Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
1 Corinthians 14:1
In his wonderful 13th chapter, Paul has helped us understand divine love, which is the basis for all spiritual gifts. Without love, the gifts are nothing, but with it they build up the Body of Christ. In this section, Paul encourages us to desire and seek after the gifts, but here he focuses primarily on two of them, tongues and prophecy.
Comfort says, “Apparently, the Corinthians had a knack for turning even good gifts into divisive issues…Corinthian believers were using it [tongues] as a sign of spiritual superiority rather than a means for giving spiritual unity.” 1 What they were doing was not unlike what some Charismatics have done in recent times. They have implied that if one has not experienced “the baptism of the Spirit” that person is spiritually inferior or incomplete.
Paul says that we are to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts. The Greek word is zēloute. It is a strong verb meaning “pursue.” 2 Other translations bring out the full meaning. The NASB has it, “desire earnestly spiritual gifts.” The NRSV translates it, “strive for the spiritual gifts” and the TEV has it reading, “set your hearts on spiritual gifts.” So we know by this that spiritual gifts are very important to the church. We should not doubt them as many commentators and hosts of Christians have done through the ages and up to the present time.
The apostle is crystal clear that prophecy is the most important spiritual gift. He wants us to concentrate on this gift and to seek it most of all. The gift of prophecy (prophēteuēte) is not here seen as in the sense of the Old Testament prophets. It is not primarily involved in predicting future events (although this is possible), but it is more involved in delivering messages from God under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. It provides insight, warning, correction and encouragement to the church.3 We no doubt remember the New Testament prophet Agabus who warned of a coming famine (Acts 11:28-30). The church at Antioch was then able to mobilize and send immediate help to the Judean saints.
Paul was not known as a prophet but nevertheless he is responsible for bringing forth some of the most astounding prophecies in the New Testament. In Romans 11:17, he reveals the mystery of our engrafting into Israel, along with several other mysteries about Israel in chapters 9-11. In Ephesians, he reveals how God has blessed us all with every spiritual blessing in the heavens (1:3) and how he chose us before the world’s foundation (1:4). He reveals how we are seated with Christ in heavenly places (2:6). He reveals the deep mystery of how the church and Israel are joined together to become a new spiritual temple of God (2:21; 3:6). Paul was not a prophet but he did some great prophetic preaching. We need to be doing some of that today. It would set our churches on fire.
It has been common for people, especially if they do not believe in spiritual gifts, to say that preaching is today’s prophecy. That statement as it stands is untrue.4 Today’s preaching has little to do with prophecy, unless it is prophetic preaching like Paul often did, and like Peter did on the Day of Pentecost. Guzik makes clear that prophecy is not identical with preaching. He says that there was a common Greek word for preaching (kerusso) and that Paul does not use this word here.5
“For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit” (14:2). Here the apostle proceeds to instruct us on how tongues operate. It never ceases to amaze me that many commentators, who themselves do not believe in tongues, still try to comment on this gift. This seems utterly futile. Paul however does believe in tongues and we will see later that he often uses this gift. Here he makes clear that tongues are a manner of speaking to God in ecstatic languages, not to men, or for that matter, not to ourselves. Tongues are mysterious and it is normally not possible for us to understand our own gift of tongues, that is, unless we have a gift of interpretation.
