Wednesday Weird Bible Verse – 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 – women be silent

January 3, 2012 — 4 Comments

"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 Corinthians 14:34-35

1 Corinthians 14-35

* image from The Brick Testament

I remember reading 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 for the first time and not knowing what to think of it as it seemed such an extreme verse in the New Testament. It seems to be clearly stating that females should not talk in church. If they have questions, then wait till they get home to ask their husbands. It even says it is "disgraceful" if a female talks in a church meeting.  

This was a rather confusing and disturbing verse to read when I was reading my Bible through for the first time right after I graduated from college. I knew enough to know that in my limited experiences in churches up to that point, that females certainly did talk in churches. You didn't see as many teaching or preaching, but they didn't just sit there silently like this Bible passage says to do. So I kind of pushed it aside and didn't think about it too much until several years later when I realized I had to look at why this weird sounding verse is in there. How do you make sense of what sounds like an incredibly bizarre and chauvinistic practice? 

The simple answer is that in order to understand this verse, it is a matter of cultural context and looking at the direct application to the specific church in Corinth that Paul, the author of this letter was writing to at that time. So what seems to be an incredibly bizarre sounding verse, when you study it more deeply and not just read it out of context, it might not be as totally weird as it seems.

There are lots of debates in the church about the roles that men and women have in leadership in the church. There are two primary viewpoints and you can read about the egalitarian viewpoint here and the complementarian viewpoint here. No matter what viewpoint one has on this, we should be able to give reasons for why these verses sound so chauvnistic. This one in 1 Corinthians 14 isn't the only chauvinisitic sounding verse either and I will get to some of the other ones in future posts.

But in this specific verse, it states that women should be silent and not speaking in church meetings and only allowed to ask questions when they are at home with their husbands (which would then puts single women in a fix if they aren't married then they allegedly can never ask questions). Looking at this verse alone and in isolation it certainly sounds incredibly super-chauvinistic and bizarre. But as you look at it in the context of the whole, then some explanations start to arise about it.

For one, Paul cannot mean he actually is commanding all females to be totally silent in church meetings. Just a few chapters earlier in this same exact letter in chapter 11 verse 5, he is says the opposite and is encouraging females to prophecy and pray which would mean to be speaking outloud – (and there are some other weird sounding verses in this section of the letter about hair cuts and hats which will be future posts as well). We also see in this same letter in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 that there are gifts of the Spirit given to both men and women listed which involve speaking. You also see in the New Testament that females of course are instructed that they will be speaking in verses such as Acts 2:16-18. There is a lot of discussion of the possibility that there is a female apostle listed in one of Paul's letters named Junia, which would then be she would be teaching and speaking (my friend Scot McKnight has a great ebook on this you can get here).  So when you read this verse in isolation and it on its own it does sound bizarre and weird that women must be silent in the church and only ask questions of their husband at home. But when you look at in in context of the rest of the letter and the whole New Testament it cannot mean that it is to be taken literally for all women in all churches. 

So what does it mean then? Why is it in the Bible? 

Many trusted scholars believe it is referring to a specific group of women in that specific church who were being disruptive in the church meetings. So Paul was asking this specific group of women to stop intentionally disrupting the worship times in this specific church. It was a local and specific situation regarding specific women, not a universal one. It very well could have been disruptive men if they were doing the same thing that Paul would have corrected if they were disrupting the church meetings in this way. But in this case it was a group of women.

Although we don't know for sure, there are some theories about this specific group of women and how to understand this passage from the Bible. I can't even begin to get into them in such a short blog post here, but there are very thorough and detailed biblical studies on this passage which go into great detail on interpreting this passage. In a short summary New Testament scholar Scot McKnight writes "The best answer is because these women (*these specific few in this specific church) were not yet educated theologically or biblically as well as the men (That's another discussion). When these women heard what was being said, they had questions. Paul thinks those sorts of questions should be asked elsewhere, probably because it interrupted the service. Paul's silencing of women at Corinth is then only a temporary silencing. Once women with questions had been educated, they would have been permitted then to ask questions in gatherings of Christians." (from "The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read The Bible" by Scot McKnight on page 193). 

