The student body president of Albany High School that year was a girl. And even by the ripe old age of nine, I had learned that it was against God’s will for a girl to lead a public prayer. There are at the very least two kinds of people here this morning. First, there are those who are amazed that I could master such sound biblical teaching at such an early age. Second, there are those who are amazed that, at such an early age, I could have been so wrong. May God grant us, through the power of His Holy Spirit, the ability to see those who think differently than we do, as our brothers and sisters. And may God grant us wisdom and discernment as we, the community of God’s people, read these ancient words.
What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person 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 the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order. (I Corinthians 14:26–40 NRSV)I want to concentrate on verses 34–36 of chapter 14. But I read a much longer section because I think in order to grasp the meaning of 34–36, we must set this shorter text in its longer context. These three verses have dumbfounded biblical scholars for a long time. The main issue has been this: How can we possibly reconcile these verses with what Paul has already stated in chapter 11? If you recall, in chapter 11, Paul admonished the church saying: Men, when you pray and prophesy make sure your head is uncovered, and women, when you pray and prophesy make sure your head is covered. In short, as long as their heads were covered, Paul endorsed the practice of women praying and prophesying in the church! But here in chapter 14, it seems as if Paul has forgotten his earlier statements, for here he says: Women should keep silent! It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. If they have anything to say, they should ask their husbands at home. Biblical scholars and students for centuries have worked tirelessly trying to reconcile these two I Corinthians texts.
They’ve also worked diligently trying to reconcile chapter 14 with other parts of Paul’s writings. Because, throughout his letters, Paul repeatedly mentions female church leaders. In Romans 16, Paul lists Phoebe as a “deacon in the church at Cenchrea.” In the same chapter and also in Acts 18, Paul mentions Prisca as his “fellow worker.” In Philippians 4, Paul says of two other women, Euodia and Syntyche: “They have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers.”
In Romans 16, Paul also calls another woman, Junia, an apostle! These other writings, as well as I Corinthians 11, have caused many Christians to ask: What do we do with chapter 14?
An increasing number of biblical scholars have become so perplexed by these apparent incongruities that they have concluded that these three verses were not even written by Paul. They have argued that at a later date, after Paul’s lifetime, Christians fell into their old worldly pattern of male-dominated leadership. Even though Paul, throughout his ministry, tried to move the church toward a new reality, a reality where male and female were equal, a reality not dominated by hierarchical structures. Once Paul died, the church fell into its old habits. At that time, some argue, Christians added these three verses (along with I Timothy 2:11–12, which are strikingly similar in their language). Without going into all of reasons for their conclusions, I must say I disagree. Certainly, this text is difficult to understand in its own right, and it is even more difficult to reconcile it with some of Paul’s other statements. Nevertheless, I think Paul wrote this, and I think, in their context, Paul’s words in I Corinthians 14 fit with Paul’s entire message in I Corinthians.
So, how do we make sense of this text?
There are so many issues to consider (many more than we can tackle today!). And one of those issues has to do with the last half of verse 33. Many of our English translations break this paragraph in an awkward place—the middle of verse 33! Remember, this is not how Paul arranged his paragraphs. Chapter numbers, verse numbers, paragraph breaks were all added centuries after Paul’s lifetime! And this small decision on the part of the translators drastically changes the meaning of these verses. The issue in question is this: Does the phrase “As in all the churches of the saints” come as the last phrase in Paul’s sentence regarding God’s preference for order and peace? Or, does the phrase “As in all the churches of the saints” begin Paul’s paragraph on women? There are many reasons to believe that that phrase goes with what came before. The most obvious reason is a matter of grammar. If these words go with verse 34, Paul’s statement is redundant: As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches.
The question arises: Why would Paul use this phrase twice in the same sentence? Well, why does it matter? If these words apply to Paul’s section on women, then he is making a general statement about all congregations. If, however, these words apply to the preceding section, it is possible that Paul’s words about women are related to a specific concern of the Corinthians. Remember, Paul is writing a letter to the Corinthian Christians. I am confident that Paul had no idea we would be reading his letter nearly 2,000 years later on a different continent! Now, that does not mean that we should disregard Paul’s apostolic words! But it does mean that we need to consider the possibility that these words were written to address a specific question or circumstance in Corinth.
