Hermeneutics

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: "Silence", "Submission", and "Disgraceful"...

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We have arrived at that part of our study of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in which we are going to take a closer look at three of the terms that perhaps have the most "punch" behind them. I use the term "punch" because I have seen these terms used in two very different, yet equally destructive ways. First, I have seen them used to beat down Godly women into a place of subordination (which in my view is different than submission), of inferiority, and of inadequacy. Conversely, I have seen these words thrown around to be dismissive of church leaders, Scripture, and ultimately of God himself as paternalistic and sexist. So what do the terms "silence", "submission", and "shameful" in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 mean?

We start, as we have throughout this series by looking at the text itself to try and understand what Paul is getting at in this passage...

34 Womenshould remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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, emphasis on the terms we will examine.)

So how do we go about understanding more clearly what these words mean? We are going to take two approaches to understanding these terms that Paul utilizes in this passage: (1) We will look at the context and how these terms are used by Paul elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, and (2) we will attempt to understand the meaning of these words from two standard Greek tools, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) and the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT).

So first let's look at the terms themselves, followed by an understanding of how they are given context and meaning from within 1 Corinthians itself.

SILENCE

34 Womenshould remain silent in the churches. (NIV)

The term here for "silent" is the Greek word sigao (σιγάω). In this text it is a 3rd person plural imperative. This means that it is a command for "those women". This can be seen in a variety of different translations of this sentence from Paul. The portion of each translation in bold italics is the translation of this one term.

34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. (NASB)

 As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. (ESV)

34Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. (KJV)

34 Women should be silent during the church meetings. (NLT)

34 Womenshould remain silent in the churches. (NIV)

(I have already tried to demonstrate that the connection of "in all the churches" does not belong with this unit of thought about the silence of women. For more on that look to the post in this series here.)

So what does Paul mean here by silence? Is Paul suggesting that these women should be completely silent in every form and fashion during the public worship of the church? Or is there something else going on here? We will look to the context to help us better understand what Paul is getting at here...

We have three clues that Paul is not giving a blanket command for total silence in the assembly (not that I am aware of any churches that actually practice the total silence of women in the assembly). 

(1) Paul has already said that women were praying and prophesying in the assembly and that they should be mindful of how they do it (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

(2) This command came from Paul because the (married) women (with believing husbands) were being disruptive in asking questions in the assembly. (1 Corinthians 14:35)

(3) This is the same term that Paul uses this same term twice earlier in the immediate context...

28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church; let them speak to themselves and to God.

29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.   

(1 Corinthians 14:28-30, NIV, emphasis marking the usage of the same term)

The BDAG tells us that this term sigao (σιγάω) in 1 Corinthians 14 is defined as "to be silent" with two sub-definitions: (1) "say nothing, keep still, keep silent" and (2) "stop speaking, become silent". 

It seems that the best way to understand this term here as Paul uses it fits in line with either (or both) of these sub-definitions. The women Paul is addressing were to stop asking questions in the assembly. But in this passage that is all that Paul is commanding them to do. 

SUBMISSION

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. (NIV)

The term here for "submission" is the Greek word hupotasso (ὑποτάσσω). In this text it is a 3rd person plural passive imperative. This means that it is a command for "those women". This can be seen in a variety of different translations of this sentence from Paul. The portion of each translation in bold italics is the translation of this one term. 

34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. (NASB)

34...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. (ESV)

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. (KJV)

34 Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. (NLT)

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. (NIV)

Both the TDNT and BDAG define this usage of the word hupotasso (ὑποτάσσω) as the "subordination or submission of oneself". As we look at the context of this unit of thought we see that this makes sense. We find that this same term is used in the preceding paragraph to talk about prophets...

32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. (NIV)

Both uses of this term in 1 Corinthians 14:32, 34 give us clear examples of those being addressed (prophets and married women with believing spouses) being commanded (let's not forget this) to silence themselves in an act of submission. (This is the same term used of Jesus submitting himself to his parents in Luke 2:51.)

The New American Standard captures this nuanced meaning of the term here with the context in mind...

34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. (NASB)

SHAMEFUL

This term has been a great source of confusion to many (or at least to me). 

34 Womenshould remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35If 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)

Why is it disgraceful? In English this term has a range of meanings such as "shameful" and "scandalous". Is this what Paul was getting at here? That it is scandalous and a cause for shame when a (married) woman speaks (asks questions) in the church assembly?

