Can Women Minister? – 1 Corinthians 14:33-38

בטי מולר- דבורה הנביאה
Deborah, Prophetess and Judge (Photo credit: zeevveez)

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 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. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (ESV)

Is it really Paul’s intent that women should never speak in open assembly? Even those who believe that Paul restricts women’s roles in church or synagogue rarely take the position today that women should not speak out at all. For example, the ESV Study Bible says, “[I]t is difficult to see this as an absolute prohibition (cf. Acts 2:17; 21:8-9). Paul is likely forbidding women to speak up and judge prophecies (this is the activity in the immediate context; cf. 1Co. 14:29), since such activity would subvert male leadership.”

However, in the past, such an interpretation was the norm, even though it led to a contradiction in the text itself. Matthew Henry (not my favorite commentator, but a popular one nevertheless) manages, in the course of trying to defend the seemingly plain meaning that women were to keep utterly silent, to actually highlight the problem with such a reading:

There is indeed an intimation (1Co. 11:5) as if the women sometimes did pray and prophesy in their assemblies, which the apostle, in that passage, does not simply condemn, but the manner of performance, that is, praying or prophesying with the head uncovered, which, in that age and country, was throwing off the distinction of sexes, and setting themselves on a level with the men. But here he seems to forbid all public performances of theirs. They are not permitted to speak (1Co. 14:34) in the church, neither in praying nor prophesying. The connection seems plainly to include the latter, in the limited sense in which it is taken in this chapter, namely, for preaching, or interpreting scripture by inspiration. And, indeed, for a woman to prophesy in this sense were to teach, which does not so well befit her state of subjection. A teacher of others has in that respect a superiority over them, which is not allowed the woman over the man, nor must she therefore be allowed to teach in a congregation: I suffer them not to teach. But praying, and uttering hymns inspired, were not teaching.

Likewise, John Gill writes, “This is a restriction of, and an exception to one of the above rules, that all might prophesy; in which he would be understood of men only, and not of women . . . in the church of God, they might not speak with tongues, nor prophesy, or preach, or teach the word.” His commentary on 11:5, as a result, denies the plain meaning of Paul’s writing there:

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth,…. Not that a woman was allowed to pray publicly in the congregation, and much less to preach or explain the word, for these things were not permitted them: see 1Co. 14:34, but it designs any woman that joins in public worship with the minister in prayer, and attends on the hearing of the word preached, or sings the praises of God with the congregation, as we have seen, the word prophesying signifies . . .”

Gill’s argument is that prophesying refers to anyone who “attends public worship, that joins in prayer with the minister, and hears the word preached by him, which is meant by prophesying; for not foretelling future events is here meant, but explaining the word of God, the prophecies of the Old Testament, or any part of Scripture, unless singing of psalms should rather be designed, since that is sometimes expressed by prophesying . . .” but that “explaining the word of God” is specifically withheld from women.

John Calvin tries to explain 1 Corinthians 11:5 similarly:

It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in 1Co. 14:34.

So, basically Paul decided to throw in a couple of completely extraneous words that would give his audience a false impression . . . for giggles, I guess.

You can see the conundrum that results from forbidding women to teach given that Paul had only just given rules allowing them to prophesy. A simple rule of Jewish hermeneutics–one that Paul would have been raised and steeped in, and indeed bases many of his teachings on–is that no word of the Scriptures is redundant or unnecessary. Paul would not have said that women could prophesy with their head covered if he wished to convey that women could not speak out at all. Nor can we argue that somehow one can separate the public prophesying of men from some kind of private prophesying (singing of psalms, whatever) of women. By their very nature, a prophet has to speak the words of the living God, and by virtue of speaking those words, carries an appointed authority.

There is a second fundamental problem with the idea that this passage forbids women to speak publicly: There is no passage at all in the Torah that forbids women to do so.

Try as they might, no commentator has been able to produce such a command. The ESV Study Bible notes say with a tone of uncertainty, “Paul is probably thinking of the woman’s creation ‘from’ and ‘for’ the man (see 11:8-9; Gen. 2:20-24).” Gill claims the reason can be found “In Gen. 3:16, ‘thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’,” an opinion shared by Adam Clarke. Yet this punishment cannot be taken to be a command, but is rather a statement by the Holy One of the natural result of the woman’s newborn sin-nature. After all, it is part of the man’s curse that “thorns and thistles it [the ground] shall grow for you” (Gen. 3:18), but that doesn’t mean that we are commanded to go out and plant thorns and thistles any more than we are commanded to sweat before we eat bread (v. 19)!

Matthew Henry does not even attempt to find such a command in the Torah. Neither does John Calvin:

What connection has the object that he has in view with the subjection under which the law places women? “For what is there,” some one will say, “to hinder their being in subjection, and yet at the same time teaching?” I answer, that the office of teaching is a superiority in the Church, and is, consequently, inconsistent with subjection. For how unseemly a thing it were, that one who is under subjection to one of the members, should preside over the entire body!

Yet for all of his strong verbiage and acknowledged knowledge of the Word, Calvin produces not a single line of the Law commanding the subjection of women.

“Who told that woman she could speak to men?”
“. . . Oh.”

So can a woman be a prophet? Clearly so; there are indeed many examples of women prophets in the Law and Prophets, such as the Matriarchs (for example, Genesis 25:23), Moses and Aaron’s sister Miriam (Exo. 15:20, cf. ch. 14), Deborah (Jdg. 4-5), Hulda (2Ki. 22:14), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), and Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3). In the New Testament we also have Anna, who prophesied over the infant Messiah and spoke publicly about him to all who would hear (Luke 2:36-38).

