Should women keep silent in church?

I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! Due out in March. I cover Gen 1, 2, 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 11 and 14, Eph 5, 1 Tim 2.

Here is the section on 1 Cor 14.34–35. Any comments welcomed.

These verses are problematic mainly because they appear to contradict not only what Paul has said in chapters 11 and 12 but also what has been said in the immediately preceding verses. If women are to be silent and not speak, how can they pray and prophesy in the assembly (ch 11) or be part of the ‘all’ in 14.31? If the whole purpose of this is that ‘everyone’ might be instructed, why should the women need to go home for this?

Green and others have argued that ‘speak’ (lalein) should be understood as ‘chattering’. This is a possible meaning of the word, and though Paul never elsewhere uses it in this sense, it could be argued that the need to inquire of husbands at home shows that uneducated women are not able fully to participate in what is happening—though this still sits in some tension with the discussion of chapter 11. It seems highly improbable that Paul has had a change of mind within a chapter or two or even a verse or two, or that a rogue group in Corinth is either being quoted or has doctored the text.

Payne (2009, pp 227–67) follows Fee in arguing that these two verses were not part of Paul’s original letter. The key elements of Fee’s and Payne’s arguments are that an important textual tradition has these verses after v 40, which is hard to explain if they are original, and some evidence from an important manuscript, Codex Vaticanus, suggests that these verses were a secondary addition. Moreover, patristic citations of Paul appear not to know these verses. Along with this, Payne notes that the language here is used elsewhere in 1 Corinthians but with near opposite meaning.[1] Payne also notes the significant overlap in vocabulary with 1 Timothy 2, and so argues that these verses were a second generation addition to Paul by someone wanting to reconcile the teaching of 1 Corinthians with what they understood 1 Tim 2 to be saying.

Either way, this text cannot mean that women should say nothing in the assembly, or that any of the gifts of speech that the Spirit gives to all (without gender differentiation) in chapter 12 are forbidden to women—without making Paul contradict himself within a very few verses.

[1] ‘In church’ usually refers to what happens when they are together, and not what should not happen. ‘To be silent’ is used elsewhere for stopping doing something approved, rather than as a blanket prohibition on speak. ‘To speak’ elsewhere includes identifying what it is that is being said, rather than speech in general. Paul nowhere else refers to ‘the law’ without citing the Old Testament text in question—and the command here bears no resemblance to any known verse. ‘Learning’ is elsewhere envisaged as a central part of what happens together. The phrase ‘disgraceful for a woman’ occurs in exactly the same form in 11.6, but is there used to allow not prohibit participation.


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12 thoughts on “Should women keep silent in church?”

  1. I think we can end up in all sorts of difficulties if like Fee etc we discount these passages as inauthentic. I think Paul is addressing a particular kind of speaking (chattering) in the specific situation. His concern is to maintain order in worship and other people are unable to hear, I am assumin,g because of the chattering. I think we have here an idea for all time that is not gendered, it is just that people in general should think about how and when they have discussions so that their conversation does not distract other people who are communicating with God in worship.

  2. Thanks for the comment Rachel. I think the problems with this way of reading, as Payne points out, is that Paul nowhere else uses this word to mean chattering, and only a few verses earlier argues that learning should happen in the assembly. In fact, in chs 11 and 12, where he could easily make such exceptions, the strong emphasis is on all women may (in ch 11) and all in the assembly should contribute. It is interesting that, at exactly the point where there are some real oddities of vocabulary use, there are also some very specific external indicators of textual problems.

  3. Isn’t it frustrating how you can develop a great discussion on fbook, but almost no-one posts on your blog… Mark Zuckerberg has a lot to answer for…

    The interpretatiion of this passage for me was always relatively easy (given the prior material in Chps 11/12 re prophesying etc). I’ll be fascinated by your take on the ‘saved through childbirth’ passage… having lived through 2 of these (2nd hand!) I’m yet to see the evidence!!

  4. Hi Richard,

    I have always read it as ‘she shall be saved through the child-bearing’, as in the ‘bearing of the child’, as in through the birth of Christ, the bringer of salvation.

    Thank you Ian, I’ll take a closer look at Paul’s idea that all should contribute in the assembly.

  5. Payne would I think go with this reading of child-bearing. Rachel, have a look through Payne’s argument about language use in Paul on pp 256-257

  6. I certainly used to go with the line that Paul was referring here to ‘chattering’. However, having read Payne and seen how Paul uses the word elsewhere, I am less convinced by this reading. Payne’s case that these verses are an interpolation is very strong for me.

  7. This discussion (and Andrew Dowsett’s comment elsewhere) has raised for me the question of what these verses mean. I am convinced by Payne that these were not by Paul, so from the original author’s point of view, they ‘mean’ that women cannot do what Paul allows in earlier chapters.

    However, if we now have text from one author added to text from another author, the ‘meaning’ of this text has changed, and it must be read in the context of Paul’s writings. This is no different from someone saying ‘So and so is a law unto himself’, without realising they are quoting Paul from Rom 2.14 and with opposite meaning. The phrase now means what it means in its new context, not what it meant when Paul wrote it. Similarly, 1 Cor 14.34-35 must now mean what makes sense in the context of women ‘all’ praying, prophesying and exercising other gifts of speech.

