From Bondage to Blessing

Chapter 13 - A Fresh Look at 1 Corinthians 14: 33-35

"For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 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. 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." (1 Corinthians 14:33-35)

The difficulties with the traditional interpretation

1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is another Pauline text which at first glance appears to say one thing quite clearly, yet upon closer examination says something completely different! The first indicator we should have that all is not as it appears is that the English translation suggests an attitude and conviction on the part of the apostle Paul that is in complete opposition to New Testament practice. It is even in opposition to Paul's own practice! We saw that women were consistently involved in ministry and leadership in the early Church. Further, 1 Corinthians 11 makes it clear that women were actively involved in public worship, prayer and prophecy. In defining what constitutes prophecy, we previously noted in Chapter 10 that prophesying has been accepted among the most traditional of scholars, and even among the Puritans of the 16th century, to include Spirit-led preaching. Additionally, in verse 30-31 of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says all (includes both genders) may prophesy "that all may learn and all may be encouraged." The NIV translation puts it this way, "that everyone may be instructed and encouraged." Two Greek words used here are manthano which means "to learn or increase in knowledge", and parakaleo, which means "to means to admonish, beseech, exhort, encourage or instruct". Paul's description of the purpose of prophecy actually involves teaching and what we would call "ministry". It makes no sense that Paul would give instructions regarding this public ministry of women in 1 Corinthians 11, and then a few pages later in the same letter forbid women to talk at all in public gatherings. Further, we know from various New Testament passages that Paul was supportive of Priscilla's ministry of preaching and teaching, as well as the many women he commended in his epistles for their roles in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Additionally, the Greek word translated "church" here is ekklesia, which refers to a group of Christians not a meeting place. The "churches" of the New Testament period were not edifices dedicated to a solemn and ritualistic religion, but were groups of Christians who met in homes. We know from the historical record of the New Testament that a number of these house churches met in the homes of women (for example, Lydia, Mary, Priscilla, Nympha, etc.) and were probably led, at least in part, by these women as well. It makes no sense that Paul would be saying these leaders or hostesses were not allowed to talk in their own homes or to talk in any gathering together of Christians, which is what ekklesia really means. Let's take a closer look at this passage and see if, by examining the context of it and the original language, we can come to a better understanding of what Paul was trying to communicate.

Historical and grammatical context

Corinth was a huge Greek city, a trade center infamous for its sensuality and sacred prostitution, and dedicated to the Greek goddess Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans). Aphrodite was associated closely with the Phoenician goddess Astarte (Ashtoreth). The apostle Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth because the spiritual climate in the city was beginning to affect the church1 and as an answer to a letter written to him from the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 7:1). Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible calls 1 Corinthians "essentially a practical letter which throws light on the many problems facing a newly established community in a pagan environment notorious for its immorality."2 Many of the Christians in this city had formerly been involved in cult worship. This worship was characterized by religious frenzy and exchange of sex roles.3 A popular encyclopedia notes that Corinthians were notorious for "their love of pleasure and lax morals."4 This describes what we would today define as "hedonism". It is characterized by lack of rules, discipline or propriety. Anything goes. If it feels good, do it ... or say it! Such was the historical context for this epistle to the Christians at Corinth.

The context of these verses within Paul's letter is a chapter in which Paul discusses the use (or abuse) of spiritual gifts and the corresponding order (or disorder) within public gatherings where the gifts are in operation. Just before these verses, Paul makes the statement, "For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged" (1 Corinthians 14:31, emphasis added). After this section which we are examining, he goes on to conclude, "Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order" (verses 39-40). Clearly, then, the verses in question have to do with the operation of spiritual gifts and the orderliness of their operation.

