It is written:
“Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
While it was customary in Greek educational programs for students to blurt out questions during an orators discourse (at least, within the customary and cultural standards of the day), such had no place in a public worship assembly of the church; indeed, such was considered “shameful.”
Yet what does Paul mean by the phrase “as the law also says?”
Some have suggested that he is referring to some Old Testament passage. Yet there is no Old Testament passage which forbids a woman from speaking in the assembly of God’s people; indeed, we are told throughout the Old Covenant Scriptures continually of prophetesses of God who spoke His Word to the people. For example:
Exodus 15:20-Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.
Judges 4:4-Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, was judging Israel at that time.
2 Kings 22:14-So Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, the son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe. (She dwelt in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter.) And they spoke with her.
Isaiah 8:3-Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said to me, “Call his name Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz;
Some have suggested that perhaps Paul is referring to Genesis 3, but this seems to be quite a stretch.
Genesis 3:16-To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.”
This passage clearly describes the conditions that would exist within the family unit after the Fall, and does not seem to be describing anything approaching the “assembly” atmosphere.
More to the point, the ancient Hebrews who knew this passage forward and back clearly did not see a contradiction between it and the existence of prophetesses in the Old Testament dispensation.
Further, the passage could possibly be translated as “IT” will rule over you (i.e., the woman’s “desire” for her husband).
To what law, then does Paul refer? Likely, to the civil law existing at Corinth.
First, several factors in 1 Corinthians 11 indicate that Paul is dealing with cultural issues specific to the Roman context existing at Corinth. Indeed, there are several words in the passage which lead to this conclusion:
“Notice how Paul’s reasons for the head covering for women and its absence for men are loaded with the language of culture. (1) Honor or shame (disgrace) for the man— “any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head” (1 Corinthians 11:4- 5). (2) Shame (disgrace) to the woman— “It is one and the same thing as having her head shaved…. If it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil” (1 Corinthians 11:5- 6). (3) What is accepted as a sign of authority “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Corinthians 11:10). (Angels are perhaps invoked as witnesses to the order of creation.) (4) What is regarded by human beings as natural (that is, what is customarily done)— “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Corinthians 11:13- 15). (5) The practice of the churches “We have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16). Honor and shame were major considerations in determining conduct in the societies of the ancient Mediterranean world…Since a culture tends to regard its customs as the “natural” way to do things, as the established order of things, “nature” ( physis ) had as one of its derived meanings “[accepted] custom.” 14 Observe that all of the considerations urged by Paul, with the possible exception of the fifth, refer to conditions or circumstances established by culture— having to do with honor, shame or disgrace, a sign or symbol, the natural or customary, and the customs of others. Where something is not considered a matter of honor or shame, has no symbolic significance, is not regarded as natural, then the specific expression has no force.” (Everett Ferguson, Women In The Church: Biblical And Historical Perspectives, 386-405 (Kindle Edition): Abilene, Tx; Desert Willow Publishing)
Second, whatever the “law” was, it was obviously well known to Paul and to the Corinthians. Discounting the Old Testament Law as a reference, the most likely reference is to some known civil law that covered that particular situation (known, at least, to the Apostle and to the Corinthians, even if not fully known by us today).
Third, there are indications from that day and age that there were local laws which forbad people from causing public disturbances in religious settings:
“As the law says” could then easily be understood as Roman law. Official religion of the Roman variety was closely supervised. The women who participated were carefully organized and their activities strictly regulated. The unrestrained activity and inclusive nature of oriental cults (such as the popular cult of Isis) made them immediately suspect, if for no other reason than the fear that such uninhibited behavior would adversely affect the family unit and erupt in antisocial behavior.” (James R. Beck, Two Views Of Women In Ministry, 77 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
Paul is not saying that women are not allowed to ever speak in the assembly of the saints in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. He is teaching that women-and others in the assembly-are not allowed to act and speak in such a way that it causes public disturbances in the worship of the Lord’s church. This was not anything new or revolutionary-recognized and respected Roman law taught the same thing in Corinthian society.