It is time to turn to the first of the two key texts in denying women the opportunity of ordinary for church office, 1 Corinthians 14.
If we are to understand this hotly debated passage, we must first examine it’s structure for what Paul’s overriding point is. Without this determination, we are adrift in a sea of endless interpretation and debate, unable to ground ourselves in Paul’s central thesis. The good news is that there is a clear structure to this chapter, a structure which, in fact, was common to Paul and the other Biblical writers. 1 Corinthians 14 is structured as a chiasm, an ancient and Hebraic organizational pattern which has as its center the focus of the whole passage in question. The surrounding points all mirror one another. This is commonly described as ABCDCBA, with D as the central point and the parallel surrounding letters used to reinforce the central point.
The chiasm in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 is as follows:
A. Worship for edification (v. 26)
B. Tongues (vv. 27-28)
C. Prophets (vv. 29-32)
D. Not a God of Confusion (v. 33)
‘C. Women (vv. 34-36)
‘B. Prophesy and Tongues (vv. 37-39)
‘A. Worship for edification (v. 40)
Paul’s point in chapter fourteen is the same point he’s been dealing with since chapter ten, that of proper and orderly worship, and has been discussing spiritual gifts since chapter 11. We see from this chiasm that the apostle is not changing the subject. His concern is for orderly worship on the basis that God Himself is a God of shalom and not of confusion.
A. Worship for Edification
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Paul’s point is universal. When the Corinthians come together for public worship, all the members have been planning for something with which to contribute to the overall worship, and Paul cautions them against an over eagerness that leads to chaos and impatience. We should also note that both in chapter eleven, as we have seen, and chapter fourteen both presume mutual participation and mutual teaching and instruction by both men and women (1 Cor. 14:23-25). Thus, his immediate purpose is to instruct in taking turns and all things being done according to due process. Whatever his instructions for women in this passage, a strict prohibition on speaking in the church is impossible from the outset.
If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
Here limits are given to those who would speak in tongues, two or three at a time, and only if someone can interpret it. If there is no one to interpret, there is no point in speaking the message out loud, as no one will be able to understand it. They can speak to themselves and to God. But let them “keep silent” in the public worship.
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.
Recalling that the prophetic office was both revelation from God and instruction and teaching in the Scriptures and in doctrine, we see that each person who brings an insight or a “lesson” (v. 26) is heard and considered by the rest. We are probably to understand the limit to “two or three” to carry the sense of “two or three at a time,” since Paul later says “you can all prophesy one by one” for the benefit of the Church. So there is a period of lesson-giving, and then a time of discussion and conversation, and then another time of lesson-giving. All the teachings of the prophets are weighed by the prophets who listen.
D. Not a God of Confusion
For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
The reason for the specific instructions preceding and following this point is because the churches are to imitate the God they worship, who is not a God of disorder and chaos, but one who brings order to chaos. The astute reader following along in their own Bible will notice that I have modified the translation of the ESV, which again is problematic. The ESV (and many other translations) attaches “as in all the churches of the saints” to the next verse, “the women should keep silent in the churches.” However, my rendering makes better sense of the Greek, since it is God’s being a God of order and therefore the worship of all the churches are to imitate this (as Paul also appealed to the traditions of the churches in 11:16). This view is reinforced by a few variant manuscript sources which show that vv. 34-35 were in rare occasions moved to the end of the chapter. They don’t belong there, but this shows that vv. 34-35 were considered a self-contained unit, unconnected directly to v. 33. The KJV, NKJV, 1599 Geneva Bible, LITV, MKJV, YLT, NASB, Scofield Bible, and a number of others all render v. 33 as a single unit and translate it as I have done.
‘C. Women in the Churches
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. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. “It is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” May it never be! Was it from you that the word of God came? Nonsense! Or are you the only ones it has reached?
We come to the sticky passage at last. I have made a few alterations to the ESV text in order to make the Greek stand out a bit more. We note at the first, again, that Paul’s entire discussion up to this point has presumed the right of women to speak and pray in church, and so (unless we are willing to consider a blatant contradiction in the apostle’s thought in a single chapter) we ought to start with the assumption that something else seems to be going on here.
It is worth noting that the context proves the usage. That is, Paul has already used “keep silent” in the chapter for the two other groups speaking in the church, the prophets and those who speak in tongues (vv. 28, 30). In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, then, the phrase “keep silent” does not refer to a permanent and universal law, but rather to “keeping silent” at incorrect or inopportune moments, when the order of the service is in a different place and it is not their turn (Padgett, As Christ Submits, 72-76). The verb and structures are identical in all three cases. The women Paul had in mind, it would seem, were disrupting the worship with their questions, as we shall see.
