1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Universal Command or Cultural Response?

We have come a long way in this series as we have explored the sometimes contentious passage about women being silent found in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. 

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)

If you have missed any of the previous posts in the series I would suggest you go back and read them (in order):

New Series: 1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women...

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Challenges

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Who are these Women??

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

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

And now we come to the question that has required all of the previous effort:

Is Paul here commanding something that is universal (for all people, time, and cultures without exception) or something that is specific and cultural (e.g. the situation in Corinth)?

First, the text in question with a larger portion of context (both before and after)...

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 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.

 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.

 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (1 Corinthians 14:26-40, NIV)

In interpreting this passage we have drawn the following conclusions...

  • The universal qualifier ("...as in all the congregations of the Lord's people.") belongs to the previous unit of thought contained in 14:29-33.
  • This unit of thought (14:34-35) is original to the text and is found in the correct placement in the text.
  • The "women" that Paul addresses can only be one demographic of the women in the church at Corinth. They must be married women with believing husbands. No other segment of the congregation is able to fulfill Paul's commands to "ask their husbands at home" and expect to be able to receive an answer that will help them learn.
  • The particular problem that Paul is addressing is that these married women with believing spouses are asking questions in the public assembly. These women are not asserting leadership, they are attempting to learn. 
  • Such an action is culturally unacceptable, and therefore Paul works a solution for everyone. These women should stop asking questions in the assembly and ask their husbands in a setting (at home) that is not inflammatory to the life of the congregation.  
  • This arrangement is one that is for the benefit of everyone involved. These women still have their questions answered and the "heartburn" that it is causing in the congregation has been dealt with. 

So does this help us to understand whether or not Paul was offering a universal command (or as I like to call it, "for everyone, everywhere, forever without exception, amen.") or was he addressing and specific situation that he never intended to "bind" on all women and all congregations?

It seems that the only answer, considering the things that we have looked at in this series, is that Paul is giving a command to a specific group of people (married women with believing husbands) about a specific situation (the conflict that it was causing in Corinth). 

IMPLICATIONS

Some people (and you will know if I am talking about you) are reading this and their blood pressure has just shot up to a level that is dangerous for their health. The questions are rolling, "So is he saying..."

So before you go there, let me tell you what I think the implications of this interpretation of this passage are...

(1) This passage does not command all women for all time to be silent in the public worship of the church.

(2) This passage gives a great window into what it means to live and worship in a community of people where there are inherent tensions between the freedom found in the Gospel and the expectations of the surrounding culture. 

(3) This passage has nothing to do with the leading (or prohibition of leading) of women in the church. It has everything to do with how these women were learning, it does not address in any way, shape, or form any form of leadership or teaching. 

CONCLUSION

It seems to me that this passage is a fine example (if not the loudest one) of taking a small passage dealing with something that is important (but not all important) and making it way too important! I wonder if Paul were to read some of the things written about and preached about this passage and what his reaction would be. It seems to me that he would be surprised at the volume and the venom that has surrounded this short passage (only 35 words in Greek). 

We need to be careful when we "use" Scripture to shore up a position or practice in the life of our congregations. This text is a perfect example. And it should cause us to be more cautious, more honest, and more humble of the way that we stack up Scripture for any reason (no matter the motive). This is God's Word and it deserves our utmost care, humility, and effort.