THE LIMITING PASSAGES: 1 CORINTHIANS 14
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.
1 CORINTHIANS 14.33b-35
Knowing what we do about all that women actually did within the New Testament, it seems surprising and strange for Paul to say women should “remain silent in the churches.” After all, Paul gives instruction about what women are supposed to wear while prophesying (cf. 1 Corinthians 11), and certainly he cannot mean for them to prophesy silently. Prophesying – at the very least – means saying something in public. How can Paul acknowledge women praying and prophesying in Chapter 11 without one word of prohibition or condemnation and then command them to keep silent in Chapter 12?
Thankfully, Paul himself clarifies what he means in verse 35: if they want to inquire about something… Paul’s “silencing,” then, specifically relates to asking questions.
Why would Paul restrict questions during church? I think the obvious answer is – in this case – the most accurate: they had too many questions.
Since women in the ancient world weren’t educated in the same ways as men, and since religious education was especially segregated, women simply didn’t know as much as their husbands. Paul, elsewhere, takes steps to redress this (as did Jesus), but since he’s speaking here about practical concerns during church services these instructions are simply that husbands and wives should take time after church to talk through all that has happened and all that was discussed.
Paul’s silencing of women here was only a (very) temporary silencing. Once the women with questions had been caught up to speed, then they would have been able to ask questions in the gatherings later on. He obviously has no interest in silencing women in Corinth, but only in making sure that those who pray or prophesy will do so in a manner that won’t detract or distract from Christ.
In other words,
Paul has no problem with their theology,
just with their behavior.
The problem is that women – so long denied any participation whatsoever in religious worship – were taking their newfound freedom in Christ too far. These (New Roman) women were warmly welcomed and encouraged to participate fully in the services (cf. 1 Corinthians 14.5), and they saw no reason to be shackled by the oppressive conventions of a non-Christian (Greek) culture. Therefore, when they came to church they took off their hats and veils, both of which were despised symbols of their inferior status.
For them, it was like casting off chains;
for the church it was (unfortunately) the cultural equivalent of all the ladies showing up in bikinis for worship.
By flaunting their freedom from social decorum,
these women had become an embarrassment in the church and a scandal outside it.
One quick note on language: there many Greek words that can be translated “speak.”
Five denote a special kind of speaking
(like preaching or giving instruction).
25 others simply mean things like “teach” or “talk.”
Paul uses none of these.
In other words, Paul does not here forbid women to speak publicly or teaching or prophesy or pray or give testimony.
Instead, Paul uses a Greek word which means “chatter” (laleo).
Paul is merely prohibiting noisy, idle conversations during worship services which – in this case – was mostly being done by a group of uneducated women who were impatient to figure out what was happening during church.
When Paul tells them to be “in submission as the Law says” he is referring to a voluntary submission (indicated by use of the verb hypoitassomai) to the law of social convention and common courtesy (not, as it must first appear, to the Law of Moses which has no such injunction in it).
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there is a convenient oversight that often occurs among those who take this passage at face value and limit the role of women within the church.
Even in strict, fundamentalist churches, women still play a public role. They are still allowed to teach Sunday school, evening classes, run prayer meeting and Bible studies, conduct marital counseling and organize special events.
In other words, even in the strictest sense it seems impossible to follow Paul’s teaching in the literal sense.
There are now two obvious problems with the argument for taking this passage literally:
 no one does, not all the way;
 no one could, not all the way.
Since it’s impossible to take this passage literally, we must try and determine to what degree the text supports the situational issue Paul is addressing. That’s what we’ve done here.
There are many curious women in the congregation who are eager to learn (for the first time)
and won’t stop asking their husbands questions,
or calling out their questions to the teacher,
or chattering with their friends
about what is going on.
All of that is quite disruptive.
Paul wants them to be quiet during church, and then ask for clarification from their husbands later (assuming, as would be safe in that society, that the husbands had had better access to better education for a longer period of time and were thus more likely to know what had been taught).