1 Corinthians 14:33b-40 (expanded version)

Sun, 19/03/2006 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

[Note: For some reason, when I repeated this sermon at an evening service, I was asked if I could prepare a longer version taking in some of the questions I had been asked after the original sermon. The text here is that expanded version, rather than the original version which was about 2/3 the length]

1 Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 33

“As in all the congregations of the saints, 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 enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”

This is one of those passages in the New Testament that makes your heart sink when you see that it is what you are to preach on next. Not because I wish it wasn’t here. It is part of the Bible. It is what God has to say. And therefore it is for our good health that we listen to it. But rather because whatever you say about a passage like this, you upset someone.

Which means that this evening’s sermon will have a slightly different shape from usual. Normally, I give a section of the Bible passage a heading, and then unfold the point from there. This morning, we are going to set the passage in its context by outlining some of what the rest of the Bible has to say on the subject of men and women. We will then work towards a heading.

Why am we going to do that? Not because I can’t face these verses, and would rather look at other ones! Not at all. Let me reassure you, we will get to look at what these verses are saying soon enough. But when we do get to these verses, it is vital that we do so in perspective. My prayer is that we will be less upset by these truths and more willing to put them into practice if we don’t encounter them in an unbalanced way.

We’re going to look at 3 passages in the rest of the Bible

Genesis 1:27

First, please will you turn to Genesis chapter 1.

I’ll read verse 27. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

There is a lot that we could say about men and women from these chapters, which describe the kind of world God made, and the way things have been spoilt as a result of our sin. However I just want to look at this verse for now.

And notice two things the verse says. First, God made us in his image. And that is just as true of men and women. We are all made in God’s image, in his likeness. In context, that means that God has put us all on his earth to take care of it, to rule it, for him. And it is an immense dignity and honour to be made in God’s own image.

And second, God made us male and female. He didn’t just make us male. He didn’t just make us female. He made some of us male, and others of us he made female. We are different. Men are not from Mars. Women are not from Venus. Instead God made us all; that is what explains why we are the way we are. And he has made us differently – male and female he created them.

Which means that men and women are equal in their dignity, stature, and honour before God. But men and women are different from one another.

Galatians 3:28

Please come with me to Galatians 3. That’s the next passage we’ll look at together. Galatians 3.

I’ll read from verse 26. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians addresses this question: Do you need to obey the Old Testament law in order to be acceptable to God? And Paul gives a resounding “No!”. Why not? Because Jesus’ death is all that is necessary to make us acceptable to God.

Which is why Paul says that we are all, men and women alike, sons of God. Not sons and daughters. Sons. What is he saying? The significant thing about being a son in the ancient world, as he says in verse 29, was that you were an heir. Daughters didn’t inherit. And yet the wonderful truth of the gospel is that men and women alike are sons of God. At the end of time, when God unveils his new heavens and new earth, men and women, slave and free, will inherit the earth.

In other words, in the new creation just as much as in the first creation, men and women are equal in privilege and in dignity before God. Neither is superior. Neither is inferior. We are equal.

And yet, the labels “male” and “female” don’t cease to apply. Paul still uses them in these verses. We are equal. We are all sons of God in Christ Jesus. Yet we remain male and female. Equal, yet different.

Joel 2:28-29

Let’s turn to our third passage. Joel chapter 2. It’s on page number ____. Joel chapter 2. This is the passage that Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost.

Joel 2, and I’ll read from verse 28. And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Equal yet different in creation. Equal yet different in the new creation. Now we’re getting more specific. One of the great blessings of the new covenant is that God will pour his Spirit out on us. God will live in and with us by his Spirit. And empowered by the Spirit we will serve one another.

Who is God’s spirit poured out on? On my servants, both men and women. Who will prophesy? Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Men and women alike will serve God in the power of the spirit. Men and women alike will prophesy. Equal but different extends right through to the question of prophecy.

Summing Up

All that to put these verses in front of us in perspective. Of course there is lots more that could be said from the Bible about men and women. I could have talked about the immensely high demands the Bible makes of husbands to love their wives sacrificially, akin indeed to Christ’s love for his church. But this is not a general talk on men and women; that would have to wait for another occasion. It is a sermon on the last few verses of 1 Corinthians chapter 14.

