Thursday, August 5, 2021

Wrestling with Women and silence in the church


Here is a link to an audio recording of this sermon. 

When my daughter Bethany heard what passage I was preaching on she sent me a link to an article on satirical Christian website Babylon bee. It was satirizing the phenomenon of publishing houses producing study bibles for specific targeted audiences, men, women, couples, outdoor types etc. The article was supposedly reporting the launch of a new study bible by a well know publishing house. A new study bible for women, with well over 30,000  well researched notes that would help women understand what they read and live out God’s will for their lives if they simply followed the little numbers after any verse- printed in pink of course. The punch line and why this was relevant to us today was that all the notes said the same thing “Go and ask your husband to explain this[ referencing  verse 35 in today’s reading.  Its satire but it does challenge us about how the passage we had read today is to be understood and applied.

Our Winter sermon series this year is called Her story, Her Voice; Women in the Bible. My contribution to this series, is called Women in Leadership in the New Testament: the Silent Witnesses and Silencing Passages. What we are doing is looking at the issue of Women in Leadership in the church by going back to the New Testament and seeing the evidence, like the names of women in romans 16 and elsewhere, of the involvement and acceptance of women in leadership by Paul. Then seriously looking at the Pauline passages in scripture like 1 Timothy 2:5-11 and the one we had read to us today, that seem to be anti-women in leadership.

I know it’s hard going, we need to acknowledge that there is a split theologically over this issue. There are complementarians who believe that men and women were created in the image of God, saved by Christ, filled with the Spirt and given gifts but have different roles and women’s roles in church leadership are limited. That has been the traditional view. There are egalitarians who believe men and women were created in the image of God, saved by Christ, filled with the Spirt and given gifts and are free to exercise those gifts in any situation and position God calls them to. Both sides want to be faithful to scripture.

With that in mind let’s look at the passage in 1 Corinthians 14, with particular focus on verses 34-35, which call for women to be silent in church.


Paul is writing to the Church at Corinth, one with a particular set of issues and challenges. This passage is the conclusion to a section that starts in chapter 11:1-15 concerning public worship. It started with Paul affirming that both men and women can pray and prophesy in church, this was part of the tradition Paul passed down to the church in Corinth. The issue was keeping the socially understood appearance and relationship for men and women ( we looked at that last time). He then goes on to talk about the issue of poor and rich, free and slave and communion. Making sure when they met that the slaves were waited for and catered for. The last three chapters 12, 13,14 are about spiritual gifts. That all gifts are given by God for the whole body to use for the common good. The way in which they are to be used is in love, and finally in the present chapter that they were to be used in an orderly way which reflected the nature of God- as the God of peace. Prophesy-proclaiming Gods word was the more useful gift as it was good for instruction, correction and revelation. It seems that at Corinth worship was a chaotic affair with people all speaking in tongues and speaking over each other.. It finishes with Paul talking about the fact that his teaching was accepted by all the churches. That sets the context.


Verse 34 and 35 say that Women should be silent in Church, they are not allowed to speak.  Then it goes on to expand on this by saying if they want to enquire about something, affirming once again the theological education of women, let them ask their husbands when they get home. Now in Greco roman society and Jewish society women married early and it was the norm for women to be married. There are reasons for Women’s silence given, the first is they must be in submission according to the law, the second is that it is shameful for women to speak in public.

Blanket ban internal problems

Some have seen this passage as a ruling for then and all time that women should not speak in an official capacity in public worship. However there are some difficulties with that view.  Internally, Paul normally refers to the Old Testament when he uses the word Law, however we know of no such law in the Old Testament. Coupled with the idea of being shameful it may be talking about the conventions of the time, where women speaking in public was not the norm, usually a women would speak in their home or if it was in public usually through their husbands. How are we to understand that with the norms of our own culture and time.

It is difficult to have that interpretation within the context of the passage. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that women can speak, they can pray and prophesy. It’s tied into the traditions he, Paul has passed on to the church at Corinth. Also it goes contra to the teaching Paul has just given on the gifts of the Holy Spirit that are for the whole body, he’d even said I wish all of you would prophesy, you’d all proclaim the word of God. Now almost as an afterthought we have this ban on women speaking.

 It does not make sense in the wider context of the scriptures where we have women speak and proclaim. We have the women at the resurrection told to go tell. We have the woman at the well go and tell the people of Samaria that she thinks she has found the messiah, she is named Photini in the eastern orthodox tradition and acknowledged as an Apostle. We have Deborah, Miriam and Huldah women prophets in the Old Testament. The list in Romans 16, Paul actually meets Aquila and Pricilla at Corinth… it’s the only time aquilla is mentioned first, because he is a tent maker like Paul, that is how they form a relationship. Everywhere else Pricilla is mentioned first meaning she would have been seen as the more significant of these coworkers of Paul’s.

