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How do we Harmonize 1 Corinthians 11 and 14?

How do we Harmonize 1 Corinthians 11 and 14?

In 1 Corinthians 11, women are told that they are to pray or prophesy in the assembly with a head covering. However, later on in the letter Paul says that women are forbidden to speak and must stay silent in the same context. How do we harmonize these two passages?

First, let’s read the two verses in question:

But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head… Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? (1 Cor 11:5,13)

As in all the churches of the saints, the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, they should ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church meeting. (1 Cor 14:33a-35 HCSB)

The first thing we must note is that both passages are timeless. Paul says that the practice of head covering and the silence of women in the assembly are held by all the churches (1 Cor 11:16, 1 Cor 14:33-34 HCSB) and both issues are grounded in proper biblical authority (1 Cor 11:3, 1 Cor 14:34). So both must be taken seriously and have application to the church today.

There are three main ways to harmonize these passages. We’ll go over each of these one by one and then we’ll give our take on which one we find most compelling.

View #1: Not the assembly.

The first view believes that when women are “praying and prophesying” (1 Cor 11:5) that this is not referring to the local assembly context. So it may refer to what she does in a womens group, at home, or other non-church settings. In contrast, women being “silent in the churches” (1 Cor 14:33a-35) is referring to the local assembly. So all tension is removed because Paul is addressing two different settings.  “Silent” is understood by most in its literal sense to mean a woman doesn’t verbally lead in any aspect of corporate worship.

Here’s how one biblical commentator articulates this view:

“There is no contradiction between 1 Corinthians 11:5 of our chapter and 1 Corinthians 14:34, for the simple reason that there speaking in the assembly is in question, whereas in our chapter the assembly does not come into view until verse 1 Corinthians 11:17 is reached. Only then do we begin to consider things that may happen when we “come together.” The praying or prophesying contemplated in verse 1 Corinthians 11:5 is not in connection with the formal assemblies of God’s saints.” – F.B. Hole 1) Frank Binford Hole – “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:1”. “F. B. Hole’s Old and New Testament Commentary”. “http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/view.cgi?bk=45&ch=11“. 1947.

View #2. Hypothetical praying.

The second view believes that both women praying (1 Cor 11:5) and being silent (1 Cor 14:34) are referring to the same local assembly setting. This view understands Paul as dealing with two different issues, one at a time. First he deals with women being unveiled, without mentioning the fact that speaking itself is forbidden. Then when the topic comes up, he states his view clearly that it is improper for women to speak in church. So the main distinction of this view is that Paul is not authorizing women to pray in the assembly. He is merely proposing a hypothetical situation to address women unveiling their heads.

Here’s how one biblical commentator articulates this view:

“Yet it might appear here that St. Paul is contradicting what he said in the other passage, namely that it is not permitted for a woman to teach. If that is true, how is it that he here attributes to her the charge and office of prophesying? The answer is that St. Paul did not mean to put the women in the pulpit; rather he proposed a (hypothetical) case, just as we are accustomed to doing. It is a common enough way of speaking. Let us suppose that a woman were preaching, or leading in prayer (as does the one who serves as a common mouth), and that her head was uncovered during such an activity. What about it? Everyone would be horrified by such a spectacle.” – John Calvin 2) John Calvin – Men, Women, and Order in the Church: Three Sermons (Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992) page 29

View #3. Limited silence.

The third view also agrees that women praying (1 Cor 11:5) and being silent (1 Cor 14:34) are referring to the same local assembly setting. This view does believe that Paul is authorizing women to pray and prophesy in church. The main distinction of this view is that “being silent” is not a prohibition against all speech, but specific speech. Paul had just told the tongue speaker who doesn’t have an interpreter that they are to “keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor 14:28). So the “keep silent” in that verse is not total, but about speaking out loud in tongues. In the same way, women “being silent” is referring to unsubmissive speech (1 Cor 14:34) which is most often identified as judging prophecies (1 Cor 14:29).

