Correctly Interpreting 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 (Part 1)
by Steve Atkerson
If you ever wish to see a gathering of Evangelifish gnash their teeth and rend their garments as in olden times, all you need do is stand before them and quote with enthusiasm the biblical text, “women should remain silent in the churches.” Correctly applying this passage is quite a challenge, in large part due to the explosive nature of the topic. Taken from 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, the entire offending passage reads: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 must not be studied in isolation. Its proper interpretation will necessarily harmonize with the rest of Scripture. It has been suggested that the correct place to begin is not with this passage at all, but rather back in 1 Corinthians 11a (regulations concerning head coverings during prayer and prophecy). Indeed, the ideal starting point is the first chapter of Genesis. Accordingly, before reading this article on silence, it may be best to first read the NTRF articles “Sisters In Service” and “Women As Teachers & Prophets.” That said, what is the correct application of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35?
1. The command is crystal clear. This one paragraph states four different ways that women are not to address the church:
A. “women should remain silent in the churches”
B. “they are not allowed to speak”
C. “they should ask their husbands at home”
D. “it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in the church”
According to The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, “women were not to speak in public worship (33b-36) . . . The command seems absolute: Women are not to do any public speaking in the church” (Vol 10, pp. 275-276).
B.B. Warfield wrote that “precisely what the apostle is doing is forbidding women to speak at all in the church . . . It would be impossible for the apostle to speak more directly or more emphatically than he has done here. He requires women to be silent at the church meetings; for that is what ‘in the churches’ means, there were no church buildings then” (“Women Speaking in the Church,” The Presbyterian, Oct. 30, 1919, pp. 8-9).
Gordon Fee, in his commentary on this passage, opined that “despite protests to the contrary, the ‘rule’ itself is expressed absolutely. That is, it is given without any form of qualification. Given the unqualified nature of the further prohibition that ‘the women’ are not permitted to speak, it is very difficult to interpret this as meaning anything else than all forms of speaking out in public . . . the plain sense of the sentence is an absolute prohibition of all speaking in the assembly” (p. 706-707).
2. It applies to “all” churches. That women were “silent” in all first century church meetings everywhere (and not just Corinth) is evident from the way the paragraph begins, “As in all the churches of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches” (14:33b). W. Harold Mare pointed out that 14:33b “emphasizes the universality of the Christian community. All the churches are composed of saints (those set apart for God), and should be governed by the same principle of orderly conduct” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 10, p. 276).
Warfield put it this way, “‘It is not permitted’ is an appeal to a general law, valid apart from Paul’s personal command, and looks back to the opening phrase – ‘as in all the churches of the saints.’ He is only requiring the Corinthian women to conform to the general law of the churches. And that is the meaning of the almost bitter words that he adds in verse 36, in which – reproaching them for the innovation of permitting women to speak in the churches – he reminds them that they are not the authors of the Gospel, nor are they its sole possessors: let them keep to the law that binds the whole body of churches and not be seeking some newfangled way of their own.”
The Greek tense behind “should remain silent” is a present imperative, which generally commands the continuation of an existing condition, thus “keep on remaining silent” (Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, W.H. Davis, p. 168). This indicates that the women in Corinth, as well as all other churches, were already silent. This was not a new command; they were merely being confirmed in what they were already doing.
It should be remembered that Paul himself had founded the church in Corinth. He stayed with them about two years, teaching and making disciples. He orally, in person, had already instructed them about the proper roles for men and women within the church. They knew, before he ever penned his letter to them, exactly what he had taught about women addressing the gathered church.
The New Covenant brought new freedom and liberty not found in the Old Covenant. Rather than special dietary restrictions, now all food is clean. Rather than just Hebrews being God’s people, under the New Covenant all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, are God’s people. Rather than just male Levitical priests, now all believers, men and women, are priests. After his departure, the Corinthians had written Paul many questions (7:1) about their new liberties in Christ. Evidently, some in Corinth also questioned Paul’s previously given verbal instructions about the proper role of the sisters in a church meeting. The letter to the Corinthians is his response to their queries.
