Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 14:33b-40
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35 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.
36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 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. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.
This section of verses is among the most controversial in the entire New Testament – with some going so far as to suggest that they were added to the text by someone other than Paul, at a later date. We’ll delve into the substance of the verses, whether what Paul says here meshes with his teaching elsewhere, what the surrounding cultural context was at the time of the writing of the Epistle, and whether the claim that the text is authored by someone other than Paul has any valid basis. We’ll start by looking at verse 33, in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(33) For God is not the author of confusion.—Better, For God is the God, not of confusion, but of peace. The Church is the Church of God, and should bear on it the moral image of its King: there should be order, therefore, not confusion, in their assemblies.
As in all churches of the saints.—It is best to make these words read as the commencement of the next subject, thus:—As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches. At Corinth one evil of neglecting the principles of order just laid down was that women spoke in the public assemblies. This was not the custom in any other churches, therefore the example of other churches was against such a practice.
The first part of the verse, covered in the previous section, points us toward Paul’s theme. He is advocating for orderly worship. To that end, we next discuss the second half of Paul’s verse 33, which gives specific guidelines for how women should behave in the church. The text here seems to indicate that there was a universal rule for silence by women in Christian church assemblies. Continuing with Ellicott in verse 34:
(34) But they are commanded to be under obedience.—Better (as in some of the best MSS.), but let them be under obedience. The original precept laid down in Genesis 3:16 teaches this. “The law” stands for the Old Testament generally.
I think definitions are important here.
should be in submission = ὑποτάσσω hupŏtassō, hoop-ot-as’-so; from G5259 and G5021; to subordinate; reflexively, to obey:—be under obedience (obedient), put under, subdue unto, (be, make) subject (to, unto), be (put) in subjection (to, under), submit self unto.
From the definition above, we might infer that Paul specifically refers to wives. We can also interpret “silence” as “holding one’s peace.” What “Law” is Paul referring to in this verse? The commentary does not address this, however, this statement seems to be a reference to the way that seating was arranged in ancient synagogues. From myjewishheritage:
The mechitzah is the physical barrier separating the men’s section and women’s section of an Orthodox synagogue.
In Orthodox congregations, men and women are not permitted to sit together during prayer services. The height of the mechitzah varies, and it can be a curtain, screen or even shelving or plants. In some synagogues, instead of being divided by a mechitzah, the women’s section is in the balcony and the men’s section is on the main floor of the sanctuary.
It is unclear exactly when mechitzahs came into use, and the halachic (Jewish law) issues are equally ambiguous. The wording of the Talmudic texts is unclear, and the codes nowhere explicitly require a mechitzah. There is neither a direct prohibition nor a direct requirement. Maimonides refers to the women’s section in his compilation of laws dealing with the ancient Temple and not in the section dealing with prayer and synagogue. Other medieval texts specifically mention using a partition for public occasions such as the rabbi’s lecture.
What might Paul be imagining? It seems likely that he is imagining – perhaps because it is an existing issue in Corinth – a situation where women are interrupting the orderly flow of a service to ask questions (either to the current speaker or to their husband). In a situation where there is a gender divider (a mechitzah) in Church, that might actually be quite disruptive. We’ll continue on and then come back to this after we go through the verses. From The Pulpit Commentaries at verse 35:
Let them ask their husbands. Here again St. Paul is dealing with general rules.
Verse 35 points us back toward the idea that Paul is referring not to women generally, but to wives specifically (see the Greek definition above), and that the concern is the maintenance of orderly Church services. Rather than interrupt during the service, Paul wants wives to wait until Church is over to ask questions of their husbands.
The context of this aside regarding women seems to be specific to the maintenance of orderly worship. If we limit the verses in this way, rather than applying the restriction broadly, then some of Paul’s other writings make more sense. For example:
1 Cor. 11: 5 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.
This verse, from the same letter, seems to envisage a scenario wherein a woman might speak at Church.
