1 Corinthians 14:33-35 falls on everyone’s ears differently, depending on denominational background. Some hear it submissively while others hear it and can’t help but raise an eyebrow. Still others hear it and a noticeable anger can be seen burning within them.
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. (1 Cor 14:33-35)
This passage has been fought over by many people today and rightly so. When reading it in alignment with how our own culture lives and breathes, we just can’t help but say, “What? Why?” Scholars have tried to understand it themselves, some of them proposing that we must be greatly missing something from a cultural standpoint. Some have even gone so far as to say that this statement is an interpolation—that someone added it in after Paul had written 1 Corinthians. I have to agree with one scholar on that proposal:
Were it not for the content of the verses, it is difficult to imagine anyone arguing against their authenticity on textual grounds—though admittedly I would welcome this as the solution if it were appropriate. (1)
Before we come to our own conclusion, first things first: Modern Christianity is somewhat hurt by the Bible being converted into verses and passages. We need to remember that verse numbers never existed in the Bible—we added them in to help us converse about it. While this is helpful, it has caused us to think in sections, chapters and sentences, and not in wholes. And since we claim that the Bible is the Word of God, we think that if we can use one verse to make a point, our point has therefore been made.
So with that being said, is there anything in the Bible that challenges what Paul just said here in 1 Corinthians 14? Is there anything that counters Paul’s words that would help us balance it out or put it in a new light?
Why yes, there is. And believe it or not, it’s Paul who counters his own words. And not only that, but he does so in the same exact book. And so as we struggle to understand what he’s saying here, we need to subject his words to his own context. After all, just a little earlier in 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, Paul said,
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.
Now in case it sounds like I’m trying to answer a misogynistic problem by quoting a passage that also sounds rather misogynistic, give me a chance to explain a few things, for there’s a lot at play. First off, we must recognize that Paul just said women can pray and prophesy, further evidenced by Phillip’s “four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” in Acts 21:9. Therefore, we balance out Paul’s command against women being able to speak with the fact that women were some of the prophets who were taking turns prophesying “one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1 Cor 14:31). Therefore, if a woman prophesied and people learned, that made her, in a sense, the teacher, and everyone else, the learners. This is important to note since Paul told the women to stay silent when they were learning.
Paul’s problem here is not with women participating in church—after all, they can prophesy and prophecy is one of the greater gifts that Paul wanted more of in church (1 Cor 14:1, 5)! And since they can prophesy, that makes them prophets in the church and therefore leaders in the church since Ephesians tells us that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12).
All of that being said, I have to say, I would much rather hear a prophetess prophesy than a male pastor preach, for “the mystery of Christ…. has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph 3:4-5). I want to have that mystery revealed to me as is the prophetess’ job to do. I want to hear the message she has to deliver from God and if I tell her that she cannot share her Holy-Spirit-inspired word because she is a woman, I have just quenched the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19) because of her genitalia.
Art by my sister-in-law, Alyssa Bradley of Whimsy Design and Illustration.
This is an excerpt from my chapter “Women in Ministry” in my book, The Rush and the Rest. A series on women and the church will continue every day this week here on my blog to help us cover many of the confusing passages that often oppress women.
1. Johnson, Alan F. 1 Corinthians. Vol. 7. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2004, p. 271. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series.