Three groups that Paul tells to refrain from speaking in 1 Corinthians

Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “women should remain silent in the churches” has long puzzled interpreters, since earlier in that same letter he describes how women should pray and prophesy in the community’s gatherings, and in the very part of the letter where he talks about women remaining silent, only a few lines earlier he says, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”  (He doesn’t say “each of you, except the women.”)  But the word Paul uses for “remain silent” is sigaō, and in light of our study of that term in the previous post, we can now make better sense of Paul’s statement in its context.

This part of 1 Corinthians is about maintaining good order in worship: “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”  And so Paul says about those who would speak in tongues, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet (sigaō) in the church and speak to himself and to God.”  Rather than confuse the group with unintelligible speech, would-be speakers should refrain from saying what they otherwise might.

In the same way, Paul addresses those who would offer prophecies: “If a revelation comes to  someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop (NIV; ESV “be silent,” sigaō).  Once again, someone who might otherwise keep speaking (a person who has stood up to prophesy) refrains, so that speakers can take turns, in a “fitting and orderly way.”

We should understand Paul’s comments about women speakers in this light.  It’s not that Paul is calling for “silence,” the absence of speech or sound, but rather for propriety and good order.  Apparently there is something the women in Corinth would otherwise “want to inquire about.”  (We’ll explore in our next post what this might have been.)  But the community gathering is not the time or the place for this, so the women should refrain from questioning or challenging the speaker.  Instead, Paul says, “let them ask their husbands at home”—a third-person imperative, granting them permission to do something that was not typical in this culture.  In other words, rather than this being a restriction on women, it’s actually an empowerment of them.

And so we might paraphrase Paul’s words here along these lines:  “Women are not to challenge or question the speaker in the churches.  They are not allowed to speak [in this way], but must be respectful, as the law says.  If they want to inquire about something [that the speaker says that they don’t understand or agree with], they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak [disrespectfully in this way] in the church.”  No conflict there with anything Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.

8 thoughts on “Three groups that Paul tells to refrain from speaking in 1 Corinthians

  1. I have a 2 page teaching on this where I use the quote from Corinth idea along with the idea that this periscope is in the form of a chiasm. If you wish to discuss, I can post it here or transmit otherwise to you.

  2. Paul’s Missing Double Bunk in 1 Corinthians 14:36
    By Don Johnson

    The pericope (teaching unit) is 1 Cor 14:26-40.
    ESV 1Co 14:26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
    1Co 14:27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.
    1Co 14:28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
    1Co 14:29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
    1Co 14:30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.
    1Co 14:31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,
    1Co 14:32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.
    1Co 14:33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,
    1Co 14:34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.
    1Co 14:35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
    1Co 14:36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?
    1Co 14:37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.
    1Co 14:38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
    1Co 14:39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
    1Co 14:40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

    The underlined be silent shows the same Greek word sigao, so it should be interpreted to mean the same thing in all 3 places, namely be silent as in shut up. Some translations do not show this.

    Questions with the above text:
    A) In 1 Cor 14:26 each one (the Greek word hekastos is inclusive and not specific to gender) has some verbal offering, so why are women later told to keep silent? This is a key insight as it seems to be a contradiction.
    B) Given that 1 Cor 11 talks about women praying and prophesying in church, how can women speaking in church be shameful? This seems to be another contradiction.
    C) Regarding implementing 1 Cor 14:34-35, what is an unmarried woman to do? The instructions seem incomplete.
    D) What is the law in 1 Cor 14:34? This is the key question.

    The word “law” (Greek nomos) might refer to the Torah/Pentateuch of Moses, the entire Tanakh (or Written Law, the Old Testament) or the so-called Oral Torah of the Pharisees, which was later written down in the Mishnah about 200 CE. There is no command for women to be silent or in submission in the Tanakh, but there is in the Mishnah, which is how we can figure out which law is meant.

    Mishnah sotah 3.4; B sotah 20a.
    Out of respect to the congregation, a woman should not herself read in the law. It is a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men. The voice of a woman is filthy nakedness.

