There is an old joke about a man who had just become a Christian. He loved Jesus. He knew Jesus saved him from his sin and he wanted to live his life following his Lord. He was told in church that to seek the Lord’s will he needed to read his Bible. He did not know much about the Bible so he decided that if God wanted to speak to him he would simply open up his Bible to a random page and see what verse God put before him. He opened to the book of Hosea and read this sentence in chapter 1, verse 2:
Go, take a prostitute as your wife and have children of adultery
He called his pastor real quick…
I hope you are seeing the point here, because I have made this point from the stage so many times I hope my voice rings in your ears. “What is the context?” The Bible obviously does not want you to go marry a prostitute, but I can make the Bible say whatever I want if I can just pick and choose verses and decide they are saying what I want them to say. So context is king. Though there are many more questions to ask when trying to determine the context of a verse, begin with these three:
1. Who was the book written to? A failing Israel? The people in Colossae? The Jewish people trying to convince them Jesus is the Messiah?
2. What are the surrounding chapters and verses talking about? This won’t really work with the Psalms and Proverbs, but overall this is a good question to ask.
3. How does this fit in with the overall story of redemption in the Bible? Despite what Andy Stanley says, this is the question you ask when reading the Old Testament and how the Old Testament story is carried over into the New Testament.
So let us take some time and apply this contextual exercise to some difficult verses we find in 1 Cornithians 14.
1 Corinthians 14:33b–35: As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
Unfortunately, men throughout the centuries have used this passage of scripture to silence or dominate women. Sometimes they are well-meaning, simply wanting to do what they think the Bible says (though they should learn how to study their Bibles in context). Others are not so kind. I mentioned these verses briefly this past Sunday and one woman came up to me after the service and said she suffered for years under a man who would quote this scripture whenever she would “talk back” to him (my words, not hers). And the kicker is, he was not even a believer! What an insecure boy. He felt right at home twisting the scripture to get what his sinful heart wanted. We should avoid that at all costs.
Now, let’s apply some rules to reading this passage:
Who was the book written to?
Here is something I say from the stage every now and then and I think it may make some people uncomfortable. The Bible was not written to us, though it was written for us. When Paul addresses His letters he did not write, “To Charles and Faith Church 2000 years from now….” He wrote, “To the church of God that is in Corinth,….” So, Paul will speak to things they are going through in their church at that specific time. He does this all the time. In Colossae he writes to a church were there are false teachers coming in teaching a false gospel. In Philippi he wants the believers to know that while he is in chains they need to persevere like he has in persecution. In Galatians he writes about circumcision enough to make me uncomfortable because that is what the church there is facing.
In Corinthians Paul is writing to a church that has so many problems that it makes me feel good about churches I have been a part of. This is a 1st century church, not a modern church with contemporary worship and a fog machine. This is a 1st century church in a town that would make Las Vegas look like a family destination. We have to take the 1st century context into mind here. In fact, beginning with chapter 7 Paul is specifically answering questions which the people of Corinth have written to him about. This passage is about this church.
Now, the Spirit-breathed scripture of God is still profitable to us. We learn about the nature and character of God, the Son Jesus Christ who came to conquer sin and death, our role as imagers of God, and our purpose as a universal church to crush Satan under our feet as we preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. The Bible was written for us, even 2,000 years later, so we have a lot to learn from this passage in 1 Corinthians 14.
What are the surrounding chapters and verses talking about?
These verses are Spirit-insipired, to be placed in a section in 1 Corinthians that is specifically teaching about the gifts of the Spirit. Paul sets up chapters 12-14 by saying, “Now concerning the spiritual gifts….” To tie down the context a little more, the last half of chapter 14 is talking about an orderly gathering of the saints in Corinth in regard to how speaking in tongues and prophecy function in a corporate setting. Even more specifically, this passage is about judging prophecy (v. 31-32). So, the women being silent has to do with what happens when people prophesy.
How does this fit in with the overall story of redemption in the Bible?
This is written to people who have already been converted, Spirit-filled, and now trying to work out how they live in light of the gospel. In the story of redemption this is in the missional phase. The church is the means by which God is going to take back the dark places in the world. This is sparked by local gatherings of people in their context and community. We need to learn from this because that is where we are today; on mission for God taking the world for Him as part of a local body of believers. This is why scripture is profitable to us, because we will always have situations where we need to figure out how to live in light of the gospel in our lives.
