This post has taken rather a long time to write. I apologize for the delay; I’ve been sick and had to pare down my responsibilities to the bare minimum for a while in order to make sufficient time for rest and recovery. Thank you for your patience, Gentle Reader, and my thanks also to those of you who have been praying for me; it’s much appreciated.
We left off with two options to explore in 1 Corinthians 14. How were the Corinthians to understand “let your women keep silent in the churches”? We had two views to consider, each with problems and advantages. Let’s take them each in turn.
Option A is that 14:34 is an absolute prohibition on female speaking in the church service. When the church gathers, a number of people speak to share a prayer, a psalm, a prophecy, a tongue (if interpreted), a teaching, or what have you — all of them men. Women are not to speak out in the church meeting, period.
Option B is that 14:34 is speaking about the judging of prophets. When one prophet speaks, Paul says, the others are to judge. Within this context, the women are to keep silent in the churches, and the men are to judge the word of the prophet. In this narrower reading, Paul is not prohibiting a woman from sharing a psalm, prayer, prophecy, or what have you; he is prohibiting a woman from entering the discussion following a prophecy, in which a verdict will be rendered as to whether the prophecy was of God.
Neither of these readings sit well in our egalitarian era. Allowing men to do anything and barring that same thing to women is a big no-no these days. But we have to face the facts: Paul is certainly prohibiting the women from doing something. How that prohibition might apply in our own place and time is a fascinating question, but it’s a question that will have to wait until we’ve figured out what Paul was asking of the Corinthians. If we can’t work out what he was asking them to do, how are we supposed to apply the instruction to us? So let’s consider the options here.
Option A: Total Ban on Women Speaking in Church
One of the first and most obvious advantages of this view is that it’s got immediate “curb appeal,” just based on its sheer simplicity(for folks from my fightin’ fundie roots, anyhow). The verse says “let your women keep silent in the churches,” so they weren’t to let women speak in church. Simple.
On this view, I’ve heard two different ways of handling chapter 11. The first is that Paul’s just “handling one problem at a time.” First he gets the prophetesses to cover their heads, thus ending the indecency, then three chapters later he tells them not to speak at all. A more plausible approach is that ch. 11 is not talking about conduct in the church meeting, but Christian conduct generally. Women certainly ought to pray, and prophetesses certainly ought to prophesy, and when they do, they ought to cover their heads. However, within the church meeting, women are not to speak; the praying and prophesying takes place elsewhere.
As we come into chapter 14, obviously the speakers are all to be male, so “you may all prophesy” doesn’t really mean all, it means all the men. (Women can prophesy too, of course, but somewhere else.)
A problem arises with the explanation that follows the prohibition, though. “And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home….” If what Paul has in view is preventing the Corinthian women from sharing a psalm, a prayer, or a prophecy in the church meeting – this is not wanting to learn something, but wanting to share something so that others may learn. I’ve not yet heard a plausible explanation for how v.35 fits in with this interpretation. One possible answer involves a re-reading of v.31. “For you may all prophesy one by one, so that all [of you prophets] may learn [how to exercise your gift of prophecy] and be encouraged [in the use of your gift for the benefit of the Body].” If this is a proper understanding of v. 31, then exercising the gift in the church is a learning experience for the prophet, and we may read v.35 thus: “And if they want to learn something [through exercising their gift of prophecy], let them ask their husbands at home….” It’s not clear to me why Paul would describe a woman exercising her prophetic gift at home as asking a question, though, so I’m not convinced on this one.
This interpretation also does not explicitly give a venue for the Corinthian women to use their gifts in prayer and prophecy for the benefit of the Body. This seems problematic: if they were not to speak in church, then when, where and how were the prophetesses to use their gifts for the benefit of the Body? However, this issue may arise only through the imposition of contemporary church paradigms (in which we only see our “church friends” at church once a week) on the text. By contrast to our contemporary practice, if the Corinthian church functioned like the Jerusalem church (Acts 2:46-47), then the formal gathering of the church for worship was a tiny percentage of overall church life, and there would be many other opportunities outside the formal worship service.
