1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: The Problem of Flat Bibles

Don't miss the previous posts that led to this installment...
An Open Confession to the Churches of Christ...
1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Introduction
1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Considerations

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One of the primary challenges to a thoughtful, nuanced perspective on this text is what I call "flat hermeneutics". This is where the Bible is taken at "face value" meaning that simplicity is a sign of accuracy and that the text as it stands, in English (in a particular translation), without regard for historical, cultural, or textual context can be easily and rightly interpreted. It sounds something like this:

This kind of interpretive framework typically likes to be self-described as taking the Bible "literally." This rhetoric is used to imply that those who have a different interpretation have failed to take the Bible seriously, on its own terms, and to understand and appreciate that it is inspired.

This is particularly important when we come to a text like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

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. (NIV)

The simple fact is that (almost) no one takes this text literally, and certainly no one within evangelicalism and Churches of Christ. Here's why:

  • Taken literally this text forbids all speech by women. They cannot speak publicly, whisper a question to their husbands, or speak publicly.
  • Contrary to what some might say, this text does not offer "room for interpretation" where we can interpret this passage to read: "Women should be silent in the churches except for congregational singing, saying amen, speaking to the children, and whispering quietly to people next to them." It just isn't there.
  • No one (including Paul) would call such things disgraceful.

But this is exactly what a "flat" Bible does. Flat Bibles prevent interpreters (which is everyone who reads Scripture) from understanding and appreciating what is actually happening in the text. Is Paul dealing with a specific problem or with a universal problem? Is Paul giving them a solution for their problem or for all cultures and all times? Does the issue and answer that Paul provides here seem in tension with other texts from the same letter or author? (For a great introduction to this idea I would recommend Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.)

Flat readings of Scripture either short-circuit such questions or fail to ask them all together (in my experience it is the latter). Typically this is done in one of two ways:

  • Certain texts are taken as normative and therefore determine how other "out of place" or "secondary" texts must be interpreted. ("So we know women didn't prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11 because they are forbidden to speak in 1 Corinthians 14. Or 1 Corinthians 11 must be private and 1 Corinthians 14 must be public." These are just some of the "flat" interpretations.) Ultimately, it seems to be the interpreter that gets to choose which texts trump the others. This is never a good way to read Scripture.
  • Others will suggest that it frankly doesn't matter what is said in other texts once the "trump texts" have been identified. 1 Timothy 2:8-15, some suggest, rules out the possibility that Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1-2). Since Jesus chose twelve male apostles there must be distinction between men and women's roles. (Did we forget they were all Jewish too?) So yes, those texts that "don't fit" are in Scripture but they must not merely be interpreted to "fit" with the "big" texts.

This is important as we engage this text and the larger issues of gender equality in Churches of Christ. It is important that we allow Scripture to speak for itself. It is important that we admit that Scripture is as complex as our ordinary lives, which if we are willing to admit it, are anything but flat.

This doesn't diminish the value or authority of Scriptures, it admits it and honors it with the effort needed to rightly interpret in within a world that is very different than the world in which our Scriptures were born.