Respect one another’s rights to
speak, listen, and learn during public worship.
The present passage includes verses that are sometimes pointed to as “proof” that women are to remain silent in church and, by inference, that they are not to take part in leading public worship (vv.34-35, 37). I found it an curious coincidence that discussion of this passage fell precisely on this year’s International Women’s Day, March 8, 2014.
There are many problems with using these verses to support the idea that women must maintain a lesser role in public worship. The first is that in the immediately preceding set of verses (vv.26-33), both the tongues-speaker and prophets are instructed to “remain silent” (v.28) or “be silent” (v.30) under certain conditions. The women are instructed to “keep silent” (v.34) as a third group in the series. The problem for modern interpreters is that Paul does not appear to provide any limiting circumstances in the text itself.
In our study we have already established that women did prophesy and lead in public worship (11:5). The second problem then is that Paul would appear to be contradicting himself if (vv.34-35) is interpreted as literal and universal.
A third problem is that in its context, what is frequently translated as “women” is, in this case, best translated as “wives.” This means that at the very least, unmarried women are not included in Paul’s instruction.
The final problem I note here is with the “command” Paul refers to in v.37. Frequently for those who wish to “prove” that Paul issued women’s silence in worship as a binding and universal command will point to this verse. On the surface it could be read as pointing back to its immediate antecedent, which is indeed the command to remain silent and ask their husbands at home. But when the entire rhetoric of vv.37-40 is viewed, the command most likely refers to the command that love be the context for all Christian activity that is found in chapter 13 (see diagram, from Bailey, location 4954).
The crux for interpreting, understanding, and applying this passage comes in v.33a, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” This appears to be a hinge verse that summarizes why the gifts of tongues and prophecy must be employed in a controlled manner, such that in some cases silence is necessary. It also introduces that reason why Paul instructs wives to remain silent. The Christian wives in the Corinthian church were disrupting worship and causing confusion, preventing other worshipers from hearing and learning.
Kenneth Bailey provides, in great depth, a reconstruction of what he believes was happening in the Corinthian church, based upon his experiences among the present-day peoples of the area. This is found in Chapter 4.7, “Women and Men Worshiping: No Chatting in Church”, of Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. His line of thought, briefly, is thus:
- The Corinthian church was perhaps the most diverse in composition – including those fluent in Greek and those with just enough to get by
- Some of those speaking during worship may have had strong accents of a non-native Greek speaker – making understanding difficult for some hearers – thus they might inquire amongst themselves what they were hearing
- Due to their cultural upbringing, women were handicapped with a very short attention span, as short as fifteen seconds
- When they were not being directly addressed and/or didn’t understand what was being said, they would quickly begin chatting amongst themselves
- Men and women may have sat separately. If this was the case, wives may have shouted across the divide to their husbands to ask them to explain
- Therefore, the wives are instructed to respect the others in worship and remain silent and ask questions once at home
- In a predominantly oral culture, as soon as the speaker pauses the audience begins discussing the subject amongst themselves. It is particularly prominent in women’s gatherings. It is their way of learning and retaining information.
- Paul’s instruction is not that women should stop participating, speaking, and leading worship. Paul’s instruction is that they should keep quiet so that everyone is afforded the opportunity to hear what the speaker is saying.
C. H. Talbert, in Reading Corinthians, summarizing 1 Corinthians 11-14 writes:
On the one hand, the Corinthian spirituals contended that some gifts were better than others; indicated that they wanted the higher gifts; took the position that tongues were a sign for unbelievers, prophecy for believers; and held that women should not occupy a leadership role in Christian worship. On the other hand, the apostle argued that there are a variety of gifts and that each one makes its own contribution to the common good; showed love to be the indispensable motivation for the manifesting of any gift; insisted that understandable speech is mandatory in corporate worship for both believer and unbeliever; and stood firm for the principle that Christian corporate worship is not a male-dominated enterprise.
Nowhere in 1 Corinthians does Paul give a universal command, applicable to all places, peoples and times, that women and men have different roles in the church. Paul affirms the right of women to lead, speak, and teach the entire church during public worship.
To see it otherwise is terribly faulty and holds dire consequences for the integrity and health of the church. To maintain practices that divide the service of men and women in the church is, in effect, doing that which the Corinthians were being corrected by Paul – condoning and encouraging divisions, creating a class of people that were considered “more spiritual” by the nature of gifts. Paul would be appalled.
The message of this passage is clear and simple: When in public worship, respect one another. Show love by remaining silent when others are speaking so that those around you can listen and learn. Nothing more, nothing less.
 Reading the New Testament: Reading Corinthians, 1 Cor. 14:20-36, “Conclusion”.
 And I hasten to add that such instruction is not found in any of the remaining undisputed Pauline writings.