From the three previous videos in this series, it may seem quite clear that the churches and organizations of Christendom, like the Catholic and Protestant churches and smaller groups like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have not understood the role of women in the Christian congregation correctly. It seems that they have denied them many of the rights that are freely given to men. It might appear that women should be allowed to teach in the congregation since they prophesied both in Hebrew times and in Christian times. It may seem that capable women can and should exercise some oversight in the congregation given, as one example shows, God used a woman, Deborah, as both judge, prophet, and savior, as well as the fact that Phoebe was—as Witnesses unwittingly acknowledge—a ministerial servant in the congregation with the Apostle Paul.
However, those who object to any expansion of the traditional roles assigned to women in the Christian congregation historically point to three passages in the Bible that they claim speak quite clearly against any such move.
Sadly, these passages have caused many to label the Bible as sexist and misogynistic, as they seem to put women down, treating them as inferior creations that need to bow to men. In this video, we will deal with the first of these passages. We find it in Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth. We’ll start by reading from the Witnesses’ Bible, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
“For God is [a God], not of disorder, but of peace.
As in all the congregations of the holy ones, let the women keep silent in the congregations, for it is not permitted for them to speak, but let them be in subjection, even as the Law says. If, then, they want to learn something, let them question their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in a congregation.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35 NWT)
Well, that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? End of discussion. We have a clear and unambiguous statement in the Bible about how women are to behave in the congregation. Nothing more to be said, right? Let’s move on.
Just the other day, I had someone make a comment on one of my videos claiming that the whole story about Eve being fashioned from Adam’s rib was sheer nonsense. Of course, the commenter offered no proof, believing that his (or her) opinion was all that was needed. I probably should have ignored it, but I have a thing about people bandying their opinions about and expecting them to be taken as gospel truth. Don’t get me wrong. I accept that everyone has a God-given right to express their opinion on any subject, and I love a good discussion while sitting in front of the fireplace sipping some single malt Scotch, preferably 18 year old. My problem is with people who think their opinion matters, as if God himself were speaking. I guess I’ve had just a little too much of that attitude from my former life as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In any case, I responded by saying, “Since you think it is nonsense, well, it must be so!”
Now if what I wrote were to still be around in 2,000 years, and someone translated it into whatever language will be common then, would the translation convey the sarcasm? Or would the reader assume that I was taking the side of the person who thought that the account of Eve’s creation is nonsensical? That is clearly what I said. The sarcasm is implied by the use of “well” and the exclamation point, but most of all by the video that prompted the comment—a video in which I clearly express that I believe the creation story.
You see why we can’t take one verse in isolation and just say, “Well, there you have it. Women are to be silent.”
We need context, both textual and historical.
Let’s start with immediate context. Without even going outside the first letter to the Corinthians, we have Paul speaking within the context of congregation gatherings saying this:
“. . .every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered shames her head,. . .” (1 Corinthians 11:5)
“. . .Judge for YOUR own selves: Is it fitting for a woman to pray uncovered to God?” (1 Corinthians 11:13)
The only requirement Paul is proposing is that when a woman prays or prophesies, she should do so with her head covered. (Whether or not that is required nowadays is a subject we’ll cover in a future video.) So, we have a clearly stated provision where Paul accepts that women both prayed and prophesied in the congregation together with another clearly stated provision that they are to remain silent. Is the Apostle Paul being hypocritical here, or have the various Bible translators dropped the ball? I know which way I would bet.
None of us is reading the original Bible. We are all reading the product of translators who traditionally are all male. That some bias should enter into the equation is inevitable. So, let’s go back to square one and start with a fresh approach.
Our first realization should be that there were no punctuation marks nor paragraph breaks in Greek, such as we use in modern languages to clarify meaning and separate thoughts. Likewise, the chapter divisions were not added until the 13th century and the verse divisions came even later, in the 16th century. So, the translator has to decide where to put the paragraph breaks and what punctuation to use. For instance, he has to determine whether quotation marks are called for to indicate the writer is citing something from elsewhere.
Let’s start by demonstrating how a paragraph break, inserted at the discretion of the translator, can radically alter the meaning of a passage of Scripture.
