Shameful Speaking: 1 Corinthians 14:35


September 1999

Paul says, ‘It is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:35).

But how do we square this with earlier words from the same letter in which he allows a woman to ‘pray and prophesy’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) ? Has Paul contradicted himself?

What is the answer to this problem?

1. Various Solutions

Various solutions have been proposed by scholars and theologians:

(1) The verses in chapter 14:33b-35 have been introduced after the writing of the Letter by someone else (so Gordon Fee). They are an interpolation. But Fee himself notes that the earliest and best manuscripts have the text as we find it in our Bibles.

(2) The setting in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was not the public and plenary meeting of the assembled congregation, but a private meeting (so John Calvin). But this is sheer conjecture. Paul is addressing both women and men in their self-presentation as with covered and uncovered heads in relationship to their public life in the church. Furthermore, it is clear that ‘prophecy’ occurred when the whole church assembled (14:23-24; 26).

(3) The women in 11:2-16 were single but the women in 14:33b-35 were married (so Schl├╝ssler Fiorenza). Again, this is conjectural. But 11:2-16 is written against the background of Genesis 2, a passage about marriage. The whole point of the passage is that the praying and prophesying woman should acknowledge the ‘headship’ of her husband by bearing the sign of ‘authority’ on her head, namely, some kind of head or hair covering.

(4) Paul’s permission for a woman to pray or prophesy was a temporary diplomatic concession that he would overturn when he came to say what he really meant in 14:33b-35 (so Antoinette Wires). Apart from imputing questionable ethics to Paul it implies that he treated the Corinthians like fools.

Each of the above solutions is unsatisfactory.

2. Working Methodology

My working assumption based on thorough manuscript support is that both 11:2-16 and 14:33b-35 are authentic and that we must do justice to both passages. Many people, however, downplay or remove one or other of these texts so as to concentrate on the other. Feminist-inclined readers will somehow rid themselves of 14:33b-35 while anti-feminist readers will tend to ignore or explain away 11:2-16. Surely, to be true to the Scriptures and to the integrity of the apostle within this one Letter we must address both texts. Being selective on ideological grounds is not the way forward for genuine discipleship. We must allow the Bible to address us.

I have written about 11:2-16 in a short study called ‘Hair’ which is also on this web page.

In brief, let me repeat that Paul’s permission for a woman to ‘pray and prophesy’ was set against a specific problem at that time, namely, the failure of prophetesses publicly to uphold their husbands’ place in the marriage. This they were doing by discarding head covering, the contemporary cultural ‘sign’ of a husband’s ‘authority.’ Paul could have taken the easy option to forbid women prophesying outright, but he did not do this, nor should we.

But let me concentrate on 14:33b-35.

Our proper method is to stay close to the original text as we have it, and to suggest only those reconstructions of the Corinthian situation that are justifiable. As ever, we must set our text in context.

3. Order in the Assembly: 14:26-35

In 14:1-25 Paul has shown the Corinthians the relatively low worth of ‘tongues-speaking’ compared to ‘prophecy.’ Now in 14:26-35 he turns to give firm directions to bring order out of the chaos in the church meetings in Corinth.

That chaos may be inferred from
(a) his observation that ‘God is not a God of upheaval but of peace’ (verse 33),
(b) his insistence that everything be done ‘decently and in order’ (14:40), and
(c) by the specific limits he sets for (i)’tongues-speakers,’ (ii) ‘prophets,’ and (iii) women speaking.

(i) ‘Tongues-speaking’ is limited to two or three, each of whom must only speak ‘in turn’ (verse 27). Furthermore, one of the ‘tongues-speakers’ is to ‘interpret’ the meaning to the congregation (see on verses 13-16) otherwise the ‘tongues-speaker’ is to be silent.

(ii) ‘Prophesying’ is to be restricted to two or three speaking, with the remaining prophets listening in silence and ‘discerning’ what is being said (verse 29). If a ‘revelation’ comes to another prophet seated the speaker is to be silent (verse 30). This was to allow ‘only one at a time’ is to speak (verse 31).

(iii) ‘The women are to be silent in the churches’; ‘they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be in submission’ (verse 33a-35).

4. Shameful Speaking (14:33b-35)

We must note that in 11:2-16 Paul speaks of ‘a woman‘ (singular) praying or prophesying but that in 11:33b-35 he enjoins ‘women‘ (plural) to be silent and under submission. Evidently, Paul is now addressing women as a group. His direction that wives ask their ‘own’ (Greek: idious) husbands their questions at home (verse 35) suggests that women were seated separately from their husbands, as in the synagogue.

My suggested reconstruction of the situation Paul was seeking to redress is as follows:

* A prophet has spoken and a time of silence should have ensued before the next prophet arose to speak.

* Instead, various women seated together were breaking the silence by calling out questions.

* Furthermore, it seems likely that the disruptive wives were addressing the questions to their own husbands who were prophesying.

