In my last post, I talked about the problems with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and why they might have been added later after the Apostle Paul finished the letter. In this post, I want to highlight the fact that we don’t know the full story on these verses, and that there is significant debate about them.
First, let’s reconsider the text evidence. Even though these two verses show up in two different places in the ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, they nonetheless appear in ALL the ancient manuscripts. Usually, if a word or phrase is added later to the biblical text, it will appear in some manuscripts and be missing in others. Therefore, we have to conclude that if Paul didn’t write these words, the person who did wrote them so early that they may even have been in the margin of the first copy!
That’s why even though some scholars of the text conclude that these verses were not written by Paul, the majority of scholars actually think they were original and that they should be placed exactly where they are in the modern English translations, after verse 33.
So, even though I went on record saying that I lean toward the opinion of the minority on this topic and that I think Paul probably did not write these words, I should at least acknowledge that he might have written these words and therefore, I should present what they mean if in fact they were written by Paul.
What if Paul did write them?
If Paul wrote these verses, we have three options for understanding their meaning:
- They are saying that women should never make any verbal utterance in the gatherings of the churches.
- They are saying there is a certain kind of speech that is always wrong but that the women of the day were specifically guilty of doing.
- They are saying that in the context of the gathered church there is a specific kind of “speech” that men can do but women cannot.
Additionally, there is a second consideration for us when it comes to applying these verses to our world today:
- These verses may be addressing a situation unique to the first century church and are not applicable to us today.
- These verses may be addressing a universal truth that all churches everywhere should obey even today.
Finally, if these words were written by Paul, and if they are to apply to churches today, it is instructive for us to know the rest of Paul’s teaching on women in the church. To that point I will turn first.
Paul’s Opinion on Women
Many people have strong opinions on what Paul was teaching or not teaching about women, and a lot of those strong opinions are based on the two verses we are talking about now, so let’s consider the things Paul says aside from these two verses.
I don’t have time to analyze every single passage of Paul on this topic, but here is a bullet point list of the things Paul taught as well as some things he certainly knew about:
- The ministry of Jesus in his time on earth was bank-rolled largely by wealthy women.
- Women were the first to encounter the empty tomb and to testify about the resurrected Jesus.
- In Acts 13, we read that Paul and Barnabas were vigorously opposed by the Jews, but among the opponents “women of high standing” are mentioned before “the leading men of the city.”
- In Acts 16, Paul goes to a place of prayer, but only finds women there. He begins to teach them, leading a woman named Lydia to faith, and then he proceeds to baptize her and the members of her household. Her house then becomes Paul’s home base for ministry in Philippi.
- In Acts 17, when Paul witnesses to people in Thessalonica, Luke twice records the conversion of “not a few prominent women.”
- In Athens, the only two converts are mentioned by name. One of them is a woman named Damaris.
- In Acts 18, in Corinth, Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla. The husband is mentioned first at the beginning of the chapter, but in every subsequent mention, Priscilla’s name comes first even in the context where the two of them are correcting Apollos of his faulty doctrine.
- In Romans 16, Paul greets a number of women he names as beneficial to the work of the Lord including Priscilla who again is mentioned before her husband.
- In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul talks about husbands and wives in marriage in fully equal terms. When it comes to sexuality especially, neither husband nor wife is to take the lead, but everything should be done mutually.
- In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about women praying and prophesying in churches. He specifically mentions that they should do something with their heads (long hair, head covering, we actually don’t know) that makes them look different from the men, and his rationale is twofold: “man” is the “head” of “woman” just as Christ is the head of man, and cultural expectations of Roman society was that men should have short hair and women should have long hair.
- In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul sends them greetings from Aquila and Priscilla, mentioning the husband first.
- In Galatians 4, Paul addresses the role of Mary, Jesus’ mother, in bringing us our salvation!
- In Ephesians 5, Paul says wives should submit to and respect their husbands while husbands are to sacrificially love their wives while making another reference to husbands being the “head” of their wives.
- In Philippians 4, Paul commends some women who have “contended” at his side in the work of the Lord.
- In Colossians 3, he briefly says what he says in Ephesians 5.
- In 1 Timothy 2, he tells women to dress modestly, to walk in propriety, to learn in quietness, and to not claim a teaching authority over a man because Adam was formed first. He also refers to the blessing of childbirth bringing about salvation (I think that is a reference to the birth of Jesus).
