A Pepper Grinder Post

What? No Way! - Part 1

One of my daughters asked if I would do a blog posting in response to a teaching done by Kris Vallotton from Bethel Church in Redding, California. You can view the video at . The talk deals with the whole question of how to interpret 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Here are those two verses in the NIV:

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.

The reason the start of verse 34 isn't capitalized is that the NIV thinks verse 34 is a continuation of the second half of verse 33 (and I think they're probably right). Vallotton sees the start of verse 34 as a new thought. I don't think it matters too much, at least for now. Later on, I'll deal with how I see these verses, and I'll give you my own translation. For now, I want to focus on what Vallotton says. I'd encourage you to follow the link and get what Kris says straight from the source, but I'll give you a summary of his argument here in case you don't have 15 minutes to spend watching the video. While I don't agree with a good bit of what he said, I did find him an interesting preacher.

silenced womanAfter reading these verses, which he describes as the most restrictive verses in the Bible, he lays out two schools of thought concerning them. He describes these as ways to "solve the issue." He does make a point later in his talk about why he thinks these verses can't mean what they appear to mean, but at the start he just gave me the impression that he wouldn't consider for a moment that the verses meant what they appeared to mean, since both interpretations he mentions are ways around the plain meaning of the text. The first interpretation is that these verses were never meant to be a universal teaching, but addressed a particular problem. This problem, according to Vallotton, is that men and women were sitting on opposite sides of the room in worship, and the women were shouting questions at their husbands, who would have been more schooled in the Old Testament. Kris makes the point that the Corinthians came from a pagan background, and thus, the husbands would have known no more about the Jewish backdrop to the Gospel than their wives. I think he has a valid point here, though he stretches it too far. I think the Corinthians would have been a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, as were most of the congregations Paul planted. (Some evidence of this is 1 Corinthians 12:13, and that at least three of the people mentioned in the letter were Jews: Aquila, Priscilla, and Crispus.) Thus, it doesn't seem too strange to think that some of the women might have been shouting questions to their husbands. Still, let's assume for now that Kris is mostly right and that this was not the main problem in the Corinthian church.

After shooting down one explanation for these troublesome verses, Kris presented another. He flashed up on the screen the Greek letter eta (pronounced ay-tah), and said it was an "expletive of disassociation." At one point he says this comes "at the end of" verse 35. A little later he describes it as coming "between" verses 35 and 36. According to Vallotton, this "expletive of disassociation" cannot really be translated, but gives the sense of challenging what has just been said. He says that it is as if Paul says the thing about women being silent in the churches, and then says, "What? No way!" According to this interpretation, Paul has simply quoted what the Corinthians were saying, and then throws in this eta to show that he thinks it is nonsense.

At this point, Vallotton goes back and shows us why Paul can't be saying women should be silent in church, by mentioning certain parts of 1 Corinthians. He says that in chapter 7, we are told that the husband's body belongs to the wife. Then he makes the point that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says that women can pray and prophesy, as long as they are in right order. He goes on to say that 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14 are saying, you can all prophesy and you can all teach. According to Vallotton, Paul has been saying for 14 chapters that women can do anything men can do, and so it makes no sense that he is now telling them to be silent in church. He ends the message by saying, "If you're a woman, you're free."

After hearing this message, I was kind of intrigued. I have heard quite a few explanations about why passages that seem to forbid women certain roles in the church don't actually mean what they seem to mean. (I actually took a whole course in seminary that was focused on this.) Yet, I had never heard about this "expletive of disassociation." I started studying. Here is what I found.

First, I think that Kris's contention that there are two arguments for why this passage might not mean that modern women must be silent in church is simplistic. It is clear from much of 1 Corinthians that Paul is concerned about disorder in the church, but we aren't given a lot of details. The clearest problem seems to be that they sometimes had dueling prophecies, where more than one prophet was speaking at the same time, and messages in tongues were given without an interpretation. The idea of wives shouting out questions to husbands makes some sense, because Paul says wives should ask their husbands at home if they had questions about something, but I don't think a plain reading of 1 Corinthians gives the impression that this was the sole problem Paul is addressing. I also can't help wondering if first century women, who were used to being very circumspect in public, would really have been shouting in church. Vallotton, however sets this up as the only argument (other than the one he's presenting) for why Paul might be saying what he's saying to the Corinthians, and then proceeds to shoot it down.

