Have you ever really read through 1 Corinthians? Like, just sat down and read it? Talk about ALL the drama. Their dirty laundry is on full display. If you ever think your church has issues, just read this letter to the Corinthian church.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that when you read the New Testament letters, you are essentially listening in to one side of a phone conversation. We are literally reading someone else’s mail. In many cases, we don’t really know why Paul is writing or what exact issues he is addressing. His exchanges with the Corinthians leave no doubt. We know they had written him with questions of their own, and 1 Corinthians is his response to those questions and then some.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul answers questions about leadership, marriage, incest (yep!), food sacrificed to idols, sexual ethics, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, seeker-friendly worship, the Resurrection of Jesus, and more.
Conflict. Competition. Division. This was the reality for Christians in Corinth.
We must note a few things about Corinth itself. Corinth is an ancient Greek city placed strategically on the isthmus connecting the mainland Greece with the Peloponnese. It was a major port city, critical to trade routes across the Roman Empire. Corinth was also home to two main temples and religious cults. In the main city was the Temple of Apollo, the sun god and brother of Artemis (whose temple was in Ephesus – more on her in another post). Up on the hilltop overlooking the city, a place known as the Acro-Corinth, sat the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility. And yes, prostitution was a key part of “worship” at the temple – although the hike up is enough to zap all your desire for that kind of engagement…
Corinth was a melting pot city, bringing together people from across the known world from every culture and religious background. More than that, it was comparable to our Las Vegas. The women of Corinth in particular were stereotyped as being boisterous and promiscuous. It was a slam to call a woman a “Corinthian.”
Is it any wonder why Paul had so much work to do there?
So how would Paul bring this fledgling church together? How could he help bring unity to this ragtag group of Christ followers in the middle of sin city? By uniting them around Christ and pointing them toward love.
I don’t have time to hit on every single aspect of 1 Corinthians that I would like because I want to keep this discussion pertinent to our study of women in the Bible. Since 1 Corinthians 14 is one place most people point to in order to keep women silent, I guess we better address that verse within the context of the letter itself.
PRESERVE THE TEMPLE
The first thing to note is that Paul calls the church the Temple of God. It was always presented to me that we are each individually temples. But that’s not what Paul is saying. The church – God’s people together – is the new Temple where his Spirit dwells. Paul warns against destroying the Temple by sowing seeds of division and disunity. We’re all in this together. Few issues have sown more division than the oppressive treatment of women. As one recent article argues, the ban on women participating in worship and leadership is strongly correlated to, if not the direct cause of, the mass exodus of younger people away from Churches of Christ. Are we destroying the Temple because of who we exclude?
ON HAIR AND HEAD COVERINGS
This brings us to the incredibly confusing and somewhat problematic section in chapter 11. Paul goes into a treatise about hair length and head coverings. Weird, right? What’s the deal?
Here’s a thought experiment. If Paul were to write a letter to the American church of the 21st Century, what might he say concerning gender identity issues? I think Paul would affirm the creation and distinction of male and female. There are those in our culture who attempt to fight for gender equality by downplaying the differences or by trying to make women more like men and men more like women. I think Paul would encourage all of us to embrace our created differences and to live into who God created us to be. Women don’t have to become more like men in order to lead in the church. Neither do men have to become more like women. BUT, and her is the tension, women shouldn’t flaunt their femininity like the Corinthian women do. Neither should men flaunt their masculinity.
The call is always for unity, not uniformity. Embrace what makes you you, but don’t flaunt it. Remember that we need each other. Be who God created you to be, but don’t demand the spotlight. Men and women are codependent on each other, but God is the head (or source) of both.
So, uncovered hair for women and long hair for men – those were both social taboos for various reasons for the Corinthian Christians. Were women free to “let their hair down”? Yes! Were men free to grow their hair out? Yes! But what would be most beneficial for the Christian witness in their specific context? To become all things to all people so that by all means they might win some (1 Corinthians 9).
But don’t miss this key point — Paul instructs and assumes that women will be praying and prophesying in the public gathering of the Corinthian church. That was already happening, and Paul was totally cool with it.
