Read the passage here.
Our passage today is the last part of chapter 14, which as we have said is the last part of chapters 12-14. We are separating out these last 15 verses because: Firstly, it would have made chapter 14 far too long if we tried to tackle it all together; secondly, it contains a pretty troubling passage, which we’ll deal with in a few moments; and thirdly, because Paul is pretty clearly introducing a new point – though it is obviously related to everything that has gone before. So with that said, let’s take a look at the passage.
Now before we delve into the passage, I want to situate it in the context of the larger passage (12-14) as we’ve been working through it. That is to say, in chapters 12-14, Paul has been dealing with the issue or question of spiritual gifts. And as we’ve worked through it, we have said that Paul is concerned about those who value certain spiritual gifts more than others, and therefore consider those who possess or display certain spiritual gifts as having greater value than those who don’t. And Paul’s response is unequivocally that this is not so. This is a misunderstanding of spiritual gifts and what they are for (which is the edification of the Body). And so, where we left off in chapter 14, Paul says that spiritual gifts are given and must be used in order to build up the body – if they are not, what good are they.
And that brings us to our passage today. And by way of setting the stage – we’ll dig more into this in a moment – our verses today seem specifically to deal with this issue of spiritual gifts in the context of the corporate gathering (that is, the worship “service”). And Paul seems to be rebuking those who use (especially) the gift of tongues in the corporate gathering without considering how it affects the members of the community. Specifically, all of this must be done in an orderly fashion if it is going to build up the Body.
Now I say this right off the bat so that we have a general sense of what the passage is talking about. And I want us to keep that in mind because, right away, we’re going to address the troubling passage. At least it will be troubling to some of us. To others, we will find it completely reasonable, obvious, and orthodox. I’m referring of course to vv. 34-35, which deals with women speaking (or not speaking) in the corporate gathering. Now as most of you are aware, I am pretty strongly inclined towards egalitarianism. Which is to say, I support the position that the bible teaches equality between men and women (though even stating it in that way may be unfair to other positions). I point that out to make you aware that I may bring some biases into the reading of this passage. So having said that, my inclination is to believe that these verses may not be original to Paul, or at least may not be original to this passage.
I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I’ll explain briefly. Firstly, if we keep in mind what this passage seems to be about – and the emphasis on order in worship is pretty evident – then the discussion about women keeping silent seems a pretty strange insertion. That is, it doesn’t seem to fit the flow of the argument.
If we look at the overall passage (vv. 29-38 on the slide, in order to simplify things), removing vv. 34-35 seems to improve the logical flow (between 33 to 36). Again, Paul is talking about the importance of order in the corporate gathering. He says that “God is the God of peace,” and that this is the case in all the gatherings, at the end of v. 33. If we skip to v. 36, Paul’s next sentiment is, something like “do you think you are the exception (i.e. out of all the congregations)?
Leaving vv. 34-35 in place, the transition from v. 35 to 36 becomes considerably more confusing – at least to my mind, and in the minds of numerous commentators.
Now as it turns out, in some manuscripts, vv. 34-35 does not occur here (at vv. 34-35), but is actually found after our v. 40. Therefore, the text would look something like this:
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Now this is a possibility and solves some (though not all) of the issues with the logical flow of the passage. But ultimately, it raises the question, is this paragraph in fact original in Paul’s text (that is, is it a later insertion)? And in short, some interpreters believe that it is not original. And I am inclined to agree.
Now we’ve gone over this very quickly and left out much of what could and probably should be said about this. Not the least of which is that equally skilled interpreters sit on the opposite side of the fence (i.e. believe that it is original). However, what we don’t want to do is allow (possible) discrepancies such as this dilute our faith in the bible as the authoritative word of God. It’s important to keep in mind that, in terms of biblical interpretation, situations such as this are exceedingly rare and that the text that we have is extremely reliable.
However, situations like this do exist, and we have to know what to do with them. And again, I don’t want to get taken on too much of a tangent. So let me, without going beyond our text, say something about what I think we might do with our text.
And in short, what I want to say is that, while removing these couple of verses seems to solve some of the interpretive issues, even if verses 34-35 are original and do belong where we have them in our English text, we need to understand them in the larger context of Paul’s argument.
To put it more simply, as we’ve already discussed, in vv. 26-40, Paul is talking about the importance of order in the corporate gathering. And so, vv. 34-35 must likewise be understood in that context.
So from this perspective, we follow the interpretive line that says that there were women (or wives) in the Corinthian congregation who were disrupting the service (in some way) with questions to their husbands about whatever. And this makes sense given that women would not have typically been welcome alongside their husbands in such gatherings.
According to this argument, women are not prohibited from speaking in the worship gathering because they are women, but because they are (or have been) disrupting the worship.
