On Women in Church Leadership: 1 Cor 14:33–36

Preliminary Matters

A view of culture before we proceed

Culture is a concern in this conversation from two standpoints. Following my post on 1 Cor 11, one reader asked whether I was just saying, after all, “It’s cultural.” This needs some clarification hermeneutically, especially for a missional reading. Additionally, many traditionalists believe that the discussion of women’s roles, among other topics, is the result of “the culture” influencing the church today. A theologically legitimate view of culture, alongside a less fear-driven process of reasoning, will demonstrate the extent to which this is a poorly formed idea.

First, why is the claim, “It’s cultural,” interpretively suspect? The leading reason is that (A) it has been used, at times, to justify the dismissal of portions of Scripture that do not conform to the interpreter’s preconceived conclusions. This is a real problem, exhibited extravagantly in Bultmann’s demythologization but far more commonly in all sorts of interpretive agendas across the spectrum. And in this sense, the answer to my friend’s question is no, I am not merely saying Paul’s understanding of women’s roles is cultural and therefore ignorable. At the same time, even conservatives admit that (B) there are some aspects of the NT that are “cultural” and, therefore, not “universally” binding. In fact, head coverings in 1 Cor 11 is the go-to example, along with the “holy kiss.” Paul clearly, unequivocally commands women to use head coverings. Moreover, the injunction seems to be universalized by the statement, “we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16), referring to women praying unveiled and men wearing long hair in vv. 13–15. The only reason such conservatives do not consider this biblical command “applicable” today is that it is “cultural.” The reason we shake hands or hug instead of obeying the command to greet one another with a holy kiss is that the kiss is “cultural.” There are plenty more examples, but it’s rather tedious to repeat what has been said so many times. I bother to rehearse this little bit because claiming (A) in no way addresses the fact that (B) is operative for everyone, yet this seems to disappear from the minds of those who want to defend certain Pauline commands, such as the silence of women.

The question is not, however, “How do we decide what is universal and what is cultural?” That is false path, for it still leads us toward a dichotomization of the text into “relevant”/ “irrelevant” or “applicable”/ “not applicable” pieces (and, more importantly, it assumes an erroneous function of Scripture, which I’ll address later). Rather, the point of culturally attuned interpretation is not to determine what is or isn’t consequential for a different culture but to determine what all of the biblical text means in its cultural matrix. In other words, the question is, “How do we understand what Paul means on his own terms?”

Every word of the Bible is “cultural.” In one sense, therefore, the claim, “It’s cultural,” means nothing. In another sense, however, the claim means that a given text, like all others, invites a reading that takes into account everything foreign about the writer and audience. In the latter sense, the answer to my friend’s question is yes, I am absolutely claiming that the meaning of 1 Cor 11 is fully culturally determined and may mean something very different to us—a claim I would make about all of Scripture. In regard to 1 Cor 11:1–16 specifically, the semiotics of Corinthian gender relationships mean—to them, not to us, it shouldn’t need saying—honor or dishonor, glory or shame. If what Paul determines theologically and commands is bound up with that cultural construct, then we have found the substance of what it means to say that head coverings are “cultural,” and we have found, more fundamentally, what motivates Paul to order gender relationships in a particular way in Corinth, namely, the glory of God and mutual love in terms all Corinthians could understand. Are head coverings “applicable” in our culture? Yes! “Cultural” does not mean “irrelevant,” lest the whole Bible be irrelevant. But understanding what head coverings mean prevents us from jumping to the flawed conclusion that their universal application is, “Women are subject to men.” Head coverings mean, lay down your rights and freedoms in the Lord if doing so glorifies God and serves his mission. They mean, love your brothers instead of shaming them.

And, the reason I start the discussion of women’s roles with 1 Cor 11 is that head coverings also mean something hermeneutically. This section of 1 Corinthians (8–11) is as close as we get in Paul’s writings to an explicit statement about culturally relative applications of Christian theology. Through this particular issue, Paul explains that it is the Corinthians’ cultural perceptions of honor and shame that must shape the embodiment of the congregation’s life in the Lord. The truth that women are equal in the Lord, confirmed by the equal gifting of women in the Spirit, requires an application relative to Corinthian culture. The glory and mission of God are weightier than the women’s right to express their equality. So Paul gives us a foundational piece of a missional hermeneutic, and—it’s cultural.

