Question: What does 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 imply about women in ministry today?

Answer: Absolutely Nothing!


There, the talk is over, we can all go home now.

 

Okay, okay, since others think it does have something to do with the issue I'll at least go through the motions on this "slam dunk" passage. Dr. David Smith has a much harder one to deal with next week: 1 Timothy 2:12-15.

 

There are at least three reasons why this verse is irrelevant to the current discussion on women in ministry:


1. Given other comments in 1 Corinthians, it cannot be an absolute statement or else Paul would significantly contradict himself.


2. There are strong textual issues that suggest it was not even a part of the original manuscript of 1 Corinthians.


3. It would go counter to the fundamental principles of Christianity to use any Bible passage today to forbid called women from ministering in any capacity to which God calls them.



1. Does Paul Contradict Himself?

My first claim is that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 cannot be absolute in scope or else Paul would significantly contradict himself in the very same letter.

 

In the next section, I will discuss the question of whether these verses were actually in the original manuscript of 1 Corinthians. But the majority of interpreters, both liberal and conservative alike, have concluded that these verses were a part of 1 Corinthians. I will thus discuss in this entry what these verses might have meant if they were indeed a part of the original of 1 Corinthians.

 

We notice first of all that the overall context of these verses is the disorderly worship of the Corinthian community. In particular, the verses just before (14:29-33) and after (14:37) relate to the orderly use of prophecy in the church. This fact might make you think that Paul was forbidding women from prophesying in the church or perhaps any spirit type speaking such as speaking in tongues.

 

However, this is exactly what these verses cannot mean if Paul is not to contradict himself, for Paul has already assumed that women could pray and prophecy in the public assembly. Here we turn to 1 Corinthians 11. In 1 Corinthians 11:5 Paul says "every wife who prays or prophesies with uncovered head shames her 'head.'"

 

Prophecy is not something that someone does in private, and prayer was never silent in this period of history even when one prayed alone (cf. the OT story of Hannah, the famous story in Augustine’s Confessions). Paul presumes in 1 Corinthians 14 that prophecy is something that builds up the church (14:4). It is a word from God to the assembled body of Christ. In other words, the praying and prophesying of 1 Corinthians 11 is praying and prophesying in public worship.

 

A further item of note is that the woman in question is a wife. Paul does not indicate whether or not the same considerations would apply to an unmarried woman, but the "head" that an uncovered woman shames is not only her physical head. Paul has already defined the "head of a woman" as her husband in 11:3. The wife is thus dishonoring her husband when she prays or prophesies in the public assembly with uncovered head.

 

The dynamics here are almost certainly related to inappropriate interaction with males who aren't her husband. She engages in public speech with uncovered head in the presence of men who aren't her husband. She engages in a spiritual activity in the presence of angels (11:10) and God Himself, both putative males (11:13). Unveiled (a hair rather than a face covering), she shames her husband by immodest behavior in the presence of these other males.

 

So there is indeed subordination here, but it in no way impinges on this wife's ability to pray or prophesy publicly. Such a factor is completely absent from Paul's thinking at this time. In fact, he is careful to note that "however neither is a wife separable from her husband or her husband from his wife in the Lord, for as the woman came out of the man, so also the man comes by way of a woman, and all things are from God" (11:11-12).

 

Any reading of 14:34-35 must take these things into consideration. When Paul says, "let women be silent in the churches," he cannot mean women who are led by God to pray or prophesy. If he did, he would contradict himself on a fundamental level in the matter of only a few pages. We would have to say he changed his mind or was two-faced on the issue.

 

14:34 goes on to speak of the need for subjection as well: "for it is not fitting for them to speak, but let them be subject, as even the Law says." We get the impression that an issue of submission to husbands is involved here and thus that some women at Corinth may be shaming their husbands by way of their speech in public worship.

 

The mention of the Jewish Law is curious, since Paul does not usually use the Jewish Law in this way. He has indeed mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9 that he was not under the Law (9:21).

 

14:35 makes it clear that a husband-wife issue is at least partially involved in these verses. "And if they want to learn something, let them inquire of their own husbands at home." This verse is perhaps the most revealing of all, particularly in the light of the worship context of these words. If these words are original, then the context leads us to see women asking questions in a way that interrupts the prophetic word. Not only are they interrupting the worship by asking questions, but they are perhaps even asking questions of other women's husbands.

 

Paul responds 1. that they should ask their own husbands and 2. at home rather than in the middle of worship.

 

"For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly" (14:35). If Paul is not to contradict himself, he must mean a particular kind of speaking, namely, the disruptive interaction with other husbands pictured here.

