One of the fundamental beliefs of the Protestant Reformation was that the bible, at its heart, is understandable. And when it comes to the central message of scripture, which is the gospel, that’s totally true. But that doesn’t mean that every passage of scripture is as transparent as the rest. Case in point is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
Now, some passages of scripture are hard to understand, but their interpretation one way or the other doesn’t make a fundamental difference to how churches operate. For example, most churches aren’t going to split over the finer points of interpreting the apocalyptic prophecies in Daniel or Revelation. But 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, wherein Paul apparently calls on all women to remain silent, is not one of those passages. How we understand Paul’s words here has a dramatic impact on our churches’ leadership structures and worship gatherings.
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 Corinthians 14:34-35)
On the face of it, you might be wondering what the interpretive challenge is. Paul seems pretty clear. Women should be silent in church. If they have questions, they should ask their husbands about it when they get home.
In fact, that’s how some church leaders interpret this text. As a result, women are never allowed to preach in mixed company. Some churches try to be as consistent with the text as they possibly can, even disallowing women from giving announcements, praying, or reading scripture to the congregation when men are present.
But something about that doesn’t feel quite right. Not just because it’s different from the culture of our day, but because it seems different from Paul’s own leadership culture. It’s incongruent with what we know about how he worked with women in the book of Acts and has spoken about them in his other various letters.
In fact, it doesn’t even square with what he has said about women in this very same letter. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (another notoriously difficult passage), Paul talks about how women should clothe themselves when they pray or prophesy in the church. Not if—when. And Paul seemingly endorses the practice.
But how can women pray and prophesy (offer a word of exhortation and encouragement from the scriptures) while at the same time remaining utterly silent? Therein lies the interpretive challenge, and one that’s highly consequential to how we treat women in the church.
Alleviating the Tension
To alleviate the difficulty, some interpreters have read into the text, speculating that there must have been something in the immediate context of church life in Corinth.
Did they have a couple rabble rousing women in their midst that were so disruptive that Paul just needed to put a moratorium on them speaking unless spoken to? Was it too hard to get through a service without one woman or another interrupting the preacher?
Maybe, but I’m not sure that’s the best interpretive option.
And then there is the issue of the half sentence that comes in verse 33.
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 Corinthians 14:33-35)
When Paul talks about God being a God of peace, he’s referring to the instructions he gave in the previous verses about how the church should conduct itself when Christians in their midst begin speaking in tongues.
The trouble is the following phrase, “as in all the churches of the saints.” In the original Greek, it isn’t entirely clear which sentence it belongs to: “God is a God of peace,” or “women should remain silent.” If it is the latter (as the ESV has rendered above), then this command isn’t specific to this one church in Corinth but rather all churches for all time.
It is my belief that the phrase belongs at the end of the previous sentence, like this:
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.
And really, the second sentence here should be at the start of a new paragraph. The reason I say that is because I believe that all the confusion surrounding this passage of Scripture amounts to bad English punctuation.
Interpretation Begins With Translation
In the Greek manuscripts, there are no chapters or verses. There is no punctuation. In fact, for the most part, there aren’t even spaces between words. All of this needs to be interpreted by translation committees before they can render the text into English. And sometimes the grammar and punctuation choices they make are highly consequential.
What I would like to offer you is an interpretation of this text that isn’t dependent upon speculation about what might have been happening in Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing, but actually just adjusts the English punctuation to help make all the puzzle pieces fit.
This interpretation isn’t new to me. A number of bible scholars have set it forth. It just isn’t the most popular interpretation in evangelical spaces. But it is the one that makes the most sense to me. It just requires adjusting the punctuation, which was not part of the inspired text and has to be added in the translation process for our own clarity.
Quote of the Day
Throughout Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he quotes things that the Corinthians have said back to them. We aren’t sure where Paul is getting those quotes, but it was presumably from a letter Corinth had previously sent to Paul. If not that, these were just things that Paul knew the Corinthians were prone to say after having spent some time with them.
So in his theological explanations, Paul quotes what the Corinthians might have said were they in the same room having a conversation with him, and then responds to those imagined interjections, whether by agreeing, correcting, or simply nuancing what they have said. Examples include 1 Corinthians 6:12-13, 8:1, and 10:23.
I believe that’s what he’s doing here in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. And on that basis, here’s how I think 1 Corinthians 14:31-40 should be rendered.
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. 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.”
Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 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. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.
When punctuated this way, it seems that Paul isn’t telling the women to be silent but actually rebuking the men who are disallowing them from speaking in tongues during worship gatherings.
Paul tells the Corinthians that all can prophesy one by one, and they naturally object, “Even the women? Shouldn’t they just be silent and ask their husbands about it when they get home?” To which Paul responds, “Did the word of God come only to men?” And he goes on to reiterate that no one should be forbidden from speaking in tongues. It should just always be done in an orderly manner, as he outlined earlier in the text.
Not Everything Is as It Seems
In this interpretation, Paul isn’t silencing the women. He’s actually giving them a voice. In short, I believe we have been interpreting this passage the exact opposite of what it actually says.
But the puzzle pieces fit, particularly when we consider that Paul respected and worked alongside women with authority such as Chloe and Lydia, and he even commended his letter to the Romans to be delivered and read by Phoebe. It also fits Paul’s words in this very same letter about the manner in which women should pray and prophesy in mixed gender gatherings. It seems fairly obvious.
The reason why we have failed to see it is because we have been informed by our (often patriarchal) cultural assumptions, which then limit our understanding of the text—from its translation from the original languages to how we apply it in our churches.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Paul was necessarily a full blown egalitarian in terms of how he saw church governance. There are other New Testament passages to consider, and that’s a different article for a different day.
But in the case of this passage, what we can learn is that women should be able to use their spiritual gifts—and specifically here, the gift of speaking and interpreting tongues—to encourage the church just as much as men are. And that men should not inhibit them from doing so.