“For it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”: Reexamining 1 Corinthians 14

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been studying the issue of women in the church for a number of weeks now. Below is part 1 of a presentation on women in the assembly dealing with a difficult text from 1 Corinthians 14:

1 Corinthians 14:33b-35
33b   As in all the congregations of the saints,
34     women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.
35     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.

One of the things that complicates this passage is the fact that three chapters previous women were given Paul’s blessing to pray and prophesy in the assembly as long as it was done respectfully. Regardless, this scripture coupled with 1 Timothy 2 has for years been used as a proof-text to justify the nearly full ban of women participating in the worship assemblies of conservative churches.

How could Paul give a blessing to women praying and prophesying in the assembly, then turn around and tell them it’s not okay after all? Either Paul is fickle on this issue, or we’ve missed something in this letter. I propose the latter.

Here’s the lesson:

Feedback is welcomed.

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4 thoughts on ““For it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church”: Reexamining 1 Corinthians 14

  1. K. Rex Butts says:

    I’ll need to listen to the recording some other time when I have the time. I did write an exegesis paper when I was a student at HUGSR. The paper opened my mind up. This passage has really been mishandled in most churches.

    I have several books on the entire issue of women in the church. I am convinced now that the only restrictions placed on women in the first-century was teaching and serving as an elder. I not sure if those restrictions were to be universal to the church throughout history, though I not sure of that the egalitarian view is correct.

    This is a big issue that requires humility on the part of all if churches are to work through the myriad of biblical exegesis, theological and contextual application that’s needed.

    Grace and Peace,


  2. DennisThreadgill says:

    To supplement what you said:

