Correcting disorder at Corinth
In December 2014 a Santa Cruz City Council meeting was shut down because of disorder. After council approved a bulletproof vehicle for the police department the discussion got out of hand when people spoke up during the public comment portion, several of them speaking over the mayor. After everyone was asked to leave, some people continued to knock on the windows in protest.
Let’s look at God’s commands for orderly church meetings at Corinth. In particular, what is the good behavior for Christian women given in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 and how does this relate to us today? This article is based on an assessment of the text and context of this passage.
In 55 AD Paul (who was in Ephesus) wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to the church in Corinth. Paul established a church at Corinth in 52 AD during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-17) and he stayed there for about 18 months (Acts 18:11).
At that time Corinth was the chief city in Greece. It was in southern Greece on the trade route between western Europe and places further east such as Asia Minor, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Its people worshipped at pagan temples and there was a Jewish synagogue.
The church at Corinth was plagued by factions and spiritual immaturity. When he was in Ephesus, Paul received a letter from Corinth informing him of their difficulties and asking questions about Christian behavior. So Paul wrote this letter to address the problems in the church and to answer their questions. It addresses topics such as factions, sexual immorality, marital difficulties, lawsuits, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and misuse of spiritual gifts.
The section on spiritual gifts deals with: testing the spirits (12:1-3); unity of the spiritual gifts (12:4-11); diversity of the spiritual gifts (12:12-31a); the necessity of exercising the gifts in love (12:31b – 13:13); the superiority of prophecy over tongues (speaking in foreign languages) (14:1-25); and participation in meetings (14:26-40). It’s preceded by correcting abuse at the Lord’s Super (11:17-34) and followed by instruction on the resurrection (15:1-58).
The Christians in Corinth had overemphasised the gift of tongues (speaking in foreign languages) (Ch. 12). Apparently this caused strife in the local church. There was also jealousy, confusion and argument. Paul corrected this by insisting that all spiritual gifts be exercised in a spirit of love (Ch. 13). He also showed that prophecy was superior to speaking in other languages, particularly when there was no interpretation (translation) of the latter (14:1-25). After 25 verses of doctrine, Paul begins to explain what this means in practice.
The context of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 is a meeting of Christians. It says “When you come together” (v.26NIV). The subheading in the HCSB is “Order in church meetings”. Paul uses the same Greek verb sunerchomai (Strongs #4905) to describe when the church came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-18, 20, 33-34) and when the “whole church” comes together to hear messages interpreted from other languages and prophesy (messages from God) (1 Cor. 14:23). Men (husbands) and women (wives) are present (v.35).
Christian meetings (1 Cor. 14:26, 40)
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
… But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way”.
Paul describes a meeting where there was singing, teaching (teachers instruct and teach) prophecy (prophets receive revelations) and other languages with interpretation. Anyone in the congregation could participate (”each of you”). But because it was disorderly, Paul puts some regulations in place. If these are followed the meeting will be carried out in a peaceful (v.33) and “in a fitting and orderly way” (v.40).
What does “fitting” and “orderly” mean (v.40)? The Greek adverbeuschémonós (#2156) means properly, or decently (Rom. 13:13). It’s something that is presentable (1 Cor. 12:24) and respectable (1 Th. 4:12) and harmonious. The Greek noun taxis (#5010) means due or right order. For example, Paul said that the church in Colossae was “in good order” (ESV) or “disciplined” (NIV).
The first regulation for their meetings at Corinth is that “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up”. Paul has already used the Greek noun translated “built up” oikodomé (#3619) three times in this chapter (14:3, 5, 12). So it’s a major theme of the chapter. This means that everything they do in their meetings must promote spiritual growth. The NET translation says the objective is “the strengthening of the church”. Of course, this means the people of the church.
Foreign languages (1 Cor. 14:27-28, 39)
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
The gift of tongues is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak a foreign language without ever having learned it. “Tongue” glóssa (Strongs #1100) means tongue, language or nation. In this case it means miraculously speaking in other languages. The word is used many times in this way in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. It is also used in this sense in Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6.
Obviously the meetings at Corinth were disorderly with more than one person speaking at once and using words that no one could understand. So Paul gives them three regulations for the use of other languages in a Christian meeting at Corinth:
• No more than three people (men, see below) should speak in other languages.
• They should speak in turn (“one at a time”) and not at the same time. This makes the message clear and not confusing.
• No one should speak in another language unless the message is interpreted (translated). The interpretation enables those in the congregation who don’t know the language to understand the message. If there is no interpretation, they must be silent with regard to speaking in the other language (because most of the congregation wouldn’t understand the message). This is a conditional temporary silence.
As long as these regulations are followed, Paul didn’t prohibit speaking in other languages in the early church (v.39).