    The key verse is 1 Cor 14:36 and it is important to see that the Tanakh includes contributions from both men and women who were inspired by God to prophesy and otherwise speak authoritatively in the most authoritative way possible, namely Scripture. In other words, Paul is using an indirect reference to the Tanakh to repudiate the claims of the believers who were influenced by the Oral Torah of the Pharisees, probably Messiah-believing Pharisees.

    Note also that 1 Cor 14:26 (each one has … a lesson …) contradicts what is stated in 1 Cor 14:34-35, but when it is realized that these statements are from Corinth (like others in the letter) and repudiated by Paul, then the whole pericope flows and makes sense.

    My translation of 1 Cor 14:33b-36:
    1 Cor 14:33b [Corinthian legalists:] “As in all the assemblies of the saints,
    1Co 14:34 the women should keep silent in the assemblies. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the [Oral] Law also says.
    1Co 14:35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly.”
    1Co 14:36 [Paul:] Bunk! Was it from you [legalists] that the word of God came? Bunk! Are you [legalists] the only ones it has reached?

    1 Cor 14 Chiasm (Inverted parallel structure, key part is in center)
    A 26 All believers can have a verbal contribution
    B 27-28 Tongues – be silent if no interpreter
    C 29-33a Prophesy – be silent if another speaks
    D 33b-35 Legalists: “Women be silent”
    D’ 36-38 Paul: “Bunk! Bunk! Women can speak”
    C’ 39a Prophesy – desire to prophesy
    B’ 39b Tongues – do not forbid
    A’ 40 All things done decently and in order

    By reverse engineering the whole pericope, one can hopefully see that the problem was chaos in the Corinthian church as too many speaking at the same time. Some legalists proposed doing what the synagogues did, namely keep women quiet; this reduces the potential speakers by half. Paul will have none of that, but he does give guidelines so things will be done in order.

    Note that Paul uses the same word (sigao/silence) as the legalists used, but in an appropriate way. The underlined All in the A-A’ pairing shows the paired concept. As there are no quote marks in Koine Greek (they were not invented yet), quotes are determined by the translator based on context. The people at Corinth would recognize the quote, but it is more challenging for us today, which is why recognizing the 2 eta’s in 1 Cor 14:36 as expletives of repudiation are so important. The closest English term would be “Pfffft!” but I translate it as “Bunk!” to make it more pronounceable, other expletives like “Garbage!”, “Nonsense!” or similar are also possible. Paul uses this term many times in 1 Cor, it is as if he was speaking to the congregation, recall that most could not read so the letter would be read aloud to the congregation.

  3. I think this is a very interesting and promising approach. It makes a persuasive suggestion about what Paul means when he says the “law” says it’s shameful for a woman to speak. If it’s the oral law (and the quotation you provided certainly looks like a “smoking gun” to that effect), then it is likely that here, as in other parts of the letter, Paul is quoting the Corinthians only to dispute or challenge one of their slogans or sayings. Your analysis of chiastic form of the passage makes this suggestion even stronger. Thanks so much for sharing it here. Whether Paul is actually saying that women should not argue (about whether woman or man was created first), as I suggest, or whether the Corinthians were saying that women should remain literally silent and Paul was disputing this, either way, we don’t have a mandate here in the Bible for women’s roles in the church to be restricted. Thanks again for sharing this here.

  4. Yes, of course the important thing is to not let a few verses restrict women. Other ways of addressing this are found in Phil Payne’s “Man and Woman: One in Christ” where he sees those few verses as an interpolation and in Ken Bailey’s recent book on 1 Cor where he thinks what I see as 1 chiasm above (and which I learned from David Joel Hamilton, altho his analysis of the chiasm is somewhat different) is 2 chiasms and is similar to your thoughts.

  5. Gordon Fee also makes a strong case in his NICNT commentary on 1 Corinthians that the passage about women keeping silence is an interpolation. So there are many ways of understanding this passage not to restrict women from even speaking in churches. I’ve always been fascinated by the way those who favor restrictions somehow find a way around this one. I’d argue that a hermeneutic that allows them to do this would also allow them to recognize how other restrictions are local rather than universal.

  6. Pingback: What About “Women Be Silent in the Church”?

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