It’s likely the case that, if you’ve not been living under a rock in church life, you’ve heard some things about the Bible that seem repressive and misogynistic to women. In particular, one that is made by complementarians (who believe women shouldn’t serve in church leadership except in women’s ministries) is that “the Scriptures tell women to shut up and say nothing in church.” Usually, the complementarian who strongly believes in this will grab his or her Bible and turn to 1 Timothy 2, but if there’s a glimmer of hope that they won’t appeal to the most popular passage of the complementarian belief, 1 Corinthians 14 is the chapter next in line for “favorite complementarian passage of the year.”
Within 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says that women are to be silent in the church because the Law tells them to be submissive:
26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there betwo or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 30 But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. 33 For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. 35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:26-35)
The natural question here is, “What does the Law say, exactly? Does the Law single out women to say nothing in church? Is the Law targeting the female gender? This will require some examination of context as well as the Law of the Old Testament, but it’s a question that merits an answer because it will further the modern-day church’s understanding of the passage.
Do It All For Edification (1 Corinthians 14:26)
26 How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. (1 Corinthians 14:26)
Paul is writing here to the Corinthian church. Notice he says “When you come together,” the coming together referring to worship service. That is, when the Corinthians come together for worship service, they should keep these instructions in mind. Each person has “a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.” In other words, God gives a diversity of gifts and talents to believers in His Church, and so the Corinthian congregation, like all other congregations, had a mixture of gifts and abilities. Paul just mentioned edification as the goal of all that is done in the church, just a few verses earlier:
Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2 For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. (1 Corinthians 14:1-5)
The Corinthian church had the gift of speaking in tongues, and many could speak in tongues. And yet, Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that speaking in tongues, without interpretation, benefited no one but the individual doing the speaking: “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (vv.2-4). Those speaking in tongues do not talk to men, but to God. While it benefits that person and their conversation with God, it doesn’t do anything but confuse human men and women. “He who prophesies edifies the church,” which means that those who prophesy, those who preach, are those who proclaim the message of God in a way that human men and women can understand it. To prophesy involves speaking in a common language that all who are listening can understand. Chances are, the tongues that believers speak in when exercising the gift will confuse those sitting or standing around because God didn’t give that gift to everyone.
In 1 Corinthians 14:1-5, Paul uses the word “edify” some four times, from “the one who prophesies speaks edification,” to “he who prophesies edifies the church.” Finally, he says that “the church may receive edification,” reminding us that the use of gifts and abilities from God is to build up the church. The theme of edification also runs through Paul’s discussion of the five-fold ministry gifts in Ephesians 4:
11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)
Ephesians 4:12 says that the purpose of the gifts Christ has given His Church are for “the edifying of the Body of Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul says that the goal of it all is done to edify and build up the Body of Christ. By stating this, he is once again reminding the Corinthians the purpose of the spiritual gifts: that is, they’re not designed for personal boasting, bragging, and individual achievement; rather, they’re designed for the benefit of the body of believers, Christ’s church. The goal of using these spiritual gifts is for the benefit of not just the person God gave them to, but, above that, the church. If the goal is to benefit the church, then to put oneself above others in an attempt to outshine fellow believers is to forget the purpose behind why they were given by God in the first place.
In 1 Corinthians 14:27, Paul begins his instructions to the Corinthians about how to restore order in the worship service, how to edify the Body of Christ. Since the Body of Christ is the one that should benefit, since the Church is the recipient of the spiritual gifts, then the church should benefit. The current situation at Corinth was one of chaos where everyone was trying to talk, speak in tongues, pray, singing, sharing a revelation, etc., all at once. All the action at once would only confuse believers in attendance and would repel believers from coming to worship instead of encouraging them to come, learn, and be changed. So, Paul says in verse 27 that
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there betwo or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:27)
The church cannot benefit if the church cannot hear and understand what is going on, so Paul has to tell the believers not to talk, speak, and act all at once. “Let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret,” Paul says to those who speak in tongues. If there are many who can speak in tongues in church, Paul says “let there be two or at the most three,” in other words, “no more than three to speak in the service,” and then, “let one interpret.” Paul says that only three are to speak in tongues in the service, and then, an interpreter should be present. Speaking in tongues without an interpreter would be a confusing experience indeed, since few in the congregation would understand what was being said. Paul had a belief that, if God wanted tongues to be spoken in the church, then the goal was to understand or comprehend the message God would send in them — and so, an interpret was vital to the experience. Without one, tongue speaking would be a waste of time in the eyes of believers. God doesn’t do anything without the goal of revelation, to bring understanding where there isn’t any.
The order Paul set, where two or three can speak in tongues, but “in turn,” one after the other, would prevent them from all speaking at the same time. Imagine being in a room where three people are speaking at once. Immediately, your ears would cringe in such a scenario and you would tell the three people, “can you quiet down and have one person speak at a time?” Paul was telling the Corinthians that here, except he was giving a command instead of asking a question. He told them to calm down, have only three speak, and that the three should speak one by one: the first one speaks in tongues, then the second, and then the third. And after each one speaks, there should be an interpreter to immediately tell the congregation what it is that the Lord gave the three speakers to say.
If there is no interpreter, the speaker should be silent in the church:
28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:28)
We shouldn’t overlook this verse because it tells us that being silent in the church wasn’t only for women (which will get into later), but that it was for the church as a whole. Paul is writing to the church as a whole, telling them that all should be done for edification. He’s already said that two or three should speak in tongues, one by one, and that there should be an interpreter. Here in verse 28, he says that, in the absence of an interpreter to help the congregation understand what is being said so that all can be edified (remember, edification is mentioned a few times as a point of emphasis), one should keep silent in the church and speak in tongues to God in silent prayer, not speak out in church before all to confuse the body and edify himself or herself. What Paul is saying here in so many words is this: “Look, Corinthians, you know the people in your gathering because you assemble regularly. So, in the event that you all meet and the interpreter(s) is absent, refrain from speaking out loud before the church — though you’re always free to speak in tongues to God silently. And yet, you can speak in tongues quietly without the whole church hearing you.” Paul doesn’t forbid speaking in tongues. He tells the Corinthians at the end of this chapter, 1 Corinthians 14:39, “do not forbid to speak with tongues.” Paul doesn’t forbid tongues, he just regulates tongues to be used in a way that edifies the gathering, gives glory to God, but doesn’t create confusion or chaos. We’ll get into more about confusion and chaos as we traverse the passage.
