Two of the preeminent texts on this issue—1 Corinthians 11:4-16 and 14:34-35 (which, along with 1 Timothy 2:11-14, are the primary texts which restrict women in their and activity in the church—particularly in public leadership roles). Regarding the context and setting for the texts in 1 Corinthians, the letter itself reveals much of the context of these passages. Throughout the course of the letter, Paul is dealing with several different issues that the Corinthian church appears to have been struggling with. Paul seems to have learned about these many issues from two different sources. First, a letter had been sent from the Christians in Corinth. Second, some representatives from the church in Corinth had visited him—likely either Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17), or messengers from Chloe’s household (1:11).
Paul maintained a patterned formula for responding to a question or issue raised within the letter. This formula is brought out for the first time in 7:1 when he writes: Περὶ δὲ ὧν ἐγράψατε (now concerning what you wrote). He also uses the Περὶ δὲ (now concerning) formula in 7:25; 8:1; 12:1 and 16:1. Each of these indicates a new question, idea or issue that he is seeking to address. For example in 7:25, he writes to the unmarried women; in 8:1 he changes to write about food offered to idols; in 12:1 he moves to spiritual gifts and finally in 16:1 to the collection for the saints.
The two passages, 1 Corinthians 11:4-16 and 14:34-35, are imbedded within two different, yet thematically connected units of scripture. We’ll begin with addressing the context of chapter eleven. In this chapter Paul takes up two separate issues (head coverings and the Lord’s Supper) that are linked together by the phrase Ἐπαινῶ ὑμᾶς (I praise you). In 11:2 Paul begins his comments on head coverings with Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς (Now I praise you). In 11:17 Paul begins his rebuke for mishandling the Lord’s Supper with Τοῦτο δὲ παραγγέλλων οὐκ ἐπαινῶ (Now with these instructions I do not praise you).
Concerning the complicated issue of head coverings, Paul praises them because they had remembered what he had taught them and dealt with the issue in a proper manner. And in such a diverse locale as Corinth, the use of a cultural symbol of head covering may naturally become a point of contention within the church. It is for this reason that Paul is commending or praising the manner in which they handled this issue. Paul then goes on to elaborate and provide specific direction. Concerning the men, he says that they are to uncover their head while praying and prophesying so as to honor their head who is Christ (11:4, 7). Contrary to the men, women are directed to pray and prophesy with their head covered so that they might properly honor their head who is man (11:5, 10). For Paul, the issue is cultural and was one of honor or dishonor. The proper cultural respect (i.e. honor) must be shown to one’s head. For man, he must honor Christ; and for woman, she must honor man. Though the principle of honor and dishonor was primarily a cultural manifestation, Paul also draws from the creation in order to illustrate his point (11:8-10). However, in 11:11-12, Paul is quick to remind the reader that woman’s position relative to man should not be taken advantage of. Paul’s overall point with this commentary is to ensure that the Corinthians understand the necessity of honoring one’s head because of the way God created humankind as male and female (11:3, 7-8). As a result, the woman must be sure that when she does pray and prophesy she does so in the culturally accepted manner of honoring her head—by covering her own head.
Following his rebuke for mishandling the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), Paul transitions into a longer discussion on the use and abuse of spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14). In doing so he uses the aforementioned Περὶ δὲ (now concerning), indicating that he is responding to an issue that was first brought up in a written correspondence from the Corinthian church. It seems clear that the misuse and misunderstanding of their spiritual gifts was a significant concern for Paul. In chapter fourteen he addresses the problems in the context of their public assembly together (i.e. 14:23, 26) that may also include outside visitors who are not among the church (14:24).
Paul is most concerned with two particular spiritual gifts—speaking in tongues and prophesying (14:27-33, 39). Concerning those who would speak in tongues he gives the direction that at most two are three should speak and in so doing they must take turns and there must be an interpreter present (14:27-28). Concerning prophesying, he gives similar directions that no more than two or three should speak and that there should be another prophet available to “weigh what is said” (14:29). In 14:34 Paul provides specific prohibition for women who would speak in the assembly (women are to remain silent). Paul attaches to his direction, a general directive in 14:33b that the instructions are consistent throughout all the church of the saints. He offers two explanations in support of his directive. First, it is a matter of submission—as if to say that for a woman to speak in whatever context he has in mind, would violate this principle of submissiveness to man. Second, he refers back to the cultural phenomenon of shame; saying that it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church” (11:34-35).
Based upon this brief highlighting of these two passages it is clear that a contradiction exists. In 11:5 Paul assumes (and even approves) that women will be active participants in the assembly and will engage in prayer and prophecy. The only issue is that they adhere to cultural mores of honoring their head. However, in 14:33b-35 Paul provides a clear directive prohibiting women from speaking at all in the assembly, commenting that this is the standard behavior for in all churches. Is Paul forbidding in 14:33b-35 what he just approved in 11:5? Assuming the answer is “no,” then how should these texts be understood? And further, what (if any) direction does this leave for the modern Christian today relative to women’s roles?