Reconciling the Texts: 1 Corinthians 11:4-16; 14:34-35
There has been, for some time, a growing tension within the Churches of Christ regarding several doctrinal issues that have otherwise been points of clarity and definition for the denomination. Not the least of these is the understanding of the roles afforded to women (according to the Scriptures) within the formal assemblies. In many instances this tension has grown into conflict that has even divided individual congregations.
For this group of Christians to attain some sense of unity called for in the Scriptures, it seems that we are beckoned back to the Scriptures in order to re-examine our previous understanding and assumptions. Have we correctly understood the formative texts for this issue? Whether we determine to maintain our present course or alter our position(s) seems to be less relevant, in terms of unity, than our willingness to allow one another the voice to ask the difficult questions.
Perhaps as the “Introduction” affords some leniency towards a greater sense of informality, I ought to take advantage of the opportunity for greater transparency. I do not wish to attempt to plow new ground on this issue. And after having read much of what the scholars have to say, it seems unlikely that there are many more original thoughts to be added to the discussion—unless of course some new information is brought to light. Instead, I must return to my previous line of thinking and make some minor corrections. For me to find some degree of unity with my faith heritage and at least some degree of integrity with my faith, it is absolutely imperative that I re-examine my previous understanding and assumptions on this issue. The correct question is this: have I correctly understood the formative texts for this issue? And, regardless of what conclusion the research leads me to, it is crucial that I find my own voice in this discussion.
That having been said, and with that approach at the forefront of my thinking, this paper will seek to examine two of the preeminent texts on this issue—1 Corinthians 11:4-16 and 14:34-35 (which, along with 1 Timothy 2:11-14, are the primary texts which restrict women in their and activity in the church—particularly in public leadership roles).
CONTEXT AND SETTING
The letter itself reveals much of the context of these passages. Throughout the course of the letter, Paul is dealing with several different issues that the Corinthian church appears to have been struggling with. Paul seems to have learned about these many issues from two different sources. First, a letter had been sent from the Christians in Corinth. Second, some representatives from the church in Corinth had visited him—likely either Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17), or messengers from Chloe’s household (1:11).
Paul maintained a patterned formula for responding to a question or issue raised within the letter. This formula is brought out for the first time in 7:1 when he writes: Περὶ δὲ ὧν ἐγράψατε (now concerning what you wrote). He also uses the Περὶ δὲ (now concerning) formula in 7:25; 8:1; 12:1 and 16:1. Each of these indicates a new question, idea or issue that he is seeking to address. For example in 7:25, he writes to the unmarried women; in 8:1 he changes to write about food offered to idols; in 12:1 he moves to spiritual gifts and finally in 16:1 to the collection for the saints.
The two passages, 1 Corinthians 11:4-16 and 14:34-35, are imbedded within two different, yet thematically connected units of scripture. We’ll begin with addressing the context of chapter eleven. In this chapter Paul takes up two separate issues (head coverings and the Lord’s Supper) that are linked together by the phrase Ἐπαινῶ ὑμᾶς (I praise you). In 11:2 Paul begins his comments on head coverings with Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς (Now I praise you). In 11:17 Paul begins his rebuke for mishandling the Lord’s Supper with Τοῦτο δὲ παραγγέλλων οὐκ ἐπαινῶ (Now with these instructions I do not praise you).
Concerning the complicated issue of head coverings, Paul praises them because they had remembered what he had taught them and dealt with the issue in a proper manner. And in such a diverse locale as Corinth, the use of a cultural symbol of head covering may naturally become a point of contention within the church. It is for this reason that Paul is commending or praising the manner in which they handled this issue. Paul then goes on to elaborate and provide specific direction. Concerning the men, he says that they are to uncover their head while praying and prophesying so as to honor their head who is Christ (11:4, 7). Contrary to the men, women are directed to pray and prophesy with their head covered so that they might properly honor their head who is man (11:5, 10). For Paul, the issue is cultural and was one of honor or dishonor. The proper cultural respect (i.e. honor) must be shown to one’s head. For man, he must honor Christ; and for woman, she must honor man. Though the principle of honor and dishonor was primarily a cultural manifestation, Paul also draws from the creation in order to illustrate his point (11:8-10). However, in 11:11-12, Paul is quick to remind the reader that woman’s position relative to man should not be taken advantage of. Paul’s overall point with this commentary is to ensure that the Corinthians understand the necessity of honoring one’s head because of the way God created humankind as male and female (11:3, 7-8). As a result, the woman must be sure that when she does pray and prophesy she does so in the culturally accepted manner of honoring her head—by covering her own head.
