The Historic Attempt to Silence the Feminine Voice in the Church

Under an arch in a Roman Basilica is a mosaic portraying four female characters: two female saints, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and a fourth woman. An inscription identifies the fourth woman as Theodora Episcopa. The masculine form for Bishop in Latin is episcopus; the feminine form is episcopa. Both the mosaic’s visual and grammatical evidence announce that Bishop Theodora was a woman.

bishop theodora


The Historic Silencing of the Feminine Voice

The “a” on Theodora has been partially effaced by scratches across the glass tile of the mosaic, leading to the disturbing conclusion that attempts were made to erase the feminine ending. [338]


People have been trying to scratch off the feminine “a” ever since.


The Conundrum of 1 Corinthians 14:34-37

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” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). 


At first glance, this passage seems to be rather damaging to the case of the egalitarian. However, as it turns out, it poses problems for both the hierarchist and egalitarian.


The egalitarian wrestles with it for obvious reasons. Here is a text that seems to offer an explicit command for the absolute silence of women in worship.


The problem for the hierarchist (and any interpreter, for that matter) is reconciling this passage with 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul clearly teaches that women could pray and prophesy in worship.


The problem is compounded by the fact that both the mandate to pray and prophesy in worship (1 Cor. 11), and the one to keep silent in worship (1 Cor. 14) occur in the same letter, and in the same discussion on propriety in worship.


The author, recipients, and specific context are exactly the same for the two seemingly contradicting mandates!


There has been no shortage of fancy footwork in attempting to reconcile these two contradictory statements. [339] As one might expect, most hierarchists will try to explain away 1 Corinthians 11 in view of 1 Corinthians 14, while most egalitarians will attempt the opposite.


Some will say that 1 Corinthians 11 was not addressing public worship. Others will observe that 1 Corinthians 11 does not explicitly give women permission to pray or prophesy in worship, it only hypothesizes that “if” a woman were going to do so, she would need to do it with her head covered. [340]


These arguments are contrived and unconvincing. Distinguishing between public and private worship in the first century is anachronistic. Most worship was practiced in household churches.


This was not considered “private” worship but was in fact very “public.” If 1 Corinthians 11 describes only “private” worship, one is hard-pressed to find a New Testament description of “public” worship.


The argument that 1 Corinthians 11 is not indicating that women could pray and prophesy in public is completely unfounded.


Paul obviously assumed that women would prophesy and pray in the worship experience. He said, “every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head” (1 Cor. 11:5). This is not a conditional clause. And clearly, the subject of the sentence is “every woman who has her head uncovered.”


Therefore, the disgrace is not that the woman prophesies or prays, but rather that the woman does so without her head covered (see arguments in WIM, Volume 25). The entire passage is addressing the “public worship” experience of the early church.


In fact, the issue of a head covering for the woman only makes sense in a public setting. Why would a woman with her head uncovered be labeled a disgrace if she were not in public? Nowhere, even in the strictest rabbinical teachings, does it pronounce a woman a disgrace for having her head uncovered in private.


It is only in the public setting that Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 11 make any sense at all.


Some egalitarians, on the other hand, will argue that Paul’s mandate for the silence of women was meant only for the problems they were having in Corinth. It was, therefore, not a universal principle.


Other egalitarians will argue that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are an interpolation by a later editor, and therefore do not belong in the text at all. They argue that verses 34-35 form an odd intrusion to the passage and that the passage is smoother without them. [341]


Both these arguments have serious problems.


First, Paul indicated that his words were indeed something that was practiced in the churches in general (1 Cor. 14:26). So, the argument for the localization of Paul’s words has little foundation.


The silence of women in synagogues was common in Palestine. It is more difficult to ascertain the role of women in synagogues of the diaspora. In general, they seemed to have had more freedom.


In any case, women speaking in a synagogue would have been an anomaly for those who had a Palestinian Jewish influence. Since Paul started the Corinthian church with converts from the synagogue, and one of those early converts was the synagogue ruler himself, Crispus, it should be assumed that the earliest influence on the Corinthian church was strongly Jewish (Acts 18:4-8; 1 Cor. 1:21-24).


