Some people get concerned over Paul’s direction (e.g. in 1 Corinthians 14:34,35) that women should “keep silent” in the church and be subject to their husbands. Besides the less-than-perfect translation, women being “subject” to their husbands or needfully “silent” in any situation is a difficult principle for people to accept today. This is partly because we interpret those words with modern eyes – attached to events and meanings specific to our time. Students of history are taught the dangers of doing this; values, traditions and customs are specific to their times, and need to be interpreted as such if you want to really understand them. When we look at past things, especially long-past things, from a contemporary standpoint – influenced by our own culture, upbringing, values and era – we interpret them with bias, giving us less clarity. So it’s really important to understand the historical context of a statement like this. Some questions you might ask in order to find that out are: what did Paul mean by these sort of statements? Who was he talking to, specifically, and in what sort of context? Was he speaking to all churches everywhere, or just those in Corinth? Did they have a particular concern with this phenomenon?
Other questions arise on the topic of translation. I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but I don’t believe that it has come down to us pure and unchanged from its original form. Its writers themselves caution us to interpret scripture through inspiration of the Holy Ghost (2 Peter 1:21). Many have done marvellous work to allow us to have these writings in our own languages. But things go wrong – manuscripts are lost; words change their meaning over time; things are misspelt or misread and then copied incorrectly (take what’s written today, including official documents – imagine even the small errors in them perpetuated over centuries or millenia); or someone wants a certain passage to be given a certain meaning, to convince their followers to act a certain way. So discernment and revelation are needed to correctly interpret scripture – which makes sense. God directed the writing of scripture, and He directs its interpretation. The phrase it is not permitted unto them to speak in 1 Corinthians 14, for example, would be better translated as rule, not speak. This is still a point of concern for some. Why can’t women rule (govern, lead) in the church? Why can’t they be pastors and bishops? I’m going to answer this based on doctrine and common sense (common to my mind at least!)
In the beginning, God created Adam – the first man, and the first human, on Earth. When Eve was tempted by the devil and partook of the fruit (from the tree of knowledge of good and evil), she then convinced Adam of its usefulness, he ate, and they both ‘fell’. I see it like this: Adam, like most men now, saw things in a pretty straightforward and logical manner – God had said “don’t eat”, so he didn’t eat. Eve, like most women now, was more of a lateral thinker, able to hold more than one point of view in her head at a time (actually, men can do this too, but women are more likely to and tend to be better at it). So when Satan told her a bit about the effects of eating the fruit, with embellishments, she listened to it all and found some interesting (and true) points scattered among the falsehoods. Pondering upon them, she realised that although God had said “don’t eat (because you’ll die)”, He had also said “multiply and fill the earth”. Realising they had to become mortal to do that, and this fruit was seemingly the only way to achieve it, she made an intuitive and courageous decision and took the first brave step to follow through on its implications. Adam, also brave, recognised Eve’s wisdom (after some persuading went on; men can be stubborn but eventually very smart in listening to women), also ate and they both “fell that man might be”. Because things were going to be quite different from their experience so far, and they were the first of all people on earth – the ones to start off the first traditions, the first social mores; the foundation of all the things that people on earth would from then on establish lives and civilisations upon – God gave them some guidelines. There was to be a hierarchy: Eve would listen and be subject to the guidance of her husband, and he would receive revelation from heaven to guide them both (such as the commandment to offer sacrifice, which their children continued). This is basically the order that Paul followed in his counsel to the Corinthians. But why? Why wasn’t it the woman, for example, who got to receive the revelation for the two of them? Or why not both of them at once? I think there are a few answers to this, because the questions are on more than just one level (e.g. what is the meaning of revelation, how does it come, and if it comes to one does that mean it doesn’t come to the other?). I’m just going to respond to the ‘why’ on one level, the more obvious and possibly contentious one.
Adam named his wife “Eve” because she was the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20; Moses 4:26 In Hebrew, it’s Chawwah [‘Kawah/Kava/Hava’ – that ‘hch’ sound you get in Hebrew], which comes from the words chayah [pronounced ‘Kyah’] – to live and chawah – to breathe). Eve’s very name – the first woman on Earth – described her greatest and most inherent purpose. Think of this purpose. Women give life to the world; raise and nurture it; guide its progression. If the very purpose of Earth’s creation is for God’s children to experience mortal life, then Eve’s responsibility as mother of all living is immense and glorious. And this responsibility continues in her daughters today, as it did in those of Paul’s day. For this most vital of roles, God gave Adam an equally vital responsibility: to protect his wife, so that she could fulfil her responsibility. Adam’s role as protector and provider enabled Eve to pursue hers as mother. In accepting this, Adam didn’t just have responsibility for Eve’s safety, but for that of his children. He became the protector of families, and God’s sons today are no different; they have that same responsibility, if they will take it, to provide a place for women to be mothers, and the purpose of the earth to be fulfilled; for families to grow in mortality and be saved together in eternity. For being ‘saved’ eternally through Christ has never been about individuals, although it’s up to each individual to seek it, but about family. Our relationship to God as His sons and daughters is our most essential and foundational relationship – the one that guides us and gives us purpose. Thus, family has always been the central feature of God’s plan; His love allowed His Son’s love for Him and for us, Christ’s brothers and sisters, to be manifested for our salvation. It has always been about love; love creates and comes from family.
How was Adam to protect his family and provide a space for life to occur? He learnt to do this physically, but what about spiritual and emotional provision? God therefore gave him the authority to call upon the powers of heaven as needed to fulfil his vital task; this was the priesthood. Without it, Adam could not have fulfilled his purposes, and neither could Eve. Each was given the gifts and powers needed for their divine tasks. In order for this authority to be effective, Eve needed to recognise and accept it as a means of protection. Because Adam was the one tasked with that protection, and with the priesthood that enabled it, Eve became “subject” to him and the authority he held (to call upon the powers of heaven). In other words, she accepted Adam as the holder of this priesthood, understanding its purpose as protection and help for her, her children, and their whole family. This is the pattern still followed today, and that which Paul made reference to in his day. There are differences in how this pattern works in the family and the church, and Paul advised on both in his letters, as the circumstances required. The church is the means by which God provides the ordinances, or sacraments, of salvation. For this to occur in a way that reaches everyone, there needs to be order in how things are done – just like there’s an order in the way governments, businesses, schools, and other “organisations” operate. In God’s church, this order follows the pattern He established at the beginning, which means that men hold the priesthood, or the authority to act in the name of God for the salvation of His children (just as Adam did). If the purpose of the church is to administer the ordinances of salvation, then its purpose serves men, women and children. No one is left out, or is less important, or has less influence. Women aren’t given the task of ‘ruling’ in the church, but they teach, counsel, testify and exhort. The leadership of the whole church must necessarily come under the jurisdiction of those who hold this authority, but its effects are the same for all. The hierarchy is for the same purpose as the one Adam and Eve operated under: the salvation of family.
Getting caught up in the wording of Paul’s exhortations can blind us to the eternal beauty and purpose of the principles they’re built upon. I believe that when we realise the glorious purposes for which first Eve and then Adam made their courageous decision, these surface concerns will become unimportant compared to the immense and awe-inspiring responsibilities we each have, men and women, to give, nurture and protect life, and to grow as families towards eternal salvation, the ultimate happiness and extension of life here on earth.
Related: God’s Plan for Families
This talk from Elder Russell M Nelson demonstrates an excellent, beautiful and ennobling view of the role of women in God’s work: A Plea to Sisters