the shape of leadership

What Paul Really Says About Women in Ministry, Part 2

Taking a closer look at 1 Corinthians 14

George P Wood on February 1, 2017


In continuation of a three-part series on women’s role in ministry, a closer look at key Pauline passages reveals that egalitarian interpretations make better sense of Paul's instructions. The next passage we must consider begins in 1 Corinthians 14:34: "Women should remain silent in the churches."

Interpreted absolutely, this prohibition contradicts Paul's permission of women's praying and prophesying in the church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Since neither complementarians nor egalitarians believe that the inspired and inerrant words of an apostle can contradict themselves, we cannot interpret this prohibition absolutely. In other words, it does not prohibit speaking per se. Rather, it only forbids certain kinds of speech.

But what kind?

Complementarian D.A. Carson outlines his position in "Silent in the Churches": "Paul has just been requiring that the church in Corinth carefully weigh the prophecies presented to it [1 Corinthians 14:29]. Women, of course, may participate in such prophesying; that was established in chapter 11. Paul's point here, however, is that they may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies. That is not permitted in any of the churches. In that connection, they are not allowed to speak — 'as the law says.'"

However, as egalitarian Craig S. Keener writes: "Perhaps the greatest weakness of the position is that there is nothing in the text that specifically leads us to suppose that 'judging prophecies' is the particular sort of speech in view ... . What in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 specifies 'judging' prophecies? And where does the text suggest that 'judging prophecies' reveals a higher degree of authority than prophesying God's message itself?"

Paul’s prohibition only forbids certain kinds of speech.

The answers to Keener's rhetorical questions are: nothing and nowhere, respectively.

First Corinthians 14:26-40 offers clues as to the specific kind of speech the apostle prohibited in verses 34 and 35. It contains three pairings of the Greek verbs laleo ("to speak") and sigaō ("to be silent"):

  • Verses 27,28: "If anyone speaks [lalein] in a tongue ... [but] there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet [sigatōsan] in the church."
  • Verses 29,30: "Two or three prophets should speak [laleitōsan] ... [but] if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop [sigatō, literally, ‘be silent']."
  • Verses 34,35: "Women should remain silent [sigatōsan] in the churches. They are not allowed to speak [lalein]."

In the first two pairings, Paul prohibited speech that disrupted "fitting and orderly" worship (1 Corinthians 14:40). Given the conjunction of laleo and sigaō in the third pairing, it is likely that what Paul prohibited was disruptive women's speech, not women's speech per se.

What kind of disruptive speech? Paul identifies it in verse 35: "If they [i.e., women] want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home."

This implies that women were interrupting the services with questions. Since women in Paul's first-century world were socially and educationally disadvantaged, they likely would have had many more questions than men. Further, since Paul's preaching was less of a monologue than a dialogue (see Acts 17:2, which uses a form of the verb dialegomai), and since prophets were supposed to publicly weigh putative prophecies (1 Corinthians 14:29), it is likely that the worship services of Paul's churches involved conversation from pulpit to pew and back, so to speak.

If less-educated women got lost in the dialogue, became bored and asked questions that led the congregation down conversational rabbit trails, their speaking might cause an impediment to the achievement of "the common good" (12:7), which is the goal of all spiritually gifted ministries. Therefore, as with tongues-speakers and prophets, so now with women: Paul requires that their participation be done "in a fitting and orderly way" (verse 40).

This is the second installment of a three-part series on women in ministry. Don’t miss Parts 1 and 3. This article originally appeared in Enrichment Journal and has been used with permission.

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