Another Look at the Woman of I Corinthians 14

By Bruce Edwards, Jr.

There are basically just two positions one may take as to the identity of the women Paul refers to in 1 Cor. 14:34, 35: (1) One is the view that Paul refers to all women, without qualification, hence “every adult human being who is not a man”; (2) The other view is that Paul contemplates a particular class of women, namely, those possessing spiritual gifts . . . gifts which would place the women on an equal standing ability-wise with men possessing such gifts in the assembly. This writer affirms the second view stated above.

Resolving the Tension Between Chapters 11 and 14

There is an obvious tension between chapters 11 and 14 of 1 Corinthians that must be resolved: does Paul grant permission, yea give instruction for the proper regulation of, women speaking in the assembly in chapter 11 and then repeal that permission just three chapters later? No doubt more brethren would be able to deal with this apparent contradiction more effectively if they did not assume that Paul was giving instructions in chapter 11 regarding “praying or prophesying” in the assembly. This assumption must be proven and not thoughtlessly granted. We would humbly suggest that the solution to this problem is to recognize: (1) that inspired speaking is involved in chapter 1 1 just as in chapter 14 and (2) that though the action for the man and woman is identical (i.e., “inspired speaking”), the place is more restricted for the woman according to 1 Cor. 14. We have now stated our position, let us now examine the evidence which compels such a conclusion.

An Appeal to the Original Language in the Context

In 1 Cor. 14:26-35, three times in succession Paul says “keep silence.” It is apparent to all that the first two times he uses this phrase he is calling for certain men to stop the exercise of a spiritual gift. In 1 Cor. 14:28, the apostle prohibits speaking in foreign tongues “if there be no interpreter.” In 1 Cor. 14:30, he prohibits prophets from constantly interrupting one another in order to gain the floor. In 1 Cor. 14:34, Paul uses the same terms (“keep silence”) to prohibit certain women from addressing the assembly. The question is: in view of the context of verses 26-35, what is the most likely explanation of the nature of the “speaking” that the women are to cease by the prohibition of the apostle? Simple logic demands that the speaking prohibited is of the same nature as the activity prohibited in verses 28 and 30, namely, inspired activity.

. .Some suggest that Paul was simply forbidding interruptive chatter or interrogative questioning but clearly the words “silence” and “speak” tie these verses into the larger context of prophetic activity. Notice the remarks of W. E. Vine regarding this section of Scripture: “The suggestion that the verb laleo, to speak, here signifies to chatter, is untenable. It has no support from its use elsewhere in this Epistle …. We may take, for instance, the use of the word in this very chapter. It is used eighteen times, of speaking in tongues, of prophesying (vv. 3, 29), of speaking with understanding, so as to instruct others (v. 19), and of the utterance of God through human agency (v. 21). Nor can the inference as to chattering be drawn from the distinction between laleo and lego, for any distinction lies in this, that laleo expresses the speaking in contrast to remaining silent (as in Acts 18:9, `speak, and hold not thy peace’), whereas lego points more to what is actually said . . . . The injunction was not against making noisy interruptions, but against taking part in oral ministry.”

In a similar way, C. K. Barrett argues in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “Nor is it very convincing to argue that to speak (in verse 34, lalein) does not refer to such praying and prophesying, but to uninspired speech . . . . It is true that the verb does, in Classical Greek, bear the meaning ‘to chatter’, and it would be understandable that Paul should wish to stern an outburst of feminine loquacity; but in the New Testament, and in Paul, the verb normally does not have this meaning, and is used throughout chapter xiv (verses 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12., 18, 19, 21, 23, 27, 29, 39) in the sense of inspired speech.”

Our point is this: the context and the original language lend credence to the view that what is under consideration by Paul is not the correction of uninspired, interruptive chatter or loquacious questioning but rather the cessation of a vocal, spiritual gift exercised by a woman. In view of these things it seems more logical to conclude that Paul’s reference to “women” in verses 34 and 35 involves that group of women in the early church who were prophetesses-inspired speakers.

Why Would It Be a Shame?

The objection must surely be raised, “But what about Paul’s reference in verse 35 to women `asking their husbands at home’?” Does not this verse militate against the idea that prophetesses are involved? Not at all. We will have a great deal of trouble understanding Paul’s words to the Corinthians if we insist upon imposing our ideas of present-day assemblies upon the text. As can be seen from a simple reading of the 14th chapter, our assemblies have very little in common with the age of spiritual gifts and inspired assemblies. Obviously the principles of order and proper decorum still stand-God is not the author of confusion today, either. But in reality we have no comparable setting to the episode described in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians; this period of “mutual edification,” the kind described in our text, passed away with the age of apostolic miracles.

Evidently the assemblies in Corinth were quite vigorous-every prophet wanted to “have his say” . . . but then so did every “prophetess.” Paul reminds them that “as in all the churches of the saints” the women (prophetesses) were to “keep silence.” Their assemblies were confusing enough-they were not to add to the confusion by violating a Divine standard applicable in every assembly. Why would it be a shame? Because, as Paul told the Corinthians in chapter 11, the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. The Divine order cannot be set aside by the vigorous and engrossing debates of the Corinthian assemblies. The prophetess is not to dishonor her head, either by prophesying without a veil or by prophesying in an improper circumstance (1 Cor. 11:2-16; 14:34, 35).

It is not difficult to see the dilemma that Paul faced in Corinth. A prophet has the floor and begins an inspired discourse. A discussion ensues regarding the application and meaning of the truth uttered. A prophetess, fully-endowed with the gift of prophecy-on an equal basis, ability-wise, with the prophets in the assembly-wishes to raise a further point, or ask a pertinent question. This is out of order and must be condemned. Such an action violates the order that God has established between men and women (cf. 1 Tim. 2:815; Eph. 5:22-33). If the women desire to continue the discussion or ask questions, let them do it at home with their own husbands rather than overthrow the assembly. The assembly of God is to be a model community before the world-neither the church itself nor outsiders should get the impression from the meetings of the saints that this Divine order can be leisurely set aside.

Concluding Remarks

The fact that an assembly in which spiritual gifts are exercised is under consideration in 1 Corinthians 14 does not militate against the proper application of the principles involved today in our assemblies. Women today have no more license to usurp authority, “teach over a man” and thus violate the pattern revealed by God between male and female than did the Corinthian women. We see nothing inherent in our position that prohibits the authoritative application of these verses to the modern error of women preachers. In fact, it appears that such an argument is considerably strengthened when one realizes that not even inspired women, in the apostolic age, were allowed to overthrow the order of God. How much less appropriate it is then today for any to argue that female Christians have any right to dispense with the Divine order in the assembly of God.

We are not interested in establishing “standard Brotherhood Tradition” but only in understanding what the apostle Paul said to the Corinthian church and how that passage relates to contemporary faith and practice. Perhaps if all of us were less interested in compiling clever debate notes and more concerned about pursuing the diligent study of God’s word, we would have fewer occasions of sweeping generalities and unsubstantiated assertions in our writing efforts.

Truth Magazine XIX: 23, pp. 364-366
April 17, 1975