What if the text is authentic and expresses Paul’s own teaching? How would we then interpret the passage?
Reconciling with chapter 11
First, this passage can’t repeal the first half of chapter 11. And no matter how you exegete chapter 11, the fact is that women were praying and prophesying in the presence of men in the assembly. Some speculate that the early church had a separate event for prayer and prophecy, but (a) there is no historical or biblical evidence for this and (b) we know from chapter 14 that prayer and prophecy took place in the regular assembly. So if we interpret 1 Cor 14:33b-35 to simply say, “Women may not speak in the assembly,” well, that interpretation is flatly contradicted by chapter 11 and is therefore false.
Some argue that 1 Cor 14:33b-35 does not apply to Spirit-inspired speech. But there is nothing in the passage that actually says that. While the prophecy in chapter 11 was certainly Spirit-inspired, on what basis do we conclude that the prayers of the women were inspired by the Spirit any more than their questions? We can’t just assume and then ban half the church from speaking based on a human assumption. Doctrine built on assumption is nothing but speculation.
Honor and shame
Today, not a single congregation of the Churches of Christ requires female members to only ask husbands questions at home. We disobey this command no matter how conservative or traditional our views. Why? Well, because in American culture, it would be insulting, rude, and pointless — and not every husband is qualified to answer his wife’s scriptural questions and not every woman is married. Times have changed, and so we assume that this part of Paul’s command is based on the local culture. Many preachers aren’t willing to admit this, but this is what they conclude or else they’d be preaching this text as a command binding today. No one does. (If you doubt me, just ask your preacher to announce from the pulpit that he will not address questions of female members and they are required to ask only their husbands, not at church, but at home. See how well that plays out!)
Why did Corinthian culture insist on women asking their husbands at home? Well, because it was an honor/shame culture in which women were treated with a blanket of cultural dishonor. Men had honor. By and large, women did not.
Notice that Paul’s conclusion is “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” “Shameful” translates aischros, meaning, “A term esp. significant in honor-shame oriented society; gener. in ref. to that which fails to meet expected moral and cultural standards,” according to BDAG. Therefore, Paul is speaking of the expectations of the surrounding honor/shame culture. That is, in that culture, it would shameful (dishonorable) for a woman to ask questions of a man outside of a household setting. Americans live in a guilt culture, which is very different — and it’s very hard for us to wrap our brains around how an honor culture thinks. For now, it’s enough to realize that the church would be shamed in the eyes of its neighbors if it engaged in any practices that would bring shame.
The Greek historian Plutarch, a near contemporary of Paul, wrote in Conjugal Precepts 31:
Not only the arm but the voice of a modest woman ought to be kept from the public, and she should feel shame at being heard, as at being stripped. … She should speak either to, or through, her husband.
“Shame” means she should feel the criticism of other people. It’s not that she’s guilty of a sin but that others would see her as bringing shame on her husband — taking away from his honor in the eyes of the community.
The respectable Greek woman lived a very confined life. She lived in her own quarters into which no one but her husband came. She did not even appear at meals. She never at any time appeared on the street alone: she never went to any public assembly, still less did she ever speak or take any active part in such an assembly. The fact is that if in a Greek town Christian women had taken an active and a speaking and a teaching part in the work of the Christian Church, the Church would inevitably have gained the reputation of being the resort of loose and immoral women.
In referring to what would bring shame to the church, Paul was explicitly referencing cultural norms that do not apply in the American church but may well apply in some modern cultures that are similar to the culture of ancient Greece in this regard.
Frankly, if Paul didn’t mention his command as being supported by the Law, I think most readers would easily come to the conclusion that Paul is dealing with problems specific to the local culture. Just as the command for women to wear veils (not hats) in 1 Cor 11 does not apply in a culture where veils are not required for a woman to be thought modest, the requirement that women not ask questions of a man is peculiar to the culture of that time and place.
Paul’s reference to the “Law” is difficult because the Law of Moses says nothing about women being silent in an assembly or in the presence of men. Even the separation of women from men in the Second Temple — the “women’s court” separate from the court of Gentiles and men’s court (the court of Israel) in the maps section of your Bible — is based on extra-biblical descriptions of the temple. Nothing in the Bible says women can’t worship alongside men.
So when Paul writes that women “should be in submission, as the Law also says,” he is not referring to the Law of Moses. But the Jews also referred to the first five books of the Bible as “the Law,” and so the most likely possibilities are Gen 2 and 3. Hierarchicalists often argue from Gen 3:16 —
(Gen. 3:16 ESV) 16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
It’s hardly obvious why the husband having rule over his wife requires her to be silent in the assembly. Moreover, “rule” means dominion, such as a king’s authority over his subjects, not loving, gentle, Christian spiritual leadership. It’s a word used for kings and tyrants. But then it’s also part of the curse on Creation resulting from sin. Paul sees the curse of Gen 3 as standing in opposition to Jesus (Rom 8:19-23). Frankly, any argument based on this passage is irresponsible because it ignores the narrative of scripture, the fact that God is seeking through Jesus to overthrow the curse (Rev 22:3 NIV, NASB), and God certainly does not command his children to submit to the product of sin.
