Women in Leadership - Part 7: Tricky Verses #1 - 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

Tricky Verses #1 - 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

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These verses have been used by some throughout church history as a means to both dominate and silence Christian woman. They have caused division in churches, been called confusing and contradictory, been the source of arguments amongst scholars and theologians with some even advocating their removal from the Word of God entirely. Personally I have never found them remotely confusing, nor do I agree that they are contradictory if taken in context and in the light of the co-text. 

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Granted, taken in isolation these verses seem both dogmatic and overly harsh. However, as I said, taken in context they make perfect sense. Especially when viewed in the light of the Genesis 2 relationship models.


The topic starts in chapter 12 where Paul begins to explain the difference between the gifts and how they operate within the body. He also makes the observation that this congregation is made up from at least some who had previously worshiped dumb idols. He then contrasts this with what had obviously begun to happen, the gifts of The Spirit in operation, specifically tongues. But he makes it clear that “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (v.7). He stresses the importance of understanding the unity of the body, even if its members have different gifts - no one is more important or has better gifts.

He continues into chapter 13 explaining that loving each other should be of primary importance as any gifts or works are meaningless without it. He then exhorts the believers to a mature approach to their worship together: “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” (v.11)

He continues this theme into chapter 14: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.” (v.20). He also details how these gifts should be practiced and what should and shouldn’t be going on during their meetings. 

It is clear that the context of these three chapters is a loving correction of the current practices of the brethren in this place during worship and church meetings. We can clearly see what the issues are when Paul uses negative corrections and we can infer from his positive exhortations what the negative practices were. Some examples would be:

Over emphasis of tongues

Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.

(1 Corinthians 14:1-2)

One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.

(1 Corinthians 14:4)

Lack of interpretation

Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.

(1 Corinthians 14:5)

Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

(1 Corinthians 14:13)

Too much 

I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

(1 Corinthians 14:18-19)

Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?

(1 Corinthians 14:23)

Lack of spiritual maturity

Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.

(1 Corinthians 14:20)

Not enough diversity in gifts

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

(1 Corinthians 14:26)

Talking over one another

But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;

(1 Corinthians 14:30-31)

Lack of control

and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;

(1 Corinthians 14:32)


for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

(1 Corinthians 14:33)

Noisy women

The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

This last one is, of course, what we are looking at. In the context of the chapters, taken as a whole, it is clearly just one of a myriad of issues that Paul is dealing with. The overall picture that one gleans from these chapters is a church that is clearly being blessed but is obviously very disorderly with an apparent over-emphasis of the gift of tongues. One can picture a very noisy and confusing atmosphere. 

Lucy Peppiatt describes what I have outlined here as “historical reconstruction” and classes it as “highly problematic” - I would see this as nothing more than exegesis, expounding what is already plainly in the text to form a clearer picture of the situation. I think it is far more “problematic” to take what is explicitly stated and to claim that it actually means the diametric opposite of the plain reading, as Peppiatt does. It is worth mentioning that this same form of twisted hermeneutics is used by Steve Chalke to claim that Romans chapter 1 doesn’t prohibit, but actually supports homosexual relations. 


I personally think the translation of the Greek in v.34-35 could be clearer. For example the word translated as “women” (γυνή) would better be translated as “wives” as the following verse makes it clear that they are married and makes reference to their “husbands”. The same Greek word is used for woman, women, wife and wives (see Eph 5:22). Also the word “silence” would be better translated as “hold your tongue” or “keep your peace”. 

An alternate rendering of the verses could be:

Wives are to keep their peace in the churches; for they are not given leave to speak out, but are to subject themselves (to their husbands), just as the Law also says. If they desire to increase in knowledge, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is dishonourable for a wife to speak out in church.

(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

You can see how this slightly less harsh but no less linguistically correct translation paints a more accurate picture in the context of what is taking place in Corinth.


The following are some of the objections that are used to attempt to debunk the position that I have outlined above:

Objection #1 - What Law?

Another reason that wives would be a better translation is Paul’s assertion that the law backs his statement up. But which law? 

Some have argued that this was a local custom or even Roman law. I find no similar apostolic  adherence to these prohibitive local customs anywhere else, so why here? Others make the point that there is no law in the 613 mitzvot of the Mosaic law.