The important thing as we turn to 1 Corinthians 14 is that we have the rest of the Bible in mind. And in particular, we need to have in mind this principle that men and women are equal, yet different from one another. And as we’ll see, that difference extends to different roles. Equal in who we are, different in what we do.

We are quite used to the idea that people can be equal and yet different. Race equality is a big thing in Britain. We are used to saying that someone cannot claim to be superior to somebody else because they have different coloured skin. Quite right too. Yet that doesn’t make everybody have grey skin. You have everything from the bleached white colour that burns the moment the sun comes out, right through to black the colour of charcoal and everything in between. That diversity is how God has made us, yet we all equally share the dignity of being made in his image.

But the attitudes we pick up from society do cause a problem for us when it comes to accepting the Bible’s teaching in this area. We don’t have a problem with being equal yet different, that’s not it. But we do have a problem with accepting that people can remain equal if the same tasks are not open to them. Equality, in our thinking, requires equal opportunities. And so it is that society asks, for good reason, why it is that fewer black police make it to the senior ranks, and women doing the same executive jobs as men are paid less. Those are right concerns.

But if we pick up from society that attitude that two people are not equal if they don’t have the same opportunities, we get into difficulties when we encounter the Bible’s teaching on service in the church. We saw in chapter 12 that God gives different people different abilities to enable them to serve in different ways. We are not all the same. Very specifically, there is no principle of equal opportunities at work in church life. We do different tasks. But chapter 12 warned us at quite some length not to conclude that some are more valuable than others. Remember the metaphor of the human body. Those parts we are tempted to regard as less valuable are in fact given special honour.

So what do we do when we hear the Bible tell us that men and women are equal and yet different, and that this difference includes the roles we have in church? We need to listen to 1 Corinthians 12, not to society. Society tells us that difference in function would fatally undermine the Bible’s claim that men and women are equal. 1 Corinthians 12 tells us that differentiated roles do not make men or women more important.

So, let’s turn back to 1 Corinthians 14.

Silent in the churches

“As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.” What does he mean?

You see, we have a problem. Chapter 11 verse 5 tells us that women may pray and prophesy in church, provided they cover their heads. There is not time this evening to explore in detail the issue of head covering; that is an issue for a sermon on chapter 11. Essentially, for a woman not to cover her head, in those days, was for her to renounce her femininity. Of course today head coverings don’t have that significance, but you’ll be able to think of ways today in which a woman might conduct herself in a distinctly male way, or a man in a distinctly female way.

But we don’t need to explore those questions to see the problem. Chapter 11: Women may pray and prophesy in church. Joel 2: One blessing of the new covenant is that men and women will be empowered by the Spirit to prophesy. Chapter 14: Women should be silent in the churches.

So what is Paul saying? Well the number of forests that have been cut down to make paper to write on this issue is vast. The first thing to say is this. There are very many moves people make that are obviously wrong turns.

For example. Some people try and say that these verses in chapter 14 were not part of Paul’s original letter; someone added them later. But they say that when not even one ancient manuscript lacks these verses. There is no evidence.

Others say that chapter 14 is the ideal and chapter 11 is just a concession for those who can’t cope with chapter 14. But Joel 2 is no concession.

Others simply say Paul is crassly incompetent and can contradict himself without realising it. But God is the ultimate author of the Bible, and we can’t call God crassly incompetent.

Study Bibles

Those are the obvious wrong turns. There are some more sophisticated wrong turns, which we’re about to come to, but before we do I want to say a few words about Study Bibles.

There are various Bibles you can buy that are some kind of study Bible. They are a great asset, but it’s worth learning our way around them, and how to use them. I’ve put on the handout a page from the NIV Life Application Bible. You’ll see that there are five types of information on the page, which I’ve labelled with 5 letters, A to E.

Here’s the question. Our aim is to study the Bible, do what the Bible says, and so on. Which of letters A to E are “what the Bible says”, and which are not? Have a think for a moment.

