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keep silent?!

This Sunday we’re taking a look at Paul’s instructions for worship in the gathered assembly in 1 Corinthians 14. As we will see, spiritual worship—worship led and empowered by the Spirit of God—builds up the church, is intelligible or readily understood, and is orderly rather than chaotic. The latter does not require a strict liturgy but it does mean there must be some order to the service. This was a problem in first-century Corinth. Their worship services were chaotic and were not building up the church and were not intelligible. Paul seeks to correct this in chapter 14 of his letter.

In the midst of this correction he strengthens his point about orderliness by making a statement about women and speaking in the assembly. This statement has been interpreted so rigidly by some as to prevent women from even praying out loud in the gathered assembly and has been utterly dismissed by others as to completely ignore the apostle’s instructions. Here is that text.

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. 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 14:29–35 ESV

There it is. “Women should keep silent in the churches.” Pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Not really. Sometimes saying what the Bible says is not the same as meaning what the Bible means. We saw this in our series in Joshua. Over and over again God told Israel to “devote the Canaanites to destruction”. Israel was said to have killed them all, man, woman, and child, putting them to the sword. This follows God’s own instructions in Deuteronomy 7 where he told Israel when they entered the land they were to devote the people to complete destruction. Then he immediately told them to not marry any of them, either. Either that last part was completely and utterly superfluous, or “devoting them to complete destruction” does not mean the literal killing of every man, woman, and child. What we saw in that series is the concept of Ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric, which is similar to sports today wherein a coach may tell his team at half-time to go out in the second half and “rip their hearts out” or “let’s get out there and kill these guys”. Harsh? Aggressive? Yep. Criminal? No. We readily recognize the hyperbole in these statements just as the Ancient Near Eastern Israelites understood the warfare rhetoric of putting “every man, woman, and child to the sword” meant overwhelming victory in which only those who insisted on armed aggression against Israel were killed.

When Paul says women should keep silent in the churches we can either understand this literally, as in a woman is not allowed to utter a single word out loud, or we can try to see what he really meant. We know he cannot mean they are not allowed to utter a single word because he writes earlier about women speaking in the assembly! In chapter 11 he gives instructions regarding men and women praying and prophesying in the assembly. In the first century it was culturally appropriate for a woman to pray or prophesy out loud with her head covered and for a man to pray or prophesy with his head uncovered. If in chapter 14 he means a woman is not allowed to utter a single word then his instructions for them to pray and prophesy are absurd. It’s like telling someone it’s illegal to rob a bank but when you rob a bank, here’s how to do it properly!

It should be clear, then, that Paul’s direct statement—the women should keep silent in the churches—is not as obvious as the immediate language would suggest, much like Joshua’s Ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric. So how are we to make sense of this? Context, and understanding the meaning of words. Let’s start with the words.

Paul uses the word translated “keep silent” a few times in this chapter. In verses 27–28 he writes about those speaking in tongues and says if there is no one to interpret what is being said, those speaking must “keep silent”. That is, they must be self-controlled and refrain from speaking. In verses 29–30 he writes of prophets who speak in the assembly and says when someone shares in the assembly, the others must weigh what is said. That is, they must evaluate whether it were from the Lord. Then he says if another wishes to speak, the first should “be silent”—same word. The first must be self-controlled and refrain from speaking. This brings us to the context.

Paul is explaining that corporate worship reflects an essential characteristic of God: order. He is not the God of confusion but of peace, or of rightly ordered things. When he first created the world it was out of order, chaotic—formless and void. God creates order out of chaos. This is his point in verse 31 when he says the Corinthians can all prophesy “one by one”—in an orderly fashion. Rather than speak over one another, one must refrain from speaking so as to allow another to speak. Then we come to the verses in question.

He begins with, “As in all the churches”. He’s saying that this is the rule in every church. It is not an instruction that is specific to the church in Corinth, much like his statement in 1 Timothy where he says that it is his practice to restrict the authoritative preaching of God’s word to those to whom the responsibility is given. There he says women are to remain quiet, not as a general rule for the gathered assembly but regarding teaching and preaching in the gathered assembly, which is the responsibility of elders. Despite what some assert, this is not his solution to a unique problem in Ephesus where Timothy was. Rather, it demonstrates Paul‘s ecclesiology, for Paul does this. (For more information on this text, see this sermon.)

