Women Silent in Church? Did Paul Really Say That?

I had always wondered why there has been a difference between how Genesis 1:26-28 portrays women’s relationship with men and how later writers interpret the Biblical view as that of women being subservient to men.

I’m not arguing that Biblical writers were all unprejudiced or that they were not bound by the cultural horizons of the civilizations that they grew up in. I am arguing that, by and large, the biblical writers were less restrictive of women than their surrounding societies – and especially that of their neighbors. I am also arguing that later writers who commented on the books of the Bible projected many of the prejudices of their own societies back into the biblical narrative. For a class on the Epistles of Paul I once surveyed the Old Testament to see what role limitations Yahweh placed on women. To my surprise, nothing in the Old Testament limits women to the role of what we would now call “homemaker.” In fact, Proverbs 31 suggests that a woman should be able to run her own business and even travel out of the country to get the best economic return on her investments.

Many of the women who helped Jesus and Paul throughout their ministries by providing food and lodging did so out of their own funds. While Jesus did choose a group of 12 men (for symbolic reasons – to establish a new “Israel” with its 12 tribes) to be his “apostles” he was also the only established Rabbi we are aware of who included women as his disciples.

In spite of this, Paul is maligned as a misogynist (woman-hater) on the basis of a very few passages that are seen to limit the role of women in the church.

Of the few passages in the Bible limiting the role of women in the church, one passage in particular has always puzzled me: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. It clearly and unambiguously states that women should be silent in church and that they should wait until they get home with their husbands before even asking questions about what was talked about in church.

I had already been made aware of the contradiction between 1 Cor. 14:34-35 and 1 Cor. 11: 5. A woman seems to be forbidden to speak at all in church in the former, yet is allowed to pray and prophesy if she covers her head with a veil in chapter 11. In that day prayer was almost always done out loud. Even if the prayer were silent, there is no way for “prophecy” to be done silently.

Dr. Ken Schenck, Dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University and Professor of New Testament and Christian Ministry has shown me three additional reasons to wonder about those verses.

The first is that those two verses do not follow logically from the flow of the argument, which is about the need for prophets and tongue-speakers to respect one another’s gifts and take turns for the benefit of the whole congregation. (Remember that he has already assumed that women will prophesy in chapter 11.) He tells the churches that women shouldn’t speak or even ask questions, then goes back to encourage the brethren to desire the gift of prophecy above that of tongues. It is a sharp logical break that is unexpected from the context.

A second interesting note is that this passage addresses churches in the plural. The letter itself is addressed to one church in Corinth (singular). The sudden insertion of the expression, “Women should be silent in the churches” suddenly changes the addressees from a singular church to plural churches. This also does not fit the context. Where does the sudden change in addressee numbers come from?

A third difficulty is that the passage is found in different places in the chapter in different versions of the letter unearthed over the centuries. Some versions place the two verses after verse 40, at the end of the chapter. A reasonable explanation for that would be that a monk probably wrote that into the margin of a copy he was making, and it was later inserted into the main text in different places by later monks making copies of this altered early copy. Later monks would not know exactly where best to put it in, and just take their best guess.

Even though it goes strongly against my grain to call a passage in the Bible unbiblical, I think I have to go out on a limb and agree with Dr. Schenck that these two verses were probably not in the original letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.

They break the logical flow of the letter. The verses do not consistently appear in the same place in the text of different versions. The addressees suddenly change number from a singular church to plural churches. Finally, and most compellingly, the passage plainly contradicts something Paul has made clear in an earlier part of the letter: women do and should prophesy (the closest thing they did to what is now called preaching) in the church. I think these are four good reasons not to take the passage forbidding women to speak in the church either seriously or biblically.

The full text of Ken Schenck’s article is available here at his website, Quadrilateral Thoughts.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
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2 Responses to Women Silent in Church? Did Paul Really Say That?

  1. Women should be silent as paul says or prophecies because he is following the commands he was given by our lord.Do not give your strength to women Nor your ways to that which destroys kings.

    • John Valade says:

      Thank you for your comment, David. I’m afraid I must repectfully disagree.

      In the very same letter Paul also says, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.” (1 Cor. 11:5)

      While it may be possible to pray silently, I respectfully suggest that prophesying silently is not possible. You may also want to reread Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17, where God prophesied that both men and women would prophesy. For that matter, there have been women prophets throughout the history of Israel. God takes women seriously. So should men.

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