This section of Paul’s writing not only has been confused regarding women ministers, it also has launched endless interpretation debates about the use of tongues during the church service. I don’t plan to make a theologically “absolute” statement on tongues (as that is not the purpose of this series), but I do wish to point out that Paul, to the church at Corinth, was: a) in favor of tongues (14:5), but b) in opposition to them under circumstances wherein they disrupt the service (14:6–25). Consider his words in verse 23: “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” The ESV renders this: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”
Again, the “speaking in tongues while at church” issue is a hot-button debate that would only distract us from our focus on women ministers. But the fact that Paul is—throughout this entire chapter—cautioning against a chaotic service that doesn’t “edify” the gathering (14:5, 12, 26) shows without a doubt that the focus is not only upon the use of tongues in church, but also upon the appropriate circumstances that must exist before they can be used.
I was raised Pentecostal, and I have seen this precise “out of your minds” event unfold in front of me more times than I can count. I remember inviting a friend (we’ll call her Sophie) to church with me when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. It was a hard pitch getting her to come with me at all, since her mother was a self-proclaimed Wiccan priestess (of sorts, though her beliefs were wide-ranging and not limited to any specific theology) who believed in Christ as only a “nice prophet guy who did nice things for people” (her words). I visited Sophie’s house a few times, and I vividly recall Sophie’s mom—one of the sweetest and most loving creatures on the planet. On one occasion, she was in the back room weaving an intricate dreamcatcher while Sophie and I were watching a recorded band concert on television. I was once again inviting Sophie to church, and she was once again turning me down because she was afraid of being judged if people discovered her mother’s practice of magic and her oil paintings of “mystic angels.” (It is important to know that my mom and dad did not know much about this friend, and a lot of what I told them about her implied that her family was God-fearing. [I stretched the truth about her quite a bit.] They would have never allowed me to visit her house had they known more about her mother’s hobbies.) I assured Sophie that the church members wouldn’t bombard her with demands about her mother, and that she could come with me in confidence that she would have a good time. Sophie’s mom overheard our conversation, came into the hallway with strings of beads and crystals strewn about her neck, and encouraged Sophie to be open-minded.
“Sophie,” she said, “there is truth in all religions. Jesus was a wonderful man, and it wouldn’t hurt you to go with Donna and learn a little more about Him. Would it?”
Sophie came with me the following Sunday, when a guest speaker had been invited to teach about the gifts of the Spirit. The speaker repetitiously followed his louder and stronger statements with a lengthy string of uttered tongues. Increasingly, the rest of the congregation followed suit, and by the time the altar call was given, people all around Sophie were shouting in tongues. Some were dancing, some were moaning, some were conducting a “Jericho march” around the seats, and some were falling to the floor at the altar.
“This is so weird!” Sophie whispered to me. “Are all these people crazy?”
Her question of whether the people were “crazy” is exactly what Paul was referring to when he said, “will they not say that ye are mad?”
I didn’t share this memory because I plan to follow it with a study on tongues, dancing, moaning, marching, or falling. I did so as an example of how events like that can be potentially forever stamped upon someone’s concept of Christianity. To Sophie, a recipient of teaching that day, the church was a place of complete and total chaos.
Paul outlines in 1 Corinthians 14 how even a blessed gift of the Spirit, when allowed without restraint, produces chaos and disruption in a gathering. The question is not whether Paul supported the practice of speaking in tongues, the question is when.
The entire focus of 1 Corinthians 14 (and much of the rest of the series) is about order in the church: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (14:33). There is to be harmony, peace, and order in the house of God, as in all churches where His children gather!
Verses 34 and 35—the very next two verses in sequence—say, “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.” Coming straight off the statement that our church services should not be confusing but peaceful, Paul says women shouldn’t speak in the church. Naturally, this means that the woman speaker in Corinth was viewed as one who caused the confusion he condemned and challenged the peace he was decreeing for their church.
