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Does Paul tell women to stay silent?

9 February 2023

Many churches now have female ministers. However, having a woman in the pulpit is still uncommon in many denominations of the Church. Because didn't Paul say that women should remain silent?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes the following:

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 - NIV)

These words are highly controversial. And the issue is not just their interpretation, or application, but whether they are really words of Paul himself.

Really said by Paul?

There are roughly three positions. According to the first, this is indeed a later insertion, an interpolation: someone successfully added the verses to the letter, putting them in Paul's mouth. According to the second position, although the words are Paul's, they also aren't: he is thought to only be quoting what his opponents in Corinth cried out, only to add directly himself: "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?" (1 Cor. 14:36). In other words, "who do you think you are?" Finally, the third position simply accepts that the words are Paul's.

About the second position, I can be brief: it could indeed happen that Paul would take a sort of slogan from his opponents, such as "I have the right to do everything" (1 Cor. 6:12). But if that were the case, the text would contain clearer signals that such a citation is involved. Those who assume that is the case here, in 1 Cor 14, would like the words not to be Paul's, but dare not see an interpolation in them.

A very different Paul

The first researcher to suggest that both verses are of a later hand was the Dutch Mennonite preacher Jan-Willem Straatman, in 1863. He saw in them a very different style and content, a very different Paul even from "the liberal man, who all the days of his ministry fought courageously and undaunted against Jewish legality and workaholism; ... who had devoted his life to the freedom which Christ brought to the world."

Compared to the more recent research on Paul, Straatman sounds unconvincing: you cannot so quickly and easily play off early Christianity and Paul against Judaism. And even the old caricature of Judaism as a 'legalistic' religion has long since been denounced. However, Straatman's proposal is still popular, be it - thankfully - usually with somewhat more subtle arguments. Most importantly, though, there is a striking contradiction with what Paul writes a few chapters earlier:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head... (1 Cor. 11:4–5  – NIV)

How can Paul take for granted in one section that women pray and prophesy during meetings, and in another even forbid them from speaking? In the same vein, you can point to Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Here Paul has come to regard ethnic, social, and gender differences as so unimportant that he even almost cancels them out, whereas the verses in 1 Cor 14 put women and men right up against each other.

It is also striking that the surrounding section in 1 Cor 14 is about how prophecy, speaking in tongues and interpretation in the meetings should not be chaotic, but done in order and in peace. The verses about the women seem to disrupt that connection; if you omit them, the text runs smoothly.

Paul and the law

Finally, the verses contain a somewhat odd appeal to the "law". On the question of circumcision, Paul, as we know, shows little concern for the law. Indeed, his "theology" seems to have arisen largely as a reflection on the question: if Christ is all-important and Gentile followers do not have to be circumcised, how should I think about the law? Within such a theology, a statement like "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10 - NIV) would fit, but not this blunt appeal to the law to silence women.

Adaptation to patriarchal culture

So where do the verses come from, if not from Paul? The Christian movement seems to have started charismatic and barely ordered, and we can see this reflected in Paul's letters. A few generations later, the movement was much more tightly organised and better adapted to its cultural environment: the Roman empire. It had adopted the hierarchical order of Roman culture. Looking at it this way, someone might have tried to put those later norms in Paul's mouth.

Or by Paul himself?

Most interpreters are not prepared to go that far. They try to explain the verses as words by Paul himself. This also seems the most sensible thing to do, because although there are hundreds of ancient manuscripts of this letter, there is not one in which the verses are missing. So it is rather speculative to assume a later insertion. But how then should we interpret the text? How can we understand why Paul wrote these words?

The proper translation

In any case, there is still some leeway in the interpretation. Let me mention a few things. In the Dutch New Bible Translation (NBV) of 2004, where it says women must "be in submission", there is a note referring to Genesis 3:16. There God says to Eve, "he [your husband] will rule over you." With this reference, the NBV stands in a long tradition of interpretation, in which "be in submission" means as much as "be ruled over." The translators might well have considered that the "rule" in Gen 3:16 is not so much a commandment as a punishment, and also that Paul here does not add to "must be in submission" the words "to their husbands." Many think the latter right away, but it is not there. Some more recent commentaries therefore point out that the verb used by Paul does not so much mean "remain in submission" or "submit" as "not break the order." They think of Paul's reference to the law as referring to the order of creation as Paul sees it.

The difference is subtle, but "submitting to your husband" is different from "keeping to the God-willed order'"(compare 1 Cor. 15:28). This does not, of course, take away from the fact that for Paul, women are naturally beneath men in that order. In this, he is clearly a child of his time. Only occasionally can he break that pattern, for example in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

What kind of speaking is not allowed?

Back to 1 Cor. 14: "they are not allowed to speak" need not refer to "speaking" in general. It could also refer to speaking specifically about the prophetic utterances that the whole passage is about, and even to "going on about it when it is not an issue." And since these appear to be married women, the trigger could be even more concrete: they are not to speak out publicly about their husbands' prophetic utterances, but at home, privately that is, to put their questions to them. This could then be what respecting order refers to. And instead of "asking questions" you could also say "questioning them critically", because the verb used here can certainly have that connotation. This way, then, it also becomes understandable why the passage talks about "disgrace": in the cultural code of Paul's time, men could lose status. 

In any case: if "speaking" does not refer to regular speech, it should no longer puzzle us that Paul talks about women praying and prophesying like men a few chapters earlier (1 Cor. 11:4-5). By the way, there are also interpreters who translate the word as "chattering", but that probably says more about their own idea of women than about the text.

It is time for a conclusion: Paul believes that things are too enthusiastic and chaotic in the congregation at Corinth. In his instructions, he falls back, in my view, on the cultural code of his time, and thus on a no longer up-to-date image of how relations between women and men should be. Contemporary congregations do not have to adopt that cultural code, but they can take inspiration from Paul's commitment, which is intended to do justice to everyone.

This Bible Blog is an extension of an article that appeared in the Dutch newspaper Friesch Dagblad (2 May 2020).