Following his rebuke for mishandling the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), Paul transitions into a longer discussion on the use and abuse of spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14). In doing so he uses the aforementioned Περὶ δὲ (now concerning), indicating that he is responding to an issue that was first brought up in a written correspondence from the Corinthian church. It seems clear that the misuse and misunderstanding of their spiritual gifts was a significant concern for Paul. In chapter fourteen he addresses the problems in the context of their public assembly together (i.e. 14:23, 26) that may also include outside visitors who are not among the church (14:24).
Paul is most concerned with two particular spiritual gifts—speaking in tongues and prophesying (14:27-33, 39). Concerning those who would speak in tongues he gives the direction that at most two are three should speak and in so doing they must take turns and there must be an interpreter present (14:27-28). Concerning prophesying, he gives similar directions that no more than two or three should speak and that there should be another prophet available to “weigh what is said” (14:29). In 14:34 Paul provides specific prohibition for women who would speak in the assembly (women are to remain silent). Paul attaches to his direction, a general directive in 14:33b that the instructions are consistent throughout all the church of the saints. He offers two explanations in support of his directive. First, it is a matter of submission—as if to say that for a woman to speak in whatever context he has in mind, would violate this principle of submissiveness to man. Second, he refers back to the cultural phenomenon of shame; saying that it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church” (11:34-35).
Based upon this brief highlighting of these two passages it is clear that a contradiction exists. In 11:5 Paul assumes (and even approves) that women will be active participants in the assembly and will engage in prayer and prophecy. The only issue is that they adhere to cultural mores of honoring their head. However, in 14:33b-35 Paul provides a clear directive prohibiting women from speaking at all in the assembly, commenting that this is the standard behavior for in all churches. Is Paul forbidding in 14:33b-35 what he just approved in 11:5? Assuming the answer is “no,” then how should these texts be understood? And further, what (if any) direction does this leave for the modern Christian today relative to women’s roles?
INTERPRETING THE TEXTS
There is no shortage of possibilities that have already been offered and argued concerning this problem. The purpose of this essay is not to add to that list. Without additional information coming to light it seems clear that the full range of alternative interpretations have already been shared. At this point we will endeavor to “weed through” the explanations, highlight the arguments for and against each and then attempt a determination based upon those arguments.
It’s helpful at this point to realize that the primary interpretive challenge is to locate the best understanding that permits women to pray and prophecy according to 11:5. Again, as was just mentioned, we are working with the assumption that Paul would not have contradicted himself in such a glaring manner (and especially in such proximity). So the question remains, what exactly did Paul mean when he said that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission as the law says?”
The explanations are listed in no particular order.
- Paul is quoting opponents in Corinth who are maintaining a traditionalist perspective. According to this argument, Paul understands that when he affirmed women’s right and responsibilities to share their spiritual gifts in 11:5, he is doing so in contradiction with some traditionalists in Corinth—particularly among the Jewish Christians. In this case he is quoting and responding, as was his habit. The quote is 14:34-35, and his response is found in 14:36, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Of particular note is that in this instance is that the pronouns are masculine. With that being said, Paul’s retort makes a little more sense: “Or was it from you (men) that the word of God came? Or are you (men) the only ones it has reached?” In this case, Paul would be clearly arguing against, presumed traditional Jewish Christians who believe that the women should have no role in the assembly.
