When Literalists Ain’t So Literal

May 11, 2008

Christians who pride themselves on being “biblical literalists,” taking the bible for what it says at face value, seem to ignore or give little credence to the very literal translation errors that have crept into English/Western versions of the bible that differ from the earliest Greek manuscripts. Many of these mistranslations conveniently pertain to gender language, in effect building the case for women to be restricted in ministry.
At least with hardcore-complementarians, the reasoning remains the same throughout their biblical interpretation process: the bible, as we know it in English, had divine direction and therefore, can be read at face value without worry.
But moderate-complementarians run into a bit of a problem. By moderate-complementarians, I mean Christians who believe only men should lead the church, teach the assembly, and lead in their homes, BUT believe women may participate in the services, as long as they are not perceived has “having authority.” So, a woman may get up and read a scripture, but she may not teach on it. A woman may get up and sing a song, possibly even lead a song. Women may pray aloud in the presence of men and even share testimonies. While I appreciate this more “liberal” approach, the issue of consistent biblical interpretation becomes problematic. For instance, a purely “literal reading” of 1 Corinthians 14:34:35 does not allow any of the aforementioned lenience.

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. 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.”–Paul, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

There are really only two verses in the bible that would appear to outright bar women from public ministry and holding positions of “authority,” such as church leaders, church planters, pastors, preachers, evangelists, elders, and deacons: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (if read literally in English, this verse would silence women altogether: no speaking, no vocal praying, no singing…. ) and 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Sometimes Ephesians 5 is thrown in for good measure. But even if one takes the view that the husband has all the authority over the wife in the marriage relationship, this hardly places all women under the authority of all men in the church! Nonetheless, it is these verses upon which the complementarian position hangs and the verses through which they interpret the rest of the bible: the creation account, Jesus’ ministry, Deborah not being God’s best, etc. etc. ( I am speaking here of complementarian scholars, I do not presume to know how each individual complementarian approaches the bible…)
Now, across-the-board complementarians have no problem with reading the above mentioned verses literally, at face value, with no qualification, or contextualization, for that matter. They certainly have no qualms about prohibiting women from teaching/preaching/evangelizing/leading, and women’s overall public silence is just an added bonus.
But for the moderate-complementarian, this just doesn’t seem right. So, most moderate complementarians have opted for a little more “in-depth” interpretation when it comes to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. They argue that this verse does not completely silence women in public church meetings or other mixed gatherings, was never really meant to be applied universally, or was never really meant to silence all women at all times.
Since the text ITSELF does not provide any of these convenient “qualifiers” or hints at a “temporary” instruction, moderate-complementarians refer back to the original language, appeal to the larger context of the verse, and what was happening culturally and historically at the time. Once it becomes clear, based on THOSE factors (not the text itself mind you), that Paul never intended to completely silence women, they feel justified in allowing women to vocally participate in public church meetings, as long as women are not leading or teaching men. Phew! right?
But the methods they use to come to this very logical conclusion about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are THE EXACT same methods they criticize and denounce egalitarians for using when applied to 1 Timothy 2:11-12 or Ephesians 5! They say things like: “You’re reading things into the bible,” “You’re over thinking it,” ” You’re using outside sources to determine meaning,” “You’re not just taking the text for WHAT IT PLAINLY SAYS,” “History and culture are irrelevant and unreliable,” “If the Bible is inspired, then that inspiration should have carried over with each translation”. I can accept all of these arguments from hardcore, across-the-board complementarians, because at least they are consistent in their reading of the scriptures: all “command” passages are all literal, all-time binding, and can be taken at face value without qualification. But moderates who adhere to a “deeper” reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, while fancying themselves “biblical literalists,” is a bit of a head scratcher. What’s the old saying? Oh yes: Moderate-complementarians who live by glass hermeneutics should not throw stones. OK, now I’m just being snarky.
So, I would like to remind my moderate-complementarianish friends that if they believe 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 means anything other than completely silencing women in church gatherings, they have arrived at this interpretation through similar methods that egalitarians employ to arrive at alternate interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and Ephesians 5.
Now, on to business. :)
Before delving into whether or not it is allowable for a woman to teach/preach/lead in the presence of men, we must establish whether or not a woman is biblically permitted even to speak at all during church gatherings. So, the next three posts will be devoted to exploring 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and the verses around it.
There are MANY different interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, and biblical scholars rank this verse within the top three hardest passages in scripture to interpret. Not because the meaning is unfavorable, but because nearly two-thirds of the surviving Greek manuscripts place these verses in entirely different places! Also, the language, syntax, and style seem to be uncharacteristic, inconsistent, and contradictory with Paul’s other writings. The next three posts will present the following interpretations of this difficult passage:
1. The Cultural/Historical Reading
2. The Original Language Reading
3. The Quotation Theory
I personally find the third interpretation to be the most plausible. But we’ll see what you guys think. I’m breaking this up into three posts so I can thoroughly explain each position and avoid overlapping confusion between them. Letters of Paul, here we go!
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4 Responses to “When Literalists Ain’t So Literal”


  1. Looking forward to this, though I tend to agree with the cultural/historical reading. It is a wellworn path in patriarchy to silence women (which made for a great Mother’s Day post on my blog:). It has been so easy for the church to silence women, unfortunately. I would argue it would have been so even if 1 Corinthians never existed. Christianity envisions a God made in the image of man. To paraphrase a feminist theologian, when God is male, man is God.

  2. Ray Weikal Says:

    Wow…having read this post, I feel like someone who just took their first real breath of fresh air in years. Speaking as the male “parsonage queen” who is married to a minister, I’ve been searching for language to explain what I know in my gut to be true. I know that’s not a very educated approach, but I’m not a seminarian, I’m just a guy who knows that the woman he loves should be helping people walk with Christ. Anyhow, thank you for taking this on. I’m looking forward to reading the remaining posts.

  3. Rebecca Says:

    Just stumbled onto your blog-I’ve been calling myself a Christian feminist for years. Very interested to read the upcoming blog posts.

  4. linda Says:

    great work as always tia lynn. also, the literalists are definitely in hot water just by comparing these two verses which are just a few chapters apart:

    And every woman who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head–it is just as though her head were shaved. 1 Cor 11:5

    As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. The are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 1 Cor 14:33b-34

    both of these verses are referring to public worship services and they obviously completely contradict one another if taken literally. in the first we have women praying and prophesying in church and in the second women are not allowed to speak at all. how could that possibly be? that, in effect shows us that we have to dig a bit deeper for what paul really was saying.


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