Second, the claim that “the culture” is corrupting the church is one that begs for an actual understanding of culture. Granting that, as an argument, it is meant to scare more than provoke reasoned discussion, reason will nonetheless be the best response. In order to remain brief, I’ll state some straightforward, correlate propositions that, together, debunk the idea that “the culture” is to blame for the “feminization” of the church:

1. The church has always been and cannot be other than a culturally embodied entity.

2. Any given culture is neither good nor bad but contains good, bad, and neutral elements.

3. The church is fallible.

4. Cultures can change for better or worse.

5. Cultural change may require recontextualization.


6. The church’s traditional subordination of women is just as likely a product of cultural influence as the present movement toward women’s equality. To assume the latter and ignore the former is nonsensical.

7. The church’s traditional subordination of women is just as likely bad as it is good or neutral. To assume without theological argumentation that subordination is good and equality is bad or vice versa is nonsensical.

8. The church’s traditional subordination of women may be bad while the culture’s influence toward equality may be good. The appeal to the way things used to be or to the previous impossibility of conceiving a different practice compose the very traditionalism that the Restoration Movement rejects. Churches of Christ left behind hierarchical Christianity in lock step with emergent American culture’s democratization and in the face of traditionalist claims that such a move was not long ago inconceivable. In large part, Churches of Christ resisted the cultural shift away from racial prejudice, during both the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. The appeal to the way things used to be and the rejection of “the culture’s” influence did not put the church on the right side of the issue. The culture was moving in the right direction; the church was not. To assume that unprecedented change in the church is bad because it reflects broader cultural change is nonsensical.

9. The church’s traditional subordination of women may have been appropriate contextualization in places where cultural change now requires a different practice. Contextualization is not just for moving from one culture to another synchronically but for ongoing theological reflection diachronically in a single culture. Remaining in a single culture does not legitimate the search for a static, universal practice regarding women’s roles. To assume that cultural change is bad because it requires theological recontextualization is nonsensical.

And a view of situational theology

I want to be clear that theological relativity goes even deeper than just culture. It comes all the way down to specific situations. As I’ve already discussed at length in the previous post, meat sacrificed to idols is handled situationally. Practices vary within the same cultural matrix, broadly speaking, depending upon the situation. What did the Jerusalem council command Greco-Roman Gentiles to do? Don’t eat it. What would Paul say to a Greco-Roman congregation without weak consciences? Go for it. The difference is not culture but situation.

To Churches of Christ, this may sound something like the congregational autonomy we cherish. It is not. Situational does not mean autonomous, for we are not a law unto ourselves. Ever. Our situation is always one of relationship to other congregations and, therefore, love and consideration of them. This is what pulls us into Jerusalem council (multi-congregational) sorts of deliberations, as well as ongoing conversation. This is what brings Paul to deliberate in reference to “the churches of God”—not because the conclusion is universal but because it is relational. There exists fellowship between congregations that precludes autonomous theological reflection.

Instead, situational signals the need for discernment pertaining to contingent factors that are more granular than shared culture tends to be. Such discernment, as 1 Cor 8–10 well demonstrates, results in a nuanced and conditional set of conclusions that presume the ongoing spiritual formation of the whole church in order to make (increasingly) appropriate ad hoc applications. This is not a theological process that produces blanket, binary (do/don’t) determinations. It does not absolutize, and it does not trade in certainty. It invites the church to make provisional decisions and plan to change later, to grow continually in wisdom and adapt to God’s ongoing, innovative work in the world.

Scripture’s function is the underlying assumption

On a still deeper hermeneutical level, the discussion of texts relevant to female church leadership often proceeds with a very problematic assumption about Scripture’s function. As I’ve already mentioned, this assumption is what makes the distinction between “universal” and “cultural” seem reasonable. Note the implication of the preceding sentence: our assumptions are what delineate reasonableness. Assumptions are the channels through which the conversation flows, and it can flow nowhere else. Therefore, if we address these texts with a bad assumption, then the very possibility of moving in the right direction is at stake.

So what is the assumption? It is that Scripture functions to tell us what to do. According to this assumption, in the case of female church leadership, texts such as 1 Cor 14:33–36 function to tell us what women can or can’t do in a church assembly. Hence, organizing texts into cultural (or situational) and universal commands makes sense in the first place because we are looking for commands. In this scheme, some commands must be obeyed directly, because they “apply” now exactly as they did then; and others do not have to be obeyed directly, because they do not “apply” now. Making the distinction therefore serves the theological agenda of determining which texts give the universal church commands to obey, or of converting “cultural” commands into principles than can be “applied” now.

