Some Scriptures seem to be known by everyone, and 1 Cor. 14:34 is certainly among them. In fact, if you bring up the topic of women preachers, many Christians can quote Paul’s words: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says.”1
So what did Paul mean when he told the women to keep silent? If he was indeed saying that women should not minister publicly, he was contradicting what he said earlier when he gave instructions for women’s dress code while prophesying! There must be an explanation. As we examine these verses, we will see that Paul was definitely not teaching against women ministering publicly. Rather, he was correcting the way in which women were ministering in the Corinthian church.
One other word before we begin: If this passage were without difficulties, there wouldn’t have been centuries of controversy around it. However, I trust that the Holy Spirit is available to guide us into all truth as together we search for understanding.
Clue #1: What’s The Context?
Before delving into any Scripture, one needs first to look at the context surrounding the verse. Keep in mind that this verse is part of a passage that concludes a seven-part series on ministry in the church. Paul didn’t toss out haphazard ideas. He was a controlled, disciplined writer and nowhere more so than in this intricate passage. Any understanding of this verse regarding women keeping silent has to be viewed in the context of what has gone before. This includes 1 Cor. 11:2-16, which strongly affirms men and women praying and prophesying in public gatherings of the church.
Clue #2: Much Hinges On Punctuation
Since ancient Greek had no punctuation marks, modern translators have to determine where one sentence ends and another begins. Sometimes these punctuation choices lead to very different meanings. The crucial punctuation question in 1 Cor. 14:33 is whether to place the period before or after “as in all the congregations of the saints.” The translators of the NIV and some other translations place the period beforehand, rendering verses 33 and 34: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.”2 Other translators place the period before “women,” so that the verses read, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the congregations of the saints. Women should remain silent in the churches.”3 See how important the placement of one little period can be? It makes a major difference whether Paul was making a universal principle that women were to keep silent “as in all the congregations of the saints” or not! Because of some textual issues of ancient manuscripts4 as well as Paul’s positive opinion of women in ministry, it should be clear that the phrase “as in all the congregations of the saints” goes together with the thought that “God is not a God of disorder.” So to clarify our study of this passage, we will modify the punctuation of the NIV to read: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the congregations of the saints. Women should remain silent in the churches.”5 This punctuation is further confirmed by yet another clue: the way Paul structured his writing in this passage.
Clue #3: The Author’s Structure Is Important
Seeing how Paul pulled his thoughts together makes it clear exactly what he was saying. In 1 Cor. 14:26-40, Paul blended two literary devices with which we’re all familiar because they are a part of our everyday lives, even though we might not recognize their technical names— particularization and chiasm.
Particularization is a common form of communication. In it a writer simply makes a general statement and then proceeds to illustrate it with several specific examples. In this passage, Paul used particularization and gave it a special twist by repeating his general principal or main idea three times: placing it once at the beginning (14:26), then again in the middle (14:33), and once again at the end of the passage (14:40). His main idea was that since God is a God of order, all should participate in Christian worship in an orderly and edifying way. Paul then proceeded to illustrate this principle by giving examples of what orderly worship should look like. The examples he chose were those who speak in tongues, those who prophesy, and the women of the church. They are found in verses 27-32 and 34-39 and show how Paul’s main idea is to be applied.
To make this even more interesting, Paul wrote this particularization within a chiasm! What a mouthful. What on earth is a chiasm? A chiasm is a pattern in which the writer makes a point, then makes two or more other points: Idea A, Idea B, Idea C, Idea D, then backpedals through the points in reverse order: Idea D, Idea C, Idea B, Idea A.
The author can use a few points in a chiasm or many. But in all chiasms, the second half is a mirror image of the first half. Another way to look at this kind of writing is to compare it to an arch, with the centerpiece forming the keystone of the argument, like this:
Paul liked using chiasms. So did many writers of old— Greek, Roman, and Jewish. Indeed, God the Creator has filled the world with chiastic structures. The human body, for example, is a chiasm. If you stretch out your hands to either side you create a chiasm:
The most important idea is in the center of the chiasm. If we were to cut off our fingers, it would be a painful loss, but we would survive. If, on the other hand, we were to cut off our neck, we would die.
