Must women be silent in the church? (part 1)

Hoo boy.  If that’s not an incendiary title, I don’t know what is.  But we’ve come to one of the most difficult and controversial texts in all of 1 Corinthians, and must deal with what it says.

I don’t pretend to be a New Testament scholar.  Yet neither do scholars agree on how to interpret the text.  Here it is in the New International Version:

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 Cor 14:34-35)

To begin with, if you are used to reading only one translation, you might never know that there’s a problem with the text itself.  Note for example, how the NIV has changed the way it renders verses 33 and 34.  The verses above are preceded by the statement, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace — as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (vs. 33).  But the older NIV read, “For God is a not a God of disorder but of peace.  As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.”  In other words, does Paul mean “God is a God of peace in all the congregations,” or “Women should be silent in all the congregations”?  It makes a difference.  Translations as diverse as the older NIV, the Common English Bible, and the New Revised Standard go with the latter, while the newer NIV, New American Standard, King James, and The Message side with the former.  Which is it?

There is also the problem of where these verses belong.  The Bible as we know it is translated from ancient Greek manuscripts, of which there are many; unfortunately, the manuscripts don’t agree at every point.  Take the more famous examples: your Bible probably has marginal notes telling you that the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) doesn’t appear in some reliable manuscripts, or that Mark 16:9-20 was a late addition to the original gospel.

Similarly, while all ancient manuscripts have the verses about women keeping silent, they differ in the placement.  Some have the verses at the end of the chapter, raising questions about which version is the original one — if indeed either is original to Paul.  Some scholars argue that there are peculiarities in the text that fit neither the immediate context nor Paul’s usual usage of words, suggesting that the verses may have been added later by an editor who had a particular end in mind.

The consensus seems to be that despite the difficulties, the words do belong to Paul.  Scholars springboard from there to trying to interpret what he meant, speculating on what situation in Corinth would have given rise to such an absolute sounding rule, especially given the fact that just a few chapters earlier, Paul seemed to take it for granted that women would both pray and prophesy in public (11:5,13).

So what might the situation have been?  And how do we take what these verses say?  More on that in the next post.

3 thoughts on “Must women be silent in the church? (part 1)

  1. I once heard a pastor declare his support for women speaking in the church. “After all,” he said, “it was a woman that got us into this mess in the first place; they can help get us out.”

    Ha…. speaking of incendiary.

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