Different views on how to understand 1 Cor 14:34-35
Possibility1) The complementarian view: Women should indeed keep silent.
It is the simplest interpretation of those 2 verses, in isolation. But it runs into lots of trouble when compared to the rest of the passage. It seems to contradict “all have a psalm/ doctrine/ tongue/ revelation/ interpretation, all (psalms/ doctrines/ tongues/ revelations) should be used to edify (the gathered believers)… All could prophesy… Desire to prophesy… Forbid not to speak…” All these texts are part of the context, as verse 26-40 is the passage this is a part of. It also contradicts some other evidence of women as teachers, apostles and gospel workers in the New Testament.
I have never seen any complementarian effort to reconcile these apparent contradictions. Their view doesn’t explain the “What! Did the word of God go out from only you? Or did it reach only you?” following right after :34-35 either.
It also has the glaring problem that nothing in the Old Testament law says it. Paul knew OT law, so why is the words “as the law also say” in the passage?
Possibility 2) “Silence” is meant only in a certain regard
Paul tells tongue speakers to be silent – unless an interpreter is present. (1 Cor 14:28) They could speak again later – when there is an interpreter. We could sensibly assume that a tongue speaker who also wants to give a teaching/ song/ interpretation/ prophesy (which does not include tongue-speaking) would not have to remain silent because (s)he sometimes speaks in tongues.
Likewise, Paul tells prophets to be silent – and to give turns to others to prophesy. (1 Cor 14:30-31) A silenced prophet giving a turn to another would obviously not have to stay quiet forever. Prophets and tongue speakers have to keep silent in some situations, because of good order.
Similarly, goes this argument, women (who sat on the opposite side of the meeting room from the men, in that culture) were probably shouting questions to husbands, or chatting with each other, adding to the general disorder. Preaching is not the topic in “Let your women keep silence” but shouting questions and/or chit-chatting while others are speaking in church is. This silence, like the silence of tongue speakers and prophets, is not everlasting, and does not prohibit teaching/ prophesy/ giving an interpretation (the gifts in :26, brought along to edify the congregation).
This argument is not new – Chrysostom wrote that as his view in about 400 CE.
Possibility 3) Paul quotes the Corinthians, and refutes the quote
I find this likely, because:
a) Paul is writing the letter of 1st Corinthians, or some of it, to answer things the Corinthians wrote to him about. See chapter 7:1. And scholars believe that some sentences in the rest of the letter are quotes from the letter they wrote to Paul.
b) It fits in with the “all should bring their gifts” context. It also fits in with women speaking in the meeting of believers to tell them Jesus rose, women speaking at Pentecost, Junia as apostle, etc.
c) It gives a context to the verse after it. “What! Did the word reach you only?” do not make sense under any other view listed here. But if Paul is refuting them, it makes sense as the first words of a refutation, with the previous words being the idea he is refuting.
d) The Greek letter eta, used at the beginning of :36, is often used by Paul to negate what was said before.
e) “As the law also says” is out of character for Paul. Paul preached liberation from the law as one of his central themes. It is unlikely that he would have reminded people to follow the law. Besides, there is no “women should remain silent” law in the Old Testament. An out-of-character statement is easy to explain if it is not from Paul but from, well, another character.
Possibility 4) This is not part of Paul’s words at all, but a later addition
Some scholars say that :34-35 is a later addition to the text. They base that largely on some old manuscripts having this passage after :40. Some also discuss marks in some very old manuscripts, which may indicate addition. They contend that these two verses should be deleted from the Bible. This would also explain why this contains the out-of-character and not-from-OT-law (while Paul knew the law) statement “as the law also says.”
Possibility 5) Women are not allowed to orally judge prophesy
I found the view that women are allowed to speak, but not to say whether they agree with prophesy or not, on the Internet, but there was no defense of it. Why would God give the high and respected ministry of prophesy to women (1 Cor 11:4-5 imply women prophesied in the meetings of believers), but not allow them to judge truth? Elsewhere in the New Testament, believers are told to judge truth and stay away from untruth – without restricting it to one gender, and without saying one gender should do it quietly and the other may speak about the judgment. * Some other thoughts on that view is found here.
Question: But Retha, those are 5 or 6 different interpretations! What if I am not sure of the right interpretation of “women keep silent”?
If you are unsure, start with what you know from the text: All have some gifts from God for teaching or prophesy or interpretation, all of it should be used to edify the meeting of believers. Don’t let half of the teachings or prophesies or interpretations go unused because of an unclear verse. Risk speaking and risk allowing women to speak.
Remember the parable of the talents, what was said of the cautious slave – and risk it. Risk letting them speak. If you are a woman, risk speaking yourself.
If you are unsure, do not limit women’s speech based on your lack of knowledge. Risk letting them speak. Let God get rid of tares, lest you root up wheat.
Remember all the needs in the world – and risk it. Risk speaking what you believe He put inside you, even if you are a woman. Risk letting others do the same. Because a certain woman’s words could be just what someone needs.
Remember that God is just, and no respecter of persons (Act 10:34, Rom 2:11, Eph 6:9) – and choose to treat female speakers with justice and impartiality.
* As I was composing this blog entry, another idea entered my head. This is not proposed as the meaning of the passage by any Bible scholar I ever read, and is not even my preferred interpretation. I add it merely for the sake of interest:
Possibility 6) Paul asked them to (temporarily) act according to the law of that culture
This passage asks women to be silent “as the law also says.” From that, we could deduct that some law somewhere said women should be silent. That law is not in the Bible.
Paul told them not to break that law in meetings of believers. He spelled out just before that how he would want all to speak. But the Corinthians, sadly, had to consider a law that limits half of them from some forms of speaking.
Sometimes in the New Testament, Christians are asked to behave in a way that don’t cause unbelievers to blaspheme the gospel. Accommodating this law -where and while that law was in effect – may be one of those things the Corinthians and some other churches of the time had to do for the sake of unbelievers in Christ, who would have found women speaking in the meeting shameful. Christians in the 21st century do not live under Corinthian law, and thus don’t have to keep silent because of it. We live in a world where women who cannot speak in church are causing unbelievers to blaspheme the gospel as misogynistic, and we should watch our testimony accordingly.
This doesn’t explain :36 either.