However, one of the main difficulties of this interpretation is that there is no actual indication that 14:26 is addressed only to men. That the Greek uses a masculine gender pronoun does not necessarily preclude Paul from including women in the discussion. Also, according to D.A. Carson, this argument does not meet Paul’s standard criteria and pattern for providing a quotation of and a subsequent defense. Specifically, Carson states that this would be the longest quotation from Paul’s opponents in the letter with the shortest response. With Paul’s writings there is simply no example or precedent for a quotation with such a detailed argument. According to Carson, when Paul quotes an opponent it is usually short and then followed by a “sustained qualification,” and Paul’s response is unambiguous in the context.
- The text is simply a concession by Paul, in order to accommodate cultural mores and/or rabbinic practices. Paul was simply following the normal accepted practices of the synagogues, where women did not take an active role, so that he would not offend any of the Jewish Christians that were worshipping in Corinth. While their native Greek counterparts may have not been disturbed by a woman’s voice in the assembly, Jewish decorum and cultural etiquette created difficulties for female involvement. To further this point it is important to note that at no time did Paul (in this text or in 1 Timothy 2:8ff) ever state or imply that it was sinful for a woman to speak; he specifically says that it is shameful. In this regard it can be argued that Paul sees this issue similarly to head-covering in chapter 11—a matter of honor and shame.
While this argument is viable and these evidences are noteworthy, they are not without difficulty. In 14:34, Paul uses the weight of the Law to reinforce his point (though strangely for him, he does fail to offer any specific quote). Would Paul make references to the Law to support a claim that is in opposition to what he has just previously written? This seems unlikely. Also, when Paul does refer to the Law it is in relation, not to his honor and shame argument, but instead that women should be in submission.
- Paul is arguing that women are not to participate in the judging of the prophets. In this instance his prohibition is specific and limited to prophecy (and perhaps speaking in tongues). In fact, the wider context of the passage seems to be pointing in this direction. More specifically, Paul is admonishing the Corinthian church to maintain order in the worship, particularly when it comes to their members sharing their spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. Paul directs them to ensure that there are interpreters present and other prophets available to weigh what is said (14:28-29). It would stand to reason that when Paul prohibits women from speaking, the specific context would be instrumental in a proper interpretation. Thus, the prohibition is aimed at (and limited to) women who would seek to interpret tongues and/or weigh prophecies shared with the church.
It would seem that Paul was allowing women to prophecy (11:5) but not permitting them to weigh the prophecy because this would involve them in a teaching function in the assembly. And in accordance with Paul’s direction in 1 Timothy 2:12, it is clear that women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men. Also, women are not allowed to ask questions during this time because that may be perceived as judging.
However, there are difficulties with this interpretation. First, it is problematic to conclude that prophesying, which Paul allows in 11:5, would not be considered teaching (presumably because it is done under the auspices of spiritual giftedness), while the weighing of prophecies would be considered teaching or having authority (which would also be a manifestation of the gift of prophecy). At best, that conclusion is troublesome. Second, in order to connect the judging or weighing in 14:29 to what Paul states in 14:34, one must skip past 14:33a, which can be viewed as presenting a closure to the discussion—and 14:33b then would be the beginning of a new topic, sentence or line of thinking. Thirdly, the verb lalelo (to speak) is also deserving of consideration. This interpretive choice inherently defines lalelo to include only speech that involves weighing or judging. Not only is this not the dominant definition, it is entirely inconsistent with the manner in which Paul has been using the word.
- Paul is specifically censuring the incessant shouting and wailing of women that were known to be a part of Greco-Roman cults in Corinth. The internal evidences alone indicate strong influences of pagan cults in the Corinthian church. Making this connection to those same influences in this regard is not difficult. And it is possible that lalelo (to speak) may simply refer to unintelligible speech or babbling.
However, this having been said, the context does not necessarily agree with this assessment of lalelo. Instead, it seems that the context argues for intelligible speech. And again, this is not the normal definition of the word. Other than asking questions (14:35), there is absolutely no textual evidence which would suggest that any women were being disruptive. Nevertheless, assume that Kroeger’s assertions are accurate; and Paul was responding to a group of women who transferred their pagan rituals from their previous religious practices into the church assembly. This still fails to explain why Paul would enjoin this directive to all the “churches of the saints.” Are we to conclude that cultic babbling and wailing was also a troublesome point of contention in the churches in Jerusalem?
