Silence, Women!

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Let the women in the assemblies be silent, for it is not entrusted to them to speak; rather let them be subordinate, as the Law also says.

But, if they want to learn anything, let them inquire of their own husbands at home, for it is an unseemly thing for a woman to speak in an assembly.


This is a classic passage of controversy. Let’s not skip it.

Trying to keep these Ripples under 300 words, we’re not gonna get super detailed here. But, hopefully we can give a brief yet helpful glimpse into some possible appropriate interpretations of this text.

Here we go.

First off, just need to say that many scholars feel that someone other than Paul added these two verses in later. Now these are not super far left non-believing scholars, but ones who I believe love God, and who I refer to fairly often. A couple of (very brief) reasons they believe these verses were added in later: a) There is a disruption of flow and language from verse 33 to 36, as in, it seems verse 33 should flow right into 36. b) Some old manuscripts have verses 34 and 35 in a different place (after 40), and a fourth century manuscript has an editorial mark meaning either these verses are questionable themselves or their placement is in question.

So there’s that.

But what if Paul did write these verses, and placed them here, as many also believe?

The first thing that jumps out is that Paul wrote in this very same letter (11:5) that a woman needs her head covered when she is praying or prophesying in the public assembly. So Paul fully expects women to be speaking in the public assembly.

What gives? Why would he later write for the ladies to be silent?

It seems there was a specific issue at the church of Corinth at this time with prophesying and tongues getting out of hand and confusing people. It could be that the women, even more than the men, at this church were disrupting the gatherings, and it is always of utmost importance to Paul that the assemblies are orderly and without unnecessary confusion for the sake of everyone to be strengthened and  to grow in Christ.

It’s also possible from the original language this letter was written in that the women were “chattering” and asking questions that were derailing the worship gatherings. In the east at this time, like it or not, the women did not have the privilege or access to education and learning that the men did. Therefore, there may have been a simple problem of rabbit trails.

It’s interesting to note that Paul here and elsewhere actually advocates that the women learn. Paul is among the most progressive of ancient writers on the subject of women’s education. Most husbands of the time doubted their wives’ intellectual potential. Not Paul. His long-range solution was for them to learn alongside the men. Very cutting edge for the first century. (See elsewhere how affirming Paul was of the ministries of Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia!)

At the end of the day, according to the context, as well as Paul’s other writings, he was addressing a specific problem at a specific church at a specific time. There’s no plausible way to conclude that he meant for all women to be silent in all churches for all time.

OK, we’re way over 300 words here, but I leave you with a summary from a great resource, Hard Sayings of the Bible:

Paul’s operative principle for congregational life and worship is constant. Whatever hinders the movement of the gospel, causes confusion rather than growth, offends rather than encourages and strengthens, builds up the self at the expense of others—all this is contrary to God’s intention. And insofar as the women in Corinth and elsewhere in the young churches used their gifts contrary to God’s intention, the injunction to silence is an appropriate, authoritative word. The principle which underlies the injunction is authoritative for both men and women in all churches.

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