1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in Context
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
We have deliberately looked first
at the overall evidence from Paul’s letters before examining these verses. 1
Corinthians 14:34-35 is often quoted with no awareness that the normal picture
presented in the New Testament is very different. Do these three verses show
that Paul’s teaching is the opposite from that otherwise observable in his
As in all
the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For
they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law
says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at
home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?
If any one
thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am
writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognise this, he
is not recognised. So, my brethren [= brothers and sisters], earnestly desire
to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be
done decently and in order. (1
“Let all things be done for edification”
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians about AD 54 from Ephesus. Chapter 12
begins “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren...”. “Now concerning”
indicates that Paul is taking up an issue reported to him. As we explain in
Chapter 6 of this book (pages 40-47), he addresses both brothers and sisters.
He makes this clear by expressions like “every
one” (verse 6), “each” (verse 7), “we were all
baptized into one body ... all were
made to drink of one Spirit” (verse 13).
Chapter 12 stresses that although
the brothers and sisters have different gifts, apportioned by the Spirit “to
each one individually as he wills” (verse 11), these gifts are all to
contribute to the upbuilding of the one body, the one community, “that there
may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for
one another” (verse 25).
1 Corinthians 13 emphasises the
importance of Christian caring and concern. Love is much more important than
the exercise of any of the gifts of prophecy or understanding, knowledge or
faith. “Love ... is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way”
Chapter 14 starts: “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the
spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (verse 1). These words are
addressed to everybody in the ecclesia. All should desire to prophesy, but in
the interests of love, some restriction is necessary. Speaking in tongues is
valuable to the individual with this gift, but not helpful to others unless
someone is present to explain the meaning. By contrast, prophecy is valuable to
all for “he who prophesies edifies the church” (verse 4). We need to remember
that “he” is the normal way of referring to both male and female in general
statements. Paul has said he wishes all
to do this (verse 5), and there can be no doubt that both sisters and brothers
spoke in prophecy, as shown by 1 Corinthians 11 and as foretold in Acts 2:17.
There can be no doubt either that
the context is a whole meeting of the ecclesia – not some private occasion.
“If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues ... if all
prophesy, and an unbeliever or outside enters, he is convicted by all, he is
called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed; ... he will
worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
When the believers gather, each one contributes “a hymn, a lesson
[teaching], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (verse 26). Everyone is involved, but
there is a restriction: “Let all things be done for edification” (verse 26).
The purpose is to build people up. This cannot be achieved if those who speak
use an unknown language (verse 16), nor if they all speak at once, so that no
one can understand what is said. The numbers permitted to speak are to be
restricted: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three,
and each in turn; and let one interpret” (verse 27). If this is not possible,
“... let each of them keep silence (sigan
= “to be silent”) in church and speak to himself and to God” (verse 28). Likewise,
a restriction is placed on the prophets: “Let two or three prophets speak, and
let the others weigh what is said” (verse 29).
Just as the speakers in tongues are told to be silent in certain
circumstances, so too are the prophets: “If a revelation is made to another
sitting by, let the first be silent” (sigan)
(verse 30). The silence is not permanent; it refers to the particular situation
in which confusion, lack of learning, lack of encouragement are taking place:
“You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn, and all be encouraged;
and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of
confusion but of peace” (verse 33). To resolve the confusion, uproar and
unedifying speaking of numerous people at the same time, Paul has enjoined
silence on two occasions (verses 28 and 30), and this on those who are taking a
prime part in the meeting. Thirdly he enjoins silence (sigan, the same verb) on “the women” – not on those who are
speaking acceptably as outlined above (one at a time) but on the women whose
speaking is adding to the confused uproar which Paul is trying to stop. There
are three clues to the fact that it is disorderly speaking to which Paul
refers: “... they... should be subordinate, as even the law says” (verse 34);
“If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at
home”; “... it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Believers are to be submissive to
one another, and wives are to be submissive to husbands (Ephesians 5:21-22).