3. “Women” are not always “brothers.” In many contexts the word brothers can refer to both men and women. Other times, it refers only to believing men (as it clearly does in 1 Corinthians 7:29, 9:5). It is a fluid term. Some argue that in 1 Corinthians 14, “brothers” refers to both men and women. Is this the case? The readers, throughout 1 Corinthians 14, are addressed as either “brothers” or “you” (second person pronoun). However, there is a significant pronoun shift from “you” to “they” (third person pronoun) in the paragraph concerning women (14:33b-35). Rather than writing, “women . . . you”, the text states, “women . . . they.” Why did Paul not write directly to the sisters, if they were included in the term brothers?
This pronoun shift can be easily accounted for if the word brothers throughout 1 Corinthians 14 refers primarily to the men. The women were thus referred to in third person, since they are written about, rather than directly addressed. When it is stated that all, anyone, or each one of the “brothers” can participate in the interactive meeting (14:26), it may specifically be men who are meant. Women (“they”) are not to make comments designed for the whole church to hear. Interestingly, the textus receptus adds the word “your” before “women” in 14:34, further evidence that the term brothers throughout 1 Corinthians 14 specifically referred to the men and not the women.
Since Paul had no hesitation about addressing women directly in other of his letters (for instance Euodia and Syntyche in Php 4:2), the fact that he did not here makes the case above all the more compelling. Again quoting Fee, “all the previous directions given by the apostle, including the inclusive ‘each one’ of v. 26 and the ‘all’ of v. 31, were not to be understood as including women.” (New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing p. 706).
For the sake of argument, suppose that the sisters were indeed included in the word brothers. It would parallel the case of a man gifted with tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, everyone of the brothers is said to be able to contribute a tongue. Reading this, the tongue-speaking man would anticipate the free exercise of his gift. Yet, in 14:28, the tongue speaker is informed that if no interpreter is present, he must keep silent and not speak in tongues. The chapter is still written to him, for he is a true brother, and the truth of participatory meetings still applies, but his contribution to the meeting would be limited. The same holds true for the prophets (if a revelation comes to another, the first prophet should stop). Would God give a prophet a prophecy that the prophet was not free to deliver? Evidently so, based on the inspired text (“the first speaker should stop” and “the spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets”). Finally, the same would hold true for the women also, even if they are counted among the brothers, who then learn in 14:33b-35 that they are not to speak to the church at all.
4. “Silent” really does mean silent. The word behind “silent” is sigao, defined in BAGD’s lexicon as “be silent, keep still, say nothing.” There exists a much less harsh term, hesuchia, which primarily means “quiet” in the sense of tranquil (used in 2Th 3:12 & 1Ti 2:11-12). However, hesuchia is not used here. The women were to be silent (sigao) with respect to speaking during the 1 Corinthians 14 meeting.
This same word, sigao, is used throughout 1 Corinthians 14. Those who speak in tongues are to be silent (sigao) when no interpreter is present (14:28). They are not to address the church at all with respect to delivering a tongue. Anyone who speaks prophecies is to be silent (sigao) if another person receives a revelation (14:30). He is not to prophesy any longer. Similarly, all the women are to be silent (sigao) in the assembly. They are not supposed to address the church.
5. The silence is limited to speaking. As pointed out above, the same Greek word translated “silent” (sigao) in 14:34 is also used with reference to the tongues speakers (14:28) and prophets (14:30). Each time sigao is used in 1 Corinthians 14, it is carefully qualified (limited in scope). So too with the women’s silence: it is qualified by the word “speak.” The Holy Spirit easily could have added, “they are not permitted to speak in judgment of prophecies,” or “they are not permitted to speak a teaching.” Instead He said, “they are not permitted to speak.” Thus, women are to remain silent with respect to speaking to the assembled church. The context is clear about what is being regulated: situations where only one person is up addressing the whole church (“one at a time,” 14:27 & “in turn,” 14:31). The silence requirement would therefore not apply to congregational singing, whispered comments not intended for the whole church, laughing, playing an instrument, chatting during the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, etc.
