The Congregation of Women and a Plea to Listen to the Preacher!

My formative experiences in the church (both as a child and minister) were in small Spanish-speaking congregations. The worship began whenever enough family members arrived. Sometimes we had to wait because it was so-and-so’s birthday and we were going to sing happy birthday to them at the “welcome time,” and they were running late. It was typical to have children crying in their mother’s arms throughout the sermon, and every once in a while the sermon would be interrupted by a family member arriving late and needing to make an announcement about some family matter.

women in worship


Those early years taught me that different cultures worship differently. They have different values. My early years in the small Hispanic church may have been closer to First Century worship. A certain amount of chaos was, at times, a natural part of the experience.


The Most Liley Interpretations

The three most likely interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34-37 are the following (see larger discussion in WIM, 26):

  • 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is the position of the Jewish Corinthians, perhaps even a quote from their letter. Paul stated their position in order to refute it.
  • The restrictions in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were to be applied to wives, and only with respect to their husbands.
  • The women could not participate in the oral weighing of prophecies, because to do so would have been considered teaching. It was in this context that they were being told to remain silent.


D.A. Carson makes a case against the first and second options, in favor of the third. [352] 


Carson’s case for the third option above is built on two false assumptions.


(1) That the oral weighing of prophecies was considered teaching; and, (2) That women were not allowed to teach (based almost exclusively on the directive against women teaching in 1 Timothy 4:12).


There is no clear rationale for his first assumption and I disagree with his second assumption and his interpretation of the 1 Timothy passage (I will make my case for this when we get to that passage).


Absent these assumptions, his case falls apart.


Was Paul Quoting the Judaizers?

I will now make a case for the first two interpretations above by stating Carson’s arguments against them and refuting his arguments one by one.


#1 – Carson points out that the masculine for “only” (1 Cor. 14:36) is not likely to mean that Paul is referring only to men when he says, “Did the Word of God originate with you men only?” The masculine is often used (in Greek) to mean people in general, male and female.


This would mean that Paul was not “chastising” the men in favor of the women who wanted to speak.


I agree with Carson to a point, but his conclusions are irrelevant to my interpretation. Paul was addressing the Jewish traditionalists who sought to silence the women. This group would have been mostly men but would have included women as well.


#2 – Carson argues that the grammatical structure of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 makes it unlikely that it is a quotation from a Corinthian letter or representative of the verbiage that is being used in Corinth.


Carson reminds us that when Paul used this type of rhetorical tool (and Carson admits that Paul did make use of it) there is a specific pattern he followed: (a) The quotation is usually very short; (b) it is followed by a lengthy qualification; and (c) Paul’s response is typically unambiguous, even sharp. Carson contends that, in this case, both (a) and (b) are not present.


I agree with Carson’s criteria, although I doubt they are absolutely restrictive.


In other words, if a statement fits two of the three criteria, it would not necessarily be disqualified. However, if it meets none of the criteria it would certainly be suspect. In this case, I would counter Carson’s findings on all three criteria.


For criteria (a) the meaning of “short” is rather subjective. The verses of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 do not constitute a long passage by any stretch of the imagination. And there are places where Paul quotes passages just as long;


(b) again, a “sustained qualification” is a subjective call.


Paul qualifies his statement using five verses. His quotation is made up of 23 words (in Greek). His qualification uses 35 words.


The qualification is longer than the quotation, and although succinct, is quite detailed.


There are several other places in Paul’s writings that have a qualifying statement of similar length;


(c) Paul’s qualification is clear and sharp. Even Carson seems to admit that the passage passes this criterion.


It seems that based on Carson’s criteria, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 passes the test, and has the potential to be considered a quotation. At the very least, Carson is on shaky ground for denying it as a quotation because it only marginally adheres to the three criteria.


#3 – Although Carson admits that Paul used the word “law” in several ways, he contends, that he never used it to mean Jewish oral tradition.


Carson argues that when Paul referred to the “law,” he usually meant the Old Testament Scriptures, in general, and often the Torah or Mosaic Law in particular.


I agree with Carson. But again, his point is irrelevant to my interpretive assumptions.


The Jewish traditionalists within the Corinthian church were likely using the Old Testament Law to advocate for the silence of women in the church.


They may have been using the creation account in Genesis 2 or, less likely, Genesis 3:16. They were most likely referring to any number of passages from the Mosaic Law that restricted women from participating in religious matters, due to ritual uncleanness.


In any case, the Jewish traditionalists could certainly have been referring to the Mosaic Law.


Paul, however, is against their usage of the Law.


