Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Or, “Paul Tells Women Not to Talk in Church”
I find it constantly surprising just how many women are Christian, especially considering how women are treated in Scripture; even in the New Testament. One of the most astounding, confusing, and over-the-top lines that many point to as being sexist is from Paul as he writes,
For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says (1 Corinthians 14:33-34).
Paul says that women shouldn’t speak in church. I’ve wrestled with this one for a while because it really is quite shocking. While Jesus is out preaching that we should love each other equally, Paul decides that half the population should be silent in public and in full submission to the other half…something doesn’t add up. Finally, after years of wondering about this, the Holy Spirit explained to me what’s going on.
Hebrews 4:12 states,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
This means that the Bible is capable of speaking to our hearts without ever becoming antiquated (as it is alive and active). “But wait,” you ask, “aren’t these views of women out-dated?” Yes, yes they are- which means that a straight reading might not cover everything. Let’s dig deeper. The first thing we need to remember is that the husband and wife relationship is a model of Christ and the church. Paul helps us to draw this line as he muddles his own message to married folks,
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery- but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:31-33).
Paul takes some time (not printed here in full) and tells husbands and wives how they should act towards one another, basing everything on our relationship with Jesus, but then he just ends it with “Oh, but I’m talking about us and Jesus….but um…yeah, do that stuff I said in your marriage too.” Paul seems unable to fully separate the concepts of an earthly marriage and a believer’s relationship to Christ. The second thing to note is that we know that church is where you go to hear the Word of God. This has always been true; “On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44). This was also true in Jesus’ time when the Israelites were meeting in the synagogue. Check out what happens when Jesus went to the Jewish equivalent of the Sunday service (on Saturday for them though):
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind,
To release the oppressed,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16-19)
This is how Christians do it; this is how Jewish people do it. When we come together, we’re supposed to be reading the Word of God and interacting with it.
Church is not, therefore, for humanly talk. One of Paul’s chief fears when visiting churches is that he’d find them enveloped in worldly ways. He wrote to the Corinthian church,
For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outburst of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder (2 Corinthians 12:20).
This is both unsurprising and a little disappointing. I remember that when I was growing up in the church, even though there were people trying to stop it, there were in reality more cliques than in your average high school, and twice as much gossip. Paul ran into this problem too. So he wrote (also to the Corinthian church),
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it (1 Corinthians 11:17-18).
And he further notes in 1 Corinthians 3:3, “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?” Now, this becomes important because Paul notes that the church was acting, “like mere men” –that is to say that the church was still very human. In the Christ/church model of marriage, humanity takes the role of the bride of Christ (“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” [Ephesians 5:22]). Therefore, when Paul writes that women shouldn’t be speaking in church, the Holy Spirit is actually telling us that we should keep humanly talk (such as gossip, politics, grudges, etc) out of our churches. The Bible tells us,
If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be to the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11).
When someone is at church, they should being contributing to the atmosphere through the Word of God. Again, while speaking to the Corinthian church, Paul advises,
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Church is a place to talk about our Lord Jesus Christ, not to gossip, hate on others, or to discuss things that aren’t related to God. This goes for the pulpit too. For it is not a soapbox for your personal issues, it is where Christ is to be honored through Biblical teaching; words founded on the Word of God. To this end, the Holy Spirit had Paul write down in his notes to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2:12). Holy crap, without the Christ/church marriage model that is really offensive to our tastes! But, understanding that God sees humanity as being all “female” in his marriage to us (as the church is the “bride” of Christ), the Lord is telling everyone to keep their personal issues out of the church and keep the teaching God-based and God-focused. The implication is that none of a pastor’s words should be his or her own, but only what the Holy Spirit teaches through said pastor. After all, that is what you want from your church pastor…isn’t it? Those of us who have been cleansed by the blood of Christ should be very careful how we speak in public, especially at church events. In all his wisdom, even Solomon noted,
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
Do not be quick with your mouth,
Do not be hasty in your heart
To utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
And you are on earth,
So let your words be few (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2).
To translate: only idiots talk about whatever they feel like; shut your pie-hole when you’re at church. Remember, at church the Word of God is being dispensed, your word is relatively worthless in comparison, so you may as well keep your humanly stuff to yourself.
Paul also notes that if the wife has an issue, she should talk about at home (as opposed to at church). He writes, “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” (1 Corinthians 14:35). As with our other gender-based teachings in this article, we learn how this relates to us and God. If you want to gossip, complain about the president or the pastor, or let your mouth run with some other worldly topic -keep it at home. More than that though, Paul says that a wife should keep it between her and her husband. Who is our spiritual husband? Jesus! That means that we should direct all our worldly issues heavenward in prayer, in private, outside of the church, and away from other people. This fits with Jesus’ teaching on prayer. For he says, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Don’t blather about useless stuff to your neighbor, give it to God and you’ll 1) get a better response 2) be blessed for it and 3) not gum up your church with useless talk. Whenever I’ve had a problem with a pastor, I’ve kept my mouth shut about it and taken it to God, and sure enough, the Lord gave me an answer quickly and I grew in my faith because of it.
Although the culture of Paul’s time suggests he meant what he wrote literally; I’d also give him the benefit of the doubt and presume he knew the real message the Holy Spirit was putting behind his words, because at is turns out, they’re almost exclusively aimed at the Corinthian church (who had a massive worldliness problem). And the message is that when you’re in church (no matter what your gender) keep the focus on God; and if you’ve got the urge to talk about something else: shut up. That’s a good lesson for everyone.