Biblical Egalitarianism (Part 10) - First Corinthians 14

08/05/2009 16:44


What we know as Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians was actually not the first time he wrote to them. First Corinthians 5:9 refers to a previous letter from Paul. And it is apparent from Paul’s discussion of things he has heard (1:11; 5:1; 16:15-18) and from a letter he also received from them (7:1) that most of this letter is in response to those matters reported to him either from travelers or through the letter from the Corinth church.

One thing that is apparent from all the correction that Paul makes in this epistle is that the church in Corinth was a bit of a mess. From the outset Paul discusses factions that had developed within the church. A false piety is evident from arguments they had over presumed leaders of the faith. This factionalism developed with an incorrect understanding of the liberality experienced in Christ, so that problems of sexual immorality and lawsuits (chs. 5 & 6) resulted as well as other disputes that Paul enumerates from chapter 7 on as he responds to their letter.

Chapter 12 begins a discussion of spiritual gifts that continues through chapter 14. This is the section that we will focus on because it relates to our subject of the conduct of women within a church meeting. We must be careful from the start to maintain our own focus on the purpose and means of Paul’s presentation. Paul is responding to the disruption evident in the services at Corinth. In particular, this section discusses the misuse of spiritual gifts in church meetings that brings about the disruption. In chapter 12, Paul carefully addresses the basis of spiritual gifts, which drives the Corinthians’ misunderstanding. They have clamored over gifts (as they did in their factional divisions of chapter 3) with attitudes desiring authority, prestige, and right of display. Paul’s first correction, then, is to inform them that their clamoring is wrong. He argues that all gifts come from the same Spirit. And all gifts are meant for mutual edification within one spiritual body.

As Paul moves to chapter 13, he says that without love (the desire to give of yourself for the benefit of another), their gifts mean absolutely nothing. Love is selfless. Therefore, if their spiritual gifts, which are meant for the edification of the body, are misused in attempts to claim authority or prestige, their gifts are rendered useless. From that basis, Paul moves to his discussion in chapter 14. And in verse 1 he tells them to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts,” but only after they “pursue love” (14:1). 

Now that he has set the foundation in order, Paul works on the superstructure. This chapter appears to indicate that the Corinthians considered tongues the most valuable gift. But their value system was incorrectly prioritized. The gift of tongues (speaking in another language without prior training or knowledge of the language) seemed the most miraculous of gifts because its display was so extraordinary. The assembled group was not able to sense the miraculous in the display of other gifts such as prophecy or knowledge. Those who spoke in tongues, therefore, claimed a greater gift and demanded immediate attention. Of course, multiple tongues speakers also vied for the same consideration. The result was a disordered service in which focus was removed from the Lord and settled on self, contending for right of display, prestige, and authority.

Paul corrects the notion first by explaining that the gift of tongues is not the preeminent gift. Tongues, although having a secondary benefit of edifying instruction, is a gift primarily for presentation to the unsaved, according to verse 22, and specifically to the unsaved Jew. On the other hand, prophecy was a gift whose primary intent was to benefit Christians—those gathered together in meeting for worship and edification. Therefore, Paul focuses their attention, not on the gifts, but the reason for them—to edify the body. Paul further instructs that, since edification is the purpose, any spiritual gift, whether tongues or prophecy, must be done in an orderly manner. If one is speaking in an unknown tongue, there must be an interpreter present or that tongues-speaker should keep silent (14:28). He follows that with the same instruction for those with the gift of prophecy. If one is bringing a prophetic message and another receives a prophetic message, the first should then conclude (or be silent) while the next one continues (14:30). You can control this, Paul says, so that disorder and confusion do not reign (14:32).

Verses 34-35 at first glance seem out of place. They read as follows: “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Are we not discussing disorder and disruption related to spiritual gifts in a meeting? Why then does Paul turn his attention to arguing for the silence of women at these meetings, even to the extent that they cannot so much as ask a question in order to learn? Isn’t learning part of what we go to church for? What’s Paul thinking? The seeming change of thought in these verses is so abrupt that some ancient manuscripts (of the Western family) have removed or reordered these verses in an apparent attempt to make more contextual sense. But their inclusion within the major families of manuscripts (Alexandrian and Byzantine) argues for the correctness of their current placement in our English Bibles.

The conflict continues with the seeming strength of Paul’s command to keep women silent, which actually contradicts what he wrote earlier in this letter. In chapter 11 Paul had argued for headcoverings while women prophesied in church. Could it be that three chapters later Paul has reversed his position, now arguing that women cannot prophesy in church? Even the immediately preceding verses argue for women prophesying. In the discussion of prophecy in verses 29 through 31 Paul says “you all” indicating everyone (unless we believe the Bible written only to men).