Here’s how one biblical commentator articulates this view:

“The verse is meaningless unless women were from time to time moved, in the Christian assembly in Corinth, to pray and prophesy aloud and in public (not simply in family prayers and other small groups—Bachmann). If moreover Paul had thought it wrong for them to do this he would certainly not have wasted time in discussing what, in these circumstances, they should do with their heads; he would simply have forbidden the practice.” -C.K. Barrett 3) C.K. Barrett – The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Black’s New Testament Commentaries) (A&C Black Publishers, 1987) page 250

The Challenge

We must admit that harmonizing these two passages is not an easy task. There isn’t a “neat-and-tidy” explanation that handles the apparent discrepancy easily. Whenever you’re trying to harmonize two passages you always interpret the clearer in light of the less clear. Also if you’re having a hard time making an interpretive decision, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. However, there is no safe option in this case. If you take women being silent as clearer, when that was not what was meant, then you’ve denied women the freedom to participate in aspects of corporate worship that God desires them to. If on the other hand you take women praying as the clearer, when that was not what was meant, you end up having women participating in something God did not intend for them to do. Both have serious consequences as one is contrary to God’s established order in the church. So we must wrestle hard with these Scriptures and be convinced in our minds of what Paul meant.

Our View

Our own understanding is the “limited silence” view. So that means we have no problem with women speaking publicly (but not preaching) if they wear a head covering. We take this position because we believe the structure of 1 Corinthians 11 provides a compelling case for why the “praying and prophesying” is referring to corporate worship. This understanding is supported by virtually all biblical commentators. 4) John MacArthur and F.B. Hole are two notable commentators that don’t take this position. While we will freely admit that understanding “silence” as referring to all public speech is the more natural reading, the various attempts 5) The predominate harmonization in early commentaries is that Paul is referring to extraordinary circumstances where women are supernaturally prompted by the Spirit to speak. So their natural disposition is silence, but in those certain rare circumstances she may speak. to explain away Paul’s references to women speaking (1 Cor 11:5) are unsatisfactory. Because of this we end up taking the “silence” in a limited sense as it is less clear than the authorized “praying and prophesying”.

References

1.
 Frank Binford Hole – “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:1”. “F. B. Hole’s Old and New Testament Commentary”. “http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/view.cgi?bk=45&ch=11“. 1947.
2.
 John Calvin – Men, Women, and Order in the Church: Three Sermons (Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992) page 29
3.
 C.K. Barrett – The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Black’s New Testament Commentaries) (A&C Black Publishers, 1987) page 250
4.
 John MacArthur and F.B. Hole are two notable commentators that don’t take this position.
5.
 The predominate harmonization in early commentaries is that Paul is referring to extraordinary circumstances where women are supernaturally prompted by the Spirit to speak. So their natural disposition is silence, but in those certain rare circumstances she may speak.

Jeremy Gardiner

Jeremy is the founder of the Head Covering Movement and the author of Head Covering: A Forgotten Christian Practice for Modern Times. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and is a member of Fellowship Baptist Church. He is a husband to Amanda and father to four young children. Jeremy is also the founder and operator of Gospel eBooks, a popular website that provides alerts for free and discounted Christian e-books.

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  • View #4: Paul correcting Judaizer teachings

    We know that the Corinthian church had divided itself into factions – one for Cephas, Apollos, Paul, and Christ. It was also located in Greek and controlled by the Romans with a sizeable Jewish population. It is quite possible that one of the factions primarily consisted of Judaizers. They would have believed that ‘Kol b’isha ervah’ which means ‘the voice of a woman is nakedness’. This was written into the oral law as

    Berakhot 24a – Samuel said: A woman’s voice is a sexual incitement, as it says, For sweet is thy voice and thy countenance is comely. R. Shesheth said: A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as it says, Thy hair is as a flock of goats.