6. “Speak” refers to public statements. From laleo, “speak” is used throughout 1 Corinthians 14 primarily with reference to those who would speak (laleo) publicly to the assembled church (with a teaching, an interpretation, etc.). In fact, the solution for a would-be public tongue speaker (with no interpreter present) is for him to instead laleo privately to himself and to God (14:28). Such private laleo is encouraged, not condemned. Thus the regulations throughout 1 Corinthians 14 primarily concern instances of public laleo, not private laleo. Similarly, Paul is not here prohibiting private laleo (conversation) between two women in 14:33b-35, but rather public laleo. Thus in this context, laleo (14:34) does not likely refer primarily to idle, thoughtless private babble nor to inconsiderate and distracting private chatting (though such would also be inappropriate). Instead, that which is being prohibited is public speaking intended for the whole church to hear.
Dr. Mare commented that “some have explained the apostle’s use of the word “speaking” (v.34) as connoting only general speaking and not forbidding a public address. But this is incompatible with Paul’s other uses of “speaking” in the chapter (vv.5, 6, 9, et al.), which imply public utterances as in prophesying (v.5)” (p. 276).
Warfield noted that: “It requires to be said at once that there is no problem with reference to the relations of laleo and lego. Apart from niceties of merely philological interest, these words stand related to one another just as the English words speak and say do; that is to say, laleo expresses the act of talking, while lego refers to what is said. Wherever then the fact of speaking, without reference to the content of what is said, is to be indicated, laleo is used, and must be used. There is nothing disparaging in the intimation of the word, any more than there is in our word talk; although, of course, it can on occasion be used disparagingly as our word talk can also – as when some of the newspapers intimate that the Senate is given over to mere talk. This disparaging application of laleo, however, never occurs in the New Testament, although the word is used very frequently.
The word is in its right place in 1 Corinthians 14:33ff, therefore, and necessarily bears there its simple and natural meaning. If we needed anything to fix its meaning, however, it would be supplied by its frequent use in the preceding part of the chapter, where it refers not only to speaking with tongues (which was divine manifestation and unintelligible only because of the limitations of the hearers), but also to the prophetic speech, which is directly declared to be to edification and exhortation and comforting (verses 3-6). It would be supplied more pungently, however, by its contrasting term here – ‘let them be silent’ (verse 34). Here we have laleo directly defined for us: ‘Let the women keep silent, for it is not permitted to them to speak.’ Keep silent – speak: these are the two opposites; and the one defines the other.”
7. Silence is an act of submission. “They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission” (14:34). For a woman to teach, judge a prophecy or dispute with a teacher would clearly not be speaking from a position of submission. Indeed, such is expressly prohibited in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. However, the inspired text goes even further in 1 Corinthians 14, and associates any public speaking by a woman in a church meeting as an non submissive activity. Head coverings, in 1 Corinthians 11a, are said to be a mere “sign” of submission to authority. Silence, in 1 Corinthians 14, is said to be an act of submission.
8. Submission, not silence, is an Old Testament principle. An appeal is made for the women to be submissive “as the Law says” (14:34). The word “Law” can refer specifically to Mosaic legislation. It can also refer to the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is so used here. The silence of women is not what the Law teaches. However, as is clear from the tenor of the Hebrew Scriptures, starting with creation, women are to be submissive to their husbands. Men were the leaders in both Hebrew society and religion (e.g., only men could be priests, the vast majority of the prophets were male, all the writing prophets were men, in the few historical examples where women did prophesy to men they did so in a more private setting, most of the political leaders were men, families were patriarchal, vows made by a wife could be revoked by her husband, Deborah rebuked Barak for wanting a woman to help him lead, etc.). Thus, the submission of the women, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 14 by their silence, is consistent with God’s truth revealed throughout the Old Testament.
9. Even inquiries are prohibited. Asking a question is the opposite of making a statement, yet even this is declared to be out of order in 14:35. Instead, women should “ask their own husbands at home.” Why? Because “it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (14:35). If Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, declares a certain activity to be “disgraceful,” then it is as if Christ Himself were declaring it to be disgraceful. Ultimately, how do we know what pleases our Lord unless He tells us? In God’s household, it is disgraceful for a woman to speak to the gathering of the church.
