Letters to the Corinthians: How to Have a Worship Service

In this section of Scripture, we have one of the more restrictive verses regarding women and what they can do during worship. It also poses something of a dilemma – you see, the phrase ‘brothers and sisters’ used at both the beginning and the end of this passage really does refer to both men and women – how can it be that Paul is contradicting himself in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 by saying that women can come together with the men with a hymn, word of instruction, revelation, tongue, or interpretation and yet a handful of verses later say that women should remain silent?

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

Many proponents of the Regulative Principle of Worship believe that the Bible tells us what God requires of worship, anything the Bible tells us to include in worship must be included in worship. Anything the Bible forbids must still be forbidden. Anything that the Bible is silent on is also forbidden. Historically, it was an idea used to explain why dancing was forbidden in worship. You’ll notice that when it comes to this type of worship, people still tend to pick and choose. Of the list, hymns and a word of instruction are fairly common, a revelation can happen, but speaking and tongues and interpreting are believed to have ceased. Of the ones are left – we’ve carefully divided who can do what based on what we believe Scripture teaches; in essence, we’ve silenced many women that God would have let them speak.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

I’ve heard a lot people say “God is not a God of disorder” to explain why order in worship, creation order, and every other form of order is important – but they seem to have to take that one section of the verse out of context. Paul’s saying that there is a proper context to how to exercise gifts. The first context – to speaking in tongues, requires that only a few people at a time be allowed to speak and an interpreter must be present. The context to prophesy is similar – a few should speak and the others should consider what is said. These gifts are not meant to be an out of control free-for-all, but something that be of benefit to everyone.

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.

The footnote of my Bible mentions that in some manuscripts, these verses are at the end of the letter – after ‘Therefore,’. Another source claims that it wasn’t in the original, but added to it later. One teacher suggests that it is a quote from the Corinthians’ letter that Paul is about to refute in the next section. Like the tendency to take the “God is not a God of disorder” out of context – we do that today with these verses. Paul just told the men and women that when they come together, they are to take turns speaking in tongues and prophesying – all of them. The word for ‘silent‘ when used of women means just that, but the exact same word when it’s used of men is often translated to ‘settle down‘, odd isn’t it? I think we have to admit that we’re going to give ourselves headaches if we continue to apply the Bible to our lives without considering the culture it was written to: Early Christianity was famous for being a religion of ‘slaves, women, and children’ in which ‘Christian maidens were very numerous’ – in fact, the rules had to be changed so that women could marry men in the class beneath them just to get them all married off. A rule requiring women to be silent, to inquire of their husbands at home would be a big reason why Christianity might repel women in a world where other religions offered the chance to rise up to the level of a priestess. Can you imagine that conversation:

“… And so the Sisters of the True Light held a vote and decided that it was time to promote me to a priestess! What does your religion do for you?”

“Well, um, I get to sit there and learn silently. One day I’ll marry and have to wait until I get home to ask my husband any questions that might arise during the service.”

“How are you going to remember the all questions you have for however long the services are?”

“With God’s help, if I forget some questions, they mustn’t have been all that important. He will keep the ones worth asking in my memory.”

Odds are the priestess-to-be won’t say: “I discern the wisdom in your God’s ways, I renounce my own deity! Sign me up for that!”

The early church existed in a time when men and women were usually separated – seating on opposite sides, breaking up families, even in the home of a church member. This was as normal to them as sitting by families are to us today – so there was not much need to question it. The women also usually sat with the children – so their section would be somewhat noisier than the men’s because of the need to talk over the screaming children while catching up with your friends since the last time you saw them, after all, the men run into each other all the time. Since the women usually remain at home all week, this is their first chance to be social and talk about what’s going in their lives. One thing that Early Christianity did for women was to give them a place to interact with other women outside of their usual circle, their next-door neighbors. When it came time to ask questions – things would just get louder. But it’s easy to miss something: Nowhere does the law say that women must be silent or that they must be in submission; it’s not in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and not even in Deuteronomy. There is, however, another law where it can be found in quite a few places that women ought to be silent – but this is the oral law – the law that the pharisees deduced from Scripture and expounded upon for centuries to arrive at over six hundred laws. It seems odd that after having sat through the decision at the Jerusalem Council not to burden believers beyond not eating food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meat from strangled animals, and from sexual immorality that Paul would agree with the oral law and require women to wear head coverings when the pray and prophesy and shortly there after forbid them from speaking at all.

Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.

That word – “Or” could also be a sarcastic “What?” in the sense of: “Did the word of God originate with men? Or are men the only people it has reached?” The believers would have known that Miriam and Huldah were Old Testament prophetesses and that the New Testament believers – men and women alike, would prophesy. “If anyone thinks that he or she is a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let him or her acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, he or she will be ignored.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

So here we are – brothers and sisters – be eager to prophesy, don’t forbid speaking in tongues – but do everything in it’s proper context – in a fit and orderly way.

That’s the thing about the Bible. For people who want to read it as a prescription, they’ll see rules that tell them to tell women to be silent. It doesn’t matter if they are a man who doesn’t want to hear women speak or a woman who believes that God had forbidden her from speaking – it cuts both ways. But if you’re more apt to read it as a description, then it’s hard to find reasons to force women to be silent in church even today.

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