This is the first part of a talk I presented on February 11 in Brisbane (Australia) at a conference for Baptist Women in the Pacific. The conference was called No Limits: Empowering Women Through Theology. It was great! Thank you, Elissa Macpherson and the team!
The conference talks have been posted as audio files here. My talk starts at the 13.45-minute mark in session 2.
I’ve always loved Paul’s letters. I love seeing Jesus through his eyes and I love how Paul explains our salvation and the redemption of the world. I love Paul’s vision for the community of Jesus-followers, the church, where everyone is welcome and everyone is on an equal footing.
We’re not just equal before God, as is often said, but ideally we’re also equal socially within the church community. It doesn’t matter what our job is, what our ethnicity is, what our family background is, what our past was—within the body of Christ we should all have an equal status as siblings. We are children of God and heirs of God. And I’m thinking of Paul’s words in Galatians 3 here.
But the church has been painfully, painfully, slow to understand and accept the apostle’s message on equality or mutuality within the body of Christ which is beautifully explained in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 for example.
I’d prefer to speak about these Bible passages where Paul speaks generally about community and generally about ministry. But there are a few passages in Paul’s letters that continue to overshadow his general teaching, especially when it comes to the topic of women and ministry. I’m reminded of these verses almost every day in the work that I do. On my blog and on social media and in emails people quote these verses at me all the time.
And maybe these verses are a concern of yours too. So in this talk [which will be posted in a series of blog articles], I’ll be focussing on 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 (which begins with “women should be silent in the churches”) and I’ll be looking at 1 Timothy 2:12 (which begins with “I do not allow a woman to teach”) and I’ll also look at a bit 1 Timothy 3 where there is a list of qualifications for church overseers.
In many people’s minds these three passages, specifically their interpretation of these three passages, carry much more weight than all of Paul’s other words on ministry put together. And these three passages are often used to completely exclude women from certain ministries no matter how capable or how suited a woman might be to fulfil those ministries.
First Corinthians and 14:34–35
So let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. But before we look at chapter 14, let’s go to chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians.
Who is this letter addressed to? That’s a basic question but it’s an important consideration. Verse 2 tells us that Paul was writing to the church in Corinth. If our aim is to take the Bible seriously, even literally, we also need to take verse 2 seriously. This letter was not written to us. We can take the letter as authoritative and inspired, and we can, and should, glean principles from it, but we need to keep in mind that, quite literally, it was not written to us it, or to a church like the ones we belong to today. Paul wrote this letter to Christians in first-century Corinth.
Why was this letter written? Verse 11 tells us. Paul wrote this letter after receiving a report from people associated with a woman named Chloe.
Paul didn’t just sit down one day and think, “I’m going to write a letter to the Christians in Corinth.” Letter writing was an expensive process in the first century and people usually needed a strong motivation to bear this expense. Paul was motivated to write the letter we know as 1 Corinthians because he had received a report from people in Chloe’s household about significant problems in Corinth.
This report may have been in the form of a letter, perhaps written by Chloe herself, as well as a verbal report. Occasionally, in 1 Corinthians, Paul seems to quote from a written report he had received.
So, with the understanding of who the letter was written to and why, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14:34–35.
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law [or, custom] says. If they want to learn about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34–35).
There are various approaches to reading these verses but I’m going to look at just three of these.
The Interpolation Theory
Verses 34–35 were added, interpolated, later by an unknown person.
Some claim that verses 34–35 were added later to a copy of Paul’s letter by an unknown person. If we look at very old manuscripts of 1 Corinthians 14 there are a few odd things happening. Verses 34–35 are sometimes placed at the end of chapter 14, and not after verse 33. And in some manuscripts, there are symbols and margin notes that indicate there might have been an issue and some confusion with these verses.
Some speculate that verses 34–35 started out as a margin note in an early copy of 1 Corinthians and that this note was later added in the body of the text by a scribe making another copy of 1 Corinthians.
Also, if you look at your Bible and cover verses 34–35, and skip these verses entirely, the flow of the passage is fine. It makes reasonable sense without these two verses, and the theme of rowdy or chaotic prophetic ministry continues without interruption.