Romans 16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. 5 Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. 6 Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia,[c] my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles,[d] and they were in Christ before me. 8 Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. 9 Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers[e] who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
Romans 16 includes Paul specifically mentioning a few different women, Phoebe in particular, who he instructed others to assist. This indicates that she is in leadership at some level. It would be difficult to be in leadership without ever speaking at all in gatherings.
We also have the Jewish context from which Christianity sprang. Was it uncommon to find women in leadership in the Old Testament? Yes. Was it unheard of? No. Deborah and Ester are two particularly well-known examples. Deborah would have found performing her service as one of the judges of the Israelites to be difficult without being allowed to speak in any assembles.
There seems to be a couple of limiting principles for public speaking for women, based on the text: 1) orderly worship – which we just covered above, and 2) the headship of the husband (which we covered in 1 Corinthians 11.) Within these boundaries, there seems to be room for women to speak at Church. It should be noted, too, that the call for orderly worship is also a limit on men and husbands at Church gatherings.
There have been scholarly attempts to discredit the above verses in their entirety. From ChristianToday:
The Apostle Paul never told women to be silent in church and the Bible passage that indicates he did was a later addition by scribes, scholars have said – though others have rebutted their claims.
It remains one of the most controversial clauses in the New Testament and has fuelled centuries of misogyny as well as supporting the belief women should not be ordained.
But the infamous instruction in 1 Corinthians 14 that ‘women should remain silent in the churches’ was added later and was not written by the original author St Paul, according to analysis of ancient manuscripts by academics at the University of Cambridge.
The presence of a tiny dash, known by scholars as ‘distigme-obelos’ which indicates a section of text added later and not present in the earliest versions, could unravel centuries of theological debate.
Analysis of the Codex Vaticanus – one of the earliest and most reliable copies of the New Testament, dating back to the fourth century – has revealed such a marking next to the insistence that ‘it is disgraceful for a women to speak in church’.
Verses 34-35 of 1 Corinthians 14, which are being disputed, read: ‘Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.’
The scholars point to evidence the scribe responsible for Codex Vaticanus, known as ‘Scribe B’ had ‘access to far more early manuscript text than is now extant’ which is ‘enough to trust’ their judgment on the text’s reliability.
The article concludes: ‘Scribe B was a careful textual critic who identifies 1 Cor[inthians] 14:34-5, the only Bible passage silencing women in the church, as added text.
If you follow the link above, you can read the entire article.
I will make a note here, regarding that the scholarly work, cited by the ChristianToday article, and the very last claim in the quoted passage above. It seems to be wrong on a key point. Despite how convenient it might be to say 1 Corinthians 14 is the only place where the Bible instructs women to be silent… this is not so.
1 Timothy 2:12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
Paul’s point regarding orderly worship, marital headship, and the silence of women is repeated in 1 Timothy. The article above also provides what I consider to be a very thorough debunking of the claims made by the University of Cambridge scholars, so I will quote and embed that debunking below:
However, their claims have not gone unchallenged. Dr Pieter Lalleman, tutor in Biblical Studies at Spurgeon’s College, told Christian Today: ‘The issue is that the contested words (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) look a bit different in the authoritative Codex Vaticanus. But this is really not very important. A medieval scribe strengthened the letters of this Codex Vaticanus (re-inking). This scribe did not re-ink letters and words that he thought were not original to Paul, but he did re-ink the now-disputed verses. They do also occur in older manuscripts than Codex Vaticanus.
‘The fact that some manuscripts have the passage in a different location (at the end of chapter 14) can be explained by the fact that at one stage a copyist forgot the verses and added them at the end of the chapter. The fact is that no single surviving manuscript omits the two verses altogether.’
The claim that Paul did not write these verses is based on one old document – not even the oldest we possess – and none of the other ancient manuscript copies of 1 Corinthians 14 omit these verses. The argument that these verses are not original to Paul just doesn’t hold up well to serious scrutiny. Unfortunately, not everyone does the due diligence of verifying these types of claims. It might be easy to say “oh wow, University of Cambridge scholars said so, so it must be true.”