- Additionally, in 1 Timothy 2, Paul advocates for men of extremely high character to be the governing leaders (overseers) of the church, but identifies a second category of minister/servant/deacon that seems to be open to women also. However, the precise understanding of this point is debated by many.
- In 2 Timothy 4, Paul tells Timothy to bring greetings to Priscilla and Aquila. Thereby naming the wife first. It’s essential to remember that Timothy, the pastor, and both letters to Timothy would end up in the same church where Priscilla was respected and prominent over her husband in at least some way.
- Titus 1 has Paul echoing the same instructions he gave to Timothy, but to Titus, he uses the term “elder” instead of “overseer.”
- In Titus 2, Paul tells Titus to train the women to be teachers. Specifically, though, they are supposed to be teachers of other women, teaching them to be women of propriety, reverent, industrious, and submissive to their husbands.
- Finally, after going through all of this, it should also be mentioned that even though Priscilla’s name is nearly always mentioned first, she is never mentioned without a reference to her husband.
In the context of all this evidence, both the direct sense of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and a harsh interpretation of 1 Timothy 2, seem out of place for the Apostle Paul. Removing those two passages from consideration for just a moment, we must conclude that Paul approved of women in positions of spiritual leadership even to the point of teaching others with a few additional considerations:
- Knowing what Paul knew about the role of women in the ministry of Jesus and the role of women in opposition to his own ministry, he could not have considered them to be insignificant or undesirable players in the work of the Lord. He clearly saw them as desirable partners in the work of the Lord.
- Paul held a consistent position that men had a “headship” role in regard to women. Although there is significant debate among scholars regarding what “headship” means, there is no debate regarding what “submission” means, and Paul clearly advocates for women living in an attitude of respect for and submission to the leadership of men. This is especially to be true in the marriage home and in the churches.
- Paul is also consistent that the submission of women is not and should never be subservience. Whatever leadership men have in regard to women should be a leadership of love and sacrifice.
- Paul’s reference to women praying and prophesying in public clearly indicates he expects them to participate in the corporate worship of the church.
- Finally, it’s telling that both letters he wrote that appear to be harshest against the involvement of women in the church were written to the very churches where Priscilla was a prominent member, and yet Paul never says anything disparaging against her or her influence in those churches. Therefore, whatever Paul taught about women in those letters must be something that Priscilla was already obeying.
There’s one more piece of interesting information regarding Paul’s opinion of women. It is the opinion of Luke. Almost certainly, Luke became a believer when Paul was in Troas, and from that time on, Luke followed Paul around on his journeys. Perhaps no one spent more time with Paul than did Luke (see 2 Timothy 4:11), and interestingly, no one in the New Testament is as favorable to the role of women as is Luke. How do we know Jesus’ ministry was supported largely by some wealthy women? Luke tells us in chapter 8, and he’s the only gospel writer who shares that information!
In light of all this, 1 Timothy 2 can easily be made to fit. Taking all of this information together, we can say that in 1 Timothy, Paul is advocating for women to take the role of a respectfully quiet pupil and to be learners first. Additionally, we could say Paul wants women to never be teachers of any sort, but in light of all we have seen so far, it makes more sense that Paul wanted women to be teachers only in tandem with or under the authority of a supervising (overseer/elder or husband) man.
This is the interpretation that fits best what we know about Priscilla. Clearly she was the one who in Ephesus took the lead in correcting (teaching?) Apollos regarding his doctrine, and clearly she has the lead role over her husband in the church that met in their home, but also she never appears without her husband by her side. And to top it off, the church of Ephesus, meeting in her home, is the church reading 1 Timothy for the first time!
But, in light of this, what should we do with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?
Understanding the Meaning
As I said above, there are three possible meanings for this text if Paul wrote it. Let’s deal with them each one by one:
OPTION 1. Women should never make any verbal utterance in any gatherings of the churches.
I don’t need to spend much time on this one because almost no one believes Paul would ever mean something like that. Since this option is so far out of line with the rest of Paul’s teaching on the topic, most people reject it as a possibility.