- Paul is prohibiting all public speaking, whether inspired or uninspired, by women that would cause them to exercise any leadership in the assembly. This interpretive approach is likely the most common among the fundamentalist “branch” of evangelicals. This is particularly true within the mainstream Churches of Christ. In a modern context, this prohibition is extended to include all forms of audible communication so that women are not allowed to ask questions, lead prayer, lead in singing (in any fashion), read Scripture or share any spiritual gift.
Of course, one need not look far to find difficulty with this interpretive approach. To take such the censuring to such an extreme, either invalidates Paul’s previous comments in 11:5 or renders Paul as inconsistent and contradictory—condemning what he just affirmed and encouraged. Any value with this interpretation rests solely on the extent to which it can be reconciled with 11:5.
- The text in question, 14:34-35 is a post-Pauline, scribal interpolation. Early in the textual history of 1 Corinthians a scribe added a marginal gloss to the text so that it may be harmonized with 1 Timothy 2:8-15. At a later date the text was placed in its current location. The Western manuscript provides evidence that some scribes inserted the marginal gloss after verse 40 (at the end of the chapter); which would make sense to place it at the end of the chapter if it was being included after the text was already written. It seems clear that at some point a scribe decided to insert the two verses into their current location, and in the process created a multitude of interpretive dilemmas that have yet been resolved. There are three specific evidences supporting this interpretation. First, it is in direct contradiction to 11:5; and explaining the contradiction requires, at best, biblical gymnastics. Second, the two verses interrupt the flow of the context. Third, the phrase “as the Law also says,” is foreign to Paul.
While this interpretation is argued well by it’s defenders and has ample evidence in favor of it, there is no textual tradition that supports the claim for these verses not being original. Every manuscript available today includes these verses.
There are three keys that will be helpful in proceeding towards the most accurate interpretation and understanding of these texts. First, there is no worthwhile evidence which suggests that the two different texts represent instructions for separate assemblies—Paul was in fact referring to one general or generic assembly in each of these passages. Referring to the two passages in chapter eleven (11:2-16 and 11:17-34), Paul does not use his customary Περὶ δὲ (which would indicate a response to a written question or concern) in either verse two or verse seventeen. This would seem to indicate that he is responding to information that was shared by some of his visitors from Corinth. In 11:2 Paul praises them for maintaining the traditions; while in 11:17 he says that he will not praise or commend them. The use of the word παραδοσισ in verses two and twenty-three connect these two passages together under a single theme. After discussing the troubling idea of pagan worship in 10:14-22, Paul gives his attention to proper Christian worship in 11:2-14:40. Because there is such a clear symmetry, and because there are no breaks in thought or context, the appropriate conclusion here is that Paul is referring to the same general assembly.
Further, the content of the text assumes that Paul is referring to a public and mixed assembly. Paul is focusing on male and female relationships within the context of praying and prophesying (activities that take place during the Corinthian worship). Prophesying is never intended to be a private experience but for the entire gathered church. It is something that happens “through believers in the context of the church where prophecy may be evaluated” (14:23-29). Additionally, 11:16 clearly demonstrates that this was a concern for the entire assembly, not merely a portion of it.
Also, if in 11:2-16 (where Paul affirms women praying and prophesying), he was supposedly referring to a divided assembly, then why would it be necessary for Paul to instruct women to pray and prophesy with their heads covered. If there were no men present in this assembly then there would be no reason to honor her husband or father by keeping her head covered. For Paul, the issue of head-covering is based solely on public propriety and scruples (i.e the honor/shame phenomenon). Simply put, the restriction Paul places on the women is “coherent only in a public setting,”
Second, there is no reason to conclude that Paul would ever forbid in chapter fourteen that which he has just permitted in chapter eleven. It is difficult enough to entertain the idea that Paul would contradict himself in the first place, however, to do so in such proximity and on such a weighty matter makes the idea preposterous. As much as Interpretation #5 may appear to be reasonable (perhaps even the most reasonable), it must be rejected because it cannot adequately answer the tension between chapters eleven and fourteen.
