This is probably one of the most misunderstood subjects in the New Testament. There are two primary passages where the subject is addressed, 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
1 Corinthians 14 KJV 34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. 36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?
But this passage come after this one…
1 Corinthians 11:5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.
In Chapter 11 it says women should cover their heads when they pray or prophesy in church, then in 1 Corinthians 14 it says they shouldn’t speak at all, which is it? Cover your head or don’t speak?
Anytime there’s a seeming contradiction in the Bible it’s us misunderstanding something. The Bible is never wrong but the how we interpret it may be.
So what’s going on?
Most scholars would say that a head covering is a cultural issue and is not to be applied universally in all cultures. This passage is also referring to the wife recognizing God’s order in a marriage, more on that below.
We see even earlier from 1 Corinthians 7:1 that Paul is responding to a letter the Corinthian church sent him. There is actually a quotation mark in the original language called an eta before 1 Corinthians 14:34, signifying that his next few sentences are a quotation from the letter they sent him.
This is what their letter said…
34 Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. 35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
And then this is Paul’s response…
36 What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?
It’s easy to miss with a casual reading of the Bible without understanding that he’s responding to their statements and questions. If you read all of 1 Corinthians you see that he goes back and forth from reading what they wrote to him and his response to them, it just looks like it all runs together.
We see in v36 that Paul is questioning their idea that women should remain silent. He actually calls them out for making this up by asking them if God’s Word came from them. It’s a way of saying, who made you God? Or are you writing your own scripture?
Paul is addressing order rather than gender, this is really important to understand. He frames the issue by putting it in context of a husband and wife rather than a gender issue. In other words something must have been going on in that church where women were violating cultural issues and Paul responded by affirming God’s order in marriage.
Now this one…
1 Timothy 2: 11– 15: A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women (she) will be saved through childbearing (referring to Jesus)— if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
Timothy was pastoring a church in Ephesus, I recommend doing a little research on this region, it was quite corrupt. For the sake of time I’ll address their Diana worship. The cult of Diana believed that Adam’s first wife was a woman named Lilith. It’s said she was too dominant over Adam and she was rejected and God then gave Eve who was more submissive. This cult also taught that woman was created first and men were to submit to women.
This is actually a perversion of the truth in two ways. In this passage Paul corrects the error by saying Adam was created first, but there’s a more subtle issue in this perversion. No where does God say women are to submit to men or that men have authority over women. However in the context of marriage, men and women are to submit to each other.
Ephesians 5:21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Then he says how a wife to submit to her husband…
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Then he says how a husband should submit to his wife…
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
If you don’t see that a husband loving his wife is submission then you have a perverted view of submission. Submission is not about power, it’s about order.
In marriage, the husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. The church loves Christ because Christ first loved it. Husbands are to bring unconditional love into the marriage and the wife is to respect the husband. I can tell you if the husband does not first love his wife, he’ll get no respect. That’s just the way it works, that’s the order of life between husbands and wives.
One more thing on marriage, it’s quoted often that the husband is the head of the household and the head of the wife. I’ve asked lots of men to explain this in my counseling office. I’ve asked several reformed and fundamental preachers to explain this as well. The typical answer is “the husband determines the spiritual direction of the family” or “the husband makes the important decisions,” or something close.
That sounds well and good but what if the husband is horrible with money and the wife isn’t? Should she let the husband wreck their financial future? What if the husband had horrible modeling from his parents and he’s not yet whole but the wife has a strength to raise the children and determine their spiritual walk, should she sit back and let the husband damage the children?
I’ve learned that people’s way of explaining the “man as the head” and the way they actually function can be very different. If we look at how the husband and wife submit to one another we see the context is love. Jesus’ commandments are love God and love people. Submission in marriage is not about authority or power, it’s about laying yourself down and intentionally loving your spouse that way God says it works best.
So back to 1 Timothy 2.
Paul is telling a young pastor how to deal with a group of women that have come out of Diana worship to get their marriage in order. Apparently some of the women were dominating their husbands and trying to force a power struggle. In fact the word for authority in 1 Timothy 2:12 (authenteō) is not the usual word, it’s actually a word that means; to seek to be a master or to exercise ones authority over another. (We are seeing this idea in the cultural climate currently in the US. I say more about that in the full length message above.)
Again, the issue is one of order rather than gender. Paul is not trying to show that men are in authority over women, he’s trying to establish the order of marriage. In all the passages about women’s involvement in church Paul frames the conversation around marriage rather than specific gender roles. Have a look for yourself, read the passages before and after these and notice how he frames the context.
I realize there are some folks, whether old school or reformed theological or fundamentalists that will say you have to just read those passages at face value without twisting or reading something else into it. I say those fellas are actually not taking the time to understand the historical and cultural context. I say an improper exegesis is being applied if you only read those passages at face value and make it about gender rather than digging a little deeper.
If you’re a woman reading this, I pray it helps you rethink some of the things you’ve been taught. I pray it encourages you to not let your gift be silenced.
Here are two more messages on love in marriage