In discussing the context of the passage, John Bristow points out that the central theme of Paul's remarks is really confusion. He notes that the Greek word used is akatastasia, which Paul used to describe in 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 the tumultuous situations he had experienced. Jesus used the same word to describe coming destruction in Luke 21:9. Bristow maintains that Paul was sharing with the church in Corinth that "he did not want akatastasia in their public worship and then gave instructions for orderliness ..."5 Richard Longenecker concurs that the avoidance of confusion is the purpose of this passage.6 It helps if we remember that ecstatic cries, shrieks and religious frenzy were part of the pagan worship out of which were coming the new converts in Corinth.7

Key words in the original language

Perhaps the key to these verses lies in the original Greek. What words were used? Bristow maintains that clarity comes in taking a closer look at Paul's choice of words translated "silence" and "speak". He notes that Paul did not use the word phimoo, meaning "forced silence", or hesuchia that refers to "quietness, stillness or harmony". Rather, he used the verb sigao which describes either a "voluntary silence", such as the silence of the apostles and elders when they listened to a report from Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:12) or a "requested silence", such as when the beggar was told to quit yelling (Luke 18:39). It was also used when a crowd was told to be quiet (Acts 12:17). He notes that "sigao is the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor."8

Bristow relates an experience shared by Kari Jorjesen Malcom, whose parents were missionaries in northern China. The women in their missions church were coming out of paganism, and tended to use the gathering time together as a time to catch up on the latest gossip and news. She says, "Their only concept of an assembly was a family feast where everyone talked at once." It was chaos and her mother used to exclaim that it couldn't be more like Corinth! Bristow maintains that Paul was merely telling these untaught, noisy women to "hush up".9 Interestingly enough, the root of sigao is a word meaning "to hiss or to hush", and several references translate it as "holding one's peace."10

Bristow's conclusion is corroborated by the fact that Paul spoke this same injunction for silence, using this same verb, to prophets and tongue-speakers in 1 Corinthians 14:28-30. For this reason, Liefeld concludes that the silence Paul was imposing upon the women in verse 34 was not a universal silence but one "dictated by circumstances, in this case the time for judging prophecies."11 This is very important! He used the exact same words, telling them not to speak and to keep silent. Yet we do not try to establish a doctrine from his words in these verses and teach that all those with prophetic words or tongues should always and at all time remain silent. Why do we do so regarding his admonitions to the women?

The second word that Paul used which offers some clarity here is the word translated "speak". It is the Greek verb laleo. Bristow notes that there are some 30 words in the Greek which signify speaking, all with various shades of meaning. He notes that, "like the other verbs, laleo can denote the act of saying something quite important. But of all the verbs that can be translated 'speak', only laleo can also mean, simply 'talk'. If someone wished to write in Greek the sentence 'Please do not talk during the prayers,' the verb would have to be laleo ... Paul was telling them that it is shameful for women to keep talking during the worship services."12

Why would Paul's comments be directed only towards the women? Roger Nicole states the obvious: because they were the principle source of this particular disruption!13 This first letter to the Corinthians is full of the apostle's corrections and adjustments, aimed at a long list of problems and abuses that had come to his attention. In these verses, he is merely addressing another one of these problems, not establishing a general directive and policy for women in the Church. The fact that he ends the verses with a comment about women (or wives) asking their questions at home (instead of in the meeting) strengthens our understanding that Paul was addressing the specific situation of confusion and disorder during the flow of spiritual gifts within the worship services.

Paul goes on to bolster his request by referring to a law which calls upon women to submit or hupotassomai. This is a word we have looked at previously in Chapters 11 and 12, in regards to 1 Timothy 2:11-12and, Ephesians 5:21-33 respectively. Hupostassomai means literally "to stand under". It speaks of yielding to one another and a voluntary willingness to put oneself under others by being responsive to their needs, to be considerate of them, to be willing to serve and honor one another, to be supportive of, and to be willing to work together as a team. It is the opposite of being "me-oriented", self-centered, self-assertive or grasping. Trombley says regarding this verb, "Huppotasso is a Spirit-filled, Spirit-controlled believer taking the second seat rather than the first, submitting to others rather than lording it over others. It's having the mind of Christ."14 Philippians 2:5-8 defines the mind of Christ as the willingness to come as a servant, and the willingness and humility to lay down one's own life for others.