He doesn’t just tell women to be silent in the church, but also those who speak in tongues who don’t have an interpreter. Contrary to the complementarian agenda, 1 Corinthians 14 is not singling out women and telling them “shut up” without having a good reason, in the same way Paul doesn’t tell tongue speakers to “shut up” in the church without good reason. His reason to tell tongue speakers to be silent in the church is so that tongues can be used properly, to benefit the gathering. If speaking in tongues out loud before the church is going to create confusion and chaos, Paul says that it is better to be spoken between an individual and his or her God, rather than disrupt the peace of the assembly. So, if complementarians can easily spot the place where Paul tells women to be quiet, why is it that they overlook 1 Corinthians 14:28 where Paul tells tongue speakers to be quiet in the absence of an interpreter? They do it because they’re not examining 1 Corinthians 14 to rightly divide the Word of truth; rather, they approach the text looking for a reason to bash women. Upon a surface reading of the text, which is done without regard for anything other than the verse that tells women in this chapter we’re studying to “be quiet,” the complementarian says, “See, Paul is advocating for women to be quiet in the church,” which they then use to forbid women from teaching, preaching, reading Scripture, and the rest.
This is no different than someone who goes to Exodus 20 and reads in the King James Version, “Thou shalt not kill,” but then fails to examine other passages of Scripture that do allow for killing, such as the right of mankind to kill animals for food (Genesis 9:2-4), or the right of the government to “bear the sword” for those who do evil (Romans 13:1-5). What about the passages that allow for self-defense, which in some cases involves killing an intruder to save one’s own household (Exodus 22:1-4)? These passages of Scripture give us something of a more clarified view of “Thou shalt not kill” than if one just reads that verse in Exodus 20 and says, “See, it’s a blanket statement against death of all types.” It isn’t; rather, it’s a statement against certain types of homicide, such as homicide over greed, jealousy, blackmail, the kind of death in which Cain murdered his brother Abel over jealousy (Genesis 4:1-15; Deuteronomy 19:11-13), and the kind of death in which David murdered Uriah the Hittite because he coveted his neighbor’s wife (2 Samuel 11:1-27, 12:1-15), in violation of one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21).
The issue at play in the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14 is that everyone is talking and speaking, all at the same time, but complementarians can’t merely single out women and overlook the other verses where Paul is telling church members to be silent. Here in verse 28, Paul tells those who speak in tongues that can’t find an interpreter in the gathering (or are present in the absence of an interpreter) to speak in tongues to God, but do it in such a way that the person doesn’t speak aloud in the assembly so all can hear. Tongues are meant to build up the Body of Christ, not to cause division or to tear down the Lord’s gathering. This shows us that, like the Law (1 Timothy 1:8-11), tongues are meant for good but can be used to destroy when used inappropriately. The words “let him keep silent in church” are represented in the Greek (the original language of the New Testament) with the word σιγάτω or sigato, the verb itself being a subjunctive verb. Subjunctive verbs in the Greek are voluntary verbs, verbs that are encouraged but not forced. When someone says, “Let us go out to eat dinner tonight,” he or she isn’t forcing the other person to do it, but rather, is encouraging the individual. To build up the body of Christ and to maintain order in the house of God, Paul encourages the tongue speaker who lacks an interpreter to be silent and pray to God instead of speaking out loud in confusion. The same will apply to the women as we get through this passage: Paul would encourage them to be quiet during worship services, but he would not force them. Today’s churches shouldn’t force tongue speakers to be quiet, either; rather, it should come from that individual, who recognizes that his or her gift is not designed to create chaos.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. 30 But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. (1 Corinthians 14:29)
“Let two or three prophets speak” is similar in language here in verse 29 to verse 27 where Paul says “let two or three at most” speak in tongues. Here he’s referring to the prophetic gift; he’s told us that when the assembly comes together, some have a revelation, and it’s the prophets he has in mind when he speaks of revelation. God revealed things to the prophets, and He still revealed things to the prophets in the days of the early church. The prophets are, like those who speak in tongues, to use their gift in order, in a manner pleasing to God. They are to only have two or three speak, while the other prophets judge what is being said. In other words, prophets couldn’t just say anything and everything in worship; instead, others who didn’t get to give revelation were to be the judges of the ones who did speak openly about what God had revealed to them.
Paul doesn’t tell the prophets that “only two or three at most can speak,” but he does tell the first prophet that if another has something to say, the first is to keep silent. Perhaps the first prophet is to keep silent so that he or she can be a judge of what the second prophet says — and the silence will allow the first prophet to weigh the revelation of the second prophet with his own revelation from God to determine its legitimacy. Things are different with the prophets; with those who speak in tongues, the first three can speak out while the others must remain quiet; here, the first prophet must be quiet but the other two or three prophets can speak.
As pointed out earlier, notice that Paul tells yet another person to “keep silent” in verse 29 — the first prophet. See? Women are not the only ones told to keep silent in the passage, but again, complementarians would skip over all the “keep silents” in favor of just singling out women. It’s just bad hermeneutics, bad biblical interpretation, to do so.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. (1 Corinthians 14:31-32)
“You can all prophesy one by one,” Paul says, telling the prophets that each of them can give their revelations before the congregation. Some may inquire as to why the rules are somewhat different with the prophets, but this is because Paul placed great significance on the gift of prophecy in his letter to the Corinthians:
Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2 For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.
6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? 7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.
13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.
18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:1-18)
We’ve discussed verses 1-5 of 1 Corinthians 14 and how Paul continually uses the word “edify,” “edification,” “edified,” and so on. In verse 7, he gives an example of how tongues can confuse when there is no interpreter in the church:
7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.
Flutes and harps have distinct sounds; they don’t make the same sounds, and the notes don’t all sound the same. If you’ve ever played in band, taken private lessons to learn how to play an instrument, or taught yourself for the sheer fun of it, you’ll understand Paul’s point here: that is, that every instrument under heaven has a distinct sound that comes from it as well as the notes themselves being distinct. As a music graduate with a 4-year degree in Music Performance from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I met a number of fellow classmates who couldn’t tell the difference between a “C” and a “G” but wanted a music degree. How they could admit they were “tone deaf” while still pursuing a music degree is beyond me, but they wanted one. They viewed notes as the same, couldn’t tell them apart, could hardly hear that one note differed from another. And yet, their view of music goes against even what Paul believed. That’s right, folks: Paul, writing thousands of years ago, even knew that musical notes have distinctions. He’s telling them that those distinctions must be heard and comprehended, otherwise, they all “sound the same” and profit the hearer nothing.
In verse 8, Paul singles out the trumpet: “if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” Have you ever heard the trumpet played when a group or army prepares for battle? If the trumpet plays a sound other than that, how will you know what is being communicated? You won’t. If the hearers can’t tell whether the trumpet is a call to battle or not, they won’t assemble.