I will deal with this topic more in the next post, on 1 Tim 2, in regard to the doctrine of inspiration. For now, I want to introduce an alternative to the assumption that Scripture functions as an instruction manual. What if Scripture functions, instead, to shape us into the kind of theologians that the biblical writers were, in order that the church might make faithful new determinations in new contexts? What if Scripture functions to transform our worldview so that we can, by the power of the Spirit, discern how to live resurrection life in situations for which Scripture, forced into an instruction-manual mode, simply offers no instructions? What, in other words, if we come to 1 Cor 14:33–36 without assuming that its function is to tell women everywhere what to do? For one thing, we no longer have to worry about figuring out whether the command is “cultural”—a good thing, because if everything is cultural, finding non-cultural texts is a futile endeavor. For another, it allows us to focus on what Paul means rather than what he commands in one situation. But above all, it lets us learn from Paul not merely what to do but how to think about what to do.

Assuming Paul is brilliant (and the text is trustworthy)

I make another couple of assumptions as I approach 1 Cor 14. One is that Paul is absolutely brilliant in his own right (not to mention thoroughly apostolic). I combine this with the assumption that the text as we have it is trustworthy, which is an important point to note when it comes to vv. 33–36. While some distinguished scholars have concluded from the text-critical evidence that Paul did not author those verses—a conclusion that I am not qualified to dispute with much force—I find the verses’ authorship to be a moot point. All of the source documents we possess contain these verses in one place or another in ch. 14, and they are at the end of the day indisputably part of the Christian Canon. Granting that their insertion might affect the flow of Paul’s argument, which creates an exegetical dilemma, I nonetheless see every reason to treat vv. 33–36 as though they belong to the extended argument of ch. 14 and the broader section.

If Paul is brilliant and the text is trustworthy, then my first step is to reject the notion that chs. 11 and 14 are in tension with one another. It is a bad interpretive move to begin examining either of these passages as if there is a dilemma to resolve. Paul has given us a continuous argument that coheres wonderfully. If we perceive a blatant contradiction in only a few short chapters’ space, then we know we have misunderstood what Paul is saying. The tension doesn’t actually exist. I hasten to add that I appreciate tension and do not rule it out in principle. I just think it’s unnecessary to build an interpretation around the perception of a problem that doesn’t exist if Paul has half a brain.

1 Cor 14:33–36: The subject never actually changed

Once we assume coherence between chs. 11 and 14, something that astoundingly few commentators note becomes obvious: we’re still talking about Corinthian women in the context of prophecy, and shame is still the key word. And more to the point, we’re still talking about the church’s embodiment of resurrection life before the watching eyes of Corinth.

As I noted in the previous post, 8:1 is Paul’s lead-in to ch. 13. Chapters 8–14 follow a continuous theological thread: love of God and others (both the church body and unbelievers). Chapter 13 should not be abstracted from the book as a bit of off-topic theological reverie. It is the explicit statement of the implicit theological underpinning upon which the letter stands.

So Paul proceeds through his discussion of how some who “know” that idols are nothing treat those who do not, how women are praying and prophesying, how the church practices table fellowship amidst social disparity, and how the church experiences the gifts of the Spirit, to a climactic statement about what love has to do with all of this. As ever, Paul mixes his metaphors to good effect. The gifts of the many-membered body converge with the construction metaphor from 8:1—”but love builds” (hē de agapē oikodomei)[1. Cf. 3:9, another place where Paul mixes metaphors, likewise organic and architectural.]—making “edification” (building, construction) the key idea of ch. 14. Church practices that serve to build the temple (connecting us right back to 3:16 and 6:19) are Paul’s practical application of his agape theology.

Construction as a metaphor for mission, not just internal benefit to the church

In church jargon, which is reflected in most translations, “edification” and “building up” are self-referential. As the phrase “for my own edification” indicates, that which edifies benefits me or, collectively, us. To American ears, “Love builds up,” seems to say that love does what is good for other church members. I propose, however, that in Paul’s imagination (and much of the early church’s, if 1 Peter 2 is any indication), the idea of oikodomē (construction) was connected to the image of constructing—putting together—God’s temple. In this image, building might be in reference to existing pieces of the edifice (other church members); the work is a long process before the temple is a complete masterpiece. But the image is also certainly one of the temple’s continuing expansion. And either way—this is the vital point—both finishing out and adding on are inseparable from God’s mission. In the latter case, obviously, there is a sense of making building blocks out of unbelievers. Yet, in the former too, the building of the church is not merely “what benefits us” but what makes us into the people who benefit God’s mission. The temple of God must be the place where God is glorified.

