1 Cor. 14:34–Either Paul was Schizophrenic, or He Meant Something Else


“I can’t believe they hired a woman to preach there. What a shame.”

My family and I were driving past the church that my dad had previously pastored. I was nine years old at the time, a firm believer in Christ, and the statement struck me as odd.

“What’s wrong with a woman preaching?” I asked.

“The Bible says women aren’t allowed to preach or pastor churches. That’s only for men.”

A terrible grief pierced my heart. Really, God? I wondered. You would save me from my sins, teach me your Word, fill me with your Spirit, cause me to love you with my whole heart, then say I can’t minister in your church because…I have a vagina?? I just couldn’t believe it.

Later, I was taught the scriptures that my family had referred to on that fateful car ride. 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which said women must remain silent in the churches. And then 1 Timothy 2:12, which said women could not teach or “have authority over” men. There it was, in black in white. The last word. God just didn’t want women in ministry–for whatever reason. I just had to accept it and chalk up my desire to preach to a pride issue.

Except that it still didn’t make sense to me. And when I say it didn’t make sense, I mean logically, in the context of both the gospel and of the Bible itself.

Let’s begin with the gospel. God created man and woman. Both man and woman sinned and required redemption. Jesus Christ came to earth and died for the sins of ALL mankind. Romans 3:23-24 states, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” All means all, right?

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Right. Then Jesus tells his disciples that after he ascends to heaven, he will send the Holy Spirit to them as a guide and a comforter. The purpose of the Holy Spirit would be largely two-fold:

1. To remind them of everything Jesus taught them and to instruct them further in the things of God (John 14:26)

2. To empower them to be witnesses of Christ’s life, death and resurrection to every person throughout the world (Acts 1:8)–in other words, to fulfill the Great Commission given by Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20:

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Now it’s interesting to note here that not all of Christ’s disciples were male. All of the Twelve were male, but Jesus had more than 12 disciples. There was a group of Christ’s followers known simply as “the women,” and once in a while scripture lets us glimpse them at the Savior’s side (try Luke 8:3 and Mark 15:40-41). These women were in the upper room when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (see Acts 1:14), and, like the male disciples, they were all filled with the Spirit and spoke in tongues and prophesied. We know this because the Bible says “all of them were filled” (Acts 2:4). And they were filled in accordance with a prophecy that stated the Spirit would be poured out on both men and women, and they would both prophesy (Acts 2:18).

So here’s a question: if God did not intend for women to preach, or teach beyond children’s Sunday School, or hold ministerial positions within His church, why did He bother to empower them for such work? It’s like giving a teenager a Ferrari for his birthday, but then saying, “You can only use it in the driveway.” A powerful gift used to less than its full purpose drains energy, wastes resources and leaves a heart full of longing.

And then there’s Paul’s own writings. On the surface, 1 Cor. 14:34 looks pretty clear: women must remain silent in the church. There’s just one problem with that: It contradicts the very sentiment Paul expresses in verses 26 through 31. Take a look:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to 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 sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.

So Paul collectively addresses the “brothers and sisters” of the Corinthian church, acknowledges their spiritual inspiration, assures them that they can ALL prophesy in their turn under the rules he is setting up for their benefit (all means all, right?), then immediately follows that up with “Oh, by the way, I forbid women to speak at all, under any circumstances”? Apparently, Paul was schizophrenic.

Or he meant something else entirely.

I have to believe that Paul meant something else, because this is not the only time he contradicts himself when it comes to writing about women in ministry. Remember when he said in 1 Timothy 2:12 that women couldn’t teach or have authority over men? He then goes on in 1 Timothy 3:11 to outline the qualifications for female deacons–a position of spiritual leadership in the church.

And before anyone attempts to claim that Paul is referring only to the wives of male deacons here, let me point out that Paul allowed women to serve as deacons in his ministry, even admonishing the church in Rome to receive the female deacon Phoebe on his behalf “in a way worthy of [the Lord’s] people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me” (Romans 16:2). He also called Junia, another woman, “outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7), and described how Priscilla, in conjunction with her husband, was instrumental in the instruction of a zealous Jewish preacher named Apollos (Acts 18:24-26)–who, by the way, had a penis.

For someone who didn’t permit women to speak in the church or teach men, Paul certainly let it happen. A lot. And then described it in favorable terms.

This is why I could never accept the idea that God wanted to exclude women from church ministry. I would sit under teachers who could harp for days on why ministry was improper for women, drawing on all kinds of references to Eve as the first sinner, women as the weaker sex, the headship authority of men, the importance of raising children, etc., etc. Then I would open up the gospels and see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus saying she had chosen the better thing; the Woman at the Well becoming Christ’s first witness in Samaria; the women standing by the cross as Jesus died–then later, like Peter and Paul, crossing oceans to build the body of believers around the world…and the theological gymnastics designed to keep half the body of Christ silenced and ineffective would fall apart in my mind all over again. It just didn’t add up in the sum total of God’s stated purpose:

For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (John 6:40)

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)

I think I’ll heed the call of God and preach.