In Ephesians 5, it is within the larger context of Christians submitting one to another (verse 21) that he goes on to encourage wives to submit to their husbands with a self-sacrificing honor and respect, and husbands to love their wives with a self-sacrificing love which lifts them up and puts them first. In 1Timothy 2, we discovered that Paul was speaking specifically to the behavior of women within the learning environment. He urged them to learn with a quiet, attentive attitude that was respectful and submissive, not only to those around them but also to the Word of God.

Here in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, the apostle is illuminating another specific situation where believers, women in particular, need to submit to one another. Within this context of the operation of spiritual gifts in the public worship gathering, he encourages the noisy women to hush up, consider other people and ask their questions at a better time and place.

So says what law?

A number of scholars have questioned this "law" to which Paul refers in verse 34. Traditionalists such as Matthew Henry15 and Dake16 assume this law refers to Genesis 3:16 and the subordination of woman to man that they infer God was making in this verse as a judgment upon her for "making" Adam sin. However, to give Dake credit for moving beyond the traditional viewpoint, he notes in his remarks on this passage that Paul is really dealing with "lawlessness" and "confusion". He goes on to say,

"Among people who have inspirational experiences of prophecy, tongues and interpretation of tongues, it is very easy for one to claim that the Holy Spirit is moving upon him and that he should not quench the Spirit ... This attitude of being determined to obey the Spirit leads to abuses of such gifts many times, causing much confusion in the church. Let no man claim to be moved by the Spirit who acts disorderly and causes confusion ... This does not contradict the fact that women were free to pray and prophesy in the church (1 Corinthians 11:15, 13; Acts 2:16-21; 21:9; Joel 2:28-32)."

Dake also notes that Paul's directive to the women to be quiet, asking their questions at home, referred only to their desire to learn, "not their desire to preach, pray, testify or prophesy anything."17

Other scholars, those who embrace what we would call non-traditional viewpoints, decry the fact that there is no such "law" anywhere in the biblical record. Liefeld points out, "No single Old Testament text stands clearly behind this prohibition."18 Bristow comments,

"This last phrase, 'as also the law says,' has confused scholars. Some translators print Law with a capital L, as if the law here refers to the law of Moses. But nowhere in the Old Testament is there any command for women to remain silent during worship. Nor is there any such law known to have existed in Corinth or any other pagan city. Some Bibles have a cross-reference to 1 Timothy 2:11. But that passage could not be the law to which Paul makes reference, since when he wrote to the Corinthians, he had yet to write to Timothy!"19

Trombley agrees that these verses in 1 Corinthians 14 totally conflict with the attitude and practice of the apostles as recorded in the New Testament, and that there is no such Old Testament law as that referred to in such a perplexing way by the apostle Paul. He suggests that the "law" to which Paul refers is the oral law of the rabbis, which did insist that women remain silent in public.20

While I recognize that Trombley has identified a viable possibility, I think it also possible that the "law" to which Paul refers is a spiritual law embodied within this new covenant sealed by the blood of Jesus. As we look carefully at the meanings of the words in Greek which Paul used, they actually convey only what we would consider appropriate, sensitive, Spirit-led behavior. There was obviously a need to lift up a new standard of relating to one another in gathering together for worship due to the large number of converts from paganism. The new standard was governed by the "law" of love, which puts others before oneself.21

Think about it for a minute! The law of the world is to look out for yourself and step on others to climb to the top. The ethos of the world is "might makes right". But under grace, the law of love establishes a different ethos: "right makes might" - that spiritual power is inherent in the righteousness and morality of our God who is love. James 2:8 says this "royal law" is to "love your neighbor as yourself", in other words treat others the way you would like them to treat you. This spiritual law calls every Christian to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21), in honor preferring one another (Romans 12:10). "Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification" (Romans 15:2). Galatians 6:2 describes lifting up one another and focusing on their needs as fulfilling the "law of Christ".

