Women

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…

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Introduction

Woman with Veil.jpg

As many of you know, who follow me and this blog, I have publicly expressed my support for the movement within Churches of Christ which advocates for the full inclusion of women in all areas of the life of the church. For many in my tradition, this is a place in which we disagree. (Although a shift is happening in our movement that, to me, is very promising.) But one of the fundamental things that my brothers and sisters in Churches of Christ and I completely agree upon is that the faith and practice of the church should be rooted deeply in Scripture. 

So one of the questions (or confrontations) that I regularly experience goes something like this:

"If what you're saying is true then the Bible doesn't matter or you have to ignore passages like 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2!"

This series is my attempt to begin to demonstrate that I personally, and many who share my convictions within our tribe have come to our conclusions because of our engagement with Scripture not our disregard for it! I believe that these texts are a part of the God-inspired Scriptures and are formative for the life of the church. Where I disagree with some is in the ways that we understand the background, history, interpretation, and implications of this text (and others).

This conversation is often difficult to have (especially around these more "central texts") for a couple of reasons:

  1. Too often people aren't interested in dialogue but in winning the debate/argument. (Something that I myself have too often done.)
  2. There are a number of important historical, cultural, and theological factors that are often unknown or ignored when studying this text.
  3. This conversation takes time, and we have too often valued brevity and "simplicity" over ambiguity and complexity.

So let's spend some time exploring one of the texts in this conversation that gives many people a case of theological heartburn...

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. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NIV)

So in the next few posts I want to highlight the following issues and questions…

  1. Textual Considerations
  2. Who are the "Women"?
  3. Cultural and Historical Background
  4. Key Words: "Silent, Submission, Disgraceful"
  5. Implications for Theology and Practice

Are there any questions that you want answered surrounding this passage? Leave them in the comments and I will incorporate them into this series!