The Structure And The Text
Now let’s look at this passage of 1 Cor. 14:26-40, diagramed on the right side of the page, and see how Paul wove together both particularization and chiasm to bring correction to the Corinthian church. Notice also that he put his words about women in the center, showing he thought they were the most important idea in this passage.
I Corinthians 14:26-406
Clue #4: Was Paul Quoting An Opposite Opinion?
You might have noticed that in the diagram I modified the NIV punctuation by putting quotation marks around the sentence about it being disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. Keep in mind that there were no quotation marks in the original because punctuation didn’t exist in ancient Greek. So all punctuation has been added at the studied discretion of modern translators. I believe there are three indications that Paul was not giving his opinion in verse 35b but was quoting the opinion of some of the Corinthian believers:
1. Structure—it fits within his chiasm.
2. The concept he was arguing in this passage.
3. Paul’s repeated use of quotations throughout 1 Corinthians.
Paul quoted from many sources as he ministered to the Corinthian church in this Epistle. He quoted Old Testament Scripture7 and the words of Jesus.8 He referred to the words of the Greek dramatist Meander9 and a proverb that is probably of rabbinic origin.10 Paul even quoted the words of unbelievers11 and of believers12 in Corinth. Since the NIV translators clearly recognized all of these as quotations, they used quotation marks. I believe they missed this one, especially in light of a Greek word made up of a single letter.
Clue #5: A Tiny Greek Word Makes All The Difference
Christian scholars have struggled to determine exactly where Paul was quoting others’ words. An important indication that he was quoting another’s opinion was his use of a tiny word: η . Paul used this small Greek word forty-nine times in 1 Corinthians.13
Though it’s used in various ways, at times Paul used η as an emotional rebuttal14 “to express disapproval of existing situations.”15 It’s called an “expletive of disassociation” by Greek scholars. The closest equivalent to η in English would be “What?” or “Nonsense!” or “No way!” This was what Paul probably meant when he put η at the beginning of a question. He introduced fourteen questions in 1 Corinthians with η. The NIV has usually left η untranslated. This is understandable, for the word carries more emotional than intellectual content.
But if we were to insert “What?” or “Nonsense!” or “No way!” wherever we see η in front of Paul’s questions, we’d have a much clearer idea of what Paul meant. Notice his use of η in the questions he directed to his Corinthian correspondence:
- 1 Cor. 1:13
η (No way!) Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
- 1 Cor. 6:2
η (What?) Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?
- 1 Cor. 6:9
η (Nonsense!) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?
- 1 Cor. 6:16
η (No way!) Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body?
- 1 Cor. 6:19
η (What?) Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?
- 1 Cor. 7:16
Or η (What?) how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
- 1 Cor. 9:6
Or η (Nonsense!) is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?
- 1 Cor. 9:7
η (No way!) Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?
- 1 Cor. 9:8
η (What?) Doesn’t the Law say the same thing?
- 1 Cor. 9:10
η (No way!) Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?
- 1 Cor. 10:22
η (Nonsense!) Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy?
- 1 Cor. 11:22
Or η (What?) do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
- 1 Cor. 14:36a
η (Nonsense!) Did the word of God originate with you?
- 1 Cor. 14:36b
Or η (What?) are you the only people it has reached?
Notice how Paul used this expletive of disassociation twice in rapid succession in 1 Cor. 14:36. Add this to the more important issue—maintaining the integrity of Paul’s elaborate structure, which combined particularization and chiasm—and you can see that Paul was probably quoting a slogan of some of the Corinthian believers. Paul didn’t agree with them when they said, “For it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
The Bottom Line: Order For The Sake Of Edification
Look over this passage of 1 Cor. 14:26-40 again. We’ve already seen that it is an extremely well crafted, integrated piece of writing. What is its central message? That God is a God of order.