Speaking while others were speaking, would be lacking in submission to the
other brothers and sisters. “If there is anything they desire to know” suggests
the women were asking questions. Perhaps they were taking part in weighing up
what the prophets said (verse 29) but in a disruptive and arrogant manner.
Asking questions is not something likely to be done by the prophets (brothers
or sisters) who spoke to the ecclesia to edify the church (verses 4, 24 &
25) and to convict the unbelievers. The context is of women who lack knowledge
and who need to be instructed. Hence Paul’s command: “If there is anything they
desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.” “... it is shameful for a
woman to speak in church” is an appropriate comment on disruptive behaviour. It
is not relevant to orderly speech by a woman who speaks to the whole church in
prophecy, or to one of those who edifies the church with “a hymn, a lesson, a
tongue, or an interpretation” (verse 26).
Anticipating that some in Corinth
would not be pleased at his attempt to ensure good order, Paul then challenges
them all: “What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only
ones it has reached? If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he
should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord”
(verses 36-37). Those who were enjoying prophesying and making no effort to
control how they spoke (verse 32) and those who felt that unrestrained speaking
with unintelligible tongues was a credit to them, would pit their experience
against Paul’s. Hence Paul’s strong response. But the conclusion is clear: “So,
my brethren [brothers and sisters], earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not
forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in
order” (verse 39).
When seen in the context of the whole chapter, the verses
commanding silence on speakers in tongues (verse 28), on prophets (verse 30),
and on women (34 & 35) have an immediate and understandable relevance: “God
is not a God of confusion but of peace” (verse 33). But Paul’s words cannot be
used to argue that orderly speaking
by women, then or now, should be forbidden.
Three Other Possible Explanations
We have suggested how the verses
commanding silence can be properly understood within the whole chapter. There
have been various other attempts to unravel the difficulty of why Paul approves
of women speaking in chapter 11 and most of chapter 14, but appears to forbid
their speaking at the end of chapter 14. The three main
suggestions (which also permit a consistent interpretation of the apostle’s
teaching) are that Paul quotes his opponents and refutes them; or that the
passage refers to women calling out questions or chattering; or that the words
are interpolated here from a different context.
(1) Paul quotes his opponents and then refutes them
A notable feature of 1
Corinthians is that Paul repeatedly appears to quote from people in Corinth or
to paraphrase things they are reported to have said. He then gives his reply.
Some translations put quotation marks round comments such as “All things are
lawful for me” (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). Likewise, 1 Corinthians 7:1 can read:
concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to
touch a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1)
It is therefore argued that this passage should be punctuated:
... God is
not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints.
should keep silence in the assemblies for they are not permitted to speak, but
should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire
to know, let them ask their husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to
speak in the assembly.”
the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If
anyone thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual he should acknowledge that what I
am writing to you is a command of the Lord.... So, my brethren [brothers and
sisters], earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
but all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:33-40)
In written discussion today (and often in emails) people quote
what has been said and then answer it. There were no quotation marks in the
ancient texts, but the recipients would obviously recognise their own wording.
Verse 36 starts with an expression (the word “e” in Greek, translated as “What!” in KJV and RSV) which, some
commentators suggest, can show strong disagreement with what has just been
verse consists of two rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions are not asked
to obtain an answer, but to put the listeners on the spot; to challenge them
mentally to agree or disagree.
vary as to how they translate these questions. KJV and RSV present them as
surprised, pained, questions:
Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has
reached? If anyone thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual he should acknowledge
that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord....
NIV translates as two straightforward questions:
the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
If any think they are prophets or are spiritually gifted, let them acknowledge
that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.
Either way, Paul sounds frustrated and exasperated. Why? Not
because women were speaking, because he has frequently just instructed both
brothers and sisters to do so, in an orderly manner, when the ecclesia meets
rhetorical questions make clear sense, however, if we conclude that Paul quotes
his opponents in verses 34-35, opponents who claim that their understanding of
the word of God (“as also saith the Law”, KJV) forbids women to speak at all.
Paul’s two rhetorical questions therefore object to the teaching on women’s
silence in verses 34-35.
Paul wants his readers to answer
mentally: “No, the word of God did not originate with us. We are not the only
people it has reached. Therefore we accept that what you, Paul, say is the
The Lord’s command is summed up in verse 39: “Therefore, my
brothers and sisters (adelphoi), be
eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should
be done in a fitting and orderly way” (NIV, inclusive language).
The comment “as even the law says” would fit well with the
possibility that former members of the synagogue wish to return to the type of
meeting where only the men speak, where women sit apart from the men, and where
any learning by the women would be at home. The reference to the law could either
be to a Jewish understanding of the Old Testament, or to the Jewish oral law
where women were forbidden to address the congregation in the synagogue:
taught: All are qualified to be among the seven [who read], even a minor and a
woman, only the Sages said that a woman should not read in the Torah out of
respect for the congregation.
(Babylonian Talmud, Megilla “The
Scroll of Esther” 23a)
It is interesting that The
Bible Translator (January 1995) suggests the following as an alternative
which should be offered in translations.
of you say, “Women should be silent in the churches, because they are not
permitted to speak. As the Jewish law says, they should be subordinate to men.
If there is anything they want to know, they should wait until they get home
and then ask their husbands. It is shameful for women to speak in church.” What
kind of thinking is that? You are acting as if the word of God came from you!
And you men, don’t ever think that you are the only ones who receive this word!
If, therefore, verses 34-35 are the words of Paul’s
opponents, objecting to the new freedom in Christ now given to the women, this
would match consistently with our previous descriptions of Paul’s teaching and
observations have been made to support the idea of this being a quote from
those who opposed Paul’s approval of sisters speaking in the ecclesia.
(1) It is a strange change to suddenly say: “... your women” (KJV). Paul has hitherto been
addressing both brothers and sisters, repeatedly using inclusive language, “...
all of you”, “everyone”.
(2) These verses seem to disrupt the flow of Paul’s writing. If,
however, they are a quotation from those who oppose Paul’s teaching, the whole
of 1 Corinthians 14 fits together smoothly.
(3) When Paul cites the Law (as in Romans 3:19; 1 Corinthians
9:8), he usually gives the actual quote and explains it. This does not happen
(4) Paul elsewhere cites the Law by way of illustration. As far as
we can see, he never says that Christians have to keep the Law, and never
quotes the Law as a restrictive command for believers in Christ. He goes beyond
the Law to the spirit of it, to its fulfilment, e.g. Galatians 5:16-18 “If you
are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
(5) It was typical of the Judaisers to try to apply the Law as a
restrictive rule: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the
law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Or like the Pharisees to Jesus: “Why are you doing
what it is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” (Luke 6:2).
Paul said: “… I myself am not under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20) and much of
his writing was to make exactly this point: “Now that faith has come we are no
longer under the supervision of the law.” It is unusual, then, if Paul suddenly
cites the Law in 1 Corinthians 14:34 in a manner which is so untypical of his
teaching everywhere else.
(7) The phrase “it is not permitted” sounds like reference to a
pre-assumed legal position rather than a new statement by the apostle. It is
uncharacteristically impersonal if this is an instruction from Paul himself.
(8) “... let them ask their husbands at home” The assumption is
that all women are married, and that any husband is able to answer any wife’s
religious questions. This is very traditionally patriarchal (Jewish or pagan), but not like Paul who
asks that people make up their own minds and take responsibility for their own
decisions (Romans 14:5).
(9) “And if they will learn any
thing, let them ask their husbands at home” (KJV). “...if...” The Jews were
ambivalent about education for women, but Jesus and Paul advocated and
(10) The tone of 1
Corinthians 14:36-38 sounds like an outright dismissal of the previous section,
with a contrast between “the law says” and “what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord”, hinging on the
challenging question “What! Did the word of God originate with you…?” Compared to assertions based on appeal to “the law”,
Paul claims authority from the Lord.
(2) The women are not to call out questions or to
chatter to one another during the meeting.