Continuing into verse 36 with Ellicott:
(36) What?—The church at Corinth had on some of these points acted at variance with the practice of the other churches, and in a manner which assumed an independence of St. Paul’s apostolic authority. He therefore asks them, with something of sarcastic indignation, whether they are the source from whence the word of God has come, or whether they think themselves its sole recipients, that they should set themselves above the other churches, and above him?
It is worth remembering that the focus of Paul’s letter here regards Church unity. Most of the Epistle is focused on unity within the Church in Corinth, but here Paul calls for unity with al the other Churches as well. Paul cites apostolic authority. Unity depends on a shared adherence to the same authority. If the Corinthians break with the rest of the Church, they need to cite their own authority to do so.
You can see how this might be instructive with respect to how we view large-scale later changes to the Church, as a whole. If one “starts” a Church, without oversight, where does the authority to do that come from? If you cite Scripture as the authority, the issue is that you are citing your interpretation of Scripture, and you may lack interpretive authority. If the authority in place is in fact wrong about something, how do you chart a course correction without disunity and/or the appearance of rebellion? What if the wrong authorities excommunicate you? Authority and unity are inextricably interlinked, but these things can be tricky to work out. Paul gives guidance on the pursuit of unity earlier in the epistle, but implementing that guidance can be difficult. We should be careful though to not let that difficulty become an excuse for acting too independently. Continuing on, in The Pulpit Commentaries:
If any man think himself to be a prophet. Test your pretensions by the capacity to recognize that I have been speaking to you what Christ approves and requires. Or spiritual. He has already said that to most of them he could only speak as carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1).
Let him be ignorant. The formula seems to fall under the idiom which refuses to say anything more about a subject (“If I perish, I perish;” “What I have written, I have written;” “He that is filthy, let him be filthy still,” etc.). The readings vary considerably (“He is ignored;” “He has been ignored;” “He shall be ignored;” “Let him be ignored”). These other readings would be a statement of retribution in kind—of God “sprinkling penal blindnesses on forbidden lusts.” But the reading of our translation is on the whole the best supported, and means that to invincible bigotry and ignorant obstinacy St. Paul will have no more to say (Matthew 15:14; 1 Timothy 6:3-5).
This reiterates the importance of the apostolic authority to the early church. Either Paul has it, or he does not. If he does, then he needs to be listened to and heeded.
Finally, we close out the chapter with verses 39 and 40. From Ellicott:
(39) Wherefore, brethren.—The practical summing up of the whole matter. Seek earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. The phraseology intimates the relative importance of the two gifts in the estimation of the Apostle, which was inverted by those to whom he wrote at Corinth. This ought you to do, but not leave the other undone.
(40) Let all things be done decently.—The former verse reiterates in a condensed sentence the principles laid down regarding the gifts in the first part of the chapter (1 Corinthians 14:1-25). This verse similarly deals with the general principle laid down in the latter part of the chapter regarding the style and order of public worship. The object of all church assemblies is to be the building up of the Body of Christ, which is His Church; and therefore seemliness and ordered regularity are absolutely necessary to this end. Here again, as in so many other instances in this Epistle, while the particular and unique circumstances which called forth the apostolic instructions have for centuries passed away, the writings of St. Paul are of permanent and abiding application, because of the general and eternal principles on which his instructions are based. The strange outbursts of incoherent fanaticism which have occurred from time to time in the after-history of the Church are condemned by the principle with which St. Paul combatted the disorder of the gift of tongues in Corinth; and the practice of the Roman Church, in performing her public services in a tongue not “understanded of the people,” is at variance with the principle which in this chapter he reiterates with varied emphasis—that all public utterance of prayer and praise should be such as those present can join in, not only with emotional heart but with clear and understanding intellect.
These verses sum up the themes of the chapter. Paul encourages the Corinthians to prophesy, and he reiterates that though he doe snot condemn speaking on Tongues, it should be done – along with everything else at Church gatherings – in an orderly way.
As Paul moves into Chapter 15, he will turn his focus toward (re)teaching the Gospel to the Corinthians.