1 Corinthians 14:26-40
26 What then, brothers and sisters? Whenever you come together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, another tongue, or an interpretation. Everything is to be done for building up. 27 If anyone speaks in another tongue, there are to be only two, or at the most three, each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, that person is to keep silent in the church and speak to himself and God. 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate. 30 But if something has been revealed to another person sitting there, the first prophet should be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone may learn and everyone may be encouraged. 32 And the prophets’ spirits are subject to the prophets, 33 since God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but are to submit themselves, as the law also says. 35 If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home, since it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 Or did the word of God originate from you, or did it come to you only?
37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, he should recognize that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If anyone ignores this, he will be ignored. 39 So then, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in other tongues. 40 But everything is to be done decently and in order.
The fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians has created questions with regard to the participation of women vocally in gathered worship. Just three chapters after Paul seems to be allowing women to pray and prophesy in church, he now seems to be telling them it is disgraceful for them to speak at all in gathered worship. What are we to make of that? In this post, I first discuss the context of this passage and how it is situated within the book of 1 Corinthians. I then discuss how various scholars have resolved the contractions that may appear within this passage, as well as how I understand this passage. Finally, I encourage us to see the beauty of Scripture and to appreciate the role of women in God’s family, the Church. This is another long one, so fasten your seat belts!
To understand 1 Corinthians 14 verses 33b-35, it is important to consider the context. A discussion of church life and practice begins in 1 Corinthians 11 and continues through chapter 14. It appears that Paul is correcting things in the Corinthian Christian community, of which he has heard from Chloe and others (1 Corinthians 1:11). The Corinthians seem to have “gone off the rails” at a number of spots. Paul begins by addressing the roles of men and women in the church in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, seeking to bring Corinth back into conformity with the practice of the other churches. As I have written before, Paul urges this conformity, because it is God’s order expressed in the creation account in Genesis, for men and women to have some gender distinctiveness from one another, even while they participate together in worship.
Following the discussion of head coverings, Paul addresses their observance of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. From this passage, it appears that they observe the Lord’s Supper with selfishness and insensitivity toward one another, particularly toward the less prosperous members of the church family. He urges them to eat in a way that honors the Lord, shows love to all in God’s church, and does not bring condemnation upon themselves.
Next is a discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. The gifts are given to build up the Body of Christ and to serve one another. A particular emphasis is laid on valuing all the members of the Body and their gifts, rather than arrogantly establishing a pecking order of importance. If the members all value one another, they will take care of one another, resulting in unity and edification of all. It is puzzling though that Paul says at the end of the discussion “But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” (12:31) I will come back to that. We will see that it is not because he is valuing some members above others.
The section about jockeying for status in the Body is followed by a corrective – “a still more excellent way” – which is love. In short, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that no matter how gifted we are, presumably even with the higher gifts, we are worthless and useless if we don’t have love. If we speak angelic tongues, if we prophesy and understand mysteries and knowledge, if we give generously and give our own bodies up, but we don’t love we gain nothing. (In a similar way, Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts in Romans 12:3-8 is followed by a section on family love in Romans 12:9-13.) I believe Paul is using a rhetorical device of hyperbole in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 to teach us that love is more important than spiritual giftedness, because he knows we all are tempted to compete and to measure ourselves by gifts and achievements rather than by love. God’s plan for the spiritual gifts is that they would be used in love, rather than competitively.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul then returns to the discussion of spiritual gifts, and of prophecy and tongues specifically. I deduce by the amount of time he spends on these two gifts that the possessors of these gifts are often rivals, or perhaps simply that the members who have the gift of tongues at Corinth are puffed up. I believe it was to this that Paul was pointing when he wrote to “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” Paul clarifies in chapter 14:6-12 that the higher gifts he referred to in 1 Corinthians 12:31 are intelligible gifts, words we can all understand and by which we may all be instructed. And he urges all of us to gain skill to instruct others, suggesting it is something which God cultivates in each believer in spite of some being more gifted to teach than others.
So then finally we arrive at 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Here we see a structure for gathered worship and the use of many of these spiritual gifts. It is in the middle of these verses that there appears to be a contradiction between what Paul said earlier (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) instructing women in how to speak during the gathering and what he says here prohibiting women from speaking. A variety of ways to resolve this apparent contradiction have been proposed. One is to posit that verses 33b-35 are not Paul’s writing, but an addition made by a scribe or copyist later in history. Manuscripts of the New Testament were circulated, copied, and worn out, and copies were made of the copies. As scholars look at the copies of the copies, they see that verses 33b-35 are positioned in two different locations: many manuscripts have the verses where they appear in our current New Testament, and others have the verses positioned after verse 40. This, some say, is evidence that these verses were not written originally by Paul. However, it is important to note that the verses appear in all existing manuscripts. They are never absent. That supports the belief that Paul himself wrote them – they were in 1 Corinthians 14 from the start – but that a copyist moved them at a later point in history. So all copies made from that scribe’s manuscript thereafter had them in the new position, whereas all copies made from other scribes’ manuscripts kept them in the original position. I believe the verses to be Paul’s writing because they are present in all the surviving manuscripts. Secondly, I believe they should appear in the position of verses 33b-35, rather than after verse 40. This is where they are in the earliest manuscripts that have survived from antiquity. Furthermore, the verses make more sense in the earlier context as a limitation to women publicly judging the prophets, rather than an overall and absolute silencing of women in gathered worship. Let’s walk through the passage to see how others scholars and I arrive at that meaning.