The third interpretive key is that any interpretation which suggests that Paul does not authorize women to pray and prophecy in chapter eleven ought to be rejected as fundamentally flawed. First of all, there is no hint, or evidence, of any disapproval in Paul’s comments concerning women’s participation as prophets and prayer leaders. In fact, it is worthwhile to draw our attention back to Acts 2:17-18 where Peter clearly expressed an expectation for a female prophetic voice. Also, Paul’s leading comments which introduce this passage reveal a total approval of the actions of the Corinthians. He was commending them for the way in which they maintained the traditions that had been handed down to them. Clearly, among those traditions was the active practice of prophecy—from both males and females. Paul’s only corrective was for them to ensure that they adhered to the cultural decorum of honoring their heads.
1 Corinthians 11:10 provides additional noteworthy evidence. When Paul directs men to pray and prophecy he says that a man “ought not to cover his head” (11:7). However, when he directs women on how to pray and prophecy he does not mention covering their heads. Instead, he says that ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς (they should have authority on their head). Why the difference in the language? Why not just say that men should not cover their and women are to cover their head. This interesting caveat should not be dismissed lightly. In fact, it seems to be worth an extra measure of scrutiny. The principle word, authority, is εξουσια; and it is in the active voice, not the passive. If it were in the passive then it ought to be translated and interpreted to indicate that while wearing a covering she wears the sign of her husband or father’s authority. The key is that the authority does not belong to her. Instead, since it is in the active voice the translation and interpretation changes to describe her as the one having the authority. This is certainly an awkward and challenging translation. Help is found by looking to Paul’s other uses of authority in 1 Corinthians. Of the nine times Paul uses this word (in 1 Corinthians) eight are clearly in reference to the person having the right or authority to make a choice. For example, between 9:4-9:18 Paul uses the word five times referring to his rights as an Apostle. In the same manner it seems that Paul is stating that the woman who is properly covered has the right to pray and prophecy in the assembly.
Assuming that there are no additional (viable) points to consider and that all the information has been brought forth by the literature, then I am at something of an impasse. While some of these options seem to have more validity than others, it is clear that each potential interpretive choice carries objections and difficulties that cannot be answered—at least not fully answered. An observation worth noting at this point is that any conclusion reached must be approached with caution and not a great deal of confidence. To do otherwise idles on foolish considering that the learned scholars that have weighed in on the issue are not close to an agreement (they can’t even narrow the choices to three or fewer).
This having been said, the fundamental challenge with these two texts is that if 14:34-35 are taken literally or at face value there is a stark contradiction with 11:5, where Paul clearly authorizes women to speak (in the form of prophesying and praying). If I am to believe that Paul did indeed write these texts, then there must be an explanation for 14:34-35. In other words, he could not have literally meant that 1) women are not permitted to speak in the assembly and 2) that was the normal expectation for all the churches. At this point, we return to the aforementioned problem that no interpretation sets itself apart from the others. This leaves the interpreter with trying to pick out the interpretation that has been picked apart the least by the scholars; not exactly the most promising method of scholarship.
At this point, one option remains—that the text in 14:34-35 is an interpolation by a post-Pauline editor. It should be said immediately that this interpretation is taken with a great deal of trepidation. It is conceded from the start that each of these following arguments are not without challenges.
- The text in 14:26-40 makes more sense without vss. 34-35.
- Without a certain understanding on what Paul would have meant, we are left with an obvious contradiction to 11:5. As has been demonstrated, any attempt to explain this contradiction is met, at best, with difficult arguments to reconcile; and at worse, the interpreter is left performing biblical gymnastics which further distorts the understanding of the text.
- 14:34-35 contains language and idioms that are foreign to confirmed Pauline texts.
At the most basic level, the one certainty which can be concluded from this study is that to use 14:34-35 as a proof-text to prohibit women from utilizing their spiritual gifts in the assembly is misguided and actually limits the involvement of the Holy Spirit.
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