The same can be said today for musicians, choirs, and music in the house of God, in the modern-day churches. Too many choirs are simply “noisemakers”; too many musicians are simply noisemakers. Some musicians don’t know one note from another, or how to stay on beat and keep rhythm, and then you have choirs that don’t know how to stay on beat and how to sing in-step with the music. The Bible tells us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” (Psalm 100), but some of us have taken that “joyful noise” message a bit too far with our services that simply make noise for noise’s sake. The noise that many churches are making is loud, and even joyful, but it’s not “intelligent” with any order or logic to it. The noise is just chaos. The Lord tells us to praise Him with the instruments in Psalm 150, even the “clashing cymbals,” but we need to make sure that the clashing cymbals don’t “clash” with everything else that’s occurring in the worship service. Our praise to God can be loud, jubilant, joyful, and exciting without sounding like chaotic mess. After all, worship is what we give to God, so let’s make sure that it pleases God. We should worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness:
29 Give to the Lord the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come before Him.
Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! (1 Chronicles 16:29)
20 So they rose early in the morning and went out into the Wilderness of Tekoa; and as they went out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Hear me, O Judah and you inhabitants of Jerusalem: Believe in the Lord your God, and you shall be established; believe His prophets, and you shall prosper.” 21 And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the Lord, and who should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army and were saying:
“Praise the Lord,
For His mercy endures forever.”
22 Now when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated. (2 Chronicles 20:20-22)
Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name;
Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. (Psalm 29:2)
Oh, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth. (Psalm 96:9)
“The beauty of holiness” tells us that there’s something beautiful, something wonderful, about our worship when it’s done right, when it’s done in a holy manner. And making noise in worship for the sake of making noise, rather than preparing our best worship for King Jesus, is not glorifying to God but degrading and insulting to Him. Some in the church are not speaking out of order like some of the Corinthian women were, but they’re playing instruments out of order or singing out of order. If that’s you, then you’re just as guilty of chaos in worship as they were in 1 Corinthians 14. If the President were coming to visit your hometown, would you want to give him terrible music — or would you want to play excellent music that he’d appreciate? If we can give the national leader our best music, then why can’t we give The King of Kings, The President of Presidents, our best music in worship?
9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)
If you don’t say things that those hearing you can understand, the hearers won’t know what you’re saying and confusion will only result. The goal of speaking is to communicate with others, but speaking in an unknown or foreign language produces a barrier to communication, not an aid or help to it.
11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel. (1 Corinthians 14:11-12)
Someone who hears a language they do not know will look confused and say, “What is he or she saying?” That’s what happens in worship when one speaks in tongues but the hearer doesn’t have an interpreter nearby to translate the unknown language and communicate it in a way the hearer can understand. “I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks,” meaning that, when unknown tongues are spoken aloud in worship, the hearer won’t know what is being said and will look confused to the speaker — not able to confirm or deny what the speaker is saying. “He who speaks will be a foreigner to me,” meaning that the speaker will talk in riddles almost, that he or she will be talking and speaking mysteries. And what benefit will those foreign tongues have in the assembly of believers if the only one in the room that can understand what’s being said is the speaker himself or herself? In such a situation, tongues are being used to build up that individual and have him or her boast about their language capabilities, but the church of God is not being edified. That person is boasting, “showing off” during worship service, but what good is that before God when the Lord tells us not to be puffed up? When one speaks in tongues and only he or she understands what is being said, a barrier to communication arises and the result is division and confusion. Paul told the Corinthians just a chapter earlier about what love looks like, and it’s necessary to see his words there so that we can properly apply them to what love looks like in worship:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
1 Corinthians 13:1 applies perfectly to the situation in 1 Corinthians 14: though the Corinthians have the gift of speaking in tongues, they don’t have love — and the result is that they are “sounding brass or clanging cymbal.” He was saying, “Corinthians, though you speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, you are nothing more than sounding brass and clanging cymbal.” In other words, without love, speaking in tongues is nothing more than clanging noise, clashing noise, noise for noise’s sake, noise that doesn’t achieve anything to anyone. In 1 Corinthians 14:12, Paul tells them to seek the edification of the church, that their zealousness for spiritual gifts is good, but without love and knowledge, it is just nagging noise: “ 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.” They have spiritual giftedness, no doubt, but they don’t have love. Love would regulate their usage of their spiritual gifts in service, love would bring clarity out of the chaos, but without it, their services are just chaotic. Paul has to write in 1 Corinthians 14 to tell them how to restore order to their services because they’d prioritized spiritual gifts over love, over edification of believers in the assembly, over pleasing God. Love doesn’t look like the Corinthians’ current worship services:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)
“Love does not envy,” Paul says, referring to the fact that some in the church envied the spiritual giftedness of others rather than rejoice with them in what God had given. “Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up,” is a definition of love the Corinthians needed to hear because they were in worship service parading their gifts: speaking in tongues out of turn, prophesying out of turn, saying anything when they felt like saying it without the slightest regard for order in service. They were parading their gifts, speaking in tongues without an interpreter in order to make themselves look good, but Paul tells them in 1 Corinthians 13 that love doesn’t look like their actions. “Love wouldn’t speak out in the worship service in tongues that no one understands but you,” he’d say to the tongue speaker. “Love doesn’t prophesy out of order to make the prophet look good,” he’d say to the prophet. When one speaks in tongues and no one else understands, that individual is parading their gifts. And yet, love doesn’t parade oneself, love is not puffed up. Love does not “seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5), reminding the Corinthians that, “if you love your fellow believers that assemble with you, you wouldn’t do things to make yourself look good but rather, seek the welfare of the entire body of believers.” There is no love in selfishness, and there is no selfishness in love.
8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. (1 Corinthians 13:8)
Love is greater than spiritual giftedness because prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will all cease, will all fade away. And yet, “love never fails,” he says. Love is greater because love is of God (1 John 4:7), and, in the same way that God is eternal, so is love. Love will never end. Love between the Three Persons of the Triune Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) will never end, and love between God and His People will never end. Since love is eternal but knowledge, prophecies, and tongues are temporary, then the Corinthians should aim for love above all else. Love is greater than prophecies, love is greater than tongues, and love is greater than knowledge.
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)
There was a time when Paul was a child; as a child, he “spoke as a child” and “understood as a child,” as children do. He thought as a child, as children do, but when he became an adult, he stopped being childish. He’s encouraging the Corinthians to do the same: in their church services, they are acting like children, speaking like children, understanding like children, and thinking like children. Childish. And yet, they are adults who shouldn’t revert to their childhood and former ways because they’ve matured. This tells us that love is also mature. Love doesn’t act childish, love isn’t selfish (and thus, isn’t childish), so it’s time for the Corinthians to grow up and act their ages, Paul was saying.
Two children in my family exemplify the childishness of which Paul was telling the Corinthians to abandon. My niece who is now 5 was once childish: she said everything is “mine,” hers, and she once took toys from other children around her. She was selfish, thinking that everything was about her. For three years, she was the only child, until my sister and brother-in-law had my nephew (now 2 years old). Now, she’s been forced to share. I gave her a bag of chips when they were visiting with me and the family the other day, and I told her, “You have to share these with your brother, okay?,” reminding her that sharing is the name of the game when you become a “big girl.” Now that she’s getting out of her selfish mode, we have a 2-year-old cousin my nephew’s age who says that everything is “mine.”
