Let a Woman Keep Silent in the Church?

See Joe E. Lunceford, Biblical Women—Submissive? (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009)

By Joe E. Lunceford
Religion Department
Georgetown College
February 2011

Why the question mark, many would say. Isn’t it the “clear teaching of Scripture” teaches that women should keep silent in the church? In a word, no it isn’t! It is anything but clear. The proof-text most often used to support this position is I Cor. 14:34. The fact is all too often overlooked that the same Paul wrote in I Cor. 11 that a woman should have a covering on her head when she prayed or prophesied. What sense would this guidance make if women did not pray or prophesy. As I regularly remark to my classes, to pray or prophesy and keep silent all at the same time is a pretty good trick! So how are we to deal with this apparent contradiction?

I want first to set forth the usual interpretations of this passage and then suggest one which does not require turning a blind eye to other things Paul wrote. The first, and seemingly the most natural one, is that women should completely keep silent in the church. This is probably the most commonly used interpretation, especially by those who have a strong desire to “keep women in their places.” Secondly, since this verse comes shortly after an extensive discussion of tongue-speaking, some have argued that the prohibition only applies to tongue-speaking. Both of these interpretations, however. leave the woman in a sort of “second class citizenship” that I am not willing to settle for. A third approach has been that this was not written by Paul but is an interpolation by a later disciple of Paul. The only evidence anyone has come up with that will any way support this position, however, is a different placement of vv. 34-35. A handful of ancient authorities support the placement of vv. 34-35 after v. 40. I strongly doubt that this fact will support the interpretive weight that has been placed upon it. Furthermore, to assume that anyone familiar with Paul’s teachings would not have seen the blatant contradiction of these verses with I Cor. 11:5 is quite a “stretch.” This would require an assumption of no small amount of stupidity on the part of the interpolator!

I believe there is a very plausible way around all of these interpretations, and one that makes sense of both passages without having one contradict the other. In 1 Cor. 7:1, Paul writes, “Now, concerning the things about which you wrote (emphasis mine).” Paul had clearly received a letter from the church at Corinth, the contents of which we do not know with any certainty. That verse clearly indicates that they wrote about more than one issue. I think a good case can be made for treating the remainder of 1 Corinthians as directly responding to the issues they raised in their letter to Paul; just as you or I in answering a letter from a friend would use what they had said in their letter as a guide. I would like to suggest that we treat I Cor. 15:34-35 as a quotation from their letter, which Paul then refutes in v. 36. Quotation marks were not used during this period of time, and so we cannot tell for sure where quoted matter begins and ends. I am suggesting that they wrote to Paul that women should keep silent in the church “as the law also says.” For starters, let us ask, What law? This proves to be a very interesting question in this context. Clearly it is not Old Testament law that is in view since the church was not yet in existence when that law was written. The Greek word no/moj (“law”) has other connotations as well as law. It can also refer to what is normal or customary; and I think this is the connation as Paul uses the word here. Now--where does v. 36 fit in? I think this is Paul’s response to what they wrote. “Did the word of God go out from you (men), or has it come to you (men) only? (Author’s translation) The word translated “only” is mo/nouj, a masculine pluralpronoun, upon which I base the translation above. I hear Paul as saying, you want to require women to keep silent in the church—does that mean the word of God has gone out from or come to you men only? If we think of this as implying a negative answer (as I believe it does) this approach removes the tension with the instructions in ch. 11 that women should cover their heads when they prayed or prophesied.

Comments (6)

I really like your proposal! I've just read the verses in context, and it seems to flow quite well.

The only question that arises for me is that the subsequent verse begins with "Or" in the ESV translation. "Or did the word of God go out from you?" I don't read Greek; I assume you would have to interpret the word for "or" differently in your proposed translation (as signalling Paul's dissent from the preceding quotation, perhaps).

On the broader question of quotations from the Corinthians' "previous letter" — I have discussed the issue here.

