Only Speakers Can Quiet Down: Re-reading 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
As you may know, 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 is a notoriously difficult passage to translate and interpret. Not only the subject matter but even the rendering of the sentences is difficult. Even the effort to add English punctuation to the original Greek hits home the reality that translation involves interpretation. Our theological premises may well guide our decisions about where to put the dashes and commas and periods.
For example: Look at the way verses 33-34a are rendered in the recent English Standard and New International Versions:
ESV of 33-34a
For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches.
NIV of 33-34a
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches.
Is this an exhortation for all churches in all times and places? The punctuation in the ESV would lean readers harder in that direction than the NIV. Are there theological and cultural premises guiding either translation in this decision? Will the surrounding verses help us to make sense of this?
Some will suggest that the plain reading of this text is obvious–it prohibits women from speaking in all churches for all time–and that anyone who questions that is simply caving to cultural pressures. Granted we are all encultured readers, however, we are still confronted by the fact that the text of 1 Corinthians itself leads us to question that so called “plain reading”. If in chapter 11 Paul gave instructions which would allow women to prophesy (within norms of decorum that would communicate interdependence and modesty), then it should at least strike us as odd if Paul is now saying, “wait, on second thought, forget it”.
Furthermore, if in chapter 14 Paul is restricting women from prophecy, it would be the first indication that any spiritual gift was labeled for one gender rather than the other. So on the basis of the text alone we are motivated at least to inquire whether the silence asked for in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is for all women in all situations past or future, or whether it might refer to a certain kind of speech in a particular situation.
When we go to the Greek text with these questions–Is there a certain kind of speech being prohibited, and is there a particular reason given?–we find that it does have answers: The women being told to “keep quiet” are the ones asking questions during the sharing of prophecy, and the reason for this is that their speaking, or more specifically their questioning, is “a shame”. The shame here is not the vocal female participation per se. Otherwise chapter 11, which fits the women with head coverings precisely so they can prophesy without shame, would make little sense.
Let’s turn to the passage and see. We begin with a recognition of its proper structure.
As noted above, not all translations agree even about what the sentences are here. In regard to verse 33-34a, I think the ESV’s rendering redundant. We would expect the second mention of ekklesia to be in the singular if indeed this was meant as a combined thought. It makes better sense to read verse 33 as an interjection (as seen in the NIV above), and to recognize verse 34 as a third situational instruction to go with two given in verses 28 and 30.
Now let’s pay closer attention to these three instructions, then, and see if the fuller context bears our reading out. In the Greek and English below, I’ll show each of the three instructions to “keep quiet”, colouring the prohibition bold black, the type of speech or speaker in bold blue, and the further specification of the speaking situation in bold red. They don’t parallel each other in layout, but they do in content. In each case there is an instruction to silence, a type of speaker being instructed, and a specification indicated:
28 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ᾖ διερμηνευτής σιγάτω ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ἑαυτῷ δὲ λαλείτω καὶ τῷ θεῷ
28 but if there be no interpreter let him [the one speaking in tongues] keep quiet in the church and to himself let him speak to God
30 ἐὰν δὲ ἄλλῳ ἀποκαλυφθῇ καθημένῳ ὁ πρῶτος σιγάτω
30 but if [something] be revealed to another that sits by, let the first [one prophesying] keep quiet
34-35 αἱ γυναῖκες ὑμῶν ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις σιγάτωσαν οὐ γὰρ ἐπιτέτραπται αὐταῖς λαλεῖν ἀλλ᾽ ὑποτάσσεσθαι, καθὼς καὶ ὁ νόμος λέγει εἰ δέ τι μαθεῖν θέλουσιν ἐν οἴκῳ τοὺς ἰδίους ἄνδρας ἐπερωτάτωσαν αἰσχρὸν γάρ ἐστιν γυναιξὶν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ λαλεῖν
34-35 the women of you in the churches let them keep quiet for it is not permitted for them to speak but to be in submission as also the law says and if they wish to learn anything let them ask their men at home for it is a shame for women in the church to speak.
Although an interjection disrupts the flow in verse 33, these instructions do belong together. Looking closely at these three instructions to silence, then, we note something important: In the first two cases the people who must σιγάω (“keep quiet” or “remain silent”) are persons who are allowed to speak but who are under certain circumstances to then keep quiet.
Astute readers will notice, however, that I’ve passed over two other possible explanations for the silence in verse 34, both of which would be more far-reaching and less circumstantial. One is that there could be a law or universal mandate regarding the submissive silence of women to which Paul is referring. Some extrapolate this from Genesis 1 or 2, but I simply don’t see it. Besides, we should not overlook the fact that Paul has just explicitly referenced a “law” in verse 21, quoting Isaiah 28’s warning about being a bad listener.
The second explanation I’m passing over is the one that says speaking women are generally just a shame. Is Paul taking on a debatable cultural observation and ascribing to it the impetus of a universal divine command? This is theoretically possible, since Paul accepted some of the cultural norms around honour and disgrace in chapter 11, but it is also not necessarily the case, since Paul rejects many of those norms elsewhere in the letter. Besides, as already mentioned, chapter 11 gives us reason to doubt that Paul thinks women speaking is always and self-evidently a shame.
No, I think it is more sensible to take the clause about making inquiries as a further specification of which women Paul means to keep quiet, and when. The scene is not hard to imagine, given what we know of the context, and the ramifications are not out of step with the full biblical witness. It seems the Corinth women are enjoying a relatively new-found liberty not only to speak in the corporate worship but also to pursue education, and are exhibiting a disruptive over-eagerness to ask questions during the corporate worship gathering Paul is addressing. In Paul’s view the time and the place for that education is the home.
Thus the implication is that the culturally more educated men will begin to empower the women at home, keeping the uninformed questions (along with uninterpreted tongues and uninterrupted prophesying) to a minimum in the corporate worship.
Reading the passage like this does, of course, require some interpretive explanation. But if you’ll return with me to the NIV text for a moment you’ll see that only a minor (and, I think, legitimate) alteration of the English punctuation is needed to have this stand out more clearly in the “plain reading” of the text itself. First, the NIV of verses 33-35:
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Now, with only three changes in the NIV’s punctuation (namely a colon after “churches”, a comma after “as the law says”, and a period after “something”), here’s a modestly but I think meaningfully clarified reading of those same verses:
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches: They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says, if they want to inquire about something. They should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
I have by no means resolved this still thorny passage (although we might be further helped by a clarifying “as such” after the last “speak”), but I must say that when it came time for me to preach this
to for my congregation, it was this rendering I found to be most readable, exegetically viable, and canonically coherent. However, I am sincere when I say I submit it to your scrutiny.