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Women in the Church: Part 2 (1 Corinthians 14:33b-36)

1 Corinthians 14:33b-36

Historical & Literary Context

For an overview, see Part 1 (on 1 Cor 11:2-16). In chapter 14 Paul gives practical instruction regarding the use of believers’ spiritual “gifts” (charismata, cf. chaps. 12-13) in the worship-meeting. Indeed, we have here some of the earliest detail on how worship-meetings were organized in the New Testament period. While it is possible that the information in 1 Corinthians reflects some measure of local or regional development, there was doubtless much in common with meetings as they were held throughout the early Christian world. It clearly was what we would call a charismatic worship setting—i.e., with believers participating (speaking, etc) as the Spirit prompted them, and according to their spiritual gifting (cf. 12:4-11).

In verses 1-25, Paul deals specifically with the practice (and gift) of speaking in tongues (i.e. foreign/strange language). It would seem that some congregations in Corinth were giving undue or exaggerated importance to this phenomenon, with utterances being offered without any corresponding interpretation. Paul gives instruction with regard to this, and contrasts the practice in general with the giving of a prophetic message (in the ordinary language of the congregation); clearly he would prefer that the Corinthians’ meetings be characterized more by prophecy than by messages in a foreign language.

As noted in Part 1, in this early Christian context, ‘prophecy’ (or ‘prophesying’ [profhteu/w]) refers to an inspired utterance or (short) message in which the word and will of God was communicated to the congregation. According to 11:2-16, men and women both could preach or deliver such messages, as long as it was done within certain specific religious custom (and associated dress-code). Here in verses 26-33a, Paul urges especially that those who actively participate (taking a leading/speaking role) in the worship-meeting do so in an orderly, respectful manner. In particular, no more than two or three persons should give a prophetic message, each in turn (v. 29, 31). The speaker would be standing, while the others in the congregation were sitting. A person seated may be prompted to respond to the speaker’s message; if so, then the speaker should yield (in an appropriate way) to that person, so that a fresh revelation may be added and shared with the Community (v. 30). According to Paul, this also was a way to test and regulate the “spirit” in which a prophet spoke—i.e., by the willingness to yield and recognize another believer’s insight (v. 32). All of this is rather foreign to us today, though there are perhaps loose parallels in some of the modern Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, as well as in the traditional Quaker meeting. However, it is important to understand the religious context; otherwise, an interpretation of the verses which follow (vv. 33-36ff) is sure to be severely flawed.

On the text of 14:33b-36—A number of commentators have felt that verses 34-35 may be an interpolation, i.e. something added to the original text by an early scribe or editor, either from another letter of Paul (even another Corinthian letter) or as non-Pauline material. The textual basis for this view is that, in several manuscripts and other witnesses (D F G 88* d g Ambrosiaster etc), verse 34-35 appear in a different location (after v. 40). Such ‘floating’ text in the manuscript tradition is often indicative of a secondary addition. However, no manuscript or version is without these verses; and the textual variant most likely is the result of the feeling, by one or more scribes, that vv. 34-35 fit better following verse 40. Indeed, vv 33b-36 as a whole seem to be somewhat out of place, disrupting the flow of the passage—note how verse 37ff follows smoothly after v. 33b—though many other abrupt digressions can be found throughout Paul’s letters, and could just as well be viewed as a mark of authenticity. It is understandable that many modern commentators might regret Paul’s words and the language he uses in vv. 34-35, and wish that they were not part of the original letter.

Exegetical Notes

Here I will limit comment to several key words and phrases, in verses 34-35 especially, as it will help to focus the interpretive questions related to the passage. Earlier commentators had taken v. 33b (“As in all the congregations [e)kklhsiai] of the holy ones [i.e. saints]”) with vv. 26-33a, but it is probably better understood as introducing what follows. The phrase has a similar place (and purpose) as in the concluding statement of 11:2-16—Paul is referring to the common practice and custom of churches everywhere as a way of persuading the Corinthians to accept his instruction.

Verses 34-35:

ai( gunai=ke$ (“the women”)—as I discussed in Part 1, gunh/ (“woman”) can also mean “wife”, just as a)nh/r (“man”) can mean “husband”; even more so than in 11:2-16, Paul seems to have married women in mind here. The phrase “in the congregations [e)kklhsiai]” probably carries the specific meaning of the assembly or worship-gathering.

siga/twsan (“[they] must be silent”)—the verb siga/w has the basic meaning ‘be/keep silent, still, quiet”, sometimes with the sense of keeping something hidden or secret. Paul uses it earlier in vv. 28, 30, and this is instructive for understanding its meaning here:

  • V. 28—If a speaker wishes to give an utterance/message in a foreign language (“tongues”), but there is no one to interpret it, he ought to hold back the message and remain silent.
  • V. 30—If a revelation has been given to a person sitting (and hearing a prophetic message), and that person wishes to speak, the earlier speaker ought to yield (“be silent”) and let the revelation be heard.

e)pitre/petai (“[it] is turned [over] upon”)—the full phrase being “it is not turned over to them to speak”, which could mean either: (a) “it is not permitted for them to speak” or (b) “it is not their time/turn to speak”.

lalei=n (“to speak”)—What is the precise meaning of the verb here? The main possibilities are: (a) any sort of speaking during the meeting, (b) speaking a prophecy, (c) responding to the prophecy (v. 30), (d) speaking to her husband about what was said, or (e) inappropriate talk (chatter, etc). Based on the context, I would say that only (c) and (d) are viable options (cf. below).

