Gender Roles in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-35).
We have witnessed a major change in attitudes regarding gender and gender roles in Western culture in the past few generations. Previous cultural consensus has been overthrown; everyone must attempt to come to grips with the new cultural consensus and sort out what is commendable from what is to be rejected. Christians must seek to understand how to manage gender roles in light of what God has revealed in Christ and in the pages of the New Testament (Colossians 3:17, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). The New Testament addresses gender roles in many passages. We do well to explore gender roles in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35.
In 1 Corinthians 14:1-40 Paul instructed the Corinthian Christians regarding the proper use of spiritual gifts to build up the entire congregation. He is concerned for good order in the assembly so that its constituent members can understand what is being said and done and derive edification and encouragement from it. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 Paul spoke specifically regarding at least wives in the assemblies: they were to keep silent, to remain in subjection, and to ask whatever they would need to learn from their husbands at home; Paul considered it shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly. This instruction was not limited to the church in Corinth, but was regulative for “all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33).
In making this declaration Paul appealed to “the law” as a witness to the need for at least wives to be in subjection in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34). This allusion has proven difficult since the Law nowhere explicitly makes such a claim; the passage which comes closest to the sentiment is found in Genesis 3:16:
Unto the woman [YHWH God] said, “I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception; in pain thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
Paul’s instruction is explicitly directed toward wives; they have “husbands” whom they can ask at home, and they are the only ones mentioned in the Law as being in subjection to their husbands based on Genesis 3:16. The application of this instruction to unmarried women, particularly widows or any other women not directly associated with a household, is left unstated.
Many challenges have been made regarding this text. The first involves “as in all the churches of the saints,” and whether this thought is connected with God as of peace and not confusion or with the discourse on women that follows. While Paul does tend to end his discussions with an appeal to churches (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17, 7:17, 11:16), the connection between his statement regarding God and then regarding behavior in churches is tenuous, especially since the conversation that follows does feature matters within the assembly. Regardless, Paul writes about women in the assembly in terms of God as a God of peace and not confusion, and what he writes to Corinth would be true elsewhere as well. Many others dispute the originality of the passage, suggesting that it is a later interpolation, or belongs after 1 Corinthians 14:40. Nevertheless, all textual witnesses to 1 Corinthians include the passage, which speaks highly regarding its authenticity; in either location, the message is consistent both with Paul’s premise and the theological forms of argument seen previously in 1 Corinthians 11:2-12. Arguments attempting to dismiss the passage tend to be culturally and theologically motivated on account of its substance.
Many wonder how Paul’s exhortation for women to remain silent can be reconciled with his exhortation for all to participate in prayer and song (1 Corinthians 14:14-17, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). We do well to note in those passages about the unified nature of prayer and song: it is a shared activity. As members of the body of Christ, women do well to participate in the prayer and affirm it with “Amen,” and women do well to participate in the speaking and teaching to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Galatians 3:28). Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 focused primarily on wives speaking in an individual role; they are to ask their husbands at home.
Thus Paul set forth certain expectations regarding gender roles in the assemblies of Christians in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35. Wives were to remain silent and to ask whatever they would need to learn from their husbands at home. Such is because they are to be under subjection to their husbands, as the Law also says, most likely based in the creation story in Genesis 2:3-3:23, particularly Genesis 3:16. Paul made no appeal to cultural norms but rooted his exhortation in the same ground as 1 Corinthians 11:2-12, deriving his principles from the relationship of men and women manifest in Adam and Eve. How these principles relate to women who are not wives is worthy of discussion: does γυμαιξιν in 1 Corinthians 14:35 refer to all women or just wives? Is Paul’s primary argument a concern for respect of the husband’s authority, and thus not relevant for unmarried women? What would the rest of what is revealed in Scripture say regarding unmarried women speaking in the assembly?
Paul’s instruction regarding women in the assembly in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 maintains continuity with what had been previously revealed in Scripture and remains theologically grounded in the creation narrative. We do well to respect the integrity of the revelation of Scripture and form our understanding of gender roles in the assembly from what God has revealed in Christ through His Apostles!
Ethan R. Longhenry