Part Three: The Precepts of St. Paul

The following is the third in a seven-part series.

In several places in his epistles, St. Paul clearly implies that only men should serve in the pastoral leadership ministry of the Church, including the official preaching and teaching role of that ministry.

In 1 Timothy 3:2, for example, St. Paul lists the requirements for candidates for the office of "bishop" (at the time, a title synonymous with "elder" or "presbyter," meaning simply a local pastor of a Christian community): "Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife." In those days bishops could be married, but it is clear that even a married bishop would have to be male, "the husband of one wife."

In 1 Corinthians 14, St. Paul denounced all kinds of disorder in the worship life of the Church in Corinth, such as people speaking in "tongues" or "uttering prophecies" in ways that disrupted rather than edified the community at worship. At the end of this discourse, he states that the Corinthians also should not allow their women to "speak" in Church (the Greek verb lalein) - which possibly implied that they had been interrupting the preaching of the Word with questions, comments, or ecstatic utterances, although the precise context of St. Paul's directive here is not entirely clear. He wrote:




As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence. For they are not permitted to speak [lalein], but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak [lalein] in church. What! Did the Word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?

If any one thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Cor 14: 33-38).

This passage from St. Paul's writings certainly grates on our ears today, when in some ways we have come to appreciate the equal dignity of women more than in centuries past. But before we write off St. Paul as a male chauvinist, let's try to understand what he was saying in the context of his teachings as a whole.

Saint Paul's use of the word lalein "never means 'to chatter,' or 'to interrupt,' but often refers to the official preaching of the gospel" (Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood?, p. 379). Moreover, St. Paul hardly could have taught here that women were never to address the worship assembly at all, for elsewhere in 1 Corinthians he gives instructions as to how they should comport themselves when they prophesy in church (see 1 Cor 11:5). Thus, St. Paul's ban on women "speaking" in church does not seem to mean a ban on women speaking altogether during services of worship, nor does it seem to refer to interruptive comments or questions. More likely it was a prohibition of women acting as the official preachers of the gospel in the Eucharistic assembly, "as in all the churches" (14:33) a role reserved for the bishops, elders, presbyters - or indeed for a visiting apostle, if one were present.


The word lalein, in fact, functions in a way very similar to the English verb "to speak": It can mean "to talk" in general, or it can mean "to speak" in the sense of being one of the official "speakers" at a conference or graduation ceremony or religious service.

This is also the view of Evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem in his book Evangelical Feminism (2006). Responding to the claim that in 1 Corinthians 14 St. Paul was merely objecting to disruptive comments and questions by women in the worship services at Corinth, Grudem writes:

This theory attempts to make the Corinthian situation a special one, when in fact Paul applies this rule "to all the churches" (14:33b). Thus, his rule cannot be restricted to one local church where there supposedly were problems [with female disorderly behavior at worship]. Instead, Paul directs the Corinthians to conform to a practice that was universal in the early church.

Moreover, the "noisy women" theory either does not make sense of Paul's solution or else makes his remedy unfair.

First, it does not make sense. If women were being disruptive, Paul would just tell them to act in an orderly way, not to be completely silent. In other cases where there are problems of disorder, Paul simply prescribes order (as with tongues or prophecy in 14:27, 29, 31, and as with the Lord's Supper in 11:33-34). If [disruptive] noise had been the problem in Corinth, he would have expressly forbidden disorderly speech [by women in church], not all speech.

Second, it would be unfair. With this view, Paul would be punishing all women for the misdeeds of some. If there were noisy women, in order to be fair, Paul should have said, "The disorderly women should keep silent." But this ... position makes Paul unfair, for it makes him silence all women [because of] the disorderly ones ....

We should also note the explicit reasons that St. Paul gives here for restricting the ministry of preaching and the leading of the worship life of the Church to men.

First of all, he cites the continuing relevance of "the law": "for they [women] are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the law also says" (1 Cor 14:34). "Law" here most likely refers to the teachings of the Old Testament in general on the proper roles of men and women - perhaps the restriction of the roles of priest and elder to men in the religious life of Israel, and/or the headship of Adam in the first family in Genesis (which St. Paul discusses in 1 Timothy 2).

In fact, he frequently uses the word "law" (Greek nomos) in this general sense, rather than using it to refer merely to the Levitical law - especially when he uses the formula "as the law says" (see the two other instances of his use of this formula in the New Testament in Rom 3:19 and 1 Cor 9:8). It is also unlikely that "law" here in 1 Cor 14:34 refers to Roman law or Jewish oral traditions, for St. Paul elsewhere does not use the phrase "as the law says" in such a way. Again, by "the law" here, he probably refers to God's revelation through the Hebrew Scriptures in general.

Second, St. Paul appeals to the tradition of "all the churches" as an authoritative guide (14:33) - which includes all the Christian churches throughout the world not directly founded by him. In another place in 1 Corinthians, St. Paul appeals to the authority of universal tradition (see 1 Cor 11:16). Such appeals only stand to reason, given that for St. Paul, the Church is "the Body of Christ" on earth (1 Cor 12:12-27) and "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15). The consensus of the churches, suffused as they are by the Spirit of Christ, cannot lead us fundamentally astray.

Third, St. Paul bases his teaching here about the submission and silence of women in the worship life of the Church on a "command of the Lord" (14:37). We have no record of such a command in the Gospels, but that should not surprise us; elsewhere St. Paul mentions commands of Jesus Christ that are not recorded by the four evangelists (e.g. "It is more blessed to give than to receive," Acts 20:35). In fact, the Gospels do not claim to provide us with a comprehensive record of all of the teachings of Jesus (Jn 21:25). Catholic theologian Manfred Hauke writes:

According to the reports of all four of the Gospels, the apostles had received directives from Jesus even after Easter (up until the Ascension). Included in these were matters pertaining to the founding of the Church, especially those pertaining to baptism and office [Mt 28: 18-20; Jn 20:22- 23, 21:15-23].

It is quite readily conceivable that Christ may have explained to the Twelve, in concise terms, why it was precisely they whom he summoned to the apostolate, and not one of his female followers. That a specific directive for the future went along with this may be taken as certain in view of 1 Corinthians 14:37. (Hauke, p. 389)

Biblical scholars note that some of the early western manuscripts of 1 Corinthians 14 place verses 34-35 after verse 40, which makes the directive on women keeping silent in church no longer "a command of the Lord." But that version of the text would still justify the exclusion of women from preaching and teaching in the Eucharistic assembly on the basis of the practice of "all the churches" and on the general principles of "the law" (i.e. the revelation of God's will in the Old Testament). Moreover, the reason why most modern translations of the New Testament do not give preference to those western variations of the Greek text is that almost all of those variant manuscripts seem to be traceable to the influence of the western heretic Marcion from the second century, who produced edited versions of the Pauline epistles to conform to his own teachings.

Besides, it is pretty clear that in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, we have an apostolic reiteration and clarification of 1 Corinthians 14 on this matter, given the verbal similarities between the two passages:

Let a woman learn in silence, with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men. She is to keep silence.

(More on this controversial biblical passage in our next article in this web series.)

Next time: More on the Precepts of St. Paul

Follow the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2019


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