Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Evaluation of Prophecy Revisited

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Evaluation of Prophecy Revisited

Article excerpt

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Thomas Schreiner wrote: "I believe the role of women in the church is the most controversial and sensitive issue within evangelicalism today."1 Whether this is so or not, there can be little doubt that this topic has generated intense and divisive debates which have resulted in significant changes occurring in women's roles in the church during the last half century.

One of the key texts in the debate concerning the public ministry of women is 1 Cor 14:34-35, where Paul writes,

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Throughout history, the majority of commentators have held to a literal interpretation of these words and, as a result, women were not generally involved in public ministry in the church. However, in conjunction with the changing church practice over the past forty or fifty years, many scholars have reassessed this passage and proposed a variety of new interpretations.

Some believe that the passage is culturally conditioned. Others hold that what Paul prohibits in 1 Cor 14:34-35 is some kind of disruptive speech. Some take the word "speaking" in these verses to indicate speaking in tongues. Others have suggested that the women were largely uneducated and were interrupting the proceedings with questions, which were better dealt with by their husbands in their homes. Another suggestion is that Paul is quoting an assertion made by some in Corinth who wanted to exclude women from speaking in church.2

A view that has become more popular in recent years is that the words of 1 Cor 14:34-35 are a non Pauline interpolation. This position has been extensively defended by Fee and has been revitalized by Payne and Ehrman,3 although Niccum and Miller have provided carefully reasoned responses.4


Perhaps the most popular view among evangelical scholars today is that Paul's prohibition, though appearing universally applicable at first glance, relates only to evaluation of prophecy by women in church.5 It is this proposal that I would like to address in greater detail.

Let me begin by considering how this interpretation is generated from the text, and then I will proceed to discuss some of the problems associated with it. Those who adopt this position maintain that in 1 Cor 11:5 Paul gives approval to women to pray and prophesy in church as long as their heads are covered.6 This then creates a discrepancy with the straightforward interpretation of 1 Cor 14:34-35, suggesting that the latter is not the comprehensive prohibition it at first appears to be.

If 1 Cor 14:34-35 is not an unrestricted statement, to what does Paul's prohibition pertain? The solution is developed along these lines. In verse 29, Paul instructs the Corinthians: "let two or three prophets speak and let the others pass judgment." The apostle then separately expands the two parts of this verse. First of all, his injunction that "two or three prophets should speak" is enlarged in verses 30-33a, where he gives directions concerning the uttering of prophecies. The second part of verse 29, "and others should weigh carefully what is said," is elaborated in verses 33b- 36, where certain restrictions are placed on the evaluation of prophecies.7 Apparently, wives were asking questions or raising objections to their husbands' prophecies. This led to an undermining of the husbands' authority over their wives, and was "shameful" conduct. Of course, it is argued, women may take part in prophesying, as was established in 1 Cor 11:5. However, they may not take part in the weighing of prophecies: it is in this sense that they may not speak.

Paul bases his argument on the law, probably taking it from Gen 2:20-24, where the woman was created in subjection to the man. …

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