An In-depth Look:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 & 1 Timothy 2:8-15 in Context
Adapted from Dr. Thomas Robinson
1 CORINTHIANS 14:34-35
In 1 Corinthians 14:26-36 Paul was dealing with the highly participatory style of worship that the Corinthian church practiced. This manner of worship may well have been typical of the early congregations that valued the presence of the Spirit among them (perhaps in contrast to those that simply imitated the far more staid patterns of synagogue services).
Paul stated, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” Paul specified “each one” (not “each one of the men” nor “each one of the male leaders”). He clearly assumed that all of the Corinthians were participating in bringing various contributions to the worship. Paul did not indicate that he particularly liked this way of building their worship service, but neither did Paul tell them to stop worshiping in this manner. He simply told them to judge all they do by the standard of “edification” or “upbuilding.” He wanted them to evaluate everything by whether it genuinely built up the community. What mattered was whether what was said or done had a truly positive effect on hearers to help them come to know Jesus Christ or grow in their Christian life. He gave no indication that who spoke was important.
The question of who spoke became problematic only when people were speaking in a disruptive manner that destroyed the “edification” role of worship. Paul believed that the Spirit was genuinely present among them and that the presence of the Spirit was one of the most important characteristics of their life together. He wanted to affirm the Spirit’s powerful work among them but did not believe that manifestations of the Spirit were uncontrollable so that those who were speaking by the Spirit could not change or stop what they are doing. As he said, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32).
In this context in which he was urging order and edification in the midst of a Spirit-filled worship service to which all contributed, Paul specified three groups in Corinth that needed to be quiet in order to contribute to the edification of the worship by helping all things to be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Those Speaking in Tongues
The Corinthians (men and women) who were speaking in tongues posed two problems. They were too numerous, and they too often spoke ecstatically without interpretation. Paul required the Corinthians in this situation to limit the tongue-speakers to two or three and to allow them to speak only with an interpreter. Otherwise, he said, “let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:28). The Greek verb Paul used for “keep silence” is sigan meaning “be silent, stop speaking, become silent.”
It is appropriate to ask whether Paul was creating a piece of universal legislation that forbade all churches (in Alexandria or Ephesus, for example) from ever having a period of worship in which four or more might profitably speak in tongues. The answer, I believe, is no. He was counteracting a particular problem among the Corinthians and applying the restrictions that they needed in their situation.
Was Paul permanently silencing these tongue speakers? Obviously not. If what they were saying was said in a context in which it genuinely contributed to the edification of the church, it was fine. But when it was done in a way that brought disrepute and damage to the community and blocked the message of the Gospel – “outsiders or unbelievers ... say that you are mad” (1 Corinthians 14:23) – then it must be stopped. Paul affirmed, “I want all of you to speak in tongues,” but he nevertheless silenced the practice of this gift of the Spirit when it was not being used for building up the community.
The Corinthians often apparently had several prophets (both men and women) speaking at the same time in a way that set them in competition with each other. In this way, even the gift of prophecy had been robbed of its effectiveness in edifying the church (1 Corinthians 14:4). Again Paul used the verb sigan (“stop talking”) to instruct those who were prophesying to yield to each other rather than insisting that what they had to say was most important: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent (sigan)” (1 Corinthians 14:29-30).
Again the issue was an important matter of order and edification. Even what Paul considered the greatest spiritual gift next to love (which always by its very nature builds up the community) could be used in a destructive manner. Still, Paul emphasized, “you can all prophesy one by one so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (1 Corinthians 14:31). The silencing of the prophets was temporary and fitted the situation and problem in the church. It was not understood as a permanent restriction.
The third in the series of Paul’s instructions about order and silence focused on women/wives in the congregation and has been the most debated.
As we have already noted, the basic problem in understanding what this passage meant to Paul and the Corinthians arises from the fact that at first reading this passage seems to stand in contradiction to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:5. Paul’s instructions requiring women to wear head coverings when they pray and prophesy becomes nonsensical if Paul was about to impose an absolute prohibition against women speaking at all.
We should not, however, begin by accepting that Paul simply contradicted himself. Such an apparent contradiction in a letter is often a strong indication that there are elements of the situation that were known to Paul and the Corinthians but that are not so clear to us. We need to remember that we are reading Paul’s words from a distance of 2,000 years, and we are reading only one side of the two-sided conversation.
Though we will probably never know exactly what was happening in the Corinthian worship, several elements of the passage can give us clues to the setting and help to alleviate the apparent contradictions.
