Speaking about Adam and Even

"As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches (1 Cor. 14:33-34)." Did a pin just drop? This has to be one of the most uncomfortable verses to modern ears in all of the New Testament, but that will not make it go away.

Many people try to argue that first century Corinthian women were crazy, uneducated, and rude. They would interrupt people and slander their husbands publicly, which is why Paul had to rebuke them. It is amazing how many modern women (and men) are so quick to disavow their fore bearers. In any case this verse says nothing of the sort. The main thing we can glean from this verse is that it is a universal command for all of the churches. It is not specific to the church in Corinth. Any arguments regarding specific chaos in the Corinthian church should be dismissed, since it is applicable to all churches everywhere.

"For they are not permitted to speak (1 Cor. 14:34)." The next range of arguments tries to define what it means to speak, but that should be clear from the context. Immediately preceding this passage Paul addresses various types of speaking, namely, prophesy and tongues. But this seems to be in contradiction to the first part of chapter 11, which talks about women praying and prophesying. The only way to resolve this conflict is to look carefully at the context.

The exact situation in the first part of chapter 11 is not given, but when it comes to the topic of the Lord's supper there is a distinction, "But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (1 Cor. 11:17)." It appears that Paul is making a distinction regarding coming together. This same distinction is also found in chapter fourteen before he starts talking about orderly worship. "What then, brothers? When you come together... (1 Cor. 14:26)"

Paul's instructions about women praying and prophesying are made in the context of not coming together, whereas the comments regarding women's silence are in the context of coming together. This is obviously a difficult pill to swallow given the current values of our society, but we need to follow the truth wherever it leads. There is also one more aspect of this passage that is often breezed over in discussions about the meaning of it, and that is the reference to the Law.

Women "should be in submission, as the Law also says (1 Cor. 14:34)." The immediate context does not give any clues with regards to which part of the Law, however Paul consistently refers back to Adam and Eve elsewhere (1 Cor. 11:8-9, 1 Tim. 2:11-12). Before sin entered the world God designed the role of man and woman such that the woman would be a helper (Gen. 2:20). After sin entered the world, God said that a woman's desire would be to dominate her husband, but that he would rule over her (Gen. 3:16). In Timothy Paul forbids women teaching and having authority over men based on these arguments, and he is most likely doing the same now regarding speaking when the church comes together.

Understood properly Paul is making it clear that women should not speak when the church comes together. At the very least he has in mind speaking in tongues and prophesying, but it could be expanded to the giving of a hymn, lesson, or revelation with reasonable inference. This understanding opens up new discussions on what it means to come together as the church. These topics are not easy and should not be taken lightly. Paul leaves us with this thought provoking admonition:
If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Cor. 14:37-38).

Appendix

I have recently been in discussions with someone who disagrees with my perspective. He gave me a book, "Showing the Spirit" by D. A. Carson, that provides seven arguments against my interpretation (found on page 123). I have addressed each argument below:

1. The immediately succeeding verses (11:17-34) are certainly devoted to an ordinance designed for the assembly.

This is exactly my point. Paul makes a distinction in verses 17 to 34 that he does not make in the first part of the chapter, which means that the first part likely has a different context.

2. 11:2-16 does not restrict the venue to private homes or small groups
3. The language of 11:16, seems to suggest a church concern, not merely the concern of private or small-group piety.

No, it does not restrict the venue to private homes or small groups, but it also does not restrict it to coming together either. Private homes and small groups are not the only interpretations. The language found in verse 16, "churches of God," is used elsewhere by Paul in his letters to the Thessalonians (1 Thes. 2:14, 2 Thes. 1:4). In both of these cases he is not referring to coming together. Paul's use of the phrase "we have no such practice" is most likely not referring to a church, but to Paul and his companions. If he is not referring to a particular church, then the setting is obviously not the coming together that Paul is talking about in chapter 14.

4. Paul thinks of prophecy primarily as a revelation from God delivered through believers in the context of the church where the prophecy may be evaluated (14:23-29).

This may indeed be Paul's primary understanding of the forum for prophecy, but that does not mean it was his only understanding of prophecy. It is clear from reading the New Testament that there were different forums of prophecy. John's disciples began prophesying, after Paul laid his hands on them (Acts 19:6).  Zechariah prophesied at the birth of his son (Luke 1:67).  John wrote the Revelation. These were all public platforms for prophecy, that did not happen when they were coming together.

5. The restriction (11:2-16) is coherent only in a public setting. 
6. Distinctions between "small house groups" and "church" may not have been all that intelligible to the first Christians, who commonly met in private homes.

This is perhaps the best argument for the interpretation that 11:2-16 assumes they are together. Prophesying would make little sense if it was not public, or at least made public. Whenever there are two or more people the context is public, this opens up a host of possibilities for prophecy outside of coming together. As we saw above, prophesying happens in many different public settings. The public setting Paul may have in mind is when husbands and wives pray and prophesy together.  It is important to remember that the reason given for the commands in 11:2-16 is because of the angels, which is applicable in both a public and private setting. There may not have been a distinction between small house groups and church, but it is assumed that there was a difference of being together and not being together. The Corinthian church must of understood, otherwise Paul would not have referenced it.

7. Above all, the universality of the promise of Joel, cited at Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on men and women such that both would prophesy.

I am not arguing that women can't prophesy, only that they can't prophesy in certain situations.

Although I have made plausible arguments against those in the book by D. A. Carson, it is important to step back to see which way the scale is tipping. The statements in chapter 14 are clear and categorical. If it was not for chapter 11, there would be no discussion as to the interpretation of chapter 14. If there was not a chapter 14, there would still be discussion on chapter 11 given the statements made in Timothy. The burden of proof is on the person who tries to give a different meaning to chapter 14 in its immediate context.  Secondly it is undeniable that Paul makes a distinction regarding coming together. He covers many topics in the book of Corinthians and by default they apply to the life of the church outside of coming together. The topic in the first part of chapter 11 should be taken the same way unless there is internal evidence to say otherwise. Finally, prophesying is not limited to being together, but happens in many different situations as a quick survey of the new testament will show. The weight of the evidence still points to the interpretation I have given above.

"Coming together" still needs to be defined to complete the understanding of this passage, but I will leave that for another day. 

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