The issue of women and their involvement in the Christian church has been discussed for many years and the discussion continues. Books have been written and tempers have flared in an effort to resolve it. And while we won’t exhaustively cover the issue here, I hope to be a part of your journey as you seek out truth on this important subject.
So, does Paul think women should never say a word in church? Does the Bible teach that women can’t teach men? That’s a tough argument to make. Take just a minute and read through:
1 Corinthians 11:5, Acts 18:26, Galatians 3:28. These verses make reference to Christian women prophesying, teaching(even teaching a man!) and sharing equality with men. One of these verses is from this very same letter!
So if women can clearly prophesy and teach, why would they not be allowed to speak in church? Is that even what this passage is saying? Seems pretty straightforward. What else could it mean? Let’s take a look.
First, there is one other passage of scripture that, if we don’t acknowledge it here, may remain a buzzing fly around our examination of 1 Corinthians 14. So let’s take a quick look at 1 Timothy 2:11-12, also written by the Apostle Paul.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
We should note that in the original Greek it is implied that these verses refer specifically to husbands and wives. Paul’s concern in these verses is to preserve the distinction and unique roles of both men and women, especially in the marriage/family relationship.
Far from oppression of women, to encourage learning for wives(v.11) would have been counter-cultural and very progressive! The Greek word for “quietly” is more accurately translated “with tranquility” and “submissiveness” here in the Greek refers to being “under, in the proper order”. It does not have the deflated, oppressed sense we may give the word today. It’s an understanding and cooperation with one’s role.
In verse 12, the word “teach” in the Greek is the infinitive “didaskein” in the present tense and should be more accurately translated “continually teach”. In the context of husband and wife relationships, the wife should not be the constant teacher of the husband or exercise authority over him, because this goes against God’s desire for the husband to be the head of the family. Rather, in her role as wife she should remain tranquil and not disruptive of God’s design for the family. Lastly, the Greek word for silence was also used to mean “tranquil” or “settled”.
So we might paraphrase these two verses this way: “A wife should learn. But she should do it with a tranquil understanding of her role.” (Don’t get so excited about learning that you dominate or disrespect your husband in the process.) “ I don’t allow a wife to constantly be instructing her husband or make all the decisions. Instead she should be calm and not make a fuss.”
A quick thought regarding the dreaded word: Submission.
Every unit composed of more than one personality must have a head in order to be united and make progress. If all agree, wonderful. But if not all agree, someone’s direction must be given priority in order to move forward. Although there is perfect unity in the Trinity, God the Father is the head of Christ. Jesus constantly submitted to the Father and his direction. (John 5:19) It doesn’t make Jesus any less God. But it’s the role he serves. Likewise, being the “head” of something does not make someone smarter or more valuable. Sometimes the leader may not even be the best equipped for the job. But it is still his or her role. The same is true of instances in the Bible where men are assigned the position (and responsibility!) of leadership. When these roles are abused, it isn’t the structure that is defective, it’s the people. We are born to rebel and anything that smells the slightest bit like authority is the first thing we aim to throw out. But leadership/submission structure works beautifully when all parties involved think of each other before themselves! (Ephesian 5:22-25)
As in the 1st Timothy passage, 1st Corinthians 14:34 refers more specifically to wives and husbands and not males and females in general. So Paul here is emphasizing the roles of husbands and wives, not making commentary on formal church leadership. In this context, verses 34-35 should not be used conclusively to prevent women from teaching or speaking to a gathering of both male and female Christians. Also, the Greek word used for “speak” in verse 34 is “Lalein”, the infinitive form of Laleo, which means “to speak randomly”. This Greek word refers to speech that doesn’t necessarily have any meaning and has been used in that context in this chapter. It can be strongly argued that the first half of verse 34 may also be translated: “Let wives hold their peace in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak randomly”
This random speech may refer to speaking in un-translated tongues or just thoughtless “chatter”. In any case, the principle idea is to avoid disruption, as Paul has been emphasizing in the previous verses, and especially in verse 33.
Verse 35, far from being oppressive, actually promotes women’s liberty in a radical way for the day and culture in which it was written. Even among Jewish religious teachers of that day, women were very low on the cultural totem pole. They were purposefully not given opportunities to learn the scriptures and had no voice in their communities. Paul tells women in Corinth to ask their husbands any questions they may have (and assigns husbands the obligation to be able to teach them!), opening the door for them to learn and grow in ways never possible before!
“Lalein” is used again in verse 35, and so we can argue that it is also being used in the same way, since no contextual clues tell us to change the way we’ve been looking at this word. So to clarify, Paul is specifically saying that it is shameful or “improper” for a wife to “speak randomly” in church.
Paul has said something similar in discussing the two forms of “tongues”. His basic principle has been, “Do everything with the goal of building others up”. (v.26) Un-translated tongues and “random speech” both serve as disruptions that distract instead of building up. But why does Paul single out wives?
There are at least a couple possibilities. First, it may be that Paul knew of tendencies toward thoughtless chattering in the Corinthian church women. But if the word “Lalein” refers to tongues of some kind, it may be that Paul especially wanted to avoid any comparisons to the Oracles at Delphi.
Delphi, just across the bay from Corinth served as home to a temple that used female oracles in pagan rituals designed to foretell the future. Women there were exposed to fumes that made them intoxicated. While they babbled incoherently, a listening temple poet would create a poem with very vague meaning that served as a “translation”.
This has some obvious similarities in structure to the way tongues worked (a strange language followed by translation), and Paul may have been aiming to avoid comparisons or integration of pagan theology into the Corinthian church.
This passage, and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 have been subjected to imperfect translations and misinterpretation for many years. Only in the last few decades have Christian scholars managed to more accurately handle these texts. As a result, Christians continue to have a hard time applying these verses to their lives. The tension seems to cause many to “snap” in one of two directions. Either oppression of women wins out, or a “devil may care” attitude toward the accuracy and authority of the Bible. Either is a terrible loss and departure from God’s desire for us as individuals and as local church communities.
Almost in answer to this modern dilemma, Paul gives the Corinthians a humbling reminder of their need to submit to scripture, rather than doing whatever feels right to them. By using their gifts without structure and behaving chaotically in their worship times, they were acting as though they had been given special direction from God that allowed them to go against what was being taught in all the other churches. (v.36) Paul reminds them that if they are truly speaking God’s will, or living the way God wants them to, they will obey what Paul has been instructing them to do. Otherwise, their speech and choices are invalidated. (v.37-38)
Paul concludes this topic by assuring the Corinthians that prophecy and tongues are gifts to be valued and prayed for, but they are meant to be used in an orderly fashion.
Next Week: The Importance Of Christ's Resurrection
Coffee House Question
The debate of women’s roles in the church continues to rage on. What images come to mind when you think of that debate?