One of the challenges in Christendom is that often people, churches, organizations and sometimes denominations build belief systems and even entire doctrines from a single verse or a handful of verses. Often these verses or passages are isolated and/or removed from their greater context, or understood through the lens of a pre-determined paradigm.
It is true that there are verses and passages that are sometimes difficult to understand and subsequently apply, especially some 2000 years later and in a culture far removed from the original writings. Sometimes it is difficult to ascertain what the original intent of the writer was. Just one hurdle is the fact that the scriptures were written in Hebrew or Greek, with a few verses/passages in Aramaic. Even if we spoke those languages today, all languages evolve over time. The end result is that even well respected scholars and commentators often have differing opinions about words, translations, interpretations, meanings, and applications.
One such passage that has literally divided entire groups of people of faith is:
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
I am certainly no scholar, but, I think that if we look closely at this passage, especially within the context of the entire letter, we will see some important things. Let me share a couple observations I have:
(1) Paul spoke of women praying AND prophesying in chapter 11; verse 5 in particular. Let me state the obvious: praying and prophesying are both the opposite of “keep silent” and “not speak.” I think it’s important to note that the acknowledgement that women are allowed to prophesy is not by another author in the Bible. Nor is it by the same author but in a different letter, which might indicate he may have changed his mind or had a more enlightened view at a different point of time. No, both statements are by Paul, and both are within the context of the exact same letter that he had written to the church at Corinth. This is important because we tend to isolate verses when trying to ascertain meaning, but – we cannot do that here. Unless we determine that Paul is a schizophrenic, we must conclude that Paul had some other meaning in mind rather when he wrote “women are to be silent” than a strict prohibition on women ever having a voice when the ekklesia gathered.
(2) To accommodate this seeming disparity many scholars determined that Paul was okay with women praying, or singing, and sometimes even prophesying, but never teaching as that would somehow indicate “having authority over a man.” However, in this instance, that is pure speculation, or rather – a fabrication, and not consistent with the passage in question as praying, singing, and prophesying are all forms of “speaking” and not at all congruent with “keeping silent.” So, to parse these verses in this manner is a huge stretch, to say the least.
(3) Paul dedicates a significant amount of content within the letter for his readers to understand the purpose and functioning of spiritual gifts within the ekklesia. In chapter 12 he writes, “now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.”
Though we probably shouldn’t build a doctrine on what the scriptures do NOT say, I think it’s important to note that Paul made no gender distinctions when listing out these gifts. Notice that he did not say, “God has appointed in the church first Apostles (that are men), second prophets (that are men or women – see 11:5), third teachers (that are definitely only men), then all the other gifts (that can be both men and women).” No, Paul made no distinction whatsoever. I think I am safe in saying that most churches have no problem with women having an administrative gift or a gift of helps, or even as a prophetess, but the hair stands up on the back of their necks if one were to suggest that a woman could be an apostle or a teacher. But, you will not find that distinction here, not by Paul. Now, it is possible that Paul’s intention was to make the distinctive gender roles within the community of faith clear in other passages. But again I must say – that is a stretch and requires a predetermined interpretative paradigm to insist on that understanding here.
(4) To further elaborate on the previous observation: within the immediate context (i.e. the verses surrounding the one in question) Paul utilizes the word “all” when referring to people speaking in tongues and people prophesying (vs 23-24). He says that “each one” has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation when the assembly gathers (34). And further that if “anyone” speaks in a tongue, there should be an interpreter. In all of these verses he utilizes all-inclusive language. One has to ask, is it to men only that he is writing? That would be a difficult conclusion to come to. If he is not writing to men only, then we must acknowledge that Paul makes no effort to differentiate between men and women speaking, sharing, or operating their spiritual gifts in the gathering up to this point in the letter. All of the speaking gifts can be viewed as carrying some authority over others within the gathering.
(5) In this passage Paul also gave instructions and instances in which someone who speaks in tongues “must keep silent” (14:28 NASB), and even times when a prophet “must keep silent” (14:29). The word translated “keep silent” is exactly the same in all 3 instances within these few verses. All 3 instances are in the imperative mood, which means they are commands. But, we do not take these first two instances to mean the one who speaks in tongues and the one who prophesies should be forbidden to speak … ever. We understand that they must “keep silent” in specific situation and specific circumstances. Paul’s seeming directive about women “keeping silent” is within this immediate context. Though Paul has more to say about the role of women and speaking than he does the other two, and he does not qualify it like he does the other two, in light of 11:5 about women prophesying and the expression of the gifts of chapter 12 previously discussed, it seems consistent to understand this injunction in at least a similar fashion as the first two.
(6) If all that is correct, (and I think it is) then rather than a simple, over-arching statement that “women cannot speak in church,” we must consider an alternate understanding of what Paul meant in this passage. Before we tackle a possible alternate understanding (another day), we should note that Paul’s primary concern in this passage, and in fact this entire letter, is with order and unity in the community of faith – not gender roles. So, rather than build a doctrine about authority structure and gender roles within the church based on 2 verses, we should consider the larger message and point. The fact that divisions verses unity is an over-arching theme throughout the letter should impact how we interpret and understand these two verses. But until then – be blessed.