However, there are some who affirm this option and use it to reinterpret our understanding of the other things Paul says. These people embrace the idea of women never speaking publicly in the gathered church and then use it to re-interpret chapter 11. They claim that chapter 11 is using praying and prophesying as a hypothetical example to illustrate a principle of female subordination but that such praying or prophesying shouldn’t actually be done.
The advantage of this option is that it preserves the obvious meaning of the text, but the disadvantage is that it requires that we interpret chapter 11 on the basis of these two verses instead of the other way around. Furthermore, it requires a reinterpretation of a great deal of New Testament teaching on the beneficial role of women so that women can have a public role throughout the life of the church but just not when the church is gathered together.
Few scholars today find this opinion viable.
OPTION 2. They are saying there is a certain kind of speech that is always wrong but that the women of the day were specifically guilty of doing.
This is the option I grew up with. Whenever I had questions about this passage, it was taught to me that the women of the ancient world were not accustomed to proper structured education and therefore would chatter and gossip disruptively during church. It was described to me that all the women would be off to the side or in the back watching the kids and making noises and being generally disruptive. In light of that, Paul was saying that chatter and disruption should not be present in the gathered church, and that the women back then were the only ones guilty of it.
The advantage of this interpretation is that it fits perfectly with the context. In chapter 14, Paul is talking about being orderly in the church meetings. He is talking about the need to have speakers each take their turns so that people can understand and weigh what is said.
The disadvantage of this interpretation is that it doesn’t have any historical evidence behind it. There is no example in the ancient world of women clustering in the back of the gathering and being disruptive. In fact, we should perhaps understand the opposite to be the case. The Christian church was one of the rare places in the ancient world where women could be educated alongside men. I’m assuming they would greatly appreciate that opportunity!
OPTION 3. In the context of the gathered church there is a specific kind of “speech” that men can do but women cannot.
Modern scholars seem to lean in the direction of this option. These scholars conclude that the “speech” in question is the specific “speech” involved in evaluating prophecies. The immediate context talks about prophets taking turns to speak in the church while others “weigh carefully” what is said. If we assume the process of evaluating the prophecy happened in the form of a dialogue among those present, then we might also conclude that the “speech” exclusive to men was the speech of evaluative dialogue.
This interpretation has the advantage of putting the prohibition against women speaking in the church into a softer light because it’s only one specific type of speech that is exclusive to men.
However, this interpretation also has a number of things going against it. (1) This interpretation requires us to see the “weigh carefully” as a process of dialogue when it may have simply been Paul commanding people to receive the prophecy with a sense of internal judgment. (2) This interpretation requires us to assume that the use of the word “speak” in these two verses means something specific that has been implied in the context but not specifically addressed. (3) It also requires us to see the word for “speak” to mean something specific in these verses when it has been a general word throughout the rest of the chapter referring to tongues, prophecies, interpretations, etc. (4) It still requires us to disregard the plain meaning of the final phrase in 35 that it is simply disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
One other possibility…
There is one other way of viewing these verses. Greek allows us to translate the word for “woman” as “wife.” There is in fact only one Greek word for both concepts. Therefore, it’s possible that all these references to women should be made specific to married women.
However, it does seem weird that in this one spot, Paul would single out married women for two verses. Most scholars do not hold to this “wives” option.
Basically, all of these interpretations boil down to this one evaluative question:
Based on everything we know about Paul, what could he really mean by this statement? Do we use the rest of Paul to reinterpret these verses, or do we let the plain meaning of these verses force us to reinterpret the rest of Paul? Each of the above options has major problems with it, and we have no clear evidence to suggest that one is preferable.
Therefore, since the softer interpretations don’t fully address the relevant evidence, perhaps we should conclude that the best way to understand the words of 34-35 is that they actually do expect women to keep completely silent in the gatherings of the church.
What about Application?
Recall that meaning is not the only thing we should consider. We also need to consider what it means to apply these verses. The possible applications fall into two major categories as I said above:
- These verses may be addressing a situation unique to the first century church and are not applicable to us today.
- These verses may be addressing a universal truth that all churches everywhere should obey even today.
Position 1. The verses don’t apply to us.
