34 Women[f] should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home.

This text has caused troubles and challenges for thousands of years.  We don’t presume to know the “answers” as I’m not sure there are “answers.”  We can just look at the Scripture with the best exegetical skills and try to derive its meaning from there.

“Women should remain silent in the churches.” – v. 34

Actually if you look at the word “silent” contextually this isn’t that big of a conundrum.  There was disorderly worship going on and it was a mess.  The top guilty parties were those who prophesied, tongue-speakers and the women.  All three were told to be “silent” using the same Greek Word.

Tongue speakers – “be silent” v. 28

Prophets – “be silent” v. 30

Women – “be silent” v. 34

And yet clearly, at least two out of the three, and perhaps all three, were prevented from being shut down completely:

Those prophesying disorderly (get correction) – But Be Eager to Prophesy! (14:39)
Tongue-speakers disorderly (get correction) – But Don’t Forbid! (14:30)
Women being disorderly (get correction)-  Don’t Shut Women Out (?? – 14:35b -36)

“Silence” here very clearly isn’t “don’t speak ever, at all.”  It is the equivalent of “pipe down” and “hush” and contextually, “do things in order.”  Let there be peace!

If Paul meant that women were to be totally silent in all churches for all time, then we would have to cut out his discourse in 11:1-16 where he tells women to pray and prophesy with their head covered.   The point of “silence” was to be respectful of others and take turns (1 Cor 14:26-39).  He said this clearly to tongue speakers and those who prophesied and presumably women as well.

Perhaps the women were ministering with no respect to others.  Perhaps they were chatty and asking questions in a disruptive way.  Or they could have been approaching worship like their former days in pagan practices and worship.  We don’t know.  But we do know they needed some corrective measures in their behavior, just as the tongue-speakers and those who prophesied.

“They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” – v. 34b

This one is the harder text.  The one that causes angst.

1) ‘Quietness and Submission’

It appears that a common even formulaic word for student in the Graeco-Roman culture was “quietness and submission.” They were the language of how a good student interacted with his instructor.  When “quietness” or “silence” was used by itself, it meant what the context dictated.  And when “submission” was used by itself, it meant what the context dictated.  But when used together, it was the language of the student.

This is not the best example but the other day on TV I heard that the military was “locked and loaded” in dealing with an international situation.  A couple hundred years from now they might be scratching their head wondering what this means.  Does it mean that their cars are locked and loaded, ready to go?  What is locked?  What is loaded?  We understand “locked” and understand “loaded,” but what do we they mean when used together?

For us when they are used separate, we let context determine the meaning.  When something is “locked” we find out what it is that is locked.  And when something is “loaded” we find out what it by context.  But when “locked and loaded” is used together, we have no doubt to what it means.  The object is a weapon and the purpose is for battle.

It is the same type of usage for ‘quietness and submission.’  The saying may not still be present, but the practice and belief is still very strong in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

I have an Egyptian friend who is a doctor.  He studied medicine at the most prestigious university in all of Egypt.  But during his entire education he was never allowed to ask the professor a question.  It was considered dishonoring to the instructor.  The same is true throughout Asia today.  You never ask a speaker or teacher a question.  To do so is very rude and disrespectful.  A student is to learn in quietness and submission.  Just ask any Korean if they would ever even consider raising their hand and asking a question to a professor and you will get a strong response.

We see this expression both here and in 1 Timothy 2:1-11 that quietness and submission are found together, and even in the context of learning  .

If it is indeed the case that the language was the expression of a student, then what he was telling the women was not to be so disruptive in all their questions.  Remember they were more than likely coming from a massive gap of education between men and women.  Women did not get the educational opportunities we enjoy today.  So he was telling the women to quiet down.  Their behavior was affecting the worship service.  They were indeed to learn (“must learn” in 1 Tim 2:11) but they must do so like every other student “in quietness and submission.”

But what about the law?  What does that mean?

“…as the law says”

What law is Paul talking about?  There’s not a law in the Old Testament that addresses women submitting to men, education, or the like.

This is indeed a mystery.  If we look in the Septuagint (The Greek translation of the Old Testament), submission and silence were used and it was to be in submission to God such as Ps 37:7:  “Be still before the Lord and wait on him.”

Even more curious is that of the 38 uses of the word “submission,” this is the one and only time that it doesn’t directly point to something in the Greek.  We can’t say it is to husbands or to church leaders or to anyone.  It just isn’t there.

Personally, I just don’t know what he means.  There no Old Testament Scripture other than submission to God.  So if anything, he was saying that we approach authority and learning with a respect that comes with peace and quietness.  But honestly, it’s not clear.””

‘Ask your Husbands’

Again, Paul wasn’t in any way suggesting they were too stupid to learn, not fit to learn, etc… as many of the contemporaries of the time.  But Paul was actually encouraging them to learn, but to do so in the place that wasn’t so disruptive.  And he was admonishing men to help them get learning.  That instead of keeping their learning to themselves or deeming women not worthy or smart enough to learn, that they had the responsibility to help their wives.

Culturally women were not treated as equals in the arena of education.  Men were given opportunities in both Rabbinic schools and in pagan culture to learn, but there were no women training centers, women rabbinic educations schools or other things.  The men had a massive advantage over women.  Paul was saying to the women, learn but in a place that is respectable and not disruptive.  And to the men he was saying help these women catch-up!

It actually again fits nicely with 1 Tim 2:11 where Paul says a woman “must learn.”  Imperative.  Learning was a command.  But it was to happen in a rightful context that was respectful and not disruptive.

Summation of 1 Cor 14:26-40

Paul made women his closest friends, his yoke-fellow at his side in ministry, his co-workers in Christ and more.  But in the Corinthian church the worship was a mess.  People were interrupting each other, others were getting drunk and respectful order was a problem.  It was time for Paul to address these issues.

He tells the three most offending parties–tongue-speakers, those who prophesy and women to “be silent” and conduct yourselves in a manner that promotes mutual edification.

  • For the troublesome tongue-speakers he tells them to speak one at a time, and someone must interpret.  Otherwise they should keep quiet.
  • For those who prophesied he exhorted them to prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged
  • For the women he told them to learn like all good student, in quietness and submission, and primarily to ask their questions in the home setting, not so much in the church as it was causing disruption.

But then he says to the churches “not to forbid speaking in tongues,” “be eager to prophesy,” and perhaps even as we see in the Greek not to shut women out either.

Conclusion

It’s interesting to see that after Paul’s teachings it sometimes caused problems.  We see that mostly in 2 Corinthians.  But oddly enough we really don’t see this coming an issue again, at least in Corinth.  Paul had to also teach the church in Ephesus as they were having similar issues, although with false teachers.

The point is that in that day and time it was probably much more clear what Paul was teaching.  He probably also expounded on things more when he visited in person.  Without a doubt he saw women as co-workers in the kingdom.

Whether this interpretation is correct or not, we can all read this in the text:

Everyone has something to contribute.  But do so in a way that builds one another up.

This may be another post for another day, but I’m wondering if we would do even better to focus more on 1 Cor 14:26-27 on that everyone has a contribution to the church body.  It’s actually easy for a woman to be quiet in a church.  Our structure makes it so that the average person doesn’t have much place for contribution in the worship service.  And the same for a man.  It’s easy for him to be quiet in church.  Let the preacher preach and the elders eld, but give something beyond this?  He or even a woman might be given 5 seconds or less for a “joys and concerns” announcement.  But that’s about it.  Our structure greatly hinders mutual ministry.  But again, a subject for anther day.

And now…on to 1 Timothy, the other “troublesome” text.