    Kiddushin 70b – ‘Will you send a greeting to [my wife] Yaltha,’ he suggested. ‘Thus said Samuel,’ he replied, [To listen to] a woman’s voice is indecent.’

    Sotah 48a – R. Joseph said: When men sing and women join in it is licentiousness; when women sing and men join in it is like fire in tow. For what practical purpose is this mentioned? — To abolish the latter before the former.

    Mishnah Ketubot 7:6 – The following women are divorced, and do not receive [the amount of] their ketubah: One who violates Mosaic Law or Jewish custom. What constitutes [a violation of] Mosaic Law? If she feeds him untithed [food]; if she engages in intercourse with him while she was a niddah [a female who has menstrual discharges which render her impure]; if she does not set apart challah[a portion of a batch of bread dough given to a kohen which becomes holy upon separation, and can only be consumed by kohanim or their household]; and if she makes vows, but does not fulfill [them]. What constitutes [a violation of] Jewish custom? [If] she goes out [in public] with her hair uncovered; [if] she spins [thread] in the market, and converses [flirtatiously] with any man. Abba Saul says, “Also one who curses his children in his presence.” Rabbi Tarfon says, “[Also] a noisy woman.” What constitutes a noisy woman? One who speaks in her own house [so loudly] that her neighbors can hear her voice.

    Could this be the law that is referred to? I believe it is as nowhere in the Old Testament is there a law that requires women to be silent. These powerful teachings endure to this day – it is why women among the orthodox Jewish communities cannot sing in the presence of non-family members; I remember hearing a story about this on NPR some time ago. But Paul created a situation where they would get their way with head coverings (for the sake of the Jewish sisters who could be divorced for not wearing them) but also used them as a way to allow them to pray and prophesy which is to speak to people for their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort.

    If it is the case that these are both responses to the oral law then we have to recognize that Paul’s statement: “What? / Or did the word of God originate with you?” Is his sarcastic response to recognize that God’s word is meant to be spoken by women such as Huldah and Deborah as much as men like Isaiah and the other judges. Head coverings presented Paul with a way of allowing women to speak in that culture. Women today are not required to wear head coverings and men are not required to divorce women who don’t wear head coverings. Even so, Paul’s would want women’s voices to be heard as he certainly was not in agreement with Judaizer teachings.

    • Here’s a couple quick thoughts Jamie.

      1) When Paul appeals to the Law, it’s in reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. Just look at his usage in this same chapter.

      In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (1 Cor 14:20)

      Since Paul just appealed to what the “Law” says and quoted the Scripture after it, there’s no basis for a few thoughts later to assume he now means man-made traditions. Paul never appeals to “nomos” as man-made traditions.

      2) You mentioned the Law doesn’t require silence, and that’s correct of course. But there’s no reason for assuming “silence” is what he is saying the Law teaches.

      Here’s what he said:

      for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. (1 Cor 14:34)

      What the law teaches is that women are to “subject themselves”. That’s taught in Genesis 2 and I believe that’s what Paul is referring to.

      3) Corinth was primarily a gentile church. That’s evident from both the location and the issues discussed in the rest of his letter. You said that head covering was “for the sake of the Jewish sisters who could be divorced for not wearing them” but Paul would not put Jewish customs on gentiles. That was discussed and decided upon at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) where they said “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials…” (Acts 15:28)

      • In your example, one can go to Isaiah 28 and see that the reference matches or agrees. In the case of 1 Cor 14:34, there isn’t a corroborating law that says what they say it says in the OT. That just leaves the Talmud – the oral law – as a potential source and it’s been established that they taught that women ought not sing, speak loudly, speak in public, speak to non-relatives and this is because of the implication that they are to be in a state of submission because they’re women and live in a second-class status in that day and age. It more closely resembles 1 Cor 14:34 than any verse that I know of in the Torah (first five books of the Bible, which all Jews recognized as the Written Law at that time.)

