The Silence of the Women: Understanding Paul’s Admonition in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35

Aimee Byrd
Friday, August 17th 2018

Before the creepy documentary thriller The Blair Witch Project launched Burkittsville, Maryland into national fame, the small town was already well-known to locals as a ghost-story landmark. Teens looking for something to do on a Friday night drive the windy mountain back roads to Spook Hill, Burkittsville and follow these directions: once you see the red barn on Gapland Road, drive to the bottom of the incline, put the car in neutral, feel the car drift uphill! How can this be? Three days before the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Crampton’s Gap took place at what is now Gapland Road. The story is that the ghosts of the Confederate soldiers are still going at it, pushing your car uphill, mistaking it for cannons and supplies. The tale gets embellished as thrill-seekers have reported dusty handprints on the hoods of their cars, laughter coming from the woods, and the sound of boots on the pavement.

I can testify to the experience, since Spook Hill is just ten minutes from my house. It’s definitely a creepy feeling to be in a car drifting uphill. Many have exposed the landmark (and numerous other “gravity hills” like it) as an optical illusion. There are multiple factors at work within the landscape that fool the eye, often with an obstructed horizon to really throw us off. Without a level, calculations of the elevation grade, or a physics geek in your car, one is left only with what the eye can see. Without the greater perspective, ghost stories flourish. While I never bought into the ghost story, and I intellectually assent to the optical illusion argument, I still get confused and unsettled when I am actually in my car in neutral on Spook Hill. It looks and feels like an off-the-grid spot in the world that the laws of gravity somehow missed.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35 can be a sort of Spook Hill in the back roads of the Bible. The landscape can be deceiving, and readers come at the verse with all kinds of obstructions in their horizons.

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. (NASB)

At first glance, it seems like Paul is bucking against all of the gravity of the gospel teaching applied to women, drifting backwards to the ancient Greco-Roman female subjugation of the time. Some do interpret the text this way, haunting us with teachings barring women from the intellectual life of the church. So what is it that we are actually seeing in this passage? The more we look at it, the more questions we may have. When are women supposed to be silent? What or whom are they to submit themselves to? What law is Paul referring to?

One thing is certain, like the spooky landmark in Burkittsville, one cannot interpret the landscape of this text without stepping back and looking at the whole picture. In reading this text, our own culture, presuppositions, and experiences may skew the horizon, so it’s helpful to take a brief look at the time and place in which Paul was writing.

First, we need to back up and look at the whole context from which Paul is writing. Second, we need to use what we already know to be true of Scripture as proper guardrails to keep us on the right track. The laws of gravity prevent cars from drifting up hill; there aren’t a bunch of confused Confederate ghosts hanging out in Burkittsville, and Paul doesn’t call for the complete silence of women in worship.

Before tackling all of the specific questions this text may raise, there are some basic questions that a skilled reader of Scripture should answer for clarity. What is the main thrust of the text we are looking at? As we zoom out from our Spook Hill, we can see that these two verses are part of a larger context, beginning in chapter 11, teaching the Corinthians about proper order in public worship. “Paul is not leading with the subject of gender roles; he is responding to an occasion or development in the Corinthian church.”1 We need to be careful not to make a corrective response a blanket theological position about gender.2 As we consider this passage, we need to ask what Paul’s message is to the original recipients, as well as what God’s word is for us now. When we do that, we see a lasting principle in the text. Because “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace” (14:33a), he provides an order in which we can freely function within. “God gives unalterable commands, but he also gives us freedom to obey them in culturally diverse ways.”3 This proper order blesses both the God we are worshipping and our brothers and sisters in the faith, as we are told that our exercising of them should be driven by love (chap. 13).

By taking a few steps back to look at the small chunk of landscape from chapters 11-14, we see a glimpse of highway that guides us. Kenneth Bailey made some profitable and fascinating discoveries about the elevation grade of 1 Cor. 11:2-14:40, the fourth out of a five-essay collection that function together in the epistle. The climax, or center of gravity we could say, of this essay on men and women in worship is the foundational theological teaching by which the rest of the concentric circles around it should be interpreted. Viewed through the proper hermeneutical lens, we see this is not subjugation or oppression, but love:

1. Men and women leading in worship: prophets and how they dress (11:2-16) 2. Order in worship: Sacrament---The Lord’s Supper (11:17-34) 3. Gifts and the Nature of the Body (12:1-30) 4. The Hymn to Love (12:31-14:1) 5. Spiritual Gifts and the Upbuilding of the Body (14:1-25) 6. Order in Worship: Word---Prophets and Speakers in Tongues (14:26-33) 7. Women and Men Worshiping: No Chatting in Church (14:33b-40)4

We see that both brothers and sisters are to be sensitive to cultural symbols, feast together at the Lord’s table, and are called to discernment, maturity, and love in exercising spiritual gifts for the purpose of edifying the body of Christ. Even as we get closer to Spook Hill, we see that women as well as men are encouraged to prophecy and to speak in tongues during church meetings. The more I study these verses, the more fascinated I am by the efforts to include women in many facets of worship in a society that didn’t educate women or have them speak in public. It makes me wonder about our debates in the church today about whether women are able to make announcements or even pass out bulletins before the service.