A TEXTUAL Interpolation

Some see these verses as a gloss or an interpolation, a later addition to the text. That is rare in scripture but this could be a possibility. We don’t have copies of the book that do not contain these verses. However in some texts they are found after v40. Removing them from the chapter does not impact the flow of Paul’s argument. In the New Revised Standard Version they are put in brackets to acknowledge there maybe this issue and in the NIV there is a foot note which acknowledges that in some texts they appear after v40. On a technical level analysis of the wording and structure has lead some to question whether Paul wrote it.  But as Gordon fee who supports this view says, until that is proven we actually need to take them as serious.

The other view of these verses is that Paul is dealing with a specific issue at Corinth, it is not a blanket ban. The focus of Paul’s argument is order in worship.  The worship at Corinth seems to have been quite chaotic people speaking at the same time. The women are not the only ones told to be silent and in submission in this passage. Tongues speakers are told to be silent unless there is an interpreter in v 28. People are encouraged to keep themselves under control. One person was to speak at a time. Likewise, prophets are told to be silent if another is speaking, they are told a prophets spirit is subject to the control of the prophet. So whatever the disruptive thing that was happening amongst the women Paul gives the same imperatives. Keep quiet, be under control, and be in submission, not to men or to husbands but to yourself. To have self-control which is spoken of in the law…There is an appropriate way of going about things, like for example if you want to know something ask your husband at home.

There are many theories of what the specific issue was.

One thought is because women married early and did not have much formal education they were excited with the new freedom they had in the church and wanted to learn so would ask their husbands questions while others were speaking. Which was a no no in greek public speaking. Added to that they could have been seated separately men and women, like in synagogue worship, so they would have shouted out to their husbands across the room. I went to a Samoan Church one time and was amazed to see women and children seated on one side of the church and men on the other. What maybe more relevant was that a woman sat in the middle of the kids with a stick and when ever the kids whispered to each other or acted distracted she’d tap them with the stick and motion them to come and sit next to her. Keeping this social orderliness. The owmen may also have been disengaged from the worship and simply been chattering and talking. Remember it was a new thing for them to be included as equals in worship. On a practical level People often wonder where were the women in the feeding of the five thousand as it only records five thousand men. Men would sit in ordered rows to listen the women’s section would have all the kids and be a sea of movement and all abuzz.

Another view is that this is talking about the congregation carefully weighing the prophesy that was given. Women could prophesy but could not be involved in the more authoritative process of discerning and teaching. It wouldn’t be right for a women to be involved or to publically question the validity of a message given by their husband.  Again the issue at Corinth was a lack of structure so to impose such a structure is arguing from silence. It also puts discernment on a level above the gift of prophecy which goes contra to Paul’s teaching.

One scholar suggests that because the chapter focuses on prophecy there would have been women new to the Christian faith who would have thought that Christian prophet were like pagan oracles. Where the oracle would only speak in response to questions asked by those present. Often it was on personal matter, to do with life and decisions that needed to be made. Paul is telling them not to do this as Christian prophets speak at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, as one commentator puts it no human needs to prime the pump. The personal things they asked about were better discussed with their husbands at home.

In the end the biblical data is too limited to give a definitive answer. Eugene Peterson in his message paraphrase tried to encapsulate this understanding of dealing with a local issue of disruptive behavior when he translates the passage Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking.”

All these ideas have merit and difficulties. It is hard to be dogmatic on eitherside of the argument simply from this passage.

Ok how do we wrap that all up and bring it bear today.

Well I love the positive emphasis about theological education for women and by implication for men as well. Education that goes beyond go and ask your husband... That wouldn’t work in our household which I think reflects todays society well. We both have formal theological training and University education. We both have wisdom and understanding to contribute. I’ll ask kris about stuff and she’ll ask me…In our reformed tradition wanting people to know the scriptures understand them and apply them it is why we focus so much on exposition of scripture, opening it up and explaining it, so we can encounter the living word of God, Christ, in the written word, the scripture theough the spoken word, preaching, prophesy. It’s why in our missional plan we encourage Connect groups they are a great place for men and women to learn together… We are blessed with very good resources online and in print, more than ever before… mind you we need to be careful because we are challenged with a whole plethora of different interpretations and theological understandings as well in our information age, we need wisdom to navigate them. All the heresies and controversies there have ever been are alive and well and living on the internet.  Including the whole spectrum of understanding on the issue of women in leadership.

The second thing is that we need to order in worship. Doing things in a way which focuses on love and allowing people to use their gifts. That’s why I really like seeing people come forward and use their gifts in service and in our services. Affirming the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, of allowing men and women to pray and speak and encouraging them not to be disruptive. If there is that disruptive element then like with the passage we read today we need to have church discipline, note its for both men and women… maybe the pendulum has swung too far to the ordered, one commentator said that he thought Paul might think we’d ordered our self to sleep, we do need to have open times for people to use the more spontaneous gifting’s. 

Lastly, while I believe the fight for equality is important and significant, I can’t help but feel the Christian understanding of ministry is mutuality. Working together, using the gifts we’ve been given, being the people, men and women that God has created and recreated us to be.   I’m excited when I see teams working together men and women, intergenerational, multi-cultural like our Alpha team for the furthering of the gospel. In the end the flow of scripture is not about who can or cannot speak but about being coworkers in Christ, to the glory of God.

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