These women are not permitted to speak, Paul says, and that they are to be in submission as the law says. But the question is, in submission to what? Their husbands? The men in the service? No. The passage has nothing to do with marriage, so it would not make sense for Paul to leap topics in such a way. Besides which, this submission is a submission which the law also commands, and the Torah never commanded a woman to submit to her husband. Not once. At best, it is an inference; at worst, eisegesis. However, the Torah does command worshipers to be silent and learn in the Temple. “Keep silence and hear, O Irsael: this day you have become the people of Yahweh your God. You shall therefore obey the voice of Yahweh your God, keeping His commandments and His statutes, which I command you today,” (Deut. 27:9-10). “This is the one to whom I will look,” declares Yahweh, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word,” (Isa. 66:2). “Yahweh is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him,” (Hab. 2:20). These same verses stand in the background of Jesus’s own declaration that blessed in the Kingdom are the poor in spirit, meek, and mournful (Matt. 5:3-5). The way in which these women were going about their questions and their teaching was not with due reverence and humility for God and His public worship. The call for them to keep silent and submit is, then, a call for them to submit to the order of the service in God’s holy temple, to learn before you speak. Yahweh demanded silence on those who speak imputently to the righteous (Psa. 31:17-18), and silence showed respect for God (Isa. 41:1; Zech. 2:13) as well as for the wise (Job. 29:21).
In fact, the chief problem appears to be that the women were being disruptive in asking unbecoming or ignorant questions. This is why Paul recommends that “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home.” Far from excluding women from participation, Paul simply says the way in which they are participating is the problem. Women were routinely refused the education given to men in the ancient world, and were not instructed in many, even basic, doctrines and teachings. This was especially so if they were Gentile women who hadn’t been raised hearing the Torah all their lives. These women were exercising their right both to teach/prophesy, and to evaluate what others have taught, but they are ill-equipped to do so. Thus, Paul instructs something shocking–the men are to take it upon themselves to provide their wives with the education they will need in order to participate.
Next, the text says, “It is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Those reading carefully will notice that I have put this comment in quotation marks, and the reason is simple. This cannot represent Paul’s teaching on the matter, because everywhere else he and the NT have presumed upon the fact that women can, and did, speak in the churches. The fact that this is a quotation Paul is refuting is also seen by this grammatical observation. Paul responds to and quotes his opponents a number of times in 1 Corinthians, and one of the ways we can tell what Paul agrees with and what he’s saying in order to refute is a very small Greek word (e). It is an emotional exclamation of disapproval, and it is always used in association with positions that Paul finds repugnant (1 Cor. 1:13; 6:2, 6, 16, 19; 7:16; 9:6, 7, 8, 10; 10:11; 11:22; 14:36a, 36b). It is found twice in v. 36. I have rendered it “Let it not be so!” and “Nonsense!” as these are both approximate to the emotional sense it carries.
So, the meaning Paul intends to convey is that it is not shameful for a woman to speak in church, as was the position of his opponents, who probably felt it was easier to exclude all the women than to deal with the situation. Thus, v. 36: “Let it not be! Was it from you that the word of God came? Nonsense! Are you the only ones it has reached?” This is Paul’s critique of his opponents in support of women speaking, lesson-giving, and prophesying in church. His question about whether the word of God “came from you” could be seen as an allusion to the women bearing the gospel back to the apostles first, perhaps, but it could also be a reference to the Incarnation itself, brought into the world by a woman. Thus, “Was it from males that the Word of God came?” Why then do you seek to keep out those by whom God came into the world? Either way, Paul’s point is that the word/Word of God is not the exclusive possession of males, and they do not have authority to tell some that they cannot express it. The second question asks whether his opponents were the only ones to whom the word/Word had reached. Of course not! It had reached many, and many of those that led the way were women, as we have seen. So on what possible basis can they exclude women?
‘B. Prophesy and Tongues
If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command from the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
Paul finishes by establishing his own teaching as the rightful teaching which true prophets will recognize and submit to themselves (v. 37). It is “a command from the Lord” to acknowledge what Paul is saying is true, that is, to permit women to teach. “If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized,” that is, the person who refuses to accept Paul’s word on the matter of the participation of women will not be recognized as a sound teacher or as a sound prophet. This has rather far-flung implications for those who deny women the right to ordination in the pastorate.
He concludes by saying that the whole Corinthian body should “earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
‘A. Worship for Edification
But all things should be done decently and in order.
Tying the chapter back together, Paul concludes his teaching on the subject with a return to the beginning, a coming of full circle. All that they do in worship should be done with the goal of decent and orderly worship of the living God.