More specifically, this is about women in the story of redemption. Women are not excluded from the salvation that Jesus offers to all who believe. Women are not excluded from serving the body of Christ in most capacities, though Paul does have some limitations. Women are an integral part of the 1st century church and specifically to Paul himself. Because in the overall story of redemption, regarding women, we see these passages written by Paul:
Romans 16:1–7: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.
Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. [Underlines are my emphasis to point out the women]
1 Corinthians 1:11: For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.
1 Corinthians 11:4–5: Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.
From Paul himself we have scripture that praises women in ministry and the blessing they have been to him. A woman, Chloe, in Corinth had enough influence in the body in the city that she has her “people,” which means she is a leader. And in the gatherings of the body women were freely allowed to pray and prophesy in public. So in 1 Corinthians 14, in context of his own words, Paul cannot possibly mean that women are to have no role and be dead silent when a church gathers.
Then what does this passage of Spirit-inspired scripture mean when it says that women must be silent?
This is all about prophecy. Leading up to these verses Paul limits the number of prophets that can speak. Then says the people in the congregation are to judge them. There is to be an order to the gathering of the saints because God is not a God of confusion. Then Paul jumps directly to the women being silent. So, in context it seems Paul’s admonition for silence in reference to the church service being orderly in regards to prophecy. So the silence from women is in reference to the judging of prophecy.
Why can a woman not judge prophecy in the church at Corinth? There are probably two main reasons.
First, a 1st century woman was not educated like a 1st century man, especially in areas of religion. In judging the prophecies there would be many questions asked, references to the law, and discussions that went over the heads of the uneducated women. If they asked every question they had, the questioning would never end, and Paul is trying to limit the time spent on prophecy in a church gathering (v.29). That is why the command in verse 35 is that “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Paul wants the women to learn but wants them to not interrupt the church gathering and ask their more educated husbands at home. Not everything I say from the pulpit is crystal clear. More times than I like to admit I misspeak or leave out a clarification. You may want clarification from a statement I make, but you would not raise your hand and ask in the middle of the service. You would wait. In fact, many come ask for clarification after service or I am sure you talk about it on the way home or in your Home Group. With women being less educated they could not take up the service time asking all their questions, so Paul wants them to ask their more educated husbands at home.
The second reason in my mind captures what is “shameful” about a woman questioning a man. Remember this is the 1st century. In that culture a woman did not begin a conversation with a man. And men rarely started conversations with women that were not their wives, hence the reason for the woman at the well to be surprised that Jesus will talk to her at odds with the gender and racial lines society has adopted. In this culture a woman was considered scandalous if she started conversations with men that were not her husband. It was a shameful thing for a woman to do. In judging and questioning prophecies, it would lead to women questioning and starting conversations with men that were not their husbands, in public. In that society, it is unheard of and would be considered by everyone in attendance to be shameful.
I believe that this is the most consistent and culturally relevant way to view these verses of scripture. Let me reiterate that these verses are not about men silencing women in order to dominate or subjugate them. This is especially true with husbands and wives where men are called to love their wives as Jesus loved the church (which was 100% against the culture of the day).
To the men reading this, if you use verses like this, ripped from their original context, to silence your wife or dominate in an unhealthy way in your marriage you are living in sin. You go against the heart of the gospel when you treat your wife that way. Ask for forgiveness from God who will forgive and then ask your wife for forgiveness as well. Be a man that loves his wife rightly.
To the women reading this, if you have had these verses used to silence you in church then take encouragement from the context of the passage and the other times Paul writes about the amazing women he had minister to him. You are valued at Faith Church and you have a vital role to play in the life of the church and the Kingdom of God.
This is a very basic overview of the passage. There is much more scholarship on these verses than a space like this would permit. So, please email Charles@connect2faith.church if you have further questions.
Because this is a limited space blog, there are so many other questions that spring from a post like this. How far do we take the argument of context in relation to other things Paul wrote about? What really is for us today in Paul’s writing? What roles can women have in a church?
All of these are great questions and I will address some of these in the next few weeks.
Sources: Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, D.A. Carson.
The Beginners Guide to Spiritual Gifts, Sam Storms