This was also the case in most other places where Paul started churches. As previously mentioned, Paul’s modus operandi in every city he entered was to go to the synagogue first, win as many Jews to Christ as possible, and after wearing out his welcome, start house churches.


Therefore, no matter where he went, the strongest influence at the earliest stages of the Pauline churches was distinctly Jewish. [342]


The claim that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are a later addition has the problem of a complete lack of manuscript evidence. [343]


Certainly, the two verses in question seem to be at best, parenthetical statements, since the verses leading up to these two, address prophecy and orderly worship, and the verses following continue with prophecy and orderly worship.


Like most parenthetical statements, the conversation flows perfectly fine without them. However, I will show that the verses are not an intrusion to the flow of Paul’s thought, but rather essential to his rhetorical structure.


In any case, this type of “discontinuity” in Paul’s rhetoric is found in several places.


Finally, it seems a bit convenient to label a certain text as an interpolation when it is of particular trouble to your point of view. Nonetheless, without further textual or manuscript evidence, the text must be dealt with as it comes to us (see my approach to Biblical Interpretation in Appendix One).


Dealing with the Contradiction

So how do we come to understand these two contradictory statements by Paul?


First, we must keep in mind Paul’s pragmatic approach to the problems experienced by each of his churches. His ultimate goal was always peace and unity. He would capitulate to local customs or mores as long as they were not antithetical to Christian theology or counterproductive to the propagation of the gospel message.


In both 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, Paul was offering the Corinthian Christians a compromise that gave them a way forward in spite of their differences.


D.A. Carson outlines two criteria for an acceptable interpretation of this passage:

1. It must make sense of the flow of the passage;

2. It must explain how the two passages 1 Cor.11:2-16 and 1 Cor.14:33-36, can stand consistently in the same letter, each within its own context. [344]


These two criteria should be kept in mind as we formulate a possible interpretation.


There are a number of interpretive possibilities for 1 Corinthians 14. D.A. Carson identifies the various interpretations typically offered: [345]

1. Demand for silence to be an absolute rule. This is the traditional approach.

2. Allowing the contradiction to stand without explanation. This is sometimes identified as a rabbinical approach.

3. The subordination was not one of the women to men, but of women, to the order of worship that he was establishing.

4. Paul was hopelessly trapped in his cultural and theological bias. This is the approach of some feminist theologians.

5. Paul’s directives were local, probably doctrinal or cultural.

6. 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.

7. The restrictions in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 were to be applied to wives, and only with respect to their husbands.

8. 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.


Carson is unconvinced by numbers one through seven, and views number eight as the best interpretation, claiming that it meets all the criteria.


Although there is a certain amount of weight for Carson’s choice, it also has some internal inconsistencies and is not the only interpretation that both solves all criteria and brings a satisfactory conclusion.


The traditional interpretation, number one above, requires much work in explaining away multiple places where women seem to be free to speak and participate in the worship life of the church.


Hierarchists attempts to defend this traditional interpretation are weak and unconvincing. [346]


Whatever Paul was saying in this text, he couldn’t possibly have meant that women were to never speak in the public worship of the church. There are too many other places where he not only allowed it but encouraged it.


Paul must have been addressing some issue that is not readily visible. Not surprisingly, even most hierarchists agree that the traditional interpretation is highly unlikely. [347]


In fact, numbers one through four above are unsatisfactory and easily dismissed. Number five has some merit but does not stand on its own power. It may be used as a subsidiary argument for improving an interpretation, but on its own cannot adequately explain the text.


To save space I will deal no further with numbers one through five. Numbers six through eight have the most potential but are each mitigated by their own problems.


I prefer either interpretation number six or seven with some reservations. I will explain why, and then argue against Carson’s choice, number eight.


Paul Against the Judaizers

Interpretation number six contends that Paul was not forbidding women from speaking at all, but rather, in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, was quoting the words of his opponents in Corinth.


