The church at Corinth is justly famous for its problems, but it was also noteworthy for its gifts. So richly gifted was the Corinthian church that Paul said they come short in no gift. There’s all kinds of discussions we could have about the various differences between Corinth and the present milieu, but let’s start by trying to understand what was happening in the church then. There’s a particularly rich vein of discussion centering around how the Corinthians were supposed to use the gift of prophecy, so we’ll focus our discussion there. They had a number of prophets functioning in the Corinthian church — in fact, they were completely out of control, and part of Paul’s purpose in writing the epistle is to help restore a measure of order to their worship service.
So let’s take a little time to look what the practice of that particular gift was supposed to look like in the church. The first stop is 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Again, lots of ink spilled on whether we need to do this head covering thing today, and for the moment, let’s bypass all that and focus on what Paul wanted the Corinthians to do. It’s pretty simple, actually: men, when praying or prophesying, should uncover their heads; women, doing the same, should cover their heads. Why? As a sign of submission.
Let’s just sit with that for a moment. Here we have a man and a woman. Both are believers; both have the gift of prophecy; both have a word from the Lord to speak. No problem with any of that; they can both speak, but Paul insists that the man uncover his head to do it. Paul also insists that that the woman cover her head to exercise her gift. This from the same guy that wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to the Galatian churches earlier in his career. Has he changed his mind?
Of course not. Jesus is one with the Father; Jesus is not the Father. The Father sent; the Son obeyed to the point of death; the Father raised and exalted Him. Christian unity is trinitarian unity: real equality in value and glory, but not sameness in either identity or function. The application here to men and women fits well with the internal logic of Pauline iconography; a husband represents Christ and a wife represents His Bride, the Church.
If we stop right there, we have something valuable already: Paul plainly teaches them that both men and women can (and should) pray and prophesy, but not in exactly the same way. Which is to say, gender difference makes a difference in how the gift should be exercised in the Corinthian church. It could also make a difference today, could it not?
But let’s keep walking with the Corinthian church a while, because there’s more to say. A woman in the church of Corinth is certainly supposed to use her gift of prophecy for the benefit of the Body. Does that mean she may prophesy in the church meeting? There are two options here, and they have to do with how you understand 1 Cor. 11 and 14:31 as over against 1 Cor. 14:34-35. The latter passage says,
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
Let us begin, first of all, by discarding the notion that we cannot just stomp a foot, say “That’s not fair!” and disregard this portion of Scripture. It’s there; God said it, and if you’ll pardon a note of philistine biblicism here, we’re just going to have to live with it. God loves us, and He knows what He’s doing. It will turn out, if we obey wisely, that this is a good thing, a glorious thing, and not some scourge to be borne until the Lord returns.
But how to obey? Of course, we have to consider how to map the Corinthian situation onto our own situation (and that’s coming, Gentle Reader, but first things first), but before we can do that, we still need to settle out what Paul was asking the Corinthians to do.
The problem is that we have a seeming contradiction. Paul has already said, back in 1 Cor. 11, that women are to pray and prophesy with their heads covered, which means that he believes women should pray and prophesy. He has also said, just a few verses earlier, that all can prophesy one by one, so that each one may learn and be encouraged. So how are we to take it when, just a few verses later, he then says women are not to speak? There are two basic positions that seem viable.
Option A is that women are supposed to exercise their gifts of prophecy within the church, but not within the church meeting proper. This understanding has the virtue of a commendable simplicity, but it seems to leave a number of unanswered questions in the context. Option B is that women are to prophesy in the church meeting just as men are, but they are not to take part in the judging of the prophecy that follows a prophet speaking. This latter understanding seems to answer more questions in the context and follow the argument more closely, but at the same time feels a bit like a cop-out given the absolute-sounding statement in v.34.
Up to this point, I have felt that either understanding made equally good sense, and neither answered all my questions. I have not been able to rule out one or the other. If you’ll bear with me in an experiment, Gentle Reader, I want to undertake the project of exploring these two positions over the next few weeks and seeing if I can rule one or both of them out. If we can do that, then we can consider how this might map onto the present day.