The New World Translation, which I just quoted, puts a paragraph break in the middle of verse 33. In the middle of the verse. In English, and most modern Western languages, paragraphs are used to indicate that a new train of thought is being introduced. When we read the rendering given by the New World Translation, we see that the new paragraph begins with the statement: “As in all the congregations of the holy ones”. So, the translator of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures published by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society has decided that Paul intended to communicate the idea that it was the custom in all the congregations of his day that women should be silent.
When you scan through the translations on BibleHub.com, you will find that some follow the format we see in the New World Translation. For example, the English Standard Version also splits the verse in two with a paragraph break:
“33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches.” (ESV)
However, if you change the position of the paragraph break, you change the meaning of what Paul wrote. Some reputable translations, such as the New American Standard Version, do this. Notice the effect it produces and how it alters our understanding of Paul’s words.
33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; (NASB)
In this reading, we see that the custom in all the churches was that of peace and not confusion. There is nothing to indicate, based on this rendering, that the custom in all the churches was that women were kept silent.
Isn’t it interesting that just deciding where to break a paragraph can put the translator in a politically awkward position, if the result goes against the theology of his particular religious institution? Perhaps this is why the translators of the World English Bible break with common grammatical practice so as to straddle the theological fence by putting a paragraph break in the middle of a sentence!
33 for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the assemblies of the saints,
34 let your wives keep silent in the Assemblies (World English Bible)
This is why no one can say, “My Bible says this!”, as if speaking the final word from God. The truth of the matter is, we are reading the words of the translator based on his understanding and interpretation of what the writer originally intended. To insert a paragraph break is, in this instance, to establish the theological interpretation. Is that interpretation based on an exegetical study of the Bible—letting the Bible interpret itself—or is it the result of personal or institutional bias—eisegesis, reading one’s theology into the text?
I know from my 40 years serving as an elder in the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses that they are heavily biased toward male dominance, so the paragraph break the New World Translation inserts is no surprise. Nevertheless, Witnesses do allow women to speak in the congregation—giving comments at the Watchtower Study, for instance—but only because a man is chairing the meeting. How do they resolve the apparent conflict between 1 Corinthians 11:5, 13—which we’ve read—and 14:34—which we’ve just read?
There is something useful to be learned from reading their explanation from their encyclopedia, Insight on the Scriptures:
Congregational meetings. There were meetings when these women could pray or prophesy, provided they wore a head covering. (1Co 11:3-16; see HEAD COVERING.) However, at what were evidently public meetings, when “the whole congregation” as well as “unbelievers” assembled in one place (1Co 14:23-25), women were to “keep silent.” If ‘they wanted to learn something, they could question their own husbands at home, for it was disgraceful for a woman to speak in a congregation.’—1Co 14:31-35. (it-2 p. 1197 Woman)
I’d like to focus on the eisegetical techniques they use to muddle the truth. Let us start with the buzzword “evidently”. Evidently means what is “plain or obvious; clearly seen or understood.” By using it, and other buzzwords like “doubtless”, “undoubtedly”, and “clearly”, they want the reader to accept what is said at face value.
I challenge you to read the scriptural references they provide here to see if there is any indication that there were “congregational meetings” where only part of the congregation assembled and “public meetings” where the whole congregation assembled, and that at the former women could pray and prophecy and at the latter they had to keep their mouths shut.
This is like the overlapping generations nonsense. They are just making stuff up, and to make matters worse, they don’t even follow their own interpretation; because according to it, they should not be allowing women to make comments at their public meetings, like the Watchtower Study.
While it may seem that I’m just targeting the Watchtower, Bible and Tract Society here, I assure you it goes much farther than that. We have to be wary of any Bible teacher who expects us to accept his or her interpretation of Scripture based on assumptions made on the basis of a few selected “proof texts”. We are “mature people…who through use have our perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” (Hebrews 5:14)
So, let us use those perceptive powers now.
We cannot determine who is right without more evidence. Let us start with a little bit of historical perspective.