Prophecy (1 Cor. 14:29-33, 39)
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
The gift of prophecy is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to receive messages (revelations) directly from God and communicate these to others. They were God’s spokesmen before the Bible was available in written form. The objective of prophecy is that “everyone may be instructed (learn) and encouraged” (v.31).
The Greek noun translated “prophet” prophétés (#4396) means a person who brings a message from God. In the Old Testament, a prophet was a messenger of God. He delivered God’s messages. They wrote most of the Old Testament. Abraham was the first to be called a prophet and John the Baptist was the last one before Christ.
Like the apostles, the New Testament prophets were concerned with the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). An apostle was also a prophet because what they wrote are called “prophetic writings” (Rom. 16:26). Their message is preserved for us in the New Testament.
“The one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3). Prophecy also builds up believers and convicts unbelievers of their sin (1 Cor. 14:4; 24-25).
The Greek verb translated “revelation” apokaluptó (#601, verb) means to uncover or reveal. For example, God used the Holy Spirit to reveal to the writers of the New Testament things previously unknown to humanity (1 Cor. 2:10). Also, the value of the work of preachers and teachers will be revealed at the Judgment Seat of Christ when their service for the Lord will be reviewed (1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:10). That is why the prophets were said to receive a revelation from God (v.30).
The noun form of this word apokalupsis (#602), which means uncovering or revealing, is used to describe Christ’s visible return at the second advent (1 Cor. 1:7) and the disclosure of truth concerning divine things that were previously unknown (1 Cor. 14:6, 26).
Another problem at Corinth was speakers saying things they shouldn’t and stopping others from speaking by going too long. So Paul gives them four regulations for prophecy in a Christian meeting at Corinth:
• No more than three people (men, see below) should prophesy
• The other prophets should “weigh carefully (evaluate) what is said” as they are responsible to ensure it is indeed a message from God. They were to detect false prophets. Maybe they had the gift of “distinguishing between spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10).
• They should speak “in turn” and not at the same time. This makes the message clear and not confusing.
• A prophecy should stop when another person receives a revelation from God. In this case, the first prophet must be silent with regard to prophecy (also the longer one speaks, the greater the chance of using one’s own words instead of God’s words). This is also a conditional temporary silence.
As long as these regulations are followed, Paul encouraged prophecy in the early church (v.39).
As Biblical Greek has no punctuation, the phrase “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (v.33) may relate to what goes before or what comes after it. But because they are all God’s command (v.36-38), its location doesn’t affect the interpretation. So I think the phrase applies to both what goes before and what comes after it. All congregations were to obey these commands.
Women (1 Cor. 14:34-35)
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
The word for “woman” and “wife” is the same in Greek. Because of the reference to husbands in v.35, the word may be translated “wives” here. But in a passage governing conduct in church meetings the general meaning “women” is more likely.
Before we list the regulations for women in a Christian meeting at Corinth, we will look at the meaning of the Greek words for “silence”, “speak”, “submission” and “law”.
The Greek verb for “silence” sigao (#4601) means to keep silent or to keep secret. Paul uses it for the secret truth that through the gospel believing Gentiles and believing Jews would be fellow members of the church (the Body of Christ) and share together in the promise in Christ (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:6). He also uses the same word in v.28, 30 and 34. We have seen above that it is used for conditional temporary silence in the contexts of speaking in other languages and of prophecy (v.28, 30). Therefore is seems that the women are also to be conditionally temporarily silent (v.34). But in what context? As the passage (v.26-40) is devoted to speaking in other languages and prophecy in a general church meeting, this would be the context.
The Greek verb translated “speak” laleó (#2980) means “to speak or say”. It is mentioned 24 times in this chapter. The cases that are closest to v.34 mean speaking in another language (v. 27, 28, 39) and speaking a prophecy (v.29). They are in the context where one person is addressing the whole church. Therefore, the best interpretation of v.34 is that Paul is prohibiting women from speaking in another language and speaking a prophecy in a meeting of Christians when men and women are present. This is in the context where one woman is not to publicly address the whole church. It refers to public speaking, not private speaking (conversation).
The Greek verb translated “submission” hupotassó (#5293) means to submit, to place under, or to obey. Paul uses it in five verses in this letter. Everything will be subject to Christ (15:27) and Christ will be subject to God the Father in an administrative sense (15:28). Paul urged them to submit to those who were serving God’s people (16:16). In our passage, a prophet was subject to the control of the other prophets (14:32). Likewise, the women were to be in submission (v.34). Who or what are they to be submissive to? Their husbands? The church elders? Those speaking at the meeting (prophets and teachers)? Or to the Scripture being taught?
