There are three keys that will be helpful in proceeding towards the most accurate interpretation and understanding of these texts. First, there is no worthwhile evidence which suggests that the two different texts represent instructions for separate assemblies—Paul was in fact referring to one general or generic assembly in each of these passages. Referring to the two passages in chapter eleven (11:2-16 and 11:17-34), Paul does not use his customary Περὶ δὲ (which would indicate a response to a written question or concern) in either verse two or verse seventeen. This would seem to indicate that he is responding to information that was shared by some of his visitors from Corinth. In 11:2 Paul praises them for maintaining the traditions; while in 11:17 he says that he will not praise or commend them. The use of the word παραδοσισ in verses two and twenty-three connect these two passages together under a single theme. After discussing the troubling idea of pagan worship in 10:14-22, Paul gives his attention to proper Christian worship in 11:2-14:40. Because there is such a clear symmetry, and because there are no breaks in thought or context, the appropriate conclusion here is that Paul is referring to the same general assembly.

Further, the content of the text assumes that Paul is referring to a public and mixed assembly. Paul is focusing on male and female relationships within the context of praying and prophesying (activities that take place during the Corinthian worship). Prophesying is never intended to be a private experience but for the entire gathered church. It is something that happens “through believers in the context of the church where prophecy may be evaluated” (14:23-29). Additionally, 11:16 clearly demonstrates that this was a concern for the entire assembly, not merely a portion of it.

Also, if in 11:2-16 (where Paul affirms women praying and prophesying), he was supposedly referring to a divided assembly, then why would it be necessary for Paul to instruct women to pray and prophesy with their heads covered. If there were no men present in this assembly then there would be no reason to honor her husband or father by keeping her head covered. For Paul, the issue of head-covering is based solely on public propriety and scruples (i.e the honor/shame phenomenon). Simply put, the restriction Paul places on the women is “coherent only in a public setting,”

Second, there is no reason to conclude that Paul would ever forbid in chapter fourteen that which he has just permitted in chapter eleven. It is difficult enough to entertain the idea that Paul would contradict himself in the first place, however, to do so in such proximity and on such a weighty matter makes the idea preposterous. As much as Interpretation #5 may appear to be reasonable (perhaps even the most reasonable), it must be rejected because it cannot adequately answer the tension between chapters eleven and fourteen.

The third interpretive key is that any interpretation which suggests that Paul does not authorize women to pray and prophecy in chapter eleven ought to be rejected as fundamentally flawed. First of all, there is no hint, or evidence, of any disapproval in Paul’s comments concerning women’s participation as prophets and prayer leaders. In fact, it is worthwhile to draw our attention back to Acts 2:17-18 where Peter clearly expressed an expectation for a female prophetic voice. Also, Paul’s leading comments which introduce this passage reveal a total approval of the actions of the Corinthians. He was commending them for the way in which they maintained the traditions that had been handed down to them. Clearly, among those traditions was the active practice of prophecy—from both males and females. Paul’s only corrective was for them to ensure that they adhered to the cultural decorum of honoring their heads.

1 Corinthians 11:10 provides additional noteworthy evidence. When Paul directs men to pray and prophecy he says that a man “ought not to cover his head” (11:7). However, when he directs women on how to pray and prophecy he does not mention covering their heads. Instead, he says that ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς (they should have authority on their head). Why the difference in the language? Why not just say that men should not cover their and women are to cover their head. This interesting caveat should not be dismissed lightly. In fact, it seems to be worth an extra measure of scrutiny. The principle word, authority, is εξουσια; and it is in the active voice, not the passive. If it were in the passive then it ought to be translated and interpreted to indicate that while wearing a covering she wears the sign of her husband or father’s authority. The key is that the authority does not belong to her. Instead, since it is in the active voice the translation and interpretation changes to describe her as the one having the authority. This is certainly an awkward and challenging translation. Help is found by looking to Paul’s other uses of authority in 1 Corinthians. Of the nine times Paul uses this word (in 1 Corinthians) eight are clearly in reference to the person having the right or authority to make a choice. For example, between 9:4-9:18 Paul uses the word five times referring to his rights as an Apostle. In the same manner it seems that Paul is stating that the woman who is properly covered has the right to pray and prophecy in the assembly.

Assuming that there are no additional (viable) points to consider and that all the information has been brought forth by the literature, then we are at something of an impasse. While some of these options seem to have more validity than others, it is clear that each potential interpretive choice carries objections and difficulties that cannot be answered—at least not fully answered. An observation worth noting at this point is that any conclusion reached must be approached with caution and not a great deal of confidence. To do otherwise idles on foolish, considering that the learned scholars that have weighed in on the issue are not close to an agreement (they can’t even narrow the choices to three or fewer).

This having been said, the fundamental challenge with these two texts is that if 14:34-35 are taken literally or at face value there is a stark contradiction with 11:5, where Paul clearly authorizes women to speak (in the form of prophesying and praying). If we accept that Paul did indeed write these texts, then there must be an explanation for 14:34-35. In other words, he could not have literally meant that 1) women are not permitted to speak in the assembly and 2) that was the normal expectation for all the churches of the saints. At this point, we return to the aforementioned problem that no interpretation distinguishes itself apart from the others. This leaves the modern interpreter with the daunting task of identifying the interpretation that has been picked apart the least by the scholars— not exactly the most promising method of scholarship.