These examples demonstrate that children by nature are selfish. Few are willing to share their toys at such a young age, and those that do are bound to snatch a toy out of some kids hand a time or two. Selfishness is the name of the game when you’re childish because, to use Paul’s words, you “think like a child.” Children think of themselves because they’re not adults and they don’t have the responsibility of thinking about others. They’re not parents who have to think about their children, or aunts and uncles who have to look out for them, so they only have themselves to think about. And that mindset is one the Corinthians were emulating in worship: selfish, thinking about themselves, puffing themselves up, misusing and abusing their spiritual gifts to elevate themselves and gain attention. As attention-grabbers, they were acting like children, and Paul wanted to jolt them into remembering their identity as believers.
The gifts were designed to bring us all into maturity, into the full stature of a man, as Ephesians 4 says, but the Corinthians were using their spiritual gifts to revert to immaturity — a path in the wrong direction. Paul was telling them to “man up” and “woman up,” or, as my old seminary professor once said, “Put your Big Boy and Big Girl pants on” and act like the adults they are. In other words, their behavior and ruckus are what you’d expect of children, not adults, and Paul was calling them back to what it means to be mature and to be adults. As adults, they should “put away childish things” and stop thinking like children. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he (Proverbs 23:7); if you think like a child, then you’ll act like a child. If you think like an adult, then you’ll act like an adult. Their actions in worship reflected their childish mindset, and Paul was writing to correct their mindset so that, with the right mindset intact, they’d offer correct and holy worship to their Holy God. He does the same with the Philippians in Philippians 2 when he tells them, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” If worship services are chaotic and messed up today in our churches, it’s because we need to renew our minds in the Word of God. “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is that good, perfect, and acceptable will of God,” Paul tells the Romans in Romans 12:2. Without renewing their minds, they couldn’t “prove” or live out God’s will in their lives.
13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. (1 Corinthians 14:13-17)
Paul encourages those who speak in tongues to pray for the interpretation, which would allow them to speak in tongues when they had an unction from the Holy Spirit to do so in worship. To pray in tongues with the spirit but lack understanding or have no interpretation of tongues doesn’t lead to communication but rather, division, because others standing around can’t make sense of what is happening. In verse 15, Paul tells us to pray with the spirit AND UNDERSTANDING and to sing with the spirit AND UNDERSTANDING (bold caps for emphasis) so that others around us can comprehend and rejoice and praise God for what He is doing as it happens. The goal of worship is not that we would puff ourselves up but that we’d seek the good of the body of believers. Corporate worship is corporeal, about the body, not individual, about “me, myself, and I.”
In verses 16 and 17, Paul drills once again that those who don’t understand what is being said cannot respond appropriately:
16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. (1 Corinthians 14:16-17)
“If you bless with the spirit,” meaning that you bless with your inner man, but you do so in an unknown tongue that others do not understand, “how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?” How can someone say “Amen” (meaning “It is true” or “it is so”) without knowing what you’re saying? Not to taint tongues here, but someone could be in service speaking in tongues, saying, “I’m gonna blow this church up,” and if you say “Amen,” you’re agreeing to the church bombing. I know, this is an extreme example, but it goes to show just how, in ignorance, one can approve of anything, including things that will harm that same individual. That is what Paul is saying about tongues: when the hearers don’t understand, how can they be expected to approve or glorify God because of what they’ve heard when they don’t understand what they’ve heard?
I remember as a teenager watching a comedian on TV (on a random channel) who was making fun of rock music. Now, I love all kinds of music, but I think the example is accurate. The comedian was talking about how rock music was taking over the country at that time and kids everywhere were rocking their heads to the heavy metal music. And she said, “They’re rocking their heads to the music and they don’t even know what they’re listening to. The singer could be saying, “‘Kill your mom, kill your dad, blow their heads off,’ and they’d still be rocking to the music saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’” I know, this is an extreme example within Christian discussion, but it goes to show just how, in ignorance, we can agree to things that, when knowledgeable, we’d never fall for. Agreeing to anything is the consequence of ignorance. Never say that “ignorance is bliss” because it isn’t true. Knowledge is power. What you know can help you, but what you don’t know can harm you.
The uninformed, those who don’t know the prayer language, can’t “Amen” your prayer to God because they are ignorant of what you’ve said to God. In verse 17, he says that the one praying in tongues “give thanks well, but the other is not edified,” meaning that the one praying can do a great prayer before the Lord, that he or she can please the Lord with how they pray and what they say, but they’ve done nothing to lift up their brother and sister. The prayer is prayed to God and benefits the one praying, but the listener has gained nothing. To pray such a prayer edifies oneself, not fellow believers, and it is not what love would do because “love is not puffed up” (as 1 Corinthians 13:4 has said).
18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)
“I speak with tongues more than you all,” Paul says in verse 18, an indication that Paul had the gift of speaking in tongues, as did the Corinthians. And yet, he preferred to help others learn and edify believers rather than speak in tongues: “I would rather speak five words with my understanding…than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Paul would rather teach others than to edify himself to the confusion of everyone else around him. Why? Because the goal of spiritual gifts is to benefit the body of Christ, the body of believers, not the individual who has the spiritual gifts.
20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature. (1 Corinthians 14:20)
Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians about how, when he was a child, he understood and thought as a child (1 Corinthians 13:11)? Paul is telling the Corinthian believers to “not be children in understanding.” That is, “don’t be selfish and act childish.” “In understanding, be mature,” a direct way of telling them to grow up and behave. They could be children in malice, that is, not doing evil and not hating anyone, but they were to be mature in doing good and to love their fellow believers as themselves. He was telling the Corinthians to stop being selfish and putting themselves above others because selfishness is not love and it is therefore not of God. “When it comes to evil, ‘be ignorant’ of evil in that you don’t do it,” the Apostle wanted them to know. Ignorance in evil isn’t a bad thing, but ignorance in doing good is terrible and leads to terrible consequences.
21 In the law it is written:
“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”
says the Lord.
22 Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. (1 Corinthians 14:21-22)
In verse 21, Paul comes from within Scripture to show the Corinthians how to use their gift of speaking in tongues. The passage in question is Isaiah 28:11, 12:
For with stammering lips and another tongue
He will speak to this people,
12 To whom He said, “This is the rest with which
You may cause the weary to rest,”
And, “This is the refreshing”;
Yet they would not hear. (Isaiah 28:11-12)
He spoke to His people with “another tongue,” but His people did not hear or obey or believe. Paul uses this verse to say that, in the same way God spoke to unbelieving Israel with another tongue, that speaking in tongues should be done towards the unbeliever and not the believer. Here is where Paul transitions from telling the Corinthians not only how to use their gift but when to use it, and in what setting speaking in tongues as a gift would best be applied. Tongues are a “sign” for those who don’t believe; God uses another tongue for His people in Isaiah 28, knowing full well that they won’t listen or pay attention. Tongues are a sign against those who refuse to believe, but the uninformed or “unbeliever” who comes into church would best be edified through prophecy in a known language that they can comprehend. The word for “uninformed” in these verses is ἰδιώτης, or idiotes, from which we get our English word “idiot.” The word seems derogatory or “jerky” for many of us, though the word is present in the Greek. An uninformed person was considered by the Greeks to be an idiot. We use it today to demean individuals, but at its most natural definition, it refers to someone who is ignorant of something and simply doesn’t know.
