Silence

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. 

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

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 (γυνη) 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).

     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)

-----------------

(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 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.)

-----------------  

(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. 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. 

 

IS THIS HOW YOU UNDERSTOOD THIS PASSAGE IN YOUR CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE? IF NOT, HOW DID YOU UNDERSTAND THIS PASSAGE BEFORE?

 

1 Corinthians 14 and the Silence of Women: Textual Challenges...

(Some of these challenges were brought up by Robbie in the comments section on the previous post. I was already in the process of dealing with this information, but am thankful that he brought it up.)

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)
---------------

 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)

---------------

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)

---------------

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)

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...

(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.

(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 call Sunday morning). This context is most pressing in chapter 14 but extends also 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...

Worship in Silence?

Sunday night we talked about the place of silence and solitude in the life of the believer as we strive to have lives that are more attentive to what God is doing in us, through us, around us, for us, and in spite of us. We talked about Elijah and the Prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. The contrast that we focused on was the need of the prophets of Baal to "wake up" their deity (as Elijah so helpfully encouraged them to do), with the simple prayer for action by God for his own glory and the conviction of those around Elijah.

We then took note of Psalm 115:1-8 about the inability of an idol to do anything.

Finally we came to Habakkuk 2:18-20...

   "Of what value is an idol that someone has carved?
       Or an image that teaches lies?
       For those who make them trust in their own creations;
       they make idols that cannot speak.

      
       Woe to him who says to wood, 'Come to life!'
       Or to lifeless stone, 'Wake up!'
       Can it give guidance?
       It is covered with gold and silver;
       there is no breath in it."

       The LORD is in his holy temple;
       let all the earth be silent before him. (TNIV)

Question: Have we become so focused in our worship on "saying something" whether it be praying, singing, or even preaching that we have failed to be silent?

The reason that those who worship idols must speak is that their God cannot.

The reason you and I must be silent is that not only can our God speak, but He in fact does. The question for you and I then is this: As the people of God do we believe God is speaking and if so, are we listening?