The change of thought from verse 31 and the urging that "you can all prophesy" to the exact opposite declaration of verses 34 and 35 that only some may speak is indeed too abrupt of a change to be ignored. And it is too conflicting of a message to imagine it from the same mind. And in that thought we have our first clue. First Corinthians is not a letter, as some others by Paul, written only from the inward stirring of Paul's soul. With this epistle, Paul is responding to a letter received by him from the Corinthians. We learn first of that letter in chapter 7 which begins, "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote...." Paul then quotes a portion: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman." In most of our English Bibles, that statement is in quotes, although no quote marks exist in the Greek. But the translators recognize that this line is not Paul speaking, but rather a quotation Paul is addressing from the Corinthian letter. Paul then responds to this, countering that claim. Again at the beginning of chapter 8, Paul writes, "Now concerning food offered to idols -- 'we know that all of us possess knowledge'" Again, that phrase “all of us possess knowledge” has quote marks around it in most of our English Bibles--quote marks that the translators have inserted. They inserted the quote marks because they again recognized this line as a phrase that the Corinthians must have stated in their letter to Paul. In these examples, we see Paul quote part of the Corinthian argument before he goes on to counter it and give them better instruction. Once more the same pattern emerges in chapter 12, letting us know that Paul is again referring to their letter: "Now concerning spiritual gifts...." And, in fact, it is in this section in which we read the confusing conflict of instruction from verse 31 through 40 of chapter 14. But recognizing that Paul is responding to the Corinthians' faulty practices and justifications, the cloudy construct begins to clear.

Evidently, the Corinthians were having disorder in their services regarding tongues and interpretations and prophecies. One of the solutions of the dominant male leadership was to silence the women. After all, they decided, the women were less qualified--less educated, less experienced in philosophical discourse. Therefore, verses 34 and 35 of chapter 14 should be understood as a quote from their letter to Paul telling him how they were attempting to handle the disorder. They decided that they could keep the women quiet, cutting out half (maybe more) of the potential speaking monopolizers. If those women had a question, the Corinthian men reasoned, they could simply ask their husbands at home--there was no need for them to speak during the service even for a question. Paul dealt first with the disorderliness, encouraging them to speak one at a time and to give the floor to another if that other had a prophecy to present (verses 26-33). But in his instruction he emphasized that if they did practice this one-at-a-time deference, the result would be as it should be--they could then all prophesy instead of ruling that certain ones (women) must remain silent. 

Paul then quotes from their letter of their ridiculous solution of banning the speech of women. As soon as he finishes the quote, he pits his instruction (verses 31-33) against their instruction (verses 34-35) by asking, "Or was it from you that the word of God came?" (verse 36). In other words, Paul is asserting his apostolic office. He received the gospel directly from Christ (see Galatians 1). He is presenting not just his opinion; Paul realizes that what he is saying is through the Spirit's inspiration. So his rhetorical question of verse 36 should not only receive an obvious No from the Corinthians, but it also is meant to remind them that the word of God did actually come through the Apostle Paul.

That verses 34 and 35 are indeed a quote from the Corinthians is made obvious by Paul's closing comment in verse 39 that reaffirms the one-and-all instruction of verse 31. He says in verse 39, "...and do not forbid speaking in tongues." Now where has he brought up in chapter 14 the fact that anyone was forbidding speaking in tongues? Why would Paul all of a sudden present this instruction in his ending summary? It is to answer what the Corinthians had been doing. And the only hint we have as to the Corinthians forbidding any speech is if verses 34 and 35 are indeed quotes from the Corinthians' letter. Therefore, with both verse 31 and the summary verse 39 instructing the Corinthians not to disallow anyone from speaking, unless we want to believe Paul has lost his mind, we must consider verses 34 and 35 as a quote coming from the letter that the Corinthians had sent to Paul.

(Now, here is a paraphrase to help us understand how these verses (29-40) should be read: 

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

(Now here Paul quotes from the Corinthians letter. Paul reads:) “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

(Then Paul continues) What?! Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.


Thus, in this study we have found that the creation ideal sets up the man and the woman as equal in being and worth and role. The curses resulting from the fall show the destruction of the three blessings of covenant relationship with God. The Old Testament shows that the downward spiral of evil is a constant backdrop to continuing life. But we also find that God established certain structures in the old covenant to protect his people while the promised redemption was unfolding. With the New Covenant we see in Christ’s actions and attitude a breakdown of many of the barriers caused by the sin impact on relationship. And in giving redemption, Christ also gives us both instruction and example to pursue return to the covenant blessings. Nowhere is an authority/subordination hierarchy set up in the New Covenant. Our only authority is God. No New Testament passage argues for a limiting of the image-bearing attributes of any of God’s people—Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. We are one in Christ. God’s purpose and plan for women is the same as that for men—one baptism, one faith, one Lord, one God and Father of us all, one purpose, one mission—the employment of gifts given by God to the edification of all to the praise of his glory.