In verse 22, Paul says that tongues are for unbelievers, and prophecy is for believers. What he’s telling the Corinthian congregation is that they are speaking in tongues and aiming to use tongues a lot in their services, but tongues are for unbelievers; rather, prophecy is the gift that was designed for believers — which means that they should yearn to prophesy more than they yearn to speak in tongues.
Verse 23 sets up another example or another way to think about the situation: “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23)
“If the whole church comes together in one place,” that is, when the church assembles (the place doesn’t matter, just that the church assembles), and “all speak with tongues,” that is, all have the gift of speaking in tongues and they all use their gift at the same time, and those who are ignorant come and visit, “will they not say that you are out of your mind?” If everyone is speaking in tongues at the same time, and someone comes in who doesn’t understand what’s being said, that individual will not see God glorified, will not understand the message, will not see the beauty of the gift or appreciate the spiritual gift, but will instead focus on how crazy the congregation sounds and will likely leave the church never to return. Unbelievers already think that believers are crazy because “they believe in a God that they can’t see,” some atheists say; speaking in tongues and sounding “out of our minds” won’t help bring in atheists or win them to the gospel. Again, Paul is saying that everyone speaking in tongues at once leads to confusion and division, not understanding and salvation.
While challenging us about chaos in worship, the Apostle is also challenging us about evangelism. Many believe that evangelism is what we do “outside the church,” but Paul is bringing to our attention the fact that even worship can be a form of evangelism. I’ve said this before, but some believe that worship is only what you do in church; signs with the statement “Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve” on them outside on church grounds don’t help in this regard. The message this sign gives is that worship is what you do in the church, service is what you do outside the church. The error in this mindset is that worship is only what’s done in church. What we do throughout our lives, however, is worship. This explains Romans 12:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. (Romans 12:1)
Our bodies are presented as “a living sacrifice” when we bring ourselves to God. As living sacrifices, we are to always reflect the purpose for which God created us, and He created us to always live for Him, to always bring glory to Him, to always seek to bring honor to our Creator — and that is done not only in the church but also outside the church. The word for “worship” in the Greek translation of Romans 12:1 is latreian, a word that also means “service.” Thus, worship and service are the same thing. We worship God by serving others, so worship is what you do when you help an elderly person across the street with their groceries, for example, or when you go visit someone who doesn’t have family or friends in the nursing home. Worship is what you do when you mow someone’s lawn, drive someone to the doctor, run an errand for a person such as pick up their mail, take their dog to the vet, babysit someone’s children, call to check in on them during their time of sickness, treat a person or group to dinner, and so on. For the believer, worship is not just done in a building on a specific day of the week but actions done everyday that give glory to God. After all, we were created to bring glory to God, to give glory to our Creator, and in every action that we do that is good, we bring glory to God and thus, worship Him. With that said, then, worship service is called “worship” for a reason. It too, is a form of worship to God, and Paul says that our worship to God should bring unbelievers to worship Him, too. If everyone is speaking in tongues and unbelievers come in and are confused, then using a spiritual gift, which is given by God to bring glory to God, only detracts from Him and leads unbelievers to think that believers are sane. Paul wants to protect God’s reputation in the world and the church’s reputation as well, and the last thing believers should want to do is detract from God’s glory by confusing unbelievers in worship. How will they repent of their sins and turn to Jesus if they can’t understand what’s being said in worship? And we shouldn’t want to act insane before unbelievers because the Lord doesn’t want them to think that they have to throw sanity and logic out the window to be saved. God wants to use our intellect to bring glory to Himself, not advocate insanity over intellectualism. Thus, while it is good to be joyful, we should make sure that our enthusiasm isn’t spoken ill of among unbelievers.
If an unbeliever comes into worship service, and hears prophecy, and understands what God is saying to him or her, Paul says that the unbeliever will “fall down on his face and worship God” (v.25), which is the goal the church should have toward every unbeliever. The goal of worship service and everything done in it is to reach the unbeliever, for the Kingdom of God always has room for those who want to turn from dead works and toward the living God. We should always seek to witness to the lost, even those who grace our church pews and seats for worship. While we are told to go into the highways and byways and compel unbelievers to come in, God does have ways of bringing unbelievers into worship. Funerals are such an example of a service that brings unbelievers into church. My father in the ministry and now deceased Pastor always gave the invitation to discipleship at funerals because he believed that Jesus was calling, even at funerals, and that someone, staring the death of their loved one in the face, may be moved to make Jesus the Lord of their life. He always gave the invitation at funerals because he never wanted to turn away anyone who wanted to come to Christ.
Now that we’ve had a tour of the early portion of the chapter and the immediate background in 1 Corinthians 13, we can continue forward with Paul’s words to the prophets in the church. In verse 31, Paul, speaking to the prophets, tells them that they can all “prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged.” Remember, the goal of worship and everything done in it is to teach believers and unbelievers. When believers are speaking and acting at the same time, the congregation cannot keep up with what is happening and thus, will grow frustrated and abandon worship. Worship is designed to teach and to encourage. When believers speak in unknown tongues and do things out of order, across the actions of other members in the church, few learn and everyone ends up discouraged instead of encouraged. That’s the exact opposite situation of what worship should be.
In verse 32, Paul says that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets,” meaning that the prophets have control over their behavior. In other words, prophets can control themselves in worship, meaning that they don’t have to be out of control. This is after Paul has told them to prophesy one by one, after Paul has given them a layout of how to maintain order with their prophecies. Some prophets are to judge the prophecies that are spoken in worship, meaning that all prophets can participate in worship. There’s a place for everyone in worship, Paul says, reminding us that God is always delighted when all believers are using their gifts in a peaceful manner. There’s no need for believers to compete with each other in worship by one person speaking louder than another or by one person praying in tongues louder than another. Rather, each can speak or prophesy in turn and God will be glorified in each spoken prayer, each prophecy, and each message in tongues alongside of each interpretation.
