Sunday I preached our penultimate sermon from 1 Corinthians. We finish next week with 1 Corinthians 13. Two days ago, though, I tackled the enormous task of distilling 1 Corinthians 11, 12, 13, and 14 into one salient, and hopefully big, idea. The idea is that confusion and lack of control in our worship is bad. Or, as Paul put it: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not a God of confusion, but peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:32 & 33a, ESV)
In my amazing rhetorical technique I employed the very next lines in the text to prove my point, and thereby simultaneously addressing two issues at once. Those issues being worship and gender equality.
You see, the very next lines, right after the bit about God not being a God of confusion but peace says,
As in all the churches of the saints, 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. (1 Corinthians 33b-35, ESV)
Oh dear! Right now you are thinking, “Does that mean what I think it means?”
No. It does not.
The reason it does not is that in Chapter 11 Paul spends a lot of time describing exactly how a woman should dress and what she should look like if she prays or prophesies (preach?) in church. Has Paul forgotten in three short chapters what he wrote? Is he arguing against himself?
No, of course not. He is addressing two different issues and they are not related to each other. Of course women could speak and prophesy in the worship gatherings of the church as long as it was edifying and meaningful, which is the same requirement for a man to speak. Then why does Paul say women should be silent in Chapter 14?
Good question. The answer is that in the culture of Ancient Greece (and Palestine in general) women were subjugated as property. They were not taught to read or how to engage in social discourse. Women were not allowed to participate in public life and were certainly not allowed to lead anything. The ancient Greek’s were misogynist, plain and simple. The Romans were a little more open on the issue, due primarily to Roman law for patrician women, but not by much. Women were viewed as sex objects and domestic servants.
In this darkness the liberating gospel enters. This is a gospel where Jesus’ interacted with women just as much as men and where Paul declares elsewhere that there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Therefore, in Christian worship practice women, who otherwise were shunned, were allowed to participate fully in the worship experience. They heard the sermons, heard the readings, sang the hymns, prayed the prayers, and took of the cup and loaf. Apparently, they didn’t always understand what was going on because they had never experienced it before. Their behavior was childlike, not because of lack of intelligence but through lack of experience and apparently they always slowed down the worship experience with their continual questions of such things as, “Why is he doing that?” and “What does that mean.” Hence, Paul says they should be quiet and ask their husband at home later what certain things mean because their husbands were experienced in worship and public discourse so they would know.
To me, this makes far more sense that implying that it was de facto based on gender that women are not allowed to speak in all the churches. Paul’s statements are about unlearned women who had not yet found their footing in this new fresh air of gospel liberation. It takes time for freedom to find itself.
So the lesson here is not about gender, it is about disruption in worship. If that is the case then there are three take-aways.
1. People who are unlearned and ill-trained should not be in public leadership. It is okay to have young leadership (which I advocate for highly) but they need to be trained and gently led in appropriateness as they lead.
2. Individual needs for recognition or understanding are subordinate to the needs of the collective whole. This is why we do not recognize anniversaries or birthdays in our worship settings, unless someone else takes momentary control of the service (which happens more frequently than you would think) or I am strong armed.
3. Churches should explain as much as possible to people who come into their worship service so as to answer their questions ahead of time. This also fits the evangelistic concept of worship found in 1 Corinthians 15:23-25.