This is in keeping with Paul’s general attitude toward using the Mosaic Law with respect to Gentiles. Paul showed himself quite able to refute certain aspects of the law. Certainly, it is an error to claim the eternal validity of the entire Mosaic Law, as a Christian doctrine. [353]


In this same letter, Paul refuted the hold and power of the Law (1 Cor. 15:55-57).


The Gentile church quickly abandoned the need to follow all of the Law, especially with reference to the dietary Laws, and sacrificial cult. [354]


This had the effect of rendering the Mosaic Law as an intermediary. There were parts of it that were eternal, and other parts that had been rendered “out of date” by the work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection event (which for Paul was paramount). The primary purpose of the Law was to reveal sin, but it had no power to overcome it. [355]


#4 – Carson admits that the first word in 1 Corinthians 14:36 is “probably a disjunctive particle,” nevertheless he argues that it, alone, does not mean, as Bilezikian would have us believe, that Paul is saying, “Nonsense!” in refutation of the statement that preceded it. [356]


Carson makes a good, but ultimately unconvincing case.


The disjunctive particle could be interpreted as questioning the veracity of that which preceded it, as several translations indicate (KJV, ASV, RSV, to name a few). If this is the case, then 1 Corinthians 14:36-38 would be refuting the argument in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.


If the first word in 1 Corinthians 14:36 is a disjunctive participle then a representative translation would be as follows:


Let the women keep silent. They are not allowed to speak but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to ask a question, they should ask their husbands when they get home for it is disgraceful for women to speak in church. [v.34-35]


What?! Nonsense! [this is the disjunctive participle] Was it from you that the Word of God went forth? Did it come to you alone? Who do you think you are? If anyone thinks themselves to be a prophet or super-spiritual, let them take note of the things that I have written to you, that they are also commandments of the Lord. But if you know nothing about these things then you are the ones who should keep silent (remain ignorant). [v.36-38] 


The Most Likely Reading

The second interpretation, above [#7 from Carson’s list, see WIM, 26] is another satisfying possibility. Paul was addressing a particular cultural problem at Corinth for which the most effective solution was to ask the wives, in particular, to refrain from speaking while the worship service was in session. This was Paul’s pragmatism at work.


It’s important to note that Paul’s (or possibly the Jewish traditionalists’) solution to the women speaking was for them to wait until they got home and ask their husbands. This forces two conclusions: (1) Whatever the women were saying when they spoke had to do with their lack of understanding during worship; (2) the problem was among the married women.


There are several scenarios offered by various commentators, most of them unsatisfying. [357] However, one of the most viable options is offered by Kenneth Bailey. [358]


Bailey’s suggestion fits the socio-cultural context and satisfies all the pertinent questions about Paul’s wording, as well as the criteria listed above.


According to Bailey, Paul was offering a temporary solution to a problem that was not unique to Corinth. The mandate, however, was not meant to be universal or permanent. This would explain Paul’s freer attitude toward women in other settings.


Bailey uses his personal knowledge of middle eastern culture to address the particular problems the Corinthians were experiencing in worship. [359]


According to Bailey, the problems stemmed from a combination of factors including language differences, illiteracy, provincial attitudes, a sequestered and mostly uneducated female population, short attention spans, learning methods in an oral culture, knowledge of Greek, differing accents, and lack of voice amplification for those speaking.


Bailey offers a tight overall structure to the larger context of 1 Corinthians 11-14, which actually ties 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. It is quite a satisfying and eloquent structural analysis that is superior to that of Carson. [360]


Within the 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 passage, he offers a similar tight structure that adequately explains Paul’s reasoning and deals with structure and flow issues.


Like E. Earl Ellis [361], Bailey contends that Paul was speaking only to the wives and that when he called them to be subordinated, it was not to the men, but rather to the worship leadership (both men and women). Bailey outlines the progression of Paul’s thought: [362]


1. The (male and female) speakers in tongues are told (1 Cor. 14:27-28):
If there is no interpreter,
Be silent in church.


2. The (male and female) prophets are told (1 Cor. 14:29-30):
Don’t talk at once. After you take your turn, sit down and …
Be silent in church.


3. Married women with Christian husbands (who attend worship) are told (1 Cor. 14:34-35):
Don’t ask questions during the worship and don’t chat.                                          Be silent in church.


Each of these groups is told to be silent when others are leading worship so that they do not disturb and frustrate the worship experience for others.


In an oral culture, this was a rule of order that undoubtedly had to be repeated often.


Bailey paints a portrait of worship in the Middle East that is common to this very day. This portrait elegantly explains Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 14.