The interpolation theory is one that I keep in mind. It’s possible and quite a few scholars who love and value the Bible believe this is what happened to the text. However, there is no surviving ancient manuscript that leaves out verses 34–35 altogether, so I’m not ready to hang my hat on this theory.
The Quotation–Refutation Theory
Paul quotes the Corinthians in 14:34–35 and then refutes them in 14:36–38.
Another approach to reading these verses is to understand that verses 34–35 are what the Corinthians are thinking; that these two verses don’t represent Paul’s thoughts. According to this theory, Paul quotes the Corinthians in verses 34–35 and then reprimands them in verses 36 to 38. This is called the quotation-refutation theory.
An important part of this theory is the first word of 1 Corinthians 14:36. The King James Bible and the Revised Standard Version are two of the few English translations that have the exclamation “what!” in verse 36.
35 … for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
36 What? (η) came the word of God out from you? or (η) came it unto you only?
37 If any man think himself to be a prophet, or (η) spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. 38 But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.
Let me point out a few things about these verses in the King James Version.
~ The tiny one-letter Greek word (η) sometimes can mean “what!” (an exclamation expressing disapproval) but it frequently means “or.” Most English translations have the word “or” twice in verse 36, and also once in verse 37. A few English Bibles leave this word untranslated at the beginning of verse 36.
~ The reprimand in verses 36–38 is not given to the Corinthian women who were speaking shamefully in the church. We know this because the Greek word for “only” in verse 36—some translations have “only ones”—is grammatically masculine. So verses 36–38, where Paul is giving a reprimand, may be directed at men only or, more likely, at men and women who were prophesying in an unruly manner.
~ The Greek word behind “any man” (τις) in verses 36 and 37 means “anyone.” And there are no masculine personal pronouns in these verses in the Greek of these verses even though there are masculine pronouns here in the King James Bible. There are no pronouns at all in the Greek of 1 Corinthians 14:36–38.
As much as I love the King James Bible, it often has masculine words such as “man” and “him” which do not adequately reflect the underlying Greek text. I’m going to come back to this point later (in part 3).
So what is happening in these verses? How does the quotation-refutation theory explain it?
The first chapter of 1 Corinthians tells us that there were competing factions in the Corinthian church. It is possible one of these factions was trying to silence women in church meetings. This would have been a real concern for women like Chloe. So according to the quotation-refutation theory, Paul quotes this faction in verses 34 and 35 and then rebukes them in verses 36 to 38.
Why the Different Approaches?
But why do we even have these theories? Why am I speaking about different approaches to verses 34 and 35? Why don’t we just accept that Paul was, in fact, simply telling Corinthian women to be silent in church meetings?
We have these theories because we know from 1 Corinthians 11 that women did speak in church meetings, they prayed and prophesied, and Paul does not silence them. He wanted these ministering women to have respectable hairstyles, or perhaps respectable head coverings, but he doesn’t tell them to stop speaking.
And in the next chapter, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul warns the Corinthians not to take lightly the various ministry contributions from church members who had less honour in broader society. These people with less honour would have included some women. Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 12 is that the Spirit gives ministry gifts without apparent regard for things such as social status or ethnicity or gender or other social markers in broader society (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:7, 11).
Paul acknowledges the speaking ministry of women in chapter 11, and he encourages all kinds of ministries from all church members in chapter 12. Did he suddenly silence all women in chapter 14? Does he contradict himself? This is unlikely. In all of Paul’s general teaching, he welcomed participation in ministry without saying it was for men only. So how can we make sense of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35?
Paul silences 3 groups of unruly speakers in 14:26–40 but at the same time encourages orderly speech.
Neither the interpolation theory or the quotation-refutation theory are my preferred approach. Rather, I take verses 34 and 35 as having been written by Paul and as expressing his own thoughts. The key to my approach is to zoom out further and look at the passage beginning at verse 26 to the end of the chapter in verse 40.
Chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians is all about maintaining order and decorum in church gatherings, and Paul silences the disorderly talk from three groups of people: from tongues-speakers, prophetic people, and women. The same imperative Greek verb for “be silent” is used for each of these three groups of people.
