I feel that the main reason Paul told “the women” to be silent in church was not because they were women, but because they were interrupting the service with their questions. Ancient culture did not spend much time educating women, and therefore they had plenty of questions to ask. As Craig S. Keener points out,
Informed listeners customarily asked questions during lectures, but it was considered rude for the ignorant to do so. Although by modern standards literacy was generally low in antiquity (less so in the cities), women were far less trained in the Scriptures and public reasoning than men were. Paul does not expect these uneducated women to refrain from learning (indeed, that most of their culture had kept them from learning was the problem). Instead he provides the most progressive model of his day: their husbands are to respect their intellectual capabilities and give them private instruction. He wants them to stop interrupting the teaching period of the church service, however, because until they know more, they are distracting everyone and disrupting church order. (1)
With this in mind, Paul’s lecture to “the women” is the same as it has been to everyone else in the Corinthian church: Don’t speak in tongues with no interpretation because there needs to be some order; don’t all prophesy at the same time because there needs to be some order; don’t look like you’re raving mad because there needs to be some order; ladies, don’t interrupt those who are speaking on account that no one has taught you these things—just wait until you get home and ask someone who has been educated (your husband in this case) to explain it, because there needs to be some order when we meet.
Paul’s instructions were not meant to be sexist, they were meant to add to the fluidity of the service. And as a pastor who has had both men and women interrupt my message to ask questions, I can speak to the order it disrupts when it is unexpected. Questions aren’t bad and I embrace them. However, they are much easier to handle when a space is intentionally created for them and I am in a mindset to expect it. Otherwise, they have the potential to derail both me and the congregation. And when the question ends up being entirely unrelated to anything I was preaching on, things are derailed even more so.
Women are educated so well in our culture that if Paul was around today he might have told some of the men to check in with their wives when they got home. I sure have read a lot of scholarly Bible articles where I wish I could sit down with the female author and ask them to explain their complex work to me in terms I would understand.
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. Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1993, note on 1 Corinthians 14:35.