Greek letter EtaThis brings us to the mighty eta. Here are the problems I had with this argument.

  1. Vallotton implies that eta as it appears in our passage (what you see to the right but with two accent marks above it) is some sort of mysterious, untranslateable Greek thingy the meaning of which scholars have unearthed through extensive study. This is absolutely false! It is one of the most common words in the Greek New Testament, occurring 343 times, and most often means (brace yourself for something earth-shattering here) "or." It can also be used in comparisons, where we would translate it "than," as in "Jim is bigger than Steve."
  2. Although, like many very common words, eta can have a range of uses, I could find no cases in the New Testament where it was used as an expletive of disassociation (throwing doubt on or contradicting what was previously said).
  3. One of the ways that eta can be used is to introduce a rhetorical question. Guess what comes right after the eta Kris mentions? A rhetorical question! Here is 1 Corinthians 14:36 (my translation):
    Has the word of God only come from you? Are you the only ones to receive it?
    That's actually two rhetorical questions, each starting with eta.
  4. "Ahh," you say, "but that eta isn't part of verse 36. Kris said it's 'at the end of' verse 35, and then he said it's 'in between' verses 35 and 36." Nope. It is the first word in verse 36 in every Greek manuscript of 1 Corinthians that has been found. In fact, there are some manuscripts that put verses 34 and 35 at the end of 1 Corinthians 14 (several verses after our eta), which would mean it could NOT be connected to verse 35. Now, I believe that the verses about women being silent are at the spot where Paul originally wrote them, but, still, there is absolutely ZERO evidence that the eta at the start of verse 36 is actually tied to verse 35.
  5. Some clever people may be pointing out that the verse divisions were not part of the original text. There is also a period at the end of verse 35, but this was probably also added later. So maybe the eta really is supposed to be at the end of verse 35. This seems unlikely but vaguely possible. However, if eta can be used like this--at the end of a false statement--shouldn't we find some other place in the New Testament where it is used like that? To check this out, I looked at all 343 in the Greek New Testament where eta is used. I was looking for a place where eta appeared at the end of a verse, rather than at the beginning. There was NOT ONE. On the other hand, there were several places where eta is used at the beginning of a rhetorical question. Here are just a few (all translations from the NIV):
    Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53)
    Is God the God of Jews only? (Romans 3:29b)
    Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6:9)
  6. Finally, I'm going to appeal to some people who know more than me. The pre-eminent Greek lexicon of the New Testament was written by Walter Bauer and was translated from German into English by two gentlemen named Arndt and Gingrich. This massive tome was then revised and augmented by Gingrich and a guy named Danker. Rather than try to say all those names, this lexicon is referred to affectionately by theological students as BAGD. This work painstakingly analyzes ALL the possible meanings of every Greek word found in the New Testament. The longest entries are words used frequently with a variety of meanings. The entry for our friend eta is one of those. Guess what meaning is NOT in there? That's right, Vallotton's expletive of disassociation. I also consulted two excellent commentaries when I was doing my research. Both authors disliked the verses about women being silent in church so much that they argued that these verses were added to the Bible later by someone other than Paul (in spite of the fact that there are NO manuscripts which do not contain these two verses). I would have thought that if the plain meaning of verses 34 and 35 could have been evaded with the help of eta, these gentlemen would have been all over it. But I read not a single word about this expletive of disassociation. What's more, in seminary, I took a class taught by a Biblical feminist, devoted to showing how the New Testament doesn't teach that women's role in the church is any different than men's. I read lots of writings by Biblical feminists, but never once came across this mysterious "or"-turned-expletive which is supposed to turn what Paul says on its head.

bullsI hope I'm not being too geeky here. The more I studied, the weaker I found this argument to be. What gets me about it is that Kris is giving this message to a roomful of people who probably know no Greek. They have no way of finding the truth, but their pastor, who does know Greek, and whom they trust, is telling them this in no uncertain terms. Why shouldn't they believe him? And yet what he is telling them is a big pile of something you want to avoid stepping in when you cross the cow pasture. I prefer to assume he's doing this in ignorance, but I still think it is very wrong.