As with head coverings for women, the Jewish contingency in Corinth would not have been accustomed to women speaking in leadership positions in the synagogue. This cultural preference would naturally have been transferred to the Christian household worship.


The Jewish influence, then, was not only asking the Greek women to cover their heads, but they were also asking them to refrain from speaking or asking questions during the worship experience.


Paul was arguing against this point of view as he instructed the Christians on how to structure all the elements of worship into a unified and orderly experience.


In 1 Corinthians 14:1-25, he addressed the proper role of speaking in tongues and prophesying in the worship experience. The problem stemmed, not from the gifts themselves, but from the misappropriation of those gifts and the disorder that they were causing.


1 Corinthians 14:26 revealed the purpose of worship: “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”


Paul called for orderly worship that edifies the people in attendance. In 1 Corinthians 14:27-33, he offered specific advice on how to practice both the gift of prophecy and speaking in tongues in such a way that everyone would be edified.


He ended this instruction by saying, “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33).


So, Paul desired peace, not confusion. Whatever the catalyst, the real problem was that the end result was confusion.


This is when Paul suddenly and without warning shifted the discussion to that of women speaking in the church.


At first glance, this seems to be out of place. However, in context, it makes perfect sense.


Paul had been teaching about the way they were to prophesy and pray in worship, and “remaining silent until it’s your turn” was a consistent theme.


Paul had been instructing prophets and those with the gift of tongues on how to comport themselves when they moved from the role of worship leader to that of worshipper.


He then turned to the issue of the silencing of wives when they moved from acting as worship leaders to worshippers.


There may have been confusion and lack of peace in the church if the Jewish influence was claiming that the wives should not be allowed to speak at all.


In this approach, Paul states the claims of his Judaizing opponents in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.”


These are not Paul’s words. Would Paul appeal to the Mosaic Law as a basis for church rule? No.  [348] Would he directly contradict his own teaching in this same letter? No. [349]


He was quoting the words of the Jewish traditionalists in the Corinthian church who were the same opponents he faced in 1 Corinthians 11.


In 1 Corinthians 14:36, Paul again refuted the very words he quoted in the two preceding verses (1 Cor. 14:34-35). With two questions directed at those who opposed him, Paul refuted their claim to authority.


He said to his Judaizing opponents, “Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?” (1 Cor. 14:36).


He reiterated that his opponents, if they were true prophets, would know that in refuting the Jewish tradition of prohibiting women from speaking in worship, Paul was speaking God’s truth (1 Cor. 14:37).


He restated his thesis by calling on all the brothers and sisters in the church to eagerly seek the gift of prophecy and to not prohibit anyone (man or woman) from speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:39).


The only requirement for speaking in tongues or prophesying had nothing to do with gender – It was simply that everything must be done in an orderly fashion (1 Cor. 14:40), and with proper attire (1 Cor. 11:12).


A Possible Interpretation

Taking this approach, allow me to paraphrase Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. Paul begins with the focus of worship:


When you come together in your homes to worship God every person (both men and women) has something to contribute. One person has a psalm, another has a teaching, another a word of revelation, and yet another a tongue or an interpretation of a tongue. These are all great things as long as they are done in such a way that the entire church is edified [v.26].


So, to that end, if anyone wants to speak in tongues, Great! But only two or three per worship service and each should speak one at a time. Also, there should always be an interpreter so that everyone can know what is being said and find edification. If there is not an interpreter then the one who wants to speak in tongues should hold back, sit down, and remain silent [v.27-28].


Also, let no more than two or three prophets speak in any one worship experience. And be sure that there are other prophets present to judge the prophecies, making sure that they truly come from God. Each prophet should take his or her turn, so that no one is speaking at the same time. How will people understand if two are speaking at the same time? No! God is not a God of confusion, but a God of peace and unity. So, if another prophet needs to speak, then the prophet currently speaking needs to finish up quickly and then sit down and remain silent [v.29-33].


