So I've just been reading from 1 Corinthians 14 and I came across the following passage: "Women must keep silent in the churches; for it is not permitted to them to speak, but they must submit, even as the law says."
Now, this is one of those passages that traditionalists tend to cite in support of ecclesiastical patriarchy, and one over which feminists cry foul. Based on such passages, Paul was a bastion of godly patriarchy to his supporters, or a dangerous misogynist to his detractors. Well I cry foul. Paul was neither. Paul's main crime is being easy to misunderstand. I, for one, am with Peter, who points out that the letters of Paul contain "some hard to understand things, which the unlearned and unstable distort, as [they do] the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction," (2 Peter 3:16).
I once heard a preacher point out that although the Bible has come to us in nice neat chunks, with chapter divisions and verse divisions and - in some modern versions - subject headings, that's not how it was written. The Bible wasn't meant to be read one verse at a time. It was meant to be read one book at a time. This is nowhere more true than in the letters of Paul, and yet at the same time no author is more prooftexted than Paul. And so we get traditionalists praising Paul and feminists booing Paul and nobody ever realizing that Paul just might be saying something different than they think.
(Note, when I say "traditionalist" in this post I'm referring specifically to gender roles. That is, when I say "traditionalist" I mean those theolgians who argue that man as head-of-household and man as head-of-church has the status of Timeless Divine Decree. On some matters the term "traditionalist" would apply to me. On this issue, it does not.)
So back on topic: 1 Corinthians 14:34 is one of the portions of Paul's letters that gets prooftexted (prooftexting is the practice of isolating a single verse or group of verses to support a certain position). "Aha!" they say, "Paul says that women ought to be in submission to men in church, not allowed to teach or even speak." Again, I cry foul. Let's look at what Paul is actually saying.
First, we must remember one very important thing: only one or two of Paul's letters are capable of standing entirely alone. Most - including this one - constitute half a conversation. Paul is here responding to questions asked and issues raised by the Christians in Corinth in a letter they sent to him, and which is lost to us. Therefore it is highly likely that this statement is situationally specific, that it, that Paul is responding to some particular concern of the Corinthian church.
Second, we must examine the context. A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext. So it is here. In context, Paul is talking about orderliness of worship. In the preceding verses we see references to how many people ought to be praying aloud at once, to people not speaking in tongues if there is no one to interpret, and so on. And so it is only after a lengthy discussion of orderliness of worship that we find this injunction for women to be silent, followed in verse 35 by a suggestion that women who have questions should ask their husbands later. Thus we begin to see a scenario where the Corinthian worship services were two steps shy of utter chaos and confusion: people all praying and prophesying and speaking in tongues at once, with women - who were generally denied education in the ancient world - chiming in with questions whenever they came to mind. Thus Paul says to all: take turns speaking, and if you have questions, hold them until after the service, please.
"Ah," you may say, "but what of that bit toward the end of the verse about how women must submit?" A good question, I say. Here again we must look at what Paul isn't saying, as much as what Paul is saying. I note that there is no object for the verb "submit" (hupotasso, in Greek, if you want to know), that is, Paul does not say here "Women are to submit to men." Rather he simply says, "they must submit," (or, more literally, "submit themselves/be submitted" the verb is middle/passive in form, but "submit" is less wordy and conveys basically the same meaning, so I've translated it that way). That being the case - since there's no object of the verb - we must return to our context to try and figure out to what women must submit. Given our previous discussion, that is (or should be) fairly obvious: the submission involved is to proper order and decorum within the worship service. Paul's concern here is with preserving order in worship, keeping the Corinthians' meetings from descending into utter chaos (I've been to some modern Protestant churches that could stand to re-read this chapter, by the way). His comments about the silence and submission of women must be read in that context.