The theological test for church practices is not whether I feel like they’re “good for me” but whether they truly serve to form us into God’s missional people and whether they serve to bear witness to those who will become God’s missional people. Paul’s shorthand for these two criteria is oikodomē, and 1 Cor 14 is where Paul brings the idea to bear with repetitive, virtually concussive, force. (Indeed, it’s almost as though Paul has answered his own question back in 4:21, “Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” He takes hold of love in the form of oikodomē in ch. 14 and pummels the Corinthians with it. Build up! Build up! Build up! Build up! “Gentleness” is relative, no doubt.)

Here is Paul’s cadence:

On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding (oikodomēn) and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up (oikodomei) themselves, but those who prophesy build up (oikodomei) the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (oikodomēn) (14:3–5)

So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up (oikodomēn) the church. (14:12)

For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up (oikodomeitai) (14:17)

What should be done then, my friends? 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 (oikodomēn) (14:26)

Lest our self-referential reflex get the best of us, I highlight 14:20–25. Hopefully this passage at the heart of the chapter can help us reimagine “upbuilding the church” in Paul’s missional terms.

Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. In the law it is written,
“By people of strange tongues
and by the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people;
yet even then they will not listen to me,”
says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.” (14:20–25)

The key that unlocks Paul’s meaning is more than just pointing out that Paul has unbelievers in mind. True, Paul never stops thinking evangelistically. That’s obvious enough, and many have read this as an addendum to the argument: “By the way, think about what would happen if your worship service were disorderly on bring-a-friend Sunday.” This line of interpretation fails to inform our understanding of oikodomē. The key is to recall what Paul has just said in the middle of his exposition of love: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (13:11). By “do not be children in your thinking” (14:20), Paul is not saying simply, “Think carefully.” He is saying “Think according to loveand love builds up!”

Verses 21–22 can be confusing, since Paul seems to quote Isa 28:11–12 as proof that tongues are a sign for unbelievers but then argues oppositely that prophecy, not tongues, will have the intended effect on unbelievers. As usual with OT quotations, it is necessary to examine the rest of quoted passage, which the quotation references. In Isa 28, prophetic speech comes to the drunken religious leadership of Israel in the form of baby talk (to “those who are weaned from milk, those taken from the breast,” v. 9), stammering, and foreign language as a sign of judgement. The unintelligibility of such a message intends to bring about their destruction by “a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters.” This flood sweeps away a structure built of falsehood and clears the ground for a new building:

Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
“One who trusts will not panic.”
And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter. (Isa 28:15–17)

Paul sees the unbelievers of Corinth not as the house of lies that will be swept away but as the remnant (Isa 28:5), as those who will be built upon the new foundation laid in Zion. Uninterpreted tongues are a sign of judgement, not a message of grace. They destroy rather than build up. Specifically, they leave Corinthian unbelievers with the impression that Christians are just another mystery cult that works itself into a maniacal frenzy (mainesthe; 1 Cor 14:23) rather than bearing witness to the church’s Shema-shaped faith. Following this line of reasoning, we can make a little more sense of Paul’s telescoped phrasing in v. 22: “[Uninterpreted] tongues, then, are a sign not for [building] believers [into the temple] but for [destroying stubborn] unbelievers, while prophecy is not for [destroying stubborn] unbelievers but for [building] believers [into the temple].” What, in other words, builds the uninitiated (idiōtai) into the temple? The message that initiates them! How does the church love the unbeliever? By communicating clearly and including them in the conversation! Treat visitors as part of the remnant! Speak to them as though they will be believers, as though the message of grace is for them, as though God is building them into the temple, because that is God’s mission!

If it doesn’t build up, then shut up

The immediate context of the passage on women’s silence is 1 Cor 14:26–40. Paul turns to the so what in v. 26, preparing to deal now with the specific issues affecting the Corinthian assembly. He begins with a final thematic exhortation: Let all things be done for oikodomē. (1) Let tongues be spoken for building up. This means (a) don’t interrupt each other and try to cram too much in, and (b) there must be an interpretation. If there isn’t an interpretation, then shut up (sigatō, v. 28). (2) Let prophecy in Greek be spoken for building up. This means (a) don’t interrupt each other and try to cram too much in, and (b) there must be an evaluation. If someone can explain what the prophecy means (by a “revelation”), then the prophet should shut up (sigatō, v. 30). (3) Let the evaluative response to prophecy be for building up. This means (a) the wife of a prophet who wants to question her husband should keep her comments private, because (b) she should remember what Paul has already said about the “law” in 11:8–9. If it is “shameful” (aischron, v. 35) for women to speak, then they should shut up (sigatōsan, v. 34).