By this reconstruction the integrity of both texts 11:2-16 and 14:33b-35 is preserved. In both texts Paul was addressing differing aspects of the same problem, namely, a lack of submission by Corinthian wives to their husbands in the public life of the church. In the first, women were prophesying, but without the ‘sign’ of a husband’s authority on their heads. In the second, women were subverting their husbands’ authority by unseemly public questioning of their husbands’ prophetic utterances.

While the ‘subjection of wives to their husbands’ is uncongenial to many in modern western societies it is a clear teaching of the apostles (cf. Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Tim. 2:11; 1 Pet. 3:1). It must be noted that in each case this ‘submission’ is ‘wife-to-husband’ and not ‘woman-to-man.’ It is conjugal submission.

Did Paul establish this ‘submission’ rule for his churches of the Gentile provinces or did it apply to all the congregations of the apostles ? His injunction finds an echo in Peter’s words ‘Wives be subject to your husbands’ (1 Pet. 3:1) and suggest this wife-to-husband submission was common to the churches of the New Testament.

Paul’s appeal, ‘Even as the Law also says’ is unclear as to whether ‘Law’ means the Old Testament as a whole or just the Pentateuch. A further problem is that the verb ‘be subject’ is not found in the OT. One OT text possibly in Paul’s mind is the Septuagint version of Genesis 3:17 where God addresses Eve: ‘Thy submission (Greek: anastrophe – ‘way of life’) shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’

Paul was deeply concerned that the gathering of believers in Corinth be orderly. Meetings had become dominated by the babble of ‘tongues-speaking’ and the oracles of many prophets. Both ‘tongues-speakers’ and ‘prophets’ failed to wait until others had finished speaking. Wives were breaking the silence by calling out questions to husbands across the assembly contributing to the din and upsetting the order of the sexes. Such chaos did not reflect the character of the ‘God of peace’ in whose name they were assembled, nor did it facilitate the purpose of their meeting together, their ‘up-building’ (verse 26).

Not least, such behaviour may have brought the Christians into disrepute locally. After all, ‘outsiders’ did visit these meetings (14:16,23,24) and doubtless reported what they had observed in the wider community.

5. So is it Shameful for a Woman to Speak?

What is the ‘bottom line’ and ‘take home’ message for us here and now? It is that women, whether or not publicly ‘prophesying’ in the church should note carefully that their self-presentation in public touches their husbands role as ‘head’ and potentially affects the stability of relationships in the home. In short, Paul is urging that care must be taken to preserve a husband’s God-given ‘authority’ in the family. Of course, Paul’s words also support the principle of courtesy by husbands to wives in public, but that is not his main point in these two passages.

But is it always and under all circumstances ‘shameful for a woman to speak in church’?

Based on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 it is permitted and assumed that women did pray and prophesy in the assembly. There is a clear mandate for this in First Corinthians. For those who think otherwise I suggest (1) a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 in the context of the passage (verses 26-35) where it is clear that ‘speaking’ = ‘asking questions‘ in the assembly; it is not an outright ban on women ‘speaking’ per se, but ‘questioning,’ and (2) a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Those of us who claim to be Biblical need to be, in fact, Biblical, that is, take on board all the relevant scriptures. Liberals (among others) don’t like 1 Cor 14:33b-35 and excise this text from their canon. Conservatives need to be careful they don’t remove 1 Cor 11:2-16.

‘Prophesying’ I take to be speaking the word of God, with special emphasis on the blessings of the Kingdom and the woes of hell (see 1 Cor. 14:3, 24-25). ‘Prophesying’ does not simply equate with today’s ‘church preaching’ (which is probably quite close to the ministry of the New Testament ‘teacher’). Prophesying is an expression of agape/’love’ (1 Corinthians 14:1) and is a ‘gift’ that ranks high among the gifts of the Spirit for the ‘up-building’ of the congregation, in fact second only to apostleship (1 Corinthians 12:29). Is it right to silence the voice of women prophets in the church when the apostle Paul sanctions their ministry ? I do not believe we have a right to do this based on 1 Cor. 14:33b-35.

‘Prophesying,’ however, is a ‘charism’ given for occasional ministry that does not carry with it the routine ministry of an ‘office’ in the way the work of a presbyter or pastor-teacher does. Based on 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7 I believe the ‘office’ of teacher to the congregation is a ministry that should be restricted to married men. The week in, week out teaching of the faith by the pastor carries with it a special ‘authority’ which is closely connected with and an expression of a man’s headship in the family. Based on 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7 it is appropriate only for such a man to exercise this ‘authority’ over the families that compose the congregation.

But that aside I do not believe that it is ‘shameful’ for a woman to prophesy or pray in the assembly.

The above reconstruction and exegesis has been influenced by E.E. Ellis, Pauline Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pages 67-71, with some changes.