Silence is Golden, Pie is delicious: Women should be silent in the church? (1 Corinthians 14)

“Women should remain silent in the churches”

For many, this phrase has been used to domineer over women and put them in their place (presumably in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant). These people think the saying means, “Know your role and shut your pie hole!” Now, I am a male and I enjoy pie just as much as the next guy, but this rampant misunderstanding should not be divided along gender lines. This saying is found in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 (which I will deal with next week) and in 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35, which states:

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

The context of this passage really begins in chapter 12 as Paul begins to list the spiritual gifts and how they should function in the church, specifically in the services. Women were present and participated in these church services and Paul encouraged them to do so. “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39) Paul also assumes women’s participation in 11:5 “And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is just as though her head were shaved.” Clearly women were not expected to silently prophesy, right?

Silence was not exclusive to women either. 1 Corinthians 14:28 says “the speaker should keep quiet in the church and 14:30 says “the first speaker should stop” so the second speaker can talk instead of talking over each other. So when Paul says in verse 34 “women should remain silent in the churches,” he is addressing the order of the service and yet another reason for silence. Clearly Paul has no issue with women being present in the assembly or learning the same things as the men because he gives instruction for how they can go about learning and inquiring at home in the next verse. So what is the problem?

Gordon Fee summarizes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that “the most commonly held view is that which sees the problem as some form of disruptive speech…that the setting was something like the Jewish synagogue, with women on one side and men on the other and the women shouting out disruptive questions about what was being said in a prophecy or tongue” (NICNT, 1987, p. 703). Fee immediately dismisses this theory, saying, “the suggestion that the early house churches assumed a synagogue pattern is pure speculation.”

Fee’s theory is that a scribe wrote these verses in the margin in the first century and every other manuscript afterwards mistakingly included the scribal notation as part of Scripture. If Fee’s theory is correct, then how did no one catch the transmission error until centuries later? Certainly there would still be people alive at the time of this “error” who had been present at the first reading of the letter around 55 AD. They wouldn’t have noticed that the text had changed to include a prohibition on women talking? 1 Corinthians might be one of the longest Pauline letters, but no one would forget a topic like that. You want proof? Just casually mention that you think women should be quiet in church and watch the sparks fly. Whether people agree and disagree with you, few if any will be apathetic to such a topic and it will certainly be memorable.

A word of caution: The only evidence for Jewish synagogue services in the first century is found in a short blurb by Philo in his work entitled On the Contemplative Life about a specific Jewish sect called the Therapeutae. It is certainly speculation to make the leap and claim that Corinthian worship services functioned in a similar way, but it is just as speculative to say that a scribe’s notation somehow got confused as part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – especially so soon after the letter was written.

In conclusion, I think my friend (who happens to also be named Paul) said it best. “Just as tension helps a bridge stay in balance, the tension created by these types of debates has actually helped us stay in balance.” Whichever side you choose in this debate (and there are more sides that I did not discuss), try not to make it all about women’s rights or rebelling against authority. Which leads me to 1 Timothy 2…see you next week!

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