The answer is A and D. A is the English translation of the Bible text. In this case, it’s the NIV translation, which is a pretty good one. D is the footnotes put in by the translators to alert us to possible alternatives in the translation. A and D together tell us what Paul actually wrote. Our aim is to understand and obey what is in sections A and D.

B is a selection of possible cross-references. Paul didn’t write these. The editors of the study Bible have suggested some other passages we might want to look at. They may, or may not, be relevant to the verse in question. C is a sub-heading put in by the editors. Frankly, the sub-headings are a bit of a menace, but they do have the value of helping us find our way around. And then E is some extra comments the editors have written that they think will help us. If you like, it’s their take on some of the verses. Paul didn’t write section E either. The comments will be right sometimes and wrong other times. The only way to tell is to study the actual text, section A.

Why do I say this now? Partly because I’ve been in Bible studies where what is in section E has been treated as if it were part of the text. We are having some trouble deciding what Paul is saying, but someone has a study Bible which means we can know the answer. That is to treat section E with more respect than it is due. There is no shortcut to studying the actual text for ourselves.

The other reason why I bring this up tonight is because it will vary with which study Bible you have, but invariable every study Bible will take a view on these verses. So we need to remember that all we have is the editor’s view. The issue is not what section E says but what section A says. Once we’ve worked that out, we can decide whether what the editors say in section E is right or not.

Cultural Approaches

So, what are some of the more sophisticated wrong turns? They tend to turn on some kind of cultural explanation of what Paul says. We’re going to think briefly about the 3 most common versions of this.

The first cultural approach picks some description of 1st century Corinthian women – in 1st century Corinth, women were generally not well educated, noisy, gossiping and so on. There are plenty of characteristics you could opt for. In that context, having women like this shouting out in the meeting would be decidedly unhelpful, so the argument goes. Therefore Paul says this should not go on.

Well, what do we make of an approach along those lines?

The first thing to say is something that affects every cultural explanation of these verses, and that is that it does not account for verse 33b. Paul says in verse 33 that what he is asking of the Corinthian church is nothing other than what every Christian church already does. Every other church is already conducting itself in the way he describes, and the Corinthian church needs to do so too. That straight away means that any explanation which relies on some feature of Corinthian culture must be the wrong explanation. Otherwise why would it be the right thing for every church in every place? It could also mean that any explanation that relies on 1st century culture is flawed.

But what about this particular cultural explanation? The main problem is that it is unbelievably sexist, and it is especially so because it is based on a wrong understanding of 1st century women. You see, if being uneducated is the problem, you have to say that every single woman was uneducated, and every single man was well educated. Otherwise Paul is being totally unjust – he is punishing every woman for the fact that many women lack a good education, and he is prepared to completely ignore those men who are similarly uneducated. Unjust, and as I say, totally sexist.

And also, simply not accurate. Ancient historical records apparently contain many examples of extremely intelligent and well-educated men. We know of some Greeks women in Egypt, and of some women in Rome who were as well educated as any man. The stereotype simply wasn’t true.

The second cultural approach is related. The view is that there was some kind of false teaching around. Women, being more gullible, have largely been the ones to have fallen for it. Therefore for them to start speaking up in church was the thin end of the wedge and frankly dangerous.

What are we to make of that? Once again, this view does not take account of verse 33b. We cannot accept an explanation that relies on some specifically Corinthian problem.

And again, this suggestion makes Paul to be unacceptably sexist and unjust. Never mind the idea that women are more gullible than men. Who exactly has fallen for this false teaching? Let’s run through three possibilities.

It could be some women and no men. In which case, why does Paul forbid any woman to speak? Or, it could be some women and some men. But where’s the justice in singling out the women? Or, it could be every single woman who has fallen for this, but not a single man. I find that really hard to believe. There have been all manner of false teachings down the history of the church, but not one that I know of has taken in all women without exception, and left every single man untouched.

There’s a third cultural approach that’s worth thinking about. This is the idea that in Corinth, the women were not allowed to speak in public. The Corinthian women were enjoying their new found freedom a little too much, and throwing off what would be acceptable for a woman in that day and age. What I would term the emancipation view.

