As mentioned last time when discussing chapter 11’s headcovering issue, what we know as Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians was actually not the first time he wrote to them. First Corinthians 5:9 refers to a previous letter from Paul. And it is apparent from Paul’s discussion of things he has heard (1:11; 5:1; 16:15-18) and from a letter he also received from them (7:1) that most of this letter is in response to those matters reported to him either from travelers or through the letter from the Corinth church.
One thing that is apparent from all the correction that Paul makes in this epistle is that the church in Corinth was a bit of a mess. From the outset Paul discusses factions that had developed within the church. A false piety is evident from arguments they had over presumed leaders of the faith. This factionalism developed with an incorrect understanding of the liberality experienced in Christ, so that problems of sexual immorality and lawsuits (chs. 5 and 6) resulted as well as other disputes that Paul enumerates from chapter 7 on as he responds to their letter, often reading from it to point out their view that he is correcting.
Chapter 12 begins a discussion of spiritual gifts that continues through chapter 14. We must be careful from the start to maintain our own focus on the purpose and means of Paul’s presentation. Paul is responding to the disruption evident in the services at Corinth. In particular, this section discusses the misuse of spiritual gifts in church meetings that brings about the disruption. In chapter 12, Paul carefully addresses the basis of spiritual gifts, which drives the Corinthians’ misunderstanding. They have clamored over gifts (as they did in their factional divisions of chapter 3) with attitudes desiring authority, prestige, and right of display. Paul’s first correction, then, is to inform them that their clamoring is wrong. He argues that all gifts come from the same Spirit. And all gifts are meant for mutual edification within one spiritual body.
As Paul moves to chapter 13, he says that without love (the desire to give of yourself for the benefit of another), their gifts mean absolutely nothing. Love is selfless. Therefore, if their spiritual gifts, which are meant for the edification of the body, are misused in attempts to claim authority or prestige, their gifts are rendered useless. From that basis, Paul moves to his discussion in chapter 14. And in verse 1 he tells them to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts,” but only after they “pursue love” (14:1).
Chapter 12 appears to indicate that the Corinthians considered tongues the most valuable gift. But their value system was incorrectly prioritized. The gift of tongues (speaking in another language without prior training or knowledge of the language) seemed the most miraculous of gifts because its display was so extraordinary. The assembled group was not able to sense the miraculous in the display of other gifts, such as prophecy or knowledge. Those who spoke in tongues, therefore, claimed a greater gift and demanded immediate attention. Of course, multiple tongues speakers also vied for the same consideration. The result was a disordered service in which focus was removed from the Lord and settled on self, contending for right of display, prestige, and authority.
Paul corrects the notion first by explaining that the gift of tongues is not the preeminent gift. Tongues, although having a secondary benefit of edifying instruction, is a gift primarily for presentation to the unsaved, according to verse 22, and specifically to the unsaved Jew. On the other hand, prophecy was a gift whose primary intent was to benefit Christians—those gathered together in meeting for worship and edification. Therefore, Paul focuses their attention, not on the gifts, but the reason for them—to edify the body. Paul further instructs that, since edification is the purpose, any spiritual gift, whether tongues or prophecy, must be done in an orderly manner. If one is speaking in an unknown tongue, there must be an interpreter present or that tongues-speaker should keep silent (14:28). Paul follows that principle with the same instruction for those with the gift of prophecy. If one is bringing a prophetic message and another receives a prophetic message, the first should then conclude (or be silent) while the next one continues (14:30). You can control this, Paul says, so that disorder and confusion do not reign (14:32).
Verses 34–35 at first glance seem out of place. They read as follows: “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Are we not discussing disorder and disruption related to spiritual gifts in a meeting? Why then does Paul turn his attention to arguing for the silence of women at these meetings, even to the extent that they cannot so much as ask a question in order to learn? Isn’t learning part of what we go to church for? What’s Paul thinking? The seeming change of thought in these verses is so abrupt that some ancient manuscripts (of the Western family) have removed or reordered these verses in an apparent attempt to make more contextual sense. But their inclusion within the major families of manuscripts (Alexandrian and Byzantine) argues for the correctness of their current placement in our English Bibles.
