Should women prophesy / speak in church?

In Apologetics, Christian, Christianity on January 21, 2012 at 8:01 am

I read this article and thought it shuold be posted good stuff…

Jamin Hubner

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 34 As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (1 Cor. 14:26-37, ESV)

When women are told to be “silent” and that they “are not permitted to speak,”[1] Paul is obviously not making an absolute blanket statement since, within the same letter, the Apostle plainly acknowledges women praying and prophesying in the church (11:5, 13). As John Frame cleverly puts it, “If [Paul] disapproved of [women] praying and prophesying as such, it would be like saying, ‘If you rob a bank, be sure to wear a coat and tie.’”[2]But what does verse 34 mean? Many scholars conclude on the basis of the previous context that Paul is talking about weighing prophecies, not just women speaking at church in general.[3] Women were objecting to certain prophecies which was either inappropriate in and of itself, or inappropriate because women were just acting too disruptively in the uses of these exciting gifts of the Spirit.

This interpretation has merit, but it also creates problems. For example, verse 35 (“if they desire to learn”) indicates “that the women did not understand what was being said and that they were asking questions to learn, not that they were passing judgments on what they heard.”[4] Also, would Paul really compress the whole enterprise of “evaluating prophecies” into the single word “speaking”?[5] Would the Corinthians have even known that “speaking” meant “weighing prophecies”–especially since Paul does not avoid explicitly using the terms “weighing” and “testing” prophecies elsewhere (e.g., 1 Thess. 5:20-21; 1 Cor. 14:29)? It seems somewhat unreasonable, as perhaps the position is itself if Paul is mainly addressing tactfulness and maturity.[6]

Ciampa and Rosner provide a different conclusion given the historical background of Hellenistic tradition and women speaking. They reveal that nonevaluative questions asked of prophets, and not merely prophecy and the weighing of prophecy, was “the most common mode of engaging prophets in the Hellenistic world.”[7] Their study is one of the most scholarly and insightful on this subject, so it is worth quoting at length:
Witherington rightly sees that ‘it is very believable that these women assumed that Christian prophets or prophetesses functioned much like the oracle at Delphi, who only prophesied in response to questions, including questions about purely personal matters. Paul argues that Christian prophecy is different. Prophets and prophetesses speak in response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, without any human priming of the pump.’ Perhaps some women were especially likely to treat their Christian prophets as they would other prophets in their world, by peppering them with questions such as “Will my child be a boy or a girl?” or “Should I employ this slave or that?” They may also be asking questions that are not part of the weighing of the prophecies but are motivated by a desire to understand the content of the prophecies or the way in which the prophetic ministry works.

We should assume that unless there was a clear reference in the Corinthians’ letter to Paul to a particular kind of women’s speech in worship that was creating a problem in the church, the Corinthians would have found Paul’s statement that women are not permitted “to speak in church” just as unclear as modern readers. Although it is stated without qualification, it clearly cannot be understood in any absolute manner.[8]

They go on to demonstrate through primary sources of first and second century literature that it was “considered scandalous for a married woman to carry on a conversation with another woman’s husband,” and that (for Plutarch), “a woman’s personal speech is as much an exposure of herself as nakedness.”[9]

Therefore, they conclude that the “speaking” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 refers to
nonliturgical forms of speech (i.e. they could speak as they participated in the use of gifts and in formal ways, but not in mundane, trivial, or merely ordinary conversation.) Even more likely is the suggestion that what was being prohibited was for women to approach and ask men in the congregation questions about things they were not understanding.[10]

How then is the text applied?
Paul’s suggestion that the women ask their own husbands at home reflects that cultural context where a man could be expected to be better informed/educated than his wife and was understood to be the proper channel of information to the wife. Here, at home contrasts with in the church at the end of the verse, highlighting the private rather than public venue for the questions, in keeping with much ancient Greek thinking about the place of women in society. In modern Western societies neither of those conditions normally hold. In many societies today women are no less prepared to ask appropriate questions than their husbands, and it is considered just as perfectly normal and appropriate for them to participate in public dialogues as it is for men. There is no longer any shame or disgrace associated with such engagement; rather, it would be considered shameful for a woman to be restricted from open participation in public conversations. The principles underlying Paul’s counsel, that women (and men) not act disgracefully in public, or in ways which reflect a lack of respect for the dignity of their spouses, may well call for a different set of concrete behaviors in our churches than would have been expected in first-century Corinth [e.g., like headcoverings in 1 Cor. 11]…women should show respect for order and for others (especially their husbands) in the worship setting.[11]

Keener has a similar view in his Background Commentary:
Most likely the passage [1 Cor. 14] addresses disruptive questions in an environment where silence was expected of new learners–which most women were. It also addresses a broader social context in which women were expected not to speak much with men to whom they were not related, as a matter of propriety. Paul thus upholds church order and avoids appearances of social impropriety; he also supports learning before speaking. None of these principles prohibit women in very different cultural settings from speaking God’s word.[12]

This interpretation isn’t far off from complementarian perspectives on 1 Timothy 2. Notice Köstenberger’s summary: “Paul obliges the women to learn in a quiet, low-key way, as opposed to assuming control with unsolicited remarks and arguments.”[13]

In this particular interpretation, it should be noted that Paul is remaining consistent with the instruction he gives in the general context: he is addressing the way that women are speaking in the church, and not providing an absolute, universal statement about any particular practice in general. Paul does not forbid women from prayer/prophesy in 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 (or in chapter 11 for that matter). Rather, he forbids the wrong manner in which these New Covenant believers were praying and prophesying. That’s the reason for the prohibition.

