Nothing like picking on a "touchy" Biblical subject to investigate...one that I do not believe that it should be so, however. But, this is an important subject and it is one that requires study, because it is a critical subject to the genuine life and health of the body of Christ. So, without further ado, we will consider part one.
I believe that a significant concern for the early church was that certain women, experiencing their new-found freedom in Christ, could not properly assess their role or position in society or the church, therefore some of the NT writers (Paul and Peter, particularly) deal with the situation in the newly-formed church. It is apparent that in Ephesus and Corinth (predominantly Greek societies, where women had greater "freedom" in some respects) that some of the women were abusing the grace shown to them and were usurping the authority of their (prophet) husbands and perhaps other male leaders who were worshipping in those places. At the same time, Paul does outline that, in general, the leadership of the church should be male (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). I do believe that there were and are apparent exceptions to this rule (Phoebe, for example, Romans 16:1ff). Our fellowship, historically, has struggled to understand the overall context of the NT concerning this issue (an overemphasis on 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2 to the detriment, or ignorance of other data from the NT). Therefore, in many cases, our churches have had an unbalanced relationship concerning men and women and their function within the church.
The definitive passage that most have focused upon in relationship to this discussion has been 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which says, “Let the women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” This is one, big steering wheel of a passage for many people. The way that I have heard this passage interpreted is that it has been taken in a literal sense to say – the women are to keep absolutely, literally silent. Yet, the fascinating “inconsistency” in relationship to our fellowship, is that we generally have not “literally” abided by this. We have allowed our women to speak up in Bible class and have permitted them to sing in the assembly time including, to be able to speak once they enter the building for assembly time, (which would not take place if it were “absolute” silence). There were no “authorized” bible classes then, but they have become a recognized expedient over the centuries in order to help our people better learn the Bible and be better committed to the Lord…and this is a good idea. I have heard of some fellowships that have interpreted and applied this passage “absolutely literally;” their women “literally say nothing” upon entering the building until they depart. Although I disagree with this interpretation, I have to respect them, somewhat, for their consistency. However, the real question is -- what is this passage really saying in its context? We Christians have a bad habit of taking passages out of their context and building a theology. We need to be careful to honestly approach our Bible study, otherwise can get us into big trouble when we are seeking to interpret. It is necessary to keep these two verses in the context of 1 Corinthians 14, first of all, then the context of 1 Corinthians 11-14, then 1 Corinthians, the New Testament and finally the Bible as a whole. This telescoping out of “context” helps us to be thorough in our study and allow us to better interpret passages of Scripture.
What we do understand concerning Corinth, Ephesus and other churches at that time is that the women needed to be respectful and submissive to their husbands. Paul was not saying that they were “literally, to be absolutely silent” at all times. An important consideration in this discussion is that some have interpreted “in all the churches of the saints” (14:33b) as if it is to be connected to v.34, rather than v.33. The original Greek did not have the punctuation in place the same way that our English translations do, so there are situations where the context has determined where the punctuation should go for the English translators who translated the Bible over the centuries. Some translations have “in all the churches of the saints” (v.33b) going with “let the women keep silent” (v.34). I believe that the New American Standard version depicts this most accurately as it keeps “in all the churches of the saints in v.33 with “for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.” It makes more sense to consider the latter principle as being the more universally held principle than the former (see in v.34). As we have discussed, the issue of boisterous women behaving in a disrespectful manner was a significant problem, at least in Corinth, and perhaps in Ephesus (1 Timothy 2), and in other places (1 Peter 3).
When we broaden our study to consider 1 Corinthians 11, as well as 1 Timothy 2, we will see all of this even more clearly. This is especially the case given that he has been dealing with such cultural issues as “hair” already. In 14:29-32, the prophets are to speak and pass judgment, but all in relationship to being respectful and orderly (14:40) concerning how they were to be presenting their information from the Lord. However, there had apparently become some confusion about what was taking place in the assembly at Corinth as some of the wives of these prophets were disrupting the flow of the service, perhaps with their own “prophesying” (1 Corinthians 11:5), or they were just being disagreeable and boisterous, in general. They also may have been “cross-examining” their own husbands publicly (thinking they had the better interpretation, perhaps), which would quickly create chaos in the assembly. We clearly do not understand everything that is going on, but we have enough information to discern the situation. Now, all of this is interesting, especially in relationship to the Greek culture, where women typically had no public role at the time. Paul was trying to help them understand some “spiritual” principles regarding…not only the church…but with respect to their culture. What we do know is that when Jesus came, He set women free from the cultural captivity that they had been exposed to for thousands of years under the Jewish cultural system. This has always been a significant sticking point for me – why would we want our ladies “to be seen and not heard” as did the Jewish people, when Jesus came to set them free from such a strict life and religion? Paul tells the Galatians that “all have been set free in Christ” and we are “one in Christ” in order to experience the salvation of the Lord (Galatians 3:28, 5:1). Now, we must be careful not to discard all cultural principles when we consider this issue, but we must discern which principles are culturally bound and which ones are universal in their application. Understand, however, that Jewish women basically had the same value “as property” and so they were not even permitted to learn or be educated in the rabbinical schools, etc. It was not ever the Lord’s intention for women to be put into such arbitrary subjection, yet this is how many Jewish males treated their women (with some notable exceptions – Deborah, Esther, etc.). When Paul tells Timothy and the Ephesians in 1 Timothy 2:11 that women can receive instruction, this is radical teaching, as this had not ever been allowed, or happened before (in general – see the movie Yentl for an interesting reference). What we do understand concerning the situation in the Greek and Jewish cultures is that there was some room for “interpretation” even in their own unique cultural circumstances. For example, even in our own world cultures today, we have typically had the men serve the Lord’s Supper in our American churches of Christ. Yet, in certain Asian cultures, it would be unacceptable for the men to serve the women, rather, it is necessary for the women to serve the men. So, when we return to Corinth, we see some unique circumstances that help to create the current environment under which this instruction comes.
Another important factor in the discussion is the use of the word “silence.” The word in the original Greek is sigao, which means “to be silent or to keep silent.” When we consider all of the ramifications and everything else going on, culturally, as we have stated above, we can see why Paul uses this word in this particular situation, given the fact that the disruption created by certain women was having disastrous results in the assembly. The other word used in relationship to this principle of submission is aysukia, meaning peaceable, quietness or having a quiet demeanor. This word is used in most of the other passages in relationship to this subject – see 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Peter 3:4. When we consider the big picture of how it is that God wants His women (and men for that matter) to behave, it should be with this frame of mind and according to this spirit. This is the attitude that he wanted the women in Corinth (and all women in the churches) to be exercising – one of a gentle and quiet spirit, not boisterous and domineering. This is the general principle (quietness) in relationship to the specific situation (silence) seen in Corinth. When we think about the cultural and spiritual issues and discussions that were taking place, we can see why it would make sense that Paul wanted the women everywhere to have “the quiet spirit that was befitting godliness.” The general principle at work is not that he wanted all of the women everywhere to be absolutely silent as it pertained to the assembly and Christian living. It is also important to note that he shares in the context of the discussion that if the (said) “wives” should have questions that they should ask their “husbands” at home (v.35), which sheds further light upon the context. So, is Paul…once again…making a statement for all women for all time…or, is he dealing with an issue pertaining to prophets and their wives? The fact that he is dealing with husbands and wives certainly provides some important context for understanding the discussion at hand. We will continue the discussion by going back to chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians next time.