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1 Cor. 14 and Silence in the Churches

At reader request, I recently examined an item titled "Silent in the Churches" by Biblical scholar D. A. Carson. This item takes a position on the subject of 1 Cor. 14:33-36 that is contrary to the one I support, which is held by Glenn Miller of the Christian ThinkTank. Miller himself recognizes the larger work within which Carson writes - a book titled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood -- as containing the best arguments against his own position.

Since Miller does not, however, compare his arguments with those other the authors of this book, I considered it worthwhile to do a comparison to see who comes out on top.

I do have significant respect for Carson as a scholar, and have even heard him speak in person. However, I do not believe his attempts to overturn the interpretation offered by Miller are successful. I will hereafter refer to Miller as the holder of what I will call the Corinthian Quote (CQ) position, and regard him as the "arguer" for his view with the understanding that it is not he to whom Carson is of course responding. I will refer to Carson's view as the Quote Rebuttal (QR) position.

We will now proceed by comparing arguments on specific points. Miller does not use all of the arguments Carson addresses; we will only match up what each party addresses, and examine positive arguments (if any) that the other side does not address.

Item 1: Links of verse 33-4.

>33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches.

The first critical component of Miller's case is that the punctuation of the above ought to be changed. It should read, rather:

33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the congregations of the saints. 34Women should remain silent in the churches.

This component fits in with the CQ position that v. 34 begins a quotation of something said by the Corinthians. Here are Miller's and Carson's points in opposition.


The first thing we notice is that verse 33b ("as in all the congregations of the saints") probably goes with 33a, and NOT with 34 (so rendered in the NAS). The only other time this kind of argument occurs in Paul is in I Cor 11.16, where it is a CLOSING argument--there too about propriety in worship.

Miller does not support this contention particularly strongly here. His own positive point is an analogy to 1 Cor. 11:16. Carson's RQ argument does not contain any answer to this.


The latter [the RQ reading] is stylistically inelegant, for in Greek the words rendered "congregations" and "churches" by the NIV are the same word: i.e., "As in all the churches of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches." But what some see as stylistic inelegance, others see as powerful emphasis achieved by repetition.

The inelegance argument is a point in favor of the CQ position; but does Carson's rejoinder about "powerful emphasis achieved by repetition" negate it? I do not think so. While repetition for emphasis is a known tactic of rhetoric, if such a skillful method is used, it is hard to accept that Paul did it in a way that caused an inelegant presentation.

Furthermore, the "repetition" consists merely of the words, "the churches" - the former an all too common article; the latter, a word that appears dozens of times in Paul. There is simply not enough data to show that there is a signifying repetition here, so it must be concluded that the weight remains with the CQ position.

Moreover, if verse 33b is linked with what precedes, it is uncertain just what the line of thought is. In the sentence, "For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the congregations of the saints," what is being compared? God and the congregations of the saints? God's peaceful order with what is in all the congregations of the saints? The sentence can be salvaged only by understanding an additional phrase, such as: "and this principle must be operative in your church, as in all the congregations of the saints."

I am frankly hard-pressed to see the difficulty here. What is being compared would clearly be the nature and mode of operation of God. The appeal to what is the norm in the social ingroup of the church would be a powerful argument against Corinthians who (as they would) appealed to divine authority for their position in the former matter of tongues and interpretation.

There is no need for the additional phrase Carson requires; the rebuke is clear enough within the context of collectivist mentalities: An appeal to what goes on in other churches is an automatic guideline for what goes on in one's own church.

Miller also offers something that acts as an answer to this:

…the actual nature of the rebuke in vs. 36-38 indicates that the position is that of some Corinthians, and not that of Paul. This can be seen from the textual flow in the passage:
  • Vss 26-32: Paul's solutions for orderly worship, with 'universal speaking' allowed.
  • Vs 33: Concluding argument: God seeks order, and seeks it THIS way in ALL the churches (accepting the NAS rendering of the final clause).
  • Vss 34-35: Someone ELSE's "solution" for orderly worship, with 'shut the women up' enjoined.
  • Vss 36-38: Paul's argument: Why do you think you are SO MUCH MORE 'spiritual' than the other churches, to the extent that you can set up a DIFFERENT solution to the problem of orderly worship.
  • This contrast between 'what the OTHER churches do' and 'what the Corintian church wants to do' is made in the context of orderly worship and universal speaking. In other words, the rebuke makes the most sense IF the text in 34-35 is THEIRS 'alone'--in distinction from the other churches' position.
  • Therefore, the weight remains to the side of those who would connect 33a and 33b.

    Item 2: Quotation Apparent

    This is of course the heart of the CQ position, that the most "offending" parts - which enjoin silence on women - is a quote of something said by the Corinthians.


