1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part Four

What does one do when one understands 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, especially in context, to mean something different than it has often been interpreted?  This is by no means a straightforward question, since a great deal depends on who one is referring to.  After having spent some time [1] looking at the immediate context of this passage, the whole biblical context that demonstrates the public role of women in biblical religion throughout the scriptures, as well as the specific context that demonstrated Hellenistic views were the source of the anti-biblical hostility to women that has been shown by “traditional” Judaism (and, it must be admitted, “traditional” Christianity), what is to be done?  Knowledge creates with it a sense of obligation, and those who recognize wrongs often wish to right these wrongs, sometimes in ways that can be hurtful and divisive to others.

While the Bible does not specifically address the sort of painful social change that is required when one’s views about women drastically change, the Bible does indicate that social change is a matter of considerable delicacy.  And the reality that some people have different views about matters of contention–and there is no doubt that the issue of gender roles and the proper place of women is a contentious matter–is something that the Bible does deal with.  In the core of Philemon verses 8 through 16 we see Paul undertaking a very delicate mission of encouraging a slave owner (Philemon) to free his slave Onesimus despite some wrongdoing.  Paul goes about this request as follows:  “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.  I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel.  But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.  For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

We may note that there are at least a few differences between the situation of Philemon and Onesimus and that between men and women in the church, but there are a great many parallels as well.  For one, there was a clear social inequality between slave and free in the Roman world, and for most of recorded history there has been a similar social inequality between men and women.  Yet Paul calls on Philemon to view Onesimus, now converted, as a brother and a peer.  We can do no less than consider each other as believers as peers, regardless of the social gulfs that would tend to divide us within our societies.  In addition to this, most women at least are not in the awkward position that Onesimus is of having wronged Philemon and having required his mercy.  On the contrary, not a few women feel as if they have been harmed by biases and restrictions that have made it difficult for them to give such insight as they possess to others in a way that would lead them to be respected for their wisdom and intellect.  There is a power in speaking from the pulpit, the power of knowing that others have to take one’s words seriously, and as someone who personally enjoys that feeling I can understand the way that some people would wish for the same opportunities that I have to expound on God’s word in a public fashion drawing on their own perspectives and experiences as I do on a regular basis.

Where Paul’s advice is most useful, though, is in his understanding that godly social change must be done by consent and in a voluntary fashion.  Harmonious relationships between people and groups of people divided by enmity and hostility can only come about when all parties involved earnestly desire reconciliation to God and each other.  This reconciliation cannot be forced.  This puts women in a difficult bind.  Indeed, this situation is often viewed as a double bind in that it can be assumed that most men will likely be oblivious to the wrong that is being done in viewing the truths of scripture as something that can only be publicly expounded by a man, and that men will resent women who are forceful in demanding respect.  Yet at the same time this bind because less painful when viewed in light of eternity.  We know that the Bible continually urges patience and longsuffering on those who suffer wrongs in this life in the understanding that God will right those wrongs.  And we ought not to doubt that there will be a great many women whose opinions were viewed as unimportant and whose insights were neglected and rejected who will be very important beings in the Kingdom of God, and a great many people who were important and powerful men who will be begging for forgiveness and entry at the lowest rung.  Even so, this may not be of much comfort to people here and now.

There is also, it should be noted, a wide degree of disparity within the churches of God when it comes to the role of women within the church.  One leader not known for his sagacity of an organization which has appeared in my blogs from time to time stated one time, according to reports, that his wife assisted him in his ministry in the same way that a plumber’s wife assisted him, to wit, not much at all.  That said, other organizations have considered the travel of a wife to be integral to the efforts of their ordained husbands to be counted as business travelers themselves according to at least one pastor’s policy manual I have been sent.  And still other organizations have started working on conferences to deal with the contentious issue of tradition as opposed to the record of scripture, in which the role of women is certainly involved.  And so we find that the Church of God is all over the place when it comes to the issue of recognizing the importance of women to the ministry at present.

How, then, are we to deal with this sort of issue?  In some respects, matters are gradually and slowly taking care of themselves.  As a child, I would attend Spokemen’s and Graduate Club, where people learned public speaking, and these were strictly male activities except for the lighter annual ladies night.  Now, in many congregations, a Family Club atmosphere gives these same speaking opportunities to women and younger people who would have been denied these opportunities to learn public speaking before.  Additionally, it is far more frequent nowadays to see women in charge of choirs and special music, in which there are both men and women.  These are small changes, and slow changes, and gradual changes, but that is the way that consensual social change works.  It is quite possible that in smaller congregations where there are few men and in cases where one has unusually articulate wives of deacons or elders that those women who are best equipped to manage to social and political aspects of congregational life will be the first ones to have a public role in expounding the Bible and godly living to a mixed group of men and women.  Such women already possess a certain amount of power and influence as a result of their positions and their husbands, and their commitment to the well-being of the organizations and congregations they are a part of is similarly without question.  Once it is recognized that such women do have a lot to offer that is of general and not merely narrow interest, and that there are insights to be gained from their perspective and point of view and experiences, and it can be seen that their public role does not lead to a loss of order and structure within the congregation or a decline in the respect given to leaders serving in positions of authority, then such opportunities can be widened to a larger circle of deserving people.  Such a change would be easier and quicker to see to the extent that we are able to recognize the insight of women within our conversations and meetings as a general rule, to the point where it becomes obvious that we would want to hear what women have to share about scriptural matters.  Perhaps we may yet live to see that happen.

[1] See, for example:




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35: Let [Your] Women Keep Silent: Part Four

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Within the Church remains the mindset that connects position of authority with power. Introducing women into the mix, even at a very slow, graduated pace, will be a sifting issue for both genders. This new awareness will cause the pendulum to swing wildly to opposing extremes. Those of the traditional mindset (both men and women) will view it as a violent liberal shift, while others will grab onto it; clamoring to finally get their turn. Addressing and changing the culture and custom with regard to this issue will severely test the membership’s maturity level. Only Christ knows when or even whether it should ever happen.

    • Yes, that was obviously the main concern I had as well. The combination of pushes towards revolutionary change or reaction is not one that would be beneficial to the well-being and unity of the brethren as a whole.

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