But there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, so that chaos does not ensue and that everyone is properly built up in the word given. Men and women are to take turns speaking in tongues. If there is no interpreter, they are to be publicly silent (14:29). Brothers and sisters are called to prophesy, but as another has something to say, they are to submit their own turn in silence (30). Others are called to weigh what is said, discerning whether it is from the Lord. It is within this evaluation-of-the-prophecies context that women are told to be silent (v.34). But one still wonders, why now? And why women specifically? There are both theological and cultural reasons behind this silence.

Lacking in trained, permanent clergy, it was the custom at that time both in the synagogues and in the early church for traveling teachers to come speak. It was the task of the elders to weigh what was said and pass judgment as to whether it was according to the word of God to be received by the church, or to be rejected as heresy.5 The elders are household managers of sorts. This weighing of teaching and prophecy, by both traveling teachers and local congregants, is one responsibility of this office. “Apparently there was a situation in Corinth where, when the prophecies were being weighed (presumably by male elders) certain women were interjecting, asking questions, perhaps even challenging the rulings.”6 Furthermore, “If women were judging their husband’s prophecy and, by implication, questioning the veracity of their own husbands or other men in regard to prophesying, then they were creating a situation where the Corinthian worship service might become a family feud.”7

Nevertheless, there has to be more to this landscape than the dynamic of church office, or else Paul would caution laymen along with laywomen. Were the women chatting and asking questions during this time of weighing the prophecies because they were trying to subvert authority? We must think about the cultural situation even more here—Paul mentions the women wanting to learn, not trying to take over. Women in the home were not socialized the same as their husbands who were involved in commerce. They were not often equal participants in society and business, and therefore not exposed to all the diverse languages and speech styles. We also need to consider the setting—as the early Christians gathered in house churches with shared fellowship meals, the women must have been distracted with hospitality, preparation, and tending the children.8 “Multiple factors must be considered. Attention-span problems, limited knowledge of Greek, accent issues, language levels of Greek in use, lack of amplification for the speakers, along with chatting as a methodology for learning are all involved.”9 So Paul calls for these women to act honorably, as with the other two times he calls for silence when it leads to disruption and disorder. And yet he also deals kindly, encouraging these wives to go to their husbands and get their questions answered or learn what they might have missed after the service.

This makes it more likely that the women are not so much needing to be told to submit to their husbands, but rather to observe “the principle of order in the worship service, the principle of silence and respect shown when another person is speaking.”10 This also explains the “law” Paul references. “The Corinthians should know the OT speaks about a respectful silence when a word of counsel is spoken (Job 29.21).”11

Paul closes this essay beautifully by summarizing and reminding us of the gravity of his rule for men and women in worship: the command to love:

37If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, [chap.11]PROPHECY (Order Needed)Or spiritual, [chap. 12]GIFTS (Order Needed)He should acknowledge that what I’m writing to you is a command of the Lord. [chap. 13]THE COMMAND38If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.To Love39So, my [brothers and sisters], earnestly desire to prophecy, [14:1-12]GIFTSand do not forbid speaking in tongues; [14:13-25]prophecy & tongues40but all things should be doneALL THINGS IN ORDERin decency and in order. [14:26-33](in Order)12

This is not a back roads verse in the Bible that I want to avoid (nothing spooky to see here!) Upholding the proper order of worship, respecting the officers of the church, and refraining from non-inspired speech that disrupts worship all falls within the context of the Lord’s command to love—the very thing Christians should be known for.

Aimee Byrd is the author of No Little Women and Why Can’t We Be Friends, and co-host of The Mortification of Spin podcast. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children, and is a member of New Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church.


1 Stephen T. Um, 1 Corinthians: The Word of the Cross (Wheaton: Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 247.

2 See Ben Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 25.

3 Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2012), Kindle version, Loc. 99-104.

4 Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2011), 295.

5 Keller, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles, Loc. 157-175.

6 Um, 1 Corinthians, 251.

7 Ben Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 176.

8 See Cynthia Westfall, Paul and Gender (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 248-240.

9 Bailey, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, 416.

10 Witherington, Women in the Earliest Churches , 102-103.

11 Ibid., 103. Also, “A survey of various uses of the Hebrew words for silence reveals that the only time silence is associated with submission in the OT is out of respect for God (Hab 2.20; cf. Isa 46.1; Zech 2.13), or one in position of authority (Jdgs 3.19), or wise men noted for their knowledge and counsel (Job 29.21), or it is a silence imposed by God on someone who speaks insolently to a righteous person (PS. 31.17).” (102).

12 Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 417

Friday, August 17th 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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