There is no shortage of possibilities that have already been offered and argued concerning this problem. The purpose of this essay is not to add to that list. Without additional information coming to light it seems clear that the full range of alternative interpretations have already been shared. At this point we will endeavor to “weed through” the explanations, highlight the arguments for and against each and then attempt a determination based upon those arguments.

It’s helpful at this point to realize that the primary interpretive challenge is to locate the best understanding that permits women to pray and prophecy according to 11:5. Again, as was just mentioned, we are working with the assumption that Paul would not have contradicted himself in such a glaring manner (and especially in such proximity). So the question remains, what exactly did Paul mean when he said that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission as the law says?”

The explanations are listed in no particular order.

  1. Paul is quoting opponents in Corinth who are maintaining a traditionalist perspective. According to this argument, Paul understands that when he affirmed women’s right and responsibilities to share their spiritual gifts in 11:5, he is doing so in contradiction with some traditionalists in Corinth—particularly among the Jewish Christians. In this case he is quoting and responding, as was his habit. The quote is 14:34-35, and his response is found in 14:36, “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” Of particular note is that in this instance is that the pronouns are masculine. With that being said, Paul’s retort makes a little more sense: “Or was it from you (men) that the word of God came? Or are you (men) the only ones it has reached?” In this case, Paul would be clearly arguing against, presumed traditional Jewish Christians who believe that the women should have no role in the assembly.

However, one of the main difficulties of this interpretation is that there is no actual indication that 14:26 is addressed only to men. That the Greek uses a masculine gender pronoun does not necessarily preclude Paul from including women in the discussion. Also, according to D.A. Carson, this argument does not meet Paul’s standard criteria and pattern for providing a quotation of and a subsequent defense. Specifically, Carson states that this would be the longest quotation from Paul’s opponents in the letter with the shortest response. With Paul’s writings there is simply no example or precedent for a quotation with such a detailed argument. According to Carson, when Paul quotes an opponent it is usually short and then followed by a “sustained qualification,” and Paul’s response is unambiguous in the context.

  1. The text is simply a concession by Paul, in order to accommodate cultural mores and/or rabbinic practices. Paul was simply following the normal accepted practices of the synagogues, where women did not take an active role, so that he would not offend any of the Jewish Christians that were worshipping in Corinth. While their native Greek counterparts may have not been disturbed by a woman’s voice in the assembly, Jewish decorum and cultural etiquette created difficulties for female involvement. To further this point it is important to note that at no time did Paul (in this text or in 1 Timothy 2:8ff) ever state or imply that it was sinful for a woman to speak; he specifically says that it is shameful. In this regard it can be argued that Paul sees this issue similarly to head-covering in chapter 11—a matter of honor and shame.

While this argument is viable and these evidences are noteworthy, they are not without difficulty. In 14:34, Paul uses the weight of the Law to reinforce his point (though strangely for him, he does fail to offer any specific quote). Would Paul make references to the Law to support a claim that is in opposition to what he has just previously written? This seems unlikely. Also, when Paul does refer to the Law it is in relation, not to his honor and shame argument, but instead that women should be in submission.

  1. Paul is arguing that women are not to participate in the judging of the prophets. In this instance his prohibition is specific and limited to prophecy (and perhaps speaking in tongues). In fact, the wider context of the passage seems to be pointing in this direction. More specifically, Paul is admonishing the Corinthian church to maintain order in the worship, particularly when it comes to their members sharing their spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. Paul directs them to ensure that there are interpreters present and other prophets available to weigh what is said (14:28-29). It would stand to reason that when Paul prohibits women from speaking, the specific context would be instrumental in a proper interpretation. Thus, the prohibition is aimed at (and limited to) women who would seek to interpret tongues and/or weigh prophecies shared with the church.

It would seem that Paul was allowing women to prophecy (11:5) but not permitting them to weigh the prophecy because this would involve them in a teaching function in the assembly. And in accordance with Paul’s direction in 1 Timothy 2:12, it is clear that women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men. Also, women are not allowed to ask questions during this time because that may be perceived as judging.

However, there are difficulties with this interpretation. First, it is problematic to conclude  that prophesying, which Paul allows in 11:5, would not be considered teaching (presumably because it is done under the auspices of spiritual giftedness), while the weighing of prophecies would be considered teaching or having authority (which would also be a manifestation of the gift of prophecy). At best, that conclusion is troublesome. Second, in order to connect the judging or weighing in 14:29 to what Paul states in 14:34, one must skip past 14:33a, which can be viewed as presenting a closure to the discussion—and 14:33b then would be the beginning of a new topic, sentence or line of thinking. Thirdly, the verb lalelo (to speak) is also deserving of consideration. This interpretive choice inherently defines lalelo to include only speech that involves weighing or judging. Not only is this not the dominant definition, it is entirely inconsistent with the manner in which Paul has been using the word.

  1. Paul is specifically censuring the incessant shouting and wailing of women that were known to be a part of Greco-Roman cults in Corinth. The internal evidences alone indicate strong influences of pagan cults in the Corinthian church. Making this connection to those same influences in this regard is not difficult. And it is possible that  lalelo (to speak) may simply refer to unintelligible speech or babbling.