The TDNT narrows the definition of this term in 14:35 to "'that which is disgraceful' in the judgment of men" and the BDAG defines this term as "pertaining to being socially or morally unacceptable or shameful". Both of these definitions are applied both to the passage in question (14:34-35) and the other use of this term in 1 Corinthians in 11:6. 

2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. (1 Corinthians 11:2-6, NIV)

The usage of this term in this passage and in 1 Corinthians 11:6 help us to understand that this term "disgraceful" carries the idea of this particular activity (short hair or speaking in the assembly) as something that is socially or culturally unacceptable. 

In other words, if it is "sinful" (which is not the idea that Paul is suggesting here in 14:35) for a woman to speak in the assembly then it is equally "sinful" for a woman to have short hair. The first example is obvious to most (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), and so we should take care to be consistent in our interpretation of the passage at hand. 

SUMMARY

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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)

Paul in this passage is commanding these women to choose two separate but connected actions in the public assembly of the church. First, he is telling them to stop asking questions in the assembly and second he is telling these married women to choose to submit themselves to the expectations of the community of faith. Both of these actions are motivated by the cultural reality that was present in Corinth. Paul commands these responses from these women because it was culturally inappropriate for this to be happening. 

Paul is commanding these women to forgo (for the time) their ability to ask questions and to be sensitive to the expectations of the entire congregation. As we will see in a future post this fits in perfectly with the entire context of 1 Corinthians 11-14 and especially the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 14. 

Stay tuned as we wrap up this series asking the question: Is this a universal command or a cultural, specific situation that Paul is addressing?

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Cultural and Historical Background...

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One of the first things that we must understand about this text before we look into the cultural and historical background is just exactly what is going on here.

What is the problem that Paul is addressing with this prohibition of women (married women with believing husbands) speaking in the church?

So again, as we will do throughout this series, we look first at the text itself.

33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.   

    As in all the churches of the saints, 34the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35If 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. (ESV)

The ESV here does a good job illuminating for us the problem that Paul is addressing. The issue here is not that these women (a particular subset of the women at the church in Corinth) were teaching, preaching, gossiping, or talking to men that were not their husbands (although these have all been suggestions made by scholars and church leaders alike). What does the text say?

35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. (ESV, emphasis mine)

The text appears to imply that Paul is taking issue with these (married) women asking questions in the public worship/assembly.

Now for most of us this is an entirely foreign idea. This is because when we think about the public assembly (a.k.a. Sunday morning or whenever else you might have a "worship service") the sermon or message is rarely (if ever) interactive.

In other words, the one delivering the message/sermon gets up and gives a lecture/sermon with little or no engagement with the members of the congregation. There is certainly not (in my experience) a time for engaging questions during the sermon. 

But what we have to recognize is that our worship services, especially around the idea of preaching/teaching is much different than what we would have found in the church in Corinth to which Paul gives this prohibition to the married women with believing husbands.

To understand why this (married women asking questions in the public assembly) would be a problem it is important for us to understand three seperate yet interconnected elements of the historical and cultural background of this passage and the world in which they lived: The value/prominance of women, the education (or lack thereof) of women and the predominant teaching style of the day. 

VALUE AND PROMINENCE OF WOMEN IN THE 1ST CENTURY GREEK AND ROMAN WORLD

To learn about the prominence and value (or lack thereof) of women in the 1st century we will look at four men who are rough contemporaries of the New Testament. Plutarch (46-120AD), Philo of Alexandria (20BC-50AD),  Josephus (c. 37-100AD), and Cicero (106-43BC) help us to understand the prevailing views of women and their abiliities to learn.

Cicero writes

"Our ancestors, in their wisdom, considered that all women, because of their innate weakness, should be under the control of guardians."

Philo of Alexandria writes:

 Market-places and council-halls and law-courts and gatherings and meetings, where a large number of people are assembled, and open-air life with full scope for discussion and action – all these are suitable to men in both war and peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house.... Organized communities are of two sorts, the greater which we call cities and the smaller which we call households. Both of these have their governors; the government of the greater is assigned to men under the name of statesmanship, that of the lesser, known as household management, to women (Special Laws 3.169-70).

