There are plain, straight forward, no wiggle room kinds of statements in the Bible. Consider this plain statement from Deuteronomy 25:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” It doesn’t get much simpler or clearer than this direct command. The ancient Israelites weren’t to prevent their draft animals from eating while they were working. This stipulation in the Law of Moses was there to instruct the Israelites regarding the proper treatment of their animals. Simple, to the point, no wiggle room, right? Not according to Paul the apostle.
1 Corinthians 9:9-10 is part of Paul’s argument defending the right of one who labors full time in the Gospel to be compensated financially for his efforts. Consider Paul’s commentary on Deuteronomy 25:4 (emphasis added):
For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.
In spite of the verse’s simplicity, Paul says that proper treatment of oxen wasn’t the main point God was trying to make in Deuteronomy 25:4! He proclaims there was deeper meaning that God was trying to convey from this simple, plain, straight forward, no wiggle room statement! The intended lesson is that just as the ox was able to eat as a result of his labor, so we too should expect to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The Israelites and the Christians in Corinth were too shallow and superficial in their understanding of this “simple” text. Because the statement appeared to be very direct and to the point, they dismissed the possibility of a deeper meaning in the words.
The women are to keep silent in the churches
In the same way, I believe that we in the Churches of Christ have glossed over the intended meaning of some passages regarding women. A superficial examination of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-14 will indeed leave one with the conclusion that these are plain, direct, no wiggle room statements forbidding women from speaking during the assembly. However, this conclusion leaves us with certain difficulties which result in behavior and practices inconsistent with other passages of Scripture. As a result, we are forced to manufacture man made exceptions and workarounds to deal with the difficulties created by our cursory analysis of the passages. Consider 1 Cor 14:34-35:
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.
Our traditional interpretation of this passage leaves us with several unanswered questions. For example, are we to conclude that all women must be silent in the churches or is it just the married women who can’t speak? It is clear that the command to be silent is addressed to married women. We know this because they are told to ask their own husbands their questions at home. If this command to be silent extends to all women (as we teach that it does), what if a young unmarried woman had a question? Who was she to ask? What about widows? If we were to conclude that it only applies to married women, what about women whose husbands were not Christians? What about women whose Christian husbands weren’t at the assembly that day? Furthermore, if it only applies to married women, does this mean the unmarried women can speak during the assembly?
There is no doubt that Paul is discussing the church assembly in this entire chapter. If we are to take the text at face value, we’d have to conclude that there is an absolute prohibition against women speaking in the assembly. This means that many of our present practices would be forbidden:
- Women singing during the assembly
- Women confessing their belief in Christ prior to a baptism where the assembly is present
- Women asking Bible questions at any assembly of the church
Does our traditional teaching and practice provide an adequate answer to these dilemmas? How do we reconcile these difficulties?
To resolve these conflicts we attempt to find exceptions, loopholes if you will, to exempt our present practices from the force of Paul’s plain, direct, no wiggle room statements. We find a way to exempt singing by appealing to the commands for all Christians to sing in Eph 5:19 & Col 3:16. Ignoring for the moment that neither of these passages are speaking of the assembly, how can we justify an exception that Paul didn’t make? He didn’t say, “Women are to be silent except to sing.” No, his plain, direct, no wiggle room statements say women are to be silent – period. Likewise, we exempt confessions of faith in Christ made by women before the congregation on the basis of Romans 10:9-10. But Paul didn’t say, “Women are to be silent except to give their confession”. Again, his plain, direct, no wiggle room statements say women are to be silent – period.
So that women may speak during our Bible classes, we’ve made a special exception for them by claiming that Bible classes aren’t really an assembly of the church. We say the “church” isn’t assembled because the people are split up into various rooms in the church building. Therefore, the church isn’t assembled until we are all in one room. This line of reasoning is yet another symptom of viewing the church as something it is not; some sort of institution or organization that isn’t duly assembled until a quorum is present. How many Christians must be present before the church is considered to be assembled? Must everyone be there? It is a rare congregation that ever has all its members present at once. Is it the church when 98% are present? Can only half of the church family be present before it’s a church assembly? If only 25% are present due to inclement weather is it still an assembly of the church? Does the Bible say how many Christians must be present before “the church” is assembled? Reasoning which leads us to ask such a question reveals a major problem in our thinking. When our “logic” leads us to begin assigning numbers that God didn’t assign, something is wrong with our reasoning. Yet, if we are to obey Paul’s plain, direct, no wiggle room statements we have to be able to answer this question or we won’t know with certainty when women are permitted to speak! This line of reasoning, called a little-by-little argument, is so faulty that it is part of a class of paradoxical arguments referred to as “The Sorites Paradox” (Google it).