During the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, both men and women may have prophesied and supernaturally spoke in other languages. This resulted in a great number of conversions as people heard the gospel in their own language. Women may evidently pray in prayer meetings and speak or prophesy at evangelistic events. However, during the regular, weekly, Lord’s Day meetings of the whole church they are not to speak out publicly.
10. “Disgrace” (14:35) does not mean “obscene.” In an apparent effort to make a face value reading of the command for silence to appear improbable, some have suggested that the proper translation here should be “obscene.” They then cry, “Our sister’s voices are not obscene!” The simple fact is that the Greek underlying “disgrace” (1 Corinthians 14: 35) does not mean “obscene.” “Obscene” is too strong a word. “Disgrace” is from aischros (#150), defined by the lexicon as “shame, ugly, base.” Aischros is used other places in the Bible with reference to dishonest gain (Tit 1:11), of women with short hair and of men with long hair (1 Corinthians 11:6). I could not find a lexicon that suggested it fundamentally means “obscene.” In essence, those who say such erect and knock over a straw man in an attempt to make this biblical command seem ridiculous and not possibly of apostolic origin.
11. 1 Corinthians 14 (women may not speak) does not contradict 1 Corinthians 11a (woman may pray & prophesy). 1 Corinthians 11a implies that women are legitimately able to pray and prophesy. An important question concerns where that prayer and prophecy is to occur. May it be expressed in the gathering of the whole church on the Lord’s Day? Those who understand the prayer and prophecy by women in 1 Corinthians 11a to have occurred in a church meeting obviously are forced to reject a face value requirement of women’s silence in 1 Corinthians 14. On the other hand, if the prayer and prophecy of 1 Corinthians 11a occurred informally, apart from a 1 Corinthians 14 church meeting, then a face value application of 1 Corinthians 14 would become a more legitimate option. The evidence for the setting of 1 Corinthians 11a will be considered below. (However, whatever the setting of 1 Corinthians 11a, it should be clearly observed that God was pleased to gift certain women with the gift of prophecy, Joel 2:28ff, Ac 2. Further, it is a fair statement that our sisters’ prayers are as important to God as are any brother’s.)
A. It is a simple fact that nothing in 1 Corinthians 11a (prayer and prophecy) specifically states that the setting is a church meeting. To conclude such is a mere assumption. In contrast, 1 Corinthians 14 clearly does refer to a church meeting and teaches the silence of women. Letting the clear interpret the unclear, the logical conclusion is to understand the prayer and prophecy of 1 Corinthians 11a to occur informally, outside the meeting, at a time when women can speak.
Harvey Bluedorn has well written, “An obscure passage of Scripture is one which does not directly teach on a particular subject with one clear meaning. It is a very fallacious and unsound hermeneutical method to simply choose – on one’s own authority, from among the many possible interpretations of an obscure passage – to simply choose one particular interpretation, to anoint it as the true doctrine, and to use this chosen interpretation to invalidate a contrary teaching found in other clear passages which explicitly teach on the subject. The clear sheds light upon the obscure, not the other way around. To put the obscure passage in control is to stand all methods of understanding on their head. This is a classic method for twisting Scripture (2Pe 3:16).”
According to W. Harold Mare, “in chapter 11 Paul does not say that women were doing these things in public worship as discussed in chapter 14” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 10, p277).
Regarding the harmonization of both 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 with 1 Corinthians 11a, Warfield observed, “In the face of these two absolutely plain and emphatic passages, what is said in 1 Corinthians 11:5 cannot be appealed to in mitigation or modification. Precisely what is meant in I Corinthians 11:5, nobody quite knows. What is said there is that every woman praying or prophesying unveiled dishonors her head. It seems fair to infer that if she prays or prophesies veiled she does not dishonor her head. And it seems fair still further to infer that she may properly pray or prophesy if only she does it veiled. We are piling up a chain of inferences. And they have not carried us very far. We cannot infer that it would be proper for her to pray or prophesy in church if only she were veiled. There is nothing said about church in the passage or in the context.” (The Presbyterian, Oct. 30, 1919, pp. 8, 9).
B. The greater context leading up to 1 Corinthians 11a concerns the eating of food at private dinner engagements, not church meetings.
1. This private setting runs all the way back to 1 Corinthians 8 (food sacrificed to idols). The desired application is, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (11:9).