Some commentators make mistakes here assuring us that the gift of tongues is primarily for evangelism so that we can preach the gospel in other languages that we do not know. It is good for us to remember that tongues are primarily addressed to God, not to people. Tongues or glossolalia can be used in our private devotions.6 This is designed to build up our spiritual lives so that we can in turn build up the Body of Christ. Paul tells us that by speaking in tongues we speak mysteries (mysteria). In its usage here “mysteries” seem to speak of that which is beyond the range of human understanding.7
We note in Acts 2 that tongues were actually given in foreign languages that could be easily understood by those present. Over the years, we have heard some isolated accounts where such a thing has happened again, but this is not the main purpose of tongues. Of course, tongues are mysterious, as we have said, and the sovereign God can use this gift in any way he chooses. However, Wiersbe says, “It is…unfortunate that people have the idea that tongues were used to preach the gospel to the lost….At Pentecost, the believers extolled ‘the wonderful works of God,’ but Peter preached the gospel in the Aramaic language his listeners could all understand.” 8
“But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort” (14:3). We need to look at the Greek words used here. The first is strengthening or edification (oikodomēn), and it conveys the idea of building up. The next is encouraging (paraklēsin), and it has the meaning of calling to one’s side or encouraging.9 Finally he mentions comfort (paramuthian). It speaks of encouragement, exhortation, persuasion.10 Prophecy turns the light on in the house of God. It radically expands the horizons of our faith. If there is prophetic activity going on in a church the people will never suffer from boredom or burnout. Prophecy encourages people because the Holy Spirit is an encourager and comforter (Jn. 14:16, 26; Acts 9:31). He will not tear people down or condemn and discourage them.
“Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church” (14:4). A number of commentators seem to feel that it is selfish to edify oneself, but Scripture here makes it plain that it is OK. After all, we cannot really edify or build up others unless we ourselves are built up. Chrysostom once said: “The difference between tongues and prophecy is precisely the difference between benefit to the individual and benefit to the entire church.” 11 Of course, the whole church can be edified if the tongue is interpreted.
“I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified” (14:5). Imagine that! Paul wants all of us to speak in tongues. How can we so dispute his word today by denying that tongues still exist? Has the word of God lost its validity? Is it no longer true? Comfort says, “Paul never wrote disparagingly of the gift of tongues, only the Corinthians; overemphasis of it.” 12 And will we also forbid prophecy? The Bible says that our sons and daughters will prophesy (Acts 2:17-18).
Paul had rather that we speak in prophecy for it is more advantageous for the church. Unfortunately, today a lot of Christians do not believe either tongues or prophecy still exist.
GIVING A CLEAR CALL
Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 1 Corinthians 14:6
Tongues are mystifying, and they certainly have some attraction for the people listening. However, unless people are instructed, the tongue display is useless. Paul speaks of revelation, knowledge, prophecy and instruction in this verse. Revelation knowledge and prophetic knowledge can revitalize a church. Again, I think of some of Paul’s revelations. For instance, Paul says he was chosen to make this mystery known among Gentile people, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). This one mystery is so great and so profound that we could spend the rest of our lives thinking about it and meditating on it.
We can easily see how revelation played a very important role in the early church. In Galatians 2:2, we see how Paul by revelation went up to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles of the church (Gal. 2:2).13 It was by divine revelation that Paul and Barnabas were sent on their First Missionary Journey (Acts 13:1-3). It was also by divine revelation that Paul and Silas were sent into the area that would become Europe (Acts 16:6-10). Thus, it was by revelation knowledge that the gospel came to us all.
“Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?” (14:7). Chrysostom comments here: “If we require precision even in lifeless instruments, how much more will we require it in living beings?” 14 Probably all of us, at one time or another, have been agitated by some child banging on a piano.15 The child is no doubt having fun, but the banging is meaningless and offensive to us. So it can become with tongues, unless they are interpreted. It is interesting that the harp (kithara) mentioned here is the word from which we get “guitar” today.16 Often in our society even guitars can become offensive to us.
“Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (14:8). In ancient times, armies were directed by differing trumpet sounds. There was a sound indicating a charge and another one indicating a retreat. We can easily understand how great confusion would result if the wrong sound was given. Several years ago my wife and I ministered in South Africa for several weeks. Since I was speaking on Israel most of that time I used a shofar blast to challenge the people and end each service. On one occasion, when we spoke to our largest group, I pursed my lips to give the shofar blast and absolutely no sound came out. I composed myself, pursed my lips even tighter, and gave another blast. Again, absolutely nothing came out. With the third unsuccessful try I apologized using this very verse and promptly sat myself down. Paul is saying that the same confusion will reign in a church when tongues without interpretation are given.
