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In this chapter Paul writes in further detail about the specific verbal gifts of prophecy and tongues. For the sake of clarity, I define prophecy as speaking the word(s) of God to his people; this may or may not include a reference to the future but always impacts belief or behavior in the present. My understanding of tongues in this passage is a transcendent experience of sounds filling one’s mouth that the speaker doesn’t necessarily understand. Interestingly, there are a few moments in scripture when these two experiences, prophecy and tongues, seem to overlap in a religious ecstasy (eg 1 Sam 10:11 cf 1 Sam 19:24; Acts 10:46). There are a lot of common questions about these kinds of ‘charismatic’ experiences and I am not going to spend more time on it here. If you are interested in the issue of tongues in 1 Corinthians specifically, I recommend reading Gordon Fee (eg this scholarly article); in case you’re wondering, I believe the gift of tongues is ongoing today.
Paul argues that, while both prophecy and tongues are both gifts to be eagerly sought, prophecy takes precedence for the edification of the church. Tongues build up the speaker only (unless there is interpretation), but prophecy builds up and helps others in the community. When it comes to those outside the believing community, mysterious tongues may be a sign that they are still under judgment; but prophecy can be understood by both believer and unbeliever alike. Therefore prophecy is always more valuable than tongues for the whole community’s sake. This teaching continues Paul’s insistence that love takes priority in every situation, especially in the evaluation of different people’s giftedness (Chapters 12-14).
Verses 26-40 continue this message, now concerning proper behavior and order within church services. It is tremendous to note that psalms, teachings, revelations, tongues and their interpretation are things everyone, not just the designated leader, may bring in the gathering of the church. But there should still be order and turn-taking, as well as careful discernment of what is said.
In my opinion, Paul’s injunction regarding the silence of women (verse 34) is not about them not participating in the worship (cf 1 Cor 11:5), but about not calling out in the middle of the gathering. Let me paint a picture to explain: In most synagogues I have attended, women and men sit separately, often with the women in the back or upstairs (although many are divided left and right of the room). The men participate in the service, listening, reading, singing, praying aloud. On the other hand, the women sit and chat, paying little attention to the service. (Of course, not all synagogues are like this, but it is my personal experience, repeated many times over in different congregations.) I can just imagine the Corinthian synagogue community, where women are suddenly interested in what is going on, what is being taught and read, the prayers, the preaching, everything. But having had little religious education, there must have been a lot they didn’t understand. Hence, they might call out to their husbands to ask for explanations. This, I take it, is why Paul asked the women to be silent. Instead of interrupting the service, they should ask their husbands at home, after the church gathering was over. Of course, our culture today is quite different than this.
Few of us reading this blog have the opportunity to order church worship gatherings. But we probably all participate in them. Let us do our part to bring our gifts for the building up of the whole community.
Prayer: Father God, thank you for the gifts that you have given to me. Help me to use them for the building up of your church. May your name be honored in all that I say and do.