So it looks like All Enlisted (the people who brought you “Wear Pants to Church Day”) is now starting a campaign to have a woman pray in General Conference. It prompted this repost from BCC which references this piece from Rosalynde Welch. I want to look at just one line from Rosalynde’s essay:
“If anything, there probably is a decent scriptural case against women’s praying in public.”
Her link takes you to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (I’m quoting the KJV; she quoted the NIV; for purposes of this discussion, there are no significant differences between the translations.):
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
Rosalynde is absolutely right that this text has been used by some Christian traditions to limit women’s participation in public worship. The purpose of this post is to show that the text cannot, does not, and should not perform such a function for 21st century LDS. But note that I don’t mean to harp too much on what was probably a throw-away line from Rosalynde, and in an otherwise very good essay. My purpose here is to preempt what I expect to be extensive use of this passage if “Let Women Pray” goes as viral as “Wear Pants to Church Day,” where I saw numerous exegetically suspect references to Deuteronomy 22:5. So if you read this, Rosalynde, I hope you don’t feel picked on. I do realize that you wrote “probably” and that your larger point was the near-impossibility of distinguishing doctrine from policy and that this is not a topic on which the scriptures are silent.
First, let’s begin with a text from slightly earlier in the same letter: 1 Corinthians 11:5:
But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
In that text, it is clear that women will be praying and even prophesying (although they are counseled, perhaps tepidly [see v16; I have written more on this passage here], to cover their heads while doing so). Why, then, does Paul (and note that even those scholars who are skeptical that Paul wrote some of the letters that have been attributed to him think that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians) tell the women in chapter 14 to “keep silence”?
Well, he probably doesn’t. And the apparent contradiction between 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Cor 11:5 is the main reason that many scholars think that 1 Cor 14:34-35 is a later addition to the text. (And it isn’t just these two that contradict: there is ample evidence elsewhere in Paul’s letters that he saw a fairly expansive role for female disciples.)
Of course, the average saint-in-the-pew is not going to be impressed by scholarly arguments about interpolations in thinking about this passage. Instead, they are going to consider the fact that women have been giving sermons in General Conference for a generation and in sacrament meetings for even longer than that, and realize that the literal meaning of 1 Cor 14:34-35 is simply not followed by the church today. And the most likely reason it isn’t followed is because the Joseph Smith Translation changes “speak” to “rule.” In the one instance I was able to find of Joseph Smith commenting (you’ll need to scroll down to the part about Johanna Southcot) on this text, he links the verse to the idea not of speaking but of “ruling” in church. There is also a pretty fun statement from Brigham Young regarding this text:
I am not quite so strenuous as some of the ancients were, who taught that if the women wanted to learn anything, to learn it at home from their husbands. I am willing they should come to the meetings and learn, but some of the ancients proscribed them in this privilege, and would confine them at home to learn through their husbands. I am a little more liberal than they were, but this is not liberal enough for many of the women, they must also be watching their husbands, while at the same time their children are running abroad in the streets, naked and barefooted, cursing and swearing. Citation
In short, I disagree with Rosalynde that a “decent” case can be made against women praying or speaking in church. You can’t make it from Paul’s writings (because of the contradiction with 1 Cor 11 and other texts), you can’t make it from Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the text (or later prophets, who haven’t done much at all with this text; there are no post-Brigham Young references to it in General Conference in the GCSCI), you can’t make it from modern scholars (who just make it worse by taking the text as an interpolation), and you can’t make it by appeal to current LDS practice.
And it will perhaps surprise no one that I can’t think of a single good reason why women shouldn’t offer prayers in General Conference. President Kimball said, “The First Presidency and Council of the Twelve have determined that there is no scriptural prohibition against sisters offering prayers in sacrament meetings. It was therefore decided that it is permissible for sisters to offer prayers in any meetings they attend.” (Citation) (To be fair, his context was women praying in sacrament meeting, and then when he went on to list the meetings that a woman might pray in, he did not specifically mention General Conference. But given the totality of his statement, I think there is ample groundwork to incorporate a female pray-er in General Conference.) I think the ban on female prayers can, and probably does, do some damage by implying that there is something inferior or inadequate about women’s ability to pray. That said, I am, once again, concerned about All Enlisted’s approach to a sensitive topic and worry that they may do more harm than good. But that’s a topic for another post. Here, I just wanted to look at 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.