 

These words thus have everything to do with 1. the disruption of worship, 2. inappropriate behavior toward other males and thus indirectly toward their wives, 3. inappropriate behavior in relation to their own husbands. Insofar as these conditions do not connect well to our context, very little of these verses apply directly to our worship context. Paul addresses a particular stereotypical woman of the first century as women's roles were then understood.

 

What these two verses cannot preclude, however, is the prophetic role of women in the church. We have ample evidence from Acts that women were involved in prophecy (e.g., Acts 2:17; 21:9) and that in fact their involvement in prophecy was part of the arrival of the kingdom of God. We cannot imagine that Paul addressed these words to the Phoebe's, the Priscilla's, the Junias', the Lydia's, the Euodia's, the Syntyche's, the Lois', or the Eunice's.

 

If that's what these verses meant, then the Bible would contradict itself on a grand scale. And no cheap harmonizations will do. If the Bible sanctions even one woman speaking at some point in public worship, then the scope of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 cannot be universal or absolute. That's quite a challenge for the opposing view. Just think, only one woman and your argument's toast.

 

And what spirit in someone would make them want to make that argument? Not the Spirit of Christ, since in Christ "there is not male and female." In heaven there is no subordination, for they "neither marry nor are given in marriage."

 

In reality, almost no group really keeps these verses as an absolute. How many female Sunday School teachers do we have? How many woman sing special songs in worship or read Scripture? I know there are some fringe groups, but I'm quite willing to say they have little of God's Spirit in them if such a bias is truly heart felt on their part.

 

It's one thing to do something because you truly believe it is the will of God, perhaps something you don't understand but feel like you need to do to be obedient. It's quite another thing when you want to find a way to argue something like this. That's a spiritual problem.

 

 

2. Textual Issues Relating to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Most scholars, both "liberal" and "conservative," consider these verses original. The manuscript tradition tends to preserve even the most unlikely readings, so it is generally a bad idea to suggest "interpolations"--additions to the biblical text--without at least some textual evidence.


A. External Evidence

There is manuscript evidence of some variation in where these verses appear in 1 Corinthians 14. But all manuscripts have the verses somewhere in the text. The vast majority of manuscripts place them where they currently appear in all translations of 1 Corinthians today. However, several manuscripts in the Western tradition place the verses at the end of the chapter after verse 40.

 

It is sometimes claimed that these variations are all late. However, Codex D dates to the 500's, as does the Latin translation known as italic d (even possibily the 400's). Further, the church father Ambrosiaster places the verses here, and he dates to the 300's. As far as manuscripts go, these are early witnesses. The earliest substantial manuscript of Paul's writings dates to around 200, and we won't find many more before the 300's and 400's.

 

Nevertheless, this is fairly weak evidence for a different location for the verses in 1 Corinthians, and it is even weaker evidence still for the absence of these verses from the original manuscript of 1 Corinthians. However, in the presence of what I consider to be strong internal evidence, I suspect this minor variation points to something significant in the history of these verses.

 

The standard question is the following: how might we explain the different location of these verses in the Western tradition? If they are original, we might note that they seem rather out of place in their current location. We might suggest that someone placed them at the end to clarify the train of thought about prophecy in chapter 14. Perhaps.

 

Could some "pro-women" individual have removed them at some point, only for them to be tacked back on at the end of the chapter? This seems a stretch. Who were these "pro-women" individuals? Montanists of the late 100's? We don't really hear much about groups like this. On the one hand, if such individuals existed, surely they would have removed the verses rather than move them. And if someone had put them back in, why wouldn't they have put them back where they were in all the other manuscripts?

 

Another possibility is that these verses were originally placed in the margin of an early manuscript of 1 Corinthians, perhaps even as a marginal comment on one of the originals. I say one of the originals because letter writers sometimes kept a copy of a letter with them at the point of origin. Accordingly, from a very early date the marginal comment may have been copied into two different places in the text. Some of those that made their way to Rome--or perhaps some very early one translated into Latin (even at Corinth, for the official language of Corinth was Latin)--put the marginal comment at the end of the chapter rather than in the location in which most manuscripts now have it.

 

If this latter scenario is true, it must have happened very early on indeed. If we accept the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, then perhaps Paul himself added the comment later to 1 Corinthians. If someone denies the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy, perhaps its writer added the comment in response to a perceived problem in the worship of that day. For those who aren't acquainted with this issue, it is primarily evangelical scholars who argue for Paul as the direct author of 1 Timothy. Most non-evangelical scholars think 1 Timothy was written several decades after Paul's death pseudonymously, although recent days have seen an increasing number of scholars willing to reconsider this twentieth century "consensus."

