In 1 Cor. 14:34 the Apostle Paul’s letter states: “…the women should keep silent in the assemblies. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” There are several major problems with this statement.
First, nowhere does the Jewish Law forbid women to speak in public gatherings. Paul, being a well-educated Jew, certainly would have known this. In fact, there was a law on the books that did forbid women to speak, vote and exercise authority over men by holding public office. It was not a Jewish, but a Roman law. These words would sound far more credible if someone else, other than the Jewish Apostle Paul, had written them.
Second, on numerous occasions throughout his travels and letters, the Apostle Paul affirmed the ministry of women (Rom 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:13, 19; cf. Acts 18:26; 26:11-15). The centrality of the Shemah – the Oneness of Israel’s God, informed Paul’s theology when he wrote that in Christ-following assemblies there was no place for segregation or discrimination:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
In 1 Corinthians 11:5, he wrote that a woman’s head must be covered while she is engaged in speaking in tongues or prophesying in a public assembly. The question was not, therefore, if a woman could speak and teach, but how it should be done in a way that would be right before God, angels and the people of Corinth.
When we read Paul’s letters we need to keep in mind that 1 Corinthians was not the beginning of this correspondence. Paul wrote at least one letter to the Corinthians prior to this (1 Cor. 5:9) and the Corinthian leadership had also written to him (1 Cor. 7:1). It is therefore highly probable that the statement in 1 Cor. 14:34-35 is a quotation from a letter that the Corinthian male leadership had addressed to Paul. It was their proposal on how to bring order into the disruptive practice of some women in the congregation as they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Paul, however, disagreed.
If this text is viewed as a quotation, then the challenge in 1 Cor. 14:36 that Paul brings to the male leadership makes perfect sense:
“Was it from you (masculine) that the word of God first went forth?! Or has it come to you (masculine) only?!”
The all-male leadership of the Corinthian congregation was not to forbid (women) to speak in tongues and themselves were to be encouraged to prophecy just as the women among them already were doing:
“Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Cor. 14:39-40)
Paul’s solution, therefore, was not to exclude half of the congregation from exercising the gifts of the Spirit, but rather to make sure that it was done in a respectful, proper and orderly fashion.
Was Paul right about women? Absolutely! His Corinthian opponents were not.
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