Context and Words Matter: Re-examining 1 Corinthians 14
by Bill Rudd
September 29, 2021
For forty-five years I believed women should not be pastors. After changing my position, I wrote a book to describe my journey and to analyze every relevant Bible passage. (1)
Many of my friends refused to read it because they confidently asserted that “the Bible is unmistakably clear that women cannot be pastors.”
Their “unmistakably clear” evidence invariably included Paul’s stunning prohibition in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35: “Women should remain silent in the churches.
They are not allowed to speak . . . for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” Obviously, if women must be silent in church where it is disgraceful for them to speak, they cannot be pastors. While there are multiple challenges in this passage, this article will focus on two: the context of the passage and the meaning of key words. (2)
Context Matters: Three Parallel Groups
1 Corinthians 14 is part of Paul’s extended teaching about the distribution, use, and abuse of spiritual gifts in the church. All of the gifts identified in chapter 12 are given by the Spirit to believers regardless of gender. When Paul envisioned a church gathering (14:26) in which “each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation,” he did not exclude women from any of those speaking gifts. Then, because “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:40), Paul immediately addressed disorderly behavior in churches where a few monopolized the gatherings by their continuous talking.
This involved three groups: tongues-speakers without interpreters, prophets not giving others a turn, and women talking nonstop. By addressing these groups, Paul did not assume that every tongues-speaker, prophet, or woman was part of the problem. It is likely that these three parallel scenarios involved a few people who needed to stop speaking so others could participate.
Paul did not command that no man or woman should ever speak in tongues or prophesy (14:39). (3) Rather, tongues-speakers could resume speaking when interpreters were present, and prophets could take another “turn” after others shared their revelation. Why then, in the third scenario, do many interpreters insist that women must not speak in church at all, rather than, as the parallel structure requires, that women were also to temporarily stop talking until others had opportunity to participate? This leads to the second consideration.
Words Matter: Remain Silent or Pause Silently?
Tragically, most English translations mask (hide?) Paul’s repetition of a key word which gives the cure for inappropriate domination of the gatherings by offenders in the three groups.
The Greek word sigaō is mysteriously translated three different ways in the NIV: “keep quiet” regarding tongues-speakers (14:28), “stop” regarding prophets (14:30), and “remain silent” regarding women (14:34). No reader of English translations would realize that the identical Greek word is used in each of the parallel instructions. (4)
The three uses of sigaō appear in one thematically united section (14:27-35) addressing three parallel scenarios in which the goals of participation and orderliness must be honored. To interpret them correctly the importance of the unifying theme and parallel structure of these nine sequential verses could not be overstated.
So, what is the meaning of sigaō? The parallel structure demands a similar interpretation in all three instances, that is, to defer speaking until something occurs which allows a resumption of speaking. It refers to a temporary pause, not a perpetual silence. It calls for deference to others so that all may participate.
This understanding is evidenced in that every other New Testament use of sigaō and sigē conveys a temporary suspension of speaking. It means to pause silently in response to something that was or was not happening. In every instance, it is assumed or stated that after the hiatus, the speaking would or did resume. The word is never used in the New Testament to portray perpetual silence. See Luke 9:36, 18:39, 20:26, Acts 12:17, 15:12, 21:40, Romans 16:25, and Revelation 8:1.
Therefore, it is clear that the three uses of sigaō in 1 Corinthians 14 should be translated consistently—not as referring to a permanent ban on speaking, but as a temporary, purposeful pause, assuming that speaking would resume whether by tongues-speakers, prophets, or women.
A Temporary Pause for Greater Inclusion
This deferential behavior is grounded in love, beautifully described in 1 Corinthians 13. It calls for a temporary hold on speaking until an interpreter was available, until other prophets had opportunity to share, or until other women or men were able to participate. Nonstop talking selfishly excluded the broad participation pictured in 14:26. Paul did not prohibit women from preaching in church as many have concluded. Rather, he restricted the nonstop talking (5) of some women, just as he restricted some tongues-speakers and prophets (male or female), to keep them from monopolizing the meeting.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul’s call for this group of women to “stop talking” in church was never intended to silence them permanently, nor was it intended to prevent all women from ever speaking in church simply because they are women. Three groups—tongues-speakers, prophets, and women—were asked to temporarily pause their speaking. Paul was like a judge calling for “order in the court” to quell disruptive, nonstop talking that hindered the orderly conduct of the proceedings and the participation of all who desired, to be heard in turn.
In this key passage, Paul assumed that women would speak, learn, teach, and lead, but he regulated the manner in which they ministered so others would also be able to use their gifts, and so the church would be characterized by orderliness and peace.
- Bill Rudd, Should Women Be Pastors and Leaders in Church: My Journey to Discover What the Bible Says About Gender Roles (Westbow Press: Bloomington, 2018).
- See my book for a careful study of all the disputed aspects of this and other relevant passages.
- In 11:4ff, Paul asserted that women could pray or prophesy if appropriately attired.
- It is not only the same word, but also, in all three uses, the tense, voice, and mood of the verb are identical (present active imperative).
- “They are not allowed to be continuously speaking [lalein, present tense]” (14:34).
Photo by Vlad Shalaginov on Unsplash
Courtesy of CBE International: Context and Words Matter: Reexamining 1 Corinthians 14 | CBE (cbeinternational.org)
CBE International (Christians for Biblical Equality) advances the gospel by equipping Christians to use their God-given talents in leadership and service regardless of gender, ethnicity, or class. CBE, a 501c3 nonprofit, is supported by a community that believes the Bible, properly interpreted, calls women and men to lead and serve as equals, based on Scriptures such as Galatians 3:28.