People who hold to position #1 have the difficulty of coming up with the first century problem that might persist in “all the congregations of the saints” such that women should keep silent in at least some contexts. Interestingly, I have come across only one ancient situation that is both relevant and backed by evidence. One of my commentaries made a reference to a dictionary of ancient Greek words that said something interesting in the definition of the word ekklesia. That’s the word we translate as church but which originally meant an official gathering (often political or governmental) of citizens (only men). I don’t have access to that specific dictionary because it is behind a paywall, but if you want to see the entry it is here. Anyway, apparently in that entry, it states that it was considered shameful for a woman to speak in the ekklesia.
This actually has interesting implications for 1 Corinthians 14 since it’s a chapter where Paul is concerned about orderliness and also about the perception of the unbelievers when they visit the gatherings of a church.
It’s entirely possible that Paul was saying something in 1 Corinthians 14 that is similar to one of his points in 1 Corinthians 11: women should act like women and men should act like men according to some cultural norms like hair length. Perhaps Paul was saying that in the abstract sense, women could pray and prophesy (chapter 11) but that in the context of a church gathering where there might be outsiders present, they should not speak up at all because the society had a rule that women shouldn’t speak in an ekklesia.
I could possibly get behind this theory, but it still leaves some big questions unanswered. First, in 33, Paul mentions the congregations (ekklesia) of the saints, then in 34, he says women should be silent in the churches (ekklesia) clearly referring to believers gathered in worship because it’s disgraceful for women to speak in church (ekklesia). Why would Paul use the same word “ekklesia” to mean believers the first two times but to mean a secular gathering the third time?
Also, this interpretation doesn’t adequately deal with the word “law” in verse 34. If Paul is referring to God’s law, we have difficulty finding a place anywhere in the Bible where God indicates that women shouldn’t speak up in the context of worship. However, if Paul is making a reference to the “law” that women shouldn’t speak in an ekklesia, we have the problem that Paul never uses the word “law” to refer to governmental regulations.
Therefore, position 1 has too many problems to be viable.
Position 2. There’s a universal principle here.
Among believers, Position 2 is the most commonly held one. There must be a universal principle that applies for all time. However, the understanding of that principle hinges on what you think the actual meaning of the passage is. Here are two options.
- Women should never have any role in the church that involves speaking before a group that includes men.
- Women can participate in the corporate worship of the church but just not when it comes to “authoritative” speaking like teaching or evaluating prophecy.
If #1 is the right one, then we need to reconsider the rest of the New Testament and re-evaluate all of Paul’s writings and interactions on that basis. Historically, this has been the most popular option, but it is an opinion that is based on making the plain teaching of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 primary over the plain teaching of other passages.
Option #2 is the opinion that most closely aligns with the rest of Paul’s teaching, but this application carries the simultaneous problem of being more restrictive than the rest of Paul’s teaching would lead us to expect and also being less restrictive than the plain reading of this text would lead us to understand.
In other words option #2 is really just a compromise opinion. It reinterprets these two verses to be taken more softly than their plain meaning and it also forces us to reinterpret the rest of Paul’s teaching more harshly than their plain meaning would indicate.
Even though there is some evidence that Paul didn’t write 34-35, there is yet a possibility that he did, and if he did, our understanding of the doctrine of Scripture and the authority of the Apostle Paul himself would require us to take these verses seriously and apply them honestly.
Still, in light of all the evidence, there is no clear understanding how we should understand these verses or how we should apply them if they are in fact original and authentic.
Our three final options are these:
- Perhaps the verses are to be ignored as irrelevant to the modern world. Even though many want to accept this option because it is the easiest, it isn’t based on anything solid. We just don’t have any historical evidence of a relevant situation specific to the past, and these verses specifically appeal to an eternal law of God.
- Perhaps these verses require of us that women should never speak up in the context of the gathered church because doing so is “shameful.” This honors the present text in the most obvious way, but it raises questions about everything else we know about the involvement of women in the early church.
- Perhaps these verses require of us that women can participate in church worship but just not if it involves anything like teaching or “authoritative” speaking. This has the advantage of having support from the majority of modern scholars, but it is a conclusion we would never have come to from reading the text alone. It only comes from rejecting the plain meaning of 34-35 to re-interpret it in light of Paul’s other writing.
Each of these options has major flaws, but they are the best we have if we accept the text of verses 34-35 to be original and from Paul.
On that last point, I have written this: On the Textual Reliability of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.