Saturday, 3 January 2015

Let the women “keep silent” in the churches: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

The Context
     First Corinthians is an occasional letter, addressed to the Christian community at Corinth (1:2), written by the apostle Paul around AD 56. In 12:1–14:40 the misuse of spiritual gifts in worship assemblies is the pressing issue. The church is one body comprised of many diverse parts intended to work in harmony for the benefit of the whole (12:1-31). The selfish abuse and temporary nature of spiritual gifts is contrasted with the better way (12:31) of love – its importance (13:1-3), description (vv. 4-7), and lasting duration (vv. 8-13). Then the proper use and the misuse of prophecy and tongues in the Corinthian assemblies is addressed (14:1-40): the misuse of tongues vs. the correct use of prophecy (vv. 1-5); the necessity of understanding vs. confusion (vv. 6-25); and a call for order in church gatherings (vv. 26-40).1
Specific application to the situation at Corinth
     First, rules for tongue-speakers in the assembly (14:27-28). Multiple tongue-speakers are to speak in turn (not all at once) and have someone interpret (v. 27). If no interpreter is available, “keep silent” (sigáō) in the church, i.e. do not speak publicly. In this situation it is appropriate to speak silently to oneself and to God (v. 28), but do not disrupt the assembly and generate confusion.
     Second, rules for prophets in the assembly (14:29-33). Let two or three prophets speak in turn; let the others (cf. 12:10) discern (14:29). Speak one at a time so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. If one prophet is speaking, let the others “keep silent” (sigáō) and exercise self-control (14:30-32). “God is not [a God] of confusion/disorder but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (14:33).
     Third, rules for women in the assembly (14:34-35).2 Let the women “keep silent” (sigáō) in the churches (assemblies), “for it is not permitted for them to speak (laléō)” (14:34). In other words, do not speak as to lead the church (cf. vv. 5, 6, 19). In this particular context, silence is also enjoined on male tongue-speakers (when there is no interpreter, v. 28) and on male prophets (when someone else is speaking, v. 30); i.e. they were not to speak publicly as leaders in the assembly.
     The silence enjoined here on tongue-speakers, prophets, and women does not prohibit singing (v. 15), saying “amen” (v. 16), public confession (1 Tim. 6:12), etc.; they are simply instructed not to speak as to lead the public assembly. In 1 Corinthians laléō (to “speak”) is used with reference to public speaking, particularly in the exercise of a spiritual gift (cf. 2:6, 7, 13; 3:1; 9:8; 12:3, 30; 13:1, 11; 14:2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 18, 19, 21, 23, 27, 28, 29, 34, 35, 39).
     “But if they [women] desire to learn anything, let them ask their own andras [‘men’] at home” (14:35a). This appears to have reference to spiritually-gifted women who potentially had the miraculous gift of prophecy or discernment (cf. 11:5; 12:10). If a woman questioned the public message of a prophet, she was not to exercise her gift in the public worship assembly but wait and ask her husband (or father, brother, etc.) outside the assembly.
     To limit the meaning of andras to “husbands” would exclude unmarried women, widows, and those married to unbelievers (7:8, 13), so the more generic “men” might be intended, unless all the spiritually-gifted women in Corinth at the time were married to believers. There were things appropriate at home that were inappropriate at church gatherings (cf. 11:22), and Paul dissuades women from the appearance of taking a lead in the worship assembly.
     “It is a shame/improper for a woman to speak (laléō) [as to lead] in an assembly” (14:35b). The prohibition here no doubt had cultural relevance (cf. 11:5, 6, 13-16). However, it is essentially based on God’s design for distinctive roles of men and women (cf. v. 34, “the law”; 7:39; 9:21; 11:3, 8-9; 1 Tim. 2:11-15), and is thus unchanging.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 A number of critical scholars contend that 14:34-35 blatantly contradicts 11:2-16 (under the unwarranted assumption that 11:2-16 is restricted to a mixed worship assembly) and propose that 14:34-35 is a post-Pauline interpolation (cf. C. K. Barrett, First Corinthians 330-33; G. Fee, First Corinthians 699-705; et al.). However, these verses are found in all extant manuscripts, although a few erratic ones place them at the end of the chapter. See Gary Workman, “I Cor. 14:34-35,” The Spiritual Sword 3 (April 1995): 35-46.

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  1. I have two observations/questions for consideration. The first is that I'm not sure that we can justify "laleo" meaning to speak "in leadership roles." No Greek Lexicons that I have encountered make that distinction. Also, If we are to obey this text, as it is written, we must admit that women should remain completely silent. That would also go for singing in the assembly since Eph 5:19 refers to singing as "speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. If women are speaking in the assembly through song then they are speaking and thus violating 1 Cor. If we are to say that women are allowed to speak and are allowed to speak through singing, then we are adapting this scripture to fit our cultural context.

    The second observation is that we, in the COC, only seem to obey the 3rd of the three components in 14: 27-35 in that we tell all tongue speakers to be silent and offer no place for them to do so. If someone claims to be a prophet we, at least secretly, think they are crazy and will never give the the microphone. However, when it comes to women, this all of the sudden is binding today and is God's eternal plan. If Paul meant for the third to be eternally binding, and not the first two, why wouldn't he clarify immediately? I see a major fallacy in our beliefs in that we are not consistent. Either we obey all three fully (and make women wear veils) or we should be consistent and admit that Paul was speaking to a specific church under a specific set of rules in a specific culture.

    1. Thank you for your feedback. The term laleō means to “speak,” and the context determines its particular usage. As stated in the article, this word is employed in 1 Corinthians with reference to public speaking, especially in chap. 14. The text “as it is written” cannot be divorced from its context. The issue addressed in 14:27-35 is not about singing, therefore Eph. 5:19 is a separate matter. The instructions concerning tongue speakers and prophets are also part of a broader context. Chapter 13 addresses the temporary nature and cessation of miraculous tongues and prophecies, which does not apply to the role of women. We no longer have legitimate tongue speakers and prophets in our assemblies, but we still have women in our assemblies. Btw, I just returned from a trip to Israel (the reason for the delay of this response), where I preached the prophetic word of God in the English tongue while a local preacher interpreted the biblical lesson in the Arabic tongue, so in principle Paul’s directives were followed.
      Reading the flow of the apostle’s argumentation inclusive of the entire context should answer the expectation for him to “clarify immediately.” There is no question that Paul writes to a “specific church” in a “specific culture,” which is noted in the very first statement of the article. But Paul addresses matters that are relevant to “all the churches” (7:17; 14:33), e.g. unity, division, baptism, morality, marriage, worship, behavior, et al. If I flee from sexual immorality (6:18) and believe in the resurrection of the dead (15:12), while eating steak (8:13) and not literally kissing my brethren (16:20), am I being inconsistent? The choice of (a) forcing women to wear veils and forbidding them to sing, OR (b) allowing women to preach in our corporate assemblies, is a false dichotomy. It is not inconsistent to read Paul’s directives through the lens of his original audience, understand what he was seeking to convey to this particular audience, then make application to our current situation with the help of related passages. I invite you to read articles available on this blog about biblical interpretation, female head-coverings, the role of women, etc. that address your observations/questions. Thank you for reading.