33 For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33)
Paul provides a way to bring order and peace to the worship service because of the nature of God: For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” Confusion is not of God, God is not about confusion, but God is a God of peace. Nowhere in Scripture is the word “confusion” ever used with regard to God. God is called a God of peace, and peace only exists when order exists. This is why Paul has told those who speak in tongues to let only two or three speak and one interpret, and let only two or three prophets speak and others weigh or judge the prophecies. Paul is giving a layout for how the Corinthians should conduct worship service in a way that will allow each person to exercise their gifts without everyone speaking all at once, creating chaos and confusion in the absence of understanding. Worship, rightly done, reflects the nature and character of God; if God is peace, then worship should be peaceful. If God is holy, then worship should be holy. If God is just, then worship should be right, just, correct. Anything that is done for God should reflect God accurately.
God is the author of peace “in all the churches of the saints.” In other words, Paul is not just giving these words to the Corinthians but to all churches. All worship services should be peaceful because all worship services should reflect God and who He is. It’s not a rule specifically exclusive to the Corinthians, but a rule for all believers in all churches. It’s a rule for modern-day churches, too.
Does the Law Tell Women To “Shut Up” In The Church?
In our study of 1 Corinthians 14, we’ve now arrived at the place where we can ask and examine the question: “Does the Law Tell Women To Shut Up In The Church?” Verse 34 of the chapter says the following:
34 Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. (1 Corinthians 14:34)
“Let your women keep silent in the churches,” the use of the same word used above with regard to those speaking in tongues to “keep silent” if there is no interpreter, and with regard to prophets, the first that should “keep silent” if another has a revelation standing by. The word for “women” here is gunaikes, from the Greek word gunaikos, referring to either 1) married women, wives or 2) a group of single, unmarried women. Some would say, “What’s the difference?,” but there is a difference because, as we can see in verse 35, these women are to “ask their husbands at home” if they want to learn about the events in church service. In other words, these women are married women, not single women, so not all women are the target of Paul’s words here in 1 Corinthians 14.
We see that these women “are not permitted to speak,” but this phrase has been taken out of context as well. This “not permitted” means that women are not allowed to speak, but context tells us that women did speak, and quite often, in the Corinthian church. Just three chapters earlier, women are praying and prophesying in the early church:
2 Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. (1 Corinthians 11:2-5)
As 1 Corinthians 11:5 says, women were both praying and prophesying in the early church, else Paul was writing about an impossible hypothetical that didn’t match the reality of the church’s situation. So, women were “speaking” in the church, but the particular type of speaking in 1 Corinthians 14 is different from that of praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11: the forbidden type of “speaking” in the church is talking, chattering, not praying and prophesying. Paul is writing in 1 Corinthians 14 to restore order and eliminate chaos, so the type of speaking Paul would oppose is that of the disruptive kind. Paul tells the women to be “submissive,” the Greek word ὑποτασσέσθωσαν or hupotassesthosan. The Greek word refers to being “under” or “subject” to something or someone. So women are to be “subject,” and this is tied to the Law: “they are to be submissive, as also the Law says.”
What does the Law say about women being silent in the churches, refraining from speaking, and “being subject”? Well, if one researches the Old Testament, that individual will find that Scripture tells the Jews to be silent before the Lord.
We can start our study of the Law’s words about being silent with Ecclesiastes:
A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak; (Ecclesiastes 3:7)
There is “a time to keep silence,” and a time to speak, and this tells us that, whether man or woman in the house of God, one must be wise and discerning of when to speak and when to keep quiet. As I’ve said about the Corinthian church, while married women were being told to keep silence in the church and not speak, there were women prophetesses and ordinary female believers who were praying and prophesying before the public assembly. We know from the context that certain types of talking or speaking are acceptable (women prophetesses prophesying what God has given them), while talking out in church and chattering are not.
Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil.
2 Do not be rash with your mouth,
And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.
For God is in heaven, and you on earth;
Therefore let your words be few.
3 For a dream comes through much activity,
And a fool’s voice is known by his many words.
4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it;
For He has no pleasure in fools.
Pay what you have vowed—
5 Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.
6 Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands? 7 For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God. (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)
Here in Ecclesiastes, we see the words of Solomon to his son, Rehoboam, about approaching the house of God: first, one should “draw near to hear rather than give the sacrifice of fools” (Ecclesiastes 5:1), a reminder that the goal of entering into the house of God is to “hear” rather than to talk. The “sacrifice of fools” is what happens when one talks too much. In Ecclesiastes 5:2, Solomon says that no one should be “rash” with his or her mouth, to fulfill your vows and “let your words be few.” In other words, when you go before God, you go to listen to what God has to say. We shouldn’t go into the house of the Lord talking so much and chattering among ourselves because it is called the house of God. It’s not our house, but God’s, therefore, God should be speaking and we should be listening. We’re free to talk in our own homes and chatter as much as we like, but we go to God’s house to worship and adore Him. He is the center of attention, not us.
Ecclesiastes 5 also tells us about not being so quick to make vows with the lips but fulfill with the hands the vow you make.
Zephaniah tells us the same about being silent before the Lord:
7 Be silent in the presence of the Lord God;
For the day of the Lord is at hand,
For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice;
He has invited His guests. (Zephaniah 1:7)
Again, “be silent in the presence of the Lord” tells us that when we’re in His presence, before Him, we should be silent. If we’re busy talking when God is in our midst, we can’t hear what He has to say. The women in the church at Corinth that were addressed in 1 Corinthians 14 were busy talking in the house of God and thus, couldn’t understand what God was trying to say. Perhaps they were disruptive because of the chaos ensuing between the prophets and those who speak in tongues, and perhaps the noise caused them to ask questions, but the noise from others didn’t remove their responsibility to be silent and wait to ask questions rather than create chaos in the worship service. They were before the Lord and were responsible for listening to God, even if the prophets and tongue speakers were out of order. The chaos of others was no excuse for the women chattering and asking questions all across the worship service.
13 Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord, for He is aroused from His holy habitation!” (Zechariah 2:13)
Zechariah tells the Jews to “be silent, all flesh, before the Lord.” There is a time when we should be silent and watch the Lord work, hear what the Lord has to say, and not move and keep noise all the time.
“What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it,
The molded image, a teacher of lies,
That the maker of its mold should trust in it,
To make mute idols?
19 Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’
To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
Yet in it there is no breath at all.
20 “But the Lord is in His holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence before Him.” (Habakkuk 2:18-20)
Habakkuk contrasts the Lord with the idols made of wood and stone, who cannot talk. The idols are “mute” (Habakkuk 2:18) and “silent” (v.19), and have “no breath at all” (v.19). And yet, “the Lord is in His holy temple.” What this tells us is that the Lord speaks and we should be silent when He speaks, that, unlike the idols of wood and stone, the Lord is not an idol who has no breath but that His words come from His mouth. The whole earth should keep silent before Him because He speaks. That, though the idols can’t speak, the Lord can, which is why we should worship Him and listen to His voice instead of worshipping idols that can’t do what He does.
10 As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
They have together become unprofitable;
There is none who does good, no, not one.”
