This text is one of the most controversial in the New Testament, along with other Pauline texts that regulate the church role of women in particular and mandate a submissive role toward their husbands—not toward man in general.11 Cor 11:3, 5, 7; Eph 5:22, 33; Col 3:18; 1 Tim 2:11–12; Titus 2:5; 1 Pet 3:1.
Women should be silent during church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings. (1 Cor 14:33b–35)
How should we interpret and apply this language? The responses among to day’s church can be summarized on the following headings
- See it as a remnant of Paul’s rabbinic background and therefore not an authoritative New Testament requirement.
- See it as a fully authoritative New Testament requirement, but applicable only to the particular concerns of Paul’s ministry.
- See it as fully profitable Scripture to be applied and obeyed in today’s church.
Borrowed from Paul’s Rabbinic Background?
Some say Paul’s advice was warped by his culture and the religious expectations of his day. They say this counsel reflects the rabbinic religion in which Paul had been raised and educated. This tradition said, “To teach the law to a woman might as well teach her Impiety,” and was “to cast pearls before swine.” Thus, they say this counsel can be safely ignored because it was a holdover from Paul’s own misguided religious background.
Of course, we find that Paul proved himself quite bold in rejecting any Judaizing tendencies that undermined the freedom found in the Gospel. This is a view that we utterly reject as incompatible with a high view of Scripture. It’s impossible to harmonize with the idea that “all Scripture is inspired by God” and regulative for doctrine, moral behavior, and ministerial equipping (2 Tim 3:16–17).
Authoritative only for Paul’s Time?
Others say it was inspired and authoritative counsel for Paul’s own times, when Hellenistic culture looked upon women who appeared in public at best as immodest and more likely immoral. Of course, if that had been the case, Paul would have told them to remain at home rather than come but be quiet. This doesn’t necessarily do a disservice to our view of Scripture, since many things in the Scripture were indeed time-bound, such as the whole of the ceremonial law that Christ made obsolete by fulfilling it.
I don’t think this view does justice to the text itself though, since these directions were given to “all the meetings of God’s holy people” (v. 33b), an expression that tends towards universalizing.80 And elsewhere, Paul bases similar regulations clearly on the created order rather than upon any cultural bias (1 Tim 2:11–13).
Profitable for Instruction Today
A proper view of Paul’s own arguments and a high view of Scripture require that we see this text as profitable for instruction today, as an authoritative word for the church today. The opening and closing verses of the section certainly move us in that direction, which apply it to “all the churches” (v. 33b) and warn, “If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (v. 38). So what do we make of it?
Preaching, Exhortation, Prayer, & Prophecy
Some use this injunction to forbid a woman to preach, exhort, pray, or prophesy. I suppose it could even be extended to forbid their singing or joining in prayer at all. That is clearly too sweeping a prohibition, given the mention of such public ministries as those of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), who were prophetesses, and of Priscilla’s role in correcting and supplementing the limited Christian doctrine of Apollos. Indeed, Paul’s provision for women praying or prophesying isn’t “Don’t do it,” but do it with head covering (1 Cor 11:5). Not to mention, such a limit would undercut the last-days prophecy that the prophetic spirit would fall on all flesh, sons and daughters (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2:17–18).
More likely, this injunction to silence is linked to Paul’s other hedges around a woman’s role, which disallow her to take authority over her husband. Perhaps this even had to do with making authoritative pronouncements with respect to charismatic utterances.
Domestic & Church Order
Others suggest that this silence is with respect to orderliness in service, so that questioning wives should withhold their disruptive questions until the family gets home and can discuss it to their heart’s content. I see no credibility in the suggestion that the women would have been shouting out their questions from their secluded seats in the women’s section to husbands on the main seating.
What seems to be in view here is a concern for two things:
- A concern for maintaining order in the church. Although, two or three should speak and others should examine what was said, anything that would collapse into disorder should be avoided.
- A concern that women remain subject to their husbands, not only in the home and on the streets, but also in church.
Any questioning wives might do shouldn’t imply questioning or usurping their husbands’ authority—in the home or in the church. That would be shameful.
The Rejected Interpretive Option
I suppose one other option is available, and that is just to say, “I just don’t agree with Paul!” But then, that’s no Christian option, and we won’t even go there in attempting to build a biblical approach to a topic.