“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, KJV).
In some churches today, these words written by the apostle Paul continue to be viewed as a prohibition against women in pastoral ministry. This particular viewpoint has a long and well-documented history.
One of the earliest commentaries on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians can be attributed to a 3rd century theologian by the name of Origen. He concluded that while a woman may pray or prophecy in private, it would be wrong for her to do so as a form of public ministry in the church.i
John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople in the 4th century A.D., arrived at a similar conclusion. He believed that “the law” requiring the silence of women could be found in Genesis 3:16b: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (NIV). The “silence” of women in the church, in his mind, was an expression of a woman’s submission to her husband.ii
A parallel viewpoint can be found in the commentary work of Protestant Reformer, John Calvin. This is not surprising, in that Calvin frequently drew inspiration for his own commentaries from the work of the early church fathers, including St. Augustine, St. Jerome and John Chrysostom.iii “In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34, Calvin notes the incompatibility of women exercising a teaching role when commanded to ‘be in subjection.’ He writes, ‘… the task of teaching is one that belongs to someone with oversight, and is for that reason inconsistent with being in subjection.’ ‘How unsuitable,’ he declares, ‘it would be for a woman, who is in subjection to one of the members, to be in an authoritative position over the whole body! It is therefore an argument based on incompatibilities; because, if the woman is under subjection, she is therefore debarred from having authority to teach in public.’”iv
Another Reformer, Martin Luther, similarly concluded that women should be excluded from public ministry in the church as an expression of respectful submission to their husbands. Like John Chrysostom, he viewed Genesis 3:16b as the source of this prohibition: “Luther clearly regards the subjection of women as the result of judgment that came upon Eve and her female descendants at the fall (cf. Genesis 3:16). He writes, ‘If Eve had persisted in the truth she would not only not have been subjected to the rule of her husband, but she herself would also have been a partner in the rule which is now entirely the concern of males.’”v
Contemporary theologians who believe that women may not occupy positions of public authority in the church continue to look to the creation account found in the book of Genesis to support their views. Rather than focusing on Genesis 3:16, however, they conclude that the subjection of all women to male authority is suggested in the creation narrative found in Genesis chapter 2:
“Luther saw the submission of women as a punishment resulting from the fall rather than part of creation order resulting from God’s design. However, the fact that Adam was created before Eve (Gen. 2:7, 1 Tim. 2:13), charged with keeping the garden (Gen. 2:15), and named Eve “woman” (Gen. 2:23) suggests that God intended Adam to exercise leadership and authority over Eve before the events of the fall. While the ability of women to submit to authority was no doubt aggravated by the fall (Gen. 3:16), the basis for female submission has its roots in creation order rather than the tragic events of Genesis 3.”vi
From the 3rd century A.D. to the present, some theologians and commentators have concluded that “the law” referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is God’s law, and that it can be found in the creation narrative found in the book of Genesis. I’d like to examine these conclusions by looking first at the assumption made by Chrysostom and Luther that Genesis 3:16b, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you,” can appropriately be referred to as a “law of God.”
In his book entitled, “Married for Good,” R. Paul Stevens explains that Genesis 3:16b is “not what God intended for humanity.”vii Rather, it is a statement that depicts what will transpire in the relationship between Adam and Eve as a result of their decision to turn away from God. Today’s complementarians like John Piper agree that Genesis 3:16 does not represent God’s plan for men and women. Rather, it is a description of the manner in which male/female relationships will now be distorted because of sin: “It is a description of misery, not a model for marriage. This is the way it’s going to be in history where sin has the upper hand.”viii
If Genesis 3:16b is not God’s intention for humanity, if it is a description of the misery that results from sin, can it properly be referred to as “God’s law”? I don’t believe so.
This brings us to an examination of the viewpoint that “the law” referred to by the apostle Paul can best be found in the creation narrative of Genesis chapter 2. An article found on the website for The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) states that the law or principle of male authority is suggested by the following details from the creation story:
-Adam was created before Eve,
-Adam named Eve,
-Adam was charged with “keeping the garden.”ix
John Piper uses similar language to this article when he says that male leadership and feminine submission are “clearly implied” in Genesis chapter 2.x
According to the Genesis account, was Adam created before Eve? Yes (Genesis 2:21-22).
Did Adam name Eve? Yes (Genesis 3:20).
Was Adam charged with taking care of the garden? Yes (Genesis 2:15).
In any of these verses, does the writer of the book of Genesis state that any of these facts mean that Adam was created by God to exercise authority over his wife? No.
