“(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)” (1 Cor. 14:33b-36, NIV)
As an ordained woman who preaches in our congregation, I thought I should reflect on these verses. They’re a weird side comment in Paul’s argument about how prophets should behave in the worship service. The most recent NIV translation indicates that by putting parentheses around them. It’s also weird that Paul should base his counsel on the law (“as the law also says”), since he argues forcefully elsewhere (in Romans and Galatians) that Christians are not under the law.
This weirdness has led some scholars to decide that these verses weren’t written by Paul. Somebody who was copying the manuscript of 1 Corinthians made this comment in the margin, and a later copyist, thinking it was a bit of Paul the earlier copyist had crammed in the margin, copied it into the text. I like this explanation. The only problem is that these verses appear in all the manuscripts of 1 Corinthians we have. So, as Rich said in his sermon, we can’t just cut it out of the Bible and ignore it.
So instead, I’ll point out a couple of things in the passage. One is that Paul is basing his argument primarily on what’s customary in his churches. That’s clear from how he starts out (“As in all the churches of the saints”) and how he ends (with pointed questions showing that the Corinthians, by themselves, don’t get to make the rules). My second point from the passage is that Paul says it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. Disgrace (shame) is not the same thing as sin. Sin is something that goes against God’s will. Disgrace is something that lowers your reputation in the eyes of others. Nowhere in the New Testament is the speaking or leadership of women called sinful.
I’m not saying this so that we can disregard these verses. I’m saying it for two reasons:
- Shame is determined by cultural standards. Something that’s shameful in one culture isn’t necessarily shameful in another culture. So if the point is to avoid disgracing the church, we need to consider what would disgrace the church in our own context.
- Evangelicals on the “restrictive” side of this debate have defended their views with such passion that you’d think it was one of the essentials of the faith. The heat generated is way out of proportion to the importance Paul gives it. The reasons for this, I think, are not biblical or theological. Anything to do with gender or sexuality creates enormous anxiety for many Christians. Anything that threatens gender roles in the church or the “traditional” family (traditional since the industrial revolution in the 19th century) is frightening in a society that is becoming less Christian-friendly. Evangelicals regard the nuclear family (another modern invention) with enormous reverence, so change is threatening. Finally, I’m afraid that some people who currently have power don‘t want to share it. Interpreting the Bible isn’t going to make these fears go away. All we can do is to live into what we believe is the intention behind these verses and pray that the Spirit will someday bring unity.
So back to Paul’s intention. I talked about a few things in the text; now I’ll mention a couple of things in the context. Paul has been telling the Corinthians to get their worship service in order. If women are “babbling” or calling out questions to their husbands during worship, it isn’t likely to add to the experience for other people. We’ve seen before in 1 Corinthians that Paul is urging them to give up some of their freedom in Christ for the sake of building up others; this is another example. Christians should use all their gifts, including their freedom, for edification, and be guided by love.
Also, Paul has been pretty definite that the Corinthians should act in ways that will honor the gospel instead of dishonoring it. His discussion of head coverings in chapter 11 was framed in terms of honor and shame, too. By the way, in that chapter he says that women should cover their heads when they pray and prophesy in worship—another clue that he may have something more specific in mind in chapter 14 than forbidding all women to say anything in worship, or forbidding women to prophesy.
So I’d say that the take-away from these verses is that we should act in worship in ways that would advance the gospel rather than hinder it. We should respect cultural norms, even in worship, for this reason. We should be willing to give up some of our freedoms if it will build up someone else. We shouldn’t do things that will bring shame to the gospel in our context. On the last point, I have often wondered how many modern American women will not be in the kingdom because they find more respect in secular culture than they do in the church.
I’m very grateful to be part of a congregation that welcomes my gifts and affirms me in my calling. I was taught the restrictive view of women’s roles in college, and it took the encouragement of a number of men, including the man who became my husband, to convince me to use more of my gifts for the Lord. I didn’t have any female mentors, because there weren’t any female leaders in my context at that time. I’m delighted that our congregation has a number of gifted women leading in different areas, from more “traditional” areas to more “nontraditional” ones. I’m also grateful to the men in our congregation, who affirm women as partners with them in leadership. I’m not saying that all women have to be leaders. I just wish that all women could be allowed to follow God’s call on their lives, whatever it might be.
For the younger members of our congregation, this may be a non-issue. I hope it is! Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in a lot of churches. What has been your experience?