“So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air” (14:9). Keener says here, “Intelligibility is the key to edifying others (14:6-12).” 17 Our tongues are a part of our body that is hardest to control and when we are speaking ecstatically it is harder still. Konrad Adenauer once said, “All parts of the human body get tired eventually – except the tongue.”
LANGUAGES AND MEANING
Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 1 Corinthians 14:10-11
The word “foreigner” in the Greek is barbarous. It is an onomatopoeic word and it means that someone sounds like “bab bar” and makes no sense at all.18 The Greeks looked upon all foreigners as barbarians. We note that Paul encountered some of these barbarians when he ministered at Malta and Lycaonia (Acts 14:11). Paul did not understand their dialect and apparently they did not speak the almost universal Greek language.19
“So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church” (14:12). Chrysostom says, “The building up of the church is Paul’s touchstone in everything he says.” 20 Comfort gives us a literal translation of this verse: “Since zealots you are of spiritual things, be zealous that you may abound in the edification of the church.” 21 We see the importance of building up the church in a number of passages (cf. Rom. 15:2; 1 Cor. 3:10; 1 Thess. 5:11).
“For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say” (14:13). Since some are zealous and anxious to speak in tongues, they should also be just as zealous and anxious to have the gift of interpretation. In my ministry career I have heard numerous interpretations of tongues in the churches. However, it should be said that most of these interpretations do not seem to be literal translations. They appear to be mostly words of comfort, encouragement and direction for the people. Sometimes the tongue is short and the interpretation is long, and sometimes it is just the opposite.
Derek Prince, who had long experience in the Charismatic world, says of interpretation: “To properly exercise the gift of interpretation of tongues, we must understand its nature. Interpretation must not necessarily be understood to mean a word-for-word translation, but rather a rendering of the general sense of what was spoken in the tongue.” 22
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (14:14). We should understand that the mind has nothing to do with the language of tongues. The various words are not framed with the mind but they flow through the mind and tongue in an almost automatic manner. As Morris says, “Anyone who prays in a tongue is not using his mind (nous).” 23 As Comfort puts it: “That is part of the mysterious beauty of this particular gift – it does not engage the intellect in order to use it. It is a gift filled with fervor and passion for the Lord. Yet even as the person prays, he or she does not understand his or her own words.” 24
“So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding” (14:15). Paul will pray both ways, with his spirit and with his mind. Tongues are a spiritual way of praying. Only God can understand the deep groaning of the Spirit within us. One can pray silently in tongues on those various occasions where we have no idea how to pray. Abraham of Nathpar, the sixth century Syrian writer, says, “… this spiritual prayer is not offered up or prayed by the tongue, for it is deeper than the lips and the tongue, more interiorized than any composite sounds, lying beyond psalmody and wisdom.” 25
The apostle also says, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding” This could be another spiritual gift, that of singing in the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16). From personal experience, I must say that a spontaneous spiritual song in tongues is one of the most beautiful and heavenly things I have ever heard. In Ephesians 5:19, we are commanded to “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs…” I must ask, “When was the last time we spoke to another person with a spiritual song?” God expects us to be doing these things.
“Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?” (14:16). All these beautiful tongues and spiritual songs presuppose a translation. If there is no interpretation, there will be no edification. The inquirer (idiotes) is speaking of the private person who is unlearned.26 That person will be unable to say “Amen” to our spiritual exercise. This reflects the fact that it was a custom for people in the early church to say “Amen” when someone prayed or gave a message.27
“You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified” (14:17). Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown say, “The synagogue prayers were called ‘eulogies,’ because to each was joined a thanksgiving. Hence, Christian prayers also were called blessings and giving of thanks. This illustrates Colossians 4:2 and 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18.” 28 We are not thankful enough today in our age of entitlement. Our thanks need to be in plain language so that all can hear and we need to go through each day thanking God for all his goodness.