Chapter 12 leads us into the discussion of Spiritual gifts. The church is the body of Christ, Paul says. The language Paul uses to describe the church like this is very similar to his words about the relationship between men and women in 11:11-12. We need each other. We don’t get to decide who gets what gift or who God calls to perform certain tasks for the sake of the kingdom. All Christians have equal access to all the gifts. If it were not so, Paul could have easily made that distinction. He could have said that only men have the spiritual gift of prophecy, leadership, etc. But he doesn’t. The whole point of the discussion is to cease the division and competition between members. To limit all women and deny their gifting is to be guilty of the exact sinful attitudes Paul is trying to correct.
The greatest gift of all, though, is love (1 Corinthians 13). What does love require of me? Does love require that I, a man, make sure the women in my life know their proper place? Is it loving to tell a woman using her Spirit-given gifts to “go home”? Is it the most loving thing I can do to take two verses out of the entire Bible and silence more than half the congregation?
WELCOME TO CHURCH! NOW, SHUT UP
This all leads us to the infamous 1 Corinthians 14. Chapters 10-14 are all about the public worship gathering. How do we do church together? As much as we would like to think so, there simply is no strict outline for what the worship assemblies of the early church looked like, nor are there exact instructions given to us like the Jews got in Leviticus. 1 Corinthians 14 is about the closest we get to that, and our worship gatherings look NOTHING like this. Ironic, isn’t it?
The first half of the chapter deals directly with speaking in tongues (or languages). I’ve never been in a worship service where anything like this has happened. Personally, I think the gift of tongues was given in order to spread the gospel message to as many people as possible. It was all about speaking other languages, not some mindless jabbering. So if someone was speaking another language, there should be an interpreter to avoid any confusion or bad teaching.
Paul goes on to tell them how to structure their gatherings a bit. Look at this:
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.
(1 Corinthians 14:26)
Each of you. Are we to assume that suddenly Paul is only speaking to the men? It seems to me that anyone who wanted to participate, anyone who was so moved by the Spirit, could do so – as long as they weren’t interrupting or talking over each other.
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.
(1 Corinthians 14:34-35)
Aha! There it is! No female preachers, class teachers, or communion servers. Period. End of discussion. Disregard everything I have said in my last 8 posts and 11,000 words.
A little known fact about the Bible is that it wasn’t written in English. These letters were written in Greek. And in Greek, the word for woman and wife is the same word. The word for man and husband is the same word.
Here’s what was probably happening. These new Corinthian women converts were less educated than the men, especially Jewish men who had the privilege of attending Torah school since they were kids. If these wives had husbands who were preaching, they shouldn’t take it upon themselves to interrupt the whole assembly and call him out in front of everyone. If these women wanted to participate, then THEY SHOULD BE TAUGHT.
That’s the point that so many have failed to recognize. Paul says the women should be taught. They should ask their questions, and their husbands should help them learn and find answers. It’s not that Paul bans all women for all time from speaking up in church. Paul simply wants – for the sake of order – those who are more educated to be the ones doing the teaching. This already includes women (1 Corinthians 11). But there were certain women causing disruptions, leading to division and disunity. The solution is not to silence all women in all churches for all time, but to teach these women and answer their questions in the proper time and place.
Creation shows us that men and women were created as equals in the Image of God. The inequality and power imbalance was the result of sin, not God’s command. The rest of Scripture is showing us how God is rescuing us from the curse of the Fall. In the Old Testament, women were prophets, political leaders, worship leaders, and religious reformers. In the New Testament, women were deacons and disciples and apostles and coworkers. They were teachers, preachers, church planters, and evangelists. Men and women had equal access to every spiritual gift, and both should have equal opportunity to learn more and to grow in their knowledge of our Lord.
Paul is not saying that all women must remain silent and that they have no place up front leading the church. That would go against everything we see in the Bible, AND it would go against what he has already said himself. Paul, after all, was the one to name women as deacons and apostles and coworkers. It’s seems clear that Paul was not issuing a universal, eternal ban on female leadership in the church.
Unless we take that one verse out of context to say what we want it to say.