument, the biblical narrative clearly states “…there is no God.” No matter how uncomfortable, we must be committed to arriving at a position of consistency and truth when interpreting the Bible’s overall message and directives.
1 Timothy 2:11-12 – Firstly, the context of the letter to Timothy is important. Paul is writing to his young associate Timothy, who was helping train new believers and carrying Paul’s letters back and forward between Paul and the newly planted churches. Paul is encouraging and guiding the new believers in the development of good leadership within the church – not ego-driven or self-centred but governed by mutual submission to Christ (Ephesians 5:22). The best kind of leadership is always the kind modelled by Jesus, who came as a servant to minister in truth and humility and who is the life-force of the church (John 15:5). Badly formed and misguided leadership can cause great damage and it’s in this context that Paul writes his letter to Timothy (and why it’s still such a relevant passage for us today).
This passage is not a prohibition on women speaking or teaching but a recommendation for how the believers, both men and women, are to generally conduct themselves in church affairs. Before Paul begins to even discuss leadership, he encourages men to firstly focus on intimately praying with God and the women likewise. Humble relationship with God (Micah 6:8) must precede any kind of leadership. Paul then addresses the women, stating they are not to be obsessed with the latest fashions or beauty routines but focused on true beauty: God’s message of salvation in Jesus. Additionally, women aren’t to take over, act in domineering ways, and tell everyone else what to do (just because they are now ‘free in Christ’) but are to learn in quietness and obedience, just like everyone else. Paul advocates equality and liberation for women in Jesus, far surpassing what they may have experienced in their culture, but not at the expense of the equality of men. The same attributes of faith, truthfulness, and love in leadership must be shown by both men and women (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Paul concludes this passage by reminding the believers of the dangers of false teaching and poor leadership, which results in deception and transgression. He recounts the Genesis story of humanity’s fall, giving the example of Eve who was deceived by the serpent’s false teaching (and sinned first), with Adam right behind her (who, although not being deceived, sinned anyway). Yet, although Adam was made first (and could be considered by the men as ‘more important’), it was through Eve that salvation came about. This passage isn’t about who was greater or lesser, for they ‘are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:8) but about matters of faithful church leadership and careful church teaching.
1 Corinthians 14:34-36 – These two verses are a somewhat jarring and odd inclusion in a long dialogue from Paul about spiritual gifts, which begins in chapter 12. In fact, they are at direct odds with the force of Paul’s argument and, quite frankly, do not fit the context through these previous chapters in which Paul is discussing the ‘body of believers’ – those who gather together in Jesus’ name – and what that looks like in real terms. He uses phrases like “To each person has been given the ability to manifest the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), “As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:20), “Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27) and “Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptised into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The context of the first epistle to the Corinthians is one of a church in disarray and Paul tackles all manner of issues that had arisen in this church – irresponsibility, promiscuity, immorality, quarrelling, and disunity. In short, the Corinthians had forgotten that they were God’s church – the body of Jesus, set apart for a spirit-led life – and that the knowledge of their salvation in Jesus was meant to transform them, in love, to a life in common ‘with Jesus’. When we get to Chapter 14, Paul is still discussing the importance of acting for ‘the greater good’ of the church, in relation to spiritual gifts. There are two explanations for verses 34-36, which are as follows:
- These verses are considered to be a reader-added marginal gloss. They were added at some point in the translation process, probably very early on, as a notation in the margin by a scribe. Subsequent translations either added them in position between verses 33 and 36 or place them at the end of the chapter, after verse 40. The fact that they ‘float’ in several translations, in terms of positioning, does lend weight to this idea, along with the presence of a distigme (two dots) in the margin, the general symbol marking the location of any kind of textual variant. You can read more about this here: https://bit.ly/3arPNp2. You will notice that if you skip over these verses (as if they never existed in the original letter), the flow of the chapter remains intact and Paul’s conclusion to his dialogue makes perfect sense. This ‘gloss view’ explains all the external and internal data, preserves the chiastic structure and integrity of Paul’s argument, and avoids conflict with Paul’s other teachings.
- If these verses are original, then it is an entirely reasonable conclusion that they were written to address a specific issue in, admittedly, a very messed up church. Given we know that women did pray and prophesy from other passages in the Bible (Luke 2:36, Acts 21:7-9, 1 Corinthians 11:5-11), the seeming prohibition on the women in these verses must be specific and contextual, rather than general and unlimited in time.
1 Corinthians 11:1-16 – This is by far the largest section of verses and can initially appear somewhat confusing and challenging to interpret. In fact, these verses are regarded as ‘one of the most obscure passages in the Pauline letters’. However, I believe this passage is not describing a system of hierarchy, as is sometimes supposed, but is speaking to the fact that men and women within the church should present themselves in ways that honour the uniqueness of their own created gender, particularly in the light of their gospel witness, as well as honouring the source of each gender.
And, in fact, these verses (particularly 4-5) are actually a striking affirmation of women’s equal standing with men in church leadership in that Paul simply assumes that “every woman,” like “every man,” could prophesy and pray in public.
Again, we must remember the context of this epistle – that is, it was written to a church in disarray with a multitude of issues that Paul was speaking into. The particular issue he is addressing here, in these verses, distinctly relates to the cultural context of Corinth. Particularly, Paul is referencing the issues of homosexuality, gender fluidity, and immorality rampant in that culture, and which influences we know the Corinthian church were floundering under.
To briefly summarise, Paul is addressing the importance of believers exercising their freedom in Christ carefully, so as to not bring disrepute to their witness of the gospel. Christians need to be mindful and culturally aware not to display themselves in ways that malign the gospel or damage its credibility. Their ‘oneness in Christ’ does not mean that markers of gender are no longer relevant or valued. “General decency or even one’s cultural preferences should never distract from the message being preached.” (Ronald W Pierce) This is actually a very important passage setting out a beautiful principle that is still entirely relevant for us today (and this is, no doubt, why it found its way into the collection of inspired texts).
The relationship between men and women in the church is an important one and the overall principles of respect, mutual submission, and love shown by both genders are continually argued for in all of Paul’s writings. However, one of the most important principles that can be seen to be emphasised in these passages is the importance of the way a Christian behaves so as to be a credible witness for the gospel. This theme is also picked up by Peter in his first letter to the early church (1 Peter 1-5). He writes, encouraging the believers to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil…that by doing good, you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15-16). You can read more about these ideas and the context of Peter’s first letter here.
The message [of 1 Corinthians 11] is, “Don’t use your freedom in Christ as an excuse to dress immodestly. In demeanour and word keep it clean!” Furthermore, men and women should show respect to each other, honouring the opposite sex as their source. As Paul stresses in the climax of this passage, believers must affirm the equal rights and privileges of women and men in the Lord. Women, as well as men, may lead in public Christian worship. Since in the Lord woman and man are not separate, women who are gifted and called by God ought to be welcomed into ministry just as men are.” – Philip B Payne, Ph.D New Testament Studies