Josephus, when talking about the role of women (especially in marriage) writes:

"But, then, what are our laws about marriage? That law owns no other mixture of sexes but that which nature hath appointed, of a man with his wife, and that this be used only for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male; and if any one do that, death is its punishment. It commands us also, when we marry, not to have regard to portion, nor to take a woman by violence, nor to persuade her deceitfully and knavishly; but to demand her in marriage of him who hath power to dispose of her, and is fit to give her away by the nearness of his kindred; for, says the Scripture, "A woman is inferior to her husband in all things." (Against Apion, Book 2.25)

(By the way that quote from Scripture is found nowhere in Scripture.)

Plutarch has some of the following advice for married women...

...a virtuous woman ought to be most visible in her husband's company, and to stay in the house and hide herself when he is away.

A wife ought not to make friends of her own, but to enjoy her husband's friends in common with him.

Not only the arm of the virtuous woman, but her speech as well, ought to be not for the public, and she ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders, since it is an exposure of herself; for in her talk can be seen her feelings, character, and disposition.

Not exactly a picture of women that would go over very well in 21st century America you think?

EDUCATION OF WOMEN IN THE 1ST CENTURY ROMAN AND GREEK WORLD

As we have seen in some of the quotations just mentioned one of (if not the primary) role of women was to give birth to children and manage the household. Women in the first century Gentile world were typically educated (whether formally in schools or at home is of some historical debate) until their arrival at the age of marriage. For Greeks this was typically 14 and for Romans it was 16-18. Men on the other hand were educated well into their 20's and married around the age of 30. It was important for a man to be well educated in order to be a fully functioning citizen, for women, who obviously had a different place in life and in society, this formal education was not nearly as important.

STYLE OF TEACHING IN THE 1ST CENTURY ROMAN AND GREEK WORLD

The most influential individual on the nature of teaching in the first century Greco-Roman world was none other than Socrates (469-399BC). His style of teaching came to be known as the Socratic Method.

(Side note: I like the Socratic method as a teacher. I fully employ the first two of these three elements of his method and understand the value of all three for teaching. This is not a slight to Socrates, but it is an excellent window into the cultural background of this passage, as we will see shortly.)

There are three elements to the Socratic method of teaching.

(1) Learning is directed primarily by a balance of question and debate.

(2) The goal was to strengthen your position or understanding of an issue or topic by engaging with people of other views and perspectives.

(3) Only advanced were allowed to ask questions and debate with the teacher.

By the way, this is not even a purely Gentile idea. We see something almost identical in the rules for participation in the Jewish Sanhedrin (Tosefta Sanhedrin 7:10) as well as in the writings of others like Plutarch (On Listening to Lectures)

So now we must come back to the text itself to reframe what we have observed thus far...

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

    As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35 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. (ESV, emphasis mine)

The problem here is that these (married) women are asking questions in the assembly and are therefore being disruptive and doing what is "shameful".

Certainly the problem for Paul is not that they want to learn!! The issue therefore must be the way in which they are going about learning.

Remember the third rule of the Socratic method: Only the advanced students are allowed to ask questions and debate with the teacher.

In the eyes of the present culture in the 1st century and also in formal education who would be the advanced students and who would be the novices? The obvious answer is that the men would be considered the advanced students, and the women the novices.

Therefore, it would be inappropriate or "shameful" (we'll look more closely at this term in the next post) for a (married) woman to publicly ask a question of the teacher.

ISN'T THIS SEXIST OR AT LEAST DEGRADING TO MARRIED WOMEN?

In our culture this passage could certainly be understood that way. But here is what I think Paul is doing...

The asking of questions by these married women in the public assembly (a cultural "no-no") was having two damaging effects: (1) These women weren't learning and (2) their was division/conflict in the congregation. So here, Paul has negotiated a culturally-sensitive while still innovative solution. These women will choose to submit to the cultural expectations of their day, and their husbands will be responsible for their spiritual development and growth at home. The tension in the congregation has been relieved and the woman's attempt to learn has also been made successful. 

The idea that husbands would be concerned about and willing to help in the education of their wives (in any fashion) was extremely progressive for the culture in which Paul writes this letter. This is not a "backwards" solution that holds men up as superior and women as inferior and unimportant. Instead, this solution keeps the peace in the community of faith and values the desire of these women to learn alongside their husbands. 

