There are at least two things that we moderns must struggle with when we come across a text like 1 Cor 14:34-35. First, we have to ascertain what the author is saying and second we have to ascertain the significance of what has been said in our day. In this case, we must first ask the question, “What did St. Paul really say?”
Paul wrote, “The women must keep silent in the congregation, for they are not permitted to speak, but are required to subject themselves just as the law says.” As you can see, I’m wrestling with the third person active imperatives behind the phrases ‘must keep silent’ and ‘are required to subject’. Here is one area I’m especially unhappy with the King James Version. ‘Let your women keep silence’ is far too weak to communicate the imperatival force here (and just about everywhere else the third person imperative is used). ‘Let’ has a permissive connotation in modern English. ‘Let them eat cake!’ Are we allowed to eat cake, or are we commanded to eat cake? Paul is not saying that the women are allowed to keep silent, he is commanding that the keep silent.
At this point, many modern readers jump to the question of ‘why’ Paul would say such a thing. Scholars begin looking at the larger context of the letter, the context of Paul’s other epistles, the context of the New Testament in general (with special emphasis on the Gospels), and even at the context of the first century cultures themselves. As they begin weighing and configuring all the relevant data into a coherent mosaic, they are able to come up with a reasonable framework within which to interpret what St. Paul has said.
However, I’ve never seen an egalitarian scholar actually wrestle with the immediate context of this commandment (I can’t keep up with their writings, but I have read a whole lot on this).
Specifically, I think there are two very important items to consider in the immediate context that need to be considered when determining what St. Paul is saying. These are the words ‘speak’ and ‘silent.’ It should go without saying that these two concepts, in the midst of the congregation, are the main things that Paul is addressing in the context. And besides these two items, there are also the themes of ‘prophecy’ and ‘subjection’ that need to be considered.
On Speaking in the Congregation:
1 Cor 14:23 - If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues
1 Cor 14:27 - If anyone speaks in a tongue, …
1 Cor 14:28 – he must speak to himself and to God.
1 Cor 14:29 - And two or three prophets must speak, …
On Keeping Silent in the Congregation:
1 Cor 14:28 – if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church
1 Cor 14:30 – the first must keep silent
So we see that Paul is giving the church a series of commands about when to speak up and to keep silent in the church. In each of these cases, there is a very specific circumstance surrounding the exhortation. In other words, Paul outlines the conditions that must be met for each of his commands to make sense. ‘If’ this is the case, ‘then’ do thus.
When we get to verses 34 and 35, we see the same concepts passing through, and even a similar structure, but there is a very important difference. Though Paul is addressing the concepts of ‘speaking’ and of ‘silence’, he does not give circumstantial conditions. He does not say, ‘If the women get bored and begin speaking so loudly that they begin disturbing those that are trying to listen, then they must keep silent.’
Rather, Paul grounds the command for women to keep silent in the congregation in the commands of the law! To miss this structural change is to miss the whole point of the passage.
As for the relationship between 1 Cor 14 and 1 Cor 11, I think we need to fall back on the age old interpretive methods of the Reformers, 1) scripture must interpret scripture and 2) the clearer passages inform the less clear.
In this case, 1 Cor 14 is clearly speaking about how men and women are to conduct themselves in the congregation with special reference to speaking and prophesying. 1 Cor 11 however, seems to be speaking more generally about how men and women are to pray and prophesy outside of the congregation.
While I know that many good Christians would disagree with me here, the context leading up to the head-covering passage is about how we conduct ourselves in public. It is only after Paul has addressed how men and women are to pray/prophesy that he moves to a discussion about the Lord’s Supper. At the very least, this is a contested passage (unclear) and therefore we should seek the help of 1 Cor 14 to make sense of it.
For my part, I take the clear command of 1 Cor 14 (women must not speak in the congregation) and use it as a prism through which I understand 1 Cor 11. Therefore, I’m inclined to see 1 Cor 11 as 1) a transitional passage, bridging the instructional content of 1 Cor 10 on public conduct with the instructions on the conduct of the congregation that follows it, 2) and therefore I see the specific instructions about a woman’s praying and prophesying with her head covered as instructions that are fit for religious life both inside and outside of the congregation.
Well, enough said. After I think on this some more, I'll take up the significance of what St. Paul has said. Be well.