A second issue is this: What does Paul mean by “be silent”? Here, I think it is important to consider the longer context, which we’ve already read together. In this chapter, Paul discusses three kinds of people: Prophets, Tongue Speakers and Women; to each group, Paul’s admonition is the same: “Be silent.” This same form of this word is used in all three places and elsewhere in the New Testament. In Acts 12:17 where Peter had just escaped from prison, he motioned to the crowd to “be silent” so he could speak. In Acts 21:40 where after Paul is arrested he “silenced” the crowd so he could be heard. In the same way, in I Corinthians 14, Paul tells the tongue speakers to “be silent.” Don’t all speak at once, take your turn. In the same way, Paul tells the prophets to “be silent.” Don’t all speak at once, take your turn. At the end of this entire section, Paul finally reveals his main point:
So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues, but all things should be done decently and in order. (I Corinthians 14:39–40 RSV)Once again, we see that one of Paul’s primary concerns was that nothing hinder the passing on of the gospel. If eating food offered to idols will jeopardize the gospel, then don’t eat. If not covering your head in worship will jeopardize the gospel, then cover it. If speaking in tongues without waiting your turn will hinder the communication of the gospel, wait your turn. If prophesying without waiting your turn will hinder the communication of the gospel, wait your turn. Some have suggested that Paul’s admonition to women should fall into that same category: Just as some prophets or tongue speakers were creating chaos in the assembly with their loud and unorderly speech, perhaps some women were also creating chaos in the assembly with their loud and unorderly speech. In all three occasions, Paul’s admonition is the same: Be Silent! (Same word.) He didn’t mean: “Prophets, do not ever say anything in church.” He didn’t mean: “Tongue speakers, do not ever use your gift in church.” And most of us agree with those two statements. Then, why do we believe, in this one instance with women, Paul was calling for absolute silence for all time in the church? It stands to reason, because Paul gave all of them the same command, that they were guilty of the same thing. They were all creating chaos in the church with their unorderly speech. But, in the end, as Paul writes, all things should be done decently and in order and you shouldn’t do anything to hinder the message of the gospel from being heard.
So, what do you think, church?
It’s time for real honesty again (like we talked about last week). This passage is very difficult to understand. I see at least three options:
First option: Women be silent—all the time, no matter what!
Problem: That conflicts with many other Pauline statements. It also ignores other passages in the New Testament that show that women were in fact leading in the church.
Second option: Dismiss these verses as a later addition.
Problem: We can’t just cut out everything we disagree with. I believe we have the Bible as God intended for us to have it. A process that took centuries ended with us having this book in its present form, and I believe God was watching over that process.
Third option: Try to understand this text in a different way.
Problem: Such interpretations often seem forced. And if we are not careful, we can end up making the text say what we want it to say instead of what it really says!
In the end, I think we have to honestly admit we are not one hundred percent sure what to do with this text. You may wonder where I fall in all of this: at the end of the day, what do I think Paul is saying? In all honesty and humility, I think the last option is most likely. I think Paul here is addressing a specific concern at Corinth. I think, much like the prophets and tongue speakers, some women were being disruptive in some way, and Paul told all of them to be silent. Or, remember, the word for “woman” and “wife” is the same word. He could be talking to a specific group of wives who were disrespecting their husbands and being loud in worship (like the prophets and tongue speakers). Is that option without its problems? No! But neither is any other option!
Allow me to share with you where I am with this entire issue at the moment. I know this continues to be a, if not the, hot-button issue in the church today. Feelings are strong on both sides of the issue and to say anything is often to invite the anger of many! My study of scripture leads me to believe that we have restricted the role of women in the church far too much. The New Testament gives us examples of women praying and prophesying, serving as deacons and apostles, serving as Paul’s fellow workers, serving as hosts of house churches and as 21st century Christians, I see no reason to restrict the role of women any more than the 1st century Christians did. Some could accuse me and others of allowing culture to set this agenda. The only reason you are rethinking this interpretation of Scripture is because culture has allowed for wider roles for women. I’ll admit, that is probably true. But, that is not the trump card. The fact is, culture has often forced the church to rethink interpretations of Scripture. But that doesn’t make the new interpretations wrong. Most notably, consider the issue of slavery. For most of Christian history, Christians used the Bible to support slavery. Eventually, because society forced us to rethink it, we began to interpret those passages differently and I think, more accurately. Culture led the church to rethink its interpretation of slavery. And I believe culture has led the church to rethink its interpretation of women.
But, I will also be honest and say that I do believe Paul endorses some sort of male headship in the church. I don’t know what that looks like, Paul never tells us! I am sure some of this arose from Paul’s culture. He writes that “the head of the woman is man” but he never explains himself! But even as he supports his view of male headship, Paul, in the same paragraph talks about women praying and prophesying in the church. At the end of the day, I have to agree with the writer of II Peter 3:16: Paul’s letters contain some things that are hard to understand.
Church, please hear my heart. Usually when a sermon like this one is preached, people wonder, “What is the agenda?” If I have an agenda, it is this: to be as faithful to scripture as I can possibly be. I believe this is a crucial topic to address as we seek to understand what Paul is saying to the Corinthians. And in the end, it is more important than we are faithful to Scripture than to our culture, traditions, or anything else.
Church, my goal with this sermon is not to immediately change the worship practices at Glenwood. But I do not want us to be afraid to study this or any other difficult issue together. That’s what the church has always done. As I mentioned last week, I sometimes fear tackling an issue like this because our track record indicates that when we disagree we often divide. And church, that is the last thing I would want for us to do. What is more important than this issue or any other is the message of the gospel! Jesus came to earth. Jesus lived as a human being. Jesus died for us and Jesus defeated death through Resurrection. Because of that gospel story, you and I have been freed from sin and death and because of that gospel story, we have been restored into right relationship with God. That is what is most important! As long as I have anything to do with it, that is the message that will dominate and define my ministry.
So, where do I believe God is calling us to be today? I think He is calling us always to the same places He's always called us. He’s calling us to prayer, he’s calling us to conversation, he’s calling us to community, and he’s calling us to the table. May we be a people who can honor God and each other in the midst of this and any other conversations we may ever have together.