“When you put on your Christian garb, you become an heir, on the same level as all the other heirs. Men and women are equal as children of God.” This is basically what Paul says in Galatians 3.
Indeed, while the genders were made to be different, we were made to be complementary— equally vulnerable and equally needed by each other. In the home, men carry a responsibility to submit to their wives in a more profound way than she’s required to submit to him, and his headship is a role, not a rank. In the early Christian Church, men served alongside women in the body; women were empowered by the Holy Spirit to teach, prophesy, and serve as apostolic church planters, though it appears some needed to remember that such gifts comes from God and should be executed within His plan; we can’t grab authority that’s not ours to have.
Yet the same Paul who classified men and women as equals in the kingdom offers some confusing words in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Look at how the NIV puts it:
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 husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Wow, that’s harsh. Or at least it is when you read it by itself like that. Read within the context of the rest of the Bible, it’s apparent that this wasn’t some arbitrary, universal condemnation of the use of female vocal chords. After all, didn’t we see plenty of examples of God using women’s voices to accomplish His will in the early church (much less the Old Testament)?
Surely Paul didn’t mean to eliminate half of God’s human resources…
While some still do, it’s becoming harder and harder to find serious biblical scholars who would hold such an atomistic view. Even the ever-conservative Matthew Henry wrote of this passage, “Some think that these general prohibitions are only to be understood in common cases; but that upon extraordinary occasions, when women were under a divine afflatus, and known to be so, they might have liberty of speech.” That may not seem like much, but it’s quite the concession considering the source. Even Henry recognized that you couldn’t reconcile a universal mandate of silence with the rest of the New Testament, or with a God who can do what He wants with whom He wants.
Even Matthew Henry recognized that you couldn’t reconcile a universal mandate of silence with the rest of the New Testament, or a God who can do what He wants with whom He wants.
In truth, these instructions were just some of many corrective texts seen in this epistle that addressed local situations in the church at Corinth. Specifically, Paul was addressing orderliness of worship. “For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace” (v. 33a, NASB). God is interested in a productive worship experience, and His people should strive to have an environment that does not hinder His movement with chaos.
Clearly, something was taking place that was disrupting the order of worship, and it appears in this case to be something that could be resolved in part by a wife asking her husband questions after they get home. It’s not hard to imagine a bunch of wives asking their questions during a church service being a disruption (for others and their husband).
To me, this is akin to the “please turn off your cellular phones before the movie begins” things we see at the theater. This is just common courtesy.
As the Law Says
“Be in submission as the law says.” So women are required by God’s Law to submit to men in the church and remain silent? Okay, so which law in the Law? That’s a tricky question, seeing as how there is no such law.
Some use Genesis 3:16 as a substantiation, but we’ve already seen the malarkey that holds.
It seems Paul is instructing women to submit — as all God’s people should — to Him. There’s plenty of Law depicting that, and Paul never says to whom women should submit, so this is a valid interpretation, particularly given that it actually fits the Law he references.
Another valid interpretation that fits a holistic view is that this submission is tied to the last bit of submission he’d mentioned just two verses earlier — prophets are subject to fellow prophets. Paul had just used the same verb (signō, the command to silence) a couple times in this same line of thought back in verse 28 and 30. In this interpretation, Paul’s telling the would-be prophetesses not to speak out of turn or another similar admonition. And we know there were Corinthian prophetess. Enough for him to address concerns specifically with.
Why take this kind of roundabout interpretation? Because the atomistic one (all women must remain silent in the church at all times) doesn’t fit the holistic view of 1 Corinthians, much less the rest of the New Testament.
In Chapter 11, Paul takes some time out to direct the females in the Corinthian church who operated with a prophetic gifting from the Holy Spirit. He gave a bit of counsel that might be called “image consulting” in today’s terms. In verse 5, he writes, “Every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head” (NASB).
The cultural ramifications of a woman speaking in religious temples in Corinth, particularly in a prophetic way, brought to mind images of pagan priestesses who often ritually prostituted themselves. Paul’s suggesting this image should not be reinforced with the common pagan attire, so that Christian prophetesses stand out.
Why is this relevant?
As written in Hard Sayings of the Bible, “If Paul believed that women should be silent in the churches in a comprehensive, universal sense, he would not have spent so much time instructing women what to do with their heads; he would have simply forbidden the practice of praying and prophesying in the assembled congregation.” Clearly, the usual misogynistic interpretation here is atomistic and out of line.
God made us different, but He made us strong where the other is weak, quick when the other is slow, wise when the other is naïve, brave when the other is timid, compassionate when the other is cynical, loving when the other is bitter.
We all live different lives, but we were made to need each other, to work together as equals with God on our side. Deuteronomy 32:30 isn’t speaking specifically about men and women, but the power of two people to put ten thousand enemies to flight with God’s purpose behind them is strong.
Consider men and women paired in the following passage from Ecclesiastes 4 (NIV):
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down,
his friend can help him up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep war.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
Two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
With God as the third strand, with His design in the very braiding, humanity will not be quickly broken. I cherish the place of women in humanity, and I humbly rejoice in the peers God has seen fit to include with us incomplete men.