I Cor. 14:34-35 and I Tim. 2:9-15: The Norm or Special Circumstances?

by | Aug 6, 2021

Jesus was born into a world in which there were well-defined and widely understood rules for everyone—children and adults, slaves and masters, rulers and the ruled, countrymen and foreigners (us and them), and definitely women and men. These customs were markedly similar from culture to culture and time to time.

In Jesus’ day in the Mediterranean world longstanding limitations on women were beginning to loosen up, especially the farther west you went. However, in Palestine under the influence of the Pharisees and their rabbinic experts on the interpretation of the Law of Moses, things had gotten even more restrictive for women.

Enter Jesus Christ! He had a different view about what life would look like among his disciples, and we see this especially in his teachings about and interactions with women.

Jesus could not have been more different from his contemporaries among the religious leaders and teachers in Palestine. He interacted with women in public and in the privacy of their homes; he taught them just as he did his male disciples; he traveled with them; he touched them and allowed them to touch him; he paid them high compliments; he defended them against hostile men; he counted them among his closest disciples.

All of this prepared for what was coming in the church. His disciples were to go into the entire world and set up small communities called “churches” or “assemblies,” reflecting what was to be so characteristic of them.

As is evidenced in Paul’s ministry, men and women labored side by side, following Jesus’ example of traveling with female disciples. Paul had close female friends, and he interacted freely with them. He referred to them as co-workers, beloved, his (surrogate) mother, one who had risked her neck for him, another who had been in prison with him, a deacon or special servant of a congregation, the hostess of a congregation in her house, possibly even an apostle, in the more general sense of the word.

In fact, one of the marks of the new age ushered in by the Holy Spirit was that, in fulfillment of prophecy, women would themselves prophesy (Acts 2).

This was the norm in the first decades of the church Jesus established. Restrictions on women in two brief passages in I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 were not. They go against the flow of what we read about women in the rest of the New Testament and demand to be explained as exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself. Yet, since the second century these two passages have been yanked from their contexts and treated as if they were the norm, rather than as Paul’s special instructions to address unique situations in Corinth and Ephesus.

So how do we explain Paul’s limitations on women in I Cor. 14:34-35 and I Tim. 2:9-15 in light of his exceptionally high view of his women co-workers and others he knew?

First, we need to recognize the corrections Paul addressed to some of the women in these two passages as anomalies and thus reflecting special circumstances, not as instructions for every woman in every congregation for all time. They truly are surprising, coming from Paul, who had such a high view of the importance of women in the spread of the gospel and in congregational life.

Second, note that it is not all the women who are addressed in these two passages but a specific group of women whose conduct needed correction. In Corinth they were a group of wives who were being disruptive to order in the assembly. In Ephesus they were a group of wives (or women) who were not displaying the appropriate deference when others were teaching and when they were teaching were doing it in such a forceful way that it disrupted the peaceful atmosphere of the assembly.

Third, consider that Paul’s limitations were only placed on certain wives in Corinth, not on all the women. He probably also had only married women in view in Ephesus, because he supports his limitations in I Tim. 2:11-12 with references to circumstances in the life of the first married couple and to childbearing (2:13-15). It appears that certain wives in both cases were violating conventions of how they should conduct themselves either in public or in the presence of their husbands and were acting shamefully (I Cor. 14:35).

Fourth, note that in both situations women were already speaking or teaching in these strongly Pauline churches before he corrected the behavior of some of them. Improper behavior had to be present for Paul to have something to correct. If Paul’s universal rule was that women were not to speak or teach in the assemblies, would not the leaders have known that and have been preventing it from occurring?