On the role of women in the church and 1st Corinthians 14:33b–36

by redguthrie

As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.

In this passage, Paul is saying that in every congregation women should be silent according to the law. If a woman does not understand something, she should wait to ask her husband until they are home. It is important to understand this passage in order to understand the role of women in the Jesus movement and in order to understand Paul’s views on women.

Taken on its own, the passage places women in a heavily subordinate role to men within worship. It also seems to place husbands as the supreme authority for wives, for it is through their husbands, and not anyone else, that wives are instructed to seek knowledge. Taken in historical context, though the meaning, or at least the authenticity of this passage becomes less clear.

Barr points out that the tone of verses 34 and 35 doesn’t seem to agree with his other letters. In Galatians 3:28 Paul wrote that neither male nor female existed for the followers of Jesus. Paul also acknowledges various women as coworkers in Christ with him. In Philippians 4:2–3, Paul refers to two women who “have struggled beside” him “in the work of the gospel.” In Romans 16:1–2, Paul asks those he writes to assist Phoebe, a deacon in the church of Cenchreae, in “whatever she may require” of them. Barr and the Harper Collins Study Bible both assert that Phoebe was likely the person entrusted to deliver Paul’s letter to the Romans. Barr further notes that Paul greets seven women as coworkers in Romans 16.

As Barr also points out, verses 34 and 35 also appears to contradict other passages in 1 Corinthians. In verse 11:5, Paul refers to women prophesying, but does not condemn them for such activity. Likewise, in verses 11:11–12, Paul seems to emphasize the interdependence of men with women and not the dependence of women on men. Viewed through the context of Paul’s other letters and even through other passages within 1st Corinthians, the meaning of this passage seems either unclear or contradictory to Paul’s views on women.

Barr acknowledges that some scholars view verses 34 and 35 as a latter addition to 1st Corinthians. The Harper Collins Study Bible also points this out, noting the verses’ similarity to the likely pseudepigraphal epistles to Timothy and Titus. Beyond the unusual viewpoint verses 34 and 35 put forward when compared to the rest of Paul’s known writing, there are certain textual ambiguities that appear to lend credence to this claim.

There appears to be some confusion in the syntax of verses 33 and 34. The New Revised Standard Version renders the last part of verse 33 as the first clause of the sentence that continues into verse 34. In contrast, the New King James Version and The Orthodox New Testament translation published by Holy Apostles Convent both treat the last part of verse 33 as the final clause of the first part of 33. If this latter interpretation is correct, the command for feminine silence and submission in verses 34 and 35 is not explicitly connected to the practice of all assemblies, though such a connection may be implied.

There is also a point of ambiguity in the rhetorical questions of the verse 36. While they may censure outspoken women in Corinth, this is not entirely clear. If verses 33 and 34 are viewed as a later addition to the text, the meaning of verse 35 seems to fit clearly with Paul’s admonitions for orderly prophecy in verses 26–33. Such a reading is supported by the Harper Collins Study Bible footnote that says verses 34 and 35 were placed after verse 40 by some ancient authorities. The confusion over where these two verses should be placed in the text seem to support the possibility that the verses were later additions to Paul’s letter.

Additionally, referring to women speaking as shameful (αἰσχρὸν) is harsher language than appears in the surrounding verses, even when discussing the denial of the bodily resurrection, where Paul addresses one who questions bodily resurrection as “Fool.” This could indicate that Paul considers women speaking in assembly as worse than denying what he sees as a fundamental belief or that verses 34 and 35 were written by a different author.

Due to the way verses 34 and 35 contradict what Paul writes elsewhere and the confusion over where the verses should be placed in Paul’s letter, I tend toward interpreting these verses as non-Pauline. As a believer, verses such as this one which seem to contradict the witness of Paul’s writings and of the Gospels, have always troubled me. The general message I take from Christianity is one of love, equality, and charity, and passages that seem as uncharitable as this one have always been hard for me to reconcile. I find some comfort that these verses may be viewed to be non-Pauline and perhaps of lesser authority, although I am not comforted to know that the sentiments of these verses are repeated elsewhere in the canon.


Barr in the above works refers to David L. Barr’s New Testament Story: An Introduction