"Fine," you say, "but I've got you now, you stinking liberal feminist! What about verse 35, where Paul says it's shameful for a woman to speak in church? Squirm out of that if you can! Bwahaha!!" I say, alright. Let's look at verse 35. Specifically, let's look at the second half of verse 35. We've already noted that Paul suggests women who have questions ought to ask their husbands at home, but he goes on to say "for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." Uh-oh. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Paul really did mean the church to be patriarchal. Maybe the above analysis really is just a bunch of wiggling eisegesis - a pitiful attempt to force the text to say what I want it to say, in plain contravention of the obvious sense of the text. Maybe.
But I don't think so.
At first blush, this verse appears to be rather a problem for my position: it's obviously a general statement; it can't really be construed as context-specific. There are no real textual variants to speak of - certainly no manuscripts in which the clause does not appear (though there are a handful of manuscripts where it apparently gets moved to a different part of the passage). I can't pull any fancy original language sleight-of-hand with the word "shameful." Although the NASB translators soften the blow a bit by rendering it "improper," the word (aischros) means something like, "shameful, base, immoral." So what are we to do? Shall we scrap the entirety of the brilliant analysis above in favor of signs - "Ladies, keep your traps shut until you leave. Thanks, Mgmt" - posted on the doors of our churches? Maybe.
But wait, there's more.
There are two issues worth considering, here. First, is the issue of contradiction. If Paul believes, as this vexing little clause appears to say, that it is immoral or dishonorable for a woman to speak in church, why is it that just three chapters earlier (11:3) we find Paul saying that a woman who prays or prophesies in church ought to have her head covered? What's Paul playing at? In one passage he says a woman can only speak in church with her head covered, but in another, he says that a woman can't speak in church at all. Common sense and basic logic leave us with a few alternatives. One, the clause in question is an insertion by later editors or copyists of the text. This is unlikely, as there are no manuscripts which omit it. Two, Paul was a crazy man who didn't care whether he contradicted himself or not. Also unlikely, given the eloquence and rationality Paul displays elsewhere. Three, the verse in chapter 11 doesn't mean what it appears to mean, and women weren't really allowed to pray or prophesy in church. Unlikely, given references elsewhere to female prophets, and given the fact that the reference in 11:3 is made more or less in passing. Four, the clause in question - 14:35b - doesn't mean what it appears at first glance to mean. My money is on option four, and I'll tell you why:
Greek has two words for "speak." This is not surprising, as we have several in English, as well. Now, by the time the Bible was written, these two verbs - lego and laleo - were essentially synonymous, but not entirely. Earlier in the history of the Greek language, there was a sharper distinction between the two: lego (pronounced like the little toy blocks, or like the Spanglish word for "leg") meant basically "to speak," and could be used of giving a speech, carrying on a conversation, etc. The other verb, laleo (lah-LEH-oh) could also be used of carrying on a conversation or talking in general, but it could also be used of babbling, chattering, or prattling. It's even onomatopoietic: lalalalala - laleo. Plutarch uses it in reference to the vocalizations of monkeys.
That being said, does anyone care to take a guess as to which verb Paul uses in 1 Corintians 14:35? "Laleo," you say? Why, you're absolutely right! So when Paul says "it is shameful for a woman to speak in church," he does not - it would seem - mean that a woman must under no circumstances utter any speech during a worship service. That would contradict things Paul says in numerous other passages. Instead, we are drawn back to our context: Paul is trying to ensure the orderliness of worship in Corinth. He is not declaring a patriarchal structure for the church for all time. He's trying to keep the Corinthian church from descending into chaos in worship: "take turns speaking, and if you have questions, save them for later; it's disgraceful to prattle on during the worship service." How many of us as children were similarly scolded for talking in church? I was. That, nearly as I can tell, is all that's going on in this passage. Paul singles out women not because he's a misogynist, but because women were the ones chattering during the service and asking questions and being disruptive.
Paul's problem is not that he's a sexist. Paul's problem is that his arguments are sufficiently complex as to resist a nice, neat verse-a-day or chapter-a-day reading pattern, and so he makes statements as part of a larger argument that the unlearned and unstable can easily distort, if they neglect to pay attention to context.