My grandfather frequently joked about something he called "the boardinghouse reach". He had been a locomotive engineer in the 1920's and 30's, and his travels frequently required him to stay in what were then called boardinghouses. He said that there was only a limited supply of food to put out on the table, and if one didn't jump in and grab their share, they would be left with an empty stomach. He would joke about his bad table manners, reaching across others at the table to grab a dish. He attributed his manners to spending so much time in these boardinghouses. The "boardinghouse reach" is a surprisingly accurate picture of the attitude of the world that often permeates our lives before Christ. I think it is an accurate picture of what was happening in the Corinthian church. Paul was lifting up a different standard in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 to countermand the boardinghouse reach kind of attitude and behavior. He called not only women, but all those who would prophesy or speak in tongues, to be respectful and considerate of others during the worship services. He called them to prefer others before themselves and to help maintain peace and orderliness as the gifts of the Spirit flowed within the congregation.

Summary

The context of verses 33-35 within chapter 14 in this first letter to the Corinthians is the key to understanding and rightly applying these verses to our Christian walk. We find that these verses occur in the middle of a discourse about the release of spiritual gifts within the services. The apostle Paul was addressing the specific problem of disorder and confusion in the services. He proceeds to bring balance and guidelines to ensure the gifts were released, but "decently and in order."

The Greek words the apostle used are ones that describe Spirit led behavior within any gathering of Christians. They are words that illustrate how we are to prefer, respect, honor, and submit to one another in love. Just a few verses earlier, in 1 Corinthians 14:28, 30 Paul used the same words to provide guidelines for those with prophetic words and tongues. Again, he was dealing with this same problem of disorder and chaos in the services. He used the exact same words, telling them not to speak and to keep silent. Yet we do not try to establish a doctrine from his words in these verses and teach that all those with prophetic words or tongues should always and at all times remain silent.

There is some question as to what "law" Paul refers to in this text. There is no Old Testament law that dealt with these issues of women being silent and submissive in worship services. It's possible that he was making reference to the oral law in which the rabbis did restrict women's involvement. But it is also possible, given the various shades of meaning of the words which he used, that he was speaking of the law of love, which was the new standard of relating to one another under grace. It has been suggested that the apostle was calling all who had something to say to be respectful and considerate of others during the services and to help maintain peace and orderliness as the gifts of the Spirit were released in their midst.

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Chapter 13 notes

  1. The Spirit-Filled Life Bible, Jack Hayford, General Ed. (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1991), p. 1717-1718.
  2. Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible Bible (Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids; Lion Publishing, Hertfordshire, 1973), p. 575.
  3. Walter L. Liefeld, "Women, Submission and Ministry in 1 Corinthians" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 151.
  4. Microsoft (R) Encarta "Corinthians", Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk& Wagnalls Corporation.
  5. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Franciso, 1988), p. 61.
  6. Richard N. Longenecker, "Authority, Hierarchy and Leadership Patterns in the Bible" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 78.
  7. Jimmilea Berryhill, "First Century woman", Restore! (Winter 1999), p. 23.
  8. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Franciso, 1988), p. 62-63.
  9. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Franciso, 1988), p. 64.
  10. W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan, NJ, 1940), p. 31, 170
  11. Walter L. Liefeld, "Women, Submission and Ministry in 1 Corinthians" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 150.
  12. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Franciso, 1988), p. 63.
  13. Roger Nicole, "Biblical Authority and Feminist Aspirations" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 45-46.
  14. Charles Trombley, Who Said Women Can't Teach (Bridge Publishing, South Plainfield, NJ, 1985), p. 150.
  15. Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Whole Bible Volume Six (Fleming H. Revell Company, New York), p. 583.
  16. Dake's Annotated Reference Bible (Dake Bible Sales, Lawrenceville, GA, 1961, 1963), p. 187 of the New Testament.
  17. Dake's Annotated Reference Bible (Dake Bible Sales, Lawrenceville, GA, 1961, 1963), p. 187 of the New Testament.
  18. Walter L. Liefeld, "Women, Submission and Ministry in 1 Corinthians" in Women, Authority and the Bible, Alvera Mickelsen, Ed. (InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1986), p. 149.
  19. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Franciso, 1988), p. 65.
  20. Charles Trombley, Who Said Women Can't Teach (Bridge Publishing, South Plainfield, NJ, 1985), p. 43-50.
  21. John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said About Women (HarperCollins, San Franciso, 1988), p. 65.

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