I Corinthians 14: 26What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. 27If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. 29Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If 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. 36Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. 39Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Focus verses: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.”
Yesterday, I was gassing up the car at a filling station, when I read the following words: “Do not leave the pump unattended; all spills are your responsibility.” Next to it I saw the corporate logo of the service station: BP. “Oh Man, I thought; now they’re blaming me!” If that wasn’t scary enough, once the tank was full and the gas stopped flowing, the digital read-out said, “Please see station attendant.” Too late to run or hide; my face is probably on the security camera already. I was feeling picked on, put upon, and put down.
I mention that because many of you may also have the same feeling in response to today’s passage, of being picked on, put upon and put down. I’m referring to the words, “Women should remain silent in the church.” As I hope to show, these words probably don’t really address the issue that we often make it try to address. But I hope that over the course of my message you pick up on my excitement about two things that this passage does address. One of them we discerned as a church, in the year before we moved here, as being very important for our church’s future: small groups. Although the passage doesn’t use the words, “small groups,” hopefully I can make clear what this passage implies about them. The other thing this passage addresses is ministry. Not just my ministry, not just ordained ministry, not just women in ministry, but everybody’s ministry, yours, mine and ours. So, small groups and our ministries: those are what I’m most eager to address today, because those are what I think this passage is really addressing.
But first, we have to deal with the question of women’s leadership in the church. Last week I spoke about a minority report and a majority report about what constitutes the gift of speaking in tongues. I told you that the majority of me goes with the majority report on that. This week I’ll give you the majority and the minority report on women in public, visible, verbal leadership in the church, and tell you why all of me goes with the minority report.
The majority report, when you add up all the voices over twenty centuries of Christian history, has said that this passage, and at least one other, effectively forbids women from clergy leadership roles. But when you ask just what do you mean by ministry and clergy, the answer so often has been so institutional, so hierarchical and so authoritarian, I have to agree: women should not be in ministry. But then, neither should men. Nobody should be in ministry, not if ministers and clergy are supposed to stand between people and God, or between people and the church institution, and mediate the flow of grace and forgiveness and salvation between them and God. That’s a recipe for keeping people childish and dependent upon experts and authorities. That is directly at odds with the definition of pastoral ministry that Paul gives in Ephesians 4:12-14, “to equip God’s people for [their] works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” That is a servanthood kind of power, a power under, rather than power over, a power that serves to encourage and grow everyone else’s power. Beyond that kind of power, no one should go, not in the name of God. But I would wager this morning that many of us can name women in our personal histories who have exercised exactly that kind of supportive, nurturing, empowering servant leadership that Paul describes.
To say that women shouldn’t exercise visible and strategic ministry roles is also at odds with what Paul says to women, and about women, in other New Testament passages, including in this very same letter. In Chapter 11, Paul gives instructions about when men and women do pray or prophesy in the church. He obviously assumes they will, and even affirms it. In the first chapter of the letter we read that Paul has learned about the problems in Corinth through correspondence with a woman, Chloe, who must be some sort of leader among the house churches there. He obviously respects what she has to tell him. Read the list of church leaders whom Paul greets in his letter to Rome and some of them are women. The same with some of the church leaders he mentions in his letter to the Philippians: women.
Telling women that they cannot exercise certain gifts in church also goes against the main thrust of the biblical witness about women: that from the very creation of humanity, that “In the image of God he created them male and female.” So it takes men and women together to reflect the image of God. It also contradicts the respectful and inclusive way that Jesus related to women. He did not make them apostles; sending women by themselves into that world as the first cross-cultural pioneer missionaries would have done them no service. But there were women, like Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn, the posture of a disciple.
So, we’ve established that Paul respects, consults and corresponds with female church leaders, like Chloe in Corinth. And then he says, “Women should remain silent in the church.” What gives? Well, first of all, dispense with notions and questions about where men and women fit into ranks and hierarchies of church power, because church as Paul describes it in this very same passage is definitely not about that kind of hierarchical or institutional power.
Secondly, disengage the question of silence from the whole matter of praying or prophesying or teaching. Paul doesn’t use those words in the passage under question. Maybe the silence he recommends refers to something else. That’s what a growing minority report of scholars are saying, some of them with missionary experience.
I read recently of missionaries, long ago, to the interior of China, who planted new churches among a people for whom very few women had ever had any kind of formal education, or experience in a classroom, educational setting, before becoming Christians. The men had, but not many women. When men and women sat together in these new churches, the men knew how to conduct themselves during formal teaching and worship, how to listen and process what they were hearing, formulate questions and wait their turn during discussion. The women did not, because they had never been given that opportunity before becoming Christian. So the teachings and proceedings were being interrupted by these inexperienced women, often by questions like, “What did he say? What did he mean by that?” or by other business that would intrude, such as, “I’m glad to see your son is doing better,” or “How did it go at the market, yesterday?” This happened in those new Chinese churches, but only because these women, with no previous formal education, were suddenly thrown into a new situation, without preparation, with a new set of protocol for speaking, learning and listening.