7 responses to “1 Cor. 14:34–Either Paul was Schizophrenic, or He Meant Something Else

  1. You’re right in line with some of the Quaker tracts and letters from the 1650s on. Welcome aboard! Elizabeth Hooten was a woman preacher among the General Baptists of England when she welcomed George Fox into her circle. I consider her to be the first Quaker, rather than him.
    Paul, of course, gets tricky throughout — he himself often admits to making an administrative decision without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, “I had nothing on this,” adapting to the culture of his time and place rather than the full Gospel.

  2. Most scholars tend to agree that the letter to the church in Corinth was addressing them about a specific circumstance at the time, and not to be generalized nor hermaneutically used to prevent women from preaching today.

    When we study the Bible, we have to understand the time period and the audience, and the original author’s intent. Paul wasn’t schizo – he simply was admonishing a particular group of people at the time. It wasn’t a theological treatise, as Romans was. So…preach, April. You have the words of both Jesus and Paul fully behind you. And, apparently you have the Holy Spirit working in you – and who can deny that!

  3. April. Here in the United States, it is not about what the scriptures say with regard to women and their potential service to the church in pastorate positions—never has been. It is all about saving southern Scots-Irish culture in its transformative condition, which we refer to as southern, redneck, good-ole-boy culture. You see. The hated English King’s culture was developed and given to him by the hated English King. The Scots-Irish culture was given to Scotland and Ireland directly by God himself. Therefore, if that Scotes-Irish culture calls for keeping women down, debased, and out of ministry, then it must be God’s will. It’s perfectly circular and perfectly logical—if you are Scots-Irish or a southern redneck preacher. Here in East Tennessee, we pronounce it, “rayud nayuk.”

  4. I know it might sound off-topic, but it really is on-topic if you think about it. This is a challenge issued to the males who visit here. Pretend just for a moment that the Bible and all of the writings in it never existed and were not replaced by any other religious writings. However, there is still a cultural impulse to lock women down, move them out of the way, and straight-jacket their role in society. Why do we men need to do that to women. I will start by offering up one:

    1) Women are too social. They believe that the way to deal with every problem and every adversary is to sit down, talk about the problem, and work something out to maintain peace—often at any cost.

    This makes them inherently dangerous to the whole society because men realize that some adversaries see talk only as a sign of weakness, and it only encourages an adversary hell-bent on destruction of the group at any cost. All men know that it is sometimes necessary to kill their enemies. Men have testosterone. We are built by nature to kill, and we like to kill. Many of us like it so much that we need to kill animals for sport as a proxy when no men are available to kill. In rural Afghanistan, killing men is the primary cultural norm for expressing one’s manliness and achieving the respect of peers. One goes from being a boy to being a man by crossing the kill threshold. This is why Afghanistan has always been internally at war inside and outside over many centuries.

    In first-contact Native American societies, most of the menial and time-consuming cultural labor was reserved for women to “free up” males so they could devote more of their time to thinking about killing, talking about killing, and planning war against their neighbors. Men were also the hunters, which involves killing.

    Women and the “female way” of doing things are dangerous, and they must be kept bound up so the social group as a whole can survive. It is in enmity with the natural male prime directive to kill.

  5. This whole debate (not here in particular, but the way it is conducted across most of the Western church) frustrates me deeply. On the one hand, I believe in the restriction on women not being the pastor of a church. On the other hand, I cannot accept that God intended me simply to make tea and entertain the kids while everyone else gets on with the “real” business of serving God. Which has led to to believe that (assuming Paul is *not* schizophrenic :p) part of the problem at least is the structure of most churches. The vast majority of the churches I have ever been in in my life look the same, no matter the denomination: most people sit in rows like in a lecture hall, and one guy stands at the front and does everything. Maybe a chosen few get to do stuff like read out a passage of Scripture, but most people have to just stand up sit down do as they are told and LIKE IT. Because that way we can learn more about God, right?

    Sorry, but NO! God pours out His Spirit on everyone, young or old, male or female, it doesn’t matter. I actually think that the part about women remaining silent makes sense if you accept that one restriction about teaching being for the men. So when the men AND women have prophesied, prayed, brought revelation from God etc etc, then the church weighs those messages, and the buck stops with the pastor and elders when it comes to discernment. But because they recognise women as equally gifted and in touch with God, it’s not a case of the man dictating to the women (and “lesser” men in the congregation), but a case of accepting responsibility and making a judgment based on everything that has been brought in that meeting. Does that make sense? Plus that then ties in with Paul writing about women covering their heads when they pray or prophesy.

    It makes me deeply sad that the church has restricted women so much on the basis of culture, and tried to claim that it was God’s desire. I’m deeply deeply thankful that my family is in a church where I can participate, where I can hear from God and develop my gifts, and where I’m genuinely missed when I’m not there. It was hard to step up and leave our old church, and at times we despaired of ever finding a plac where people took God’s word seriously and didn’t cherry pick which parts were convenient for them. But God took us along that path and found us a place where we belong and can contribute to worship.

    • You make an excellent point and have put into words something I have felt about the church for a long time. I’m glad you have found a place that values the exercise of your spiritual gifts–not just by lip service, but in practice. Thanks for your comments.

  6. Pingback: How the Bible contradicts itself and why it’s not a problem. | Revolutionary Faith