This can almost be comical in some congregations. I know of small rural churches which are composed of mainly the elderly; there are no children to send off to class. They have Bible class in the auditorium and allow the women to speak. Now picture the same people, in the same seats, in the same room a short time later, but now the women can’t utter a word! At some point they went from being just a group of Christians studying together to the duly assembled “church entity” with not a single change except for the clock on the wall!
From inconsistency to disobedience?
We have been known to get pretty hot under the collar when people try to introduce exceptions that the Bible doesn’t make. Just watch what happens if someone tries to make an exception for divorce & remarriage that Jesus didn’t specifically state. But then we turn around and make all sorts of exceptions for women speaking in the assembly that Paul didn’t make and we are all just fine with it! So much for consistency. How do we measure up when it comes to full obedience?
In Churches of Christ today, we bind part of Paul’s command, but not all of it. We forbid women to speak, but have you ever known of a preacher, elder, deacon or anyone else who refused to answer a married woman’s Bible question when the assembly was dismissed? Have you ever heard the preacher, elder, or Bible class teacher tell the woman that she is commanded in 1 Cor 14:35 to ask her OWN HUSBAND Bible questions AT HOME? I’ve never heard of this happening. You see, if we follow all of Paul’s commands we’d send wives who have questions to their own husbands to get answers. And we’d tell them to wait until they get home to ask. If Paul’s teachings forbid women speaking in the church, then surely those same teachings forbid anyone but a woman’s own husband from answering his wife’s questions. How can we enforce one concept and completely ignore the other?
I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man
1 Cor 14 is clearly addressing the practices and behavior of those in an assembly of Christians. However, in context 1 Tim 2:11-14 isn’t speaking of an assembly.
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
This has led some people to conclude that all women are to be in subjection to all men! Yet, in the work place these same people submit to women who are in management above them. These same people submit to women who are in positions of power in the government. I don’t know about you, but I have a real problem with the idea that other men (in general) have any authority whatsoever over my wife!
Most people that I’ve spoken with don’t believe that men in general are dominant over women in general but say the passage simply means that they can’t teach men. Generally, we try to just lump this passage in with 1 Cor 14:34-35 and make it all apply to the assembly. But the context of 1 Tim 2 isn’t discussing the assembly. How do we reconcile the fact that Priscilla taught Apollos in Acts 18:26? Some say that she co-taught with her husband Aquila and this made the situation acceptable, but I fail to see why this would make a difference. It was still a woman teaching a man. So, here is yet another exception we can add that Paul didn’t specifically state, “A woman cannot teach a man, unless her husband is helping her teach“. Like all the other man made exceptions, I don’t find the “husband/wife co-teaching a man” argument to be a convincing “exception”. Again Paul’s plain, direct, no wiggle room statement was that women couldn’t teach men or have authority over them – period.
The bottom line
Our traditional teaching regarding women in the Churches of Christ is loaded with inconsistencies, shortcomings and unanswerable questions. One wonders how we could have gone so many generations without the majority realizing that something just doesn’t add up. It is also worth noting that this isn’t a faulty understanding held by just the Churches of Christ; many other denominations also apply these faulty concepts or variations of them.
Is there an explanation of these passages that explains everything Paul was addressing without creating inconsistencies and man made exceptions? I think there is.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35, A look beneath the surface
Like Paul’s analysis of Deuteronomy 25:4, I assert that there is more in these passages than meets the eye. Context, context, context. First, we must consider the context of the entire Corinthian letter. The letter is a running reprimand and correction of the behavior of the Christians in Corinth. In the opening chapters Paul addresses problems regarding divisions amongst the Corinthian brethren. In chapter 5 Paul corrects their lack of discipline regarding issues of immorality. In chapter 6 he corrects their practice of suing each other in the civil courts. Chapter 7 deals with marriage and divorce – surely Paul wouldn’t have written about this unless it was a topic of concern amongst them. In the next couple of chapters Paul continues his instruction by teaching the Corinthians that they placed too much emphasis on external practices by dealing with certain taboos some of the Corinthians had concerning food.
By the time we reach chapter 11, we begin to get into the immediate context which will be very relevant to chapter 14. Most noteworthy is the fact that beginning in chapter 11, Paul discusses the behavior and practices of their assembly. First is the subject of the head covering, next he scolds them for the way they are conducting the Lord’s Supper. Chapters 12 & 13 are related to Paul’s line of thought, but I believe these two chapters are parenthetical departures from the main subject which he picks back up again in chapter 14. He addresses abuses regarding speaking in foreign languages when there is no one to interpret. It would seem that their assembly was chaotic because Paul tells them not to interrupt while another is speaking (vs 30) and to speak one at a time when teaching (vs 31).