2. 1 Corinthians 9 (the right of an apostle to full time support) is written as an example of the extent to which Paul was willing to go to not to be a stumbling block. Thus, “we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (9:12B) and “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (9:19) and “I do all this for the sake of the gospel” (9:23).
3. Accordingly, 1 Corinthians 10 goes back to the main subject of meat sacrificed to idols (and not presenting a stumbling block). Paul begins with a warning from Israel’s history, “these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (10:14). Next, to buttress his argument, he appeals to the Lord’s Supper, “flee from idolatry . . . You cannot have a part in the both the Lord’s table and the table of demons” (10:16, 21). Then, in conclusion of the sacrificial meat issue, he appeals, “whatever you eat or drink or what you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble . . .” (10:31-32).
4. Thus, there is no evidence that Paul just suddenly and without introduction began writing about church meetings in 1 Corinthians 11a. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 11a is likely also dealing with activities that would occur in a private setting, apart from the assembled church, as when Deborah went to Barak with a personal word from the Lord (Jdg 4), or Huldah had a private audience with the King’s representatives (2Ki 22). Since 99% of anyone’s prayer life occurs outside of a church meeting anyhow, this makes perfect sense.
C. The actual instructions for church meetings apparently do not begin until 1 Corinthians 11:17, “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm that good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church . . .” Such statements imply that the previous information was about prayer and prophecy uttered apart from a church meeting.
D. It is a fact that Paul had been in Corinth before writing this letter to them. Indeed, he founded the church there. Paul had already taught the church, in person, about women’s silence. Thus, before they ever read Paul’s letter, the Corinthians were aware of Paul’s beliefs regarding women speaking in church. Since the women were already silent, per Paul’s previous verbal instructions, then when 1 Corinthians 11a (about prayer and prophecy) was read, the readers would have automatically understood that Paul had in view occurrences of informal prayer and prophecy, not 1 Corinthians 14 church meetings.
E. The use of the word “churches” in 11:16 does not necessarily refer to church meetings per se, but rather to the totality of Christians living in various geographic locations. The idea is that just as none of the “churches” would have condoned adultery (a sin that obviously would not occur in the actual assembly), neither did the churches have any other practice regarding head coverings. Says Warfield, “The word ‘church’ does not occur until the 16th verse, and then not as ruling the reference of the passage, but only as supplying support for the injunction of the passage. There is no reason whatever for believing that ‘praying and prophesying’ in church is meant” (The Presbyterian, Oct. 30, 1919, pp. 8, 9).
F. One of the reasons given for head coverings is simply, “because of the angels” (11:10). Angels can be present at church meetings, but they can also tune in to private gatherings where prayer and prophecy occur. Much more prophetic and prayerful activity goes on during the week than during the few hours of a Sunday church meeting. And, if the intended head covering is long hair (11:15), a woman would be covered twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, precisely those times when she would pray and prophesy the most.
G. According to Gordon Fee, “it was traditional for exegetes, especially in some Protestant traditions, to argue that women did not really pray and prophesy, but that Paul’s language had to do only with their being present in divine services when prayer and prophecy were going on, or to their private praying” (New International Commentary on First Corinthians, p. 497, footnote #22).
For instance, Harvey Bluedorn reasons thusly:
“For the sake of reasoning this matter out, we will suppose for the moment that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 does indeed discuss what to do in the gathered assembly.
The question before us now is, “Does this particular passage actually teach that women do pray or prophesy?” Read the passage carefully. It says:
If men pray or prophesy while covered, then they dishonor Christ – their Head. (11:3, 4)
If women pray or prophesy while uncovered, then they dishonor their husband – their head. (11:3, 5)
Where does it say women can pray or prophesy while covered? It simply does not! This is only an assumption which some persons, because of their presuppositions, infuse into the text. It is not a necessary inference from the text itself. There is no way by exegesis or by logic to prove the proposition.
One could just as easily argue that, in the gathered assembly, if women would pray and prophesy while uncovered, then they would dishonor their husband, but if women would pray or prophesy while covered, then they would dishonor Christ in the same way which the men would dishonor Christ if they would pray or prophesy while covered. The logic goes like this:
• If anyone prays or prophesies in the gathered assembly while covered, then that person dishonors Christ.
