Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Silent Women in the Church

Steven Harris has written about what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 14 about women being silent in the church.

He gives a detailed argument, with these conclusions.

"I would argue in closing however, that this absolute prohibition is only an apparent absolute. Paul has already granted women the right to speak in the congregation back in 1 Cor 11, so 14:34-35 cannot be read as an all-time command for silence unless one is willing to argue that Paul is now abandoning the position he has set out just three chapters before. The speech in the Corinthian congregation seems to have been very disruptive, a sort of cacophony of uninterpreted tongues and multiple prophecies, which clearly many of the women (and undoubtedly many men too) did not understand. The women in turn then add to the disorder by asking their husbands what is going on. To restore this threefold disorder (babbling tongues, manifold prophecies and chattering women) Paul makes three corrections.

Firstly, those speaking in tongues should only speak one at a time and then if no interpretation follows, they should keep quiet (14:26).

Secondly, those prophesying should not all prophesy at once but take it in turns. If someone else has a revelation, the other prophet(s) are to stop speaking. (14:30)

Thirdly, the women who are asking questions and adding to the disruption are usurping the structure of their relationship with their husbands, and so they should remain quiet and ask questions at home. They are not permitted to speak in such a way that will disrupt the service and hinder the building up of the congregation in love.

So what about today? This verse cannot be read as a demand for complete silence from women on all occasions in church meetings, and even if we leave the tricky textual issues aside, the internal evidence does not permit us to read the text in such a way. Interestingly (I'm going to have a slight dig here) many of the denominations who have insisted on read 14:34-35 in such a way as to ban women from speaking have also been those who insist that speaking in tongues and prophesying no longer happen, which at the very best is a completely inconsistent and contradictory position to derive from 1 Cor 11-14, and despite pleas to the contrary is not 'sound biblical doctrine.'

So should women be silent in church? No, they may prophesy and speak in tongues and help to edify the congregation. Is this an all-time absolute? No, and I do not believe that Paul intended it to be read that way, or that it is indeed possible to read it that way. So when are women to be silent? If they are disrupting the service and hindering the edification of others they should not speak, because this prevents the building up of the church in love. I believe that, after all is said and done, this hermeneutic of love is the best way to read all of Paul's writing on spiritual gifts and women, and is the key to this text and indeed the rest of 1 Corinthians."

Thanks Paul for a very thoughtful post on this topic.

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