13 “Their throat is an open tomb;
With their tongues they have practiced deceit”;
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 Destruction and misery are in their ways;
17 And the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Romans 3:10-19)
Paul writes in Romans 3 that there is no person righteous, there is no one who seeks after God, there is no one who is above the sins of man. All of mankind has sinned, all mankind is guilty, all mankind has strayed from God, and all mankind has gone his own way and chosen evil rather than righteousness and good. There is no man righteous, none is righteous but God alone. But Paul adds an interesting phrase at the end: “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped…” (Romans 3:19a) This reminds us that the Law stops the mouths of all mankind because none of us can keep it. Paul called the Law “a guardian” or “a schoolmaster” to bring us to Christ, but all mouths are silent before the Law because it is seen as the teacher. God, who gave the Law, is the Teacher, and we are to be silent before Him in order to learn of Him. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul has said that prophesying and speaking in tongues is designed “so that all may learn” (1 Corinthians 14:31). Coming into the house of the Lord is about learning what God has to say, what God wants to teach us, and chattering is a distraction and interference with the goal of God assembling the saints together in worship.
When it comes to women being submissive, what Paul is saying is true, but keep in mind he’s dealing with these chattering wives in the church because they are out of order. The problem with prophets and tongue speakers is that they’re out of order for not using their gifts properly and discerning how to use their gifts in turn with others. The chattering wives, however, are said to be guilty of disrupting service with their constant chattering and question-seeking, which adds another layer to the chaotic distractions in the worship service. But the commands regarding women being submissive also apply to men as well.
In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, it is said that women and men sat apart from each other, so women sat in their own seats apart from their husbands. When they had a question and needed to ask something, they would yell across the aisle to their husbands (who, like the wives, sat in discriminatory seating) to answer the questions. The problem with this is that one cannot hear the revelations of the prophecies, nor can one hear the tongue speakers or the interpreters because the wives’ questions would also distract from public instruction. And to think, all of this was being done in front of unbelievers who would grace the churches. Imagine what unbelievers thought of this madness as they’d visit the church! It was truly a hot mess, and Paul wanted order to be restored because the worship service (the worship of God service) would represent God to the world, and, if believers were envious, couldn’t get along, puffed up and haughty, and all out of order, then unbelievers would see God that way.
35 And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:35)
“If they want to learn something,” Paul says, showing that the women wanted to learn. At this point and time, women were wanting to learn about the things going on in the services — that is, the women who weren’t prophets or tongue speakers, that is. The wives in the congregation who want to learn something should “ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.” It is “shameful,” the Greek word being αἰσχρὸν, a word that means “disgraceful” or “dishonorable.” Keep in mind, as I’ve said above, that this type of speaking is a distractful speaking, a chattering that distracts and detracts from the worship experience rather than adds to it.
To put a cap on our discussion of the Law and its instructions toward women, it is fitting to note that not one of the verses mentioned above about being silent before the Lord pertains specifically to women, but rather, to believers as a whole. In the Old Testament, all Jews would’ve been told by the prophets and writers such as King Solomon to “let your words be few” when entering the house of God. There isn’t anything specific in the Old Testament Scriptures as we have them that tells women specifically, of the two genders, to be quiet and say nothing in church. As we’ve seen, female prophets (prophetesses) and female tongue speakers were “speaking” in church but weren’t chattering and distracting from the service. And, in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians, female prophetesses wouldn’t have taken Paul’s instruction to mean that they couldn’t continue giving revelations or judging revelations in church.
1 Corinthians 14 and Biblical Interpretation, Accurately Applied
With all of the exposition behind us, now’s the time to examine the impact of 1 Corinthians 14 on women in ministry. As I’ve said earlier, complementarians read about women being silent in church and use it to prevent women from serving in positions of leadership, even though the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 11 showed women praying and prophesying in the assembly and, what some may have forgotten is that some prophetesses were actually judging prophecies. To judge prophecies meant that they had certain spiritual authority in the church.
Approaching 1 Corinthians 14 in this way is problematic for complementarians who choose 1 Timothy 2 as their hermeneutical hill to die on. After all, Paul says to Timothy there in 1 Timothy 2:12 that “I do not allow a woman to teach, nor to have authority over a man” (many translations say; the KJV says “usurp authority over a man”). Some have taken that to mean that women couldn’t have any authority in church life at all, but here’s where it pays to take a good look at the whole counsel of Scripture instead of just the verses that complementarians agree with.
Women were in spiritual authority in 1 Corinthians 11 in praying and prophesying publicly, but even in 1 Timothy, Paul allows women to serve as deacons with the words, “Likewise, women must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things” (1 Timothy 3:11). As deacons, these women would have spiritual authority in the congregation and, since deacons are ordained today, Paul would approve of women in ordained positions because he approved of women as deacons. Paul’s commendation of women as deacons went against the usual gender-biased diaconate because in Acts 6:3, when Peter sets the stage for the selection of deacons, he tells the church,
3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; (Acts 6:3)
The word for “men” here was masculine, referring to males, so it wasn’t generic referring to both men and women. Paul, led by the Spirit of God, added women to the roster of deacons, which was a revolutionary move for Paul in his day.
The “deacon” position is an office, and if Paul approved of women in offices such as the diaconate, he definitely approved of women in offices that were also gifts, such as the pastorate or bishopric because Paul believed that “the Spirit gives gifts as He wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Paul didn’t believe in telling God who He could and couldn’t gift for what office or church leadership position, and I wish complementarians could take notes from Paul’s own words on the subject of ministry gifting and church leadership.
What complementarians don’t want you to know is that, in the same way that Paul doesn’t allow women in the church at Ephesus to teach (specifically, wives, read the context), he does approve of women who labor alongside him in the gospel — even women who are in church leadership positions. When Paul writes the Corinthians about their divisions in the church because they’re following men instead of God, he mentions Chloe:
11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. (1 Corinthians 1:11)
“Chloe’s household” is a dead giveaway to the fact that the church met in Chloe’s house. Chloe was the head of this church. The same can be said about Priscilla, whom Paul mentions before her husband, Aquila, with regard to their own house church:
3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. 5 Likewise greet the church that is in their house. (Romans 16:3-5)
Priscilla and Aquila also greeted the church at Corinth, and Paul notes them at the end of his first epistle:
19 The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. (1 Corinthians 16:19)
The churches of Asia and the ministry team of Aquila and Priscilla greeted the Corinthians, and they have a church in their house. Of course, when Paul writes to the Romans, the ministry couple has a church in Italy, apparently. After all, Aquila was a Roman Jew (a Jew who lived in Rome). What we see, though, is that Priscilla and Aquila were heads of the church, church planters, pastors, but they weren’t alone.