• If a woman prays or prophesies in the gathered assembly while uncovered, then she dishonors her husband.
• Therefore, if a woman prays or prophesies in the gathered assembly, then she dishonors either Christ (covered) or her husband (uncovered).
Or, to translate this back into the logic of the original passage:
• All uncovered persons are permitted to pray and to prophesy in the gathered assembly.
• We know (from elsewhere) that a woman cannot pray or prophesy in the gathered assembly.
• Therefore a woman must be covered (which happens to be the point of the passage).
Why must a woman be covered? Because to be uncovered is to be permitted to pray or to prophesy, but it is shameful for a woman to be permitted to pray or to prophesy in the gathered assembly (1 Corinthians 14:35). Only men can be uncovered in the gathered assembly without shaming or dishonoring anyone. Therefore only men can pray and prophesy in the gathered assembly.
The only reason anyone would be uncovered in the gathered assembly would be to pray or to prophesy. Since a woman cannot be uncovered in the gathered assembly without cutting her hair (or, if you prefer, without removing a cloth veil from over her head), she therefore cannot pray or prophesy in the gathered assembly without being put to shame while dishonoring her husband.
We are not saying that this is the only possible explanation for 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. We are only saying that this is one possible explanation which cannot be disproved. Therefore we cannot assume that this passage necessarily permits women to pray and to prophesy, and we certainly cannot use this passage to invalidate a contrary teaching found in other clear passages which explicitly teach on the subject, namely, 1 Corinthians 14:33-37 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15.”
12. No long explanation was needed. Hellenistic culture just happened to be consistent with God’s order at this point. First, in Jewish synagogues women were not allowed to speak publicly, and many of the early believers came from such a background. Second, the Greek biographer, Plutarch, wrote that the voice of modest women ought to be kept from the public, and that they should feel as much shame over being heard as over being stripped (Fritz Reinecker, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, 438). Third, throughout the pagan world, women were (quite wrongly) generally regarded as inferior to men (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 774). Fourth, it is a fact that women were not allowed to speak at all in the gatherings of the secular Greek city-state ekklesia (Piper and Gruden, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 153). This accounts for why no lengthy explanations were necessary to support these instructions. And as has been previously observed, the women were already silent in the church meetings. This was not a new practice.
Given this historical context, if Paul had actually intended for women to be allowed to speak in church, he probably would have had to write extensively to convince his readers of such an abnormal practice. However, no such argument can be found in the New Testament. Instead, there is the command for silence; a command not based on the culture of Paul’s day, but upon the universal practice of all the churches, upon the general tenor of the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Law,” v 34), and upon the “Lord’s command” (14:37). Contrary to his culture, Paul certainly did assert the equality of the sexes (Ga 3:28), but he still maintained the God-ordained subordination of wives to their husbands (1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, Ep 5:22ff, Col 3:18, 1 Ti 2:11-13). This family order is to be upheld with the realm of the church meeting also. It is a matter of function and order, not equality.
13. 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is not a quotation. Some have understood 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 to be something that really belongs in quotation marks. The paragraph on women’s silence is treated as if it were a quotation from a letter the Corinthians had previously written to Paul (1 Corinthians 7:1), with 14:36-38 constituting Paul’s shocked response to their absurd idea. This quotation scenario is unlikely for several reasons:
A. Such an approach is, to say the least, highly subjective and speculative.
B. It would be different from Paul’s other quotations throughout 1 Corinthians, which were very short (this one would be long).
C. Paul does not necessarily disagree with the actual quotations he does cite, but merely qualifies them. Here, he supposedly would be completely refuting it.
D. Recently some have published their belief that a “Greek symbol”, ayta, found in 14:35, is the equivalent to the English quotation mark sign, thus proving 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 to be not Paul’s own words, but merely a quotation. Can this be so?
1. First, the ayta is not at all a “Greek symbol,” but rather the seventh letter in the Greek alphabet. It is also a common one letter word (Strong’s #2228) that is usually translated “or” (as in 14:5, 6, 7, 19, 23, 27, & 29).