The first century Bible writers like Paul didn’t sit down to write any letters thinking, “Well, I think I’ll write a book of the Bible now for all posterity to benefit from.” These were living letters written in response to actual needs of the day. Paul wrote his letters as a father might do when writing to his family who are all far away. He wrote to encourage, to inform, to answer questions put to him in previous correspondence, and to address problems that he was not present to fix himself.
Let us view the first letter to the Corinthian congregation in that light.
It had come to Paul’s attention from Chloe’s people (1 Co 1:11) that there were some serious problems in the Corinthian congregation. There was a notorious case of gross sexual immorality that was not being dealt with. (1 Co 5:1, 2) There were quarrels, and brothers were taking each other to court. (1 Co 1:11; 6:1-8) He perceived there was a danger that the stewards of the congregation might be seeing themselves as exalted over the rest. (1 Co 4:1, 2, 8, 14) It seemed that they may have been going beyond the things written and becoming boastful. (1 Co 4:6, 7)
It’s not hard for us to see that there were very serious threats to the spirituality of the Corinthian congregation. How did Paul handle these threats? This isn’t the nice, let’s-all-be-friends Apostle Paul. No, Paul is not mincing any words. He’s not pussyfooting around the issues. This Paul is full of hard-hitting admonition, and he’s not afraid to use sarcasm as a tool to drive the point home.
“Are you already satisfied? Are you already rich? Have you begun ruling as kings without us? I really wish that you had begun ruling as kings, so that we also might rule with you as kings.” (1 Corinthians 4:8)
“We are fools because of Christ, but you are discreet in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in dishonor.” (1 Corinthians 4:10)
“Or do you not know that the holy ones will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you not competent to try very trivial matters?” (1 Corinthians 6:2)
“Or do you not know that unrighteous people will not inherit God’s Kingdom?” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
“Or ‘are we inciting Jehovah to jealousy’? We are not stronger than he is, are we?” (1 Corinthians 10:22)
This is just a sampling. The letter is full of such language. The reader can see that the apostle is annoyed and distressed by the attitude of the Corinthians.
Something else of great relevance to us is that the sarcastic or challenging tone of these verses is not all they have in common. Some of them contain the Greek word eta. Now eta can simply mean “or”, but it can also be used sarcastically or as a challenge. In those cases, it can be replaced by other words; for example, “what”.
“What!? Do you not know that the holy ones will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:2)
“What!? Do you not know that unrighteous people will not inherit God’s Kingdom” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
“What!? ‘Are we inciting Jehovah to jealousy’?” (1 Corinthians 10:22)
You’ll see why all that is relevant in a moment. For now, there’s another piece to the puzzle to put in place. After the apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians concerning the things he’d heard about through Chloe’s people, he writes: “Now concerning the things about which you wrote…” (1 Corinthians 7:1)
From this point forward, he seems to be answering questions or concerns they have put to him in their letter. What letter? We have no record of any letter, but we know there was one because Paul refers to it. From this point on, we are like someone listening to half a phone conversation—just Paul’s side. We have to infer from what we hear, what the person on the other end of the line is saying; or in this case, what the Corinthians wrote.
If you have the time right now, I would recommend you pause this video and read the whole of 1 Corinthians chapter 14. Remember, Paul is addressing questions and issues raised in a letter to him from the Corinthians. Paul’s words about women speaking in the congregation are not written in isolation, but are part of his answer to the letter from the Corinthian elders. Only in context can we understand what he really means. What Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians chapter 14 is the problem of disorder and chaos in the congregation meetings in Corinth.
So, Paul tells them throughout this chapter how to fix the problem. The verses leading up to the controversial passage deserve special attention. They read like this:
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a psalm or a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done to build up the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two, or at most three, should speak in turn, and someone must interpret. But if there is no interpreter, he should remain silent in the church and speak only to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is seated, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of disorder, but of peace—as in all the churches of the saints.
(1 Corinthians 14:26-33 Berean Study Bible)
The New World Translation renders verse 32, “And the gifts of the spirit of the prophets are to be controlled by the prophets.”
So, no one controls the prophets, but the prophets themselves. Think about that. And just how important is prophecy? Paul says, “Earnestly pursue love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy…the one who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:1, 4 BSB)
Agreed? Of course, we agree. Now remember, women were prophets and it was the prophets who controlled their gift. How can Paul say that and then immediately put a muzzle on all the female prophets?
