Saturday 8 October 2022 Jubilee 8 Orderly Worship = Silent Women
1 Corinthians 14. 26-40
When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.
(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)
Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized. So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.
‘Women should be silent in the churches’ is not likely to be a popular Jubilee text in United Reformed Churches this year. We’re proud of inheriting a pioneering role in women’s ministry in the early 20th century and try to promote lay and ordained women’s voices and gifts.
It may be tempting to avoid Bible passages we disagree with but growing up means engaging with awkward realities. Reformed Christians should work out why texts were written and how to interpret them. In this case that helps us respond to Christians who quote this to justify blocking women’s ministry. The apostle Paul never intended his advice to one divided, chaotic church in first century Greece to be a permanent rule for all churches everywhere. Nor did he expect women to be totally silent when in church. That is clear from 1 Corinthians 11 verse 13 which is about whether a woman should veil her head when praying publicly.
Women and men probably sat separately in congregations like that in Corinth. Some women might have had trouble following a sermon in posh Greek without a male relative alongside to ask. Most of them would have spoken only a local dialect and not have been educated, unlike their male relatives. Paul’s comment has been used for 2000 years to stop women teaching, preaching, praying and prophesying. It was only intended to prevent a few women from calling out questions in a single congregation so they sought explanations at home instead.
In 1917, weeks after Constance Coltman became the first woman minister in the Congregational Union of England and Wales, her Anglican friend Maude Royden started as pulpit assistant at City Temple Congregational Church, London. Despite being a popular preacher she faced strong opposition. Dr Fort Newton, the minister, constantly received postcards citing this text from 1 Corinthians. Thankfully he took no notice and kept supporting women’s proclamation of God’s good news, just as the United Reformed Church has done and will keep doing.
Spirit of God, you keep calling people to preach and teach, to pray and prophesy, to serve and reach out in all forms of ministry and build your Church.
We thank you that your call is inclusive and wide-reaching. You reach out to people regardless of their gender, race, age or education, their life experience, gifts or other plans.
Renew us as we respond afresh to your call, now and always. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Kirsty Thorpe, minister of Wilmslow URC Cheshire and former Moderator of General Assembly