The suggestion here is that some
women were disrupting the meeting by calling out to their husbands with
questions or by talking to each other. Hence “If there is anything they desire
to know, let them ask their husbands at home.”
Talking can happen today in orthodox Jewish synagogues. Here is a
letter of complaint which appeared in 1989 in the Jewish Chronicle:
service began, the congregants made us welcome but, unfortunately, the handful
of women present talked incessantly throughout the service.... As if that were
not bad enough, two young mothers arrived, in close succession, carrying tiny
babies, one of whom proceeded to scream, the other to gurgle as babies
obviously tend to do. The noise reached deafening proportions (the service
continuing throughout) and, in desperation, my friend leaned across and
demanded that the screaming child be removed.... [A quarrel ensued.] The
service disintegrated and there was total uproar.
This was in England. Synagogue means “meeting place”, and ordinary
conversation can take place among the women while the men run the activity we
would describes as a “service”. Where women had by custom been excluded from
participation, they would be inclined to continue in the Christian meeting as
they had done previously when in the synagogue (Acts 18:7-8). To instruct the
women not to speak but to be in silence would seem thoroughly appropriate to
such a context, as it is today when talking during a meeting can be disruptive.
The Bible Translator also suggests the following
come together to worship, the wives should refrain from talking. In fact, they
should not talk at all, since as the law says, they are subordinate to their
husbands. If they want to find out about anything, they should wait until they
get home and then ask their husbands. It is shameful for wives to be talking
during the church meeting.
This is not relevant to women who are prophesying or praying or
teaching, doing these things “decently and in order”.
(3) This passage is an interpolation – added later
Although all manuscripts contain
verses 34-35, some place them after verse 40. Various reasons can be suggested
for this. Did a scribe accidentally miss the words out, and then put the
omitted verses below? Or did one of Paul’s critics write these remarks in the
margin, and a subsequent copyist put them into the text?
After New Testament times there
was a move away from the freedom in Christ experienced in the New Testament
ecclesias towards a new legalism, with a male priesthood separated from the
ordinary believers and a growing antipathy towards women. At such a time these
verses could have been added. That additions are possible is shown in a passage
like 1 John 5:7-8 which is included in the King James Version but is generally
regarded as an interpolation because it is not found in the earlier
However, although interpolation
of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a possibility, the fact that these verses appear
in every manuscript, and the Western manuscripts which place them in a
different position are considered less reliable, has made it impossible so far
to demonstrate interpolation on manuscript evidence.
It can be observed that the repetition of en tais ecclesiais (“in the assemblies/churches” at the end of 33
and in the beginning of 34) has a clumsy feel to it, but would be just the kind
of effect produced where an editor or collector of Paul’s writings might have
thought “Here is a suitable point to put in that comment against women
Another possibility is that Paul
himself wrote these verses in a different context, perhaps addressing the
problem elsewhere of women chattering as in the synagogue, and they were then
added at this point in his letter when the material was collected.
Paul forbids the women to take part in judging the prophets as in 1 Corinthians 14:29,
Let two or
three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
In that case, why does he not simply say: “Do not let your women
Paul forbids sisters to speak in formal
meetings. But were the earlier
references to women praying and prophesying not to formal meetings of the
ecclesia? Here Paul says en tais ecclesiais,
and en ecclesia = “in the churches/assemblies/meetings”, or “in the
meeting”. The same expression is used in verse 28 en ecclesia “in the
meeting”. Verse 23 says “if the whole church [ecclesia] assembles”, verse 26 says “when you come together” – and
this is the section where Paul says (verse 5) “I want you all ... to prophesy”,
and (verse 31) “You can all prophesy ... one by one”. 1 Corinthians 11 where
sisters and brothers pray and prophesy is also generally considered a meeting
of the ecclesia, hence the discussion about veils. To suggest therefore that
Paul is restricting sisters from speaking in formal meetings, but not at
others, seems to be reading modern ideas of formal and informal back into the
first century and making a distinction not observable in 1 Corinthians.