That leaves Gen 2 as a possibility — and Paul discusses sexuality and marriage in light of Gen 2 in 1 Cor 6:16-17; 7:4; and 11:2. That is, Paul calls the church to honor marriage and sexuality based on the relationship of Adam and Eve in the Garden before sin entered the world. And among the lessons in Gen 2 is the fact that Eve was made to be a suitable “helper” (NIV, NASB) or “helper fit for him” (ESV).
Now, in English, “helper” typically indicates subordination and inferiority. If I hire someone to be my “helper,” that person will work under me. But in Hebrew, the word most commonly is used to describe God as Israel’s helper — hardly a subordinate role!
[God’s] remedy is to provide a helper suitable for him (i.e., for the man). The last part of v. 18 reads literally, “I will make him for him a helper as in front of him (or according to what is in front of him).” This last phrase, “as in front of him (or according to what is in front of him)” (keneḡdô), occurs only here and in v. 20. It suggests that what God creates for Adam will correspond to him. Thus the new creation will be neither a superior nor an inferior, but an equal. The creation of this helper will form one-half of a polarity, and will be to man as the south pole is to the north pole.
This new creation which man needs is called a helper (ʿēzer), which is masculine in gender, though here it is a term for woman. Any suggestion that this particular word denotes one who has only an associate or subordinate status to a senior member is refuted by the fact that most frequently this same word describes Yahweh’s relationship to Israel. He is Israel’s help(er) because he is the stronger one (see, e.g., Exod. 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26, 29; Ps. 33:20; 115:9–11; 124:8; 146:5; etc.). The LXX translation of ʿēzer by boēthós offers further support for this nuance. The LXX uses boēthós forty-five times to translate several Hebrew words, and except for three occurrences (1 Chr. 12:18; Ezek. 12:14; Nah. 3:9) the word refers to help “from a stronger one, in no way needing help.” The word is used less frequently for human helpers, and even here, the helper is one appealed to because of superior military strength (Isa. 30:5) or superior size (Ps. 121:1). The verb behind ʿēzer is ʿāzar, which means “succor,” “save from danger,” “deliver from death.” The woman in Gen. 2 delivers or saves man from his solitude.
Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 175–176.
Nonetheless, while the Hebrew gives no indication of inferiority or even subordination, it does mean that the wife was created to be of benefit to her husband. She cannot work against her husband’s best interests and still be a helper. Therefore, in a culture where a wife’s questioning her husband in public would bring shame and dishonor on him, the wife must ask her husband her questions at home. Even in American culture, it would be wrong for a wife to publicly disrespect her husband — and in First Century Corinth, speaking to another man in public or questioning her own husband would be seen as dishonoring — contrary to the Law’s expectation that a wife be her husband’s helper.
That is, the command to be in submission is a reference to being a “suitable helper” — meaning the wife may not bring shame or disrespect to her husband. What actions might bring shame or disrespect will vary from time to time, culture to culture.
Husbands and wives?
In Greek, the words for husband and for wife can also be translated man or woman. The words themselves are entirely ambiguous, and so the meaning has to be gleaned from context.
Now, in v. 35, obviously Paul has wives in mind. Who else could ask her husband at home? And so we should translate,
(1 Cor. 14:33-35 ESV) As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the [wives] should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their [own] husbands at home. For it is shameful for a [wife] to speak in church.
After all, the Law says nothing to single women about how to treat men in general — and we really don’t want to raise our daughters to be in submission to all men — just to their husbands.
PS — The “own” in v. 35 is in the Greek and translated by the NIV and NASB. Its presence emphasizes Paul’s concern that wives not to speak to the husbands of other women in that time and place.
The hierarchic position assumes that we should have rules for men and women in the assembly that apply nowhere else. The women must be silent during the assembly but may ask questions in class. Women may supervise men at work but not at church. And yet it’s hard to imagine how the Law could create a rule that applies during the worship assembly but otherwise doesn’t apply at all. The appeal of the foregoing analysis is that the rule for submission comes from the Law — Gen 2 — but how submission is shown depends on the local culture and circumstances. In the modern US, a wife should not disrespect her husband, but a wife leading a prayer or communion meditation before a mixed group would not be seen as shaming her husband — not at all (except in a church incorrectly instructed as to the meaning of 1 Cor 14:33b-35). But in First Century Greece, it would have. Hence, the rule — be a helper to your husband — is from the Law, universal, and will continue as long as marriage continues. But how respect or disrespect is shown will change from time to time, culture to culture.