Doesn’t this passage remind you of the abuses of the Lord’s Supper discussed in 1 Corinthians 11? Paul commanded the Corinthians to eat “at home” (1 Cor. 11:34). We readily understand that this is a response to the local situation in Corinth and not a universal rule, and yet it is phrased very similarly to the command to silence in 1 Corinthians 14:34.
Also, Paul’s reliance on arguments using such phrases as “as in all the congregations of the saints” and “it is disgraceful” are very similar to his statements made in 1 Corinthians 11 dealing with veils. Note the close comparison:
(1 Cor. 11:14-16) Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice — nor do the churches of God.
(1 Cor. 14: 33b-36) As in all the congregations of the saints, 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. Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
The same paternalistic commentators who insist that “As in all the congregations of the saints” in chapter 14 makes the command to be silent an eternal rule will argue that “we have no other practice — nor do the churches of God” applied only in the First Century so that veils are no longer required.
It is not at all uncommon for me to teach classes having women with more formal Bible education than I have or who have published more Bible-based literature than I have. We have blessedly advanced far beyond the First Century in educating women, and very few would bar women from asking questions on the basis of this passage, which is why our tradition permits such questions. We already let women ask questions — so long as it is in Sunday school class and not in the worship service — when no one asks questions anyway.
When Paul tells women to be “in submission” in verse 34, he is not telling them to be in submission to their husbands or to men in general. Rather, they are to be in submission to the requirement of decency and orderliness. In the Greek, “as the Law says” does not modify “not allowed to speak” but “submit yourselves.”
There is, of course, no command in Genesis or the Law of Moses compelling women to be silent. Rather, the Law (Genesis 2) requires submission, but this is little different from the submission that Paul later commands in 1 Corinthians 16:16: “submit yourselves to one another” (See Osburn, Women in the Church 1, pages 108-109). And this submission ultimately flows from the fact that we are all, men and women, created in God’s image, as discussed earlier.
This reasoning, rooted deeply in Paul’s own words, tells us that the command to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14 is no longer binding today in American culture. We have yet to study 1 Timothy 2:11-15, and many advocates of the silence rule would concede that 1 Corinthians is not a sound basis for commanding female silence. They instead rely on the commands in 1 Timothy.
I am not the first within the Church to reach this conclusion. David Lipscomb, a co-founder of the Gospel Advocate and the Nashville Bible School (now David Lipscomb University) and long-time editor of the Gospel Advocate stated,
Yet, women have the right to teach those who know less than themselves; Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). So, I am sure that a woman may teach the Bible to young and old, male and female, at the meeting house, at home, at a neighbor’s house, on Sunday or Monday or any other day of the week, if they know less than she does, if she will do it in a quiet, modest, womanly way.
M. C. Kurfees, ed., Questions Answered by David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell (McQuiddy 1921), page 736. To be fair to Lipscomb, he did make a distinction between the formal assembly and other speaking opportunities. He would have allowed their teaching a Sunday school class but not during a worship assembly.
Lipscomb’s long tenure as editor of the Gospel Advocate made him the leading thinker within the Churches of Christ at the time they split from the instrumental churches and for many years thereafter.
Burton Coffman, the author of a series of commentaries on the entire New Testament and long-time minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ, concludes,
[T]o blow this up to a universal law that no woman might open her mouth in a church service is simply contrary to all reason.
Coffman, page 240.
The late George W. DeHoff, a well-respected preacher, leader, evangelist, educator, publisher, and scholar, states,
No verse in the Bible teaches that women must teach God’s word at home, or in private, those limitations having been added by false teachers. Any teaching that does not usurp authority over a man does not violate this passage.
Sermons on First Corinthians (The Christian Press, Murfreesboro, Tenn. 1947) page 99, quoted with approval by Coffman, page 243.
The traditional view is also disputed by J. W. McGarvey, who is certainly the most respected of the late 19th Century Restoration leaders and considered by many second only to Alexander Campbell in the quality of his scholarship among the 19th Century Church leaders:
The powers of woman have become so developed, and her privileges have been so extended in gospel lands, that it is no longer shameful for her to speak in public; but the failing of one reason is not the cessation of both. The Christian conscience has therefore interpreted Paul’s rule rightly when it applies it generally and admits of exceptions. …
The gift of prophecy no longer exists; but, by the law of analogy, those women who have a marked ability, either for exhortation or instruction, are permitted to speak in the churches. … The law is permanent, but the application of it may vary. If man universally gives woman permission to speak, she is free from the law in this respect.
Commentary on First Corinthians (The Standard Publishing Co., Cincinnati, Ohio 1916) page 143, quoted approvingly by Coffman, ibid, and DeHoff, ibid. McGarvey’s commentary on 1 Corinthians has also been republished as part of the Gospel Advocate commentary series.
More recently, Carroll D. Osburn, Professor of New Testament at Abilene Christian University, and among the Church’s foremost living Bible scholars, concluded,
Far from being intolerant, Paul neither teaches nor suggests in this text anything regarding hierarchicalism or female subjection. … Paul’s corrective does not ban women from speaking in worship. …
Referring, as it does, to a very specific problem of disruptive questions by these women, 1 Cor. 14:34-35 teaches that these particular wives, like the uncontrolled tongue-speakers and prophets at Corinth, must defer to the assembly by voluntarily yielding to orderliness. The general principle that is to be applied to contemporary church life is that decorum is mandatory for all in the public assembly, without regard for gender.
Osburn, Women in the Church 1, pages 110-111.
Thus, we see from writings from 1916, 1947, 1977, and 1994 that well-respected and prominent commentators within the Churches of Christ have rejected the notion that women may only speak in private gatherings. The commentaries vary in the details of the conclusions that they draw, but they each disagree with conventional thinking within the Church today. Coffman goes so far as to say, with respect to the requirement that women not ask questions but be silent,
What about the woman whose husband is an ignoramus, an unbeliever, or an open enemy of God and all religion; should she comply with this rule? Until it is affirmed that she should, it is a sin to make this rule universal.
But of course we do make this rule universal. Isn’t it amazing that anyone who supposes that a woman may speak in an assembly will be condemned and “marked” as a heretic while even many of our most conservative and revered scholars do not agree with the traditional view now being insisted on by so many?
Moreover, isn’t it also amazing that we are so intimidated by the right wing of the Church that only the rarest of congregations would actually engage in the practices approved by McGarvey, DeHoff, Coffman, and Osburn (among very many others)? In fact, precious few of our members are even aware that many of our best scholars have taken these positions. Instead, the current thinking of many is that anyone allowing women to speak in assembly is per se a liberal and not one of us.
The assembly should be a reflection of our seven-day a week relationship with God. We aren’t held to higher standards Sunday morning than the rest of the week! We can’t put on show for God — He won’t be fooled! Whatever submission is required Sunday morning is required all the time.
Isn’t it very implausible that God invented an eternal rule for women in the assembly that applies nowhere else? If women are inferior or subordinate in the assembly due to the curse of Eve, then they are inferior or subordinate in private worship, during church committee meetings, in Sunday school class, in the work place, in the home, and in a private Bible study. God did not curse Eve only between 10:30 and 11:30 on Sunday mornings! We are left with the conclusion that the command to be silent was a temporary expedient and is not binding in current American society.
I started by pointing out that this passage must be read in light of the overriding principles of love and grace. Have we done that? I think so. Why were women to refrain from certain speech? Because to do so would have subjected them to accusations of immorality, bringing shame to their husbands and to Christ. Paul’s command was far from arbitrary — it is simply one of many examples of Christians, out of love, yielding their freedom for a greater purpose.