The conflict continues with the seeming strength of Paul’s command to keep women silent, which actually contradicts what he wrote earlier in this letter. In chapter 11 mention is made of women prophesying and praying in church. Could it be that three chapters later Paul has forgotten and is now arguing that women cannot prophesy in church? Even the immediately preceding verses argue for women prophesying. In the discussion of prophecy in verses 29 through 31 Paul says “you all” indicating everyone.
The change of thought from verse 31 and the urging that “you can all prophesy” to the exact opposite declaration of verses 34 and 35 that only some may speak is indeed too abrupt of a change to be ignored. It is also too conflicting of a message to imagine it from the same mind. And by that thought we have our first clue. As mentioned, 1 Corinthians is not a letter, as some others by Paul, written only from the inward stirring of Paul’s soul. With this epistle, Paul is responding to a letter received by him from the Corinthians. We learn first of that letter in chapter 7 which begins, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. . . .” Paul then quotes a portion: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Again, although the NT Greek manuscripts had no punctuation, by the contrast and context we understand certain phrases quotations from the Corinthian letter that Paul is addressing. In chapter 7 we see the quotation marks, and again at the beginning of chapter 8, Paul writes, “Now concerning food offered to idols, . . . we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’” That phrase, “all of us possess knowledge,” has quotation marks around it in most of our English bibles because the translators recognized the line as a phrase that the Corinthians must have stated in their letter to Paul. In these examples, we see Paul quote part of the Corinthian argument before he goes on to counter it and give them better instruction. We also found that true in chapter 11 in the discussion of the custom of headcoverings that the Corinthians wanted to continue, but against which Paul reasoned logically and biblically. So here again in chapter 14, recognizing the quoting of the Corinthian alleviates the struggle we have trying to understand the opposing ideas of the passage.
Evidently, the Corinthians were having disorder in their services regarding tongues and interpretations and prophecies. One of the solutions of the dominant male leadership was to silence the women. After all, they decided, the women were less qualified—less educated, less experienced in philosophical discourse. Therefore, verses 34 and 35 of chapter 14 should be understood as a quote from their letter to Paul telling him how they were attempting to handle the disorder. They decided that they could keep the women quiet, cutting out half (maybe more) of the potential speaking monopolizers. If those women had a question, the Corinthian men reasoned, they could simply ask their husbands at home. There was no need for them to speak during the service even for a question. Paul dealt first with the disorderliness, encouraging them to speak one at a time and to give the floor to another if that other had a prophecy to present (verses 26–33). But in his instruction, he emphasized that if they did practice this one-at-a-time deference, the result would be as it should be—they could then all prophesy instead of ruling that certain ones (women) must remain silent.
Paul then quotes from their letter, mentioning their ridiculous solution of banning the speech of women. As soon as he finishes the quote, he pits his instruction (verses 31–33) against their solution (verses 34–35) by asking, “Or was it from you that the word of God came?” (verse 36). In other words, Paul is asserting his apostolic office. He received the gospel directly from Christ (see Galatians 1). He is presenting not just his opinion; Paul realizes that what he is saying is through the Spirit’s inspiration. So his rhetorical question of verse 36 should not only receive an obvious No from the Corinthians, but it also is meant to remind them that the word of God did actually come through the Apostle Paul.
That verses 34 and 35 are indeed a quote from the Corinthians is made obvious by Paul’s closing comment in verse 39 that reaffirms the one-and-all instruction of verse 31. He says in verse 39, “And do not forbid speaking in tongues.” Now where in the entire passage is it mentioned that anyone is forbidden to speak? Why would Paul all of a sudden present this instruction in his ending summary? It is to answer what the Corinthians had been doing. And the only hint we have as to the Corinthians forbidding any speech is if verses 34 and 35 are indeed quotes from the Corinthians’ letter. Therefore, with both verse 31 and the summary verse 39 instructing the Corinthians not to disallow anyone from speaking, unless we want to believe Paul has lost his mind, we must consider verses 34 and 35 as a quote coming from the letter that the Corinthians had sent to Paul.