We have to pay close attention to what Paul is implying. His language is circumspect—perhaps intentionally so as not shame certain men of the congregation any further (who have clearly already been dishonored by the conduct addressed) or exacerbate the tension that must have existed. The obvious objection to my reading is that Paul does not say these women (specifically, wives or other women in a patriarchal relationship with a male in the congregation) are responding to their significant other’s prophecy. He says they should “ask their men at home if they desire to learn” (v. 35), not that they should save their evaluation of their husband’s prophecy for the privacy of the home.

Yet, the connection of vv. 33–36 with the overall scenario of the preceding verses is real; this is not an aside.[2.Perhaps the reason that vv. 33–36 seem to interrupt the section is not that they are an interpolation but that interpreters have often overlooked the fact that Paul is talking very specifically about the women’s involvement in the tongues/prophecy practices under consideration.] The assumption is that the women, equally gifted with knowledge, wisdom, and discernment, have participated in the evaluation of prophecy (the diakrinetōsan of v. 29; cf. the gift of diakriseis pneumatōn, discernment of spirits, in 12:10), likely speaking up in much the same way that v. 30 posits. The problem was that responding critically to one’s husband (and “evaluation” does presume the possibility of a negative conclusion), even if by a revelation, would have worsened the shameful situation already described in ch. 11.

Furthermore, the alternative is odd at best: Paul would then be saying that because a woman is subordinate/submissive (hupotassesthōsan) she should not ask questions publicly in order to learn. Even for the traditional interpretation this is a strange thought, since being in submission has meant assuming the role of learner rather than teacher. No, Paul is implying, sarcastically, that the women who have been shaming their men by speaking up have something to learn. Even if they have knowledge, even if they have a revelation—whatever “spiritual powers” (v. 37) they might have been given—their spirits are subject to their control (v. 32), and their gifts are useless unless they serve love (13:2). If what a woman has to say doesn’t build up (both in terms of honoring her head, and through him God, and in terms of bearing contextualized witness to the uninitiated), then the loving thing to do is shut up.

Chapter 11 has already painted a picture of Corinthian women participating in the prophetic speech acts of their assembly in a way that was shaming the men. Now, when Paul comes to the fuller description of what happens following prophecy, we find that the women’s involvement in the rest of the congregation’s discussion of the prophetic word was also shaming the men. It’s the same basic problem—shame—and Paul doesn’t bother to recite the whole argument again but, instead, uses “the law” as shorthand for his earlier argument. And, as before (11:16), he has “all the churches of the saints” (v. 33) in view; some of the Corinthians may think they have moved beyond traditional gender mores, but the word of God did not originate with them, and they are not the only ones it has reached (v. 36). Shame is an inter-congregational consideration.

In Paul’s newly imagined upbuilding, loving assembly, we have a vision of women prophesying with the cultural symbols that ensure their husbands’ honor and being sure not to shame their husbands in the way they respond to their husbands’ prophecy. While this interpretation requires us to make an inference (and, I note, we Restoration churches have no problem with necessary inference), I think it is a fairly straightforward reading of Paul’s argument. It is not, of course, a reading that gives us a universal conclusion about female church leadership. What, then, does 1 Cor 14:33–36 contribute to the twenty-first century discussion?

A hermeneutical criterion: love as oikodomē in the American church

I’m convinced Paul’s question for all the churches of the saints in twenty-first century America would be, “How do you love the women of the church and the unbelievers who are watching the way you treat them? How do you build up the temple of God?” This is a rhetorical question; the answer is not to silence our Spirit-gifted women. To do so tears down the church that would be built up by their contributions. To do so communicates disrespect, prejudice, hatefulness, ignorance, and oppression to the unbeliever. To do so dishonors the God who took on flesh and died in order to destroy the walls that once divided us. When will we let God’s mission guide our congregational decisions about such matters? When will we finally begin to think like Paul about what to do now, what to do next? We have the guidance, and it is not a set of codified instructions. It is the law of love: love of God and love of others. It is love as a relentless endeavor to build up, build up, build up! Mission—love as oikodomē—is how we determine the significance of 1 Cor 14 today. We must reorder, recontextualize our community practices carefully so that they glorify God before our watching neighbors, who cannot see in the silence of women that God has loved them equally in the Lord. We must love one another in mutual respect, mutual submission, as humble learners, because that is how God makes us into his missional people. We must listen to the Spirit, through the voices of men and women, for the benefit of the whole church, for our equipping and transformation. Will there be situations in which women should shut up? Sure. This is the point—contexts vary! Will there be situations in which men should shut up? I’m certain there already are, because sometimes shutting up so someone else can talk is the best way to love.

Soli Deo gloria


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