SUMMARY

So, in this post we have seen that the issue occuring here in Corinth is not that women are attempting to lead or to take over, but that they are violating the cultural boundaries in their approach to learning. This helps us make sense of the immediate context:

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (ESV)

And it also helps us make sense of the larger context (all of 1 Corinthians 14) which revolves around the idea of public speech being beneficial for the congregation instead of a distraction or source of confusion or offense.

There is much more to cover in this passage as we press on in the next post with a couple of translation questions about the terms "silent", "submission", and "shameful". Stay tuned...

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Who Are These Women?

Be sure to catch up with the previous posts in this series:

Introduction

Textual Considerations

The Problem of Flat Bibles

Now we come to the first of the important interpretive questions regarding this passage: Just who exactly is Paul talking about?

This question, as we will see, has a lot to do with how we understand the overall message of this passage. So we must start here. But first there are a couple of issues that we must get on the table.

(1) Translation issues...

The first translation issue is in regard to the word "woman" in this passage. Both times it is the Greek word gune which can be translated as "woman" or "wife". The only key to which translation is intended is the immediate context.

So what should the translation be here in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35? Let's look to the passage itself to discern whether we should understand this as "woman" (everyone that is a female) or "wife" (which is a subsection of both women and as we will see of the congregation in Corinth).

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)

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(TANGENT: ENGLISH BIBLES AND HISTORY OF TRANSLATION ISSUES)

This is something that is rarely (if ever) discussed when we talk about the challenges of translation and of interpretation when we aren't dealing directly with the original languages of Scripture.

There are two things that are considered in translation of the Bible (at least in English) and that is (1) the understanding of the original language text(s) and (2) the history of translation. If you take a look through all of the English versions available for example at Biblegateway.com of this passage you will find that only The Message translates this term as "wives".

(Similar issues...and this is a whole post in itself...can be traced to the translation/transliteration of the word "baptism". It was in this move (one which all English translations that I am aware of have maintained actually obscures the idea of immersion which was the original intent/meaning of the term.)

Suffice it to say that "the majority of translations" is not (in itself) sufficient proof that there is not an alternate or better translation possible.

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(2) Contextual issues...

So how does this text itself help us to determine whether we should understand this passage to apply to "woman" (all women) or "wives" (some women)? The passage itself gives us the only clue we really need.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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, emphasis mine)

Also, we learn earlier in 1 Corinthians 7 that there are other groups of women in the church at Corinth who do not fit this demographic. There are women who have never been married (7:27-28), women who are divorced (7:11, 15-16), women who are engaged to be married (7:36), women who have been widowed (7:8-9), and women who are currently married (7:2-5; 14:33-35).

Of all these various groups of women in the church at Corinth only one of them is able to keep this imperative (and it is a command) of Paul: the women who are currently married.

But I want to suggest that here Paul actually goes one step further in singling out (pardon the pun) this group of women in the Corinthian church. I want to suggest that the best way to make sense of this text is to understand that Paul is actually speaking about women who are currently married AND have believing husbands. This seems to me to be the only way that this instruction makes any sense.

SUMMARY

In the church in Corinth there are women at every stage of life, especially in relationship to marriage (as Paul's instructions earlier in the text make clear). There are women never married, currently married, formerly married, soon to be married, and those who are widowed. It also likely there were some women at each of these stages who did not have believing partners (whether husband, ex-husband, future husband, etc.)

The only way to make sense of this passage as it stands is that this is an imperative (a.k.a. command) of Paul for currently married women who have believing husbands. Any other way of reading this text (e.g. making it a universal command for all times and places for all people of the female gender) doesn't pay enough attention both to the context and to the actual text itself. 

In fact, to somehow make this a universal command (for all women, for all times) requires us to ignore both the larger context of the letter and the passage itself. In other words, the only way to make this text a universal is if you have a flat Bible.

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.

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Considerations

One of the reasons that this passage (among others dealing with the issue of "women's roles") are often left alone is because there are some complex textual issues that surround the texts themselves.

Here we are talking about issues concerning translation, meaning, context, and paragraph endings/beginnings. A quick survey of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and its immediate context in various translations should highlight a couple of the more important textual challenges that we face.

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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)

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

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 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. 35If 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. (ESV)

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33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.