    294 — Hats and Hair
    December 14th, 2010by Patrick Mead

    I thought I had already covered this at some time in this blog’s history, but I was unable to find the post so when this question came in, I decided to go for it. I am looking forward to the comments already because, frankly, my take on this is something I’ve not heard from anyone else. That means I am either brilliant or, more likely, I am completely off the reservation on this one. Let’s go…
    Have you already addressed I Cor 11:1-16 – “long hair,” “head coverings,” “women prophesying and praying?” I find 1 Cor 11 to be a bit of a mess – especially the first 16 verses, but the stuff on the Lord’s Supper is also hard for me to wrap my little brain around. If you have already talked about it, please direct me to the post. I enjoy reading your material.
    This is a passage that was preached “at” me and my age group frequently during the 60′s and early 70′s. The culture was changing and it wasn’t all to the good… or to the bad. Young men were growing their hair out, some cities were burning, rules about sex and marriage were changing, the Pill arrived, the British invaded (musically)… and the churches went into full “control the culture” mode. They often do. I’ve even seen signs of some of the new post-modern, emerging churches — formed in part as a reaction to the old school church — take on the methods of the old churches to control those who want to move on from them! It’s what establishments do. The first job of any organization is to preserve itself. A large percentage of church laws and traditions fall into that category.
    File that away for a moment and then add this: preachers use cultural references as illustrations. They do this to make a connection with their audience. Paul’s audience was Corinth, a church that had given everybody headaches for years. This was his second letter to them (though it is the first one we have) and he would write at least one more (we think it was two more) before he was done. Working with a list of questions and assertions and issues they had, he comes to this section. The Corinthians were not being kind to each other at all — in marriage, in worship, or in culture. To address this, Paul gets in touch with his inner Vince Lombardi. Where Vince started over with Green Bay by holding up a football and saying “Gentlemen, this is a football,” Paul started with hair.
    (to be fair, he started on this subject much earlier, at least back to chapter 9)
    The reason the church preached this passage at us often was Paul’s reference to long hair on men being unacceptable. They tried to make this into a law of God that reached across all eras, nations, and times. I think Paul would be appalled at that. He was using a typical form of argument of that time, working from generally accepted norms, cultural concepts, using references from shared stories. And it was about behavior, not hair or hats.
    Paul defines his terms: the head of every man is Christ and the head of the woman is man and the head of Christ is God. Immediately, we raise our hackles at this but we shouldn’t. “Head” was used in a very different way in Paul’s time than it is in ours. If we ask for synonyms for “head” we get “boss, in charge of, ruler” and such like. In Paul’s day it would have been “developer of, protector of, lover of.” In other words, it was duty, not dominance; support, not slavery. (there is a lot behind this, linguistically. To the Greeks of this time, the word for head and liver were the same. The liver was thought to be the seat of emotion — hence words like bile and gall to describe temperament and speech. We have no exact parallel to this in English. The closest we could come would be “heart” in the romantic sense)
    If a man prays (lives out his life as a follower of Christ) while dishonoring Christ, we fail. God will not listen to our prayers. No one disses Jesus and gets away with it. And when women live out their Christian life while constantly denigrating their husbands and belittling them, they also fail. I have seen this repeatedly in Christian circles. Get men together and they don’t tell stories about how stupid or inadequate their wives are. Get women together — even in some women’s Bible classes — and they will strip their husbands naked, making fun of them and retelling past failures from the minor (building projects, messing up here or there) to the major (fill in the blank here).
    Paul is warning both men and women: shape up. Your behavior matters. Men, live in a way that pleases and honors Jesus. Women, quit putting your men down; partner with them instead.
    Paul tries to make cultural links that the people understand. In those days, a woman whose head was shaved was being punished. Collaborators’ heads were shaved after WW2 to shame the women who had bedded Germans for an easier life. In the same way, Paul was saying that stripping your husband bare in public was as shameful as having your own head shaved. Women — cover your head. Treat your husband with honor and love. Love covers a multitude of sins, remember?
    But, men? Don’t cover your head. Don’t live in a way that would cause those around you to be surprised that you belong to Jesus. Let Jesus show in everything you do. Just as women are your glory, Paul says, allow Jesus to be your glory. Find your status in life not by hauling around a trophy wife, but by showing Jesus.
    Women sometimes don’t like Paul. They think he said “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” when that is what the Corinthians said and Paul corrected them. They think that Paul, here in 1 Corinthians 11:8-10, is putting them down. Wrong. In the creation story, woman is called man’s helper. That term “helper” is almost never used again for a human being in the Old Testament. It is almost always reserved for God Himself. Women not only complete men, they shape them and make them into far more than we could ever be on our own. Us men who are honest know this and honor women for it. Everything good about me — everything — can be traced to Jesus and Kami. No exceptions.
    If Kami says something harsh or angry to me, it hurts far, far more than if anyone else on the planet said the same thing. Her compliments mean more and her criticisms cut more. Women have an enormous power (which is why they are feared in Islam, and so tightly controlled) which can go terribly wrong if they misuse it.
    Paul goes on (v.11) to say that neither man nor woman is independent of each other or God. We need to behave accordingly. If you go back and listen to the last 30 years of my preaching you will never find a single instance of me saying anything negative about Kami. If she wrecked the car twice and burned supper three times in the last week, you would never hear of it. And she returns the favor. I honor her because she is God’s daughter and His Son is my head. She honors me because I am her head — her helper and protector. And I am God’s son, too.
    Judge for yourselves, Paul says — does it seem right to you for a woman to pray with her head uncovered? Would honor a prayer from a woman who dishonored her husband? Good question! Think of it this way: love COVERS a multitude of sins. Hmmm. Remember the sin of Noah’s son and grandson? They UNCOVERED Noah’s nakedness, his drunkenness. They stripped him bare and laughed at it. Paul warns us to not make that same mistake — let our love cover each other while Christ is held up uncovered for the world to see.
    Within just over a hundred years after writing this, people were trying to take it literally. Women were being forced to wear head coverings in worship (fair enough, in some cultures having uncovered hair was a sign of being sexually available — a prostitute. But this wasn’t as widespread a concept as some suggest). This goes against what Paul teaches, however. He said not to pray with your head uncovered, ladies… and then he told you to “pray without ceasing.” So… when can you take the covering off? And that little doily thingy isn’t a covering. Men, we remove our hats when the National Anthem is played and when someone prays. In our culture, that is a sign of respect, but it isn’t a law of God.
    I have a TON more to say about this, but this blog has gone on way too long already. Have a new look at this passage. It isn’t about hats and hair — it’s about love, respect, and Christian behavior.

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