However, this having been said, the context does not necessarily agree with this assessment of lalelo. Instead, it seems that the context argues for intelligible speech. And again, this is not the normal definition of the word. Other than asking questions (14:35), there is absolutely no textual evidence which would suggest that any women were being disruptive. Nevertheless, assume that Kroeger’s assertions are accurate; and Paul was responding to a group of women who transferred their pagan rituals from their previous religious practices into the church assembly. This still fails to explain why Paul would enjoin this directive to all the “churches of the saints.” Are we to conclude that cultic babbling and wailing was also a troublesome point of contention in the churches in Jerusalem?

  1. Paul is prohibiting all public speaking, whether inspired or uninspired, by women that would cause them to exercise any leadership in the assembly. This interpretive approach is likely the most common among the fundamentalist “branch” of evangelicals. This is particularly true within the mainstream Churches of Christ. In a modern context, this prohibition is extended to include all forms of audible communication so that women are not allowed to ask questions, lead prayer, lead in singing (in any fashion), read Scripture or share any spiritual gift.

Of course, one need not look far to find difficulty with this interpretive approach. To take such the censuring to such an extreme, either invalidates Paul’s previous comments in 11:5 or renders Paul as inconsistent and contradictory—condemning what he just affirmed and encouraged. Any value with this interpretation rests solely on the extent to which it can be reconciled with 11:5.

  1. The text in question, 14:34-35 is a post-Pauline, scribal interpolation. Early in the

textual history of 1 Corinthians a scribe added a marginal gloss to the text so that it may be harmonized with 1 Timothy 2:8-15. At a later date the text was placed in its current location. The Western manuscript provides evidence that some scribes inserted the marginal gloss after verse 40 (at the end of the chapter); which would make sense to place it at the end of the chapter if it was being included after the text was already written. It seems clear that at some point a scribe decided to insert the two verses into their current location, and in the process created a multitude of interpretive dilemmas that have yet been resolved. There are three specific evidences supporting this interpretation. First, it is in direct contradiction to 11:5; and explaining the contradiction requires, at best, biblical gymnastics. Second, the two verses interrupt the flow of the context. Third, the phrase “as the Law also says,” is foreign to Paul.

While this interpretation is argued well by its defenders and has ample evidence in favor of it, there is no textual tradition that supports the claim for these verses not being original. Every manuscript available today includes these verses.

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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?

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Churches Are Like Families

Church’s are like families.  Not necessarily a comforting thought.

In “How Your Church Family Works,” Peter L. Steinke describes how all families, be it a congregation or a home, works with the reality of anxiety. As Steinke observes, “Put people together and inevitably anxiety will arise.” A number of variables can trigger anxiety. For example, a new minister, declining membership, financial strategizing, changes in worship styles, long-range visioning, and death in the church family.  However the anxiety arises, it will flow and settle in a relationship system in potentially predictable ways.  Typically, the most responsible and most vulnerable people are affected most. Thus, this book is particularly useful to clergy, like me, who are prone to be the ones taking responsibility for everything that happens.

Steinke explains that congregations have patterns and roles of relating that “handle” anxiety. For example, someone works really hard to make everyone else happy.  Someone else “acts out” to get attention and assert control in the midst of uncertainty. Someone else quietly removes himself to stay out of conflict. Someone else floats along thinking eventually “God will work it all out,” hoping to shield himself from feeling the tensions.

The author also points out that understanding how people and systems are interconnected can make us aware of more helpful ways of responding to the situations we face as a church. Specifically, it is important to recognize that there is more going on in any situation than what is immediately taking place.

We all need to be reminded, and Steinke consistently does so, that anxiety is not only inevitable, it is also not necessarily bad. Anxiety is the energy and friction we have when operating with others in the midst of change. As a child, we’ve all gone through, in one form or another, “growing pains.”  Change is painful. Still, the pain of change gives a person the chance to grow stronger.  In a similar way, anxiety can lead to life-giving, relationship-enhancing outcomes when handled purposefully and properly.  In fact, stress on a system can indicate that the system is not working well and needs to be adjusted.

The author notes that we can respond to anxiety in two basic ways:  reactively or purposefully.  For example, shock at the news of a death is a reactive response.  We don’t practice or prepare for shock.  However, when we limited ourselves to our reactions, only ever reacting to stress and anxiety in the same way over time, we can establish life-draining behaviors that hinder a system. It is not healthy to live “shocked” for the rest of one’s life.  Other responses are called for to live well after the tragedy of death.

Two basic reactions are at work in each of us:  we are prone to a) alienate ourselves from others or b) lock-on to others. The healthy person is able to “self-differentiate,” that is, balance these poles by being with others but not so connected that he or she “loses herself.”

It is clear that this “theory” might help us choose intentional ways of structuring our church practices and relationships. For example, gossip is an unhealthy, and often times reactive response to anxious situations. It establishes “triangles” which erects and reinforces barriers; barriers which can dismantle trusting relationships needed for a church to function well. Open, honest, direct communication is important.  So a church, aware of this, might foster “covenants of communication” between staff members and within church committees. Gossip would be named and avoided. Or, to promote self-differentiation, a church might cultivate practices of “staying with ourselves” in which we claim our feelings, emotions, and ideas in conversations; rather than blame or impose ourselves on others.

The book is full of wisdom on leadership, identifying actors and roles in emotional systems, and navigating church-specific practices with systems theory.  I found the book insightful, helpful, and illuminating (albeit a little dry and tedious reading).  While no theory can ever fully explain a situation, it can provide an orientation to human relationships which fosters attention, sensitivity, self-awareness, and commitment to the well-being of all.

Thanks so much to the best Portland Wedding Florist for sponsoring my blog. Our generous sponsors my the blog possible. Thank you!

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