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WHAT’S THE FUSS OVER FEMALE PASTORS—PART 8: Context of 1 Corinthians

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As a reminder: In 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, Paul wrote: “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

After spending so much time in the last entry reading about the women church leaders Paul kept company with, these words seem out of place now. In order to establish a better understanding of what he could have meant, we have to apply a greater level of interpretational decorum. Let’s tackle that first.

Backdrop of Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

Literary Genre

First Corinthians is an epistle. The Greek word epistole translates to “letter” or “message.” In the New Testament times (prior to phones and email, etc.) communication was limited to messengers and letters. The Bible includes two types of epistles: those to local congregations and those to individuals. This one in particular is a letter from Paul to the newly forming congregation in the ancient city of Corinth.

The purpose of an epistle is didactic (instructional) to one or more recipients in a particular situation that requires advice or correction. Paul’s epistles were not originally written to document history, warn about the apocalypse, bestow beautiful poetry, or give another narrative of Christ’s life, miracles, trial, and crucifixion. Because we know what this letter is not, we must interpret it for what it is. The letter was sent from one man to a congregation needing assistance that only he could give for a problem that was occurring at that specific time and place.

This does not mean that the instruction from the letter doesn’t apply anywhere else or that it has less value than any other book of the Bible. It means:

  1. The original circumstances must be determined.
  2. Similar (or exact) circumstances of today must be determined.
  3. The “relative” instructions apply to today’s reader after a fair comparison of the two preceding factors have been determined, and in a way that preserves the spirit of the principles taught.

For instance, Paul’s words in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” We know that this statement, and the instruction to rely upon Christ that it relays to its readers, is a “normative” one—it applies to every believer throughout history. Nothing about this timeless truth is “restrictive” to one audience, time, or place, and we can be assured of that based on so many other verses (remember the principle of internal consistency) that make the same promise and implied instruction. (Nor does any verse in the Bible refute this one, which satisfies the mandate that the Bible must “agree with itself.”) Now the challenge becomes how to make this verse relatable (“relative”) to today’s readers while preserving its intent. Without following the three steps just outlined, this verse has a potentially unrestrained application. We cannot sprout wings and fly, and no human in history ever has, regardless of whether or not Christ was strengthening their lives. Nor could we, in good conscience, ask for Christ’s internal strengthening to help us rob a bank or buy a new home well above our budget without responsible plans for paying it off. But when we follow the steps, the intent of the verse is clear, and the “absolute” instruction (relying on Christ’s strength in literally every situation, including sprouting wings or robbing banks) becomes a healthy and balanced “relative” (relying on Christ’s strength as it applies to similar or exact circumstances that Paul wrote about):

  1. The circumstances were: Paul was writing from a dark, dank prison cell. He had been imprisoned for his faith, and much of life seemed hopeless, but his faith remained strong. He knew he had the strength to fight the good fight and keep up Christ’s work against all odds, because Christ was empowering him to be strong on the inside, no matter what was going on outside.
  2. Similar (or exact) circumstances of today would be: Whether our prison cell is literal or figurative, we can remain strong in our faith and toward good works because we have Christ’s internal assistance and empowerment.
  3. The “relative” instructions (remaining strong in our faith and dedicated to Christ’s work) apply to today’s reader after a fair comparison of the two preceding factors have been determined, and in a way that preserves the spirit of the principles taught (we can now rely on the promise that Christ will strengthen us in faith and ministry, even when all odds are stacked against us).

We do not have to be in a literal prison cell for the spirit of the principle to apply, but we have to learn how to separate the “absolute” from the “relative.” In cases where one verse appears to contradict another (such as Paul’s prohibitions about women in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy contrasted to his many accolades of fellow women ministers), there is an added challenge of nailing down what is “normative” (applies to every believer forever, no matter what) from what is “restrictive” (applied first to that audience, and only to modern audiences when the circumstances are the same). This is crucial any time we are dealing with materials that fall into the “epistle” genre, because their nature is to teach us how to live, and we must know those teachings in order to live in a way that is pleasing to God. This obviously includes righteous behavior, but it also involves being extremely careful not to place unnecessary (and potentially oppressive) rules upon all believers today when the original instructions were limited to one audience and the circumstances it faced. Choosing to do so anyway, whether out of deliberation or ignorance, can distance us from the Creator and the divine order for humanity He designed.

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THEOLOGIAN: JESUS HIMSELF STARTED THE FIRST WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT

Author

Saul of Tarsus was a student of Gamaliel, who was a trusted holy man among Pharisee and Sadducee circles. Saul had been trained as a minister of the Jews, and when Christ claimed to be the Messiah, he assisted the Pharisees and Sadducees in persecuting the early Christians. He was present at the stoning of Stephen as a witness who “consented of his death” (Acts 8:1), though he did not personally throw a stone.

Shortly thereafter, “he made havock of the church, entering into every house” and arrested many of the followers of Christ before taking them to prison (v. 3). Despite the increasing conversion number, Saul continued to blast believers with “threatenings and slaughter” (9:1). So dedicated was he to what he perceived to be a holy war against heresy, Saul went to the high priest and received his blessing to take the attack outward to Damascus. His intent was to forcefully arrest the believers in that city and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.