Why did Paul write all these things? Paul’s overriding concern in chapters 11 & 14 is that the church assembly was to be edifying. In the KJV and NKJV, some form of the word (edify, edification, etc.) appears seven times in the chapter. In fact, in verse 26 Paul says, “Let all things be done for edification.” The word “edify” in this context simply means to build up spiritually. Paul wants Christians to strengthen one another spiritually, thereby helping each other to go to Heaven. Paul knew that the assembly in Corinth was in fact NOT edifying but instead was chaotic and even detrimental. It is clear from the passage that people were speaking out of turn, speaking in ways that no one could understand, and it would seem that multiple people were talking at once! It’s in the context of all these corrections of abuses that we arrive at vs 34 – 35.
As we noted earlier, this passage is directed to married women. Based strictly on the text, I don’t believe there are any legitimate grounds to conclude that it could be applied to all women in general. Now why would Paul single out married women and tell them to keep quiet? I am persuaded that Paul wrote these two verses because he knew there were certain women, who happened to be married, who were being disruptive during the assembly. Based on vs 35, I’d infer they were being disruptive by asking questions. Specifically how this was disruptive would be conjecture. Perhaps they were asking questions in a sarcastic way. Perhaps their questions were designed to embarrass someone or maybe they were misleading or deceptive in nature. Maybe they were just silly or ignorant questions. Regardless of what manner of questions they were asking, the point seems to be that they were causing disruption and were not edifying.
What does Paul mean when he says in vs 34, “… they are command to be under obedience, as also saith the law”? I have been unable to find a single instance in the OT where women were told to be in subjection or obedient to men except for one possibility: Gen 2:18. In this verse, God revealed that the purpose for creating the woman was to be a helper for Adam. It was not good for him to be alone. He needed someone to be his companion and helper, not his boss or overseer. Since it seems that Paul alludes to the first husband and wife in making his point, I believe this adds more evidence that Paul isn’t ordering all women to remain silent in an assembly of Christians, but is directing it at just certain women. This context is not about men/women, but husbands/wives. Could the wives who were being disruptive have been disrupting their own husbands while they were speaking? There is no way to tell, but if so, they certainly weren’t being the suitable helper (Gen 2:18) that God intended for wives to be.
If the above conclusions are correct, and I’m persuaded they are, then Paul is telling not only women to cease being disruptive, but by inference men as well! After all, is it acceptable for a man to speak in the congregation when it would be inappropriate? Of course it isn’t acceptable as is clear from the earlier verses in chapter 14. It isn’t acceptable for anyone to speak in a way that would be chaotic or disruptive. The reason Paul calls out married women in this passage is because it was some of the married women in Corinth who were guilty of such disorder. The take away is that Paul isn’t ordering all women to be silent. In reality he is just telling those who are being disruptive to hush. I’m persuaded it is just as acceptable for a woman to speak during the assembly as it would be for a man assuming it is done in a way that is edifying. I believe this line of reasoning explains the passage without causing contradictions and man made exceptions. When there is more than one explanation, I prefer the one that creates the most harmony between scriptures over those that cause other difficulties and inconsistencies that we in turn have to deal with or explain away. I believe this approach is the most harmonious with other scriptures.
1 Tim 2:11-14
Now, let’s examine 1 Tim 2:11-14. First of all, notice how Paul specifically mentions the first husband and wife – Adam and Eve. Paul subtly alludes to Adam and Eve in 1 Cor 14, but here he calls them by name. What do Adam and Eve have to do with women being quiet and submissive? Just as Gen 2:18 was talking about a domestic (husband and wife) relationship, I believe that 1 Tim 2:11-14 is also talking about the home; not women and men in general. As we noted earlier, this passage doesn’t have the assembly under consideration. The context of this passage has to do with how Paul wants to see Christian people conduct themselves. He gives some specific instruction to both men and women. Men are to pray and avoid wrath & dissension. Women are to adorn themselves with proper clothing and good works. Verse 8 is talking about Christian men in general. Likewise, 9 – 10 are referring to Christian women in general. But a transition takes place at verse 11 and is no longer talking about men and women in general, but about husbands and wives. What, in the text, hints at this shift?
First of all, prior to verse 11 the passage refers to “women” – plural. A change occurs in verse 11 and Paul modifies his wording to “a woman” – singular. This signals that Paul has changed the focus from the general to the specific.
Second, in the Greek language the New Testament was written in, there is no specific word for husband/man and wife/woman. The word “gune” (Strong’s 1135) means a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow. The word is translated “woman” or “wife” in the NT depending on the context. Here is how the word “gune” is translated into English along with the number of times it is translated (in the NASB) this way: bride (1), wife (71), wife’s (1), wives (11), woman (96), woman’s (1), women (33). Likewise, the Greek word “ane” (Strong’s 435) refers to a male regardless of marital status. The word “ane” is translated this way: brethren (13), gentlemen (1), husband (39), husbands (13), man (71), man’s (2), men (70), virgin (1).