u(potasse/sqwsan (“[they] must be under order”)—The verb u(pota/ssw means “put/place under an arranged order”, i.e. “put in order”. The passive/reflexive form often denotes obedience, sometimes with the harsher sense of submitting or being subject to a higher authority. Unfortunately, this more forceful (negative) connotation has been read into the context here, with the idea of the woman (or wife) being subject to the man (or husband), sometimes informed by a traditional interpretation of Gen 3:16b. A better approach is to look at other occurrences of the verb in Paul’s letters which involve a similar (or relevant) context. I would point to Romans 8:7 where Paul effectively exhorts human beings (believers) to place themselves under God’s Law (cf. also Rom 10:3, and note parallel language in Rom 13:1, 5). He also uses the verb in the context of the (hierarchical) chain which reflects the order God has established for the universe (1 Cor 15:27-28; Phil 3:21)—all things are subordinated under Christ’s authority, with Christ under God (the Father). Paul clearly includes man and woman (spec. husband and wife) as part of this (vertical) chain of relation (1 Cor 11:3, and cf. Col 3:18; Eph 5:21-24, where u(pota/ssw is used). Ultimately, one must turn to the immediate context of v. 32

“the spirits of (the) prophets are under the order [u(pota/ssetai] of (the) prophets”

by which he means the the impulse/desire to speak must function within the proper order of things in the worship-meeting, specifically in terms of when/how a prophet or (inspired) speaker should participate in turn (cf. above).

o( no/mo$ (“the Law”)—”even as the Law says”, i.e. the Old Testament Law, as expressed primarily in written form in Genesis–Deuteronomy. Does Paul have a specific Scripture in mind? That is hard to say. It is unlikely that he is referring to Gen 3:16b (cf. above), though possibly he has the Creation narrative (Gen 1-2) in view (cf. 1 Cor 11:7ff, and the discussion in Part 1). The context of the order of worship could apply to virtually anything in the (Levitical) code governing religious ritual. Note a similar combination of the “the Law (of God)” and the verb u(pota/ssw in Romans 8:7. As I have argued elsewhere, the expression “Law of God” in Paul’s letters means something more than the Old Testament (written) Law, being synonymous with the will of God.

maqei=n qe/lousin (“they wish to learn”)—”and if they wish to learn something”, i.e. regarding what has been said, the prophetic message in the meeting. For the sense of manqa/nw (“learn”), cf. its use in verse 31.

e)perwta/twsan (“they must ask/inquire upon”)—the verb often implies a serious questioning or interrogation, i.e., seeking to gain information. Paul states that the women must question “their own men/husbands” about the matter, in the house (i.e., privately, at home).

ai)sxro/n (“shame/disgrace[ful]”)—Paul’s words here, taken out of context, sound especially harsh to modern ears: “for it is (a) disgrace for women to speak in (the) congregation(al meeting) [e)n e)kklhsi/a|]”. His use of ai)sxro/$ (“shame, disgrace”), like that in 11:4-6, is related to the idea of something which violates and mars the proper order of things (established by God).

The statement in verse 36 sums up not only vv. 33ff, but entire discussion in chapter 14. The thrust of Paul’s rhetoric here is to make the Corinthians recognize that their worship-meetings ought to conform to Christian practice and custom in general. This tone continues through vv. 37-40, culminating with his final, definitive instruction: “All things must come to be well-formed [eu)sxhmo/nw$] and (done) according to order [kata\ ta/cin]”—in conventional English we might say, “all things must be done in a proper and orderly manner”.

Interpretation

Sadly, verses 34-35 have been taken out of context and used to support the idea that women should not speak at all in the worship-meeting, or that they are not permitted to participate as public speakers/preachers in the meeting. Such a (general) view is indicated by Tertullian already in the late-2nd/early-3rd century (On Baptism, 17.3), and has persisted, in various forms, down to the present day. I would maintain, however, that it is not warranted by the context of chapter 14, and is flatly contradicted by 11:2-16. Based on the exegesis and analysis offered above, I suggest the following interpretation:

  • Verse 34 relates specifically back to the discussion in vv. 26-33a, especially the issue in v. 30—i.e., of those seated in the congregation who may be inspired to respond to the prophetic message, or to offer a fresh revelation in turn. Paul seems to be limiting this aspect of the worship-meeting to men. While women may function as speakers/preachers, giving a (prophetic) message, it is a different matter for those seated in the congregation. Possibly this instruction should be construed even more narrowly, to the wives seated with their husbands.
  • Verse 35 shifts the discussion to a slightly different situation—where a wife wants to know more about the (prophetic) message that was spoken. In such instances, she should wait and discuss it with her husband at home. It is not certain whether, or to what extent, this instruction relates to unmarried women in the congregation. Some commentators have suggested that Paul has in mind wives questioning the (prophetic) message of their own husband, but that seems to be reading a bit too much into the passage.

Paul probably includes both of these situations under the declaration in 35b, though the emphasis may be on the latter. As indicated above, the language of this statement sounds quite harsh (with the use of “shame/disgrace”), but the force and place of it, in context, should not be misconstrued.

It is extremely difficult to apply 1 Cor 14:34-35 to the worship-setting in our churches today, since it requires a high degree of religious-cultural translation, which is perilous and unwise to attempt. It is better to spend one’s effort and energy grappling with just what Paul is trying to emphasize for believers regarding the relationship between men and women, as expressed in the corporate/community worship setting. How far should gender-distinction be preserved? How should husbands and wives relate in the worship setting? What about the distinction between ‘gifted’ minister and ‘ordinary’ congregant? Who should or should not be actively speaking/participating in the meeting, and where/when/how should they do so? Are there other aspects of the modern community worship experience which more seriously threaten proper order and custom than those which Paul addresses in Corinth?

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