Now I don't understand all the cultural settings and formalities of early church meetings in that time period. In today's culture, all the church meetings I have ever experienced (especially the small ones that meet in homes or classes) they are always encouraged to ask questions whether educated or not. So culture does make a lot of difference at times. This is why it is so important to be studying what was cultural and specific in the BIble and what isn't and is guidance that continues through time and not bound by culture or specific situations (like not stealing or murdering which was guidance given at a time period to a specific group, but surpasses culture and time as a moral and ethical way to live). This means we have to study these things and be praying and turning to groups of trustworthy scholars (I never just look at one but several, even of varying opinions).

So for this "weird" Bible verse it can be responded to by looking at it in context and understanding that it was about a situation happening in a specific church with a specific group of women who were disrupting the church meetings at a specific time period – not something to be practised for all times and all churches. 

My point in even going into brief explanation on this, is that you can't take a Bible verse out of context or weird things can happen. As I wrote in my original post on why I am doing this, the unfortunate part is that there are so many cheery, nice, happy verses that can also be quoted out of context and their application to life today misunderstood. Not just the weird sounding ones. So these weird sounding verses should give Christians a warning to make sure we are students of the Bible – all of the BIble, so we aren't applying passages to our lives today that weren't meant for us directly like the 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 one. The more you study, the more you do find there are explanations for so many of the weird ones. Some passages I don't think we will ever figure out and they will remain uncomfortably mysterious, but as I have looked at so many, most do have reasonable explanations. They often aren't as weird as they may look at surface glance and out of context when looked at not by themselves but in context. 

I will be posting on Wednesdays, either a verse with some explanation like I did on this one. Or for some Wednesdays, just post the verse and leave it at that. If you have any weird sounding verse you want to suggest for these Wednesday-Weird-Bible-Verses let me know.

It is interesting as for the last one my friend Mark posted a link to it on the very popular Boing Boing web site, which in turn got re-posted on Andrew Sullivan's Daily DIsh blog and last I looked my blog post had over 20,000 individual views more than I normally get within 3 days. So may the weird Bible verses be a source of fun thinking about the importance of understanding the Bible as narrative and in context.

I will be on this blog and also on my Facebook page for interacting about these weird sounding Bible verses and let me know if you have other suggestions. 

 

Dan Kimball

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author of "Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus In The Mess of Organized Religion" and "They Like Jesus But Not The Church" . On staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, CA.
  • j savio

    One lesson I have learned about interpreting particularly difficult verses out of context or even by themselves is that a simple explanation works very well unless that would directly violate a deeper Biblical principle. I suggest that a person struggling with such a verse or issue might ask themselves ‘what is the underlying principal that Paul (John, Peter….) is trying to teach and what is the goal of that teaching?’ Women with covered heads, or not teaching or leading and submitting to Husbands are basically theological monkey wrenches in explaining Christianity in our culture. But, I believe the NT authors, when not speaking about foundational theological concepts, were explaining how a community of believers should live and look. Order, peace, love, healing, growth and becoming the Body of Christ, to name a few, seemed to be the objective of many of these difficult passages. Think of the debates about what constitutes church (Christian) music. Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs! So why do some of the brothers and sisters out there in Christian Land refuse to use musical instruments? Because that verse is taken literally, rather than being seen as a principle encouraging us to sing our praises to God, it is used to encumber and not encourage. Not to mention the obvious use of instruments in worship throughout the Bible. Look for underlying principles, they can be applied universally in this particular context and in others. Some of these have no logical answers other that seeking that underlying principle. IMHO

  • Dan

    J Savio — thank you!!! Loved your thoughts and insights. Biblical hermeneutics is so critical in looking at the problematic passages in the Bible.

  • http://biblefunfactory.com/ Margo, Bible Fun Factory

    This is one of my least favorite Bible verses, as I’m a woman who is incredibly independent and very outspoken. I’m glad that you decided to address this verse, as it’s one that always gave me chills—and not in a good way. Thank you for being brave enough to take on those “weird Bible verses”—you’ve given me a lot to think about.

  • Jorge Aguilera

    Interesting but they are only theories. We really don’t know if Paul was actually talking about a specific group of women. If you have to study it deeply then there’s something fishy going on, I think.