#1 - NTWrong - 02/19/2011 - 15:51

It appears that my HTML was stripped when I posted my comment. The link is:

#2 - NTWrong - 02/19/2011 - 17:35

I am a 71 year old woman who has loved and trusted God since I was about 5 years old. I love to study, share and learn. I think that since God is always teaching me that rather than teach I prefer sharing in order that others will learn from me and I will learn from them. Maybe the truth is that all teaching comes from God through prayer and submission to the Holy Spirit. This is just background to say that I do not believe that God is inconsistent or confusing and that we should interpret all of scripture in the same way. If I interpret I Corinthians 11 and 14 so that they in any way limit me more than a man or my husband then I have to interpret all of the Bible that way. What does that do to the wonder of the fact that I died with Christ and have been resurrected with the life of Christ in me. It is no longer me who lives but Christ who lives in me. Is this Christ in me different from the Christ who lives in my husband? I know that God teaches submission and I believe that I am to be submitted to my husband. What about submit yourselves on to another? Is my submission to be just to my husband or to God's family because God told us to love Him first and then each other. I Corinthians 13 describes a wonderful and submissive love? If God really wants what so many people say and I must live subjected in any way to a man then I know that is what I should do, but it hurts my heart.
I read your opening comments about I Corinthians being a book written in response to questions or a letter written by them to Paul. I have read that book with that in mind since I saw it many years ago. If that is true then couldn't this just be Paul's answer to this group of Christians in the time that existed, basically freshly removed from a society that lived according to Jewish law? Is that why he refers to the fact that this is what is written in the law?
I guess another thought would be that even the men in the protestant Christian churches believe that having a pope is wrong. Is this submission of women to men or to their husbands, as they teach it, not just a much smaller version of the same teaching? I do not mean any of this to be argumentative. I need to really know what God teaches, not what I want to believe.

#3 - Carol Goodling - 08/04/2012 - 14:52

There is a very good and thorough examination of this topic at http://www.ntrf.org/articles/article_detail.php?PRKey=16

I hope this helps everyone's understanding.

#4 - Charles Osborne - 09/19/2012 - 06:35

First I am a Christian and I LOVE my LORD and SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. You know we are not going to understand everything in GOD's Word right away but if we pray for wisdom and understanding HE will bring clarity. Some us may not be able to handle the truth right away. I really truly don't believe that GOD is stating that women should be silent in the church or not speak because if it wasn't for women there wouldn't be any one in the churches today but a hand full of folks. I think the reason for that is men has failed GOD and not taking their roles in the church. Not all men but there a lot of men that does not take leadership roles in their churches. You can go to just about any church in America and the churches are full of women. I would say 75/25. So sad to me. Just my opinion. Be Blessed.

#5 - Lee Boare - 10/27/2014 - 16:05

1 Corinthians 14: 34
The key to understanding this very verse also lies in the same chapter.
1 Corinthians 14: 28: But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God!
Keep silence does not mean shutting up. In the verse 28, the individual was to keep silence not silent. Yet in the keeping of silence, he could speak to himself and to God. Why? In speaking to himself and to God,he was praying to get the interpretation so that he could now tell the church. It was the same principle Paul was employing in the verse 34. The art of keeping silence is the art of learning. Women are under authority especially of their husband. Anything a woman does or says affects the man or the authority she is under. God relates by authority. When God has something to say to the church concerning the church, he communicates it to the head which is Christ and then Christ communicates it to the angel in charge of the church which is the pastor chosen of the Holy Ghost. In marriage too, when God has something to say concerning the marriage, he communicates it to husband who is the head of the woman so that he can communicate it down. Hence,women must submit and learn otherwise they will out of simplicity say what God has not said. Thus keeping silence indicates that they must learn under submission before they come out to speak so that they will not uncover their head! Whenever there is keeping of silence in scripture,the next thing that follows relates to order or to learning. Paul is not saying that women should not talk, but when they do teach or speak in church, they should speak so as to reflect their submission and knowledge that has been gained in keeping silence and submitting to authority. Their speech should exhibit the order in the church relating to authority. In short,they should cover their heads. Paul is not saying that a woman cannot teach or cannot be a pastor. Phebe in Romans 16: 1 was a pastor or a teacher just like Priscilla,the wife of Aquila. Selah!

#6 - Kay Christ - 12/04/2014 - 12:36

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