 

On the whole, the evidence is weak against these verses not being in the original text of 1 Corinthians. For this reason, most scholars both liberal and conservative alike accept their Pauline authorship. We would need strong internal evidence to argue against their originality.

B. Internal Evidence

In my opinion, the internal evidence does turn out to be strongly against the verses being original. On the whole I would conclude against their originality. Accordingly I stand among a small but significant number of scholars--conservative and liberal alike--who do not think Paul would have written these verses at this point of the text. Other scholars who take this stand include Gordon Fee, a conservative pillar of evangelical scholarship (with charismatic sympathies), as well as Richard Hays, who in the vast scheme of things is a conservative Methodist.


1. The Immediate Context of the Verses

My first observation is that these verses stand out as a foreign body in the argument of 1 Corinthians 14. They pop out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Here is how Codex D reads at this point:


"Let two or three prophets speak and let the others pass judgment. And if something should be revealed to another who is sitting, let the first person be silent. For you are all able to prophesy individually so that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets, for God is not about confusion but about peace, as in all the churches of the saints. Or did the word of God go out from you or did it come to you alone? If someone seems to be a prophet or someone spiritual, let them understand that what I am writing to you is the command of the Lord. And if someone is ignorant, he is ignorant."


No one would think something was missing here if we didn't know how the text reads. Indeed, the comment about peace in all the churches of the saints flows directly into the question of whether the Corinthians themselves are the origin of the gospel or the sole recipients of it. Similarly, prophecy remains the subject of discussion in this rendition, while the two verses 34-35 do not explicitly mention it. When we consider that Paul has nothing to say forbidding women from prophesying when he directly addresses the issue in chapter 11, 14:34-35 are puzzling at this point of the text. They interrupt what otherwise is a clear train of thought.  

 

2. The Content of the Verses (14:34-35)

I tried above to figure out what these words might mean given what Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians 11. I concluded that Paul must have meant them in a very limited sense, for he has nothing to say against women prophesying in the assembly when that is clearly what he is talking about. Ultimately, I can't come up with anything other than what I called "cheap harmonizations" in my last entry if these verses were original. I have difficulty ascribing these verses to Paul unless they represent an "emotional moment" for him.

 

Let me clarify what I am saying here. There are "emotional moments" in the Bible. If our theology of Scripture cannot handle them, then our theology of Scripture is inadequate. When the writer of Psalm 137 writes of the blessedness of someone who would bash the babies of the Babylonians against a rock, is this not an expression of deep anger and vengeance toward the Babylonians? When Paul writes that he wishes the individuals agitating the Galatians would castrate themselves, is this not an expression of emotional anger on Paul's part (Gal. 5)? I see no other way to process these comments.

 

And so I note that the tone of these verses is not Paul's normal tone toward women in his early writings (excepting 1 Timothy also as atypical). I mentioned in the previous entry that even in 1 Corinthians 11 when he is probably dealing with certain women causing problems in Corinthian worship, he feels compelled to step back and point out that men are still not independent of women. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul points out that a husband’s body belongs to his wife.

 

He considers individuals like Euodia and Syntyche his fellow workers in Philippians 4. He considers Priscilla and Junias coworkers in the Christian enterprise and commends Phoebe as a "deacon" of the church of Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). This is the same word used in Philippians of leaders in the Philippian church (Paul uses a masculine form of the word too).

 

But given its current context, the verses seem particularly harsh. In their current context, they are preceded with the words "as in all the churches of the saints," a statement that significantly broadens the scope of the prohibition. And the comments that follow make these verses also sound particularly harsh--"did the word of God go out from you or did it come to you alone?" This makes it sound like Paul is not only forbidding, but chastising the Corinthians for letting women speak in church.

 

But perhaps the most telling aspect of these verses is the fact that they give a command to the churches, plural: "Let women be silent in the churches." 1 Corinthians is not addressed to churches, plural, but to the singular church at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). The Corinthian church has no control over other churches, and Paul was not writing to any church but the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians. This minor point places these words at a point in time when Paul's letters were read as Scripture directed at all churches--a point of time probably after Paul's death. It is our tendency to read these words as universal in scope that leads us to miss this major breach of context.

 

Finally, we have already pointed out that the reference to the Jewish Law also seems somewhat out of character for Paul. It's the kind of argument I make when I'm emotional and pushed in a corner. Paul generally resists using the Jewish Law as a basis for ethical command. If these verses are original, we might suggest that the problem Paul addresses comes primarily from Jewish women in the church.

