1 Corinthians 14:34: Did God Really Say...?

William Castro

While a student, I came across an article by Latin American theologian Elsa Tamez titled, "Women Must Not be Silent in the Congregations!"--in which she argued that Paul gave apostolic instruction about how women should exercise the gift of prophecy in the church in 1 Corinthians 11, while rejecting the idea that the Apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 14:34. In the latter passage, Paul exhorts Christian women to refrain from teaching or preaching in the context of public worship services. You can understand how shocking it is to hear ministers in Evangelical and Calvinistic denominations now suggesting that a combined reading of 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 teaches us that "Women do not have to be silent in the congregations" except during a time of "judging of the prophecies."

Much of what leads to this sort of re-reading of 1 Corinthians 14 is driven by a desire for cultural adaptation. The rationale is as follows: women in our societies are strong and successful, competent and competitive. Why shouldn't they also be leading in every respect in the church? This way of re-reading the Scripture will almost certainly cause serious harm down the line when our children begin to read other passages of Scripture in a similar way under the pressure of society. While it may seem like a secondary issue now, introducing novelty into an attempt to reinterpret a passage like 1 Corinthians 14:34 will cause significant problems with primary issues sooner or later.

In order to keep the peace and purity of the church, it is important to recognize that there are will always be different interpretations of certain passages of Scripture. We must accept the fact that all the pastors in one denomination will never read all biblical passages in precisely the same way. A brief consideration of differences among commentators, who served in the same denominations throughout church history, will also support that conclusion. In that regard, we must discern whether the discrepancy is over an essential or non-essential matter for the church or to use Calvin's distinction between essential, important or indifferent.

For example, the doctrine of Christology is is non-negotiable to us, while the discrepancy concerning the frequency of the Lord's Supper is of less importance. There is no point in raising a concern regarding a disagreement over an issue that is non-essential. However, there can be a time when the discussion of a secondary or negotiable topic may warrant serious concern.

A revisionist reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34 suggests that--when Paul says that women should keep silent--he does not mean silent in the whole public worship, but only silent during specific times; namely, during the judging of prophecies. To be fair, this interpretation is not something that has suddenly sprung up. It has increasingly become more prevalent over the past century. It is not only a problem in one denomination. This interpretation is becoming more and more accepted and less and less questioned, as solid scholars such as D.A. Carson and William Kistemaker have supported it. Nevertheless, this is a relatively new way to solve the interpretative tension in this passage.

In 1 Cor. 11:5 Paul says "every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head..." and in 1 Cor. 14:34 he adds "the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak..." Why does Paul speak of women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11, while in 1 Corinthians 14, he forbids them to speak? How should we reconcile these two passages?

The literature on the solution of this apparent contradiction is vast and unending as there have been many attempts to reconcile these passages through the history of interpretation. We can summarize for our purposes four solutions to this apparently contradiction. One interpretation maintains that there are two kinds of worship: informal (chapter 11) and formal (chapter 14). We may refer to this as the "different context solution." Another interpretation proposes that in 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul was describing (not affirming or commending) that women prophesy; and, that he was just delaying the moment in which he would forbid it later on, in 1 Corinthians 14. We may call this the "delaying of condemnation solution." A third interpretation is that Paul was speaking of exceptions in chapter 11. This may be called "the extraordinary situations solution." A fourth, and final, interpretation is the proposal that in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is stating that women should be silent only at the time of the judging (testing) of the prophecies. We may refer to this as the "judging of prophecies solution." All are agreed that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:34, was not forbidding women to make any utterance at church. From the early church onward, all have understood that the prohibition was about women speaking publicly and officially during worship.

The Different Context Solution

This "different context solution" proposes that in 1 Corinthians 11, women pray and prophesy during private or informal worship in which everyone participated. In chapter 14, the setting is more formal and structured worship services. It may be comparable to the synagogue worship in the days of Christ and the disciples (Luke 4; Acts 13). Some have suggested that the meetings in 1 Cor. 11:5 were private meetings that were only attended by women. This is a classical and traditional distinction that I believe our churches should value.  This distinction was taught by Origin (ca. AD 185-254), Chrysostom, Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra, Denis de Carthusian, Cardinal Cajetan, and Claude Guilliaud. According to John Thompson, Calvin also held to this solution to the meaning of the two passages. However, at other times Calvin seemed inclined toward the "delaying of condemnation solution" as well. In Calvin's exposition of Acts and 1 Cor. 11:5, he suggested that Priscilla and Phillip's daughters would have exercised their gifts in this way "at home, or in a private place outside the public meeting."