35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (KJV)

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32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

(As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?) (NRSV)

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32 The spirits of prophets are under the control of prophets, 33 since God is the God, not of chaos, but of peace.

As in all the assemblies of God's people, 34 the women should keep silence in the assemblies. They are not permitted to speak; they should remain in submission, just as the law declares. 35 If they want to understand something more, they should ask their own husbands when they get home. It's shameful, you see, for a woman to speak in the assembly. (Kingdom New Testament, N. T. Wright)

DID YOU NOTICE ANY SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES IN THESE TRANSLATIONS?

There are two textual challenges associated with this text that must be dealt with before we attempt the task of interpretation...

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(1) Translators aren't sure where to put "as in all the churches of the saints".

You see for example in the NIV and KJV that this phrase belongs with the previous paragraph about God not being about disorder but of peace. The ESV puts this phrase with the discussion of women in 14:34-35. The NRSV does something similar but makes the entire discussion of women in chapter 14 parenthetical.

Part of the challenge comes from the fact that early manuscripts were written in either all capital letters (called Uncials) or all lower case letters (called Miniscules) and lacked three very important things that you and I take for granted: spaces between words, punctuation, and paragraphs.

This means that in some places (this being one of them) it can be complicated to discern the unit of thought and proper translation of the text, especially when it comes to where sentences begin and end.

(2) Scholars debate the originality and placement of this unit of thought. Some scholars (most notably Gordon Fee in his influential commentary) see this entire unit as an interpolation (inserted by another author, editor, copyist) and therefore the text should be discarded as a whole. Others think that this passage should be placed at the end of the chapter after 14:40. Still other scholars think that the text should be understood as it is and in the place in which it is translated in our English Bibles.

SO HOW DO WE RESOLVE THESE TWO TEXTUAL ISSUES?

(1) The placement of "as in all the churches of the saints..."

There are two things that will help us understand better the placement of this phrase. It is my contention that this phrase more appropriately belongs with the preceeding paragraph (as is seen in the NIV and KJV). The first thing we can look at is how Paul uses a similar statement elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.

"...He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with with what I teach everywhere in every church." (1 Corinthians 4:17)
"Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches." (1 Corinthians 7:17)
"If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice - neither do the churches of God." (1 Corinthians 11:16)

Paul's pattern (and note that all of these examples are in the same letter) is that such a "universal" statement always concludes a thought or element of an argument. Paul does not use such clauses as a foundational stating point for his argument.

The second thing to be considered is how poorly the grammar of the passage would be if this disputed phrase were to be attached to the discussion of the silence of these women in the church at Corinth.

"As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches." (ESV)

"As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches." (NRSV)

For Paul, who writes with some of the greatest rhetorical flourish in 1st century literature, and especially within the New Testament, such a sloppy expression seems unlikely. Therefore, I believe that we are better off to understand the "universal statement" of "as in all the churches of the saints..." as belonging to the preceding unit of thought about God being one who is concerned with and by his very nature is a God of peace and not disorder. It is important to note that this placement of "as in all the churches of the saints" with 14:34-35 is a recent development (the last 100 years) of biblical scholarship. It is reflected in the translations cited above that move that concluding statement (as we have seen elsewhere in 1 Corinthians) to an introductory statement in this text.

(2) The originality and placement of 14:34-35.

Both the interpolation (inauthentic insertion after the original) and the rearrangement (putting it after 14:40) have been soundly refuted in the influential scholarly article by Curt Niccum, professor of New Testament at ACU entitled "The Voice of the Manuscripts on the Silence of Women: The External Evidence for 1 Cor. 14:34-35" (New Testament Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, April 1997, 242-255.) The internal textual flow and external manuscript evidence support show that this text is in its proper place and contains Paul's original instructions regarding the situation.

SO WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US AS WE BEGIN INTERPRETING THIS PASSAGE?

This passage should be understood as a digression (Paul saying, "And while I'm talking about this...") in the larger context of Paul dictating to the Corinthians the proper actions regarding speech in the corporate gathering of the assembly (what we might generally call "Sunday morning"). This context is most pressing in chapter 14 but extends as far back as chapter 11.

We are therefore in the best position (I believe) both textually and contextually to interpret this passage when we begin with it as our starting point in the translation of the 2011 NIV as follows:

33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 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)

NOW THE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS BEGIN…