    We do know that I Corinthians has this literary device in it. In I Cor 6, for example, Paul quotes his 'opponents' in verses 12 and 13, immediately followed by a qualification or refutation. (There are no quote marks in Greek, by the way.) He does this in many places in the epistles, actually.

    Carson does not of course dispute that Paul quotes others in his letters. However, he attempts to deflect the general idea of 34-35 as a quotation with what I can only regard as quite unsatisfactory responses:

    That Paul does quote from the Corinthians' letter no one disputes. But the instances that are almost universally recognized as quotations (e.g., 6:12; 7:1b; 8:1b) enjoy certain common characteristics: (i) they are short (e.g., "Everything is permissible for me," 6:12); (ii) they are usually followed by sustained qualification (e.g., in 6:12 Paul goes on to add "but not everything is beneficial . . . but I will not be mastered by anything"---and then, following one more brief quotation from their letter, he devotes several verses to the principle he is expounding); (iii) Paul's response is unambiguous, even sharp. The first two criteria utterly fail if we assume verses 34-35 are a quotation from the letter sent by the Corinthians.

    However, Carson has admitted that criteria (ii) is not universal ("usually"); and a "qualification" is unreasonable to expect when Paul is quoting someone else's position that he plans to rebuke! This leaves criteria (i), and it is both arbitrary and subjective. Length of quote is governed the demands of content and context - not by some predetermined function in Paul that limits the length of quotes he can use! By the same token, "short" is also subjective; how "short" is "short"? I am reminded that radical critic Hermann Detering makes much of Paul's very long quote of a creed in Romans 1:1-6. This criteria permits too many ways for the RQ position to shoot itself in the foot.

    Therefore, the general idea that this is a quote is not rebutted by appeal to other quotations, but only supports it slightly.

    Item 3: Law Flaw

    Paul uses the word "Law" to describe the source of the teaching, and this is an anomaly that leads to a CQ argument that it must be part of a mistaken view, from the Corinthians. Miller offers:

    But the reference to the Law in vs. 34 is "odd" as well. The "Law" never actually says that women are to be 'submissive'--it predicts in Gen 3-4 that they will be bludgeoned into submission by men over the course of history(!), but it certainly doesn't issue ANY imperative or order to women in that verse!

    Paul knows the Law better than that, and actually quotes it in the epistle twice (9.9; 14.21), but he doesn't argue this ambiguously from the Law ever. What's going on? Is it possible that vss. 34-35 are not Paul's words AT ALL, but maybe a mistaken position of some of the Corinthians, and is here in the text as a quote BY Paul of a false position in the church?

    Carson acknowledges the arguments of this position in the CQ arsenal:

    Moreover, although Paul uses the word law in several ways, he never uses it to refer to Jewish tradition, and the full expression found here, "the law says," occurs only twice elsewhere in Paul (Romans 3:19; 1 Corinthians 9:8), both with reference to the Mosaic law, and the former, judging by the wealth of quotations that immediately precede it, to the Scriptures, to what we would refer to as the Old Testament (cf. verse 21). Fee argues that the usage of "the law" here is probably not Pauline, since no passage is explicitly cited, and it is Paul's practice to provide a text.

    Carson's reply to this point appeals to a positive case he makes later for his own interpretation:

    But the number of passages where this thesis can be tested is small. More importantly, I shall argue below that the reason Paul does not cite a text is that he has already refereed to the text he has in mind, specifically when he was earlier dealing with the roles of women..

    The small number of cites should make little difference; in context, there is only a certain number of things that could be a "law" that the Corinthians would appeal to, especially as a way of convincing Paul they were in the right. The only law that qualifies for this is the Law of the OT. Secular law would, for example, make no sense (and also be contrary to what we know of laws of the Empire, which never forbade a whole gender to silence!). So what "law" does Carson say that Paul appealed to earlier?

    Carson does not choose Gen. 3, as Miller supposes might be done, but rather appeals to "the creation order in Genesis 2:20b-24, for it is to that Scripture that Paul explicitly turns on two other occasions when he discusses female roles (1 Corinthians 11:8, 9; [1] Timothy 2:13)." I find this answer, however, to be unusually contrived, as Carson is compelled to admit that the "passage from Genesis 2 does not enjoin silence." However, he adds that:

    …it does suggest that because man was made first and woman was made for man, some kind of pattern has been laid down regarding the roles the two play.

    I can regard this as little but reading into the text something that is not specified (silence) to support a predetermined view. Indeed, it is just as arguable that the Corinthians used this very same passage the way Carson has; so the mere digging out of a passage that may be taken to be relevant is insufficient. Furthermore, Carson seems to be inconsistent here: He indicates that to connect vv. 33a-33b required as "additional phrase" to make sense; but here, he is willing to take an implied meaning for granted where an additional quote of the Law in what examples we have was the norm!