But, please note - I do not believe that it is the “keeping silent” that Paul is referring to being in the law, rather it is the “are to subject themselves” part that he is saying is in the law. Who are they to subject themselves to? Their husbands of course, as mentioned in the very next verse.

If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

(1 Corinthians 14:35)

To a Jew in the first century the phrase “the law” had a much broader meaning. In John 15:25 Jesus refers to the law but quotes Psa 69:4. Luke quotes Exo 13:2 (prior to the Mosaic law being given) and calls it the law of the Lord. Even in the very chapter that we are looking at Paul, in verse 21,  quotes Isaiah 28:11 and says “In the Law it is written, "BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME," says the Lord.”

The Jewish Bible (Tanakh) is divided into three parts, the Torah (the law - the first five books or pentateuch), the Nevi'im (prophets, minor and major) and the Ketuvim (the writings - psalms, proverbs, song of Solomon etc). This division is clearly demonstrated in verses such as:

Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.

(Luke 24:27)

Now He said to them, "These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,

(Luke 24:44-45)

In a general sense the entire Tanakh (Old Testament) is God’s law but I believe the answer is found in the first of the five books of Moses. When Paul says “but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says.” He is referring to the divine principle of the loving authority-willing submission husband and wife relationship we first looked at in Genesis chapter 2. 

Objection #2 - Margin Text

Some scholars argue that v.34-35 should be entirely expunged from the text. Their claim relates to the fact that depending on which manuscript you look at these verses either appear here or after v.40. They say this is because it was added to the margin of the original text as gloss and thus no-one knows a) where it goes and b) if it was even Paul who wrote it. However the fact that they are some of the earliest texts and that EVERY one (no matter what the source) has exactly the same annotation leads most to believe that they are in fact, Paul’s original words.  If not, one could argue that other verses, with less (or more recent) evidence should also be removed, such as the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) or the entire ending of the gospel of Mark (ch16:9-20) .

Objection #3 - Contradictions

Many claim that these verses contradict Paul’s endorsement of women praying in tongues or prophesying (as part of the body) earlier in the chapters. I do not see this contradiction as Paul is not giving a blanket prohibition, merely dealing with an obvious problem in the church at Corinth. As mentioned above Paul is trying to prevent the church services from becoming uncontrolled and unruly. Part of that obviously involved some women speaking out and interrupting proceedings.   

Paul's corrections and deferring these wives to their husbands in no way contradicts the general exhortation to all (including women) to seek spiritual gifts and to use them in an orderly manner. 

Objection #4 - Local Problem?

The contention by some that these verses only apply to the Corinthian church and should not be applied to all churches is, in my view, incorrect.

Firstly, to claim this you must extract only these verses from the overall context, if not, then surely the same logic applies to all the verses and you could argue that the entire teaching on the gifts of the Spirit ONLY applies to the believers in Corinth. 

Secondly, and in my view, much more importantly, Paul clearly states that this type of unruly behaviour is NOT Godly and this is how it should be in ALL the churches.

for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

(1 Corinthians 14:33)

He then goes on to warn them that if they think they know best they better adjust their attitude because being spiritual does not mean ignoring God’s clear commands, otherwise there will be consequences.

Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

(1 Corinthians 14:36-38)


Far from being “riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and confusing messages and marked by serious textual and exegetical problems,” as Peppiatt claims. I think these verses fit perfectly in the context of Paul’s rebuke to the church at Corinth. 

It is worth pointing out that, apart from these two verses, Paul’s rebuke to the church at Corinth seems to encompass both men and women equally. He ends the section with his concluding remark - “But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (v40). Clearly reiterating his key message and clarifying the context of his previous exhortations.

These verses also perfectly fit the divine order as mandated in Genesis chapter 2. One could also argue that Paul’s rebuke in v.34-35 is a direct put-down of the type behaviour that one might expect as a result of the fall’s consequences outlined in Genesis chapter 3, namely that the wives are overstepping the mark and the headship of their husbands - hence why “it is dishonourable for a wife to speak out in church.”

These verses actually serve to reinforce the doctrine of male headship - which of course makes them problematic for those who reject that doctrine.

Next - Part 8: Tricky Verses #2 - 1 Corinthians 11:2-16


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