It is in that light that we have to consider Paul’s next words. Are they from Paul or is he quoting back to the Corinthians something they put in their letter? We have just seen Paul’s solution to solving the problem of disorder and chaos in the congregation. But could it be that the Corinthians had their own solution and this is what Paul is addressing next? Were the boastful Corinthian men heaping all the blame for the chaos in the congregation on the backs of their women? Could it be that their solution to the disorder was to muzzle the women, and what they were looking for from Paul was his endorsement?
Remember, in Greek there were no quotation marks. It is therefore up to the translator to put them where they should go. Should the translators have put verses 33 and 34 in quotation marks, as they did with these verses?
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1 NIV)
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV)
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”? (1 Corinthians 15:14 HCSB)
Denying sexual relations? Denying the resurrection of the dead?! It seems that the Corinthians had some pretty strange ideas, doesn’t it? Some pretty strange ideas, indeed! Did they also have strange ideas about how women were supposed to behave? Where they trying to deny the women in the congregation the right to praise God with the fruitage of their lips?
There is a clue right in verse 33 that these are not Paul’s own words. See if you can spot it.
“…the women must not be allowed to speak. They must keep quiet and listen, as the Law of Moses teaches.” (1 Corinthians 14:33 Contemporary English Version)
The Mosaic Law says no such thing, and Paul, as a scholar of the law who studied at the feet of Gamaliel, would know that. He would not make such a false claim.
There is further evidence that this is Paul quoting back to the Corinthians something really stupid of their own making—they clearly had more than their share of stupid ideas if this letter is anything to go by. Remember we spoke of Paul’s use of sarcasm as a teaching tool throughout this letter. Remember also his use of the Greek word eta that sometimes is used derisively.
Look at the verse following this quotation.
First, we read from the New World Translation:
“. . .Was it from you that the word of God originated, or did it reach only as far as you?” (1 Corinthians 14:36)
Now look at it in the interlinear.
Why doesn’t the NWT insert a translation of the first occurrence of eta?
The King James, American Standard, and English Revised versions all render it as “What?”, but I like this rendering the best:
WHAT? Did the Word of God originate with you? Or did it come only to you and no one else? (A Faithful Version)
You can almost see Paul throwing his hands up in the air in despair at the absurdity of the Corinthians’ idea that women are to be silent. Who do they think they are? Do they think Christ reveals truth to them and no one else?
He really puts his foot down in the next verse:
“If anyone thinks he is a prophet or is gifted with the spirit, he must acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone disregards this, he will be disregarded.” (1 Corinthians 14:37, 38 NWT)
Paul doesn’t even waste time telling them this is a stupid idea. That’s obvious. He has already told them how to fix the problem and now he tells them that if they ignore his counsel, which comes from the Lord, they will be ignored.
This reminds me of something that happened a few years back in the local congregation which is filled with older Bethel elders—over 20. They felt that it was inappropriate for young children to give comments at the Watchtower study because these children would, by their comments, be admonishing these prominent men. So, they banned comments from children of a certain age group. Of course, there was a great hue and cry from the parents who only wanted to instruct and encourage their kids, so the prohibition lasted only a few months. But how you feel now at hearing of such a ham-handed initiative is probably how Paul felt at reading the idea the Corinthian elders had of silencing women. Sometimes you just have to shake your head at the level of stupidity that we humans are capable of producing.
Paul sums up his admonition in the final two verses by saying, “Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (1 Corinthians 14:39, 40 New American Standard Bible)
Yes, don’t keep anyone from speaking, my brothers, but just make sure you do all things in a decent and orderly way.
Let’s summarize what we have learned.
A careful read of the first letter to the Corinthian congregations demonstrates they were developing some pretty bizarre ideas and engaged in some very unchristian behavior. Paul’s frustration with them is evident by his repeated use of biting sarcasm. One of my favorites is this one:
Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only what these arrogant people are saying, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. Which do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and with a gentle spirit? (1 Corinthians 4:18-21 BSB)
This reminds me of a parent dealing with some naughty children. “You’re making too much noise up there. Better quiet down or I’ll be coming up, and you want like that.”
