The Problem Passages

Now that we have some understanding of what much of the Bible tells us about women’s roles in ministry, we are better able to interpret the ‘problem passages” in Paul’s writings. Let us first consider his words about women keeping silent in the churches:

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor. 14:34-35).

First, some question, for several combined reasons, if these are Paul’s instructions or his quotation of what the Corinthians had written to him. First, it is clear that in the second half of his letter, Paul was responding to questions the Corinthians had asked him in a letter (see 1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).

Second, in the very next verse, Paul writes what could be considered his reaction to the Corinthians’ blanket policy of silencing women in the churches:

Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? (1 Cor. 14:36).

The King James Version translates this verse in such a way that makes Paul sound even more amazed at the attitude of the Corinthians:

What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? (1 Cor. 14:36).

In either case, Paul is obviously asking two rhetorical questions. The answer to both is No. The Corinthians were not originators of God’s word, nor was God’s word only given just to them. Paul’s questions are obvious rebukes aimed at their pride. If they are his reaction to the two verses that immediately precede them, they seem to say, ‘Who do you think you are? Since when do you make the decrees regarding who God can use to speak His word? God can use women if He desires, and you are foolish to silence them.”

This interpretation seems logical when we take into consideration that Paul had already, in the same letter, written about the proper way for women to prophesy in the churches (see 1 Cor. 11:5), something that requires them to not be silent. Moreover, just a few verses after those under consideration, Paul exhorts all the Corinthians[1], women included, to ‘desire earnestly to prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:39). Thus he would seem quite contradictory to himself if he was indeed laying down a blanket command for women to keep silent in church gatherings in 14:34-35.

[1] Paul’s exhortation is addressed to the ‘brethren,” a term that he uses 27 times in this letter, and which clearly refers to the entire body of Christians in Corinth, not just the men.