This passage is not easy to understand, not least because certain interpretations offend many modern sensibilities. There are some (relatively minor) issues of textual criticism and of translation. There are some difficult referents, like "law" in verse 34. Moreover, the "crystal clear" line of total silence for women is difficult to adopt because in 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul seems to assume that some women will prophecy:
But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head
Some have objected that it is a fallacy to assume from this that Paul thinks women ought to prophecy in church. In their understanding, he holds off on giving his full opinion of the matter until 14:34, but there is only concerned with head coverings for the moment in chapter 11. I am not convinced, in chief because Paul has no reason to mention praying and prophesying in Chapter 11 unless it were a situation that he anticipates will happen.
This passage is made more difficult by the fact that we have little historical understanding of church meetings at the time. Thankfully the text gives us some context. Paul has just finished discussing the gifts of the Spirit, arguing for the principle that they are given for the purpose of building up. Verse 14:26 marks a transition, as Paul moves into some practical considerations.
After laying down some instructions for speaking in tongues, he also gives some instructions for prophecy. "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said." (14:29 ESV) This is the immediate context for the verses under our consideration.
My contention is that Paul expects the women (and possibly just the wives) to remain silent during the weighing of prophecies.
- As we have just seen, the immediate context for these verses is the giving and weighing of prophecies in the assemblies. It is possible that Paul abruptly transitions to an entirely different topic, but he immediately returns to prophecy again in 37; it would seem like an altogether off-topic insertion.
- If women are, per Chapter 11, permitted to prophecy, total silence becomes impossible to accept.
- Verse 14:35 says "If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home." To me this suggests the context of weighing prophecies.
- Paul's chief concern seems to be shame. In Paul's thought (following Chapter 11) shame moves upward to your head, in this case to a woman's husband. It's not hard to see how a man would be shamed if his wife began to weigh his prophecy. I can also see how it would bring shame on a man in that culture to have his prophecy weighed by any woman in general; but I am not certain of it.
- My reason for thinking it could be just the wives in view is that 1) the word for women can also be translated wives, and 2) the referent to asking their husbands at home.
For these reasons, I think it is best not to see Paul's instructions as meaning total silence for women in the assemblies, but silence during the time of weighing prophecies.