This meaning is being inferred by John Piper and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
According to an article on critical thinking, an “inference” can be defined as follows:
“An inference is a step of the mind, an intellectual act by which one concludes that something is true in light of something else’s being true, or seeming to be true. If you come at me with a knife in your hand, I probably would infer that you mean to do me harm. Inferences can be accurate or inaccurate, logical or illogical, justified or unjustified.”xi
John Piper and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood infer that because Adam was created first, he must have had authority over Eve. This inference seems to contradict the words of the apostle Paul found in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (NIV). In light of Paul’s comments, it would seem that inferring male authority from the fact that “woman came from man” is unjustified, since “also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
Even if male authority cannot be properly inferred from the fact that the first woman “came from man,” complementarian Matt Slick agrees with the CBMW that Adam’s authority was effectively demonstrated by his act of naming the animals, and then later his wife:
“Adam named the animals. Eve did not. Naming them was his first act of dominion, and it is a sign of authority; and it was God who brought the animals to Adam so that Adam could accomplish what God had commanded. If the egalitarians are correct then, there should be no expression of authority of Adam over Eve in any way–at least not before the Fall. But, since we see Adam expressing his dominance over the animals by naming them and we see that Adam names Eve, we can then conclude that Adam expressed dominance over Eve by his calling her ‘woman’ before the Fall and ‘Eve’ after it.”xii
Is it true that we know of Adam’s “dominion” over the animals because he named them? Actually, the biblical text tells us otherwise. In addition to Adam having “dominion” over the animals, Eve did as well, even though she did not name them:
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-28, NKJV)
In light of these passages found in Genesis chapter 1, is naming an “act of dominion”? Evidently not, since both “male and female” had “dominion over” all of the animals, yet Eve did not participate in naming them. In other words Adam had authority over the animals, and he named them. He did not have authority over the animals because he named them. It seems as if inferring male authority from the act of naming is unjustified.
This brings us to the CBMW’s last inference about Adam’s authority over his wife. They claim that because Adam was instructed to “tend and keep the garden,” he must have had authority over his wife (Genesis 2:15, NKJV). John Piper believes that because Eve was created to be Adam’s “helper” in the garden, this must mean that she was subordinate to his leadership. He arrives at this conclusion by observing that God first brought the animals to Adam, to be named, before Adam was introduced to his wife: “Yet in passing through ‘helpful’ animals to woman, God teaches us that the woman is a man’s ‘helper’ in the sense of a loyal and suitable assistant in the life of the garden.”xiii
Is it really true that God is teaching us how men should relate to women by first introducing Adam to “helpful animals”? Once again, this conclusion is based on inference; in this case, one that I find especially disturbing.
Should we refer to human inferences as the “law” and thereby confuse them with the will of God? I don’t think so. In fact, this is the kind of thinking that Jesus seems to confront in his following words to the “teachers of the law” of his day: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV).
An insightful article on critical thinking adapted from a book by Richard Paul and Linda Elder explains the true origin of human inferences. They arise from our own unquestioned assumptions. The article defines “assumption” in the following way:
“An assumption is something we take for granted or presuppose. Usually it is something we previously learned and do not question. It is part of our system of beliefs. We assume our beliefs to be true and use them to interpret the world about us. If we believe that it is dangerous to walk late at night in big cities and we are staying in Chicago, we will infer that it is dangerous to go for a walk late at night. We take for granted our belief that it is dangerous to walk late at night in big cities. If our belief is a sound one, our assumption is sound. If our belief is not sound, our assumption is not sound. Beliefs, and hence assumptions, can be unjustified or justified, depending upon whether we do or do not have good reasons for them. Consider this example: “I heard a scratch at the door. I got up to let the cat in.” My inference was based on the assumption (my prior belief) that only the cat makes that noise, and that he makes it only when he wants to be let in.”xiv
To help us understand why the early church fathers inferred a male-dominated gender-hierarchy from the creation account, it can be helpful to examine the beliefs through which they evidently interpreted the world around them. All of the early church fathers cited by the CBMW website to support a complementarian view of the creation narrative held deeply prejudiced beliefs about women:
Origen – “It is not proper for a woman to speak in church, however admirable or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips.”xv
Tertullian – “You are the devil’s gateway, you are the unsealer of that [forbidden] tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.”xvi
Chrysostom – “For those things which I have already mentioned might easily be performed by many even of those who are under authority, women as well as men; but when one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task.”xvii
“The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food… If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulcher.”xviii
Today, I believe it would be accurate to refer to these views as a form of “woman-hate.” In their time, however, these statements reflected the cultural norms of Roman law and the dominant Greek philosophies.xix
This culture of woman-hate continued through the middle ages, reaching its zenith in the Inquisition. It continued into the Protestant Reformation, perpetuated by the work of Reformers like John Calvin:
Calvin – “Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex.”xx
John Calvin’s deeply held beliefs and assumptions, by his own admission, had their origins in the writings of the early church fathers, including John Chrysostom (see above) and St. Augustine:
Calvin – “Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”xxi
Augustine, like Chrysostom and Origen, held a deeply prejudiced view of women that he also internalized from the cultural norms of ancient Rome:
Augustine – “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)xxii
If it is clear that the early church fathers and influential Reformers made sense of the Bible through the lenses of a deeply held prejudice against women, where do the inferences of today’s complementarian theologians like John Piper originate? John Piper describes himself as a “Seven-Point Calvinist.”xxiii In other words, his interpretation of the Bible is strongly influenced by the theological viewpoint of John Calvin.
The belief that Paul’s use of the term “law” (in 1st Corinthians 14:34) refers to a male-dominated gender-hierarchy “clearly implied” in the creation account, is not evidence-based. Rather, it appears to be an inference rooted in deeply prejudiced assumptions about women, dating back to a culture characterized by a tradition of male superiority.