Praying and prophesying were inspired by the Spirit, so it was correct for women and men to pray and prophesy, but
without the spirit, women should not speak. This is certainly not what the
apostle Paul says. If women are excluded on this basis, why not the men? All
the activities described in 1 Corinthians 14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4 are
regarded as the work of God through His Spirit. If God found it acceptable to
work in a speaking manner through both brothers and sisters in Christ in the
first century, why not now?
Does Anyone not Try to Interpret Their Way Out?
“Let your women be silent in the churches.” As far as we are
aware, no Christadelphian actually accepts this command as it stands. In all
ecclesias, sisters do not remain silent: they sing, as do the brothers. The
only people to have taken this literally was the Roman Catholic church of the
middle ages, where women (and girls) had to remain silent. To get the
high-pitched tones for the singing, choir boys were castrated – castrati. The last surviving one died as
recently as 1861.
We would say, of course, that this is to misuse the passage.
Surely 1 Corinthians 14 says, “They are not permitted to speak”? “Ah, yes”, a medieval Catholic could have replied, “but the
word translated speak is lalein,
which means ‘speak’, ‘sing’, ‘make a noise’. The same word is used in Ephesians
5:19 ‘addressing [lalein] one another
in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.’ The Apostle Paul forbids women to do
that. ‘They are not permitted to make a noise.’ ”
So, we Christadelphians all decide by context that Paul didn’t
mean women shouldn’t sing.
We suggest in this book that similarly we should all decide by
context that it should only be taken as a ban on disorderly speaking.
General Conclusions on 1
Without more specific information
on actual events in Corinth, it is not possible to distinguish between some of
the alternative possibilities. But we don’t need to. We can be confident that
Paul’s words were directly relevant to the problems in Corinth. It is clear
that Paul is condemning disorderly speaking earlier in the chapter, not
properly organised praying or exhortation. This passage would not have seemed
problematic to those to whom it was first written. Being accustomed to sisters
addressing meetings in an orderly fashion, and in an ecclesia where Paul had
himself already established this as the procedure, it would not have occurred
to the early believers to take these words as a general ban on participation by
sisters. Once the male priesthood had taken over, however, this became a convenient
passage on which to build the male dominance of later centuries. Regrettably,
that legacy is with us still.
The following are
among many books which debate the varying possibilities:
word “e” often means simply “or”, but
it is used to introduce rhetorical questions, some of which by their very
nature imply a degree of surprise or exasperation. The King James Version three
times translates this usage of “e” as
“What!”, in 1 Corinthians 6:16 & 19, and in 1 Corinthians 14:36, whereas
other versions translate simply as questions.
Gilbert Bilezikian in Beyond
Sex Roles (Second edition, tenth printing 1999, pages 286-288) suggests
that “e” can frequently be translated
as “Nonsense!”, but this is only partly supported by the examples he gives. D.
A. Carson strongly disagrees with Bilezikian in “Silent in the Churches” (pages
149-151) in Recovering Biblical Manhood
& Womanhood (edited by Piper & Grudem, 1991). Carson’s view,
however, that “in every instance in the New Testament where the disjunctive
particle in question [“e”] is used in
a construction analogous to the passage at hand, its effect is to reinforce the
truth of the clause or verse that precedes it” (page 151) is also open to
challenge. There are no passages precisely analogous to 1 Corinthians 14:36,
and it is unreasonable to assert, as Carson does, that verse 36 must be taken
to be endorsing verses 34-35. Rhetorical questions tend to be expressing challenge
or surprise, and in the context it is reasonable to consider that verses 34-35
are a quotation of Corinthian views to which Paul takes exception in verse 36.
A near parallel is 1 Corinthians 6:19 (a chapter in which most people agree
there are quotations from Corinth). Verse 18 is a strange comment if made by
Paul, but if it is a quotation from Corinth, to which Paul gives a rebuttal in
verse 19, it is more understandable, and the use of language is similar to 1
Corinthians 14:36. Here it is in the KJV but with quotation marks around the
fornication. “Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that
committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.” What? know ye not that
your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost [which is] in you, which ye have of
God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify
God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Corinthians 6:18-20)