On the road to Damascus, a heavenly light surrounded Saul, and he personally heard Christ’s voice for the first time revealing Himself as the true Messiah He had claimed to be. Saul rose up from the ground to find himself blinded by the encounter, so the men who were with him led him the rest of the way into the city. Saul stayed there for three days without food, water, or sight.

The Lord sent Ananias, a believer in Damascus, to pray for Saul and restore his vision. Afterward, Saul rose, ate, and was immediately baptized. From that moment on, he dedicated his life to the spreading of the Gospel message. Ironically, he became an instant target of the Pharisees, who sought to persecute him in the same way he had persecuted the converts.

As Saul’s missionary travels became heavily associated with ministering among the Gentiles, he chose to be called “Paul,” which was his Roman name. (The name “Saul,” given to him at birth, was his Hebrew name. Dual names were commonplace at that time.) Using his Roman name helped him better relate to the Gentiles, a central focus of his ministry.

Paul’s missionary travels are well documented in the book of Acts. He suffered as an apostle of Christ on countless occasions, and was brutally beaten and jailed on several occasions. Even the walls of a prison cell would not silence him, as it was within that setting that many of his greatest works were written.

As a journeyman of ancient cities, Paul launched many churches throughout the land while he built tents to help fund his ministry. Because those churches did not have the authority of the New Testament like we do now, false teachings were corrupting the message of Christ among fledgling believers, so Paul kept in touch with the churches he planted and pastors he trained, writing them letters of correction and encouragement during the earliest phases of Christianity’s development. Those letters make up a significant portion of our New Testament today.

Audience

The congregation at Corinth was founded by Paul, who stayed there for eighteen months during one of his many missionary stops. Corinth was a prosperous commercial center for sea trade, and as the capital city of the province of Achaia (the largest territory in Greece), it was the central seat of Roman government. It was well protected by the Acrocorinth, a 1,900-foot-high mountain, which featured a temple dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite, the pagan goddess of love. At the base of the mountain was the temple of Melicertes, the patron goddess of sailors. Biannually, Corinth was the center for the Isthmian Games, a festival of music and athletic competition, and the sea god Poseidon was greatly honored. All around Corinth, pagan worship was experiencing a revival. (Some have hypothesized that this was a manifestation of spiritual warfare: God had just come to the earth in human form, died, rose again, ascended, and the Holy Spirit had poured His power out on the new Christians on the Day of Pentecost. In the spiritual realm, activity was at an all-time high—so, whereas God had His angels and human soldiers at work, the enemy also had his at work, and paganism was rampant.)

Because of the massive number of travelers in and throughout this territory, the population has been reported to be anywhere between one hundred thousand and six hundred thousand residents at any one time. Many religions were being brought to the church at Corinth, and the services of the one thousand cult prostitutes at the temple of Aphrodite were freely given to any tourists with the required coins in his pocket.

These prostitutes, known in ancient Greek as hetairai, were higher-class citizens and well educated, frequently maintaining a relationship with the same list of men for some time—which was a contrast from the pornai prostitutes (from which we eventually derive the English word “pornography”), who required a more “overnight” expenditure and had little to no education. The hetairai heavily populated Corinth as courtesans to the wealthy elite; the pornai were available for anyone, anytime, as long as their “suitors” had money. By far, however, the hetairai courtesans were seen as a central part of the “glue” that held society together. They were richly dressed, articulate, heavily painted, schooled in oratory skills and rhetoric, and every hair was in the right place as they flitted about society and “owned” every room they entered. They were not worshiped as gods, themselves—and as women, they were certainly marginalized in society in comparison to men—but their bodies were the conduit through which the pagan gods were worshiped and honored. As such, their social standing and cultural status were consistently respected in a locality where such sexual activity held precedence and equaled blessings from the gods who demanded orgiastic ritual. Unlike the Jewish women of surrounding regions that held the patriarchal traditions of society firm, the sophisticated hetairai were often welcome to share their thoughts and opinions regarding spirituality or theology, especially in the presence of men who were awed by them. Unlike prostitutes of our culture today, who are frequently looked upon with scorn, the hetairai were revered and admired, despite the fact that they were often considered property. (Corinth dominated the pottery trade, and pottery still displayed in museums today features artistic depictions of women ranking above men and animals.)

