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If we could see Paul’s original handwriting when he wrote his letters, we would be struck by the fact that there was no punctuation. Punctuation had not yet been invented, so at times we are left with uncertainty as to how to interpret his writings. Such is the case in 1 Cor. 14:34, 35, which, if written today, would have been set apart in quotation marks, for Paul here was quoting directly from Chloe’s letter (1 Cor. 1:11; 5:1; 7:1).
In other words, these verses are not to be taken as Paul’s instruction to the church, but as a teaching that someone else was setting forth. Paul’s comment (objection and correction) then comes forth in verses 36-38.
So the apostle quotes from the letter in 1 Cor. 14:34, 35, reading,
34 “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 And 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.”
The source of this teaching was no doubt part of the “Cephas” faction in the church, which tended to bring Jewish protocol into the church. For this reason, the quotation claims to have support from the law. However, there is no statement in the law about women keeping silent in an assembly.
Certainly, women were excluded from ministering in the temple or tabernacle, but so were most of the men. Aaronic priests alone could minister in that capacity. Yet Deborah was both a prophet and a judge in Israel (Judges 4:4). At the time, these were the highest offices in the land, the first being a spiritual office and the second political and judicial. She functioned in the Melchizedek Order, as did Moses before her and David afterward.
Hence, in appealing to the law, the man was actually appealing to the traditions of men that had been formed over the years. In other words, it was Jewish law, not God’s law. As we might expect, given Paul’s aversion to many Jewish traditions and Old Covenant practices, the apostle immediately throws up his hands and loudly objects to the statement which he has just quoted from Chloe’s letter.
1 Corinthians 14:36 KJV reads,
36 What? Came the word of God out from you [men]? Or came it unto you [men] only?
Unfortunately, the NASB leaves out “What?” It reads,
36 Was it from you [men only] that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you [men] only?
But Paul uses the Greek disjunctive, formed by the Greek letter eta. It can be translated as “or,” which indicates an alternative view, for the purpose of comparison or distinction. Paul uses the eta twice in the above verse, each time to begin a sentence where he was expressing strong opposition!
The KJV is more emphatic in its translation of this tiny word. The word eta is used elsewhere in Paul’s letter at the start of two verses. In 1 Cor. 6:16 KJV we read,
16 What? Know ye not that he which is joined to a harlot is one body? For two, saith he, shall be one flesh.
Note that Paul used eta to show his disapproval. Again, in 1 Cor. 6:19 KJV we read,
19 What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which you have of God, and ye are not your own?
In each case, Paul was objecting to some wrong practice or ignorant mindset. Paul was setting forth his opposing view. So also was he doing in 1 Cor. 14:36 after quoting an incorrect view about women that someone was teaching. Paul addresses him directly as “you,” clearly implying that Paul himself did not share that viewpoint.
The obvious answer to verses 34 and 35 is NO. The word of God has gone forth from women as well as men. Secondly, the word of God has come (been given) to women as well as to men throughout Scripture. Therefore, when the church assembles to share the manna which each has received during the previous week, women are just as likely to have an important word or prophecy as any of the men. Should they be silenced? Should the church be deprived of their manna? Of course not! Paul was horrified by such a view.
Look at Acts 21:8, 9, which says,
8 And on the next day we departed and came to Caesarea; and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. 9 Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses.
The church in Caesarea, where Cornelius, the Roman centurion, was stationed, met in the house of Philip. Philip had four daughters who were all prophetesses. Are we to believe that they were to keep silent in the church? Certainly, Deborah did not keep silent in the time of the Judges. So why would these four prophetesses keep silent?
Where, then, did they prophesy? If the Spirit of God came upon them, were they to go outside into the street in order to prophesy? Are we not rather to understand that Philip’s daughters were free to prophesy when the church assembled in their own house?
With this in mind, we can now see clearly what Paul meant in 1 Cor. 14:31, when he said, “For you can ALL prophesy one by one.” In this case, he was building his case that both men and women were allowed to prophesy in the church, “so that ALL may learn and ALL may be exhorted.”
Women did not attend the church assemblies just to eat other people’s manna. They came to share their own revelation as well for the benefit of the whole body. Apparently, someone who was of the Jewish faction was objecting to the liberty that Paul had given to women. He argued his point on the grounds that the law (tradition) forbade women to speak in an assembly. But no such law can be found in Scripture, and Paul objected to this Jewish tradition.
In reality, common Jewish practice in those days forbade Jewish men from speaking to women in public. This prohibition is still practiced today among the Orthodox Jews. Further, the dividing wall in the temple, which was removed by Christ (Eph. 2:14), had long separated women and foreign converts from the Jewish men. Only Jewish men were allowed to get close to God in the temple; all others had to remain in the so-called “Court of Women” on the outside.
This dividing wall was destroyed later by the Romans when the city and temple were destroyed in 70 A.D. But in 1871 an archeologist, M. Ganneau, unearthed its sign, which read:
“No Gentile may enter beyond the dividing wall into the court around the Holy Place; whoever is caught will be to blame for his subsequent death.”
The dividing wall had established a powerful taboo in Jewish thinking, although such a wall had never been commanded by God. There was no such wall in the tabernacle of Moses, nor did David receive divine instructions for a dividing wall when God showed him the pattern for the temple in Jerusalem that his son was to build. It was a tradition of men, and for this reason, Paul says, Christ abolished it to create “one new man” that disregarded racial or gender distinctions (Gal. 3:28). Jesus did not change the law. He corrected men’s beliefs about the law.
The dividing wall had left a deep cultural mark on Jewish life, and this mindset did not easily fall away from the Jewish Christians. Paul often fought against such traditions, the main one being physical circumcision. So when Chloe wrote to Paul and told him that some were forbidding women to speak in the church, he responded with a forceful “WHAT??” In other words, “What kind of teaching is this?”
Since we do not have a copy of Chloe’s letter, we can only surmise (based upon Paul’s answers) what else it said. In 1 Cor. 14:37, 38 Paul hints that the one advocating the silence of women was claiming to be a prophet or at least one who was spiritually minded. We read,
37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
Here Paul asserts his authority as the apostle of the Corinthian church. If others come into the church and teach that women should keep silent in the church, then he is going against “The Lord’s commandment.” Such people should not be “recognized” as prophets or even as “spiritual” men. They are, instead, following a Jewish tradition that deprives the church of any revelation or word that God may give to women.
Having concluded his discussion about church protocol, Paul brings the larger discussion about spiritual gifts to a conclusion in 1 Cor. 14:39, 40,
39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.
His last word on the subject again reminds the church that prophecy is more desirable than tongues, because it comes with understanding. Yet he again tells the church “do not forbid to speak in tongues.” If tongues are utilized in an assembly, it ought to be interpreted for the benefit of the body. In this way, all things are done “in an orderly manner.”
Paul then turns his attention to the resurrection of the dead.