Option B: Ban on Women Exercising Authority over Prophets
According to this understanding, Paul is not banning women speaking in the church meeting overall; he’s speaking to a more narrow circumstance defined in the immediate context.
On this understanding, the first half of chapter 11 could well be speaking about conduct in the church meeting, although it may also have reference beyond it. This seems to fit the overall context better in any case. Chapter 11 is an organic whole (note the pairing of “I praise you” in 11:1 and “I do not praise you” in 11:17). Since the rest of the chapter (vv.17-34) is certainly speaking about the church meeting, it makes sense that the first half would be as well.
As we come into 14:26, “each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation…” means exactly that — everyone brings something to share. But there are some protocols to follow. First, two or at most three tongues-speakers may speak, each one in turn (i.e., not all at once), and they must be interpreted. If there is no interpreter for the utterance, the person should still speak — but only to himself and to God, not to the Body. Second, two or three prophets may also speak, but their words should not be taken immediately as from God. The others (in context, it seems to mean “other prophets”) are to judge what they are hearing. As they are hearing the prophet speak, if something is revealed to another who sits by listening and judging, the first prophet must yield the floor to the second. Subject to the judgment of the church and the limitations of two or three per meeting, “You may all prophesy” in 14:31 means exactly that — each of the people so gifted, male and female, may speak, so that all may learn and be encouraged. Dodging the protocols can’t be excused on the grounds that “God took control of my mouth and made me speak,” because the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. The prophets are each responsible for their own behavior, because God does not generate confusion, but peace, as He does in all the churches of the saints. Lastly, with respect to this matter of judging the prophets, women are not part of the discussion; rather than taking on the mantle of authority they are to be submissive, as the Law also requires. Women also may not participate in the discussion under the guise of “just asking a question” or “just trying to learn something.” If a woman wants to understand why the judgment is rendered the way it is, she may ask her husband at home; it is shameful for a woman to speak in this fashion in church.
On this understanding, the reading of v. 34 meshes well with 1 Timothy 2:12. The act of judging the prophets is an exercise of authority (often over a male prophet), and so Paul does not permit a woman to take that role.
The major problem with this reading is the underlined phrase above. It is not immediately clear that vv.34-35 are specifically about judging the prophets. It’s a relatively plausible reading, given the need to harmonize 14:34-35 with 14:31 and 11:1-16. But I’m certainly not satisfied that it’s the right reading.
How Did the Corinthians Read Chapter 14?
Paul closes the discussion of church protocols with a challenge: did the word of God come originally from Corinth? Did it reach only Corinth? Of course not; Corinth is one church among many, and it should conform with the practice of its sister churches. Anyone in Corinth who thinks himself a prophet — or even just a spiritual believer — should acknowledge that Paul’s writing here is God’s commandment, but if someone insists on being ignorant, very well. The Corinthians should abandon him to his ignorance.
Chapter 14 seems cryptic to us in part because Paul did not need to explain in detail what other churches did. The charter members of the Corinthian church certainly knew what Paul’s worship services would look like; he would have led them in the beginning. Also, Corinth was a port city; some of the members of the church would be well-traveled, and would have observed the worship at churches in other places. The Corinthian church would have been well aware of the mainstream worship practices of the New Testament church, and the ways in which their worship service was unique. Paul is calling them to abandon (at least some of) that uniqueness and fall back into the mainstream practice of all the churches. That part is clear enough. Exactly what that practice was seems less clear.
I’d like very much to launch a discussion here. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you that when I started writing this post 3 weeks ago, I was strongly disposed toward option B. The more time I’ve spent with the text, the more skeptical of that I’ve become. However, I continue to see serious problems with option A as well. If I can’t resolve it, I’ll just have to “steer around” it for the time being, and rely on other passages to fill in the gaps. It’s an imperfect solution, to be sure, but for the moment I’m stumped.