Husbands at Home
First, we should carefully notice what Paul proposed as remedy for the problem the women were causing: “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home” (1 Corinthians 14:35). As was noted earlier, a single Greek word (gyne) can mean either “woman” or “wife,” and another word (aner) can mean “man” or “husband.” Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians these words often carry the sense of “wife” and “husband” (for example, 1 Corinthians 7:2-4). The wording of 1 Corinthians 14:35 points in the same direction. In his instructions, Paul specifically indicated that the “women” (gyne) that he was referring to have their own “husbands” (aner) at home. Thus Paul’s own phraseology and specific instructions point to fact that the problem in Corinth was a situation involving wives and husbands rather than women and men in general. In chapter 7 Paul detailed the fact that there were numerous women in Corinth who did not have Christian husbands at home, whom they could ask about some question from the assembly. These included unmarried women, women married to non-Christians, divorced women, and widows. The fact that Paul specified asking husbands at home as a solution to the problem, strongly suggests that the problem involved wives questioning their husbands in the assembly, an activity that in Greek society would easily be considered disruptive or insulting.
An indication of what was happening in the assembly can probably be found in the word translated “to speak” (lalein). The word’s basic meaning (taken from a standard lexicon of Classical Greek) is “to prattle, chatter, babble; properly to make an inarticulate sound, as opposed to articulate speech; but also generally, to talk, talk of.” In first century Greek the verb lalein kept its old meaning but was also commonly used meaning “to speak, say something, express something, talk, proclaim.”
Paul used lalein more often in 1 Corinthians 14 than in any other section of his writings. It was especially appropriate for speaking in tongues because “tongues” were ecstatic, inarticulate speech that sounded to outsiders like meaningless chatter or babble. When Paul used lalein by itself in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 he probably used it in the sense of “talk, chatter” to indicate disturbing talk that was contributing to the disorder of the assembly. Some scholars have emphasized that the use of the Greek present infinitive indicates repeated or persistent practice – a continual “piping up” or interruption of what was being said by others [See Carroll Osburn, Women in the Church, 2001, pp. 198-199]. Verse 35 suggests that Paul was in particular thinking of wives asking questions of their husbands or others during the assembly. The chatter and questioning in the assembly could not be justified because it could be done elsewhere and because it disturbed the worship.
“As the Law says…”
Wives were not permitted to keep talking, “but should be subordinate, as even the law says,” Paul said. The reference to the law has puzzled many commentators. Most commentaries note that no law can be found in the Old Testament that forbids women to speak in this manner. Worship in ancient Israel did not follow a pattern in which such a question would arise. Many interpreters suggest that Paul is probably referring to Genesis 3:16, where God tells Eve that because of their transgression she will suffer pain in childbirth, “yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The Genesis passage, however, does not say or even hint that the husband’s rule must take the form of the wife’s silence in the worship assembly. That application only began to be made in the synagogues in the Intertestamental period. Apparently Jewish communities instituted assemblies for worship and study in which women/wives were not allowed to speak and were often physically separated from men.
Insofar as possible, Paul wanted the assemblies to contain no scandalous or jarring elements and thus “give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Corinthians 10:32). Or as he said earlier, “to those under the law I became as one under the law – that I might win those under the law.” The common attitude of Jews or Greeks in that period is, as we have seen, not hard to document. Josephus, the famous Jewish historian of the first century, wrote,
“The woman (wife), says the Law, is in all things inferior (cheiron) to the man (husband). Let her accordingly be submissive, not for her humiliation, but that she may be directed; for the authority has been given by God to the man”
(Against Apion. 2.24).
Jose ben Johanan, a rabbi of that era, is quoted as saying,
“Talk not much with womankind. They said this of a man’s own wife, how much more his neighbor’s wife” (Mishnah, Aboth 1.5).
It would appear that Paul’s reference to what “the law says” may reflect the fact that prospective Jewish converts, who were accustomed to the way the law was interpreted in synagogues, found the way wives in the Corinthian church were questioning their husbands particularly disgraceful.
On the basis of these observations it is possible to understand both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 in such a way that does not force them into contradiction to each other. Paul was keenly aware that certain elements of the Corinthians’ worship could be detrimental to the edification of the church and disturbing to outsiders. Speaking in tongues, as they practiced it, could cause an unbeliever to think they were all mad.
In both cases Paul allowed for continuing these practices to the extent that they genuinely contributed to building up the community, but he limited them otherwise.