It’s easy for us to dismiss Paul’s instructions as obvious, especially after 2,000 years of orderly Christian worship. Although it seems only common courtesy to speak “one at a time”16 and to take turns,17 this wasn’t obvious to the new converts in Corinth. Their ideas of what made for a good worship service had been forged in the fires of idol altars. For those who had worshiped Dionysus, Aphrodite, and other popular Corinthian deities, Paul’s teaching that “God is not a God of disorder”18 was quite revolutionary. Many pagan worshipers worked themselves up into an absolute uproar of noise and confusion. For them, spirituality was measured in decibel levels: the more noise, the greater the pleasure of the gods and the more “anointed” the occasion. Since it was never the goal of the pagan cults to edify their believers, order and self-restraint were not valued. Paul intended to change all that.
It All Centered Around What God Was Like
Paul had to lay the most elementary groundwork for the Corinthian Christians. It all centered around the character of God. Because God was a God of order, peace should reign in the worship services. People should participate in a thoughtful and orderly way to build one another up. The goal for group worship wasn’t emotional outbursts but was communication that edified everyone. Each man or woman who took part was supposed to have the welfare of the body of Christ in mind. That was Paul’s central idea throughout this portion of his Epistle. “All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.”19
Paul then illustrated this general principle by giving three particular examples of those who needed to be corrected and brought back to orderly, edifying participation:
1. those who speak in tongues20
2. those who prophesy21
3. the women of the church22
Paul wasn’t prohibiting participation. On the contrary, he wanted all to participate but in an orderly way for everyone’s edification.
Paul had two extremes in the church at Corinth: One was the “anything goes” school of worship. These new converts were disrupting the services, probably bringing in practices from their heathen religions that gloried in noise and confusion. Paul corrected the chaos they were producing. The other extreme in the church at Corinth was the “nothing is permitted” school of thought. These people were trying to restrict participation. Paul wasn’t on their side either. He showed in verse 26 that he wanted everyone to be involved in the ministry of the church, each one contributing according to his or her ministry gifts.
As we consider these three examples—those who speak in tongues, those who prophesy, and the women in the church—notice that Paul referred to each of these groups twice. He went through the three groups one time, correcting each one of them for their disorderly, excessive, and inconsiderate communication. Then he went back through the same three groups in reverse order (since this was a chiasm), defending their right to communicate in an orderly fashion, correcting those who would silence them outright.
Thus, the first three examples serve as a corrective to those who were abusing their freedom to minister. The second set of three examples is a protection from those who would restrict or totally do away with the freedom for all to minister. Paul develops his two-pronged argument thus:
This article is chapter 14 from the book Why Not Women: A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership by Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton (YWAM, 2000). This article is used with permission. Chapter 15 (Part 2 of 1 Cor. 14:26-40) will be published in the Fall issue of Priscilla Papers.
- Some evangelical scholars believe that this verse and the following one—1 Cor. 14:35—were inserted by later scribes, because their location varies in the early manuscripts. I believe we must deal with both verses as genuine for two reasons: First, no known manuscript omits these verses. This points to the location variation as being a simple clerical error of a copyist rather than a deliberate addition to the inspired words of God. Second, I believe we can be confident that God maintained sovereign oversight in the formation of the ancient texts preserved for us. Even if someone other than Paul wrote these words, we should still embrace them as part of the inspired Word of God. The human agency is not the determining factor: God’s inspiration is.
- The translations that do this are the American Standard Version, the Amplified Bible, the Catholic Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, the Moffatt Version, the New English Bible, the New International Version, the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, the Oxford Study Bible, the Revised Standard Version, and Today’s English Version.
- The translations that do this are the 1886 Revised Version, the 1911 Bible, the Berkeley Version, J. B. Phillips’s Translation, the King James Version, the Knox Version, the Modern Language Version, the Modern Reader’s Version, the New American Standard Bible, the Scofield Bible, and the Thompson Chain Reference Bible.
