“…the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
See, I knew it! Paul is clearly a misogynist. He wants women silent and in the back, or better yet, barefoot and in the kitchen. The church of Paul has no real place for women to become fully who God always intended them to be. We need something fresh and new with feminism at its heart in order for both men and women to find the place God has for them.
The sad part about this whole line of argument is the number of churches that give it apparent justification. Folks who would advance an argument like this on the basis of a verse like this ironically misunderstand the verse in the same direction as the folks (mostly men), who would try and unnecessarily limit the role of women in the church. In other words, they share the same misunderstanding as their ideological opponents. They simply react to it in the opposite direction.
The truth is, the early movement of Jesus was radically open to the involvement and even leadership of women for its day. Women were given the opportunity to serve alongside men. They received the Holy Spirit at the same time. They hosted and led whole churches. They were treated as co-equal in value with men–another radical idea for the day. Many early converts were women because the church gave them the opportunity for an identity that went well beyond what they would have found anywhere else.
When it comes to verses like this, though, which seem to pull the rug out from under that whole line of argument, we have to keep a couple of things firmly in mind. First, we need to read the whole context of the letter. Paul here says that women can’t speak in church, but back in chapter 11, he assumed by his argument that they would be speaking and was apparently okay with it. So, either he’s contradicting himself, or else there’s something else going on here. I would humbly suggest the latter is more likely.
Second, given the culture of the day and specifically the culture of ancient Corinth, there are some reasons Paul may have offered this bit of instruction that is so jarring to modern ears. A bit of research reveals several potential reasons including the influence of local pagan culture on the church, the level of education usually allowed to women in the culture, and cultural expectations for women in the home combined with the fact that churches were often hosted in homes. The fact that none of these cultural features and expectations are in place any longer suggests that perhaps this was a situationally-specific prohibition and not one intended to be broadly applied. We must also keep in mind that Paul’s main concern in this section is a worship setting that allowed believers to connect with God as freely as possible.
But even if that much isn’t totally satisfying, we must keep this in mind: The Bible has tended to be the most liberating book in terms of the place it has granted women (and other traditionally abused and disempowered people) in society that has ever been written. Folks get it wrong a lot with disastrous results, but these times have been consistently the result of reading it through the lens of the dominant culture instead of the other way around. If something seems to suggest an inequality of value (not role) when it comes to men and women, we can rest assured that wasn’t what the author was trying to communicate. We need to stick with it until we understand it properly. This takes work and at times a willingness to wave the mystery flag while leaning into our confidence in the broader whole, but the investment will always be worth the effort.