Monday, February 12, 2018

1 Corinthians 14:34-35

At Cowley Church Community, we've just finished a little series in 1 Corinthians 12-14.  I wrapped up yesterday with 14:26-40, which is mostly about orderly worship.  But there are a couple of verses there (34-35), really quite detached from the main flow of the argument, which express the fairly controversial (!) suggestion that women should remain silent in church.  As if in mockery of my previous post, I found it impossible to preach these verses with precision.  So, here is an attempt to write up what I should have said yesterday, with apologies to the congregation which had to put up with my verbal faffing around the point.

Firstly, it's worth saying that part of the difficulty comes from the almost unique textual problems around these verses.  Many commentators have concluded that they aren't original, and there are strong arguments for their rejection: in one manuscript family they appear after our verse 40, which is hard to explain if they're original; read at face value, they flatly contradict what Paul has already said in chapter 11; and the subject matter interrupts Paul's discussion of prophecy and tongues, to which he returns in v36.  I feel that on balance these arguments are not conclusive.  Although the idea that these verses were added later would make sense of the way they move about in the manuscripts, it doesn't explain their universal presence (i.e., although some manuscripts have the verses after v40, no manuscripts omit the verses altogether).  I find Daniel Wallace's suggestion that Paul may have added the verses in the margin of the manuscript himself to be very interesting.  It would explain the manuscript evidence, and it makes sense of the topic: it's related to orderly worship, but not directly related to the aspect of orderly worship that Paul is mainly talking about here.

However - as a preacher, I dislike standing up to expound a text which I feel so unsure about.  I like to be able to say 'this is the word of the Lord' when Scripture is read, and I dislike having to say 'I think this is probably the word of the Lord'.  For your reassurance, I can't think of any other passage that would cause the same difficulty.  For now, let's assume Paul wrote these verses and that we have to deal with them as Scripture.  What do we do with them?

I suggested on Sunday that there are two approaches to these verses which in the end are just too simplistic.  On the one hand, we can just write them off as hopelessly outdated, a product of an earlier sexist age which we have now transcended.  Then we can just ignore them.  The problem is, it's not just these verses.  I know there are people, including some outstanding theologians, who disagree, but speaking for myself I cannot see any way to make the Bible's presentation of gender anything other than sexist in the eyes of our culture.  We'd have to be prepared to edit Scripture from front to back to get a version of gender that was acceptable - and the way things are going, we might have to re-edit every couple of years to keep up with the changing zeitgeist.  Nor would this be tinkering around the edges.  Obviously in some places (e.g. Ephesians 5), but implicitly throughout, gender is tied to the creation design of God for humanity and ultimately to the gospel.  We need to be careful that our reaction to the apparently unacceptable sayings of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 isn't to throw off the whole of God's revelation.

On the other hand, we could just insist that women be silent in church.  That is to say, we could take the command at face value and enforce it.  This is also easy, in its way.  Of course it will make us unpopular in the surrounding culture, but there is a certain ease to being an odd sect: strong identity markers, confident in the knowledge that we know what is right and everyone else is on the outside.  This would be, in its own way, easy, but I think it would be wrong.  We need to think about what the apostle Paul is doing when he writes his letters.  He isn't handing down isolated and arbitrary commands, but is thinking through the implications of the gospel for his readers.  He is doing theology.  So if Paul wrote this, it is reasonable to ask why, and to seek out his logic.  The difficulty here is that the logic is not obvious.  Nor is it obvious how we can reconcile it with chapter 11.

So what is to be done?

I think we have to take a step back and recognise a number of things. 

We have to recognise that we want these verses to go away, and that there are several different reasons for that.  We want them to go away because they are embarrassing in the face of our culture.  We want them to go away because we fear (rightly) that they can be used in oppressive ways, and indeed we suspect they may have been written to be used in those ways!  We want them to go away because they seem to contradict other passages of Scripture.  We want them to go away because, in our experience, there are women who appear to be gifted to speak in church.  Recognising that we have many motives, some noble and some not so much, to get rid of these verses, we should probably be cautious about actually doing so.  If they cause us difficulty, we should probably wrestle with that rather than just dispose of the difficulty.

We have to recognise that whilst we may not be able to easily make sense of these verses, they are not the only verses on the subject.  There is a whole Biblical exploration of the concept of gender, starting in Genesis 1 and proceeding to the marriage supper of the Lamb.  I am convinced that the overall picture is of difference and complementarity between men and women, and I am convinced that the various restrictions on the roles of women in the churches in the writings of Paul are part of that picture.  Recognising that doesn't make it straightforward to work out what our practice ought to be, but it does give the appropriate context for thinking these things through.

For what it's worth, I'm a sort of 'soft complementarian'.  That is to say, I think Scripture does teach that men and women are different and that this should be reflected in family life and church family life - but I don't think Scripture provides hard and fast rules for how those differences should show up.  I think in the Bible itself the expression of complementarity changes over time.  I think it's a mistake to try to draw up lists of essentially 'male' and 'female' attributes or roles; rather, I think complementarity is a dynamic thing, expressed differently in different cultures.  Having said that, I think the suppression or denial of these differences and their expression is part and parcel of a culture in flight from reality and subject to serious decline.  All in all, I'm happy with the line we've adopted at CCC: elders are all male, because of their role in the church family, but under that headship we want to encourage women to be involved in all aspects of ministry.

