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In 1st Corinthians 14:34-35 (NASB), Paul says:

34The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

Historically, what do we know about the format of early church services, and what does "speaking in church" signify? What was Paul's intent in conveying this command?

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This seems to be more theological than hermeneutical or exegetical. –  Lance Roberts Oct 5 '11 at 23:32
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@LanceRoberts: It could definitely be approached from a theological perspective. Here though, I'm interested in the proper exegesis of the passage (considering its historical context) and the corresponding application. –  jrdioko Oct 5 '11 at 23:53
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@LanceRoberts, try to understand that the historical-grammatical method is a rather popular one, and certainly valid at least in terms of the scope of this site. This question is simply employing that method on these verses. –  Ray Oct 6 '11 at 2:32
    
@Ray, I'm fine with the h-g method, but that has nothing to do with the last sentence. I love talking theology, this site just isn't about that. Note, I do hope to find some time this weekend to write an answer though. –  Lance Roberts Oct 6 '11 at 4:32
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@LanceRoberts: I do see your point. I reworded the last sentence to be about author's intent instead of church application. –  jrdioko Oct 6 '11 at 5:14
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@Richard offered a decent but limited exegetical understanding of the text (he emphasized the definition of the verb but not the grammar behind it), albeit with a strong complementarian doctrinal bias. @Soldernal offered a good contextual study of the text, and made it clear that Paul permits women to speak elsewhere which is helpful to this discussion because Paul must be read in harmony within the context of his entire letter to the Corinthians. I have a few notes on various aspects of this text. I will begin with the second half of v. 33 since this is part of the same sentence in v. 34 (verse numbers and chapter divisions as we have them today weren't added to the text until the mid-16th century, so they should not be considered logical breaks in the text when interpreting scripture):

Exegetical Notes:

  • v. 33b. Paul's use of the phrase ὡς ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῶν ἁγίων ("as in all the worshiping assemblies [churches] of the saints") makes it clear that the worshiping assembly at Corinth is not being singled out for this teaching; it is the practice of all assemblies at this time. We should not strictly interpret ἐκκλησία (ecclesia) as 'church,' because the literal meaning at this point in history was "a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly," and this did not always imply gathering for worship. It is very important to note that in 1st century Greek culture, it was customary for women to refrain from speaking in public assemblies (ἐκκλησίαις). It is also important to note that we should not equate early assemblies with 'churches,' and thus this is likely not a transcultural principle. We read our 3rd–21st century bias into the text when we interpret ἐκκλησία as 'church' (and when we refer to buildings in our communities as 'churches,' which would have been foreign to the original hearers, who did not consider ecclesia and synagogues to be an apt comparison).
  • v. 34. As @Soldernal pointed out, the word for 'woman' and 'wife' is the same in Greek (γυνή). Because of the reference to husbands in v. 35, the word may be translated 'wives' here. But in passages governing conduct in assemblies like this (cf. 11:2-16; 1 Tim 2:9-15), the general meaning 'women' is more probable.
  • v. 34. The Greek tense for σιγάτωσαν ("should be silent") is present active imperative, which implies the continuation of an existing condition, thus "keep on remaining silent." In other words, Corinthian women were already silent. This exhortation isn't anything new for them.
  • v. 34. Total silence is not implied in other New Testament texts that use the verb σιγάω or the noun-form, σιγή (cf. Luke 9:36; 18:39; Acts 12:17; 21:40-22:2). Nor is absolute silence implied by the synonym ἡσυχάζω (noun form: ἡσυχία)—mentioned by @Richard, cf. Acts 11:18; 21:14; 22:2; 1 Timothy 2:11-12. 1 Timothy 2:11 is a major point in this discussion because Paul is making the same argument and yet uses the synonym that @Richard claims does not mean entirely silent. Thus the distinction between these two terms is largely a moot point in understanding this text. However, some scholars take the fact that Paul effectively makes this exhortation three times to mean that it is an absolute silence, which is worth noting.
  • v. 34. As @Soldarnal has pointed out, in light of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 which allows for women to pray or prophesy in the assemblies, the silence commanded here does not seem to imply the absolute restriction of women speaking in the assembly. Therefore some take "be silent" to mean not taking an authoritative teaching role, and others relate it to the preceding regulations about evaluating the prophets (v. 29). Here Paul would be indicating that women should not speak up during such an evaluation, since such questioning would be in violation of the submission to male leadership that is called for in Old Testament law.

