Must women be silent in the church? (part 2)

In the previous post, we began looking at some of the textual problems with the controversial verses in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that command women to remain silent in church.  Not everyone agrees that Paul actually wrote these words.  But even if we do agree, the very real difficulties with the text should make us more circumspect and less cavalier about interpretation and application.

What could have been happening in Corinth for Paul to make such a rule?  Speculations abound.  N. T. Wright, for example, suggests that the congregation may have been physically divided for worship (as in a synagogue), with men sitting on one side, and women on the other.  If a woman didn’t understand something that was happening, she may have asked her husband right then and there — that is, she shouted to her husband across the room.  This would make sense of Paul’s statement that “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home” (vs. 35a, NRSV).  But were their congregational meetings orderly enough to have worshippers seated that way?  The context suggests not, and there’s no direct evidence either way.

Wright suggests another, more humorous possibility.  In verse 29, Paul says, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (NRSV).  What if the prophet in question was a man, and his wife took it upon herself to publicly “weigh” his words?

That would surely add a little spice to the proceedings.

In the end, we can’t be certain.  But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Paul’s whole argument is that everything in corporate worship, even the exercise of spiritual gifts, must be done in an orderly way that promotes mutual edification and witnesses to the character of God.

Whatever was happening, it seems clear at least that some women in the Corinthian church were speaking in a disruptive way.  Maybe there was a faction of women who considered themselves spiritually gifted, and whose tongue-speaking or prophecy had gotten out of hand.  This is suggested by the NRSV by putting verse 36 (“Or did the word of God originate with you?  Or are you the only ones it has reached?”) in parentheses with verses 34 and 35, as if the whole were an aside addressing the problem being created by the women.  Or maybe some women were getting bored in the worship service and chatting among themselves.  Or maybe they were calling to or arguing with their husbands across the room.

We just don’t know.

The old saw is that texts like these must either be “timeless truth” or “culturally relative.”  Texts in the former category are keepers; all else is discarded as irrelevant.   But the distinction is artificial and out of step with the complexity of divine revelation.  It’s not either/or, but both/and — for how else could the word of God be received by human beings who necessarily live in time and culture?  The truth given us by an eternal God comes to us in our cultural situations, and it is there that we must work out their meaning and application.

Whatever the situation in Corinth — whatever our situation — “Women should be silent” cannot be elevated to the status of a first principle.  Men who hold these to be Paul’s words cannot use them as leverage to silence women.  And women who do not believe these are Paul’s words are not thereby empowered to do as they please.  Together, all must follow the more excellent way of love.  All must pursue the edification of the other.

And all must seek to display the character of God, a God neither of disorder, nor even an artificially imposed social order that exists for its own sake, but a God of peace.