Paul and Women
Did Paul really want to silence all the women in the churches? It seems so, after reading a passage like 1 Cor. 14:34 (“the women should keep silence in the churches”). But what is the larger context of that statement?
Going back to 1 Cor. 14:26, Paul asks his readers, “What then, brothers (and sisters)? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” When Paul writes “brothers,” does he mean only men or also women (sisters)? The passage that helps answer this question the best is Rom. 16:1-17. In Rom. 16:17, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, to . . .” What is interesting is that he is referring to readers he has just greeted in 16:1-16; there are almost thirty names or individuals greeted, and around a third of these names are women, starting with Phoebe, “our sister,” in 16:1. While Paul does use the singular “sister,” he never uses the plural “sisters;” for the plural “brothers” (as in Rom. 16:17) is meant to include both the brothers and sisters (of 16:1-16).
Returning to 1 Cor. 14:26, when Paul writes “brothers,” he thus includes brothers and sisters, sisters like Chloe (from 1 Cor. 1:11) or like the women who pray or prophesy (from 1 Cor. 11:5). And in 14:31 Paul adds that you (“brothers” and sisters, from 14:26) can “all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” All the brothers and sisters can prophesy in an orderly fashion, for when they come together, each has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.
So who are the women of 14:34 who are expected to remain silent? In 14:35 Paul says if they have questions, they should ask their husbands at home. These women come to the churches with their husbands, but seem only to have questions, rather than a hymn or lesson or revelation. These women would be wives who join their husbands, who are “brothers” that know and believe the truth about Christ. But their wives do not know or believe; they are not (Christian) “sisters.” In fact, Paul writes that it is shameful for a woman/wife (like these) to speak in church (14:35); for when they speak, it is not the truth about Christ.
Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts (like prophecy) in 1 Cor. 12-14 starts out in 12:1-3 by referring to the difference from what they said before they became Christians (like “Jesus is cursed”) with what they say now that they are Christians (like “Jesus is Lord”). To say “Jesus is cursed” in a church would indeed be shameful, and could be what some unbelieving wives might say.
In 1 Cor. 14 Paul contrasts the spiritual gift of prophecy–which instructs and builds up others in the faith–with the spiritual gift of tongues, which by itself is of no benefit to the others. The better gift is prophecy; unlike tongues, a word of revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching directly builds up others in the faith (14:1-6). In 14:24, Paul adds that even if unbelievers or outsiders enter (the church), they will be convicted by all the prophesying. Thus the unbelieving women/wives of 14:34 would be welcome to attend the churches, but not so that they could speak against the faith, but so that they could be convicted by the prophesying of the brothers and sisters.
Note finally that the context of these church meetings was a very informal gathering (in homes), where each brother and sister was encouraged to participate. It was not a context of a formal church service in a bigger building where a pulpit predominates, as was later the case (through much of church history). Paul’s words about women/wives that should not speak are not about who can preach behind a pulpit or about who should have authority. Paul’s words are about who can speak to build up others in the faith–and who should not speak, because they will not build up others. Churches today would build up others in the faith better if they returned to the smaller, more informal, gatherings where all (Christians) could participate.