Textual Criticism Notes:

"The evidence is both internal and external. First, the external evidence. The movement of the text itself hints that it was an interpolation which was placed in different parts of 1 Corinthians depending on the textual lineage (227ff). There is also a distigme which is used elsewhere to mark interpolations that is in the last line of 14:33, the correct place to mark 14:34-35 as an interpolation (232ff). Bishop Victor, between AD 541-544, corrected the text to omit 14:34-35 as an interpolation (246ff). Victor’s acumen for detecting interpolations is noteworthy, because he also omits the Trinitarian interpolation in 1 John 5:7-8 (246). MS88 omits the text, likely because it was copied from a manuscript which lacked the interpolation (249). Clement reflects a text without the verses (250-251). He notes other evidence as well (251ff). Payne also notes 9 lines of internal evidence for the text being an interpolation (253ff)."

  • Suffice it to say that Payne is not the only scholar who holds this view. Notably, Gordon D. Fee made this argument in his commentary on 1 Corinthians. Many biblical translators now include textual notes in modern translations indicating that these verses may be an interpolation.
  • It should be noted that many other respected scholars make a strong case that while vv. 34-35 were likely written in the margin, they very likely were written in the margin by the Apostle Paul himself, which would strengthen their authenticity. This is due to the fact that the verses are included, albeit in differing locations within the text, in all of the earliest manuscripts available for 1 Corinthians.
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+1 and giving additional good answers to questions that are already "answer-accepted" is heartily encouraged on the whole network - it is good answers like this one that build the site –  Jack Douglas Feb 13 '12 at 9:52
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On the present active imperative tense, I don't think this implies that the women were "already silent" or that this was known exhortation. In fact, I read it as meaning that the women started off the meeting in silence, but interrupted the speakers later on. It's the same tense Paul uses to say "let them ask" in verse 35, which seems pretty clear that they were not asking. –  Jon Ericson Feb 13 '12 at 19:20
    
@JonEricson you are correct, it could be translated that way. –  Daи Feb 13 '12 at 20:41
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When Paul (1Cor 14:33) was refering to the Law he may have used the term in its wider sense as the whole Torah including the 1st Book of Moses where it is stated that (as a consequence of the transgression in Eden) the man would from then on rule over the woman. (Without conflict there would have been no such order.)

The Law itself expands on the matter of rule rather implicitly. That a wife is being owned by her husband we can see in the last commandment of the ten (i.e. not to covet).

Furthermore it is to be noticed that women in general were not being directly addressed in public speech or letter. It was regarded inappropriate for a man to directly address another man's wife or daughter authoritatively. (If that was so, one can easily imagine how many would have felt about a woman speaking to men in public assembly.)

Regarding the Apostle's order for a woman when praying or speaking God's word to cover up her head (ch.12): This was more concerning her conduct in private, not for behaving in the presence of the ekklesia. (That is why he says: for the sake of the angels. He is at this point not yet dealing with matters concerning their public assembly.)

For Paul to use such clear and unyielding words as here (ch. 12 and 14 and elsewhere in other matters) the situation must have become outrageously chaotic in Corinth. (The conduct of some women was just one of the many difficulties they had. Their custom to speak out had probably not come up while the apostle was there. The same with other problems.)

Timothy, staying in Ephesus, received similar order by the same apostle (1 Timothy 2:12): But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. She must remain quiet.

The statement in his letter to the Galatian disciples about there being no distinctions in Christ refers to the promises to Abraham being and getting to be fulfilled in Christ and all that belong to Him. It is not declaring all offices (apostles, elders, teachers) to be the same and for everyone. (In this matter Christ had given no divergent example. He could have easily chosen some women as his Apostles.)

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A notable issue here is Paul's appeal to the law: "as the law also says." I would think, since Paul appeals to the law as a second witness to what he is prescribing, anyone who would interpret this passage then should necessarily include a reflection upon that phrase. But indeed, I know of nowhere in the Torah where women are commanded to be silent in assemblies, nor silent at all.

So what law then is Paul refering to?? In general, in almost every other place in scripture where Paul refers to "the law," he is talking about the law of Moses, is he not? This conundrum makes me even more partial to the argument that this text is an interpolation, not a real quote from Paul. But if for the sake of discussion we assume the text to be valid, then the question really does become, "What law?"