 

Notice also the heavy use of honor-shame language in the verses. This heavy "emotional" element is absent from the earlier places where women are addressed in 1 Corinthians. If Paul wrote them, they bespeak a problem in the Corinthian community (or in the Ephesian community) that is under Paul's skin when he writes this part of 1 Corinthians 14.

 

In summary, if the verses are original, I see them as an "emotional moment," almost an outburst on Paul's part because of something that is eating at him. On the other hand, I am more inclined to see them as an early interpolation. The context flows more smoothly in their absence, and they seem to contradict Paul's message and tone both in the rest of the letter and in the bulk of his other writings, as well as in Acts.

 

 

3. Appropriating 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

For this final section I will assume that these verses are, in fact, a part of the original text of 1 Corinthians. Assuming that they are, how do we appropriate them today?

 

First, I have shown above that whatever the verses might mean, they cannot prohibit women from a prophetic role or from public prayer. If they did, Paul would contradict himself on a fundamental level within the space of a few chapters. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 deal with worship disruption, particularly from wives interrupting the worship with questions and conversation, perhaps especially questions about prophecies being made. They must refer to a particular kind of disruption that Paul found particularly irritating in his churches.

 

Accordingly, our quest is at an end. No matter how you slice it, these verses relate to women causing disruption and specifically do not relate to women God anoints with prophetic messages. The passage does not even address the question of whether women could participate in church leadership. Indeed, it is difficult to say that the church at Corinth even had some fixed leadership structure at all, given its "charismatic" bent.

 

No doubt the overwhelming majority of leaders in ancient churches were male, given the patriarchal nature of ancient society. The fact that most churches met in homes no doubt led to similar leadership structures to those of the home, which surprisingly must have pushed in more than one way. While men were the heads of their wives in ancient society (e.g., Aristotle says so), the home was the domain of the woman and she directed its activities (e.g., even over male slaves and certainly children; cf. Prov. 31). In contrast, men belonged to the public domain.

 

Surprising to some, 1 Corinthians on the whole adds credence to the idea of women in ministry. 1 Corinthians 11 sanctions women's involvement in public prayer and prophecy, while 14:34-35 are a tangent to this discussion. But since we are on this topic, let me make some comments on the issue in general. What if 1 Corinthians 14 had seemed to deny women roles of leadership in the church?

 

First let me note that the "scope" of the current discussion is different from the scope of the biblical discussion. Current evangelical culture has adopted a kind of "absolutist" scope to all its discussions that is, in the end, unbiblical. We tend to apply general principles in an absolute sense, meaning, without exception.

 

But this is not the way Jesus talked about ethics: "Humanity wasn't made for the Sabbath rule, the Sabbath rule was made for humanity." In other words, there are frequently exceptions to the rules. In general, we should be careful to assume that biblical injunctions are meant to be exceptionless in scope, even when they are worded as "all" statements. Even the Pharisees made room for exceptions, and Jesus gave more exceptions than they did.

 

The attitude of at least much of the Old Testament, as well as I would say Luke-Acts and most of Paul, is similar in scope when it comes to women. Certainly in the Old Testament, you expected most leaders and prophets to be men. Priests seem to be men exclusively.

 

However, this general pattern was not an absolute. Even the non-Christian and very "sexist" Aristotle, as he sets out his idea that the husband is the head of the wife and household, indicates that sometimes there are women who "depart from nature." These societies allowed for the exceptional woman like Deborah, who led armies. Similarly, Josiah takes the Book of the Law to Huldah the prophetess to verify its authenticity.

 

In short, while the general expectation in Bible times was that men would lead, there was a sanctioned place for exceptional women who "departed from nature." My read of Acts 2 is that at least some early Christians believed the frequency of such women would only intensify in the eschatological age. The Spirit is the great leveler. When the Spirit fills women, women become in Christ just as much as men are in Christ, for "in Christ there is not 'male and female'" (Gal. 3:28). Thus when God pours out his Spirit, both sons and daughters would prophecy (Acts 2).

 

Two things made this prophetic role difficult 1. the husband-wife relationship and 2. the cultural view of females. Let me first make it clear that the husband wife issue is distinct from the women in ministry issue. You can believe that the husband is the head of his wife and yet still approve of women in ministry. What if, for example, a husband wanted his wife to be a minister? How then would husband headship contradict women in ministry? There is also the issue of single women, virgin prophetesses as we see in Acts 21. Of course you can guess my position, I think this is more "earth-think," more concession to ancient culture.

