When I was young, my mom often led the music in church. Sometimes when my brother and I were disruptive she would silence us from the pulpit. How embarrassing! Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40, the apostle Paul silences three groups of disruptive worshipers.
First, in verses 27-28, Paul instructs those who speak in tongues. Only two, or at most three, should speak in tongues in a given gathering. They should take turns, and an interpreter must be present. If there is no interpreter, Paul commands their silence.
Paul’s phrase, “two or, at the most, three,” is noteworthy. Simply put, Paul is not precise. He could have said “two only—no exceptions!” Similarly, he likely doesn’t require two as opposed to only one. Here in verse 27, the flexibility in Paul’s advice is clear, but many view the coming instructions for women much more rigidly.
Next, in verses 29-33, Paul gives similar counsel regarding prophets: two or three may prophesy, and the other prophets (those not speaking) should evaluate. If this evaluation prompts a revelation, that revelation must be heard while the prophet who was speaking is silent.
In verse 34 Paul turns his attention to “the women.” Difficult questions promptly arise. Because this brief essay can’t answer all such questions, I recommend to you the books Why Not Women? by Loren Cunningham, David Hamilton, and Janice Rogers, and the more rigorous and more recent Man and Woman: One in Christ by Philip Payne. Both treat 1 Corinthians 14 at length, and both are available from CBE Bookstore.
We should, however, address one important question: Did Paul mean all women or just some? First, we must not neglect a basic reality regarding 1 Corinthians, that it is a letter. And as a letter with a specific occasion, we should understand that Paul is speaking specifically about Christian women in Corinth. But does he mean all of these women? The answer to this question matters quite a bit. Does Paul silence all these women simply because they’re women, or does he silence some of them because of something about them? Let me answer with two leading questions: Did Paul silence all the tongue-speakers? Did Paul silence all the prophets? Of course not…and I don’t believe he silenced all the women.
In a moment I’ll again mention my mom, and you’ll immediately know that I’m about done. Similarly, verse 40 repeats the thrust of verse 26, and we thereby identify verses 26-40 as a unit. This repeated material emphasizes Paul’s main point: the Christian assembly should be harmonious and edifying. If some tongue speakers, some prophets, and some women are working against peace in the assembly, they should be silent.
When I visit my mom, I’m often asked to participate in our home congregation’s worship. Imagine if I said, “Sorry, but I’ve been silenced,” even though that silencing was for a specific reason 30 years earlier! Though the circumstances have changed, the principle still stands—don’t disrupt God’s people gathered to worship and learn.