The Priscilla and Aquila mentioned here are the same Priscilla and Aquila that took Apollos to the side to teach him more about the Word of God than he knew:
24 Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. 25 This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26)
Aquila and Priscilla explained doctrine to Apollos, so here was a woman, Priscilla, who was hands-on in doctrine and was teaching men. Some say that she was doing this “privately,” as I’ve heard one complementarian say, but they were teaching Apollos in the synagogue, a place where the people came to hear the Word of the Lord. Anyone who says that “it’s okay for women to teach men, in the synagogue, privately, but women can’t teach men in the synagogue, publicly,” is someone who hasn’t thought through the hypocritical nature of such a statement. Teaching in the synagogue is done with the goal of preparing a person for an official doctrinal role. If women were not teaching men, Apollos would’ve never even submitted to her teaching. And what about the church in Priscilla’s and Aquila’s house? The church in their house in Rome consisted of men and women, as was the case in Chloe’s church in her home as well. Read through 1 Corinthians 11, and you’ll discover men and women were being discussed in Chloe’s assembly. If they had a problem with a woman pastor, then why would they have ever assembled in Chloe’s home? The mere presence of men and women in Chloe’s and Priscilla’s house churches is enough to prove that complementarians are wrong on the subject of men and women in church leadership.
Then, there is Junia. Junia is the wife of Andronicus, who is also deemed an apostle by Paul. He salutes Junia along with her husband and says that she and her husband are “noteworthy among the apostles”:
7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my countrymen and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. (Romans 16:7)
Some have said that Junia isn’t really “noteworthy among the apostles” but that she is “well-known among the church messengers.” Other complementarians have said that “Junia” should really be “Junias,” with the New American Standard Bible (NASB) giving Junia a “sex change” in order to make her masculine and fit preconceived complementarian notions among conservative evangelicals. An overwhelming number of Latin manuscripts point to Junia as the appropriate translation of the name there in Romans 16:7, so those seeking to change her name will either have to 1) undermine what “apostle” means, making it mean someone who runs errands rather than one who stood in the apostolic office and possessed the gift, or 2) continue claiming that “she” is really a “he” so as to hide the truth. The King James Version, New King James Version, and New Revised Standard Version hold to “Junia” as the official name and claim her as one of the apostles. Complementarians have scholars such as Daniel B. Wallace on their side, a scholar who says that “Junia” is “Junias,” but apart from that, we have passages such as 1 Corinthians 11 (verse 5), 1 Timothy 3 and Paul’s advocacy of women deacons, Chloe’s house church in 1 Corinthians, Priscilla and Aquila and their house church in Rome (Romans 16:3-5), as well as the Old Testament prophetesses such as Deborah, Miriam, and Huldah, to confirm God’s calling for women in church leadership. Even without Junia, women can still serve as apostles thanks to Priscilla, whose name they can’t change if they tried, but I see no reason to mangle Junia’s apostolic calling to serve complementarian interests.
We’ve examined 1 Corinthians 14, Paul’s message about love, the knowledge of when, where, and how to use one’s spiritual gifts, and the chaos that ensues when believers fail to use their gifts appropriately. And we’ve seen that some of the women in Corinth at the church were chatting in worship, inquiring to their husbands across the aisle about everything going on in the worship service. Paul tells them to ask their husbands at home and says that the Law tells women to be subject. Since Paul is telling tongue speakers to “be silent” under certain conditions, and prophets to “keep silent” under certain conditions, Paul was not singling out the married wives while neglecting everyone and everything else. The wives were contributing to the chaos in worship and Paul wrote the church to set everything aright, not just some things.
Complementarians are going to have to come to terms with their terrible view of women because, looking at the whole counsel of God concerning women, their view is nothing short of horrible. God calls whom He pleases, and if He could make a donkey talk (a donkey, an animal who is beneath humans), then a human woman can be used of God in church leadership. The number of women in the Old Testament and New Testament who are used of God is enough evidence against complementarianism. So the question becomes, “Why is it that complementarianism has survived?” It has survived because of men who want to keep the women in their lives under their thumb, because some so-called Christian men (and sadly, women) still think that a woman’s place is “beneath” men, with males in the church as her “superiors.” And yet, Paul himself challenged the Galatian church and today’s 21st-century church with the words,
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:26-28)
Some complementarians such as John Piper have said that these verses refer to the equal standing of men and women before God, and they do, but the implications of that equal standing regardless of gender stabs at the heart of complementarianism; the reason is that, if men and women are in equal standing before God, then they are equally available for God to give spiritual gifts. If men and women are treated equally in the Lord, then the Lord can gift a woman with the gift of pastor as He can a man, for example. Some try to make the issue of church leadership analogous to life at home, but Galatians 3:28 cancels out that notion: whereas male headship in the home is a constant theme throughout Scripture (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18), and the male and female are “unequal” in the home in the sense that the Bible does not endorse female headship, the Bible does endorse equality in spiritual gifting and church leadership positions. If the Bible were to endorse that only “males” can be Pastor but women can be Deacons, then the Bible would violate Galatians 3:28, and Paul would violate his own words.
To the feminist crowd today, I want to remind you that Paul is not misogynist, and 1 Corinthians 14, though some presume that Paul didn’t write this chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, was written because it fits with Paul’s view of women in all other areas of church life. Paul affirmed women such as Priscilla and Junia, and created a diaconate for women where none existed. Paul doesn’t sound as if he was complementarian, does he?
It is my prayer that complementarians who are against women in church leadership would examine the evidence and re-examine it before continuing to endorse a patriarchal theology that is at odds with the Bible’s stance on the matter. You cannot believe Paul endorsed Priscilla teaching doctrine to men such as Apollos but then say, “Women can’t teach men”; you can’t believe Paul endorsed Junia but then say, “Women can be Apostles but they can’t be Pastors”; you can’t believe that Paul endorsed these women in high positions in the church but also believe that he wanted to “teach the women their place” in the church at Ephesus in 1 Timothy 2.
Complementarians and egalitarians have long opposed one another, but the issue is complex. Not only are complementarians guilty of misinterpreting Scripture, they are also guilty of a view toward women that makes women “less than” men. If they can so clearly see the problem with feminism and its hatred of men, then they can understand that complementarians demonstrate that same hate toward women — the only difference is that comps attempt to “baptize” their hatred while feminists do not. If all are one in Christ Jesus, then all are one in the Holy Spirit, then all are one in spiritual gifting and the Spirit can give spiritual gifts to both genders. This makes sense, but the only ones who can’t seem to see it are complementarians.
The Law tells not only married women, but tongue speakers and even some prophets to “keep silence” in the church if, by keeping silent, one maintains order and peace in worship. After all, God is not a God of confusion, nor the author of confusion, but the Author and God of Peace. The nature and character of God should guide our worship services. Our worship services should be “holy” because God is holy. If our worship services don’t reflect God as He truly is, then our services (whatever you call them, however you define them) aren’t worship.
You may also enjoy our article on Can Women Be Pastors, Elders, and Deacons? A Second Look at 1 Timothy 2:11-15.