Perhaps it would be good if we tried a bit more to explain the gift of tongues. How can we begin speaking in tongues anyway? Guzik says, “It doesn’t happen as one just opens their mouth and God ‘takes over’ their tongue…It doesn’t happen as they are told to repeat a nonsense word or phrase faster and faster until God ‘takes over’…A word or a sound occurs to our mind, and we vocalize that word or sound. In the gift of tongues, one simply continues to speak the words and sounds coming into their mind, trusting God is prompting them…” 29
Some may be fearful that Satan will interfere in this process and cause a person to speak blasphemies. Matthew 7:8-11 assures us: “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Guzik adds, “…We don’t need to fear we will find Satan when we sincerely seek God.” 30
PAUL’S EXPERIENCE AND INSTRUCTION
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
1 Corinthians 14:18-19
It must sorely distress many of those who detest and despise tongues that their favorite apostle Paul spoke in tongues more than everyone. In true religion there has always been that mystical and supernatural element. The early prophets were evidence of this. They did strange things and spoke strange and puzzling words at times. There were miracles that could not be explained and that did not fit into the every-day scheme of things. It is still that way today. However, the unusual alarms us. We would like it to go away but it will not.
“Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults” (14:20). In 13:11, Paul testified that he had put away childish things and now he instructs the Corinthians to do the same regarding tongues. As Bruce says, “Over-concentration on glossolalia is a mark of immaturity…” 31
“In the Law it is written: ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord’” (14:21). Here Paul refers back to the Scripture in Isaiah 28:11. We should not be confused that he refers to this passage as the “Law.” Among the Jewish people, they often used the term “Law” to refer to the whole of Scriptures.32 God had tried through the centuries to instruct his people in simple Hebrew but they would not listen. With this verse he promises that they will someday have to be instructed through the mouths of foreign, Assyrian invaders. Bruce says, “In this sense the message of God conveyed in unfamiliar language was a sign…for unbelievers, a sign of divine judgment.” 33 In this sense tongues can be a sign, although a warning sign, to unbelievers.
“Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers” (14:22). Comfort says, “…Tongues are a sign for unbelievers in the same way that Old Testament signs were understood.34 There was a strange account that happened during the Azusa Street Revival of the early 20th century. A teenage girl was in the “Upper Room” where many had gathered to pray. She saw a man coming up the stairs and was moved to speak with him. She talked to him several minutes in a strange language. This account is recorded in the book They Speak With Other Tongues. The man reportedly said:
I am a Jew and I came to this city to investigate this speaking in tongues. No person in this city knows my first or my last name, as I am here under an assumed name. No one in this city knows my occupation or anything about me. I go to hear preachers for the purpose of taking their sermons apart, and using them in lecturing against the Christian religion. This girl, as I entered the room, started speaking to me in the Hebrew language. She told me my first name and my last name, and she told me why I was in the city and what my occupation was in life, and then she called upon me to repent. She told me things which it would be impossible for any person in this city to know. [The author adds that the man then dropped to his knees and cried and prayed as though his heart would break].35
So we see that tongues can be used by God in some cases as a warning to unbelievers. This section is a little confusing for it seems that Paul is contradicting himself. When we understand that tongues can be used as a warning for unbelievers, the matter is cleared up considerably. Generally speaking, tongues make no sense at all for the unbeliever. They may in fact, turn the unbeliever off.36 In fact, Paul assures us of this in verse 23.
Paul insists that prophecy is for believers, but he also declares that prophecy can greatly influence unbelievers.