2. If it is true that the way to flag a quotation mark is with the ayta, then why does every major English translation (NIV, NAS, KJV, RSV, etc.) fail to treat 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 as a quotation?
3. Some actual quotations that do appear in 1 Corinthians are found in 1:12, 1:19, 1:31, 2:9, 2:16, 3:4, 3:19, 3:20, 4:6, 5:13, 6:12, 6:13, 6:16, 10:7, 10:23, 10:26, 10:28, 11:24, 11:25, 12:3, 12:15, 12:16, 14:21, 15:27, 15:32, 15:35, 15:45, 15:54, and 15:55. Does the ayta appear immediately after any of these quotations, as we should expect? It does not. This is because there is no such grammatical rule about an ayta marking quoted material.
4. The ayta is found repeatedly throughout 1 Corinthians, and in no case is it used to indicate a quotation. Arguably, ayta is used in 6:16 & 6:19 in a manner very similar to 1 Corinthians 14:36. In such cases, the ayta’s function is as a “disjunctive particle.” In short, this particular construction is a form of logical argument that is actually used to reinforce (not contradict) the preceding clause. The words that follow the disjuctive particle are used to enforce whatever statement precedes the disjuctive particle. In fact, it is sometimes employed when the audience is tempted to deny or reject the first statement. Other examples include 1 Corinthians 9:5-6, and 1 Corinthians 10:21-22 (Piper & Gruden, p. 149-150).
5. It has been suggest that this supposed quotation comes from Jewish writings, such as the Talmud, which the Corinthian church was supposedly following. First, the church at Corinth was primarily Gentile. What interest would a Gentile church have in an uninspired document produced by Jewish unbelievers who were hostile to Christianity? Second, exactly where in the Talmud is this alleged quotation found? Chapter and verse, please! Third, the Talmud was not even written until A.D. 200! Finally, it is passing strange that no one, in the two thousand year history of the church, under the Spirit’s guidance, was smart enough or spiritual enough to have realized before now that 1 Corinthians 14:33-14 is actually an uninspired quotation.
14. 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is in every known Greek MSS. Gordon Fee has suggested that 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 is a gloss (addition) that should not be in the Bible at all. He suspects it was added later, by some overzealous (and chauvinistic?) scribe. Such additions are certainly possible, but what is the evidence indicating this has occurred? A gloss is usually detected when some Greek manuscripts omit what others include. This is not the case at all with 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. The paragraph on women’s silence is moved to the end of 1 Corinthians 14 in a few mss (it seems to fit better there), but it is nevertheless present and accounted for in every known Greek MSS (The Greek New Testament, UBS, 1975, p 611).
15. Silence is the Lord’s command. 1 Corinthians 14 is not “just” Paul’s opinion, but rather it is the “Lord’s command” (14:37). Despite the fact that silence is consistent with first century culture, this is not a cultural consideration. Paul was an apostle, a writer of scripture, outlining what he received from Jesus Himself as a direct command. It is not up for revision any more than any other biblical command. To say that this isn’t binding on believers today is no different from saying that the New Testament commands concerning holiness aren’t binding. Jesus said, “whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves Me” (Jn 14:21). All who love the Lord will take seriously the things He commands and seek to obey them to the best of their understanding.
16. The early church Fathers held to silence. Jonathan Lindvall, president of Bold Christian Living, comments, “consider how the early church interpreted this. They were certainly more familiar with the cultural setting and the linguistic nuances of Paul’s letters. Yet they understood that women were not to speak publicly.” Not only the early church, but also the vast majority of believers throughout the past two thousand years have understood 1 Corinthians 14:33-34 in this way.
Some are of the conviction that the early church fathers held to silence based on their hideous and erroneous views of the inferiority of women. Others go further and accuse the church of history of telling “lies” to women and of creating an oppressive situation that actually brought about the modern feminist movement. Regardless of whether the Fathers were wretched examples of proper New Testament church practice or absolutely faithful reflections of it, Martin Luther pointed out that our conscience must ultimately be bound by Scripture, and Scripture alone. The real issue is, “What saith the Word of the Lord?”
Please continue reading Part Two
Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.