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Several acute problems are raised by 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 for the Bible reader who seeks to be a faithful interpreter of the whole counsel of God revealed in Scripture as well as an obedient follower of Christ.
First, a series of questions is forced on us by the text itself and the verses which follow: Does the New Testament as a whole show that women were routinely excluded from verbal participation in Christian worship? Why are they not allowed to speak? Which "Law" is referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:34? How are "submission" and "silence" related?
A second series of questions is raised by the relation between this hard saying and the immediate and wider biblical context. How can Paul say earlier in this epistle that women are to have a head covering on while praying and proclaiming the gospel (1 Cor 11:3-16) and now in the same letter forbid verbal participation? Further, how are we to take the apparent discrepancy between this blanket prohibition and the fact that there are numerous examples of women's active participation in the worship life of early Christianity?
The text we are looking at is located at the conclusion of a lengthy section (1 Cor 11--14) in which Paul deals with problem situations in the context of worship. He has dealt with proper decorum of men and women while praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:2-16); with irregularities at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34); and finally with the nature, function, use and abuse of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12--14), with special consideration of the ecstatic phenomenon "speaking in tongues" and "prophecy" (1 Cor 14:1-25).
It is apparent in the immediately surrounding context (1 Cor 14:26-40) of this saying that the elevation and glorification of ecstatic, unintelligible utterance by some faction in the congregation created disorder and confusion in worship (see comment on 1 Cor 14:5). Thus in addressing those who speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:27-28), he calls for order: they should speak "one at a time." The utterances should be interpreted (1 Cor 14:27), since without interpretation it would confound the hearers and cause them to wonder whether there is madness here (1 Cor 14:23). Without an interpreter, "the speaker should keep quiet in the church" (1 Cor 14:28). In addressing those who have the gift for prophetic proclamation of the gospel (1 Cor 14:29-33), the concern for order in worship is also evident. Their speaking is to be "in turn," that is, not all at the same time. The purpose of all verbal communication is "the strengthening of the church" (1 Cor 14:26) through the instruction and encouragement of everyone (1 Cor 14:31). That purpose, as Paul sees it, can only be accomplished when there is order in worship, "for God is not a God of disorder, but of peace" (1 Cor 14:33; see also 1 Cor 14:40).
All of the above shows that Paul is dealing with abuses and actions in worship which disrupt God's purposes and which therefore need correction. Within such a setting, the text seems clearly to belong to the category of "corrective texts" whose purpose is focused toward a local situation. Paul's word that "women should remain silent in the churches" would therefore seem, at least primarily, to have authoritative import ("What I am writing to you is the Lord's command," 1 Cor 14:37) for the particular situation in Corinth (as well as similar situations; for example, the one addressed in 1 Tim 2:11-12). One must be careful therefore not to immediately jump to the conclusion that Paul's injunction has implications for all women in all churches.
Support for restraint in this area comes from both other things Paul writes and practices in the early churches which show that women's vocal participation in worship and in other instructional or leadership roles was accepted and affirmed. Paul himself acknowledges in this same letter the validity and appropriateness of women as full participants in public prayer and the proclamation of the gospel (1 Cor 11:5, 13). What he finds invalid and unacceptable is that they engage in this activity without a head covering, since that rejection of cultural/religious custom creates a potential stumbling block. Paul even affirms in that context that "the churches of God" recognize no other practice (1 Cor 11:16), namely, the appropriateness of a head covering for women who are praying and prophesying in the church.
If Paul believed that women should be silent in the churches in a comprehensive, universal sense, he would not have spent so much time instructing women what to do with their heads; he would have simply forbidden their practice of praying and prophesying in the assembled congregation.
Paul's larger view--which acknowledged and validated the vocal participation of women in the churches--is supported in other New Testament writings. Thus the proclamation of the "wonders of God" (namely, his redemptive work in and through Jesus of Nazareth--Acts 2:11, 22-36) is interpreted in Peter's Pentecost sermon as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29 that in the last days, under the inspiration of God's outpoured Spirit, "your sons and daughters will prophesy. . . . Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy" (Acts 2:17-18, emphasis mine). In keeping with this prophetic word and the commencement of its fulfillment at Pentecost, Luke mentions matter-of-factly that the evangelist Philip had four daughters who were engaged in the prophetic ministry of the good news (Acts 21:8-9).
