1 Corinthians series, Bible study lesson 15
By Reta Halteman Finger
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.
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
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?