Q&R with Brad Jersak – Did Paul silence women? Four Views.
I am reading 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, where Paul says that women should not speak in church but just ask their husbands questions afterward at home. (What if their husband is not so bright?)
Does this still apply today? And why?
Glad you asked. Let’s start by reading the passage:
- 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?
First, let’s dispense with a literal reading of that passage (chapter 14) by noting that it would directly contradict what Paul said earlier in chapter 11:5, where he describes women who cover their heads when they prayed or prophesied in church (out loud!). How can they pray and prophesy out loud and be silent simultaneously? Answer: they can’t and they didn’t. [Sometime, I’ll address the head covering issue, which also has multiple explanations].
Biblical scholars have noticed this problem in 1 Corinthians for years and have tried to address it in at least four different ways:
1. A Particular Setting
1. Some think 1 Corinthians 14 speaks to a particular situation in that specific church. For example, some commentators imagine a church seating arrangement inherited from the Jewish synagogues, where women were sitting in a separate section from their husbands and were calling out to them with questions. If that were the case, they say, the passage simply doesn’t apply to us anymore. But that doesn’t solve the contradiction between chapters 11 and 14. And in context, Paul seems to be talking about all congregations everywhere. It feels to me like a made-up solution based on speculation about imaginary scenarios we’re not privy to. Biblical Studies scholars are notorious for reconstructing contexts out of very thin air, so if the biblical context doesn’t say it, don’t just assume it.
2. A Translation Issue
2. Others think there’s a translation issue, and that we just need to tone down the Greek word that’s been translated as “silent,” perhaps into a gentler word like “quiet.” Then Paul would be saying, “Hey, ladies. Don’t be disruptive or disorderly. You in the back; keep it down, okay?” As in point 1, they imagine women shouting out questions in the service from behind some barrier, and they should save their queries for later at home (Let’s call this the mansplaining solution). Maybe, but why specify women like that? Were they second-class citizens? Poorly educated? Less sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s teaching? Or were they just rowdier and ruder than the men? To me, this explanation suffers from some fairly straightforward sexism. For this reason, some women think Paul is sexist and therefore, we shouldn’t pay attention to his out-of-touch perspective. I think there are better solutions.
3. A Textual Problem
3. One of the more convincing scenarios may surprise you. It comes from the late Gordon Fee, an expert in NT Greek and member of various textual and translation committees. He also wrote what most scholars agree is the greatest commentary on Corinthians in history. I’m lucky enough to be friends with his daughter and friend of PTM, Cherith Fee Nordling—also a world-class theologian. Both Fees suggest those verses were not in the letter in the first place and that a scribe may have added it later. There is some manuscript evidence that suggests this. And, indeed, we know of scribes whose marginal comments were eventually moved right into the biblical passage by copyists. Fee thinks that is what happened here… Verse 34-35 are intrusions. That was a bold response from a conservative scholar.
4. A Rhetorical Solution
4. Another real possibility (common in Paul) is that he is quoting an opponent in verses 34-35, then rebuking them in verse 36. This is a kind of rhetorical device called “diatribe,” which Paul uses elsewhere without question (and often more obviously). For example, earlier in this same letter, he says, “You are already rich, you are already kings… I wish you were.” (1 Corinthians 4:8). He’s obviously quoting their arrogant statement, “We are rich, we are kings.” And then, rolling his eyes, he responds sardonically, “Really? I so wish you were,” meaning “No, you’re clearly not.” In 1 Corinthians 14, he could be up to something very similar, “So I hear you’re saying ‘Women need to be silent in the church and just shut up and be submissive.’ Seriously?! So you think YOU are God’s voice? You think YOU are the only ones who hear him? Wake up and smell the coffee!” Then in verses 39-40, he says “Therefore, brothers AND sisters (NIV), prophesy eagerly. But sure, ALL of you need to do it in an orderly way.” I personally lean toward this solution.
In the End: Paul’s Gospel Practice
But the big point is this: a literal reading of 1 Corinthians that is weaponized to silence women is not at all necessary. Other solutions are more possible and more thoughtful. But also, silencing women would be completely out of step with Paul’s actual practice, where he honored women in leadership all the time. He had women on his apostolic team (Phoebe, the deacon who first delivered [read] Romans to the church there), acknowledged wise teachers in the church (Priscilla, aka Prisca, mentor to Timothy), and sends greetings to a female apostle (Junia) in Romans 16:7. More than that, central to Paul’s gospel is that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), meaning we’re all equally ordained into the “royal priesthood” and all are welcome to use the spiritual gifts that were poured out by the Holy Spirit on both men and women, old and young, rich and poor on the day of Pentecost (in Acts 2:17-18).
Bonus Video – Lucy Peppiatt
As bonus material, you may enjoy watching the attached presentation by another female friend of PTM and my former Principal from Westminster Theological Centre in the UK, Dr. Lucy Peppiatt. She wrote an excellent book titled Women and Worship at Corinth. She talks about these types of issues in the video.