There is a third major view of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that deserves attention. Given the variable translation of γυνή (woman/wife), Paul might not have even have been talking about generic women in the first place, but wives instead (similar to those who interpret 1 Tim. 2:12 as being “wife” and “husbands”). This was already alluded to by Ciampa and Rosner:
In Paul’s world (whether in Jewish, Greek, or Roman contexts), an unexplained reference to a woman’s submission would normally be understood to refer to her submission to the authority of her husband. The following verse’s statement that “they should ask their own husbands at home” also brings to mind a behavior inconsistent with this manner of respecting the husband…[14]

Garland combines this view with the previous on weighing prophecies:
The situation that best fits the adjective “shameful” is one in which wives defy convention by publicly embarrassing their husbands through their speaking. In the context, it is likely that Paul imagines a wife joining in the process of weighing what is being said during the congregational scrutiny of prophecy (14:29). They either raise questions or contradict their husbands or other senior male relatives.[15]

After several pages of thorough analysis, Garland concludes in a way similar to Ciampa and Rosner:
I conclude that Paul’s instructions are conditioned by the social realities of his age and a desire to prevent a serious breach in decorum. The negative effect that wives publicly interrupting or contradicting their husbands might have on outsiders (let alone the bruising it would cause to sensitive male egos) could not be far from his mind. Paul may fear that the Christian community would be “mistaken for one of the orgiastic, secret, oriental cults that undermined public order and decency” (Schüssler Fiorenza 1984: 232), in which women exercised more prominent roles.[16]

Any of these three major views (and their combinations) is possible. But what seems clear enough is that Paul is not expecting women “to remain silent at all times,” but “thinking of particular instances where different kinds of participants in the worship meeting should refrain from speaking.”[17]


[1] Gordon Fee and others see the verse so difficult to harmonize with Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians that they believe it’s an interpolation, and shouldn’t be considered authentic Paul. See Gordon Fee. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 706-7. However, since there is essentially no textual evidence for this claim whatsoever, it is remains unaccepted by most scholars.

[2] John Frame. The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 635.

[3] See Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 245-55; D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 129-31 and “Silent in the Churches” in RBMW, 140-153; James B. Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 185-94; James B. Hurley, “Did Paul Require Veils or the Silence of Women? A Consideration of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and 1 Cor. 14:33b-36,” WTJ 35 (1973): 217; Walter Liefeld, “Women, Submission and Ministry in 1 Corinthians,” in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986), 150; Simon J. Kistemaker, 1 Cor. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994) 512; William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 118; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 140–53; Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 281. Many or most of these works stem from Margaret E. Thrall’s 1 and 2 Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

[4] See James Greenbury. “1 Cor. 14:34-35: Evaluation of Prophecy Revisited.” JETS 5, no. 4 (2008): 721-31. I disagree with several assertions in this essay, such as Greenbury’s view of NT prophecy and that the evaluation of prophecies in 1 Cor. 14 may not actually be audible.

[5] “First, the word ‘speak’ in 1 Corinthians 14:34 has no implication within the word itself or in its immediate context (14:34-35) to support identifying it with the concept of prophetic evaluation. Second, the idea of two levels of speech in the church – prophecy and the judgment of prophecy – with the understanding that one is higher than the other and is for men only has no clear or implied support elsewhere in Paul. In fact, Paul’s own definition and defense of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1-25) implies directly that prophecy itself is authoritative speech of the highest level in the church.” David M. Scholer, “Women in Ministry,” The Covenant Companion, February 1984, 13-14, cited in Ruth Tucker, Women in the Maze (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1992), 123.

[6] “The obvious need for tact and restraint would hardly require a rule prohibiting women from any participation in the (tactful) weighing of prophecies.” Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 724-5.
[7] Ibid., 724.

[8] Ibid., 725.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 725-727.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Keener, “Learning in the Assemblies,” 171. Craig S. Keener. “Learning in the Assemblies,” in Recovering Biblical Equality, ed. Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Groothuis (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2005), 171; “We conclude from these passages that women were permitted to pray or prophesy but not to ask questions.” James G. Signountos and Myron Shank. “Public Roles for Women in the Pauline Church.” JETS 26, 3 (September 1983): 283-295.

[13] Köstenburger and Wilder, Entrusted with the Gospel, 234, emphasis mine.

[14] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 722.

[15] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 668.

[16] Ibid., 673.

[17] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 720.


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