1 Corinthians 14—The Spirit Is in the Details

1 Corinthians series, Bible study lesson 15

By Reta Halteman Finger

House Church
A class at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, role-played Chloe’s house church in Corinth who received Paul’s letter. This is the charismatic Christ-faction holding forth in seminary chapel. Photo – Tom Matheny

The Christmas story and extended holiday have pulled us off track for a few weeks, so let’s get reoriented. First Corinthians 14 is the third and last section of Paul’s comments and instructions in chapters 12-14 concerning the regular worship that followed the evening meal of the Corinthians’ house assemblies. (It may help to skim over Lessons 12 and 13.)

The structure of these three chapters parallels the structure of chapters 8-10, where Paul deals with eating idol-meat and attending dinner parties. Paul first theologizes more generally about the topic—here, the importance of a wide range of spiritual gifts in chapter 12. He follows this in chapter 13 by praising agape love—a forceful call to more privileged members to relinquish personal honor and serve the whole church. In today’s lesson, Paul focuses on two controversial spiritual gifts—prophesying and speaking in tongues. These are the public, vocal charisms that individual speakers are using to glorify themselves rather than building up the whole body in true worship.

Chaotic worship
Which faction or factions in Corinth were creating these problems? Is it “those of Apollos” who pull rank over others and seek prestige in both church and Roman society? Do their unknown languages and selective interpretations serve to elevate them above lower-class believers?

Or is it “those of Christ”—mostly slaves and freed women—whom we know are publicly praying and prophesying? (see 11:5). Such women may be converts from ecstatic mystery religions like those of Dionysius or Demeter. Worship to them may mean going into a trance and ululating unintelligible syllables as in their former religions. Their head coverings may come off, and they may shock or irritate the others, such as the staunchly monotheistic Jewish believers.

No doubt all the factions are involved in some way. Paul never condemns speaking in tongues or prophesying, only insisting they be used in an orderly way for the purpose of building up the whole church (14:5, 12, 40). Although Paul says he speaks in tongues “more than all of you” (14:18), he prefers intelligible speech and prophecy so that everyone can understand.

Regulating public worship

House Church 2
Another member of the Christ-faction. Who says women can’t speak in public worship? See how easily those veils fall down? Photo – Tom Matheny

Paul is far more nuanced throughout this chapter than many churches and congregations have been in later eras. Wanting control, some church leaders forbid unscripted expressions of Spirit-inspired joy, ecstasy, or warning. Many upwardly-mobile Christians look down on those of other classes or ethnic backgrounds who are more expressive in worship. Conversely, some Pentecostal churches strongly encourage tongues-speaking with the result that those who “haven’t received the gift” are considered second class believers.

Since this is the only New Testament text that deals with unintelligible speech in worship (Pentecost in Acts 2 exhibits an opposite experience), we cannot know how widespread the practice was in the earliest churches. According to Paul, tongues-speaking is the least of all the spiritual gifts (12:7-10, 28; 14:1), yet he would like all of them to practice it. But prophesying under the Spirit’s influence is preferable (14:5), because it edifies the whole assembly. Paul is a charismatic, receiving visions and revelations from God, even “boasting” once about being caught up into Paradise (2 Cor 12:1-4). He seems to perceive these more exotic or supernatural gifts as the icing on the cake, as it were—compared to more valuable but less dramatic ones of assisting others or administration (12:28), or the hard labor of agape love (13:4-7).

Years ago when I lived in the Boston area, I attended a charismatic Presbyterian church. I do not recall tongues-speaking in public worship, although there were occasional prophecies using scripture and often beautiful “singing in the Spirit.” While there I did receive the gift of a tongue, although I only use it in private when English seems inadequate. On the other hand, spiritual one-upmanship was a constant danger in that church, and I know of “little ones” who were hurt by criticism given by those who thought they had the right to tell someone else what was wrong with her or him.

A small problem leads to great pain and confusion
No doubt many more women have been hurt over the centuries by that little paragraph silencing women (14:34-36). Although our sisters in Christians for Biblical Equality have a different explanation, there are good reasons to assume this is an interpolation by a later scribe. All early Greek manuscripts include it, sometimes at the end of the chapter—which suggests it may have originally been a marginal note that copyists weren’t sure what to do with. The content itself contradicts 11:5, which assumes women are speaking in public worship. Further, 14:35—let women “ask their husbands at home”— addresses only women with Christian husbands, omitting all other wives, single women, girls, and all female slaves.

In addition, this little insertion disrupts the natural flow of Paul’s argument. Rather, it reflects a later time and place similar to the restrictions placed on women in 1Timothy and Titus—letters most New Testament scholars think were composed in Paul’s name after he was gone.

Therefore, Christian women of the world, speak up! You have nothing to lose but a misapplication of scripture!

Questions for reflection:

  • How are various spiritual gifts evaluated in your experience of church?
  • What kind of worship do you think best encourages “the whole church to be built up”?
  • What effect, if any, has the paragraph on silencing women had in your life and your church?
Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

4 COMMENTS

  1. For readers who might be interested in the answer to this questions, a search of the CBE website yields a couple references to this verse. One by Dr. Mimi Haddad and one by Dr. Vic Pfitzner. Both of these references suggest that these two CBE writers think the passage is referring to a specific historical situation that should not be applied to anything other than the historical situation itself. What I understand from what they say is that Paul’s statement is not applicable outside of the historical context.

    Dr. Haddad says this: “The answer is seen not by assessing the limitations Paul places on those women who domineered over men in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, or those women who were distracting worship in 1 Corinthians 14:34, but by the numerous biblical accounts of Christ’s newness of life active in women’s shared leadership and service with men. Romans 16 is but one example of the gospel’s social impact as it redeems human relations within the church.”

    Dr. Vic Pfitzner writes this: “What we should seek is the historical-contextual meaning of Scripture. It helps little to speak of the literal meaning of biblical texts. Even those against the ordination of women still have to explain what these words mean: “The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak.” A literal reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 would suggest that wives should not speak, since it is shameful for them to do so, and they can carry on a discussion at home with their husbands about what has been said or what has happened in church. Our own church has never taken these words literally in the sense that women (not wives!) can say nothing in church. A sensitive historical-contextual reading of the texts in question is required, one that shows what the texts in question meant for certain Christian communities in the past before attempting to apply them today.”

    and

    “At the heart of the dispute is not so much, or not merely, the original meaning of the texts, but how they are to be applied in the church today. We need to distinguish between original sense and present application. Both 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (women wearing a head covering) and 1 Corinthians 14:33-40 (women speaking in church assemblies) deal with much that is specific to the Corinthian situation. We do not have to transplant everything in these texts across twenty centuries, from one historical setting to a completely different historical setting today, to remain faithful to the issue that Paul is addressing–concern for good order in public worship.”

    Hope this helps.

  2. I have written and concluded that 1 Cor. 14:34-34 is an oral saying or tradition that Paul immediately rebukes beginning in verse 35. I know interpolation argument has some strong supporters but the bottom line is these verses do not prohibit women from ministry.

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