The men and women are separated in the place of worship, men on one side of the room, women on the other, sometimes separated by a wall as much as six feet in height. The children sit with the women, who care for them (entertain them?) while the worship is in progress.


The women are mostly illiterate and uneducated. Their entire world is the household. Without the ability to read or write, they are completely oral in their learning styles.


Bailey offers a description of the way people in general, and women in particular, learn in an oral culture, even at the highest levels of education.


A university professor will have the attention of the class and turn to write something on the blackboard. The moment he or she pauses to write, the entire class breaks out talking. They are not inattentive or rude, they are simply turning to a fellow student and chatting about the subject. This social style [of learning] is particularly prominent at meetings of women. Taking advantage of any pause, women will often begin talking out loud – sometimes to themselves. They are simply verbalizing the information they have heard in order to better absorb and retain it. [363]


It makes perfect sense that if you cannot read or write, the only way to learn something is to repeat it out loud to yourself or a friend, in order to reinforce it and retain it. Bailey quotes Chrysostom as saying, “You women chat more in church during the sermon than you do in the marketplace or at the baths!” [364] It is quite possible that the women were “chatting” in order to better retain the message.


Ancient cultures also often developed both a classical and colloquial language, with varying accents depending on geographical location.


The women often did not speak either the language or the particular dialect that was being used in worship. Sometimes, they may not have completely understood the accent of the person leading in worship.


Add to this, the fact that their attention spans were quite short. Bailey records attention spans of fifteen seconds in his teaching experiences with impoverished women in the Middle East. [365]


Bailey contends that this creates quite a dilemma for orderly worship.


I have preached in village churches in Egypt where the women were seated on one side of the church and the men on the other. There was a wooden partition about six feet high separating the two sections. I preached in simple colloquial Arabic, but the women were often illiterate and the preacher was expected to preach for at least an hour – and we had problems. The women quickly passed the limit of their attention span. The children were seated with them and chatting inevitably broke out among the women. The chatting would at times become so loud that no one could hear the preacher. (These villages had no electricity and no sound amplification.) One of the senior elders would stand up and in a desperate voice shout, “Let the women be silent in the church!” and we would proceed. After about ten minutes the scene would repeat. [366]


Based on this cultural analysis it is not hard to imagine why a frustrated Paul might say to the women’s section of the worship service, “Ladies, please keep it down. In fact, it’s best not to talk at all while worship is in progress. If you don’t understand something, ask your husband when you get home!”



This interpretation is in keeping with Paul’s overall goal of an edifying worship experience, free from unnecessary distractions. However, it in no way limits women from speaking, participating, or even leading in worship.


In my next blog article I will begin to unravel the enigmatic, North Star for most hierarchists — 1 Timothy 2:11-15.







352. D.A. Carson, RBMW, p.140-153. See Carson’s complete argument on pp. 148-151. I will not continue to footnote each of  Carson’s arguments.

353. Paul was consistently against all Jewish efforts to bring Gentile Christians under the Jewish practices of the Mosaic Law. He strove to maintain the minimum requirements as enacted by the First Jewish Council at Jerusalem. These instructions were as follows: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” (Acts 15:28-29). Beyond these instructions, Paul consistently sided against the Judaizing forces that sought to elevate the Mosaic Law. In fact, in this same letter, Paul rules against the Judaizers seeking to prohibit eating meat sacrificed to idols. “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8). This is in direct contradiction to the Mosaic Law, but in line with the teachings of Jesus (Mark 7:19).

354. This is the heart of Paul’s argument with Peter in Galatians 2:11-21, where he tells Peter, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:14b-16).

355. See Romans 3:20.

356. Gilbert Bilezikian, “Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family,” (Baker Academinc, 3rd Edition, 2006), pp. 286-288.

357. See Anthony Thiselton, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” New International Greek Commentary, (Eerdmans Publishing, 200), pp. 1146-62, for a thorough discussion of the various interpretations.

358. See Baily, “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians,” (IVP Academic, 2011), pp. 409-418, for a complete analysis of 1 Corinthians 14:33-40. I will summarize his findings but will only footnote what is essential, or a direct quote.

359. Bailey spent 40 years (1955–1995) teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Cyprus. He had a degree in Arabic and literature, systematic theology and wrote his dissertation in the field of the New Testament. His extensive work in the Middle East has given him invaluable insight into the culture of Jesus.

360. Bailey, “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes,” p. 401.

361. E. Earl Ellis, “Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society,” (Eerdmans Publishing, 1989), pp. 67-71.

362. Bailey, “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes,” p.415.

363. Ibid., p. 413.

364. Ibid., p. 415.

365. Ibid., p. 413.

366. Ibid., p. 414.