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Silence

On July 09, 2014

This is an excerpt from Aída Besançon Spencer's talk on "El Silencio, las Mujeres y la Iglesia" ("Silence, Women and the Church") given at the CBE meeting in Colombia.

Some basic aspects of Bible interpretation are:

  1. Look at its literary context: the written context of the whole letter/book.
  2. Look at the historical/cultural context: the situation of the writer and the situation of the readers then.

Let's apply these two crucial principles of interpretation to 1 Corinthians 14.

What we learn from 1 Corinthians is that sometimes good actions that we are free to do can keep us from doing the first two words of chapter 14: "pursue love." Love is more important than our freedom in Christ. We have to work on our ability to love.

In chapter 14, Paul explains why prophesy is more important than speaking in tongues. The key reason is that prophesy builds up other believers. Prophets upbuild, encourage, and console (v. 3). Prophets convict, calling people to account with the end goal that a visitor might end up worshiping God and conclude: "God is really among you!" (vv. 24–25).

In 1 Cor. 14:26, Paul explains what his teaching looks like in practice. Everyone contributes so that all can be built up. In verses 27–36, Paul addresses three problems that were occurring at Corinth that kept everyone from being built up: problems with speaking in tongues, problems occurring with prophets, and problems that were occurring with women. 

The speakers in tongues and the prophets were interrupting one another and creating so much confusion that no one was being built up. So Paul set up some simple guidelines:

1. Speak in turn (v. 27).
2. Only two or three people should speak in tongues (v. 29).
3. Speakers in tongues need an interpreter so all can be blessed by their message (vv. 27–28).
4. Prophets need to evaluate each other (vv. 29–33).

Some people claim the Bible never talks about mutual submission. But this is clearly described in v. 32: "spirits of prophets to prophets are subject." God is the one leading all of them. God leads them to wholeness and harmony, not disorder or confusion.

God wants us as individuals and as a church to keep maturing. The point is not to shut people up, but to make sure all can contribute their gifts to the church.

Paul moves to the third group in verses 34–35: women. Some early scribes moved these verses to the end of the chapter because they appear so suddenly, but the earliest and better quality Greek manuscripts keep them right where they are. Yet, Christians for thousands of years have been unclear as to how these verses fit exactly where they are.

  1. How can women be silent if we know from 1 Cor. 11:5 that women were praying and prophesying in the church? That would mean that women were included in the group of mentioned in 1 Cor.14:27–33 who spoke in tongues and prophesied. In addition, the Bible records many examples of female prophets who were approved by God like Miriam, Huldah, and Deborah. At Pentecost, we are reminded that God's sons and daughters would continue to prophesy (Acts 2:17). There is no reason to question their ability to speak in the church.
  2. Also, how can women not have been contributing to the church services if they thought God's word came from or was given to them alone, as it says in v. 36: "or did the word of God originate with you or are you the only ones it has reached?" Verse 37 implies the women thought they too were prophets.
  3. Paul does not tell us that the women are subject to someone in particular, whether to their husbands or the ruling authorities.
  4. To what law does Paul refer in v. 34? There is no Old Testament law that clearly tells women not to speak.

Why would it be "shameful" (v. 35) for a woman to speak in a church? "Shameful" is the same word used in 1 Cor.11:6 ("It is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved.") This word appears to imply some sexual misconduct.
After study, I believe that chapter 14 actually has to do with listening:

1. Have a message you and others can listen to. That's the advantage of prophesy over speaking in tongues.
2. If someone speaks in a tongue, have an interpreter so you can listen and understand.
3. If someone speaks, let that person finish before you start so you can listen to them.
4. If others want to speak, finish your message so you give them a chance to speak and you can listen.

The Greek word for "silent" (sigao) in the New Testament mainly has to do with people not speaking so they could listen to others. In other words, they were not silent in a vacuum. It's not about being punished. The same verb "silent" is used of the prophets in verses 28 and 30. It's not that prophets are never allowed to speak, but that they also need to listen and evaluate. Women, too, need to be cooperative with the principles set out in this chapter: participate in such a way that all are being edified or built up because everyone is learning and contributing.

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