    This makes very good sense of the textual evidence, in that not only did the Western textual tradition have this in another place, at the end of the chapter, but as Payne notes pp 252-253, there is an unusually high level of textual variants in these verses. This suggests that, having inherited this text and not being free to reject it, scribes struggled to reconcile its meaning with its new context.

    Evangelicals subscribing to E D Hirsch’s view that authorial intention must control meaning will object to this. But it is in fact a way of taking the canonical status of these verses seriously whilst recognising the textual and semantic problems they raise.

  8. Having read these two I am now more convinced that the booklet should be in the leadership series! I have always taken the view that Rachel does on the passages mentioned above.

    My focus at the moment is the Genesis passages – I like this idea talking about life outside of the garden: “the woman acts at a strategic point that moves the plot in the proper direction: maturation and the fulfilment of the potential of life producing and life sustaining. Maturation is set in motion by the women” (Bechtel 1993:110). Bechtel, L.M. ‘Rethinking the Interpretation of Genesis 2.4b-3.24’, A Feminist Companion to Genesis (ed. A. Brenner; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), 77-117. This book has a range of good articles on the passages.

  9. Thanks for the reference Sally. I hope to be posting on Genesis in a week or two. Perhaps then we can discuss whether Genesis 3 sees what has happened positively or negatively! I am not sure I go with the feminist reader of this as positive, since the text does not appear to do this.

  10. From email discussion with a friend, I have just gone back to Anthony Thiselton’s major commentary on 1 Corinthians. Interestingly, he begins his discussion with the comment: ‘Here an “abstracted” rendering on the basis of word-for-word lexicography alone could actually violate contextual understanding’ (p 1147). In other words, he seems to be saying, the verses on their own terms don’t fit very well here! I think this is precisely the point Fee and Payne are making. If you make the assumption that this text belongs here in this place, then it is possible to qualify all the terms here—so speaking actually mean ‘chatting’ and silence means ‘quietness’ and so forth—and to offer a reading which sits within these chapters. But if, for a moment, you leave the question of whether it should be here open, it does seem strange that *all* the key terms in these two verses are being used in a way that is distinct from Paul’s usage in the surrounding verses.

    Also interestingly, Thiselton argues at some length (pp 1153 to 1155) that the ‘ordering’ these verses refer to ‘as the law says’ [a usage contrasting with all other Paul’s appeals to ‘the law’] must relate to the ordering in pre-fall creation ie Genesis 2, and not the post-fall submission in Genesis 3. The problem with this is that the sense of women submitting to men (in any kind of non-reciprocal way) is absent from Gen 2, but clearly present in Gen 3, so the ‘conservative’ reading of hupotasso here, that there is a post-fall non-reciprocal submission of women to men, actually fits these verses better. And when Paul does draw on Gen 2 in 1 Cor 11 and 12, he specifically points out the mutuality of origins between men and women [and I would argue there is reciprocal submission in Eph 5 too], which again makes these two verses look quite unPauline.

    The net result here for me is that I think the ‘conservative’ reading of these two verses, in line with a ‘conservative’ reading of 1 Tim 2, that women should submit to men and not speak, is the most convincing lexically. if you then read 1 Cor 11 and 12 in the light of this (rather than reading this in the light of 1 Cor 11 and 12) it would be natural to read ‘head’ as ‘authority over.’ Fee and Payne are seeking an alternative way out of this, whilst holding onto the inspiration of the text ‘as originally given’.

    I agree and Thiselton and others on the need to read canonically, but I agree with ‘conservatives’ and with Fee and Payne in terms of the lexical meaning of these verses. Hence my solution in comments above.

    I also think we also have a real ‘apologetic’ problem if we believe these verses are by Paul, in that those who take a more sceptical view of the integrity of the text will read these verses lexically and with the conservatives, but in contrast with 1 Cor 11, and simply conclude that the text (and Paul) is incoherent.

    Incidentally, I think there is precedent for reading canonically texts we are confident are not by the first author, and which are in all manuscripts, in the phrase ‘Let the reader understand’ in Mark 13.14 and Matt 24.15.

  11. Through other New Testament data its fairly clear that Paul wasnt trying to issue a blanket prohibition. Notice he did not only mention the man. ….One option I have heard is that Paul was referring to a specific problem in Corinth. ….Another option I have heard is that Paul was referring to the evaluation of prophesy verses 29 and 32 and how women should not participate in that specifically a wife evaluating a husbands prophesy.

  12. Interestingly, I have just come across another way of integrating vv 34-35. David Hamilton (in Why Not Women?) suggests that, as in 1 Cor 7.21, v 35 is not Paul, but Paul quoting the Corinthians, and then refuting them.

    This has the advantage of both treating the text as a whole, and take the lexical meaning of the words seriously, but being able to reconcile them with eg 1 Cor 11. But of course this means agreeing that 14.35 says the opposite of what Paul says elsewhere, which again strongly undermines the majority view that this is all written by Paul and expresses his view.

    I would like to think more about whether there are any grammatical markers to indicate where Paul is citing the comments of others—and I also think that you either need to have Paul quoting the whole of these two verses, since v 35 seems to me to be re-expressing v 34.

    I also think this makes the parallels with 1 Tim 2, pointed out by Payne, difficult to explain. It would mean in 1 Tim 2 Paul is expressing his view using language of the Corinthians with which he disagrees!


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