Just as an aside, that may well be the background to what Paul has to say in chapter 11. That may be the motive some women had for removing their head coverings. And while we’re on the subject, what that would give us would be a New Testament text that tells us that certain behaviour is sinful, and insight into why people were doing it. Obviously, that doesn’t make it less sinful just because we might do it for a different motive. But, as I say, chapter 11 is for another day.

How about the emancipation view when it comes to chapter 14? I take it that some of the problems with this are now clear, not least that phrase we keep coming back to, “as in all the congregations of the saints.” The other problem we’ve got is that, according to this view, women could not speak in church because it would be unacceptable in Corinth. The reason Paul gives is nothing to do with Corinthian custom; in verse 34, he tells us that this is as the Law says.

The Right Approach

No, those suggestions and many others are wrong turns. The answer I think lies in verse 30 which we looked at last time. “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop”, or literally, the first speaker should be silent. It is the same word.

So what does he mean there? If you’re sharing in a church meeting, and someone else has something to say, you are to be totally silent? Never say anything again? Not join in when it’s time for the Lord’s prayer? Never offer another prophetic word? Sit quietly when the next hymn comes along? Of course not!

He means that the first speaker should be silent in the respect he is discussing. That is they finish their contribution and let someone else have a go. In other words, when Paul says someone should be silent, he need not mean total silence. The context will tell us the respect in which someone needs to be silence.

When you are driving along a road, and you see this road sign, what does it mean? No right turn. So what, in your whole driving career, you may never turn right again? 3 left turns for you. No. For the rest of this car journey, no right turns. No. It means, at this junction, in this context, no right turn.

So, verse 34: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.” Silent in what respect, Paul? Well the subject under discussion is the weighing of prophecy and interpreted tongues. So it makes most sense to say that women should be silent in this particular respect: The weighing of prophecy and interpreted tongues.

Note also the structure of these verses. Verse 29: Two or three prophets should speak and the others should weigh carefully what is said. Then in verses 30-32 we get an expansion of what “two or three should speak” looks like. And then in verses 33 to 35 we get an expansion of what “the others should weigh carefully what is said” looks like.

At this point, it might help if I recap what I mean by weighing. You’ll remember what we said prophecy is. According to verse 30, it’s a kind of revelation. But you’ll remember that this was not so much new information as new insight. It is nothing short of a miracle when we understand what God has said in the Bible; God has made it known to us. And Paul is saying that in our church meetings, sometimes people will have great insight into how part of Scripture applies to us as a church. When that happens, that is God’s doing. As I said a few weeks ago, this happens all the time, it’s just that we haven’t been accustomed to calling it prophecy.

So weighing? You will remember that each such contribution to the meeting needs to be weighed and assessed. There will be true things and false things in everything that is said, and we need to discern and distinguish which is which. How much of what somebody has just shared are we going to listen to as God’s word for us, and how much are we going to discard? That is the process of weighing.

Why restrict the task of weighing to men? Well to some extent this takes us wider afield from this passage than I want to go this morning. I’ll briefly outline what I think is going on, though. There are two kinds of authority that come into play when the church comes together. There is the authority to govern the affairs of the church, and the authority to teach the church. The extent to which those two spheres of authority overlap is definitely off topic for today.

The point is this. Both those kinds of authority are involved as prophecy is weighed. Deciding the extent to which a certain contribution to a church meeting should be heeded is a governing decision. And the benchmark by which that decision is taken is the regular teaching of the church. Elsewhere in Scripture, the authority to govern the church, and the authority to teach the gathered assembly, is restricted to men. Which is why it is consistent for Paul to say here that the weighing of prophecy is also restricted to the men.

So, what should our heading be for these verses? I think this: In church, men and women should contribute, but only men should weigh. In church, men and women should contribute, but only men should weigh.

What does this mean for us? Last time we spoke about the principle that we want lots of people to be involved, contributing, building others up, when we come together. Now we can be a little more specific about who these “lots of people” are. Very specifically, we want to have men and women involved in our times together. That is one of the blessings of the new covenant after all. There are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Men and women can serve one another, empowered by the Spirit.