        When Paul referred to having a woman’s hair cut as a shame, that was a Jewish teaching from Deuteronomy 21:10-14 – there were probably quite a few Jewish believers around to explain what that meant to the Roman and Greek believers who would not have been familiar with the oral or written laws. We can also see that Paul spends a lot of time countering the ‘super apostles’ or ‘circumcision group’ in 2 Cor. It doesn’t really matter if the church was majority Jewish or Gentile, the Gentiles fell for the teachings of the Judaizers all the same. The same thing happened in the Galatian church. Reading 1 Cor from the start, there’s also a mention of circumcision in chapter 7, so they did have a big pull even if they were not the majority. Their influence is unmistakeable on early Christianity, particularly in the outer regions where they stirred up trouble everywhere they went. Paul seems to be using the Judaizers own teachings and words against them; which is why he appears to advocate for head coverings all the while denying the tradition associated with them – from Numbers 5:18, but they did consider hair to be enticing something that ought to be covered in public. If Paul were not dealing with the Judaizers, it would not make sense for him to refer to the Old Testament and oral law (Talmud) as it would confuse the Greek and Roman believers. I think Paul was trying to get the Judaizers to choose between head coverings and silence, Paul lets them have one but not both.

  • Jeremy, I’m glad you posted this article. Last month I visited my hometown church; during the Sunday School hour the pastor mentioned the head covering (possibly for my “benefit”) in his sermon on 1Corinthians 15:29, which reads, “Otherwise, what will
    those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at
    all, why then are they baptized for them?” He called this an “ad hominem” argument – basically Paul was not condoning the practice of being baptized for the dead, but rather making this statement in order to rebuke those who believed there would be no resurrection. Then he compared this to the head covering and implied that Paul didn’t condone their practice of women audibly praying and prophesying in the assembly (as verified in 1Cor 14) but rather he says, because you are doing it, cover your heads. Needless to say, since we do not allow (in our church) women to pray audibly, there is no need for the head covering. (I suppose this view is closest to your article’s view #2). My only retort, however, would be, “are we not engaging in prayer inwardly?” And, doesn’t that count? If it doesn’t, why should women bother to attend the Wednesday evening prayer meetings?

    • Mandy

      Good questions Deborah. We (women) do participate in praying or prophesying tacity. We pray when we are led in prayer and we participate in the inspired word of God in the same manner. 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 can harmonize with each other because we are silent in the tacit sense. We worship, but we are not leading. Just as the other men who sit in the audience and worship tacity without leading, so do the women. We are all worshipping. One does not need to be outwardly vocal to be worshipping God. Women also sing in the worship assemblies. 1 Corinthians 14:22 says that “prophesy” is for believers so we know that the prophesying was done for believers wherever they were worshipping. 1 Corinthians 14:3 says “But he that prophesieth SPEAKETH unto men edification, and exhortation, and comfort. Women (as well as men) can do this while singing. For example, Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 says that we TEACH and SPEAK to on another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our heart to the Lord. So I do see how a women does need her cover on in the assembly or anytime she is worshipping with believers, even though she is silent in prayer, or listening to the inspired word of God (Bible reading/teaching) or joined in song with the brethren.

  • But the 1 Cor 11:3-16 passage is not as clear as you maintain, except with the aid of questionable translator’s interpolations. Who decided the end of v13 should read as a question? It naturally reads as a statement that it is proper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered. Who decided to slip in two extra words into v10, “sign of [authority]”? That neatly reverses the meaning from saying the woman has the right to choose whether to cover (ie follow a universal social custom) or not (and follow the new Christian practice); to saying it expresses someone else’s authority over her! Best to base veiling on Church tradition rather than solely on supposed scriptural proof.

    • Hi John, your proposed translation of verse 13 has not been articulated by anyone throughout the history of the church that I’m aware of. It also does fit with the rest of the passage which also stands against free choice (see http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/is-head-covering-christian-liberty-or-a-command). I’d like to caution you from standing against every Greek scholar the Lord has raised up to translate His Word. There isn’t a Bible version that supports it which should really make you hesitate and take a step back.