The situation today is not much different than the circumstances Paul was addressing in Corinth. Then, as now, evidence suggests that some men were attempting to impose human traditions on women in the church; traditions that they referred to as “the law.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, this “law” can also be known as the Halakha:
“Quite distinct from the Law of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), Halakhah purports to preserve and represent oral traditions stemming from the revelation on Mount Sinai or evolved on the basis of it.”xxiv
These oral traditions eventually came to be known in written form as the Talmud.xxv It is in the Talmud that we find the following laws regarding women:
“A woman’s voice is prohibited because it is sexually provocative” (Talmud, Berachot 24a).
“It is a shame for a woman to let her voice be heard among men” (Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin).xxvi
It is not difficult to see the similarities between these prohibitions against women from the Talmud and the “law” Paul refers to in his letter to the Corinthians:
“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.
And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, KJV).
Charles Trombley explains that the oral traditions were not God’s revelation; rather, they were interpretations of God’s revelation, initially made by a group of men known as “scribes.” They began to fill this role when Israel went into Babylonian captivity. During this period of exile, “the Israelites lost their native tongue as a common language. They gradually accepted Aramaic, a common commercial language…. Since Hebrew had almost disappeared from daily use, someone was needed to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures and explain their meaning. The scribes filled that need, reading the law in Hebrew and then explaining it to the people in Aramaic. The laymen depended entirely on these men for their knowledge of what the Word of God actually said and meant.xxvii
As was the case with the early church fathers, and Protestant Reformers like John Calvin, the “laws” pertaining to women were derived from an interpretation of the creation narrative found in the book of Genesis. In the case of the Babylonia Talmud, this interpretation assigned all blame for the fall of humanity to women, who were then rendered subject to male authority, allegedly according to the will of God.xxviii
Also as it was with the early church fathers, the culture of the Jewish scribes was characterized by a deep-seated prejudice against women:
“Several rabbis refused to let women function in any part of Jewish society. Rabbi Eliezar, a first-century teacher, passed along what he had learned in a long unbroken chain of tradition: ‘…Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.’ Continuing, he said, ‘May the words of the Torah be burned rather than given to women.’”xxix
The reader may note the similarity between these words and those of Origen: “It is not proper for a woman to speak in church, however admirable or holy what she says may be, merely because it comes from female lips.”
Would the apostle Paul appeal to the law to silence women in the church? I don’t believe so. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul depicts his own former righteousness, which was based on the law, as “garbage” (Philippians 3:8, NIV).
Would the apostle Paul agree with the evident prejudices of his day to impose oppressive oral traditions on Christian women? I don’t believe so. In his letter to the Galatians, he wrote, “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, NIV).
If the apostle Paul is not appealing to the law revealed to Moses in the Pentateuch or endorsing prejudiced traditions for the purpose of silencing women, what is he doing? He is answering a letter, sent to him from Chloe, a woman in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11; 7-1). People sent from her alerted Paul that all was not well in the Corinthian church. The letter we now call 1st Corinthians is his response. Throughout his letter, Paul repeatedly makes reference to the issues brought to his attention. He then answers them.
When it came to Paul’s attention that some men were attempting to prohibit women from speaking (specifically prophesying and speaking in tongues) in church, this was his response:
“What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:36-39, KJV).
Forbid not. Rather, allow women to speak in tongues and prophesy. Simply ensure that these things are done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40, NKJV).
It was also to this church that Paul wrote: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12, NIV).
Should Christians today teach that human inferences drawn from the Genesis account are “the law” of God?
Should we continue to see the Bible through the lenses of scribes and commentators who held beliefs that were deeply prejudiced against women?
No, I don’t believe we should.
We should remember that just as the first woman came from man, all men come from women. We should remember that in Christ there is neither male nor female. We should “forbid not” the ministry of the Holy Spirit through our sisters in Christ.
Links to Other Helpful Articles on this Subject:
vii Stevens, R.P. (1986). Married for Good (p. 129). Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
x Piper J. & Grudem W. (1991). Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (p. 37). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
xv Trombley, C. (2003). Who Said Women Can’t Teach? God’s Vision for Women in Ministry (p. 235). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.
xvi Trombley, C. (2003). Who Said Women Can’t Teach? God’s Vision for Women in Ministry (p. 237). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.
xix Edwards, B. (2013). Let My People Go: A Call to End the Oppression of Women in the Church, Revised and Expanded. Charleston, SC: Createspace.
xx Oliphant, J. (2011). AQA Religious Ethics for AS and A2. New York, NY: Routledge.
xxvii Trombley, C. (2003). Who Said Women Can’t Teach? God’s Vision for Women in Ministry (p. 30). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.
xxviii Trombley, C. (2003). Who Said Women Can’t Teach? God’s Vision for Women in Ministry (pp. 35-36). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.
xxix Trombley, C. (2003). Who Said Women Can’t Teach? God’s Vision for Women in Ministry (p. 40). Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos.
(Bolding of text in quotations is mine)