Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

This is part eight on the dissertation ‘Women in Ministry.’
For part seven, click here: Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

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1 Corinthians: Translation of 14:33-35

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 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]

1 Corinthians: Exegesis of 14:33-35
Because a straightforward reading is in stark contrast to what is reasonable and what Paul says in other places, there have been various attempts to understand the principles Paul is trying to convey. See figure 8.

Figure 8: Possible Interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

  1. A literal, straightforward reading
  2. An Interpolation or Gloss
  3. Corinthian quotation
  4. Disruptive speech
  5. A local, cultural issue
  6. Prohibition from weighing oral prophecies

Even the most convinced, far right Complementarian must admit that there are some difficulties in a straightforward interpretation of this passage. If verse 33b is to be taken as an introduction to verse 34, then these statements apply to all of the churches. Furthermore, Paul appeals to the law, indicating that what he is saying is universal.

If this reading is preferred, most of our churches have strayed far from the text. Notice, not only is a women to be quiet, she cannot speak at all. This would mean that female singers, greeters, readers, and, of course, teachers, should not exist within the Lord’s church. Presumably a woman could speak outside of a service, such as what is required to care for children or prepare food. Aside from that, they are to be seen and not heard.

Carson calls the use of 1 Corinthians fourteen as a proof text for women remaining silent in church an exegetical fallacy—an appeal to selective authority.[2] That is, it is easy for one to quote a verse out of context, fail to address the complex cultural issues, and bar parallel passages from solidifying the interpretation. A plain reading is simply not tenable. The commands are not reasonable, but more than that, a reading of the Pauline corpus indicates that women can have a vocal contribution to the services (1 Cor 11:5).

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A second view is that this section is an interpolation or gloss—more specifically, verses 33-35 are not Pauline. David Garland cites Cruseman who suggests that ou gar epitrepetai follows a Rabbic formula, indicating a Jewish bias inserted into the text. It is also argued that Paul too quickly contradicts himself from chapter eleven, and that his appeal to the law is out of character. Gordon Fee points out that Paul always cites the text when he appeals to the law and that no such law even exists.[3] Fee goes on to say that “One can make much better sense of the structure of Paul’s argument without these intruding sentences”[4]

The denial of Pauline authorship is perhaps the easiest way to deal with this difficult passage. The NRSV simply puts the whole section in parenthesis to let the reader know that this section is suspect. Such a practice seems a bit unfair because, as Garland points out, no ancient manuscript lacks this section. In other words, we do not have a single manuscript where this text is omitted.[5] It is only called into question for three reasons: one, while most of the witnesses place the verse where it is, the Western text places it after verse forty; two, the Codex Vaticanus has a distigme—two horizontal dots in the margin—indicating that the scribe had some question about its authenticity; and three, the passage is difficult to accept. Other textual difficulties are not so quickly tossed with such little evidence. A gloss is possible, but there is not enough evidence to hold this view.

A third possibility is that Paul is quoting a Corinthian slogan, possibly in association with the Cephas party of Chapter one, verse twelve.[6] Thus, we would modify the ESV in this way:

For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. God is not a God of confusion but of peace—as in all the churches of the saints. You say,

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.

Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

Gilbert Bilezikian describes it this way:

The grammatical structure of this verse indicates a sharp break with the preceding statement…recent scholarship has called attention to the disjunctive force of the participle ē that introduces verse 36. It has the impact of an emphatic repudiation of what precedes it. A colloquial equivalent such as “Bunk!” instead of “What!” would come close to rendering the effect of disassociation between the prohibition statement (vv. 33-35) and Paul’s response to it[7]

Garland agrees that “The linchpin of this interpretation is the assumption that the particle he…functions as an exclamation expressing disapproval”[8] But Garland points out that Paul never quotes a slogan of this length and his rebuttal, though pithy, does not address the slogan.[9] Fee notes that it would be strange for the Corinthian congregation to practice such an anti-female slogan when many of the problems within the church were females overusing their freedom.[10] This view is also not tenable.

A fourth possibility is that Paul was battling a form of disruptive speech that was plaguing the congregation. Assuming that ‘As in all the churches of the saints’ was actually attached to the previous verse, this interpretation suggests that the church was set up similar to a first century synagogue where the men and women sat on opposite sides during the meeting. The women, having a new-found freedom in Christ, were asking their husbands questions across the aisle. This was, as one would expect, distracting to the service. This is why Paul commands them to ask their husbands at home. It has also been noted that in Classical Greece lalein could mean ‘to chatter.’[11] This interpretation is tempting, but falls apart after some scrutiny.

