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Let a Woman Keep Silent in the Church?

See Joe E. Lunceford, Biblical Women—Submissive? (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2009)

By Joe E. Lunceford
Religion Department
Georgetown College
February 2011

Why the question mark, many would say. Isn’t it the “clear teaching of Scripture” teaches that women should keep silent in the church? In a word, no it isn’t! It is anything but clear. The proof-text most often used to support this position is I Cor. 14:34. The fact is all too often overlooked that the same Paul wrote in I Cor. 11 that a woman should have a covering on her head when she prayed or prophesied. What sense would this guidance make if women did not pray or prophesy. As I regularly remark to my classes, to pray or prophesy and keep silent all at the same time is a pretty good trick! So how are we to deal with this apparent contradiction?

I want first to set forth the usual interpretations of this passage and then suggest one which does not require turning a blind eye to other things Paul wrote. The first, and seemingly the most natural one, is that women should completely keep silent in the church. This is probably the most commonly used interpretation, especially by those who have a strong desire to “keep women in their places.” Secondly, since this verse comes shortly after an extensive discussion of tongue-speaking, some have argued that the prohibition only applies to tongue-speaking. Both of these interpretations, however. leave the woman in a sort of “second class citizenship” that I am not willing to settle for. A third approach has been that this was not written by Paul but is an interpolation by a later disciple of Paul. The only evidence anyone has come up with that will any way support this position, however, is a different placement of vv. 34-35. A handful of ancient authorities support the placement of vv. 34-35 after v. 40. I strongly doubt that this fact will support the interpretive weight that has been placed upon it. Furthermore, to assume that anyone familiar with Paul’s teachings would not have seen the blatant contradiction of these verses with I Cor. 11:5 is quite a “stretch.” This would require an assumption of no small amount of stupidity on the part of the interpolator!

I believe there is a very plausible way around all of these interpretations, and one that makes sense of both passages without having one contradict the other. In 1 Cor. 7:1, Paul writes, “Now, concerning the things about which you wrote (emphasis mine).” Paul had clearly received a letter from the church at Corinth, the contents of which we do not know with any certainty. That verse clearly indicates that they wrote about more than one issue. I think a good case can be made for treating the remainder of 1 Corinthians as directly responding to the issues they raised in their letter to Paul; just as you or I in answering a letter from a friend would use what they had said in their letter as a guide. I would like to suggest that we treat I Cor. 15:34-35 as a quotation from their letter, which Paul then refutes in v. 36. Quotation marks were not used during this period of time, and so we cannot tell for sure where quoted matter begins and ends. I am suggesting that they wrote to Paul that women should keep silent in the church “as the law also says.” For starters, let us ask, What law? This proves to be a very interesting question in this context. Clearly it is not Old Testament law that is in view since the church was not yet in existence when that law was written. The Greek word no/moj (“law”) has other connotations as well as law. It can also refer to what is normal or customary; and I think this is the connation as Paul uses the word here. Now--where does v. 36 fit in? I think this is Paul’s response to what they wrote. “Did the word of God go out from you (men), or has it come to you (men) only? (Author’s translation) The word translated “only” is mo/nouj, a masculine pluralpronoun, upon which I base the translation above. I hear Paul as saying, you want to require women to keep silent in the church—does that mean the word of God has gone out from or come to you men only? If we think of this as implying a negative answer (as I believe it does) this approach removes the tension with the instructions in ch. 11 that women should cover their heads when they prayed or prophesied.