    Finally, two more points: 1) What is necessary for this understanding to hold is some evidence that silence was particularly a tool of submission of women in the period of the Law in Jewish history. We do know that silence was something demanded of all persons - men and women alike - when being taught; but where is the evidence that it was a specific tool of submission of women to men? 2) Carson's defense relies upon the use of the creation order and Paul's appeal to it in ways which we also find questionable. We will be comparing the arguments on the 1 Tim. Passage at a later date, and may or may not engage the 1 Cor. 11 issue more directly than we have in the past. It is worth noting, however, that in both of those cases Paul's allusions to the OT are quite specific, whereas there is no such specificity here.

    Item 4: Particle Accelerator

    This is an argument about a very small but critical word. Miller writes:

    There is a tiny little particle in the Greek text--not even translated in the NIV and NAS!--that provides some interesting evidence in favor of this view.

    Immediately after verse 35, the first word in verse 36 is a single letter particle that is translated "What?!" in the KJV and ASV. This word in most contexts is translated as 'or' or 'rather', but these are always in series, like "either...or" or "this or that or that...".

    But in this case, it is (1) in the front of the sentence; (2) introduces a completely different subject; and (3) has a complete change of tone--to that of irony and rebuke. Where else does this type of construction occur in Paul?

    Rom 2.3-4: So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?

    Notice that in verse 3, Paul has stated a view (pernicious and/or erroneous). He uses the particle "What?!" (perhaps best translated at "NOT!" in the slang of today!) and issues a harsh rebuke of the position's content and tone.

    Rom 9.20-21: But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?'" 21 (particle is here, but untranslated in the NIV) Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

    Notice that in verse 20, Paul has stated a view (pernicious and erroneous). He uses the particle "WHAT?!" (remember, "NOT!") and issues a harsh response to the arrogance of the position.

    I Cor 6.8-9: Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 9 (particle is here, but untranslated in the NIV) Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?

    Notice that in verse 8, Paul has stated an erroneous practice. He uses the particle "WHAT?!" and issues a strong response to the assumptions of the position.

    What this amounts to is that the tiny particle (in this type of construction and flow) indicates VIOLENT DISAGREEMENT with the preceding verses. (See similar usage in Rom 6.3; 7.1; 11.2; I Cor 6.9, 16, 19; I Cor 10.22; 2 Cor 13.5.) The older commentator Findlay, in the Expositor's Greek Testament, used the phrase "indignant protest" to describe Paul's intent with the particle.

    Carson offers an extended treatment of the particle issue, though much of what he writes is directed to the particular treatment of Kaiser and his use of Thayer's lexicon and the errors of another commentators. Miller's particular argument that the particle is used for ironic rebuke is untouched by any of this, for Carson is addressing a position that the article is meant only to overturn what precedes it (which may or may not be the case with an ironic rebuke - I myself would suggest that rather than "NOT!" as Miller suggests, it should be understood in modern parlance as, "Come on!")

    Thus Miller's point finds no answer from Carson, save indirectly when he affirms his own view:

    The brute fact is this: in every instance in the New Testament where the disjunctive particle in question is used in a construction analogous to the passage at hand, its effect is to reinforce the truth of the clause or verse that precedes it.

    However, this relies on a rather broad understanding of "reinforce the truth". To take Miller's first example: Rom 2.3-4: So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? 4 Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?

    Carson would perhaps say that Paul is reinforcing the truth that men can't escape judgment from God. But it is just as well to say that this is Paul rebuking the conception that mere men think they can pass judgment and escape God's judgment. In that sense Paul is also "reinforcing the truth" by ironic rebuke. But the examples clearly show Paul using the particle as a rebuttal to a stated, false position.

    Miller's further argument shows how indeed Paul would reinforce the truth of his position using the particle as he does:

    Finally, Paul consistently uses irony (e.g. I Cor 4.8) and statement/refutation (e.g. I Cor 6.12-13; 10.23) in this epistle to correct mistaken notions. Notice the semantic clues that this is occurring in the text:

    Paul uses a gentle, instructional, nurturing tone in 14.26-33, with VERY 'universal speaking' words--"everyone has a hymn, teaching, revelation, tongue, interpretation" (26), "if anyone speaks..." (vs. 27), "for you can ALL prophesy in turn..." (vs. 31).

    He switches to a legalistic, rabbinical-style, "disgrace"-oriented passage in 14.34-35, with 'universal silence' and 'universal restriction' words.

    He then switches to a rebuking, ironic tone to demolish SOME false teaching in the immediate context! (vss. 36-38). [Notice that the only "teaching" that COULD BE the target of the rebuke in the near context is in verses 14.34-35. This is an important clue.]

    He then switches BACK to the gentle, instructional, nurturing tone in verse 14.39-40.

    This flow of argument ALONE would indicate that Paul was rebuking the position in 34-35.

    So once again, and in conclusion, I must find that Miller has the stronger case for this passage.