      For the extra words “sign of” see this article: http://www.headcoveringmovement.com/articles/why-is-the-phrase-a-symbol-of-1-cor-1110-not-in-the-greek

      • The main point I wanted to make is the necessity of the Church Tradition to interpret Holy Scripture: grappling with bare text alone leads Christians in all sorts of directions, as the sorry aftermath of the Reformation shows.
        PS What about v14! Jesus, His apostles, early saints and most Orthodox religious to this day are portrayed with long hair!

        • Christian Filbrun

          Question: in light of your question have you considered the eras of time from which most of said art was created, including the first few centuries of the church, or are you presuming upon a continuity of long hair on men thru AD history? To this day, medieval/renaissance male hair styles in particular seem to permeate christian literature and iconography, but their presence doesnt prove long hair on men all the way back to Christ, nor automatically on Christ either… Just a thought.

          • I had in mind Byzantine iconography. Perhaps the Shroud. And of course, Nazirites, in Jewish tradition, since St Paul was Jewish…

        • So the Apostle Paul said long hair on men is disgraceful (1 Cor 11:14) but he said this while knowing Jesus and the Apostles had long hair?

          • And that’s exactly why there’s so much that is puzzling about this passage as it has come down to us

        • Don Partridge

          Ever hear of a nazarite vow?

    • Don Partridge

      Questionable?? Who is the scholar who puts forth your translation?

  • Colin Saxton

    I think what was said in the article is a well balanced approach…we should keep in mind that we don’t strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. Let us not concentrate on splitting hairs (excuse the pun) an miss the greater fruit of justice, mercy and faith (Mat. 23:23). We can have our eyes so fixed on what others are doing right or wrong that we take our eyes off our true Love – the Lord Christ Jesus. That said, Jesus said that we are to do the smaller things that he asks as well as the greater things

    [Luk 16:10 KJV] 10 He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

    Although Christ was speaking regarding money I think we can apply this to anything that Christ is asking us to do. Why trust us with more flour if we don’t first bake with the bag of flour he has given us. Why give us more blessing if we reject the smaller blessings.

    God bless

  • Don Partridge

    4th view. Women participate in the praying and prophesying by silently praying along and listening to the prophesying. They would not be sitting under the prophesying with uncovered heads. In fact most Jewish women were covered all the time not just in synagogue. Also look at the physical structure and seating in the synagogue. Like the temple there was an inner court for the men then the women were in the back and the outer court of the Gentiles was outside the doors that were left open for them to hear. They were not permitted inside but could listen from outside. Similar to the court of the Gentiles outside the temple.
    The fact he uses the illustration, what would you think of a women praying or prophesying uncovered does not in anyway admit of their doing this in the public service. They could not even read the scriptures, only men did that.

    When we have no clear instruction that the something was changed in the style of worship, as in the dropping of the civil and ceremonial laws which became obsolete, circumcision replaced by baptism as the sign of the covenant membership, the Lord’s Supper replacing the Passover, etc. we know they would have continued to practice the same as they always did, sing what they always did, dress as they had, etc..
    And then as Gentiles were added to these Jewish churches of faithful Jews who believed their Messiah had come, while other Jews apostated from the Jewish faith continuing in old covenant external practices, the true inward Jewish rabi or elders would instruct the Gentiles in the proper worship and teaching the OT to them. In some cases as the gospel spread to Gentile lands, no Jews were converted and the church was led by Gentiles after the apostles would depart, having taught them the way. But often they had to be corrected from errors, thus letters like this to Corinth. Judaizers and other false teachers would come to them telling them they had to continue in some old covenant practices like circumcision etc. and the NT authors had to correct these errors. In light of this it is all the more evident Paul does not consider the head covering or silence of women to be old covenant, but still continuing in the new just like the 10 commandments did and were reiterated like Eph 1 children obey your parents that you may live long…

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