Ministry (26): Contradictory when it comes to speaking

So what is it to be? Speak or keep silent? When it comes to the role of women in a divine service setting, 1 Corinthians contradicts itself—at least apparently. But if you look at things in context, you begin to understand what it is all about.

The intention of the first epistle to the Corinthians was less to teach (like the epistle to the Romans was intended) than to clear up erroneous views. Apostle Paul addresses questions from the congregation about Christian life in the multicultural city. He talks about competing camps, about personality cult, food prescriptions, legal disputes, and sexual life.

In chapters 11 to 14, Paul addresses a subject that is only just beginning to emerge: the structures of divine service. Twice, he makes a point of mentioning women. Almost at the end of the letter he says: “…as in all the churches of the saints. Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak” (1 Corinthians 14: 33, 34).

Between talking and keeping silent

Is this a general injunction for women not to talk in church and ban them from preaching for all time to come? Surely not, because then Paul would have had no reason to regulate that women were to cover their hair when praying or prophesying—something he did early on in establishing order in public worship.

Because the New Testament understands prophesying as proclaiming the will of God, and doing so expressly in His name. Paul sees in this ability a particularly desirable spiritual gift that encourages people, comforts them, and builds up the church.

So what is it to be? Speak or keep silent? Scholars offer two approaches to resolve the internal inconsistencies of Paul’s epistle.

Migrating Bible verses

A significant number of experts assume that the commandment of silence was added to the original text of the New Testament. Specifically, a later note, initially placed in the margins of the document, eventually came to be copied into the body of the text.

This is not mere conjecture, but is based on two observations. First, the commandment to keep silent appears in different places in the various ancient manuscripts. Secondly, the two verses contain a formulation that is not found anywhere else in Paul’s writings.

Good order in divine service

Many other interpreters, however, view the Pauline order in church meetings as a whole. At first, the divine services were disorganised: “Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation” (1 Corinthians 14: 26). This results from the diversity of spiritual gifts described in chapter 12 (verses 2–16) and the interaction of the church as members of one body (chapter 12: 17–31). The best way to unity is the way of love (chapter 13).

Something that is especially important to the Apostle is: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (verse 40). Because: “God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (verse 33). And so the Apostle organised public worship:

  • Women and men were to observe the established custom of head coverings (chapter 11: 2–16).
  • Rich church members were to wait for the poor with the common meal that was taken together and which preceded the sacramental Lord’s Supper (chapter 11: 17–34).
  • If there was speaking in tongues, in other words, speaking in unintelligible language, it was to be interpreted. If there was no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet (chapter 14: 1–28).
  • They were to speak one at a time and not all at once. If anyone spoke in tongues or prophetically, the others were to be silent (chapter 14: 27–37).
  • Those who wanted to learn and enquire about something were not to interrupt in the meeting, but keep silent and only ask at home (chapter 14: 34–35).

This commandment of silence—the third one within this order of worship—specifically designates women. This had to do with all the catching up the women had to do. Because women in ancient times mostly had little access to education.

Regardless of how one classifies these regulatory measures: not with a single word does the first letter to the Corinthians call into question the fact that women have the same spiritual gifts as men.

Not only the first epistle to the Corinthians says that women should keep silent in church. Also the first epistle to Timothy does, and tightens it. This is what we will explore in the next part of this series.

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Andreas Rother
Bible, Doctrinal statements