“So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (14:23). Again, if the whole church is speaking in tongues unbelievers will think that they are all crazy. Smith thinks that the “whole church” mentioned here is a general meeting of all the house churches in the whole area.37 Smith also adds: “A meeting of the whole church would have been the exception rather than the rule; it would have simply been too crowded and awkward. Meeting in small house-church groups, then, would have been the norm (usually estimated at twenty to thirty persons…)” 38
“But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (14:24-25). Chrysostom says, “Tongues are a sign to unbelievers not for their instruction, as prophecy is for both believers and unbelievers, but to astonish them.” 39 I think of the preaching of John the Baptist, which was heavily weighted with prophecy. When unbelievers heard him, they fell under great conviction and rushed to be baptized. Henry Halley longs for such power again, “Power to make unbelieving visitors fall down on their faces and worship God, O for such today, instead of dead formalism on one hand and irreverent monkey business on the other!” 40
WORSHIP IN THE EARLY CHURCH
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 1 Corinthians 14:26
Morris comments: “This little paragraph is very important as giving us the most intimate glimpse we have of the early church at worship…” 41 We immediately see that there was no prescribed order of service. Yet, no one would leave bored in a service such as this. While there were elders, they did not “run the show” as often happens in our churches today. The Holy Spirit ran the gathering and it was an interesting mixture. It is clear that each member participated and that they were not mere observers as it often is today. Barclay says “… The really notable thing about an early church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it.” 42
One came with a hymn on the heart. The word for hymn is psalmon, probably reflecting the ancient Psalms, and likely speaking of a stringed accompaniment. It was a common thing in the early church for congregations to sing (cf. Matt. 26;30; Eph. 5:19; Col 3:16). The New Testament gives us several of these Christian songs (e.g. Lk. 1:46-55, 68-79, plus the songs in the Book of Revelation). A member could also bring a song of his or her composition.43 It is interesting today in Israel that in the Hebrew congregations many people are writing new Hebrew songs, and some of these are written by young folks.
We see other beautiful spiritual songs in the New Testament. There are the songs of Mary; Zechariah; Simeon, and Anna, (Lk. 1:1-80).44 These particular songs are rich in prophetic content and have blessed people through the centuries. The attendees might have said: “I am coming to church, but not only to receive a blessing. I am coming to give a blessing to someone, and I will ask God for an opportunity to bless someone today.” 45
Others came to worship with a word of instruction (doctrine or teaching) or revelation. It was not up to some professional clergyman to deliver his little ditty. These messages were from the heart, from experiences, and were directed by the Holy Spirit, who is really the teacher (Jn. 14:26). Then, of course, there were tongues and interpretations. Everything had to be done for the strengthening and edification of the church (1 Cor. 14:40). We cannot help but note the spontaneous and varied character of these gatherings.46
We should remember that these informal and Spirit-led groups of the First Century mostly met in private homes. No doubt many of these were in fairly small groups, perhaps of 20-30 people as we have said. Such groups are more advantageous for individual sharing.
For a number of years in the US there has been a movement toward home groups, even in some of the mega-churches. Such groups today are not always edifying. Sometimes people are not Spirit-led and there may not much teaching or revelation. “Spurgeon once described a man coming from such a gathering, and meeting a friend. ‘How was the meeting?’ the one asked. The other answered, ‘Oh, it was wonderful. No one knew anything and we all taught each other!’” 47
It is very important in small groups that one person does not dominate. That is just a trait of human nature that often manifests itself. “Evangelist D. L. Moody was leading a service and asked a man to pray. Taking advantage of his opportunity, the man prayed on and on. Sensing that the prayer was killing the meeting instead of blessing it, Moody spoke up and said, ‘While our brother finishes his prayer, let us sing a hymn!’” 48
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, two— or at the most three— should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (14:27-28). Guzik says, “…the issue isn’t whether a person can speak in tongues during a church meeting. The issue is if they can speak publicly in tongues during a church meeting” 49 Obviously, the Corinthians had abused tongues by all speaking publicly at the same time. Such a thing is not to be. Bruce comments, “If edification is to be the aim, then there must be orderliness and balance.” 50 Paul makes it clear that the gift is always under the control of the speaker. No one can claim that he or she is driven to speak. This is the kind of thing we might see with the manifestation of an evil spirit.