One option remains (which I, Jeremy endorse): that the text in 14:34-35 is an interpolation by a post-Pauline editor. It should be said immediately that this interpretation is taken with a great deal of trepidation and concern. What follows are the three “factors” that led to this endorsement. It is conceded from the start that each of these following is subject to valid scrutiny.

  1. The text in 14:26-40 makes more sense without vss. 34-35. Without these verses the passage has a greater flow and cohesiveness. With them included it appears choppy and disjointed.
  2. Without a certain understanding on what Paul would have meant, we are left with an obvious contradiction to 11:5. As has been demonstrated, any attempt to explain this contradiction is met, at best, with difficult arguments to reconcile; and at worse, the interpreter is left performing biblical gymnastics which lacks textual integrity and further distorts the understanding of the text.
  3. 14:34-35 contains language and idioms that are foreign to confirmed Pauline texts. For example, the manner in which Paul referred to the law has previously been discussed.

At the most basic level, the one certainty which can be concluded from this study is that to use 14:34-35 as a proof-text to prohibit women from utilizing their spiritual gifts in the assembly is misguided and actually limits the involvement of the Holy Spirit.

With regard to 1 Timothy 2:11–14, in John Piper and Wayne Gruden’s work, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:  A Response to Evangelical Feminism, they advocate that this text is clearly supportive regarding the restriction of women’s roles and state, “We would say that the teaching inappropriate for a woman is the teaching of men in settings or ways that dishonor the calling of men to bear the primary responsibility for teaching and leadership.”  In order to do this, one would need to make a few interpretive decisions.  This is the actual text: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  The first interpretive decision is that the creation story was an historical event.  The second one is that the first born’s higher status was not a cultural tradition but a God-ordained higher status that should still be honored.  The third one is that “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12 meant the twenty-first century meaning of authority, and fourth, with regard to women leading or teaching men that “deacon” with regard to Phoebe in Romans 16:1 meant deaconess, not deacon.  

Regarding the Adam and Eve story, Steven L. McKenzie has suggested that the Adam and Eve story in Genesis was an attempt to offer an explanation of assigned gender descriptions and roles in society by stating that man was created first and then woman as a companion.  He refers to it as an explanation rather than an historical account since “…it is unlikely that the story in Genesis 2–3 was ever intended to be understood as an actual set of events.  The symbolic nature of the story would have been clear to its original audience from the names of its characters.  Adam and Eve were not proper names in ancient Israel.”  Adam’s character was symbolic of humankind for all men, and Eve’s character was symbolic for all women.  The implication here is that the order of creation was important.  The first born was traditionally favored and more privileged.  Although the intent of this explanation might have been more of a description of why things were the way that they were, some have interpreted this explanation as a prescription of the way things should be, which was what was offered in ancient Greco-Roman era.  

Concerning the word “authority,” in 1Timothy 2:12, it is derived from the word, authenteo, which would imply an aggressive means of taking over or dominating.  This would seem to be inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, regardless of whether or not someone were male or female, and regardless of ancient or modern times, but especially within ancient times. 1Timothy 2:12 seems to imply that women and men were being taught within the same room by a man and that a woman might have previously taken over a class from a man.  Since men at that time were very sensitive to being offended by women, it seems as if Paul had to constantly remind the women of etiquette based in the traditional law or culture of patriarchy in order for them to be considerate of the men’s feelings.  Even though social roles within the church were supposed to be based upon charismatic giftedness, Paul’s expectation was that they would temper their freedom with the etiquette infused with the same law and tradition from which they had been set free.  One of the main drivers of this balancing act,  Schüssler Fiorenza asserts, was that “Christian mission caused social unrest because it admitted wives and slaves as well as daughters and sons into the house-church, even when the pater familias was still pagan and had not converted to Christianity.”   This type of balancing act or Pauline etiquette was not exclusive to the relationships between women and men.  Other examples are found in Acts 16:3, when Paul has Timothy circumcised prior to spending time with the Jews, in 1 Corinthians 8: 9–13, when Paul instructs them not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols if it would cause another with weaker faith to stumble, and in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23, when Paul acknowledges his freedom in Christ but chooses to temper that with becoming like those he desires to be saved.

Regarding “deacon” versus “deaconess,” Schüssler Fiorenza states that “Phoebe is characterized by the masculine form of the title diakonos [deacon].”  This would be as opposed to the feminine, deaconess, whose role was to minister to women.  What seems to support this view of the masculine deacon is that the same word, diakonos, is also used by Paul to describe himself (Eph 3:7; Col 1:23), to describe Tychicus, a male minister in the Lord (Eph 6:21), to describe Epaphrus, a male minister in the Lord (Col 1:7), to describe Timothy, a male servant expected to instruct the brothers and sisters (1 Tim 4:6), to describe the criteria for deacons (1 Tim 3:8), as well as the same word to address the saints, bishops, and deacons in his greeting to the Philippians (Phil 1:1).  

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