Some passages in the Bible are difficult, not because they are hard to understand, but because they are difficult to do. Other passages, however, are genuinely difficult to understand. In fact, to really understand certain passages, you need to understand something about the culture and situation of the time, and what the words in question would have meant to the original recipients of the letter, and why.
So it is with the passage in 1 Corinthians 14:34-38:
34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
36 Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? 37 If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. 38 But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.
One of the problems we have today is that we were not there at the time Paul wrote these words, we rely on scholarship and second hand information to a great extent. Of course, we may also believe but we are being enlightened by the Holy Spirit on this subject, but we have to be careful about this – for if we would dare to say that the Holy Spirit teaches in contradiction to the Scriptures, rightly understood, then we have a serious problem in our faith. Having said that, the Holy Spirit will lead us and guide us into all truth. On some issues it takes us longer to be willing to be led by Him than on others.
Was Paul quoting the Corinthians here?
At times in this letter of Paul to the Corinthians, it seems that he quotes their comments or statements and replies to them. For example, he quotes, “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food” in 1 Corinthians 6:13. The NIV is probably right here in using quotes (even the NIV translators had to get it right sometime!). This quote was basically a justification for the idea of “Come on, God made our stomachs to enjoy food, and food to be enjoyed, so lets go for it” and probably extending the argument to something like “God made sex fun, so lets enjoy it fully without restraint”, to which Paul replies that God did not make the body for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. A very interesting thought here actually.
But I digress. The point is, Paul sometimes quoted their sayings and questions. Now, one possibility is that Paul was quoting the Corinthians, who were saying that “women should should keep silent in the church”, and Paul was telling them that the word of God did not come only from them. I don’t know for sure if this idea holds water but some suggest it.
Just How Silent Should Women Be?
If women are to be totally silent in church, it means they also should not sing in church. Are there any churches who would take it to that extreme? Does it mean that women should never talk in church? What kind of talking is forbidden? Having fellowship with others? If not that, then what? Public teaching? That is the way most traditionalists teach it.
We also have to contend with the fact that Paul gave instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:5 about how women should pray or prophesy in the Corinthian church. If women were to be totally silent in the church and not operate in any kind of public way then Paul would be contradicting himself. What is the point of prophesying if no one else can hear you?
I believe there is a Scriptural case for predominantly male leadership in God’s church, but if a woman is operating under the authority of her husband or the leadership of the church she can certainly teach and minister. Priscilla AND Aquila taught Apollos, and instructed him more accurately in the ways of God (Acts 18:26). So we have women teaching men here, and nothing is out of line.
We have to remember that there were very strong prejudices against women’s dignity in the Roman culture, the Greek culture and also in the culture of the Rabbinic Jews. In the culture of the day, women were viewed either as prostitutes or possessions of men. They were not considered to be equal with men, in fact, some Rabbis and Greek philosophers put them more on the level of animals. They were shut of to one side in most public meetings. If the women of the day were left uneducated, through no fault of their own, Paul wanted them to be educated, but not in such a way as to cause public disgrace. He had to take into account the prejudices and norms of his society. That is why he said, “for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” It was shameful because of the cultural norms of the day, and the uneducated state of women in general at the time, and because the outspoken “new women” of Roman times who favored the total emancipation of women from traditional norms were not a group or movement that Paul would have wanted the church to identify with, as they were totally immoral anyway.
Occasionally the Scriptures speak to a situation which is specific to a particular culture and context. We must strive to uphold the eternal principles and also to apply these principles to our culture correctly. For this, every church leader will give an account to God. Paul was not trying to light a bomb under the culture of the day by allowing ignorant women to dominate church meetings with stupid questions or comments. If the women were ignorant, it was a product of the unjust philosophies and practices of the day, but it was still a reality. Paul wanted things to be done decently and in order. I do not believe he was intending to put a timeless ban of all kinds of ministry through the verbal communications on women. God has repeatedly used women to communicate spiritual truth through their mouths under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures are full of it. And we need to see that the way the Lord Jesus treated women very much was a slap in the face to the Judaic customs of the day, in which women were viewed extremely negatively.
Jesus in John 4 chose a Samaritan woman to be his key evangelist for her entire town. God used Deborah and Miriam as prophetesses and leaders in Israel. Certain ladies occupied positions of authority in local churches also see John’s second letter for example. Priscilla instructed a leading Bible teacher of the early church, Apollos. Women were involved in the ministry as deacons, which was not necessarily a role of practical help only.
Now that prejudices against women have diminished in our western society (and much of it is actually due to the influence of godly 19th century women), we have a situation where it is not reasonable to forbid a woman from making a serious spiritual contribution to a church as a teacher, prophet or evangelist. In my view, women can be pastors also, that is carers of people who tend to their needs. It is the role of the “elder” which requires that a man be “the husband of one wife” which I contend is not really open to women who want to follow God’s pattern. Though many may not agree with me, I believe the Scripture is plain enough that there is an order in the family and in the church and that God has placed some men in a position of greater authority and responsibility for overall leadership. That is probably a topic for another post. What I seek to establish here is that women today should not be forced to shut up in church. We need their ministries very much, and the church is poorer if we discourage women from fulfilling their calling to the fullest possible extent.