February 9, 2009

Ladies, does the Bible tell you to zip it when in church?

I recently received a question from someone at GSUMC that Talbot, our Senior Pastor, forwarded to me. The question was about how we go about interpreting Scripture, particularly when to take things literally and when to interpret them in a non literal manner. The passage mentioned was 1Corinthians 14:34 where Paul basically seems to be telling women that they are not to speak in public church gatherings.

While many Christians take this in a straightforward and universally binding manner, they are misinterpreting Paul's words here. Below is my answer to the person who sent the question, as I thought it would be a good subject to kick around in the Dojo!

Comments, debate, feedback, etc. always welcomed!


We talk about this particular passage in detail in Bible for the Rest of Us because it illustrates the importance of the editorial process in Bible translations.

Here is the passage as it reads in the NIV:

"32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

As in all the congregations of the saints, 34 women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."

The NIV, along with most other modern English translations, takes the phrase "as in all the congregations of the saints" to be the qualifying phrase for v.34's "women should remain silent in the churches". Thus the passage seems to read as if Paul is saying that it is a universal practice ("all the churches of the saints") that women/wives (same word in Greek) remain silent in the churches. He further qualifies this with the phrase "as the Law says".

However, there are a couple of problems with such a translation:

1. Paul has already, in ch.11, allowed for women to both pray and prophesy in church gatherings (11:5ff). So we know that at least in this respect, 14:34 cannot be taken absolutely literally.

2. Paul elsewhere in his letters commends and encourages women who actually do teach and have authority in the church. For example, in Romans 16:3 and 7, Paul commends two women (Priscilla and Junia), both teachers and at least one (Junia) is an apostle--the highest authority in the early church.

3. Nowhere in the Torah (the Law, or first 5 books of the Old Testament) is there found a prohibition against women speaking in assemblies. Thus Paul's appeal to "as the Law says" cannot be referring to any Biblical passage about women remaining silent--there is no such passage! Study notes in Bibles that translate it in this manner usually end up appealing to some "general notion" of women being under authority in the OT, but are never able to provide a clear instance of this being directly taught in Torah.

So what does all this mean? Well, the key to unlocking this interprative puzzle is to keep in mind the simple fact that in the original Greek manuscripts of the NT, there is no such thing as punctuation, capitalization, or paragraph indentation--all of these are features of English translations which the editors of the translation committees choose to apply. Therefore, we must not assume that the passages in the original text read in the same manner with regard to punctuation and paragraphing that we find in our modern translations.

This makes a huge difference in the case of 1Cor.14:34! To see how, look at how the editors of the TNIV (the revision of the NIV, carried out by the same committee and in order to clarify, update, and in this case, correct certain features of the previous NIV editions) tranlsate this passage:

"32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (1Co 14:32-35 TNIV, also see the NLT for this same type of reading)

Did you catch the difference?

Noting all of the above mentioned problems with the traditional NIV translation, the TNIV editors corrected this by placing the phrase "as in all the churches of the saints" as the modifyer of the previous phrase "God is not a God of disorder but of peace". This is what is true universally in all the churches of the saints. The prohibition against women speaking in church is not universally applicable in "all the churches of the saints", as Paul's teachings in ch.11 and Rom.16 reveal.

But what about the "as the Law says" passage? Doesn't that mean that the Bible elsewhere teaches women to remain silent? No, it does not. However, in Corinthian culture, there were such prohibitions. This is why the TNIV editors correctly chose to drop the capitalization of "law" in v.34, as Paul is not referring to OT Law (Torah), but rather to local Corinthian law. Apparently, some of the wives in the Corinthian churches (churches not known for their propriety or order in worship--in keeping with the general unruliness found in Corinthian culture of the day!) were taking their "freedom in Christ" to mean that they no longer were bound to follow cultural norms and were disrupting gatherings as a result--something that strategically undermined the Gospel's credibility in the cosmopolitan pagan setting Paul was trying to shore up.

New Testament scholar David Prior, makes the following observation in his commentary on 1Corinthians, which is a good summary of what I'm arguing for above:

"Whatever this section is teaching, it is not telling women to keep quiet in church. In 11:5, Paul has already referred to women praying and prophesying. The reference to their husbands at home (35) immediately indicates that the apostle is thinking about the behaviour of some married women at Corinth, behaviour which needed firm control of the kind which had clearly proved necessary in all the churches of the saints (33). Although we cannot uncover the details of what was going on, we can discern some of the attitudes prevalent at Corinth. It seems that the principle of submissiveness was being ignored (they should be subordinate, 34), that a spirit of defiance was uppermost (it is shameful …, 35), and that an isolationist tendency was turning these wives into arbitrators of their own church order and even doctrine (Did the word of God originate with you?, 36). In other words, these married women were the source of some of the arrogance in the Corinthian church which Paul has already had cause to castigate.
Some commentators think that Paul is checking these women’s garrulousness in church gatherings. Something fascinating might have been taught or communicated, and they began to chatter about it as the worship continued. The Greek word translated speak (lalein) can carry the connotation of chattering, but Paul does not use it this way on other occasions. Barrett’s comments are apt: ‘it is not impossible that Paul should now use it in a new sense, but it is unlikely.’ Whatever the detailed explanation, this paragraph looks like a fairly localized example of what could well have been a general tendency amongst Christian wives in the early church. They had discovered a unique freedom in the life of the Christian community, and it is possible that this freedom had gone to their heads, or, more precisely, to their tongues. This lack of self-discipline was causing confusion and disorder in the worship of the church. Because Paul is so insistent on the priority of edification, he writes with some firmness—and not a little sarcasm—about the need for control."

I hope this helps. This is an issue that has been so misunderstood for so long, and even good Bible translations like the NIV, ESV, NRSV, NET and HCSB have mistranslated it, causing readers who see the contradiction in Paul's words as they read to have to go to great lengths to make sense of them, often settling for an arbitrary standard of what they feel should be universal and/or literal and what should be situational/symbolic in Scripture. In this case, the TNIV, the NLT and a few other translations get it right, thus sparing the reader much confusion.

Walking together...

James-Michael Smith


Lindsay L said...

What you have written is the general understanding that I have regarding this passage. What about 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (not to mention, what in the word does vs 15 mean)?

Bill C said...

J-M, your explanation is supported by the use of the adjective “shameful” in verse 35 which typically relates to local custom and conventional concepts of socially or morally unacceptable behavior. The same Greek word denotes socially unacceptable behavior in 1 Cor 11.6. Culturally, a wife would be expected to ‘honor’ her husband in ‘public’ and any woman [daughter-sister] would be expected to provide ‘honor’ to the males of her family.

JMS said...

Bill, excellent point! I hadn't noticed the connection...which is why I love it when people step into the Dojo and bring some great points with them! :)

Lindsay, N.T. Wright has written a fantastic overview of the 1Timothy passage in his "Paul for Everyone" series. I'll see if I can find it and if I can, I'll post it below.

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