Pagan idol worship wasn’t limited to Aphrodite, Poseidon, and Melicertes. Other gods of antiquity were in revival throughout the region as well, such as Ashtarte and Baal of the Canaanites, the unseen patron hosts of the annual fertility and vegetation celebrations of old. Bacchus, the god of fertility and wine, was also worshipped throughout the land at that time—as was the mother goddess Cybele—and drunken orgies in honor of these gods were practiced regularly. With such a large number of voyagers and holidaymakers stopping in Corinth, every day, a new faith was warping the city Paul had worked so hard to convert, and the sacred prostitutes made orgiastic worship an unabashedly blatant and delectable indulgence. Before Church leaders eventually rallied together to confront the Gnostic “holy weddings,” even “Gnostic Christians” (true Gnostics at that time who practiced mystery cults but called themselves “Christians”) were openly engaging in a public display of intercourse at wedding parties.[i] Corinth was a cesspool of religious prostitution. So known for its sexual perversion and immorality was Corinth that elsewhere, in surrounding regions, any woman known for her loose behavior would be referred to as a “Corinthian girl.”[ii]

It is no secret that the audience of Paul’s letter would have been one of religious syncretism, delivering a great injustice to the purity of the Gospel message. One description documents that the common audience within Corinth was a “mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting infusion of Phoenicians; this mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades-people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice…without aristocracy, without traditions and without well-established citizens.”[iii] As such, the Christians in Corinth were continuously influenced by hordes of incoming religious voices belonging to pagan convictions and mystery cults.

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WAIT… A WOMAN PREACHING IN A CHRISTIAN CHURCH… WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT THAT?!

Circumstances Requiring the Epistle

Sometime after Paul established the church at Corinth, word reached him in Ephesus that the saints were squabbling and dividing. Arguments for how a worship service should be conducted were at an all-time high. The Body of Christ was in its infancy, and without a canon of Scripture they could rely on, the notion of a solid and untainted Gospel message seemed hopeless.

Believers were engaging in sexual perversion left and right, at times resulting in incest, and some were actually proud of the high level of tolerance with which the church responded to it (chapter 5). They were taking each other to court and allowing pagans to make legal rulings upon matters that were spiritual in nature (chapter 6). Immoral conduct was warping the sacred communion observances (chapter 11). Doctrinal errors, including the distortion of the Resurrection (chapter 15), were rampant. The believers were tripping over themselves to prove that “their way” was the best way for their church and that “their theology” was correct; this escalated to the point that feuds and disruption during services were commonplace, plummeting each gathering into chaos (chapter 14).

Language / Surrounding Text

In the first chapter’s suggested steps to proper interpretation, we ended with the issue of language and the comparison of surrounding texts. However, because the issue of women speaking as leaders in the Body of Christ is the focus of this entire book, and Paul’s linguistic style and proximate verses are such a paramount piece of that whole puzzle, instead of visiting a few truncated paragraphs of those details here, we will consider the language and the surrounding text as we go, in hopes of doing it better justice.

Message of the Letter

Paul begins his letter by first identifying himself (1:1), and then identifying the recipient, “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1:2). A warm greeting of thanksgiving continues through verse 9.

Verses 10 through 13 are crucial to our reflection, because these are the very first words from Paul from which we can detect the chief concern behind the letter:

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing [that you are all agreeable in nature and in doctrine], and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ [“I follow Paul”; “I follow Apollos” etc.]. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

Remember, the New Testament didn’t exist at the time. Believers had no document to turn to when a doctrinal issue came up. Remember, too, that the first-century Judeo-Christian teaching was often a group discussion, not a monologue. The more questions asked about this new Messiah, the more educated witnesses of Him would be, so questions in and of themselves were not prohibited. If someone were to continue asking questions or seeking clarification on a theological issue that was less relevant to everyone present, it would not be edifying to the Body, which is a theme of 1 Corinthians, and the service (read: meeting) would easily become a din of garbled voices.

The church in Corinth was in a constant state of commotion. People were saying the equivalent to, “My theology is more accurate than yours, because I follow Paul.” Others were responding, “No, you’re wrong. Apollos is a well-educated man of the holy texts, and he said [fill in the blank].” Yet another would weigh in with, “Both of you are wrong! Cephas says…”

Factions and cliques were appearing amidst the brethren, and an extreme division was pulling people apart from the central goal of teaching the Gospel. The foundational purpose of Christ was completely left at the wayside while people engaged in bitter and petty disputes about whose theology was correct. Everyone seemed all too willing to drop names as an added layer of clout in a glorified “I know better than you” exchange. Lost souls in and around one of the largest and most heavily populated cities of the ancient world were heading to their eternal judgment without being gifted with the good news of Christ—all because these men and women could not get through a single gathering without someone starting another round of it.

By asking the believers if Paul, himself, had been crucified for them, or if they had been baptized in his name, he was attempting to remove himself (and other human theologians) from center stage and reestablish Jesus Christ to His proper place among the congregation. Paul continues along this trail of thought (reestablishing the doctrine of Christ and beseeching his audience to revere wisdom by way of the Spirit) through the end of chapter 2. In chapter 3, he’s back to addressing division, distraction, and disruption in the church. (Do you see the pattern forming?) In chapter 4, he discusses the ministry of the apostles, but by chapter 5, he’s moved on to the issue of sexual immorality and the defiling nature of such sin within the Body:

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles [read: even the heathen Gentiles aren’t engaging in such sexual immorality], that one should have his father’s wife [incest]. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh [yikes, that’s serious!], that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?… I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators. (5:1–6, 9)

UP NEXT: Sacred Prostitution Was Behind The Influence

[i] John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said about Women: The Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love (Kindle edition, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2011) 51.

[ii] D. H. Madvig, “Corinth,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (revised edition; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), 773.

[iii] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (revised edition; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 4.

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