The Corinthians continued to speak in tongues, but in the assembly only a few were allowed and only with an interpreter; otherwise they must be quiet.
Women and men continued to pray and prophesy but only with appropriate head covering (covered for women, uncovered for men) to express a sense of propriety and proper place in society and creation.
But the Corinthians had gone far beyond praying and prophesying. Wives were repeatedly talking in the assembly, questioning their husbands in a way that appeared to dishonor them. Their actions were causing shame on the community and could not be justified since they neither built up the community nor expressed the gifts of the Spirit as praying a prophesying did.
Paul applied to them the same standard that he had applied to excessive speaking in tongues or competitive prophesying. Paul told the wives to be quiet and to ask their questions at home.
1 TIMOTHY 2:8-15
Two factors were deep concerns for Paul: (1) the danger of heresy that would corrupt the faith and (2) a sense of propriety in midst of a dangerous society “so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us” (Titus 2:8). In the section immediately before 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul warned about heretics who “have suffered shipwreck in the faith; among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have turned over to Satan, so that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:19-20). He then urged prayers for kings and rulers, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2).
It is in this kind of context that Paul gave corrective instruction to men and women in the church in Ephesus. The
RSV translation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is as follows:
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly
and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a
woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed
first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if
she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
Often verses 11-12 have been extracted from this passage and treated as a universal law concerning women. It is
important to read the passage as Paul wrote it, in the context of the corrections that he wanted Timothy to bring
about in Ephesus. The passage raises numerous problems for the reader, and it is only by studying the passage in
context that we can have any hope of resolving our questions.
Questions of Translation
For example, there are several problems simply of translation and the meaning of words. The relationship between verses 8 and 9 is such a case. Does v. 8 speak of only men praying while the women do not? The way Paul structured the sentence in Greek seems to raise the topic of prayer first and then gives corrective instructions first to men and then to women. One major commentary translates verses 8-9 as follows:
“As far as prayer is concerned, I wish that men everywhere would raise holy hands, without a thought of anger and strife. And the women should do
likewise, in modest deportment with chastity and prudence…” (Dibelius-Conzelmann, p.44)
Such a translation would reflect a practice similar to that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 11:5 in which both men and women are praying and prophesying but the demeanor and dress of the women is important for propriety’s sake.
Another translation difficulty has to do with the terms “man” and “woman.” 1 Timothy 2:8-15 uses the term aner, which, as we have seen, means either “man” or “husband,” and the term gyne meaning either “woman” or “wife.” Though in some parts of the passage the terms seem to be used generically for men and women in general, the references to Adam and Eve and to childbearing would indicate that the husband/wife relationship is primary in most of the passage.
Again, the phrases translated by the RSV “learn in silence” and “keep silent” both use the Greek noun hesychia which means “quietness” rather than “silence.” The adjective form of the word (hesychios) is used in 1 Timothy 2:2: “...that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” (not a silent life). Similarly in 2 Thess. 3:12 Paul commanded Christians “to do their work in quietness (hesychia) and to earn their own living.” Quietness is not silence.
Another dispute about translation deals with 1 Timothy 2:12 where the RSV translates, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men.” The verb Paul usually uses to express the idea of having authority is exousiazein. Here, however, Paul uses a verb that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It is a very strong verb (authentein) that means “to domineer” or “to overthrow, usurp authority.” The noun to which the verb is related (authentes), means in classical Greek either a “murderer” or an “absolute ruler.” Several students of this passage, including Dr. Carroll Osburn (Women in the Church, pp. 246-252), have made a very strong case that this verb in the Greek serves to modify and specify what Paul means when he speaks of teaching. Thus Paul says “I permit no woman to teach domineeringly over a man.” Or perhaps, “I permit no wife to teach domineeringly over a husband.” This translation reflects the problem in Ephesus in which some wives/women had followed the teaching of rejecting marriage and were proclaiming their independence of their husbands or of men in general. They may have claimed the right to such a style of teaching because of the special “knowledge” that they have been given by the false teachers.
Salvation by Bearing Children
Easily the most puzzling statement of all is v. 15 “Yet she will be saved through childbearing if she continues in faith and love and holiness with modesty.” Remarkably, this statement serves as a sort of climax to the whole passage about women. After the numerous more negative statements, this passage offers hope for the women addressed in this passage. Throughout Paul’s letters, the verb “save” (sozein) always refers to divine salvation, and thus this passage seems to offer salvation to women through bearing children, on the condition that the woman (or her children) continue in faith, love, holiness, and modesty.
