1 CORINTHIANS #26 (1 Corinthians 14:35-15:11)
There is something 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 that I want to deal with briefly. Paul writes:
As in all the churches of the saints, 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.
We have already covered the overall topic of gender relationships in depth when we looked for two weeks at the first part of chapter 11. If you missed that, please go back and read or listen to those two messages. You won’t get the full understanding by only reading this sermon. Even so, I want to cover this passage briefly, because it causes trouble for many modern readers of the bible, especially in Western culture. It also gives us a good practical example of how to interpret the bible, especially when you don’t understand something, or when the bible appears to contradict itself.
Paul has already acknowledged that is appropriate for women to pray and prophesy in church (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). Now he says they should keep silent. What is going on here? First, when we interpret the bible, we give the Holy Spirit the benefit of the doubt. In any other book we read, we start with the assumption that the author will try not to contradict himself. So in general, if a statement appears contradictory, in order to understand it, we try first to see if there is a way to interpret it that is not at odds with what has already been said. Not only should we give the Holy Spirit a chance, but we ought to also give Paul (the human instrument of the Spirit in this case), some credit for being the obviously intelligent person he is. Is he likely to contradict himself so blatantly just a page or so later in the same letter?
Therefore, plain common sense shows us that “women must keep silent” does not apply to absolutely every situation in church. We already know it doesn’t apply to women prophesying and praying. So there must be some specific context that Paul is talking about here, where women should keep silent. What would that context be? (Men, insert the joke of your choice here, but you laugh at your own risk…)
In all seriousness, the context of this statement is Paul’s description of an orderly worship service. We already know that women can pray and prophesy, so it isn’t the worship service in general where women must keep silent. Paul describes a few different people speaking, and then he says: “let the others evaluate what is said.” Remember, at that time, there was no New Testament yet. So it was a more difficult thing to determine if a prophecy or word was really from the Holy Spirit or not. Therefore, after someone spoke, Paul wanted the Corinthians to discuss what was said, and evaluate whether or not it seemed to really come from the Lord.
Reading this statement in context, it seems that this “evaluation discussion” is where Paul would like the women to keep quiet. From chapter 11 we learned that God created men and women to fulfill different roles: like dancers have different parts in a couples’ dance, or players have different positions on a football team. Paul describes those roles in terms of submission (for women) and headship (for men). We already covered what this means in our study of 1 Corinthians 11, but I simply want to remind us that biblical submission doesn’t mean subservience or devaluation, and biblical headship does not mean domination or control.
Paul connects this idea of women being quiet during the “evaluation discussion” to biblical submission. If you remember from chapter 11, God holds men uniquely accountable for the spiritual direction of their churches and families. Even though Eve was the one who took the apple and committed the first sin, Adam was the one who was held responsible for leading the human race into sin. So, when the church was basically deciding theology, it made sense that the ones who would be held responsible (the men) were the ones who ought to make the decision, and provide the final evaluation. When we also consider the word “to keep silent” might also be translated “hold your peace” our picture is more complete. Women indeed may have something to say about doctrine, but men are the ones who will be held responsible. So when it comes to a discussion of doctrine, women should hold their peace. Paul adds that if they have questions or concerns, they should share them with their husband at home. Once again the picture here is of a gender-dance, or a team. Everyone has something to contribute, but it is all done in order and with a recognition of how God made us to be, and what our roles are.
Let’s move on now, to chapter fifteen. This is one of the longest sections in the whole letter, and Paul devotes it all to discussing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apparently, some of the Christians at Corinth were suggesting that there was no resurrection from the dead. Paul says this in verse 12:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
It isn’t clear exactly what these skeptics were saying. They may not have been denying that Jesus rose – but at the very least they were claiming that there was no resurrection for anyone else. And it is possible that they even scoffed at the idea of Jesus rising from the dead. Remember, these are people who claim to be Christians. Paul spent more time with this church than any other church he started, except in Ephesus. Sometimes when I read his letters to them, I wonder what went wrong.
By the way, this kind of weird heresy has been repeated at various times in history by those who claimed to be Christians. Karl Baarth, one of the most influential Lutheran Theologians of the 20th Century, believed in the resurrection, but claimed it didn’t matter whether or not Jesus was actually raised. His protege, Rudolf Bultman, went the whole way, and claimed that Jesus was not. I always wanted to meet them and ask them, “So why do you call yourself a Christian and what is the point of your faith?”
So Paul goes back to basic Christian doctrine. This is it in a nutshell – Jesus Christ died for our sins. He was buried. And then he was raised from the dead. This is the message given by Paul and all the apostles. It is the bedrock of the Christian faith. Without the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, there is no such thing as Christianity. So he writes to the Corinthians, that this is:
…the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. You are also saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you — unless you believed for no purpose. (verse 1-2)
Paul is writing to them maybe twenty-five or thirty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. Today (in 2011) it would be as if I wrote to you about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. Many of us were alive, and we remember hearing about it right after it happened. We could certainly still find and talk to many of the people who were there when it occurred. The man who shot Reagan is still alive. Many of the secret service agents and other government workers who were there, are still alive.
At the time of Paul’s letter, the resurrection of Jesus was similarly recent. Paul says, besides himself, there were more than five hundred people who saw Jesus alive after his death, burial and resurrection. Most of those eye-witnesses to the resurrection were still alive when Paul wrote. The Corinthians had apparently met Peter, who was one of the witnesses.
I think we forget that we have this kind of evidence for the resurrection. Yes, it was a long time ago. But so was Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, and Alexander the Great – and we believe the events we are told about in their lives.
Jesus’ resurrection changed everything – for us, as well as for those first-century Christians. There is a real hope beyond this world. Our entire faith is based upon it. Any meaning in life depends upon it.