- The transposition of verses 34 and 35 in several of the ancient manuscripts makes these two verses a grammatical unit separate from verse 33. If the last part of verse 33 was intended to be seen as the opening clause of verse 34, it would have been transposed along with verses 34 and 35 in those manuscripts, but it was not.
- 1 Cor. 14:33-34a; NIV text modified by authors.
- 1 Cor. 14:26-40. NIV text modified by author as follows: In verse 26 “and sisters” has been added to communicate the gender-inclusive nature of adelphos when used in its plural form. The three silencing commands (in verses 28, 30, and 34) have all been rendered the same: “should be silent.” This reflects the original Greek in that the same verb in the same tense is used in all three occasions, helping us to see Paul’s deliberate repetition. Punctuation has been modified in two locations. The phrase “as in all the congregations of the saints” has been linked to the first half of verse 33, and a period has been placed at the end of verse 33. Verse 35 was separated into two sentences to distinguish between Paul’s teaching (35a) and his quotation of the erroneous comment made by certain members of the Corinthian church (35b, which has now been placed in quotation marks). Finally, two expletives of disassociation (Nonsense! What!) have been inserted in verse 36 to reflect the untranslated tiny Greek word η.
- The Old Testament quotations in 1 Corinthians are 1:19 (Isaiah 29:14); 1:31 (Jeremiah 9:24); 2:9 (Isaiah 64:4); 2:16 (Isaiah 40:13); 3:19 (Job 5:13); 3:20 (Psalm 94:11); 5:13 (Deuteronomy 17:7, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 22:24, 24:7); 6:16 (Genesis 2:24); 9:9 (Deuteronomy 25:4); 10:7 (Exodus 32:6); 10:26 (Psalm 24:1); 14:21 (Isaiah 28:11-12); 15:27 (Psalm 8:6); 15:32 (Isaiah 22:13); 15:45 (Genesis 2:7); 15:54 (Isaiah 25:8); 15:55 (Hosea 13:14). Note that these seventeen quotations are taken from eight Old Testament books that span the three major categories (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) of the Hebrew Scriptures.
- 1 Cor. 11:24-25 reflects the words recorded in Luke 22:19-20.
- Cor. 15:33. Paul quoted from Meander’s work Thais.
- 1 Cor. 4:6. Paul quoted a rabbinic axiom that was later recorded in B. Makkot 23a.
- 1 Cor. 10:28, 12:3, 14:25.
- 1 Cor. 1:12, 3:4, 6:12-13, 10:23, 12:3, 15:35.
- η is found in 1 Cor. 1:13; 2:1; 4:3, 21; 5:10a, 10b, 11a, 11b, 11c, 11d, 11e; 6:2, 9, 15, 19; 7:9, 11, 15, 16; 9:6, 7, 8, 10, 15; 10:19, 22; 11:4, 5, 6, 22, 27; 12:21; 13:1; 14:5, 6a, 6b, 6c, 6d, 7, 19, 23, 24, 27, 29, 36a, 36b, 37; 15:37; 16:6. This, of course, is based on the UBS third edition of the Greek New Testament text. There are some discrepancies with the Textus Receptus, but none of them affect the structural issue being discussed here. Whereas the Textus Receptus does not have h¨ in 1 Cor. 6:2, it does have four additional references of h¨: 1 Cor. 3:5, 5:10c, 5:11f, 11:14, thus totaling fifty-two occurrences.
- Linda McKinnish Bridges, Paul’s Use of Slogans in the Rhetorical Strategy of I Cor. 14:34-36 (Richmond: Baptist Seminary, unpublished paper, 1990), 13.
- 15. Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 286.
- 1 Cor. 14:27.
- 1 Cor. 14:31.
- 1 Cor. 14:33.
- 1 Cor. 14:26.
- 1 Cor. 14:27-28, 39b.
- 1 Cor. 14:29-32, 39a.
- 1 Cor. 14:34-38.