The Greek noun translated the “law” nomos (#3551) means the Pentateuch (the law of Moses, 1 Cor. 9:8-9) or the Old Testament. Paul used this word twice in chapter 14. It means the Old Testament when a quotation is from Isaiah (v.21). In v.34 the law may be referring to Adam’s leadership over Eve (Gen. 2:18), which Paul quoted in chapter 11 (11:8-9). As this is only three chapters before our passage, Paul doesn’t need to repeat the reference. Furthermore, the Old Testament teaches that wives were to be submissive to their husbands (1 Pt. 3:5-6). Also, men were the leaders in Israelite/Jewish society, religion and family.
What does v.35 mean? It seems that women were disrupting a meeting by asking questions. As it refers to learning, the context is probably prophecy or teaching. The situation seems to be when a woman wants to ask a question in order to help her understand the message. Rather than disrupting the meeting, they were advised to ask their husbands at home. In this scenario, the disgrace/shame would be to interrupt the meeting with a question. Also, this prohibition stops women making comments or teaching via questioning.
Is v.35 an explanation of v.34 or an additional requirement? It begins with the Greek words for “if moreover” ei de (#1487, #1161). These are two conjunctions that mean “if on the other hand” and imply that the restriction in v.35 is different to that in v.34. This idea is expressed as “And if” in the HCSB.
Some think that the restriction in v.34 is the same as in v.35 and that it stopped the women interrupting church meetings by making remarks or asking questions (or chattering). Because of the two conjunctions , I consider this is poor exegesis (interpretation of the text).
Some think that the prohibition in v.34-35 relates to evaluating the prophets (v.29, 32). In this case, female questioning during an evaluation would violate their submission to male leadership, but female prophecy and speaking in other languages in a general church meeting wouldn’t violate their submission to male leadership. Is this consistent? After all, those who evaluated the prophets were fellow prophets (v.29, 32). This would mean that male prophets could prophesy and evaluate, and female ones could prophesy, but not evaluate! Also, the women were asking questions, not making judgments (v.35) and the solution was to do this at home.
Some think that the restriction in v.34-35 is due to women being uneducated at that time. But if that is the reason, why does Paul ignore the men who were uneducated?
As it related to when they wanted to “inquire about something” and the solution was to “ask their husbands”, it seems as though the women were asking questions. And Paul says that this was “disgraceful”. He used the same word to describe a short hair cut for women (11:6). We don’t know why this was disgraceful. Were they interrupting the meeting? Were they disrespecting the speakers? Was this disrespectful in their society?
Therefore, the best explanation seems to be that there were three regulations for women in a Christian meeting at Corinth when men are present:
• Don’t speak in other languages. This is a conditional silence.
• Don’t prophesy. This is a conditional silence.
• Don’t disrupt the meeting by asking questions. Instead they should ask them at home (that’s the place for spiritual discussions). This is also a conditional limit on speaking in church.
What about when Paul wrote “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (11:5)? Doesn’t this mean that women prophesied in church meetings at Corinth? The subheading of 11:2-16 is “On covering the heads in worship” (NIV). But there is no reference to a church meeting until v.17, which is outside the passage! The focus of this passage is on the need for a head-covering when they prophesised, not on “worship”. And there is no definite reference to a meeting. So from 11:2-16 it is debateable as to whether women prophesised in meetings at Corinth or not. In this case, the best exegesis is to use the clearer example of 14:34 which definitely implies that women didn’t prophesy in meetings when men were present at Corinth.
Another possible interpretation is that the conditional silence applies to all instances when one woman would publicly address the whole church like speaking in other languages or prophesy. This would extend the restriction to all other such spiritual activities. However, this changes the meaning of the silence sigaó (#4601) from conditional to absolute, which is out of context (being inconsistent with the rest of the passage). Also, note that prayer (speaking to God, which is another verbal spiritual activity) isn’t mentioned in this case as it was in 11:4-5.
God’s command (1 Cor. 14:36-38)
“Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.”
Next Paul asks two rhetorical questions in an ironic, satirical and sarcastic manner. These absurd questions matched their absurd behavior. The Corinthians were acting as though they were the authority on this subject and that they wrote the Bible. They were also acting as though they were the only Christians on earth. So they were independent of Paul and the other churches. Paul says that any spiritually gifted person would recognize his God-given authority. He has been given the Lord’s command on this topic. He is the authority, not them. They are God’s commands for the church and not just Paul’s viewpoint.
Any who disobey this command will be ignored by Paul, by the churches and by God because they don’t have the spiritual gift they claim. They won’t be recognized as a godly prophet or as a spiritual person, but as false prophet.
What about Galatians 3:28?
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Some use this verse to claim that as the gospel eradicates the differences between men and women, there should be no restrictions on women’s ministry in church. But this verse doesn’t address the roles of men and women in church meetings. It has a different context which is the unity that salvation in Christ brings to a diverse group of people. Race, social status and gender make no difference in terms of salvation (one’s standing before God) and its blessings. In the promised inheritance there is no distinction between male and female. There is now no division in Christ Jesus (also see: 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11).