The only two answers to that question that have appeared so far in my research are:

a) the Jewish 'oral' law, the Talmud. Yet the Talmud is full of so much "stuff" of which Jesus blasted the Pharisees for clinging to traditions, rather than the Word of God. Would Paul really be appealing to the Talmud as an authority in this matter?

b) civil Roman law. I am not aware of the extent to which civil Roman law would prohibit women from speaking in a gathered assembly - especially if the assembly was occurring within the private home of a christian. Perhaps others would know better than I what this would really entail. All that I have read on it thus far has only been speculative.

It is possible that Paul really is refering to the Torah in some extremely abstract way that has eluded me here, but one would assume that if "the law also says" that it would say it pretty loud and clear. This does not seem to be the case.

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Hi Heather, welcome to the site! When you get a chance, take a look at our tour and faq pages to familiarize yourself with the site a bit more. Regarding this answer, I appreciated your reminder here that a good answer ought to address "the law." (+1) The explanation I have heard is that Paul is referring to women submitting to men (or wives to husbands), which is evident in the Law (i.e. Torah) in Sarah's behavior toward Abraham, etc. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 5 '13 at 17:56
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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.

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This is a great insight: "Paul's chief concern seems to be shame." Compared to modern cultures, it's quite likely the Corinthians were an honor or shame culture. In the Spanish language congregation I attend, women speak in church all the time. But they would never, ever contradict a man in public. To do so would deeply embarrass the man and, if she were married, her own husband. Thank you for this answer. +1 –  Jon Ericson Dec 2 '11 at 20:29
    
None of the answers address Paul's teaching that there is no male or female in Christ Jesus. If it that apparent contradiction is not explained, a full understanding of this passage cannot be claimed. Likewise, Jeremiah claims that all men will become pregnant. That sure confuses the issue concerning gender. –  Bob Jones Jul 8 '12 at 14:24
    
1Sa 2:9 He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail. Here the wicked are silent and 'concealed' in darkness. Perhaps Paul is making reference to this? –  Bob Jones Jul 8 '12 at 14:33
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@BobJones - I don't believe anything I've written in this answer contradicts anything in Galatians 3:28. Anyway, the OP did not ask how the two passages relate. –  Soldarnal Jul 10 '12 at 1:43
    
@soldarnal Does that mean you don't think the possibility that Paul isn't even speaking of a literal woman is even important if the OP didn't ask about it? or ever? –  Bob Jones Jul 10 '12 at 4:25
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Looking at the verse, we can see that the command is crystal clear for woman to not speak in church.

In fact, it mentions this four times in four different ways:

  1. The women are to keep silent
  2. they are not permitted to speak
  3. let them ask their own husbands at home
  4. it is improper for a woman to speak in church

To further illustrate the point of silence, we can see that the word being used here is sigaō, which means to "keep silent" or "to be conceled". By comparison, there's a less harsh word that could have been used, hēsychia, which means "quietness". That word comparison alone shows that complete silence is what is being commanded here.

Therefore, looking at the verse, it seems quite clear that silence was required of women.


An interesting note regarding the church at the time, B.B. Warfield mentions that there were no church buildings at that time:

Precisely what the apostle is doing is forbidding women to speak at all in the church... It would be impossible for the apostle to speak more directly or more emphatically than he has done here. He requires women to be silent at the church meetings; for that is what ‘in the churches’ means, there were no church buildings then.
“Women Speaking in the Church,” The Presbyterian, Oct. 30, 1919, pp. 8-9
Emphasis added

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I really think that this whole line is borderline (if not fully) doctrinal. However, with the text being so crystal clear, it's hard to interpret this in a way that that changes the meaning. Paul's meaning and intention were very clear (both textually and doctrinally) –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 19:14
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The context should be taken into account: Paul is teaching in this chapter about speaking in tongues. –  vasquez Nov 18 '11 at 8:40
    
@vasquez If you disagree with the answer, please post your own interpretation. From my interpretation, the passage is crystal clear. –  Richard Nov 18 '11 at 13:35
    
I don't necessarily disagree, but 1 Tim 2:12 is a much better, broader reference for your point IMHO. –  vasquez Nov 18 '11 at 17:01
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