Here is a paraphrase to help us understand how these verses (33b–40) should be read:
“God is not a God of disorder but of peace. You wrote: ‘As in all the churches of the Jews, the women should keep silent in our churches as well. We will forbid them from speaking; they should be submissive as the law says. If they want to learn anything, they can always ask their husbands at home because it is disgraceful for them to speak in church.’ What?!! Did the word of God originate from you?! Or did it come only to you? If you think you are a prophet or spiritual, you should recognize your solution is foolish and that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, he will be ignored. Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and DO NOT forbid speaking in other languages. But everything must be done decently and in order.”
Again, we find no ordered hierarchy subjugating women to men in the church. We have disorderly conduct that Paul straightens out and, in the process, affirming the participation of women in the services.
Our final passage to examine regarding hierarchy, specifically with regard to male-female relations, in the church and home is 1 Timothy 2:8–15. This passage (like the others) has a few difficult statements and phrases that can make us struggle for the correct interpretation. Why does Paul tell the men to act one way and for the women to “likewise” adorn themselves? Why is a woman not allowed to teach because Eve was deceived? This point is huge. Paul appears to be giving a reason for his instruction. That reason has to fit; it has to make sense. So why would Paul be saying all women must be silent in church because Eve was deceived? Have no men been deceived since then? And even more significantly, if Adam was not deceived, his disobedience was wide-eyed and intentional. Why does arrogant, blatant, rebellion qualify him (and subsequently, all men) to teach? Further, what does Paul mean that “she will be saved through childbearing”? Saved from what? from Eve’s transgression? Is the woman, then, guilty of Eve’s sin and not Adam’s sin, as Romans seems to say? And why does Paul say “she will be saved . . . if they continue. . . .” Does singular “she” depend on a group “they” to be saved? And why does Paul allow women to speak in worship, praying and prophesying and speaking in tongues, in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, but here seems to say women cannot pray or prophesy but must be silent? Whatever overall narrative we conclude for this passage must of necessity provide answers for all these questions coalescing in a consistent approach and understanding.
To ensure we set ourselves at a legitimate starting point, we need to make sure we understand a little something about the purpose of this letter. And to do that, we must consciously pull our minds out of our, perhaps, usual rut of thinking with a 21st century American mindset as we approach Scripture. Paul wrote this to people living 2000 years ago in a land very different from upstate South Carolina where we are. We may complain at times as to why God doesn’t make the Bible simple and plain so we don’t have to struggle so much to ensure we’re getting the correct instruction. But that assumes two things that are just not true. One is that God wants us to know only big, major basic concepts. In our attention-deficit society, we often want only the major idea because we don’t have time to process more. And pastors often succumb to the pressure to offer only a vapid overall glimpse, saying, “If you don’t get anything else I say today, just get this . . .” or “It all boils down to this one big idea. . . .” The “big idea” type of preaching may mean that at least everybody may be getting something, but it certainly doesn’t lead toward greater intimacy with God.
And the second falsehood among those advocating the “simple and plain” instruction is the idea that we don’t really gain anything by the struggling pursuit to understand. However, it is actually in that time devoted to understanding more difficult concepts that we truly grow—not merely in self-awareness and understanding—but in depth of relationship.
And so, we’re going to step through this passage circumspectly to understand what exactly our God wants to teach us.
Paul is writing this letter to Timothy. Timothy is a young man, probably saved under Paul’s ministry when Paul came to Lystra in Galatia during his first missionary journey. On his second missionary journey, as Paul first revisited churches in Galatia, Timothy apparently joined Paul to continue on in ministry together. Paul appears to have trusted Timothy much, having sent him to certain areas for specific support when needed. Apparently, however, when Paul was ending his third missionary journey, traveling back up through Macedonia (to avoid the plot to kill him if he had left Corinth by ship), Paul received spiritual understanding that he would not be returning to Ephesus—ever. He therefore urged Timothy, while in Macedonia (before meeting with the Ephesian elders at Miletus on his way to Jerusalem) to return to and stay in Ephesus to help the church there. Paul, then, left Miletus (and probably Timothy) to go back to Jerusalem (in anticipation of his arrest and travel to Rome). So, this letter is written to Timothy as Paul is probably already a prisoner on his way to or already in Rome.
