What We Believe

Women Speaking in Church: A Response

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

New Horizons: March 1996

Something on My Mind

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Something on My Mind: Letters to Families and Others

Editor's note: In response to "May Women Speak in Church?" by James W. Scott, published in the January issue, Professor Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. of Westminster Theological Seminary (in Philadelphia) has written the following letter. An exchange between Drs. Scott and Gaffin follows the letter.


Dr. Scott is to be commended for seeking to explain 1 Corinthians 14:33b"36 in its immediate context (something these days, especially in the highly charged debates about the role of women in the church, that too often does not happen), and he makes some valid observations about the passage. However, he recognizes, rightly, and his readers should not miss this: virtually the entire case he wishes to make for the silence of women in the church today stands or falls with being able to show that these verses are, as he says, a "separate section," and not part of Paul's discussion about spiritual gifts and their proper exercise; that discussion, he believes, ends with verse 33a.

The reader may want to have an open Bible at hand for the following comments in response to this view.

At the outset, that I not be misunderstood, let me state clearly that the question of women's ordination is not being addressed in this passage. That issue is settled for us elsewhere (women are not to be ordained as teachers or elders), primarily by the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7, and need not burden our understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:33b"36.

Despite the arguments Dr. Scott offers for his view that these verses form a separate section (and his repeated assertion of it), it is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, his handling of verses 37-40 is unsatisfactory. First, he does not even mention, much less try to explain, Paul's reference in verse 37 to the one who is "a prophet or spiritual" ("spiritually gifted" for the latter, NIV, seems a fair rendering here). The input of this verse is important; it shows that the proper exercise of spiritual gifts, particularly prophecy, is still very much Paul's specific concern immediately following what he has just stipulated about the silence of women in church (verses 33b"36). Further, verses 37-40 are not intended, as Dr. Scott holds, "in a general way" as an overall conclusion to chapters 11-14. Nor is it true that prophecy and tongues happen to be mentioned in verse 39 because they are "the main subject of chapters 11-14."

In fact, prophecy and tongues are not "the main subject" of these chapters (prophecy is mentioned in passing in chapter 11, and both are referred to at several places as part of two larger discussions in chapters 12 and 13). However, they are "the main subject" of chapter 14—from beginning to end. Verse 1-3 and 39-40 (note the "therefore" at the beginning of verse 39) are the "bookends" of a single discussion devoted to prophecy and tongues and their proper exercise relative to each other; that contrast runs like a backbone down the entire chapter (the reader may want to reread the chapter to see how that is so).

Verses 33b"36, then, are not a general command for women to be silent in church; they do not support the sweeping implications of mandatory silence for women in the church today drawn by Dr. Scott. Instead they are much more plausibly understood, in context, as focussed on some aspect of the exercise of prophecy (in view in verses 29-33a). What that aspect is specifically, is difficult to say; the passage itself does not tell us, and prophecy in the church lies in the past, having ceased after the time of the apostles.

Perhaps, as a number of Bible scholars propose, Paul is concerned here with evaluating prophecy. That was just commanded in verse 29 as part of the procedure for regulating the exercise of prophecy, in view through verse 33a. Women are not to participate in such authoritative evaluation, in Corinth or wherever the gift of prophecy was being exercised in churches at that time.

But this question does not have to be settled here; what suffices is to recognize that, in some way, verses 33b"36 apply specifically to prophecy. Otherwise, to give them a broad and sweeping application, makes them a puzzling parenthesis, difficult to make sense of in the immediate context; on such a view they are simply out of place (which may explain why some later copyist with this misunderstanding was so bold as to move these verses and put them after verse 40).

It may be pointed out here that Paul's appeal to "the Law" in verse 34 does not support Dr. Scott's position. (Again, it is difficult to know what Old Testament passage exactly Paul had in mind; that Genesis 2:20-23 is in view may be plausible but is far from certain.) Note that he uses virtually the same expression earlier in verse 20 ("in the Law it is written") to introduce an Old Testament citation (Isaiah 28:11-12) applied there specifically to speaking in tongues.

A measure of control and substantiation for my remarks so far is found in 1 Corinthians 11:5. Paul's statement there presupposes that women pray and prophesy in church. Dr. Scott recognizes that (he does not adopt one of the less plausible views sometimes taken, either that Paul is addressing a practice he does not really approve or that he has in view praying or prophesying in private). Dr. Scott, then, is faced with the dilemma of having somehow to reconcile the speaking of 11:5 with what he understands to be the general command to be silent in 14:33b"36. His resolution is that the prohibited speech in chapter 14 is "ordinary, uninspired utterance" but the praying (as well as prophesying) of chapter 11 is "inspired utterance."

No doubt the former is true, but where is the evidence for the latter? The association of (inspired) prophecy with prayer in 11:5 does not require that it, too, is inspired; nor is there anything else in the immediate context even to suggest that. In view is prayer in general, whether inspired or not. Nor is there anything to suggest that this praying is limited to praying in tongues (mentioned in 14:14-15). It has to be said openly: Dr. Scott's understanding of the prayer of 11:5 is little more than speculation, prompted, it would appear, by the need to save his interpretation of 14:33b"36.

Much more defensible, it seems to me, is to recognize that 11:5 restricts the scope of the command to silence in 14:33b"36 and reinforces, as we have already tried to show from the immediate context in chapter 14, that this command is limited to concerns connected with the exercise of the gift of prophecy.