I should point out that Vallotton does have another argument for saying that verses 34 and 35 do NOT say what Paul himself thinks. He points out that verse 34 ends with the phrase, "as the Law says." Kris says that Paul, being an expert in the Law, would never have said that it said women must be silent in church, since the Old Testament Law never says that. Hmm. Let's refresh our minds about verse 34. It says, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. (NIV) To me, this sounds as though Paul is saying that women being in submission is what the Law says, not that they have to be quiet in church. This would make sense, since after the Fall, God tells Eve that her husband will rule over her (Genesis 3:16). I'm not saying this is a really conclusive point, but is rather, another example of Vallotton acting as though his interpretation has to be correct, when it is not at all clear.

Let's move on to some of the other things Vallotton said. He spoke of the "Corinthian road," which is a play on the term "Roman Road" (a collection of verses from Romans which people use to explain the way of salvation). The basic idea is that the entire gist of Corinthians up until we get to these verses about women keeping silent has been that women can do anything men can do. This is simply not the case. The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians deal with divisions in the church and leaders who were leading people away from the teachings Paul had presented. The next two chapters deal with moral problems in the church, including lawsuits amongst Christians. Then we come to chapter seven, which is the first example Vallotton gives of Paul's overarching theme of gender equality. He says that it says a husband's body belongs to his wife (and he mentions in passing that the wife's body also belongs to her husband). But was Paul saying this to show that men were not in a different position than women? Nope. He was talking very specifically about avoiding immorality, and how neither the husband nor the wife should deny each other sexually. This is very different than saying that men's and women's roles in the church should be the same.

Then we move on to chapters eight through ten, which deal with "questionable" issues, such as eating meat sacrificed to idols. Chapters eleven through fourteen deal with public worship. Vallotton correctly points out that chapter eleven does act as though it is perfectly fine for a woman to pray or prophesy, as long as she is in proper submission. In the context of the culture of that time, Paul wants women to have their heads covered to show this submission, while he wants men to have their heads uncovered. One thing absolutely clear here is that Paul does expect women to be praying and prophesying. This seems like a contradiction with the teaching that women must be silent in church. In my next post, I'll talk about other ways of resolving this tension, but for now, I'll just say that I agree with Kris and others who have pointed out this apparent conflict.

Vallotton also acts as though 1 Corinthians 12 is implying gender equality, but really, the point here is that everyone in the church has different gifts and callings, and people shouldn't look down on others because they don't have the same gifts. Then we get to the famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, which says nothing about women. Finally, we arrive at chapter 14, where Paul deals with questions of order in worship. Until we get to verses 34 and 35, Paul says nothing about women. It's true that he says, "When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation." (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV) I could point out that the Bible often uses "all" or "everyone" in a different way than we literal 21st century folks do, but I will admit that, especially in light of what we read in 1 Corinthians 11:5, it isn't unreasonable to assume that Paul is including women here.

Kris says that for fourteen chapters Paul has been saying something along the lines of, "Guys, women are equal, get a life." While I'll concede that there seems to be a contradiction between the teaching about women praying and prophesying and the one about women keeping silent in church, I think Vallotton is vastly oversimplifying and generalizing here. The fact is that very little of 1 Corinthians deals with male-female relationships, and what Paul does say never asserts there is no difference in role between men and women.

dogHere's my conclusion. Kris Vallotton is correct in thinking that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (telling women to be silent in church) appears to contradict his earlier teaching that clearly assumes women will be praying and prophesying. However, almost everything else he says is wrong. It is plainly false that there are only two ways of resolving this contradiction. Kris's argument that the eta at the start of verse 36 (which he says is at the end of verse 35) is an expletive of disassociation, which shows that Paul is saying that the previous verses were hogwash, is one of the worst pieces of New Testament Greek butchery I have ever seen. Finally, his implication that Paul's constant theme throughout the first fourteen chapters of 1 Corinthians is that women can do anything men can do, is obviously false to anyone reading the book.

Vallotton identified a legitimate problem in Biblical interpretation, but chose to solve it in a way that tickled the ears of his congregation (as was evident by the periodic whoops and hollers of the audience as he gave his sermon), rather than by really wrestling with the thorny issues. I'm not going to pretend to be as certain as Kris, but , I'll give you my interpretation of what Paul is really saying in this passage.


*Photo Credits: Silenced from , Eta from , bulls by , dog by .