34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. 39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (1 Corinthians 14:34-40 NIV)
What do we do with these verses? The most common way of dealing with them is to either ignore them or to say that they only applied to a specific time and place, Corinth in the first century. When we do this, we are saying that these verses no longer apply. If verse 34 no longer applies, why should verse 40 still apply? Most Christians agree with verse 40, so we want it to apply to all times and all places. It is difficult to find such agreement on verse 34, so what do we do.
There are many interpretations of these verses and to find them you only need to enter “1 Corinthians 14:34” into any search engine. If verse 34 means what it appears to mean when literally interpreted, then almost every gathering of the church violates Paul’s instruction. This interpretation of the instruction also seems to directly contradict 1 Corinthians 11:12 where Paul instructs the Corinthians regarding a woman’s head covering when praying in the gathering.
The challenge for anyone attempting to interpret the Bible is that we each bring preconceived ideas to the interpretation process. All too often we use a verse of scripture to justify a point of view. Much harm has been done to people and the cause of Christ due to this approach. In almost all cases the source of misinterpretation is lifting a verse or passage out of context and applying it to a situation it was never intended to be applied to.
In chapters 11 through 14 of 1 Corinthians Paul has been addressing a variety of issues that are distracting the church in its gathering from honoring Christ and building up the body. We volunteer in a second-grade classroom and one of the class rules is to be respectful. This means that when someone else is speaking you are silent so everyone can hear, and your focus is on listening to the speaker. This is not easy for the students. Either they are shouting out their own contribution or they are chatting with their neighbor. The noise level makes it challenging to hear the teacher and impossible to hear any student who is supposed to be sharing. When watching the second graders it is easy to see that they are so focused on themselves that they are paying no attention to anyone else. When we see this happening, we ask the students to be silent. This does not mean that they are always to be silent in the classroom, only when someone else is speaking.
Given how Paul describes the gatherings in Corinth it is not hard to imagine that much of chapter 14 could be summed up with the instruction “be respectful.” This principle is valid in a wide variety of situations and certainly within gatherings of Christ’s body.