Two people or a maximum number of three should speak and that is only the case if there is one present with a gift of interpretation. It brings discomfort and makes people nervous if more than that speak. It is a little like singing far too many songs in a worship service.
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. (14:29). The previous instruction applies equally to prophets. Two or three at a time should speak. We note that others should judge carefully what is said. We do not see such an instruction regarding the Old Testament prophets. People were given the task of obeying them not of judging them. They spoke a message directly from God. New Testament gifts of prophecy, like all other spiritual gifts, are given in part (1 Cor. 13:9). They must be judged regarding their content in order to determine if it lines up with the Bible. Guthrie comments, “The use of prophecy is qualified. Messages through this medium are not to be accepted uncritically, but tested against Scripture
(cf. 1 Thess. 5:21).” 51
“How do we explain the actions of those that shout and writhe and jump or act weird, supposedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Often, they are actually resisting the Holy Spirit, and this leads to stress, which finds an outlet in strange actions…” 52
“And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop” (14:30). This at first seems a little odd, and we might think that the second person should not interrupt the first. Apparently in God’s order, he wishes the freshest revelation to take precedence. It may be like when we receive a message by text or email. We would often scroll to see if there is a newer message. It is clear by this that each person is totally in charge of his or her message, whether in tongues or in prophecy. They are never out of control and can always stop.53 Bruce cannot help but remarking how “prophesying appears to be as common an exercise as praying…” 54
“For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets” (14:31-32). Clearly, the prophets must do things in order and they must be in control of their own spirits. “If the prophets had no control over their spirits, any prospect of an orderly assembly would vanish.” 55
“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace— as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (14:33). It was Alexander Pope who said, “Order is heaven’s first law.” 56 Indeed, this statement seems to be true. There can be no edification in the midst of confusion.
WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 1 Corinthians 14:34
At this point Paul drops a bomb on us, at least so far as those in the western world are concerned. Thus, Smith says, “This section of 1 Corinthians represents one of the most discussed and debated texts within the letter.” 57 We have now had well over a half century of indoctrination in women’s rights and most people are anxious to be seen as “politically correct” in this area. For the sake of Christ and his kingdom though, now we all need to try and be “biblically correct.”
It is very important that we understand the cultural situation in the New Testament. Many in the women’s liberation movements virulently accuse the church and the gospel as systems for imprisoning women. These women are grossly lacking in their understanding of history. In ancient times, even Judaism was quite oppressive of women. Women could not talk at a public meeting and they had few legal rights. In the Greek world, the married woman didn’t dare show her face outside the house. She was not even allowed to eat with other family members and she certainly did not speak in public. This is amazing when we consider that Greece was probably the most highly advanced nation on earth at the time. In the Roman world, the father was like god. He had absolute rights over the family and could even kill a child if he chose. It was only the teaching of Jesus that liberated women and children from their universal bondage.
It is quite possible that the trouble with women at Corinth was an abuse of this newfound freedom in Christ.58 In Greek culture, women were discouraged from speaking in public, as we have seen. Plutarch had said that the virtuous woman, “ought to be modest and guarded about saying anything in the hearing of outsiders.” 59 Several commentators have felt that these Greek Christian women were asking disruptive questions and perhaps participating in the judging of prophecies.60 Redpath mentions how the ancient Greek word laleo means, “to talk, question, argue, profess, or chatter.” 61 “There is the story of the woman who was rebuked for talking too much. She said, ‘Well, how can I know what I think if I haven’t heard what I have to say?’” 62
There is another factor that may have some bearing on the situation at Corinth. First Century women were generally uneducated. The Jews even regarded it as a sin to teach a woman and this situation was not much improved in the Greek and Roman worlds.63 Thus, women were quite unqualified to discuss prophecies or other matters of theology.