The idea of salvation by childbearing is so strange that almost every interpreter tries to see some other meaning behind the words. On the surface the passage seems downright heretical, since it would say that women must not only have faith in Christ to be saved but must bear children. Paul knew of many women who were unmarried and did not have children (1 Corinthians 7), and therefore it seems impossible that he could have meant what the passage seems to say. Some interpreters have suggested the following meanings for the passage: “She will be saved by the birth of the child (Jesus)” or “she will be preserved through the dangers of childbirth.” But neither of these suggestions makes sense of the Greek or would be expressed in this way in Greek. The passage is genuinely puzzling.
Often it is precisely such a strange statement in a text – such an anomaly – that points us to see how deeply a text is enmeshed in the concrete situation to which it was written. There was some circumstance that is not immediately obvious to us as we read the letter that made sense of this statement and that was known to Paul, Timothy, and the church in Ephesus.
I believe that the best suggestion is that this statement about bearing children is a kind of shorthand that would have been understandable to the people in Ephesus against the false teaching that forbade marriage. In the semi-Gnostic belief of the false teachers, bearing children was seen an evil that kept the divine element in human beings trapped in fleshly bodies. Marriage was forbidden for a specific reason, so that children would not be born and thus the cycle of flesh and death would not continue. These women, Paul asserts, could be “saved” and restored to Christ by giving up their false teaching with its rejection of marriage and childbirth and returning to an understanding of human life as a gift of God, that is, by returning to the truth of the Gospel.
Many interpreters who wish to make Paul’s commands in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 universal, simply ignore or minimize verse 15 as part of Paul’s teaching. Paul, however, places this statement at the climax of the passage as offering the solution to the problem of the salvation of the women he has been describing. Unless one is willing to argue seriously that Paul believes that all women receive salvation by bearing children, Paul’s statement here is a powerful indication that these commands are intended to remedy a specific problem in Ephesus. They apply when the same kind of problem arises anywhere, but they were not intended to silence women for all time in all public situations.
The Deception of Eve
Then there is Paul’s analogy of the Ephesian situation to the Garden of Eden. In the preparation of these studies I have read a number of interpretations of this passage, including several that argue that Paul showed that his restrictions on women were eternal law by arguing from the creation story in Genesis. Since Eve was deceived in the Garden, it is argued, women clearly have a basic weakness in their character that makes them easily deceivable and thus disqualifies any woman from ever teaching any men in a public setting. Adam, on the other hand, was not deceived but knew full well what he was doing when he openly and purposely rebelled against God. His rebellious action without being deceived shows that men are better spiritual leaders and teachers than women. I hope that it is apparent that such reasoning is way off base!
The simple process of relating an argument to the creation story does not make it automatically universal. In 1 Corinthians 11, as we have seen, Paul argued for veils and specific hairstyles based on the creation narrative. Here in 1 Timothy 2:13-14, Paul was simply drawing an analogy between the role of Eve, who was deceived and led Adam astray, and the role of the Ephesian women, who were leading in teaching the false doctrine that forbade marriage and led to a wholesale distortion of the Gospel. The analogy served to show that women in Ephesus far from becoming the dominant teachers they wanted to be had allowed themselves to be deceived by false teaching and had forfeited their right to teach.
The references to women/wives and men/husbands in 1 Timothy 2, no less than those in 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Corinthians 14, envision a specific dangerous problem within the church and a specific solution to that problem. In the time of 1 Timothy , the church faced ever-increasing dangers from persecution from the Roman state. It was important not only that its leadership be “well thought of by outsiders” but that everything be done so as to “give the enemy no cause to revile us.” (1 Timothy 3:7; 5:14). One of the greatest dangers came from teachers who were winning a following for their ascetic anti-marriage teaching and were undermining families, finding acceptance especially among the women. The instructions in 1 Timothy 2:8-15 were aimed at guiding the church toward a manner of life that would wholly reject the false teaching and that would encourage families that reflected certain ideals of family in Greco-Roman society, but would shape those ideals in the light of the scriptures.
Paul’s instructions should be taken very literally within their context as they confronted an enemy that threatened to overwhelm the church. They should not, however, be extracted from their context and applied in a universal and generic manner to silence women in the worship of the church in all situations and periods. They were never intended to silence the Spirit’s gifts to women, when those gifts can be used to build up the community of believers.