It’s Not What You’ve Always Thought: Reconsidering I Cor. 14:34
This article appeared originally in Wineskins, February 26, 2022.
It is widely believed that Paul’s words in I Cor. 14:34 prohibiting women from speaking in church call for absolute silence and are meant to apply to every woman in every congregation in every place for all time. Here are four reasons to reconsider that conclusion.
1. Women actually did speak in Christian meetings in Corinth. I Cor. 11:5 is very clear that women prayed and prophesied when the church got together, the only point of concern being whether or not they had their heads covered when they did it. From 14:34-35 it is also clear that they were speaking in the assemblies, although the point of concern for Paul there was not their head covering but that they not disrupt the assembly when they did it.
Think about the impact of this point. In this very Pauline church where the leaders would have been intimately acquainted with Paul’s teaching about women speaking in church, these women were already doing it. Had they not been doing it, Paul’s prohibition of their speaking here would be nonsense and have no meaning. So it is not the case, as is so widely assumed, that Paul’s unwavering teaching was that women were not to speak in church, period. It is that when they did it something about the way they did it needed correcting.
2. Paul’s use of the word “all” in discussing speaking in chapter 14 suggests that it was not just limited to men. In I Corinthians 14 Paul uses the plural word “all” nine times with reference to the congregation. Yet many read this chapter as if “all” often means “half” (men only). For example, “I want all of you (that is, men only) to speak in tongues” (14:5). In fact, in 14:31, where Paul uses the Greek word for “all” three times, by that interpretation “all” would mean “half” one time and “all” (men and women) twice—in the same sentence! Further, in 14:23 “the whole church” and “all” refer to the same individuals as speaking in tongues. But according to this line of interpretation, flowing from the belief that 14:34 prohibits every woman from addressing the assembly in any formal way, “all” in this verse would mean “half” of the church, not “the whole church.”
Does it not seem strange that Paul would repeatedly express himself by such an inclusive word as “all” if he means “let the women be silent in the churches” in verse 34 to mean absolute silence of every kind of speaking? What if Paul actually meant “all” to mean “all” in this chapter? How might that call into question the common proof text interpretation of 14:34 that forbids all women in every congregation for all time from speaking in the assembly in any way?
3. The way Paul repeatedly addressed the church as “brothers” in chapter 14 shows that he had both men and women in mind. Older English translations render the word “brethren,” while the newer ones have either “brothers” or “brothers and sisters,” the latter in recognition of the intent of the way Paul uses the word in addressing churches in his epistles. “Brothers” is Paul’s normal word for addressing the recipients of his letters, and in the context of its 69 uses it is clear that he intends his message to refer to the whole church, both men and women. See, for example, I Cor. 15:1, “I make known to you, brothers, the gospel I preached to you. . . .” Or what about I Cor. 15:58, “So then, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work. . . . “? Who would argue that Paul intended these words only for the men of the congregation?
Note, then, that in I Cor. 14:26 and 39, Paul addresses the church by his inclusive word, “brothers,” as he discusses speaking roles in the assemblies. This means that he is including both men and women when he writes that whenever they assemble each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation (14:26). Or in 14:39 his reference to prophesying and speaking in tongues is addressed to both the men and women of the congregation. How then could we conclude, as is often the case, that 14:34 totally excludes all women from any speaking role in the assembly?
4. Paul was concerned with the cultural appropriateness of the women’s conduct in the assembly. In I Cor. 14:35 Paul says “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” When I used to read this I assumed that Paul was speaking in the absolute here, that he was expressing God’s attitude on the subject. However, something else is going on here. Paul’s word for “shameful” has to do with cultural shame, namely what is offensive in a particular culture. That sheds an entirely different light on this passage. Paul’s argument here for these wives’ conduct in church is that it not be culturally inappropriate.
The great Restoration Movement biblical scholar J. W. McGarvey picked up on the import of this point and built a bridge to its application today. He observed that although “the customs of the age made it a shameful thing for a woman to speak in public,” “the powers of woman have become so developed, and her privileges have been so extended in gospel lands, that it is no longer shameful for her to speak in public.”
So, let’s return to Paul’s point that the way women speak in the Christian assembly not be culturally inappropriate. In our culture, is it more offensive for women to be forbidden to speak in church or to be permitted to do so? The answer to that question should settle the issue.
It truly is time for us to reconsider what we have always thought about I Cor. 14:34—and about some of the others passages in the New Testament dealing with women in the church.