In his response to their letter, Paul makes a number of recommendations for establishing proper decorum and peace and order in the congregation meetings. He encourages prophesying and specifically states that women can pray and prophesy in the congregation. The statement in verse 33 of chapter 14 that the law requires women to be in silent submission is false indicating it could not have come from Paul. Paul quotes their words back to them, and then follows that up with a statement that twice uses the disjunctive particle, eta, which in this instance as a derisive tone to what he says. He chides them for assuming they know something he doesn’t and reinforces his apostleship which comes directly from the Lord, when he says, “What? Was it from you that the word of God went out? Or did it come to you alone? If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.” (1 Corinthians 14:36-38 World English Bible)
I attend several online meetings in both English and Spanish using Zoom as our platform. I’ve been doing this for a number of years. Some time ago, we began to consider whether or not women could be allowed to pray in these meetings. After examining all the evidence, some of which we have yet to reveal in this video series, it was the general consensus based on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:5, 13, that women could pray.
Some of the males in our group strongly objected to this and ended up leaving the group. It was sad to see them go, doubly so because they missed out on something wonderful.
You see, we cannot do what God wants us to do without there being blessings all around. It is not only the women that are blessed when we remove these artificial and unscriptural restrictions on their worship. The men are blessed as well.
I can say without any doubt in my heart that I have never heard such heartfelt and moving prayers from the mouths of men as I have heard from our sisters in these meetings. Their prayers have moved me and enriched my soul. They are not routine nor formalistic, but come from a heart moved by God’s spirit.
As we fight against the oppression that results from the fleshly attitude of the man of Genesis 3:16 who only wants to dominated the female, we not only liberate our sisters but ourselves as well. Women do not want to compete with men. That fear which some men have does not come from the spirit of the Christ but from the spirit of the world.
I know this is hard for some to understand. I know there is still a lot for us to consider. In our next video we will deal with Paul’s words to Timothy, which after a casual read seem to indicate that women are not allowed to teach in the congregation nor exercise authority. There is also the rather bizarre statement that seems to indicate that bearing children is the means by which women are to be saved.
As we have done in this video, we will examine the scriptural and historical context of that letter so as to try to get the real meaning out of it. In the video that follows that one, we’ll take a hard look at 1 Corinthians chapter 11:3 which speaks about headship. And in the final video of this series we will try to clarify the proper role of headship within the marital arrangement.
Please bear with us and keep an open mind because all of these truths will merely enrich us and free us—both male and female—and will protect us from the political and social extremes prevalent in this world of ours. The Bible does not promote feminism, nor does it promote masculinism. God made the male and the female different, two halves of a whole, so that each could complete the other. Our goal is to understand God’s arrangement so that we can comply with it for our mutual benefit.
Until then, thank you for watching and for your support.
Some excellent reasoning, Eric. It just goes to show how we must be careful in drawing conclusions from just one verse in the Bible. When i was at school, (in the later years doing A/Levels), we were encouraged to express our view and if valid, this would be discussed among the whole class, for a short while. We were not discouraged. However this does not happen in the Org. Everything is from an outline, even when at Elders schools, there was no discussion. The F & D s says so, therefore it must be true. So good to get your… Read more »
Well done again Eric! I have been following this series with rapt attention. Regarding 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, I thought this commentary of the NICNT was noteworthy: Because of the very Jewish nature of this passage, others have argued that it does not represent Paul’s point of view at all, but rather is a quotation or restatement of the view of some Corinthians who were imposing it on the community. Usually this is associated with the “Cephas party” (1Cor. 1:12). What follows (1Cor. 14:36-38) is then viewed as Paul’s own response to this imposition of “the Law” on the church.… Read more »
Thank you for another fascinating article, these are helping me to look at scripture again with renewed hope, not to just disprove every religion etc, but to have a better understanding of what the bible says, rather than what can be summarized in a study article. I know a lot of intelligent, capable , loving women who know were a scripture is and rather than just glibly paraphrase it to a question asked would take time to reason over it. It put me in mind of an evening a few years back, when we had some friends over and I… Read more »
What a refreshing comment. Thank you for sharing, Deano.