Charles Hodge says that Paul "takes for granted, in 11:5, that women may receive and exercise the gift of prophecy. It is therefore only the public exercising of the gift that is prohibited." B.B. Warfield's explanation of the word "laleo" helps this interpretation, especially in light of the context of the passage. In 1 Cor. 11:5 there is nothing said about church in the context. The word church does not occur until verse 16. Chapter 14 is referring to the whole ekklesia (verse 4, 5, 12, 16, 19, 23, 26ff, 33). As R.C.H. Lenski affirmed, from 11:17 until the end of chapter 14, Paul is dealing with gatherings of the congregation for public worship. We should not depart from the simple and natural meaning of the text. Further, 1 Corinthians 11:5 should be understood in the light of the clear and emphatic nature of 1 Tim. 2:1ff and 1 Cor. 14:33ff.

Some critics of this position say that the separation between private and public is anachronistic. However, it seems evident in Acts 18 that this contrast shaped the mind and practice of the church of the New Testament as they initially gathered in the Synagogue. At least in our topic, there is a clear circumstance in which Priscila and Aquila took Apollos aside privately, and more accurately explained to him the way of God.

Many who dismiss the "different context solution" explain that it does not adequately reconcile 1 Corinthians 14:26 (where Paul seems to encourage the participation of men and women in worship) with verse 35 of the same chapter (where Paul seems to discourage women's participation).  However, this is a false conflict. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 it could just as easily be understood that Paul was not addressing women in this text. Why? Because he mentioned "teaching" [διδαχὴν] in 1 Corinthians 14:26 and there is no place in 1 Corinthians where teaching is opened for women in the context of worship. That is the reason why 1 Corinthians 14:34 says "your women."

The Delaying of Condemnation Solution

The "delaying of condemnation solution" establishes that in 1 Corinthians 11:5, Paul is not "expecting" women to prophesy as some interpreters today assume. He is simply correcting the church of Corinth in a progressive way. As already noted, at times John Calvin favored this solution. Charles Hodge also held to it. Other noteworthy exegetes, such as Henry Alford, De Wett (1780-1849), A.R. Fausset, Thomas C. Edwards, and JJ Lias commended this interpretive solution.

Frederic Godet drew attention to the fact that Paul delays various corrections throughout his epistles. He does so in regards to the lawsuits in 1 Cor. 6:4, which lay down a simple restriction; in verse 7 he condemns them altogether. Also with regards to participation of Christians in idolatrous feasts, 8:10 seems to allow it; however, Paul then forbids it absolutely in 10:21-22.

The Extraordinary Situations Solution

Another proposed solution is that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is talking about public prophetesses who were using extraordinary gifts in extraordinary circumstances in the birth of neo-testamentarian communities. However, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is speaking of a regular and general principle to be kept by the church. This solution seems to have been advocated by Francois Lambert, Martin Luther, and Peter Martyr Vermigli. John Thompson explains that this solution met the practical needs of the Reformation era. He writes, "God raises up women prophets specially when the church is in disarray...sometimes to shame men, but sometimes just because there is no man around who can do the job." Of course, these interpreters believed that prophecy was no longer a gift continuing in the church today. However, the objectives of prophecy may continue in the work of teaching and preaching in the church. They were not in favor of women taking the role of teaching or preaching, but they were aware of some exceptions that may have happened in extraordinary circumstances. The advocates of this solution never promoted preaching or proclamation as a regular function of women in the church, "but some in the era of the Reformation went so far as to authorize women's temporary ministry on the grounds of necessity..." In my studies, I have not found this position advocated in any documents in the post-reformation era. However, the principle of contrast between ordinary and extra-ordinary times is present in the "Form of Presbyterian Government" of the Westminster Assembly. There it is far from authorizing women to teach, but establishes that "In extraordinary cases, something extraordinary may be done, until a settled order may be had, yet keeping as near as possibly may be to the rule."

It is remarkable that during the Reformation era this debate was in the context of the need for teachers of God's word. By contrast, at least in my experience, here in America the discussion of the Role of Women arises in the context of the "successful" women in the marketplace that can be used in the church.

The three alternatives presented above are considered the historical options. They advocate that women are not allowed to engage in any public speaking during public worship--the third option, however, granting exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. Throughout history, these have been the main interpretations for reconciling the teaching of 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Cor. 14. It is not until interpreters sought a way to accommodate cultural expectations that proposals for women leading in worship led on to novel revisions and re-readings of these passages.

The Judging of Prophecies Solution

According to some the "judging of prophecies solution" is consistent with the structure of the passage. Many follow Kistemaker when he says that there are three restrictions in the passage. First, Paul encourages speaking in tongues but restricts it to a limited number of people. Second, Paul encourages prophecy but limits the number of prophets and requires order so others can judge. Third, Paul adds an additional restriction that the ones judging prophecies must be male (apostle or elders)--clarifying that women should not speak duringthis specific time.