In light of this evidence that women in the early churches were moved by the Spirit to engage in ministries of the Word side by side with men, it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand Paul's injunction as a categorical imperative intended for all churches in all places in all times. Rather, the injunction must be understood within its own context as addressing a problem in Corinth which needed correcting.
We have already seen above that the particular problem was disorder and confusion in public worship. This situation was apparently caused by the inappropriate expression of both the gift of prophecy and speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:26-31). It is thus probable that the admonition to silence is in some way related to women's participation in the inappropriate use of these gifts. It is possible that women in the Corinthian congregation, due to the liberating experience of the gospel from all sorts of cultural and religious bondage, may have been at the forefront of noninterpreted, unintelligible utterance (glossolalia) and enthusiastic prophetic proclamation which did not yield the "congregational floor" to others. Some may have continued to speak at the same time another was prophesying, creating noisy confusion in which no one could be "instructed and encouraged."
That such a connection existed between the women who are asked to be silent and the disorderly expression of tongues and prophetic speech receives support from two sets of parallel phrases in these texts. In addressing those speaking in tongues without the benefit of interpretation, Paul says, "The speaker should keep quiet in the church" (1 Cor 14:28). Then, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, he uses the same words: "the women should keep quiet in the churches." The NIV variation in translation does not reflect the fact that the Greek verb (sigao) is the same in both.
Second, in addressing the issues of disorderly prophetic speaking (1 Cor 14:29-32), Paul again urges silence on some so that others can speak. The NIV's "the first speaker should stop" (1 Cor 14:30) again does not reflect the fact that the verb sigao ("remain silent") is also used here. But more important, in calling on the prophets in the congregation to recognize that they are mutually accountable to each other, Paul says, "The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets" (1 Cor 14:32). The Greek word rendered "subject to the control of" is hypotasso. That is the same word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 14:34, where he follows the admonition to silence (according to the NIV) with the words "[they] must be in submission." In other words, prophets must be in submission to other prophets (and thus to each other) in the church.
If, as seems likely, women were prominently in that group of prophets who were disposed to be "disorderly," Paul may be addressing them specifically with regard to this matter of submission to other prophets for the sake of order and peace (1 Cor 14:32-33). These parallelisms in the imperatives to "keep quiet" and "to be in submission" strongly suggest that the problem of disorderly participation in prophetic proclamation and tongues was particularly prominent among women believers in Corinth, and that it is with respect to this context that Paul's admonitions must be understood.
A final problem needs brief attention. What is the "Law" on which the injunction to submit is based (1 Cor 14:34)? Assuming that the submission envisioned is to the men/husbands in the congregation, some have sought Old Testament texts to ground such an injunction. The most common text cited from "the Law" is Genesis 3:16. Two factors militate against it. Wherever Paul deals with the relation between men and women, he never appeals to this passage. Further, it is clear from the context of Genesis 2--3 that 3:16, "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you," does not announce God's created design for "male leadership" but is the statement of a cursed existence because of sin. Surely Paul knew that Christ's redemptive work freed human beings from the curse of Eden.
Others see in Paul's term ("as the Law says") a reference to both Jewish and Gentile norms which restricted women's public participation, and these restrictions existed within the context of male-dominant cultures. Yet Paul uses the word "be submissive" without saying "to whom." Thus the assumption that it is to men/husbands may not be warranted. It is more likely that he is referring back to the statement that "prophets are to be submissive to (other) prophets" (see 1 Cor 14:32). The question "Submissive to whom or what?" would then have an answer in the immediate context: either to other prophets or to the principle of order which has its origin in God (1 Cor 14:33).
Paul's operative principle for congregational life and worship is constant. Whatever hinders the movement of the gospel, causes confusion rather than growth, offends rather than encourages or strengthens, builds up the self at the expense of others--all this is contrary to God's intention. And insofar as the women in Corinth and elsewhere in the young churches used their gifts contrary to God's intention, the injunction to silence is an appropriate, authoritative word. The principle which underlies the injunction is authoritative for both men and women in all churches.
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