We should recall that Ephesus, the place where Timothy is left to minister, seemed to have difficulty with Jews and Gentiles getting along. The whole book of Ephesians was written to help resolve that conflict. And we will see Paul’s thoughts a bit in regard to that conflict as he presents Timothy with encouragement and instruction.
What we also see is that Timothy was apparently a little nervous about taking the lead in a ministry as large and difficult as Ephesus, the largest city east of Athens in the Roman empire, and therefore a city with a booming Christian community. Paul must urge Timothy again in 1:3 to remain there rather than, perhaps, come to rejoin Paul in Rome as Timothy probably desired to do. He is also warned by Paul to not let others “despise” his youth, meaning for Timothy to act in such a way not to show maturity and circumspection in the handling of church affairs.
And that encouragement has much to do with the general nature of the letter. Paul wants to ensure that false doctrine and cultural concerns do not intrude on the church in Ephesus, a danger Paul is already hearing about or at least anticipating. Verses 3 and 4 of chapter 1 provide the purpose for the letter: “As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach different doctrine or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith.”
This statement is not a by-the-way thought before Paul gets to the real reason for writing the letter. This is the reason. The entire letter focuses on guarding against false doctrine and cultural influence. The discussion of women in chapter 2, church leader qualification in chapter 3, reasons for falling away in chapter 4, and the support of widows in chapter 5, and the general encouragement of chapter 6 are all held together in tight unity by Paul’s directive to watch out for false doctrine and bad cultural influence.
We can understand the danger of false doctrine easily. However, damaging cultural influence is not always so easily detected. That is so because we have so much harmless cultural influence that we often become complacent in watching out for the damaging kind, thinking we will readily recognize it if it shows up. And after a century or more of fundamentalist attack on cards, music, dancing, movies, and alcohol (all somewhat born out of the American revivalist movement), many of us seem not so interested in stiffening lines of defense against culture. But let’s take a look at the culture of Ephesus.
First-century Ephesus was dominated not only religiously but economically by Greek mythology, so a little background here is appropriate. In Greek mythology, Gaia was the earth goddess (Mother Earth) that began everything. She birthed and married the god Uranus. Among their offspring were the Titans. Uranus began delighting in hiding their children upon birth in secret parts of the earth. Since Gaia was the earth goddess, Uranus’s actions were essentially hiding the children within her womb, keeping them from being delivered. And this brought groanings (constant birth pangs) to Gaia. Gaia encouraged her children to rise up against their father. One Titan, Cronus, did so, delivering the children and becoming chief god in Uranus’s place. Cronus and his sister-wife Rhea (in some areas called Cybele) ascended to supreme rule. But Cronus began to worry that his own children might try to usurp his throne just as he did to his father, Uranus. So Cronus began to do away with his own children by swallowing them as soon as they were born. Again, Gaia acted with the help of Rhea in protecting one of Cronus’s offspring—Zeus. Rhea wrapped a rock in a blanket, pretending it was Zeus. Cronus swallowed the blanketed rock supposing he’d done away with Zeus, who was therefore spared secretly. Zeus did eventually overthrow Cronus and become the supreme god. Zeus was married to Hera; however, his relationship with Leto (a titan descendant) produced twins. The first born was Artemis followed a few days later by Apollo. According to the legend, Artemis (only days old but full grown) assisted in delivering Apollo. Legends about Artemis differed depending on locale. In Greece, she was of minor import, known as huntress and virgin goddess. In Asia Minor, however, she occupied a high position and was known as a protector of wild animals and goddess of fertility, watching over and protecting women’s pregnancies and deliveries. And, of course, Ephesus boasted a magnificent temple (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) dedicated to Artemis. It was four times the size of the Athens Parthenon. It was the largest building in the Greek world at the time. It was not only a religious center, but the temple operated as a bank for commerce in the eastern Roman empire. It was known as a place for those seeking protection and asylum. It held numerous works of art. So it was a religious center, a cultural center, a political center, and an economic center. The worship of Artemis, therefore, affected the Ephesians on almost all fronts.
The worship was also performed mostly by women priestesses (although some eunuch males were in the mix). But based on the legends and goodness and wisdom of the female goddesses and the evil and manipulation of the male gods, women held charge of insight and control in worship.