Was that the problem in the ancient Corinthian house churches? Like with those women in China? Women in ancient Greece were regularly denied the kinds of educational opportunities that men were given. Now, in the new churches that Paul has planted, men and women are seated and learning together, which is already quite revolutionary. Is Paul just saying, “Women, don’t talk and interrupt the teaching, prophesying and praying during your gatherings, because, among other things, its disgraceful?”That they shouldn’t be interrupting the proceedings with questions or distractions, but wait till they get home if they want to review the teaching with lots of questions and different directions? I have no 100% fool proof evidence to that effect, and it doesn’t answer all the questions. But it best answers for me the most important question: why and how Paul can elsewhere acknowledge and affirm certain female leaders, as does the rest of the Bible, and here tell women to be silent. He doesn’t say or use the verbs for teach or preach or prophesy, just the verbs, “be silent” and “speak.” Otherwise, where women had the gifts and the training and experience to be teachers and servant leaders, like Chloe, Paul treats them as part of his team. Same with Priscilla and Aquilla, a husband and wife team he first met in Corinth. That’s the minority report on Paul and women in leadership, its where I stand on what Paul says about women in church leadership, and its getting less lonely of a minority all the time.
The minority report also best fits with the thrust of this whole passage, the whole context of I Corinthians chapters 12-14, indeed the entire I Corinthian letter: Whatever gifts the Holy Spirit has given you, use them, for the edification of the whole church, whoever you are, whatever your sex. That’s all that the word “submission” means. If you do this out of love, for the love of your brothers and sisters, then God will make these gifts work together beautifully, harmoniously and interdependently, because, “God is not a God of disorder but of harmony,” in verse 33.
So when you get together for worship, Paul says in verse 26, “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” Just as you shouldn’t interrupt, so you shouldn’t monopolize the time. Paul adds, “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 (vv. 30-31).” In that way, everybody is “submissive” to each other, not just the women.
Consider with me just how revolutionary this kind of advice was at the time. Most of the Corinthian Christians were coming out of a pagan religious background where the spirits were allegedly most accessible only to trained, initiated and uniquely gifted prophets, priests and shamans. When they went into a trance and said or prophesied or demanded something, you had to take whatever they said by faith. In effect, your faith was as much in the prophet or priest as in his or her god or their teaching. What’s more, there was no telling what those spirits would do with the priest or the shaman: he had no control. It could be quite dramatic. Or embarrassing. Or entertaining. By contrast, in the Christian gatherings, the Spirit and his gifts are equally available to all members. And our gifts are of equal value, even though they’re different. And if the Spirit inspires or instructs you in some way, you can still take your time, take your turn, listen and treat each other respectfully because, as Paul says, “The spirit of the prophets is subject to the control of the prophets.”
And remember that the Jewish members were coming out of synagogues where the men sat in front and participated in the rites and ceremonies, while the women sat in back with the children, behind a lattice screen, and could only listen. But in the church, the question was not so much if women participated in worship, prayer and teaching, but how they participated. That shows just how much God and His Spirit are creating a new community that is harmonious, yet without domination and hierarchy.
Therefore, when we gather, Paul says, “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” Gee, why don’t we worship the way Paul describes? Why don’t we dispense with the bulletin, the order of worship, the sermon, and just see what people come with, what the Spirit might have given them to share? Well, if we tried that here on a Sunday morning, with average attendance bumping past 70 people, we could be here all day. I would hope so, because hopefully our spiritual lives are such vibrant, living things, in which God is teaching us all sorts of things and we feel eager and compelled to share them with others, that we would need all day for everyone to contribute their piece.
Actually, we do some of that in this church already. Just not on Sunday mornings. We do some of that in our sharing, yes, and some of that in Christian Education. But we do it most and best in our small groups. We have two of them now. We have the people for more.
And those small groups are more like the kinds of church gatherings that Paul was addressing in today’s passage. History and archaeology both tell us that the church of Corinth, of Ephesus, of Rome, of Jerusalem for that matter, was not one big church meeting in a time and place like this, but a collection of house churches,with a total attendance of maybe 10 to 20 people, men, women and children. The details of this letter, I Corinthians, bear this out.
But those small house gatherings weren’t the only places they met. The First Church of Jerusalem, in Acts chapter 2, was meeting in two places: in the big Jerusalem Temple for a large-scale worship event that was more planned and scripted, and, we read, in their homes, for more intimate fellowship, teaching, prayers and the breaking of bread. In effect, they had big group worship events, and small groups. And so can we. This Sunday morning worship service is like that Jerusalem temple gathering. But among us are enough people for five or six small groups. If we’re not in one, think about joining or starting one if you wish to experience the kind of spiritual connectedness, accountability, interdependence, maturity and mutual up-building that Paul is encouraging on us today.
So, while we fixate on the words, “Women should be silent in the church,” the main point of this passage really is, “let everything be done decently and in order….For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Today’s word then challenges us to recognize, respect and give space to the development of everyone’s gifts for ministry. Someone has said that the true measure of a church is not its seating capacity but its serving capacity. When you think of the ministries and gifts of the Spirit already in this congregation, its fair to call us “little big church.” Now that we’re in this new location, think also of the possibilities for us to have a ministry of ministry development for all believers, including and especially young, emerging leaders, from whom new ministries may emerge, maybe even new churches. Every time a leader and servant and gifts and ministries emerge among us, will we recognize them in him? And in her? May it be.