 

The Corinthian women seem to have wanted to exploit their new found freedom in a way that shamed their husbands. Further, the longer we go into the New Testament, the more "defensive" the church becomes socially. Christianity increasingly conforms to the social values of the day on these issues. Colossians, 1 Timothy, and 1 Peter all represent a move toward the "respectable" in Mediterranean culture, particularly when it comes to the roles of women.

 

The eschatological, prophetic function of women that seems so striking in some of Paul's earlier letters and in the descriptions of Acts gives way to institutionalization in the later Paul. The "early" Paul who speaks of Christ's return as immanent mentions several women as his fellow workers and says there is no "male and female" in Christ. In contrast, the "later Paul" who fights heresy and strives to pass on sound doctrine has little positive to say about women in the church. Meanwhile, 1 Peter tells women and slaves to "hunker down" and suffer like Christ did, since the judgment was beginning.

 

In this mix if we are to distinguish heavenly principle from earthly practice, there can be little ambiguity. In Christ there is not "male and female." The wording evokes images of Genesis 1:27: "male and female created He them." In Christ this gender distinction is undone. In heaven they "neither marry nor are given in marriage." Everyone is like the angels without subordination to one another as wife to husband. The heavenly trajectory is set.

 

The idea "I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man" is not an exception to the heavenly principle. It is in conflict with the heavenly principle. Is not teaching a matter of the Spirit rather than the flesh? And yet it is exactly in the realm of the Spirit that "there is not 'male and female.'" In the light of the heavenly trajectory, we can only view such a rule as a concession to the earthly. And if a woman can receive a prophetic word from God as much as a man, if a woman has the Spirit as much as a man, why would she be silent if God has given her something to teach?

 

If we wish to fit this statement with the principles of Scripture, indeed with Paul's teaching elsewhere, we must resort to what I have called "cheap harmonizations." We must suggest that Paul is dealing with particular problems at Ephesus or that he is dealing with a widespread problem that leads him to generalize. But what we cannot do is take his words in 1 Timothy 2:12 as absolute. To do so contradicts far more crucial principles about the nature of being in Christ. Indeed, to take the logic of that passage too rigidly leads us into heresy--how can a woman be "saved" from the transgression of Eve by childbearing? Christ died for all sins, including the sin of Eve!

 

And then there is the fact that there is of course nothing particularly Christian about women being subject to men. Any old non-Christian agreed--Aristotle, for example. It is when Christianity moves toward the equality between men and women that we are moving in the heavenly direction. Anything less--particularly in an age when we don't even have to deal with persecution or disorder--is to submit to earthly principles when the heavenly ones are available. It is to continue the institution of slavery when the possibility exists to abolish it.


Postlude: Reason and Experience

Let me briefly close by applying two of the prongs in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

 

First, does it make sense to, say, pick a less qualified, less gifted, less wise male as a minister over a wiser, more gifted female? Answer: no. Yet this is exactly what the absolutist position of a Southern Baptist would lead us to do.

 

I'll go ahead and say it--that's stupid. Let's say I'm on plane about to crash. The pilot is unconscious. There is only me and a woman there. I don't know how to fly a plane. But let's say she does, in fact that she has a pilot's license. Should I insist on flying the plane because I have male reproductive organs? I have a hunch that God's just a little smarter than that.

 

Now remind me again why people argue against the very possibility of a woman in ministry? Oh, that's right, one single verse in 1 Timothy whose context, scope, and meaning is debated.

 

What then about experience? There are women who feel God calling them into ministry. Are we going to tell them to become nurses because they're mistaken? Isn't that pretty shaky--to tell someone who thinks God's calling them that they're mistaken? Of course both men and women can be mistaken about God's call. But you better pray really hard before you tell someone something like this, because it just may be that you’re the one who’s mistaken.

 

I leave with this question: why would we continue with rules based on bodies and the earthly when we know what the heavenly will be like? When it actually is a positive witness for Christ in America--unlike the way it would have been perceived in Paul's day--why not even promote it? What would a prohibition of women in ministry indicate about God anyway? What's the point God would be trying to make? That He's testing us to see if we'll follow an arbitrary rule that makes no sense and is prone to turn people away from Christ, a rule that was "worldly thinking" even in the days of Paul?

 

Or just maybe God is expecting us to do what we did with slavery--to seize this opportunity to make the world just a little more glorifying to God, to conquer just one more aspect of the earth that is a consequence of sin. We can take the Spirit's cue and make the earth look a little more like heaven will.