By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor.
This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.
Part 20: What Does the Bible Say? Interpretive Challenges in 1 Cor 14:26-40
The Disputed Passages: A Second Look at 1 Corinthians 14:26-40
Last week we began looking at the disputed passages in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 11, the apostle Paul addressed issues of behavior in the worship service. That theme continues in chapter 14, specifically addressing spiritual gifts in the gathered setting. In verses 26-40, we see instructions for how to use spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophesying in a way that builds up the church. After all, “God is not a God of disorder, but of peace” (14:33).
In the midst of this passage where Paul says he wishes that “every one of you” would speak in tongues and prophesy (vs. 5) and that “each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (vs 26), we find the jarring prohibition that “women should remain silent in the churches” (vs 34). The prohibition is then intensified with the phrases “they are not allowed to speak,” and “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Virtually everyone who has studied these verses have struggled with them because their plain meaning contradicts Paul’s own words in this same letter that women are prophesying (11:5-6) and that “all” may teach, prophesy, and share (14:5, 24, 26, 31, 39). Additionally, these verses cite the law as justification, however the Old Testament Law never commands women to be silent in gatherings or to be in submission. So, what is going on here?
There are several questions that arise in the text of 1 Corinthians 26-40:
First, is Paul speaking of women in general or wives specifically? In Greek, the same word is used in both cases, leaving the context to determine whether the word should be translated as wives or women. In this case, husbands are specifically mentioned, so many argue that this prohibition is specifically speaking to wives. It is interesting to note the change in impact when these words are spoken to a smaller subset of people.
Second, is the command to be silent unqualified (for all women in all times) or is it qualified to a specific time, place, and situation? Interestingly, these wives/women are the third of three groups who are instructed to be silent. Though the other two uses of this verb sigao in this chapter are rarely translated “be silent,” this same verb is used in verse 28 to silence someone speaking in tongues and in verse 30 to silence a prophet. In both cases, they are told to be silent in a certain circumstance. Many argue that these two commands to be silent are for the purpose of orderliness and the benefit of others in the service, so it would make sense that the prohibition for the wives/women would also be qualified for the same underlying reason. If the wives are speaking, judging their husbands’ prophecies, or simply asking questions in a way that disturbs the learning and worship of others, Paul would understandably tell them to be quiet.
Finally, what does Paul mean by “as the law says” in verse 34? Everywhere else that Paul cites “the law,” he quotes Scripture. However, we never see instructions for women to be in submission or to be silent in religious services in the Old Testament Law. It was, however, codified in Roman civil law that wives show deference to their husbands in public. Some argue that this is most likely what Paul was referring to, because he generally taught that Christians should be sensitive to the civil law, though they were not subject to the Jewish law. If this is the case, it follows that the prohibition is directed not toward all women, but toward wives, and something that they were doing that didn’t show deference to their husbands.
We Simply Don’t Know
If we are honest, there is a lot about the situation in 1 Corinthians 14 that we simply do not know. We do not know what problem Paul is trying to solve. It might be that women were talking during the service, that wives were asking questions that were disruptive, or that wives were judging their husbands’ prophecies. Some scholars propose this last idea for a couple reasons: first, the word translated “ask” in verse 35 does not mean a simple question, but has the sense of interrogating. This action could fit with the weighing or judging prophecies that is mentioned in verse 29. Secondly, if a wife were judging her husband’s prophecy in a public setting, it certainly could be considered a transgression of Roman civil law. While this is one viable possibility, the fact is that we simply do not know.
Additionally, we do not know to whom Paul intended the wives/women to submit. Submit is a passive verb, and this is the only time that Paul does not give it an object. Due to cultural presuppositions about submission, as well as other passages on submission, many people simply assume that the women/wives are told to be in submission to their husbands. However, it may also be that Paul is instructing them to be in submission to the Roman law.
A Later Addition?
Finally, it is important to realize that recent scholarship has cast doubt on whether this passage was even in Paul’s original letter. Verses 34-35 show up in two different places in early manuscripts. Some have them appearing in their current place, while others have them appearing after verse 40. It has been argued that scribes may have accidentally incorporated a marginal note by an early, opinionated scribe into the text itself. In addition to a codex from the 6th century showing evidence of the manuscript being corrected to remove verses 34-35, there are other internal and external arguments for verses 34-35 being a scribal addition. Of course, many scholars are not convinced by these arguments, so this continues to be a point of disagreement.
What it can’t mean.
With all the unknowns of 1 Corinthians 14, it is important to recognize what this passage simply cannot mean. It cannot be a prohibition of women speaking in the gathered assembly of the church, or limiting them from instructing anyone in that context. This would contradict the very context of these verses where women are prophesying in chapter 11. It would also contradict Paul’s own desire that “all” would prophesy “so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” here in chapter 14. I encourage you to do your own study and weigh the other options for these thorny verses.
Resources to Consider:
Carson, D. A. “Silent in the Churches” pgs. 140-153 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Crossway 1991
Carter, Paul. “FAQ about 1 Corinthians 14” article posted to the Gospel Coalition’s Canadian edition website on February 26, 2018. https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/faq-1-corinthians-14/
Glahn, Sandra. 1 Corinthians 14: Are Women Really Supposed to Be Silent in Church? Blog Post, May 8, 2018 https://blogs.bible.org/1-corinthians-14-are-women-really-supposed-to-be-silent-in-church/
Payne, Philip. Is 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 a Marginal Comment or a Quotation? A Response to Kirk MacGregor, Priscilla Papers, Publication Date: 2019-04-26. Journal Volume: 33. Issue: 2. Season: Spring.https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/1-corinthians-1434%E2%80%9335-marginal-comment-or-quotation-response-kirk or for a simpler explanation, see Pillar 11 of Payne’s article Examining the Twelve Biblical Pillars of Male Hierarchy, October 31, 2012. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/examining-twelve-biblical-pillars-male-hierarchy
 Payne, Philip B. Examining the Twelve Biblical Pillars of Male Hierarchy, posted to the website of CBEInternational.org on October 31, 2012. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/examining-twelve-biblical-pillars-male-hierarchy
 Sandra Glahn cites Bruce Winter’s Roman Wives, Roman Widows in her blog here https://blogs.bible.org/1-corinthians-14-are-women-really-supposed-to-be-silent-in-church/
 For a fuller argument, see Philip Payne’s chapter 14 in Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 217-267. Or his journal articles suggested in the Resources to Consider section at the end of this article.
This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track. Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member. Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.