However, the Greek word translated “women” here is gune, which means “women” as well as “wives,” depending on the context, and the close proximity of gune in this passage to “husbands” (andras) suggests that it was not all women who were instructed to be silent, but wives. Tuck this in the back of your thoughts for now…
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THEOLOGIAN: JESUS HIMSELF STARTED THE FIRST WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
The word “law” from Paul’s words, “as also saith the law,” is the Greek nomos. It is the same word used in reference to the Mosaic Law, and even Strong’s acknowledges that. However, to the New Testament culture, apart from the Mosaic Law, it meant “1. anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, a law, a command A. of any law whatsoever.”[i] There are only three possibilities for what “law” Paul might have been referring to here: 1) the Mosaic Law; 2) the law of the land; and 3) generically a law amidst the people, such as “anything established” or “a custom.” The first of these can be ruled out immediately, because nowhere in the Mosaic Law does it give this regulation. The second can likewise be ruled out immediately because, in Corinth, women were allowed to make all kinds of noises wherever they wanted to. (Not to be crude, but their voices were heard in the temples of the pagan gods in extremely loud and sexual ways, and that was the norm for this society, so the conversation within a newly forming Christian “temple” would have been nothing in comparison. Historical evidence discussed earlier herein also rule out that there had been a “law of the land” for women’s silence within this vicinity.) This leaves only the third potential interpretation, and in an age when Judaizers were treating oral tradition (read: “anything established,” “custom,” “any law whatsoever” [that the legalistic and Pharisaic circles believed]) as “law,” such a conclusion is quite plausible. Therefore, this “law” was not one given by God but by mankind, and it was to this authority Paul was appealing (not one that we are held to today). (Note that some Bibles reference 1 Timothy 2:11 in the margins, suggesting that Paul’s words in that verse, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection,” is the “law” that Paul’s referring to. But since 1 Timothy was written after 1 Corinthians, as historical evidence shows, this reference of “law” could not have anything to do with 1 Timothy.)
The word “confusion” in 14:33 from the string “author of confusion” is the KJV translator’s choice English equivalent to the ancient Greek akatastasia: “instability, i.e. disorder:—commotion, confusion, tumult.”[ii] If Paul had never used this word elsewhere, then without another internal comparison, we may think “confusion” might be the best word to pick from amidst “instability,” “disorder,” “commotion,” “confusion,” and “tumult.” However, he did use this same word in 2 Corinthians 12:20, and in that case, the translators chose “tumults”: “For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults [akatastasia]” (emphasis added). Consider the extreme aggression implied in this list. Now consider the Merriam-Webster definition of “tumult”: “disorderly agitation or milling about of a crowd usually with uproar and confusion of voices; a turbulent uprising…violent agitation of mind or feelings; a violent outburst.”[iii] I cannot say why the translator chose “confusion” in one spot and “tumult” in another when the word akatastasia was the same in both places by the hand of Paul, but I can tell you that the nature Paul intended for the word based on the other instance of its use was aggressive at least, if not “turbulent” or “violent.” This is the same conclusion the award-winning Dr. John Temple Bristow came to in his book, What Paul Really Said about Women: The Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love: “When Paul faced an unruly mob, he described their noisy confusion and disorder as akatastasia, which we translate ‘tumult.’ It is the same word that Jesus used to describe one of the signs of the coming destruction, in the phrase ‘wars and tumults’ (Luke 21:9). Now, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that he did not want akatastasia in their public worship.”[iv] If the church was in such a state of affairs that it took a letter the length of this epistle to the Corinthians to address it, and if so much of the letter concerns service disruption, then Paul wasn’t talking about a woman preaching or teaching when she speaks aloud; he was talking about a woman aggressor or agitator—and in the case of Corinth, as Paul’s chosen wording implies, it was the wives who were aggressive. In such close proximity to the teachings he gave on speaking in tongues, the issue is clear: Wives, stop humiliating your husbands with outbursts, chatter, questions, and speaking in tongues in the middle of service…
I am amazed—so utterly, fully, and wholly amazed—that certain members of today’s Church still interpret 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 to mean total silence (with tiny exceptions regarding “prophesying,” which, ironically, is a form of teaching as well), to the full and literal extent of its meaning, under extreme application, to every audience and reader, throughout all time, in every culture, in every society, in every circumstance, throughout the universe, and into perpetuity. The question is not whether Paul was condemning a woman from speaking in a church; the question is when such an occasion could be carried out appropriately in order to avoid the chaos he condemns through this entire letter! And, as if we’re not already saturated with clarity on this point, Paul sandwiches this note about women speaking between “God is not the author of confusion” and “Let all things be done decently and in order” (14:40).