~ A tongues-speaker, male or female, is to be silent (sigaō) and stop speaking in tongues if there is no one to interpret (1 Cor. 14:28).
~ A prophet, male or female, is to be silent (sigaō) and stop prophesying if someone else receives a revelation (1 Cor. 14:30). We get this sense that the Corinthians were jostling and pushing themselves forward in order to be heard. They were speaking over one another.
~ Women are to be silent (sigaō). Paul indicates here what kind of speech he is silencing because he goes on to say that, if there is anything they want to learn (manthanō), they should keep their questions for home, for their husbands (1 Cor. 14:34–35). “Learn” may be a keyword here.
The women’s questions were disruptive in some way and may have been directed to the men and women prophesying. Paul had just said that prophecy was so that everyone could learn (manthanō) and be encouraged (1 Cor. 14:31). The same Greek verb for “learn” (manthanō) is used in verses 31 and 35. And if we understand that the women were asking questions of prophets, then the theme of chaotic prophetic ministry continues.
All these people—the tongues-speakers, the prophetic people, the wives with their questions—needed to hold their tongues and stop speaking in certain situations. But 1 Corinthians 14 is not about silencing them altogether.
1 Corinthians 14:26–40 is book-ended by verses that show the issue in Corinth was unruly, unedifying speech. In these verses, at the beginning and end of the passage, Paul encourages edifying and gifted speech, and he encourages orderly participation in church meetings, regardless of gender.
Have a look at 1 Corinthians 14:26 and 39–40, and hopefully your translation has the words “brothers and sisters” in these verses, and not just brothers.
“What then, brothers and sisters? Whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything is to be done for building up” 1 Corinthians 14:26 CSB.
Paul isn’t telling the Corinthians to stop bringing a hymn or teaching or a revelation. Rather he wants them to be ministering in an edifying manner.
“So then, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything is to be done decently and in order” 1 Corinthians 14:39–40 CSB.
Paul’s aim was not to simply silence people. His primary point was that speaking should be done to build up others and be done in an orderly manner. If our takeaway from this passage is that Paul wanted to silence people, including women, we’ve missed his main intention.
Paul’s aim wasn’t to silence well-behaved gifted women. Rather, he was addressing problematic speaking in the Corinthian church while at the same time encouraging edifying ministry. And he doesn’t specify gender in his encouragements.
This is how I read 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, but I’ve written about more approaches to these verses here.
In part 2, I look at 1 Timothy 2:12, here.
 Some English translations of 1 Corinthians 1:2 can sound as though Paul is writing to a broader audience, but 1 Corinthians was written for and is addressed to the church in Corinth. In this verse, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they have a calling to be holy just like God’s people “in every place” (an idiom) who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ.
 The same Greek verb for “be in submission” (ὑποτάσσω, hupotassō) is used in 1 Corinthians 14:32 for the prophets. “Submission” in verse 32 is contrasted with the noun ἀκαταστασία (akatastasia) in verse 33 which means “a disorderly disturbance.” The sense of “submission” in verses 32 and 34 may be that the prophets and the women are to be in control of their speaking so that they don’t cause a disturbance and behave disgracefully. All my articles on “submission” are here.
 In Greek, a man, or groups containing men, are usually referred to with grammatically masculine words. (A generic person or group, potentially male or female, will also usually be referred to with grammatically masculine words.) But a woman, or a group of only women, will be typically referred to with grammatically feminine words.
© Margaret Mowczko 2023
All Rights Reserved
Part 2. Paul’s Theology of Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:12
Interpretations and Applications of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35
Galatians 3:28: Our Identity in Christ & in the Church
Extra Honour for Underdogs (1 Corinthians 12:12–31)
“Brothers and Sisters” (Adelphoi) in Paul’s Letters
Who was Chloe of Corinth?
1 Corinthians 11:2–16 in a Nutshell
Which Bible Translation is Best?
7 Things you may not know about the King James Bible
바울 사역의 신학: 고린도전서 14:34~35
There’s a great discussion on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as interpolation or quotation on Reddit. (You may need to expand the first, main comment to read it.)