After all this, am I saying that I am absolutely right and Dr. Scott is absolutely wrong? Though I do believe mine is the much more likely view, I am not ready to say that. For the passage is a difficult one, and I am under no illusion of having resolved all its problems here. A measure of tentativeness is in order.

That prompts this final remark. At a couple of points, about the middle and at the very end of the article, Dr. Scott leaves the impression that if we don't agree with him, rather than ''seeking to obey the Word of God" we are "seeking to satisfy ourselves and placate others''; not to agree with him is to "adopt the world's values" and is "shameful and dishonoring to the Lord" (if I have misread him, I apologize, but others have gotten the same impression). We all need to remain open to and take seriously the warning against "being conformed to this age" (Rom. 12:2), with its rebellious and idolatrous standards. But to foreclose discussion in this way is most unfortunate. It does not help Orthodox Presbyterians as they continue to discuss appropriate, biblically obedient roles for women in the church today.

Dr. Scott replies:

Dr. Gaffin is mistaken to think that my restatement of the traditional Reformed interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:33b"36 (Calvin, Godet, Hodge, etc.) "stands or falls" with my argument that the passage forms "a separate section." That argument clarifies the otherwise puzzling placement of the passage, but my interpretation of it would be equally valid if it constituted a digression (much like 13:1-13) in the argument of 14:1-40 (better: 12:1-14:40). His attacks on my argument, then, are all beside the point.

The crucial fact is that not one word in verses 33b"36 refers to tongues or prophecy (the subject of the previous verses); nor is there any continuity of argument with what precedes. Hence, the subject matter has changed.

Surprisingly, Dr. Gaffin virtually ignores the words of the passage when he discusses what it is referring to! Looking almost exclusively at other passages, he reaches the conclusion that these verses are "focussed on some aspect of the exercise of prophecy"! Such an approach is incomplete, to say the least.

Dr. Gaffin suggests that "perhaps" Paul "is concerned here with evaluating prophecy." This matter is mentioned in verse 29b, but verses 30-33a discuss another matter—prophets speaking in turn. Not one person in a million reading along in chapter 14 would come to verse 34 and imagine it had any connection with the evaluating of prophecy mentioned back in verse 29. Indeed, this notion was almost unknown until James B. Hurley advanced it in 1973.

In addition to the reasons given in my article for rejecting this interpretation, several others could be mentioned. First, the speaking forbidden to women includes the asking of questions in order to "ascertain [or, learn] anything" (verse 35). Such asking of questions hardly sounds like the evaluating of prophecies. Second, Paul tells the women to save their questions for home, yet the evaluating of prophecy was to take place in church. Third, the word "anything" excludes such a narrow view of what they wanted to ask about.

Furthermore, it is doubtful that women were not permitted to evaluate prophecies. This activity in verse 29 is evidently the exercise of the special spiritual gift of discerning spirits (see 12:10). If so, the evaluator was God's direct spokesman, and thus the ordinary restriction on women exercising authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12) would have been superseded, just as the gift of prophecy superseded the ordinary restriction on women teaching.

The traditional Reformed interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:33b"36 remains unshaken. The passage should be understood in a straightforward manner, according to the plain sense of its words, and then applied conscientiously in our churches.

(A more thorough reply to Dr. Gaffin is available upon request.)

Dr. Gaffin replies:

1. Dr. Scott's reply diverts our attention from the main issue raised by his article. He spends the better part trying to show how mistaken my understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:33b"36 is, particularly my suggestion (it is no more than that) that Paul is forbidding women to evaluate prophecies. But, as I've already noted in my letter, even if this view should prove to be wrong (though I doubt that it has the only "one person in a million" plausibility he alleges!), the fact still remains that verses 33b"36 have to be explained in some way that fits within the flow of Paul's treatment of the gifts of prophecy and tongues. Ultimately, the issue is not whether I have gotten it right in every detail but whether his interpretation, because of the consequent legislation concerning women he would have the church impose today, is right.

2. Dr. Scott dismisses my critique as "beside the point." But it would have been more constructive to have addressed the most substantial specific problems I, for one, have with his interpretation: (1) 14:37 shows that Paul is still occupied with the topic of spiritual gifts, particularly prophecy, and (2) 11:5, on its most likely understanding, shows that the silence command of 14:33b"36 does not prohibit all uninspired speaking.

Dr. Scott is so secure in his understanding of this passage as "a separate section" that he apparently thinks its credibility does not depend on being able to give a convincing explanation of how the passage fits within its immediate and broader context (by the way, the passage, understood as a "digression," as he proposes, is not "much like" 13:1-13; the latter is clearly integral to the concern of the larger context with spiritual gifts, but the former, on his view, is unrelated to the concerns of the immediate context).

The constraints of context, however, may not be shrugged off so easily. Certainly, any understanding of a passage that is unable to give a satisfactory explanation of its place in the immediate context ought to make us tentative about that understanding, and doubly tentative about drawing implications, especially when, as Dr. Scott stresses at the very end of his reply, they are to be "applied conscientiously in our churches" (his italics). He has left us in no doubt about what such application entails. For instance, to sing "To God Be the Glory" in public worship not only does not glorify God but dishonors him! Most Orthodox Presbyterians and others concerned about God-glorifying involvement of women in the life of the church today, I hope, will properly be wary of the sort of "relentless logic" (Dr. Scott's own language) that gives rise to such conclusions.

Reprinted from New Horizons, March 1996.

New Horizons: March 1996

Something on My Mind

Also in this issue

Something on My Mind: Letters to Families and Others

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