And speaking of remaining silent – I hear that there are some of my Jewish brothers and sisters who are insisting that women should remain silent throughout the entire worship time. They appeal to the Mosaic Law to say that women should remain submissive and should not be permitted to speak. They go as far as to say that if a woman has a question about the teaching that she should wait until she gets home to ask her husband! After all (they contend) this is the way it’s always been done in the synagogue [v.34-35].


This is nonsense! For them I have two questions: Who died and made you the authority on God’s Word? And, are you the only ones who know what God’s Word has to say? Of course not! I think I know a little bit about God’s Word and the Mosaic Law! If you are truly prophetic then you should know that the things I write to you are greater than the Mosaic Law, they are the Lord’s Law. If you can’t recognize this, then you shouldn’t be recognized in the assembly. You should remain silent! [36-38].


So, to conclude, everyone (men and women) should desire to prophesy in worship as much as possible, because as I said before, prophecy is more effective than speaking in tongues. On the other hand, no one (whether man or woman) should be prohibited from speaking in tongues in worship (as long as he or she has an interpreter). But the main thing is that everything is done in an orderly manner so that the entire church is edified!! [v.39-40].


This interpretation fits the context for several reasons:

1. It satisfactorily answers all the problems of flow and structure within the text.

2. It is more in keeping with Paul’s general attitude toward Jewish traditions that were making their way into the Christian church (like circumcision, following the Jewish calendar, attending festivals, head coverings, etc.). In every case, Paul is against forcing the Gentiles to live with these Jewish customs and rites.

3. It addresses the polemical nature of the letter. Paul is fighting against the same antagonists he addressed in 1 Corinthians 11.

4. It answers the issue of the apparent contradiction with 1 Corinthians 11. Paul is not limiting the voice of women in either passage.


Carson devotes a considerable amount of space in an attempt to refute this interpretation, pointing to what he claims are four major flaws. [350]


I will deal with each in my next blog article. I will then briefly address interpretation number 7 above and will refute number 8. Finally, I will offer what I believe to be the best interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-37 as delineated by Kenneth Baily in his magisterial work, “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes.” [351]






338. Karen J. Torjesen, “When Women Were Priests,” (Harper San Fransisco, 1995), p. 23.

339. D.A. Carson, RBMW, “Silent in the Churches,” p.140-153.

340. Ibid., p. 146.

341. Gordon Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987).

342. Preaching the gospel first in the local synagogue was Paul’s consistent modus operandi. He would win as many Jews and God-fearers as he could, staying in the Synagogue until they kicked him out. He would then set up churches with his new converts to win Gentiles (sometimes right next door to the synagogue!) See Acts 17:2 — “As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (emphasis mine) in Thessalonica; and, Acts 14:1 — “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” (emphasis mine) in Iconium; See also Acts 13:5 in Cypress; Acts 16:13 in Philippi; Acts 17:10 in Berea; Acts 18:4 in Corinth; and Acts 19:8 in Ephesus.

343. D.A. Carson, RBMW, “Silent in the Churches,” p.140-153; See also, Thomas R. Schreiner, “1 Corinthians,” Tyndale New Testament Commentary, (IVP, 2018).

344. D.A. Carson, RBMW, “Silent in the Churches,” p.140-153.

345. Ibid., p. 151.

346. Ibid. p. 147, where Carson does a good job of explaining the arguments for the traditional interpretation but, in the end, dismisses them.

347. Ibid., p. 147.

348. 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.

349. Paul clearly taught that women were allowed to speak in public assembly. See 1 Corinthians 14:5; In addition, Luke, one of Paul’s protegees, emphasized the role of women in the public proclamation of the gospel when he wrote, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18; emphasis mine). It is impossible to reconcile the Paul of the Pauline letters and the Book of Acts with the Paul who would silence all women in worship.

350. D.A. Carson, RBMW, “Silent in the Churches,” p.147-151.

351. Kenneth E. Baily, “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians,” (IVP Academic, 2011).