We know that Paul allowed for women to speak in the church, because he said as much when he: a) acknowledged the gifts of the Spirit—the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discerning of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues—to be poured out upon men and women alike, just as it was on the Day of Pentecost involving “the women” in the upper room; b) acknowledged these gifts to be carried out in church under proper, non-chaotic circumstances; and c) discussed the proper head covering for a woman praying or prophesying in church (11:5). When he did place limitations on who was allowed to say what, and when, he repeatedly included the men in those limitations (as is peppered throughout chapter 14). Everything clearly points to the notion that Paul didn’t want wives speaking aloud at inappropriate times.
The thing is, if Paul had written a letter only about women and without the contextual backdrop of the city of Corinth as we know it—with revered hetairai skilled in oratory and allowed at all times to dominate in conversation, and influencing other women (married and single) to do the same—we would have no choice but to concede and drop that beloved pop-culture hoorah, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” Had he written a letter that only dealt with the subject of women as an isolated issue, we may find ourselves in the same position. However, we do have the cultural backdrop of Corinth, we do have internal consistency that supports women as leaders in ministry—both from the same author as well as other books of the Bible—and we do have a “whole picture” letter from Paul that addresses the subject of disruption and division among male and female as a context.
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WAIT… A WOMAN PREACHING IN A CHRISTIAN CHURCH… WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT THAT?!
But perhaps the greatest proof of Paul’s intent is in the following fact: Paul had thirty Greek words to choose from in his native language that would refer to the act of speaking. Yes, you read that correctly. He had thirty different verbs that all describe differing forms of “speak.” Yet the one he chose was telling… Consider how, in the English language, we have “talk,” “chat,” “state,” “say,” “express,” “address,” “chatter,” “chitchat,” “tell,” “converse,” “lecture,” “preach,” “orate,” “verbalize,” “declare,” “babble,” “prattle,” “rant,” “announce,” “assert,” “proclaim,” and so on. All of these words (and many others) describe the act of opening the mouth and uttering speech. Imagine that you go to into a church and see a sign hung above the door of the sanctuary. The person who wrote the sign could have chosen a number of ways to phrase what he or she wanted to say, but let’s look at these:
- “Please do not proclaim during service.”
- “Please do not chitchat during service.”
- “Please do not rant during service.”
Whereas all of these refer to the act of making sounds come out of the mouth during service, each implies a different act of speech. The first regulation inspires imagery of a person suddenly bursting forth loudly with declaration; the second inspires imagery of people talking casually about the weather in the middle of a sermon; the third inspires imagery of a person being openly disagreeable in a big, tasteless tirade. Whereas “proclaim,” “chitchat,” and “rant” are not all described by the verb “speak,” all three words fall under “speak” as a parent verb that encompasses all varying forms of the action.
When our Western minds see Paul instructing women not to “speak” in church using the parent verb, it falls on our psyche like a binding, solemn commandment of silence—all silence forever over all forms of speech so long as the body is in that building.
In the group, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak,” the word for “speak” here is the Greek laleo, which simply means “to talk.” Paul could have said the women are not permitted to preach, teach, sing, praise, worship, prophesy, address, discourse, expound, advise, lecture, advocate, persuade, and so on and so forth, because—remember—he had thirty words to choose from in his native tongue that would have been more specific to the type of activity he was censuring. Instead, however, he chose “talk,” which cannot be seen as a binding commandment in all circumstances, because he already said women can pray and prophesy (11:5).