In Paul’s discussion of gathered worship in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, each member comes prepared with “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” The overarching goal is to build one another up. All is to be done “decently and in order” which means speaking according to some guidelines. I would call it “ordered spontaneity.” The “each one” of verse 26 is gender inclusive. It is in line with the gender inclusive participation of 1 Corinthians 11. Gathered worship in the early church included participation by its many members, not simply by one designated preacher. Certainly there are times when apostolic preachers and elders instructed the churches in a concentrated way, but Paul is laying out here in these four chapters a regular weekly rhythm for a local church’s practice. Weekly worship included time for many local members to encourage one another with what the Spirit had taught them or revealed to them over the course of the week. (As an aside, many of us may wonder what has become of this practice if we are members of major denominations. There are still contemporary Brethren style churches which practice this “one another” edification. If it is not a part of your church’s gathered worship, it can happen in small groups or more informal fellowship.)
Within that gathered worship time, in which all are invited to bring their gifts, there are three groups which are instructed to be silent. In 14:28, the tongues speakers are told to be “silent in the church” if there is no interpreter present. This is a limited silence, simply to refrain from speaking in tongues. Then in 14:29-30, when the prophets are speaking one by one, the prophet speaking is to be “silent” if a prophecy comes to another who is seated. Again, this is a limited or specific type of silence. “Stop speaking, if and when a prophecy comes to another.” Depending on how you understand 14:33b “as in all the churches,” whether as finishing the thought of 33a or beginning the thought of 14:34, this orderly sequencing of the prophets may be normative for all of the churches. Finally, in 14:34, the women are to be silent in the churches. The silence of the tongues speakers is limited – that only applies to their speaking in tongues that week, not to general speaking. The silencing of the prophet is also limited, he or she may speak generally. Therefore, it is logical to understand the silencing of the women to also be limited. I hold to D. A. Carson’s view that the women are silenced only in terms of evaluating or judging the prophets from 14:29. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul allows women to pray and prophesy in gathered worship, provided they dress in a way that acknowledges their role as women. It is hard to conceive of him going to all the trouble of regulating their attire when they speak in gathered worship only to write shortly thereafter that they must be absolutely silent in church. A limited silence (refraining from evaluating the prophets during congregational worship) does not seem incongruent with Paul’s earlier teaching on distinct gender roles in the Church. When I write in the future on 1 Timothy 2:8-3:7, I will tie this limited silencing in with the teaching and exercise of authority which is prohibited for women in the churches. Personally, I understand how evaluating the prophets would be an exercise of authority given to men who are pastors and elders in the church. Since Paul teaches headship of these male leaders in the church (11:3), it would make sense that here, in 14:34-35, he is giving a specific application of women submitting in the churches.
Much is made of the jarring apparent contradiction between 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and allowing women to pray and prophesy in gathered worship in Chapter 11. But we often overlook ways in which 14:26-40 as a whole harmonize with 1 Corinthians 11. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 allows women to participate in gathered worship, as does 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 also teaches a distinction between men and women, involving headship and authority, based on Genesis, which is part of the Law, though it is not called that in Chapter 11. 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 teaches a distinction between men and women, saying women are to be in submission, based on “the Law.” If we remember from Chapter 11 that the headship of the man over a woman is based on Genesis 2 or the Law, the reference here in 1 Corinthians 14:35 to “submission” and “the Law” is not alien to the passage. Therefore there is harmony between the two chapters – they both allow women to participate equally in significant ways and they both differentiate their roles from men in specific ways.
In 1 Corinthians 14:35, Paul encourages women to ask their husbands, or their men at home (so this could mean their fathers, brothers, or husbands), whatever it is they wish to learn, which they did not understand in the gathered worship. This suggests not only that they were not to evaluate the prophets, but that they refrain from questions in gathered worship. Some New Testament scholars see questions as means of scrutinizing or challenging a speaker. Again, there is some logic to expressing our submission or respect as women by asking questions in a more private setting. Positively, Paul is definitely providing for women to learn and be fully informed. Paul is not saying that women don’t need to know why and how the prophets are to be evaluated. He is not patting them on their heads and saying they need not trouble their lesser minds with these matters. He is giving them a submissive path to knowledge. Paul is out of step with his contemporary Rabbinic tradition because he advocates positively for women’s participation and education in matters of the Church. I will say more about that when I write next time about 1 Timothy 2:8-15.
I recognize that this still may seem incomprehensible and unfair to women. On that also, I will have more to say as I write about 1 Timothy 2:8-15. However, if we only value role models who lead at the highest levels of pastor and elder (breaking the “glass ceiling” in the Church), we will be unable to appreciate how we women may also be role models. We lead at many “lower” levels, though I would argue they are not lower in influence and impact. Remember from 1 Corinthians 12 that this isn’t how God sees each member or wants us to see the “higher” and “lower” members of the Body. No one should say in our churches, “Because I am not an elder, I don’t belong to the Body.” Or, “Because you are not a pastor, I don’t need you.” And finally, our submission to appointed male heads is modeling human submission to Christ. Humans are simultaneously beautiful for our leading roles vis a vis God’s creation and our willing submission to our Creator. As a woman, I can model for everyone in my congregation a glad and trusting submission to God, which is of great value to Him.
There are many online articles that discuss the authenticity and interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35. I am including some that I found with representation of both complementarian and egalitarian views. I don’t feel compelled or qualified to write at length my own version of the data, but have told you my viewpoint and my reasons for arriving at that view.