Proponents of this solution insist that σιγάτω rarely means total speechlessness. No serious theologian of the past would have exegeted this passage in this way. As noted already, John Lightfoot, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (using the Talmud and other Judaic sources), says that "it was allowed them [the women] to answer Amen with others, and to sing with the church; but to speak any thing by themselves, it was forbidden them."

The "judging of prophecies solution" faces the following insurmountable problems:

  1. Why did Paul choose to specifically address only women to be silent during this time of evaluation of the prophecies, instead of just stating in general that non-apostles or non-leaders should be silent?
  2. The silence instructed during tongues and prophecies is a particular silence directed to individuals. Paul employs the singular form. However, the silence for women is general, as indicated by Paul's use of the plural form.
  3. If the Apostle wished to limit the silence only to the time of judging of prophecies, why did he use the word "learn" instead of "judge" for the intention of women?
  4. Why have exegetes, prior to the late-20th Century, not favored this opinion?

Concerning this last point, Michael Marlowe has tracked the history of this interpretation back to its origination by Margaret E. Thrall in 1965. Thrall was a remarkable Pauline scholar and became one of the first women to be ordained in the Church in Wales. Later, in 1981, James B. Hurley, professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, promoted Thrall's interpretation. The same position was adopted in 1982 by Wayne Grudem and defended by D.A. Carson in 1991. In addition, in 1993 the great commentator Simon J. Kistemaker adopted a similar view stating that he follows Grudem, Carson, and Hurley in that regard. Finally, this Anthony Thiselton advanced this proposal in 2000. We are now at the point that it is becoming a more and more accepted proposal to restrict the teaching of the Apostle to forbid women to speak in public worship.

Why is this important?

While we wish to avoid a fallacious appeal to the slippery slope argument, adopting the "judging of prophecies" solution will have an impact on the application of these passages to open doors for women preaching in otherwise conservative denominations.

The "judging of prophecies solution" implies that Paul allowed (and encouraged) women to prophesy in the worship service. This also implies that worship services or worship practices are divided in two: authoritative leading, and non-authoritative leading where women can address the congregation.

One could actually argue from the concept of prophecy itself that there may be some non-authoritative devotionals that women may deliver in public worship (prophecy) but they should not be allowed to deliver a sermon (judging of prophecies). I understand that many in conservative circles do not advocate for this today. For instance, even in the 1988 OPC Report on Women where they acknowledge this novel interpretation, they dismissed the possibility of a contemporary application of it because prophecy is an already-extinct gift in this post-apostolic era. Others made a distinction between prophecy and teaching. At any rate, we can say that this interpretation may serve to "normalize" many practices that are already taking place in numerous congregations--such as, women leading prayers of petitions, prayers of praise, secondary readings of the Scripture etc.

The problem comes when someone seeks to advance the "judging of prophecy solution" to allow women to give exhortations (short sermons) in worship. If Paul allowed women to prophesy in public worship as the "judging of prophecies solution" advocates, what would stop someone from saying that women today can do short devotionals during public worship to encourage, instruct, and teach [1 Co 14:3] the whole congregation in a non-authoritative way? What will prevent our conservative Reformed denominations from moving in the same direction as the Southern Baptist Convention seems to be moving? A number of years ago, I warned the General Assembly of my own denomination that the approval of this interpretation opens the door for women preaching in worship services and other practices forbidden by Scripture.

Beyond this, the problem with the "judging of prophecies" interpretation extends far beyond the issue of women participating in public worship. It forces us to read between the lines of what the Bible actually says. If Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, says that women should be silent in the public worship service--and we say, "only during a certain part of the service," then we are de factor making the Word of God say something other than what it actually says. I certainly am not advocating for a rejection of all possible solutions to interpretive difficulties. I do, however, believe that we should follow the humble attitude of the divines of Westminster, who--before affirming an interpretation--considered the history of exegesis of the texts. Unfortunately, at present, modern interpretations have come to be "normalized" to the point that centuries of exegetical and hermeneutical work is dismissed even by conservative theological professors.

I am optimistic that if we promote deep and irenic conversations that are centered around biblical fidelity, we may be able to create a strong culture of hermeneutics and exegesis in future ruling and teaching elders. Our children and those coming after us need us to engage in these conversations today.  I am open to listening to my brothers. I strongly believe after my own readings that the "judging of prophecies solution" to 1 Corinthians 14:34 is a novel interpretation that forces a meaning onto the text in order to remove any discomfort the apostolic prohibition brings to our modern ears.

Rev. William Castro is the Pastor of Emmanuel Upstate Church in Greenville, SC. He is originally from Peru. William served as an advisory member of the PCA Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry in the Church