What should be done then, my friends? 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, for 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.
Again this passage makes us wonder if Paul is simply sexist or dealing with a difficult local church issue.
Charismatic worship is exciting, inspiring, a little unnerving, and difficult to manage. If one holds the Spirit can anoint whomsoever She wishes, then there’s an issue of how one manages those who feel they’ve been so inspired. The Church in Corinth seemed to have disorderly worship (and disorderly lives if you read the rest of the letter). Paul is concerned to have good order; his Jewish background would have made him warm to ordered worship. His growing awareness of how wider society would see the Church also made him realise that if the Church seemed disorderly it would be another weapon for the state to use. So Paul has much to say about how to order charismatic worship then, almost as an aside, he has his words silencing women. Might these words reflect the uneducated status of women in the ancient world (but if he believed the Spirit anointed whomsoever She willed, would this matter?) MIght these words be dealing with a difficult issue in Corinth alone (but he says “as in all the churches”). Is this what Paul really thought? (Then why do his letters mention a range of women in church leadership?) Might this be just his opinion which we find annoying but not binding on us?
I suspect that, by default, large parts of the contemporary Church have decided that whatever Paul may have meant it’s wrong to follow his ideas on women in leadership and women in worship now. We have all seen how we are blessed by women’s ministry and how the patriarchal admonition to silence does real harm. Paul might have meant to speak into one particular place with one particular issue in mind but his words have been used to harm and oppress.
Thankfully, we are able to listen to Paul, disagree with him, and work out where the Holy Spirit is leading us.
God of silence, God of noise, speak to us, inspire us, and energise us, that we use our voices to sing your praise, our silence to rest in Your presence, and our gifts and skills to change our world. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney..