By Kyle Pope
As Paul taught the church in Corinth about the proper use of miraculous spiritual gifts, he laid down some commands regarding the conduct of women in the assembly. He wrote, “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” (1 Cor. 14:34, NKJV). What is Paul referring to here in his appeal to “the Law”?
Adam and Eve
Some see the command “to be submissive” as the connection Paul makes to the Law. Mike Willis in his commentary on First Corinthians writes, “The reference to the law appears to be to Genesis 3:16. ‘Unto the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and they conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee’” (421). If so, this parallels 1 Timothy 2:11-14 where Paul commands women to learn “in quietness with all subjection” (2:11, ASV). Immediately after this command Paul offers Adam’s creation before Eve (2:13) and Eve’s sin (2:14) as the reason for male headship. While Genesis 3:16 does show the principle of subjection, it does not illustrate that women are not permitted to speak “in the churches.” I submit that the explanation may be found elsewhere.
The Congregation of Israel
The Hebrew Old Testament used two important words to refer to the “congregation” of Israel— qahal and ‘edah. Jack P. Lewis, the respected language scholar among institutional brethren, wrote both entries for these words in the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press 1980). In his entry on ‘edah, Lewis notes that, “qahal and ‘edah seem to be synonymous for all practical purposes” (Vol. 1, p. 388). However, in his entry on qahal he writes:
A distinction between ‘edah and qahal seems to be intended in “if the whole congregation (‘edah) commit sin… and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly (qahal Lev. 4:13). Here the qahal is the judicial representative of the community. There is also the case where certain Israelite persons cannot enter the qahal (Deut. 23:2) (Vol. 2, p. 790).
He goes further to point out:
…Of special interest is the phrase “congregation of the Lord” (qehalYHWH) of which there are thirteen instances (Num. 16:3; 20:4; Deut. 23:2-4; Mic. 2:5; 1 Chr. 28:8). It is the nearest equivalent of “church of the Lord” (ibid.).
Lewis suggests that these two words designate the “congregation” in two ways. One is a more general assembly (‘edah) while the other is a more select “representative” assembly (qahal). When the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced before the time of Christ translated qahal it generally used the Greek word ekklēsia (rendered “church” in the New Testament). A study of both the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament reveals that a woman never spoke before that portion of the Israelite community called the qahal or the ekklēsia. Paul’s phrase, “as the law also says” may refer to this fact in that it precisely parallels what is taught in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, women were silent in the qahal (i.e. ekklēsia or “church”).
The Daughters of Zelophehad
If this is correct, we must take into consideration the example recorded in Numbers 27:1-11. In this account, the daughters of Zelophehad, whose father had died with no male heir make an appeal for a possession of inheritance to Moses, Eleazar, the leaders, and “all the congregation” (27:2). Is this an example of women speaking before the “church” (so to speak)? No—the word here is ‘edah (the more general term applied to the congregation). The daughters of Zelophehad spoke before a general informal assembly of Israel but they did not speak before the qahal (the more formal representative assembly, which the Greek Old Testament called the ekklēsia or “church”).
Jesus and New Testament writers did not use a term for the “church” which had no cultural and biblical background. The Greek speaking Jew would readily recognize principles that related to the ekklēsia of the Lord in the Old Testament and their parallels to conduct in the ekklēsia of Christ. We will explore this further in our next article considering the question, when are we “in the church?”