Again, whether the translators used the English word “man” or “husband” depends upon the context. The point here is that we can’t tell anything about a man or woman’s marital status based on the Greek word alone. In English this isn’t a problem, the words husband or wife automatically indicate a person’s marital status; not so in Greek. So, it is reasonable in this section of the text to render these words husband/wife instead of man/woman.
Third, at least two translations of the Bible (Young’s Literal Translation & The Apostolic Bible Polyglot – a Greek Interlinear Bible) actually translates “ane” as “husband” in verse 12!
Fourth, husbands & wives are mentioned in the context; specifically, Adam & Eve who were the first husband and wife. Again, Paul refers all the way back to the beginning.
Fifth, verse 15 talks about women bearing children. I’ll confess that I haven’t a clue what Paul is trying to teach in vs 15, but he speaks of bearing children and this is done in the context of the home. Only married couples may legitimately bear children so it’s difficult for me to think that Paul is referring to any other relationship than a husband and wife in this passage. With these things in mind, let’s look at the passage a verse at a time.
Traditionally we read vs 11 and emphasize the sentence this way: “A woman must QUIETLY receive instruction with ENTIRE SUBMISSIVENESS” (NASB). We may have missed the point. In the first century, women were denied formal education; this was true both among the Jews & Gentiles. There were exceptions of course, but generally girls were denied a formal education. Is it possible that we have read this verse with a misplaced emphasis?
What if Paul meant the verse to be emphasized this way – “A woman MUST quietly RECEIVE INSTRUCTION with entire submissiveness”? That would change things, wouldn’t it? Why would Paul be so adamant that women be taught? Perhaps so that they wouldn’t fall into the same transgression as Eve. In vs 14 Paul says that Eve was deceived and this is why she transgressed. Maybe Paul wants Christian women to be taught, and by means of a proper Christian education they would be less likely to fall victim to deception that could lead to sin. Knowledge is power and greater knowledge gives both men and women a better understanding of what God expects of us.
What about verses 12 & 13? These verses may be a parenthetical thought inserted into the main point made in verses 11 & 14. Paul says that women (wives) MUST learn, but that they shouldn’t assume this gives them authority to abandon the role that God gave them as wives. God’s reason for creating Eve was to be a companion and helper to Adam. This is what God has desired of all wives and getting an education doesn’t change that. What Paul is saying is that women must learn in order to keep from being deceived (vs 11 & 14), but verses 12 & 13 teach they can’t let it go to their heads and presume to teach their husbands what they have learned in a domineering way. They must remain the quiet (tranquil) and humble companions that God desires them to be. Their education wasn’t to be considered a status symbol that somehow gave them the right to exercise dominion over their husbands. After all, Adam was created first, and then Eve. Woman was made for the man and not the other way around.
Perhaps the following rendering of this passage will be helpful. This alternate reading is a composite drawn from several different Bible translations with only the parentheses added. If you have a problem with me adding parentheses, consider the fact that the original Greek text has no capitalization or punctuation; these are supplied by the translators.
11 A woman must learn in quietness and full submission. (12 I do not permit a woman to teach nor to have dominion over her husband; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.) 14 Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
It may also be helpful to recognize that this passage is one of many in the Bible that forms a chiastic structure. A chiasm is a literary technique where two or more statements (a & b in this case) are presented and are expanded upon by additional statements (a´ & b´). A chiasm is a repetition of related thoughts in the reverse order where a´ explains statement a and b´ explains statement b.
a A woman must learn in quietness and full submission.
b I do not permit a woman to teach nor to have dominion over her husband; she must be quiet.
b´ For Adam was formed first, then Eve.
a´ Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.
For a wife to be a godly companion to her husband, she must learn so as not to be deceived and remember that she is her husband’s helper, not his boss or schoolmaster.
If this is indeed what Paul intended, we aren’t looking at passages directed to the church nor to men and women in general, but to married couples. I’m persuaded these passages apply to the home and not to the church. This perspective of 1 Tim 2 gels with the instructions to women (wives) given in 1 Cor 14 and also avoids all the inconsistencies and pitfalls that are created when trying to apply these passages to situations Paul never intended.
I’m aware that the implications of this position could be upsetting to some. If you find this upsetting, pause for a moment of introspection and ask yourself where your loyalties lie. Is your allegiance to the search for truth, or to a set of doctrinal positions? I’m presently convinced the above thoughts represent a better explanation of the passages than the traditional interpretations. After all, isn’t the explanation which results in the most harmony with other Scriptures while producing the fewest difficulties (leading to the introduction of man made exceptions) more likely to be the correct one?