The case of Deborah is particularly interesting because she was not only a prophetess, but also a judge–a ruler–over Israel, “and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Jdg. 4:5). We also have an extensive prophecy by her in Judges chapter 5. Clearly, the Holy One gave her his approval and authority to rule over Israel, and to do so she spoke openly and publicly. How then can we claim that a woman cannot publicly prophesy? And if a woman can have a gift of prophecy, this is clearly a greater and more authoritative gift than teaching: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (1Co. 12:28).

One could certainly suppose that by “law” Paul is referring to Jewish Law, which certainly did (and among the more Orthodox, still does) have injunctions against women teaching, as Adam Clarke points out:

This was a Jewish ordinance; women were not permitted to teach in the assemblies, or even to ask questions. The rabbins taught that “a woman should know nothing but the use of her distaff.” And the sayings of Rabbi Eliezer, as delivered, Bammidbar Rabba, sec. 9, fol. 204, are both worthy of remark and of execration; they are these: ישרפו דברי תורה ואל ימסרו לנשים  yisrephu dibrey torah veal yimsaru lenashim, “Let the words of the law be burned, rather than that they should be delivered to women.” This was their condition till the time of the Gospel, when, according to the prediction of Joel, the Spirit of God was to be poured out on the women as well as the men, that they might prophesy, i.e. teach. (To 1Co. 14:34)

Acknowledging that women may prophesy (as Clarke rightly points out Joel 2:28-29 specifically predicts), and that to prophesy must necessarily involve teaching, Clarke takes a more reasonable interpretation of Paul’s intent than most: “It was permitted to any man to ask questions, to object, altercate, attempt to refute, etc., in the synagogue; but this liberty was not allowed to any woman.”

While this is closer to the mark, Clarke misses two important points: First and most obviously, it was not Paul’s habit to command universal obedience to Jewish law or custom in the Ekklesia–just the opposite, in fact! Secondly, while he is probably correct that the objection stemmed from wishing to avoid an impropriety that would unnecessarily offend the Jews of the synagogue (the requirement that a woman cover her head with a veil in 11:5 being from a similar concern), what we see described in 1 Corinthians–speaking in tongues, freely prophesying, healings, a fellowship meal, etc.–could not possibly be part of the mainline synagogue service, and would be seen as offensive to non-believing Jews in any case. (“Goyim prophesying? Surely you jest!”)

Finally, Paul’s rhetorical question, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” makes no sense if he thought women should not be allowed to teach. It’s a non-sequitor to go from the question, “Can a woman prophesy, which requires teaching in public?” to an answer, “Why? Are you saying that only women can receive the word of God?”

So how then should we understand this passage? Is Paul simply dealing with a temporary situation in which the women were being unusually disruptive, as some claim? But if so, why wouldn’t he be more clear?

The solution lies in recognizing a rhetorical device Paul would use from time to time: First quoting an adversarial position, and then refuting it. To pick just a couple of examples:

Earlier in the same letter (6:12), Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’” but then refutes the notion that therefore sin is permitted by responding, “but not all things are helpful.” And again, he quotes and responds, “’All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.” (He repeats this formula in 10:23.)

Likewise, in Romans 3:8 Paul writes, “And why not do evil that good may come?–as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.” He responds to the charge in 6:1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

So then, let us take each of these factors into consideration when interpreting this passage:

  1. There is absolutely no commandment in the Torah–or anywhere else–that a woman must be silent in public assembly.

  2. There are several Biblical examples of prophetesses, some of whom undeniably prophesied publicly and at least one of whom actually served as a judge over Israel.

  3. Paul himself had stated that a woman who prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, which carries the implicit ruling that women may prophesy if they do so in an honorable fashion.

  4. Paul’s rebuke, “Did the word of God come to you only?” is a non-sequitur to the question, “Can a woman prophesy openly?” since there is no indication that anyone asked if only women can prophesy.

  5. Paul sometimes quotes a position only to turn around and refute it.

And finally, there is one final factor to consider: There are no such things as quotation marks in ancient Greek or Hebrew. Therefore, the translator must supply them based on the context of the passage in question.

And with that, let us requote the passage as it appears in the ESV, supplying only a set of quotation marks, adding a couple of interpolations for clarity, and correcting one translation in the ESV (the word “Or” in v. 36), and see if it fits:

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

[Some say,] “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.”

[Paul responds:] What? Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you [i.e., that a woman may prophesy with a modest head-covering] are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

Ergo, Paul is not teaching that women may not pray or prophesy, both of which require speaking in open assembly, but is answering those who ignore the clear precedent of Scripture in demanding that women have no public role in the Ekklesia in order to follow the common practice in the synagogues of the time.


2 Replies to “Can Women Minister? – 1 Corinthians 14:33-38”

  1. You do realize that your title is a straw man?
    I believe that your interpretation here, besides flying in the face of a couple of thousand of years of standard interpretation, is a sop to the destruction of the church vis a vis the feminist movement.
    Any time you want a living opponent, as opposed to a reformer who can’t speak back, just let me know ;)


    1. Von, a lot of what I believe flies in the face of a couple thousand years of church interpretation. I’ve been outlawed by the “official” church since the Council of Nicea (see “Judenrein Christianity”). I’m not impressed by tradition alone and believe that there are plenty of issues that the Ekklesia as a whole needs to revisit. This happens to be one of them.

      As far as the title being a strawman, maybe. However, “Can women pray?” would result in a resounding “Duh,” “Can women prophesy?” gets into the whole charismatic controversy that I didn’t feel like dealing with in this article, and “Can women speak publicly?” sounds offensive on the face of it. In the end, I picked something that would Google well.

      Now, if you’d like to debate this, sure, let’s do that. Just be warned that I have a little one on the way, so my intellect is about to be severely impaired by a lack of sleep and an overdose of “D’awwwww!” :)



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