Obviously, a word’s meaning from an earlier epoch of time has little or no relevance upon a word’s current usage.  Lalein can hardly be interpreted as ‘to chatter’ in a New Testament setting. The most significant factor is that Paul’s imperatives do not contain any qualifications. Why not command the chattering women to be silent? For the across-the-aisle chatter to continue, the men would have had to reciprocate. Why is there no command for the chattering men to be silent? If this scenario were the reality of this church, it seems likely that Paul would have used more specific language.

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A fifth possibility is that there was some sort of local, cultural issues at play in the context of Paul’s imperatives. Being removed from the context by culture, language, geography, and 2000 years of history, makes any high context communication difficult to interpret. The Corinthians knew exactly what he meant. We do not. With that said, there may have been something in the context that is otherwise unknown. One idea is that, since the ancient world was more of a shame culture than the 21st Century West, the gunaikes of verse 33 were not women, but wives. Somehow their speaking brought shame upon the husbands and therefore their families and the church. Consider a marriage contract from Alexandria Egypt, dated at AD 90:

In the same way it shall not be lawful for Apollonia to spend the night or day away from the house of Philiscus without Philiscus’ consent or to have intercourse with another man or to ruin the common household or to bring shame upon Philiscus in anything that causes a husband shame.[12]

The closing line and emphasis of this contract is that the wife is not to bring shame upon her husband. This fits the apparent incongruity that 1 Corinthians fourteen has with chapter eleven. Both of them deal with not bringing shame upon one’s head. This view has some merit. Unfortunately, it is speculation. There is no way to quantify such an interpretation.

A final interpretation, expounded and defended by M.E. Thrall, Carson, and Grudem, suggests that Paul is arguing that women “may not participate in the oral weighing of…prophecies” from verses thirty to thirty-two.[13] Furthermore, since they cannot weigh in on the prophecies, they also may not interact with them in the form of dialogue; and thus we get verse thirty-five, where Paul commands them that if they have questions, they should ask their husbands a home. The context is that there is to be order in the service. If someone is going to speak or prophesy, it must be done in order. Even so, the others must evaluate what is being said. The women, then, are prohibited from evaluating or having a dialogue (in public) about the teaching and prophecies presented. Of course, one wonders why a woman could prophesy in service, but then be prohibited from evaluating the prophesies of others. Carson suggests that prophecy is such an “extraordinarily broad category” that there were different levels of prophecy, and that teaching and some prophetic utterances held a higher place, from which women were barred.[14]

1 Corinthians: Conclusions of 14:33-35
Because Paul’s letter is a high context communication, it is difficult to discern what was happening in 1st Century Corinth—it is even more difficult to extract principles that can add evidence to the complementarian versus egalitarian debate. The weakest arguments are that this passage is to be taken in a straight forward manner or that this section is Paul’s quotation of a slogan.

Although I find the evidence weak, that this section is a gloss seems reasonable. There are other sections of scripture that contain clear textual errors. One such case is Romans 8:1, where the Western text adds “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”[15] This addition changes the text from being saved by Christ Jesus to being saved by Christ Jesus, plus good works. This is significant to one’s Bibliology. We must not refuse to examine evidence that goes against our knee-jerk orthodoxy.

It may be unscholarly, but after weighing all of the evidence, the best solution is to confess that we do not know what Paul meant. It was probably some combination of interpretation four through six. There may have been some shame issues at play. There may have been some type of disruptive speech. It also may have been similar to option six, that the women were to be limited in their speaking in some form. Were these limitations cultural, practical, or theological? We cannot know. What is clear is that 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is not a major player in the debate.

Women in Ministry: Intro
Women in Ministry: Genesis 3:16
Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 3:1-13
Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2
Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7
Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
Women in Ministry: Galatians 3:28
Women in Ministry: Current practice & belief of the SBC
Women in Ministry: Personal practice & belief
Women in Ministry: Epilogue

Footnotes:
[1] 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 (ESV).

[2] Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 93-94.

[3] Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 707

[4] Ibid., 701.

[5] Daniel Wallace, The Bible.org, “The Textual Problem of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” accessed April 15th, 2014, https://bible.org/article/textual-problem-1-corinthians-1434-35.

[6] Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 704.

[7] Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 151.

[8] Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians, 667.

[9] Ibid., 667.

[10] Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 705.

[11] Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 221-22.

[12] Bernard P. Grenfell, ed., The Tebtunis Papyri, Part I. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1902), 452.

[13] Piper and Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 151.

[14] Piper and Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 153.

[15] Romans 8:1 (KJV).

 

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