What Law, Paul?

When you go to certain churches, you might notice that there are no leadership opportunities for women; some churches, usually the more "liberal" and "progressive" kinds, will install female pastors. Some churches allow for some middle ground and will allow women to teach Sunday schools, small groups, or to lead in worship; sometimes, they'll be deaconesses. Still, some denominations will allow for female prophets and apostles. The Seventh Day Adventists are otherwise conservative Christians who are famous for their so-called prophetess Ellen G. White.

Why is there little consistency among the various expressions of Christianity when it relates to this issue? You would think that if the majority of Christians affirm the authority and inspiration of Paul's writings, that there would be more of a consensus as it relates to the roles of women. Paul says explicitly in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35,

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. 

The thing that's always troubled me about this short passage is that 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 has no explicit Torah cross reference. It seems as though Paul is utilizing the oral tradition of the pharisees, who certainly did place these sorts of strict restrictions on males and females, both in public and in worship. Paul was, after all, a “pharisee of pharisees.” It makes sense because of the culture and in light of, perhaps, traditional interpretation. 

Commentary on this I’ve found is summarized best in the following statement.[1] Later, I’ll also pull out one of the footnotes (#6) to reiterate what I'm saying.

Brief Commentaries

Scholarly Commentary:

The very phrase which Paul uses is found in a number of proximate Jewish writings, and its meaning is not in doubt. It is a clear reference to a principle drawn from the Biblical text (not a direct quote), either to the Pentateuch(1) or some other part of the Old Testament.(2)

Several commentators note that this appeal to ‘the Law’ is a standard form of argument in Paul’s writings.(3) (4) (5) (6)

Of twelve standard modern Bible commentaries,(7) almost all of them understand this is as a reference to the Law of Moses or a general principle from Genesis or the Old Testament; of these commentaries only one egalitarian commentary disagrees.(8)

What this excerpt shows is that there simply is no direct command; it’s a “principle” or tradition based on inferences found throughout the scriptures. That’s eisegesis, not exegesis.

In John Gill's commentary on verse 34 of 1 Corinthians, we find that even he refers back to the Genesis fall, saying the following:[2]

and thy desire shall be to thy husband, which some understand of her desire to the use of the marriage bed, as Jarchi, and even notwithstanding her sorrows and pains in child bearing; but rather this is to be understood of her being solely at the will and pleasure of her husband; that whatever she desired should be referred to him, whether she should have her desire or not, or the thing she desired; it should be liable to be controlled by his will, which must determine it, and to which she must be subject, as follows:

and he shall rule over thee, with less kindness and gentleness, with more rigour and strictness: it looks as if before the transgression there was a greater equality between the man and the woman, or man did not exercise the authority over the woman he afterwards did, or the subjection of her to him was more pleasant and agreeable than now it would be; and this was her chastisement, because she did not ask advice of her husband about eating the fruit, but did it of herself, without his will and consent, and tempted him to do the same.

Gill admits "it looks as if before the transgression there was a greater equality between the man and the woman, or man did not exercise authority over the woman he afterwards did..." He confirms that the tradition afterwards in synagogues, and even churches, rigidly persisted:

"a woman may not read (that is, in the law), בצבור, "in the congregation", or church, because of the honour of the congregation;'' for they thought it a dishonourable thing to a public assembly for a woman to read, though they even allowed a child to do it that was capable of it.

Gill's source of the quote is Maimon. Hilch. Tephilla, c. 12. sect. 17. T. Bab. Megilla, fol. 23. 1. This is an example of what Paul might've had in mind when he wrote his instructions for females. He was drawing from what seems to be an oral tradition or commentary of the elders. Is that inspired?


But what would Jesus do? What do we see Jesus doing?

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.[3]

In this one discourse, Jesus establishes the undeniable fact that the greatest among them in the kingdom is the servant among them. He says "Be not called Rabbi...for one is your Master, Christ; and all ye are brethren." In Christian churches everywhere, men call themselves "Rabbi," or Teacher, against the will of the Lord Jesus. But not so with Jesus. At the very end of this discourse, he says that the one who exalts himself will be abased, or made lower; but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Now imagine a place where everyone is humble, including the truly greatest among us (remember, he said that the greatest among them would be their servant...who else is more humble than Jesus?)--the logical expectation of Jesus is that we're all equals before God.

To suggest this isn't Jesus' expectation of us now is ludicrous. This isn't merely the final hope; this is intended to be actuated everyday. Jesus said so himself:[4]

But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Jesus says "it shall not be so among you," which is what logically happens when people adopt the mentality that they're servant to the other. If each person serves the other, there is literally no "male" or "female"; "owner" or "slave"; "boss" or "worker"; "laity" or "layman" division. The only function of "male" and "female" from the beginning was for Adam to have an equal help meet and mate. Otherwise, as Gill notes, they were intended to be equals. If this is God's ideal, and Jesus is essentially describing our kingdom in that way, then that means men and women who follow the Lord Jesus are obligated to serve one another, not vie for positions of dominion over one another.    

Let's also not forget that Mary was the first eye witness to the resurrection who was then sent to preach and bear witness of the truth of God to men. In a similar way, the woman at the well went and told many men what Messiah told her.

In Acts, evangelist Philip had daughters, and they were said to be prophetesses. And it’s obvious that in the meeting in Acts 2, men and women were prophesying in languages by miracle in order to witness.

Footnote 6:

[6] ‘Fourth, “as the law says” does not refer to secular law restricting women’s actions in the public arena but to the OT law.34 Paul’s presumed impatience with the law is exaggerated. He appeals to it in the context in 14:21 and also in 7:19 and 9:8–10 (cf. Rom. 3:19; 7:7). The problem is that he does not cite a text from the law, and no OT passage instructs women to be silent. Perhaps he refers to a general assumption that the law calls for the wife’s submission to her husband.’, Garland (egalitarian), ‘1 Corinthians’, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 672 (2003).


It's very obvious that Paul isn’t citing a specific law from Torah but is rather building a case based on traditional inferences based on a few verses, namely the Genesis order of creation (male first, female second). It’s my view, based on other instances where women are in positions of leadership and, or, public speaking, that Paul has a rather narrow and unnecessary restriction on the role of women. It's obvious to me that Paul is piecing together a standard that could be argued contradicts Jesus' clear intention of making a Kingdom of equals.

More troubling for Christians who accept Paul's writing as inspired is their ignorance of where Paul is drawing his instruction from. If Paul is relying on interpretations and commentaries of a text, and not the text itself, then we must wonder if what Paul says is as inspired or authoritative as is typically assumed. If it is concluded that his teachings are, in fact, inspired and authoritative for Christians, then the logical conclusion would be for every Christian church to listen to their apostle and eliminate the allowance given to women of speaking in their churches. You simply can't have an apostles speaking by inspiration but neglect to implement his instructions. It seems that the more consistent reader is the one who values Jesus' attitudes towards his neighbor and lives by his example, rather than the one who either picks and chooses what to obey or who perpetuates a hurtful hierarchy. 


[2] John Gill's commentary on Genesis 3:16, from his commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34; E-Sword X

[3] Matthew 23:1-12, KJV

[4] Matthew 20:25-28, KJV


This is an on going study and is subject to revisions according to further studies.