The context is key to understanding this. His prohibition of women speaking is not an outright prohibition against speaking anymore than instructing those who speak in tongues and who prophesy to stop speaking is a complete prohibition against speaking in tongues and prophesying. He clearly cannot mean that. Saying that women should keep silent is in the direct context of orderliness in the gathered assembly. During their worship times the church assembled together and people shared, and this time of sharing included prophetic messages.

By the way, don’t think of prophecy as predicting the future. He says in verse 3 that those who prophesy build up the church, encourage the church, and console or comfort the church. He doesn’t say they tell the church its future. The gift of prophecy is simply hearing from the Lord and communicating his truth to others in a way that builds them up, that encourages them, and that comforts them. At New City we see this during our extended prayer time. If you’ve heard God speak to you during this time in which we share and pray for one another, you’ve heard a prophetic word from the Lord.

Paul says that in this particular context, that of the church sharing and speaking to one another words that build up and encourage and comfort, what is said and shared must be weighed by others. He says the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. What is shared must be weighed, or it must be determined whether it were a word from the Lord. This is because “God is not a God of confusion but of peace”. As is the practice in all the churches of God’s people, women should refrain from speaking at this point. Here’s the tricky part. What is the equivalent of the women being silent? It is being in submission to their husbands. If a woman were to speak at this point she would not be in submission to her husband.

It’s not hard to imagine probing questions being asked when the church shares in this way. Paul is speaking directly to the issue of husbands and wives in the gathered assembly sharing together what could be private and even intimate information. Anthony Thiselton is especially helpful here. He cites New Testament scholar Ben Witherington in this quote (emphases are in original).

With Witherington, we believe that the speaking in question denotes the activity of sifting or weighing the words of prophets, especially by asking probing questions about the prophet’s theology or even the prophet’s lifestyle in public. This would become especially sensitive and problematic if wives were cross-examining their husbands about the speech and conduct which supported or undermined the authenticity of a claim to utter a prophetic message, and would readily introduce Paul’s allusion to reserving questions of a certain kind for home. The women would in this case (i) be acting as judges over their husbands in public; (ii) risk turning worship into an extended discussion session with perhaps private interests; (iii) militate against the ethics of controlled and restrained speech in the context of which the congregation should be silently listening to God rather than eager to address one another; and (iv) disrupt the sense of respect for the orderliness of God’s agency in creation and in the world as against the confusion which preexisted the creative activity of God’s Spirit.

Anthony Thiselton, New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1 Corinthians

This makes the most sense of Paul’s emphasis on order in the gathered assembly. When Paul instructs women to keep silent it is in the context of publicly sharing and, just like those who would speak in tongues or who would prophesy, they must maintain proper order and decorum. Not everything that can be said should be said and not everything that can be shared should be shared. There’s a time and a place for everything. This is why he adds that a wife can have that more private conversation with her husband at home—a more appropriate place for private and even intimate conversations!

It comes down to this: a woman may certainly speak in the gathered assembly. She can share stories of God’s faithfulness and share prayer requests and pray for others and offer words of encouragement and comfort. She can read Scripture and serve communion and even lead the church in singing. In short, a woman can do anything a man in the church can do. The only real restrictions are those responsibilities restricted to the council of elders, which are restricted for all who are not elders. Anything a man who is not an elder can do a woman can do.

This was Paul’s meaning. Saying what Scripture says is not always meaning what Scripture means. When this particular Scripture says women should not speak in the gathered assembly, it means they may not disrupt the ordered nature of the worship service any more than a man can. Anyone who uses this text to silence women is twisting Scripture.

As we’ve seen throughout our sermon series on the Holy Spirit, every single believer is gifted and called to serve with that spiritual gift. We need every man and woman present and active in the church, serving according to his or her giftedness. This includes proclaiming the gospel of Jesus to one another through singing and sharing and praying and reading Scripture and prophesying to one another. As one scholar put it, spiritual gifts don’t come in pink and blue. So long as “all things are done decently and in order” in the gathered assembly, God, who creates order out of chaos, is glorified in our worship, and that worship necesssarily includes womens’ voices.