Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s instructions for orderly worship, something sorely needed in the church in Corinth.

Paul’s instructions ended with verse 33a (emphases mine):

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

Today’s post is the hardest one I will ever write.

Paul says that in all the proper churches (verse 33b), women should ‘keep silent’; they are not permitted to speak but should be in submission as Scripture teaches (verse 34).

John MacArthur says that the Corinthian women were trying to dominate worship:

the women were leading the parade in this seeking for the showy gifts; and women were usurping the place of the men; and women were not being silent and submissive in the church, they were bursting out and trying to take over

That isn’t a Corinthian cultural issue, that’s everywhere in the church to be the standard. Here are these women speaking in tongues, and interpreting, and singing their songs, and prophesying, and usurping the authority; and Paul singles them out. Not that men were not equally guilty; men were guilty of all these things. But he reminds the women that they are to take the place of submission and silence in the public service of the church.

Genesis has the ‘Law’ of men ruling women:

What law? The law of God, the Pentateuch, Genesis 3:16, which says, “He shall rule over thee.” From the very beginning, the man was given the authority over the woman.

Paul also mentioned women in a letter to Timothy:

In 1 Timothy chapter 2 in verse 11, “Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. I permit not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” The reason is not because now we’ve got a culture in Ephesus or a problem in Timothy’s town, but because Adam was made first, and because Eve sinned. In other words, “This is a divine design from the beginning. You can’t acculturate it, you can’t just slide it out the door on the basis of culture; it is in the law of God.”

Matthew Henry’s commentary agrees with this general premise but cites an important exception:

And seeing there were women who had spiritual gifts of this sort in that age of the church (see Acts 22:9), and might be under this impulse in the assembly, must they altogether suppress it? Or why should they have this gift, if it must never be publicly exercised? For these reasons, some think that these general prohibitions are only to be understood in common cases; but that upon extraordinary occasions, when women were under a divine afflatus, and known to be so, they might have liberty of speech.

Paul says that if women have difficulty understanding the messages delivered during worship, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is ‘shameful’ for them to speak in church (verse 35).

MacArthur explains the Greek word for ‘shameful’:

“It is a shame for women to speak in the church.” And the word aischros means it is ugly, it is a deformity. It is a deformity of God’s intention; it is a perversion of beauty into ugliness.

However, ten years ago I wrote about Dr Craig S Keener’s exploration of hermeneutics in the Bible. Keener addressed these verses and offered the following interpretation, which was specific to an era when women had little education:

we need to take into account differences in situation: in the first century, men were far more apt to be educated, including in the Bible, than women; would Paul have written exactly the same applications for today, when women and men are more likely to share equal opportunities for education? [Gordon] Fee’s principles resemble those we articulated above on the use of cultural background.

We may provide one stark example of how we need to take Paul’s situation into account. In two texts, Paul requires women to keep “silence” in church (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:12). If we press this to mean all that it could mean, women should not even sing in church! Few churches today press these verses this far, but are they ignoring the passages’ meaning? Not necessarily. In other texts, Paul commends women for their labors for the kingdom (Phil 4:2-3), and in Romans 16 commends more women for their services than men (even though he mentions more men!) Moreover, he at least occasionally uses his most common terms for his male fellow workers to some women: “fellow worker” (Prisca, Rom 16:3); diakonos (“servant,” Phoebe, Rom 16:1); and once even “apostle” (Junia, according to the best translations; Rom 16:7)! Even more importantly, he accepts women praying and prophesying with their heads covered (1 Cor 11:4-5). How can they pray and prophesy if later in the same letter he requires them to be completely silent in church (1 Cor 14:34-35)? Does the Bible contradict itself here? Did Paul contradict himself in the very same letter?

But the two texts about silence probably do not address all kinds of silence, but deal with special kinds of situations. The only kind of speech specifically addressed in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is asking questions (14:35). It was common for people to interrupt teachers and lecturers with questions in Jewish and Greek cultures alike; but it was rude for unlearned people to do so, and they might have considered it especially rude for unlearned women. Keep in mind that women were usually much less educated than men; in Jewish culture, in fact, boys were taught to recite God’s law but girls almost never received this education. As to 1 Timothy 2:11-12, scholars still debate how Paul uses the Old Testament background (he applies Old Testament examples different ways in different passages, even the example of Eve: 2 Cor 11:3). But one point, at least, is interesting: Paul’s letters to Timothy in Ephesus are the only letters in the entire Bible where we know that false teachers were specifically targeting women with their false teachings (2 Tim 3:6). In fact, they may have targeted widows (1 Tim 5:9) who owned homes so they could use their houses for churches–one of the Greek terms in 1 Tim 5:13 nearly always meant spreading “nonsense” or false ideas. Those who knew less about the Bible were naturally most susceptible to false teachings; those who do not know the Bible should not be allowed to teach it. Whatever other conclusions one may draw from this, it seems unlikely that Paul would have refused to let women sing in church!

There, that’s done and dusted.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 14:36-40