And that, I think, brings us back to what is actually Paul’s larger argument – that is, maintaining order in worship. This may actually be the bigger interpretive challenge with this passage – keeping our eyes on Paul’s actual point, and not getting side-tracked by what is at best, tangential to Paul’s concerns. That is to say, Paul is not so much concerned with who is disrupting worship – he is concerned that worship is being disrupted.
Now I don’t think that we need to spend a lot of time examining this – it seems to me pretty evident from a simple reading of the text. But perhaps it might be useful to look at the basic structure like this:
Chapter 14 to this point (vv.1-25), which we looked at last week, had to do with the importance of the interpretation of tongues, if they are to be used in worship. That is to say, if it is not understandable, what good are they (tongues)?
vv. 26-28 picks up from this to say that if tongues are going to be used, assuming they are interpreted, they should be shared in an orderly fashion. Again, the principle is that “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (v.26b).
vv. 29-33 gives specific suggestion for prophecy. Again, this picks up on what Paul has already spoke about in the first part of chapter 14. And Paul wants to make it clear that it’s not just tongues that he’s concerned about. Rather, everything must be done in an orderly fashion “so that the church may be built up.”
Whether or not we allow vv. 34-35 to be properly situated here, and not a later insertion, the effect of the text that we have is that the gathering should not be interrupted by those who have particular questions (in this case, women of their husbands). And we should understand this not as a prohibition against questions per se. Rather, we might imagine this as side-talk, interrupting those who “have the floor,” being more concerned about one’s own edification than the edification of the body, or etc.
vv. 36-38, we are arguing properly picks up after v. 33. But regardless, the effect is that Paul is specifically critiquing the practice of the Corinthians. There, it seems that there are those who are more concerned about what they are “getting out of worship” than they are for the building up of the body. And so Paul’s response to this attitude is this entire section (ch. 12-14).
In conclusion, Paul says that he is not prohibiting tongues or prophecy – don’t misunderstand his point. Rather, “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (v. 40) in order to build up the Body.
Now, why do you suppose Paul is making such a big deal about this? And how should we, or how might we, relate to this? I have a couple of thoughts I’d like to share about this:
Inasmuch as Paul is talking about order and intelligibility in worship, I wonder how much our ability to connect with his concerns may depend on what generation we belong to. What I mean is this: I suspect that to those who come from an older generation, Paul’s concerns make perfect sense (though of course it would be a mistake to say this is a strictly generational issue). To those who belong to a younger generation, we might demur at Paul’s concerns with orderly conduct. Instead, they may value spontaneity or “authenticity” (on the assumption, of course, that order or structure is arbitrary and therefore not authentic).
Now of course, there’s a certain amount of sense to this. This generation’s concerns may arise out of a history of doing things because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” And of course if we continue to do things a certain way simply because that’s the way we’ve always done it, significance becomes secondary to tradition; meaning takes a back seat to habit.
And this, of course, regardless of how orderly things proceed, would seem to be contrary to Paul’s concern which is, how does it build up the Body.
But of course, it is precisely because of Paul’s concerns about building up the Body that he’s concerned at all about order and intelligibility.
I remember many years ago being part of a conference for young adults. And before each “session,” a number of us would gather together to pray. There were at least a dozen of us who would get together to pray and we would pray, as they say, “in one voice.” This is something that I was very used to, it having been a regular practice for years.
However, at this particular time, something about it struck me the wrong way. It took me a little while to figure out what it was. But then I realized what it was. There was certainly a part of me that connected with the authenticity of everyone crying out at the same time, calling out to God together. However, I realized that, precisely because we were all doing this at the same time, we were not doing it together. It was impossible to share in someone else’s prayer when all I was concerned about was calling out my own as fervently and loudly as possible.
There was no order and no intelligibility. Because I was only concerned with my own experience, there was no building up of the Body.
So the second thought I’d like to share flows from this first – that is, the significance in worship of building up of the Body. And what I mean by that (or how I think about it) is that our tendency is to think only (or mostly) about “what do I get out of it.” Some time ago we talked about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism – in short, an approach to faith (or rather an aberration of faith) that views the primary role of God as making us feel better about ourselves. Now most of us probably don’t go that far, but we often judge the value of various aspects of Christianity in those terms. We judge prayer in terms of “does God answer my wish?” We judge scripture in terms of “does it tell me what I’m supposed to do in order to get what I want?” We judge worship in terms of, “does it entertain me?” And we judge the community of Christ in terms of, “how does this group of people serve me?”
Now in some respects, this might seem too harsh. But I suspect we all think about or practice our faith along those lines at least some of the time. It is much harder to think in terms of, “how am I building up the Body?” Yet that is precisely what Paul wants us to think about.
And of course we’ve already been thinking and talking about this. So, I don’t want to beat a dead horse. And at the same time, I don’t want to encourage us to begin with guilt. What I do want us to recognize – once again, as we’ve talked about numerous times – is that God is creating a whole people. He’s creating a people for His name; and that people will be blessed to be a blessing. And I want us to think about how we can participate, how we can be a part of, what God is already doing in us and through us.