Finally, we have to recognise that unless we go for one of the easy answers, we are going to have to do a lot of bearing with one another in love.  On Sunday I used the language of 'fudge' - that was a mistake.  We're not fudging anything.  We're seeking to be faithful to God's word as we understand it, and we need to recognise that in this area as in many others that is not as straightforward as 'read and obey'.  In our seeking to be faithful, we need to recognise that we could be wrong in some of our applications of God's truth - or indeed, that there might be multiple ways of being faithful in a given context.  We should, of course, try to show each other from Scripture where we think we're going wrong - but primarily we should be loving one another.  I think the recognition that it is complicated helps here!  We can give one another more leeway where interpretation and application are difficult.

Where does that leave us on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35?  Let's be frank: we're not going to silence women in the church, and for some that will look like disobedience.  If they're right, God have mercy on us.  I don't think they are right.  But I hope we will receive verses like this - even if we can't see how they should be applied to us directly - as brakes to prevent us from easily accepting our own culture's view of things.  Because they are hard, and at first glance offensive, they make us stop and think about the broader Biblical picture, and about our own practice.  And in that way they serve us, they open us up with their sharp jagged edges to the full spectrum of Scriptural critique and teaching.  In that sense, I hope we can get something from them.


  1. Well done that man!

    1. Maybe I should issue errata after every sermon...

  2. Helpful stuff, thank you.

  3. What might help solve the conradiction is that 11:17 and 14:26 talk of 'when you come together' after the material about women prophesying. So it makes sense to see 11:2-16 in a more informal, perhaps private, context. Although 'brothers' can mean 'brothers and sisters', it may well be gender specific in this case in 14:26 onwards.

    I think what this would do is to give men a specific role *as men* in the church, making masculinity about responsibility rather than machismo - the 'shamefulness' of a woman speaking would probably then be in overturning this order intended to keep the serpent out of the garden. And this would involve all the brothers being given the opportunity to speak rather than just the elders/preacher, encouraging growth in teaching responsibility for all. To my knowledge the only non-Charismatics that do this are the Plymouth Brethren.

    The complement to this is to not see the Sunday morning meeting (or mid-week meetings) as being specifically 'church', outside of which nothing of real important for the church happens, which I think is a source of the offence felt. The regaining of the daytime female domestic community reflected in Titus 2:4-5 is sorely needed as something truly worthwhile and of eternal value in the life of the church. But such has been effectively decimated in theory and practice, so a lot of puzzle pieces remain out of place in all this and it's hard to know what can be done.

    1. Not convinced the exegetical solution will work - it's hard to read 11:2-16 as referring to anything other than private worship. Note the parallel between 11:16 and the end of ch 14 (esp. v33b - see NIV2011, not ESV or NIV1984 - and v36).

      I think all the Brethren churches (not just the Plymouth sort) encourage the sort of participation you're talking about. I've experienced it once or twice, and I can see an immediate practical argument against it: most people just aren't gifted to teach or to speak publicly. Having said that, a more participatory public worship does seem desirable in the light of these chapters. Of course, Paul does not here deal with everything he would expect to see in worship - there are indications elsewhere of congregational singing and extended reading of Scripture and preaching. The key seems to be that many might be involved, but that everything be corporate (not just an individual worship experience in a coincidentally shared space).

      A lot of the gender stuff - including the stuff you mention in your last para - is subject to considerations of how something similar might be expressed in a contemporary culture which is so different. (Or, I suppose, the alternative, which would be to opt out of the culture completely. I'm not sure that's totally realistic, although I feel the appeal of it).

    2. It still doesn't seem impossible to me that there's a distinction (I presume you mean 'public worship'). Alternatively, 14:28 indicates it is possible to be silent and speak to yourself and God in the congregation, so that may be in view.

      Agreed on varying levels of ability... it may be as simple as reading a Bible passage.

      We don't want to do things differently to our culture unnecessarily. But it must be asked if we are given certain principles that we must hold to for the health of the church's inner society and to be salt to the world - a truly different substance to that around it. When it comes to how we raise our families, does the church look that much different, really? Or have we allowed much of our social life to be as shaped by a strange blend of post-industrial capitalism and Soviet values in much the same way as everyone else? How does that effect what Christian wives intend to do with their lives, when a local community of weekday Christian support is no longer particularly evident? What does it mean in terms of whose hands we put our children into? Such questions are rarely entertained, it seems to me. But if the church is to look like more than a Sunday morning group devoted to the study of a particular metaphysic I do think we need to let such considerations strike us.

  4. Elizabeth A6:55 pm

    Going through 1 Cor in Bible study at my church at the moment so helpful to come across this and maybe will listen to the sermons too :-). I'm guessing that of course there is a major cross reference here to 1 Tim 2, or at least when I first read the 1 Cor verses I was like 'hey that's like the 1 Tim 2:12 remain quiet/silent thing' and the 1 Tim 2 verses then gives more details...?

    1. 1 Tim 2 is certainly related, but there is a key difference. In that passage, the issue is authority, expressed in teaching. In 1 Cor it's wider - and particularly about asking questions. So the two places need to be brought into conversation, but I don't think they directly explain each other.