Silence of Women

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: 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: Introduction

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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!