But does Galatians 3:28 abolish all sexual distinctions? Can Christians now approve same-sex marriages? No! It doesn’t address these topics and others like husband-wife roles at home or male-female roles in the local church.
But how do these commands apply to us today? Let’s look at what’s changed since then.
Lessons for us
As 1 Corinthians was probably written about AD 55, it describes the early days of the church. The only earlier books in the New Testament are James, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and events described in the gospels and Acts chapters 1-19. When applying the principles in it to us today we need to consider the changes since then. There is Scriptural evidence that the frequency of speaking in other languages and prophecy changed later in the first century AD.
Speaking in tongues
Speaking in other languages is only mentioned in two books of the Bible (Acts and 1 Corinthians). Also, it isn’t mentioned in any Scripture written after 55 AD (or in the case of Acts, events that occurred after 55 AD). Therefore, it appears that this gift was primarily for the early church. So I will not apply the principles for speaking other languages to us today.
Prophecy is mentioned in the book of Acts up to AD 57 (Acts 21:9-10). Paul mentions prophecy in his books written in AD 55-60 but not his last six books (written AD 60-66). The only biblical record of prophecy after this time is the apostle John (Rev. 1:3; 10:7, 11; 19:10; 22:6, 9, 10, 18-19). He also mentions false prophets (1 Jn. 4:1). Therefore, it seems as though the prevalence of prophecy decreased significantly after AD 60. We now have the record of God’s revelation to the prophets in the early church in the New Testament. These truths are now communicated to us by preachers and teachers who also build up (strengthen), encourage and comfort believers and convict unbelievers. Therefore, I will apply the principles for prophecy to preaching and teaching.
The church is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today. As Paul links speaking in tongues with prophecy (1 Cor. 14), both of these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
The revelation given to the writers of the New Testament finished in the first century AD (Jude 3, Rev. 22:18-19). Just as the close of the Old Testament canon was followed by a 400 year silence (no prophecies from God), so the close of the NT has been followed by a 1,900 year silence. Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God. The Scriptures are final and complete. According to Scripture, God will speak again with new prophecies, visions and revelations after the rapture, during the tribulation and Christ’s millennial kingdom (Acts 2:16-21; Rev. 11:1-13).
As we don’t know why it was disgraceful for women to ask questions during a church meeting at Corinth, we will look at what Paul says elsewhere on this topic.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
Nine years after correcting disorderly meetings at Corinth, Paul described appropriate behaviour for Christian women in Ephesus. We need to take this into account here as God’s will is revealed progressively in the Bible. The relevant passage is, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). This means that within the context of the Christian church, women are not to preach/teach men or to lead the church as a whole, and to respect the men that do this.
This instruction about preaching/teaching is consistent with the one reached above with regard to the principles for prophecy. Also, to “learn in quietness and full submission” may help explain why it was disgraceful for women to ask questions during a church meeting at Corinth. Maybe they weren’t submissive to the male teachers in the church.
Therefore, from this passage we can deduce that the principles for women in a church meeting today when men are present are:
• Women are not to preach or teach as this is a male role.
• Women are to respect the male teachers in the church. If they have any questions, it’s best to ask them after a meeting instead of disrupting the meeting (that’s the best time for spiritual discussions).
These are conditional silences as other verbal activities are acceptable. It’s orderly (v.33, 40) and enables the church to be built up (v.26). They are God’s commands for all churches (v.33, 37).
The restriction in preaching and teaching men in a church meeting can be difficult to accept because it goes against our culture today where women are encouraged to do everything a man does.
In January 2014, there was a disorderly meeting of Auckland Council. After the applications to speak of five members of the public were refused the crowd erupted and the Mayor made an adjournment in an attempt to restore order. He said that the only people who should be speaking at the meeting are those sitting around the councillor’s table. Two campaigners tried to speak despite being denied. Likewise, breaching God’s regulations has an adverse impact on our church meetings.
The ability to do something doesn’t come with the right to do it. Do we encourage Christian women with the ability to preach or teach to use this with women and children? Do we train both men and women to preach and teach? Are our preachers and teachers prepared and willing to answer spiritual questions? Is a prime objective of our church meetings to build up (strengthen) believers? Do we explain what we say and do in our meetings so that everyone can understand? Do we evaluate the messages against Scripture?
From an assessment of the text and context of 1Corinthians 14:26-40 we have found God’s commands for orderly church meetings in AD 55. These involved restrictions on the participation of both men and women. After taking account of changes since then, we have developed equivalent commands for today. Because some of these are counter-cultural today, they can be difficult for us to accept. The main principle is that women are not to preach or teach in a church meeting when men are present as this is a role for males with this gift.
Written, December 2015