But if we are a little clearer on who is involved, we are also clearer on the weighing side of things. Very specifically, that is a facet of our time together which Paul is quite clear about. In that respect, women should be silent in the churches.

In church, men and women should contribute, but only men should weigh.

In deciding what we do in church, we must obey Paul

That was verses 34 and 35. Let’s look, much more briefly, at verses 36 to 38.

And these verses say this: In deciding what we do in church, we must obey Paul. In deciding what we do in church, we must obey Paul.

Verse 37: If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.

These verses bring us neatly full circle. We began this sermon series with an introduction stressing the importance of submitting to Scripture. We need to be free to express our dislike of what is here, we said, but we must not allow what we or others dislike to govern what we think and do. The risen Christ must do that through his word.

These verses also bring us full circle in terms of these 3 chapters. Chapter 12 began by asking the question what makes a spiritual person. Paul’s answer was that spiritual gifts do not make a person spiritual, but rather submission to Jesus Christ as Lord. And now Paul returns to where he began, if anyone thinks he is spiritual, here is the test. Do they acknowledge that what I have written is what Jesus commands?

He says the same thing. The person who ignores these chapters, isn’t ignoring Paul. They are ignoring Jesus himself. Ignore these chapters, you are not allowing Jesus to be your Lord. It’s the same answer he gave in chapter 12. The spiritual person is the person who submits to Jesus as Lord. And that means submitting to 1 Corinthians 12 to 14.

This has implications for the way we ask questions of this passage. You may or may not like, instinctively, what I’ve been saying this evening. Fair enough. The question I think we need to ask is this: If what I’ve been saying is what God has to say, would you accept it? We just need to ask what is behind our questions. Is it that we are unclear what God is saying. Or is it that there are certain things we would not be willing for God to say. I’ll ask the question again. If what I’ve been saying is what God is saying, would you accept it?

A while ago, I was talking to someone who was in an adulterous relationship. I asked him the same question. I said: Is it that you are unclear what God has to say about this? Or is it that there are things God might ask of you that would not be willing to do? That you are not prepared for what God has to say to shape your life?

So let’s be clear: I’m not saying you need to submit to me the preacher. I’m just the preacher. I may have got some of the details of these chapters wrong. I hope I haven’t. I’ve tried really hard to study the alternative views, to weigh the arguments and to seek to be faithful to what is here. But preaching, like prophecy, needs to weighed. You must decide whether I have been faithful to what Paul wrote?

But here’s the point: Paul does not need to be weighed. His teaching is not like prophecy – some bits will be true and others false. No, what he writes is what Jesus commands. Which means that, insofar as what we have said is what Paul is saying here, obedience is not optional.

As we’ve been discussing these verses together, one question I was asked was this: “What about the church which…?” What about the church which, in one way or another does things differently from what Paul describes here? The example I was given was a church where the gift of tongues is used in such a way that most of the congregation sings in tongues for extended periods. But you could supply your own examples.

There are two things to say to that question. The first thing to say is that the church which, dot, dot, dot is a church which is not obeying this part of Scripture. They therefore need to change. They need to start obeying what Christ commands through these chapters. There is a biblical word for that kind of change – they need to repent.

But the other thing to say about that question is this: I wonder if you’ve heard the story of the Sunday school teacher who had just completed her lesson on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. You know the story. The Pharisee who arrogantly thanked God that he was not like the renegade elements of society; the tax collector who just pleaded for mercy. It was the tax collector who left with God’s favour.

The lesson had gone rather well, and she closed in prayer. Dear God, she prayed, we thank you we are not like the Pharisee in that story.

She would have been far better to ask the question: How are we like the Pharisee in that story, because it’s aimed at us and we need to change? Therefore while it is true that churches which, dot, dot, dot, need to repent, that is for them to do. Our focus needs to be to think how we as a church need to repent, and to make sure that we don’t put ourselves in the frightening position of being ignored by God.


And so Paul concludes: Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

Let’s pray.

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