Still, we cannot look at this situation as one of mere culture or educational background. Paul makes clear that the basic principles regarding women are based on the law of God. While culture changes over the centuries, the law does not change. It seems that Paul is basing his judgment on verses like Genesis 1:26ff; 2:20-24, and 3:16. Smith says that these instructions have a universal nature about them and that they are not based on the particular local and cultural situation at Corinth.64
While women were permitted to pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:2-16), it would seem that the men alone were responsible for doctrinal purity (1 Tim. 2:11-12).65 It was forbidden for women to lord it over men in the assembly (Eph. 5:22-24). Regarding the Old Testament, Origen mentions, “…although Deborah was reputed to be a prophetess, there is no indication that she ever corporately addressed the people in the way that Isaiah or Jeremiah did. The same is true of Huldah.” 66 This understanding had filtered down as an ordinance in Judaism: “women were not permitted to teach in the assemblies, or even to ask questions…This was their condition till the time of the gospel, when, according to the prediction of Joel, the Spirit of God was to be poured out on the women as well as the men, that they might prophesy” 67
“If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (14:35). Women should ask their husbands at home if they have a question. Presumably, single women should ask their fathers or other men in the household. With this, Wiersbe sighs, “…Sad to say, in too many Christian homes today, it is the wife who has to answer the questions for the husband because she is better taught in the Word…” 68
In our politically correct age women are encouraged to take the lead and to place themselves above the men as leaders and even as pastors. We do not see such a thing in all the pages of holy writ. Obviously, we need to deal intelligently and spiritually with the new ideas and trends in this area. Barker & Kohlenberger state: “…At any rate, a woman’s femininity must not be disgraced by her trying to take a man’s role in the church…” 69 Peter says of a woman’s femininity and beauty that, “…it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Pet. 3:4). In ancient times Cyril of Jerusalem commented: “I wish to see each man’s earnestness and each woman’s devotion. Burn out impiety from your mind, put your soul on the anvil and your stubborn infidelity under the hammer…Then let the gate of paradise be opened to each man and each woman among you.” 70
DOING THINGS DECENTLY AND IN ORDER
Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
1 Corinthians 14:36
It seems that Paul is using a little sarcasm here. Of course, the word of God didn’t originate in Corinth. It came from Jerusalem and there were multitudes of churches in between Corinth and Jerusalem. They could not act independently, picking and choosing what doctrine would apply to them.
“If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command” (14:37). Bruce says, “…the man of the Spirit, the man with the gift of prophecy, will show his quality by recognizing this to be true.” 71 Paul puts them under pressure to prove their gifts authentic in this manner.
“But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored” (14:38). Barker & Kohlenberger have this reading, “…anyone who ignores it will be ignored by Paul and the churches, or possibly even the Lord…” 72 It was serious business in the First Century for individuals or churches to dispute or ignore apostolic doctrine.
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39). We should be zealous and eager to prophesy and we should not forbid tongues. It is strange indeed that multitudes of pastors and numerous denominational boards ignore prophecy and zealously forbid speaking in tongues. How can this not be a breach of God’s order.
Spurgeon says, “Never hang your flag at half-mast when you praise God; no, run up every color, let every banner wave in the breeze, and let all the powers and passions of your spirit exult and rejoice in God your Savior. They rejoiced. We are really most horribly afraid of being too happy. Some Christians think cheerfulness a very dangerous folly, if not a ruinous vice.” 73 Comfort attests, “The quality of our worship forms a powerful expression of the reality of our conversion.” 74
“But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:40). Coffman says, “This is the golden rule for organizing and conducting public worship services of the church in all ages.” 75 However, “what we, as modern readers assume is fitting and orderly may not be what Paul thinks is fitting and orderly… Wise and biblically informed Christian worship: does not pursue ‘freedom at the expense of order, or unrestrained spontaneity at the expense of reverence.’”76