Read: 1 Corinthians 14:26-36
Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NRSV).
In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I speak in church on a regular basis. And while my husband is a highly intelligent person, he would be the first to guffaw at the prospect of my going to him for guidance on matters of doctrine. Rock music, yes. Doctrine, no.
So, what are we to do with passages that seem to slam the door on women’s full participation in the church?
Some, of course, insist that this is a definitive word for all time. The simplicity and apparent obedience of this stance is appealing to many. Its advantages start to fade, however, as soon as we seek to apply it. Why should we issue a gag order for wise and intelligent women whose words would benefit the whole community?
Early in my career I was privileged to work with Dr. Isabel Wood Rogers. “Dr. Izzie” served as a mentor to generations of students. She held a Ph.D. in ethics and theology from Duke University and served as moderator of the PC(USA)’s 199th General Assembly. Yet even Dr. Izzie had stories to tell about congregations trying to figure out how to avail themselves of her gifts without violating what they perceived to be Scripture’s prohibition against women speaking in church. One congregation got around it by allowing her to speak from a lectern (not the pulpit), and then only if she agreed to wear a hat. Having known her, I’m not sure what’s more ridiculous about that story—the congregation’s machinations or the idea of Izzie in a hat.
So, even the “Paul said it; I believe it; that settles it” approach has its problems. In fact, there is some reason to think that the apostle Paul may not have said it. Some ancient manuscripts place these two controversial verses after verse 33, while others place them after verse 40. This suggests that they may, in fact, be a marginal gloss inserted into the text of Paul’s letter by someone else. Interesting as this suggestion is, it doesn’t really solve the problem for those of us who recognize the whole, complicated project as Scripture.
More productive, I think, is simply to acknowledge that these verses were written to a very particular context two millennia removed from our own. This is where the “What brought THAT on?” question comes in handy. In that culture, it was considered shameful for women to question or contradict men in public. Most of us do not live in such a culture. So, we need to receive these ancient words with a large grain of salt and ask, “What do these words mean in our culture?”
Interpreting the Bible is not for the lazy. It requires that we look not only at the cultural and historical context of a passage but at its literary context as well. I think the literary context of these verses gives us an important clue as to how to apply it today.
Paul’s overriding concern in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to be the edification of the whole church community. “Let all things be done for building up,” he says in v. 26. With that as our guide, I think we can safely dispense with the gag order.
I, for one, will continue to speak in church as often as I’m invited—and probably sometimes when I’m not.
Ponder: Who were the women who helped you to grow in faith? How would you have fared without them?
Pray: Thank you for calling wise and gifted women to lead your church, O God. Make your church ready to receive them.