Additionally, from within the lexicology (the study of word usage) and grammar subsections of the textbook, The Biblical Role of Women, by New Testament Greek homiletics expert Dr. Deborah M. Gill and theological seminary professor Dr. Barbara L. Cavaness Parks: “The tense of the verb laleo is not the most common tense (the aorist) but the less common Greek tense (the present) that emphasizes linear (ongoing) action. Thus, it is better translated ‘to keep talking.’ Paul is saying in verse 34, ‘[Women] are not allowed to keep on talking,’ and in verse 35, ‘It is disgraceful for a woman to continually chatter in church.’ The kind of verbal action indicates that it is not women’s vocal participation but the perpetual disruptive rumble of noise that is disallowed.”[v]
Now imagine you’re visiting the ancient church at Corinth—or any church, for that matter—and you see a sign above the entryway that says, “Please don’t talk in church.” Without having to deeply analyze what we’re being asked to do and in what language, we all know that “don’t talk in church” means “don’t be disruptive.” By saying women are not permitted to laleo, Paul was saying that women are not permitted to keep talking while the service is in session. As to why Paul would have laid this foundation of behavior for only women and not men, it requires understanding the cultural shift taking place at this time.
Christianity was a newborn to Corinth; before Christianity, there was Judaism. In the Jewish custom, women were generally not allowed to express opinions, they weren’t usually educated (their rightful place in society was to have kids and obey their husbands), and they certainly weren’t allowed to preach, teach, prophesy, or make any kind of noise in the church. In many ancient cultures leading up to the birth of Christianity, Jewish women actually sat in a separate location from the men in the place of worship (though, as stated earlier, Bernadette Brooten’s archeological study on the nineteen existent synagogues of the New Testament era likely proves that this was not occurring in Corinth at this time). However, suddenly, a new age was dawning for this new belief system called “Christianity.” Thanks to gender-equality spokespersons like Paul, women were finding their voices…and fast. The Holy Spirit had fallen upon women on the Day of Pentecost, and those women ran and preached excitedly. They were allowed to now! And because of this allowance, they were encouraged to educate themselves and form opinions so that they could be successful witnesses of the Risen Christ!
Gone were the days when they couldn’t “go and tell,” for now they were going and telling…which came along with the expectation that they would understand the theology they were meant to communicate to others. So, now that they held a responsibility to understand, they became bolder in their questions. Outside of Corinth, we can safely assume that women were making inquiries, though they—because of the patriarchal culture that dominated for so long—likely remained polite and quiet during the teaching and approached the minister afterward.
Specifically to Corinth, however, thanks to the hetairai and pornai prostitutes who had already formed an entire cultural acceptance of women who shared “enlightened” opinions and beliefs regarding spirituality and theology, the Christian women in Corinth would have been especially chatty in their newfound freedom. The hetairai and pornai had “controlled the city” so to speak, and paved the way for women to enter any building under any circumstances and assert themselves with questions, tongues, and other less-than-ideal utterances. Whether the Christians in this church were prostitutes, Jewish converts, Gentile converts, travelers, or simply curious women wandering in from the street (and there is historical evidence to suggest a mixture of these, since Corinth was such a beehive of commercial trading), they would have walked into a building with confident, well-educated, vocal woman seeking theological answers.
The women in Corinth were talking during service, and in a church where the leaders, themselves, were in constant dispute, they were adding their voices atop the chaos that 1 Corinthians 14 glaringly criticizes. This is why Paul told them not to “keep talking.”
In wrapping this up, chapter 15 reminds Paul’s readers of the truth of the Resurrection of Christ, followed by the doctrine of the resurrection of the saints to Heaven; chapter 16 is Paul’s pledge to return for a visit, words of Paul’s beloved fellow-workers, and the warm closing: “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” (16:24).
UP NEXT: Flaws of Leading Interpretations
[i] “Strong’s G3551,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 21, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3551&t=KJV.
[ii] “Strong’s G181,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 20, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G181&t=KJV.
[iv] John Temple Bristow, What Paul Really Said about Women, 61.
[v] Dr. Deborah M. Gill and Dr. Barbara L. Cavaness Parks, The Biblical Role of Women, 128; emphasis added.