A Word from the Head

Geoffrey Kirk looks at the patterning of Pauline thought

At the end of a lengthy passage on prophecy and speaking in tongues (and before he goes on to his great hymn to the Resurrection of the Body in Chapter 15) Paul gives his Corinthian correspondents specific directions about the conduct of public worship:

‘As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything that they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. What! Did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command from the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this he is not recognized. So, my brethren, earnestly desire to prophesy, and so not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14.33b–40).

It is easy, if one has the will, to make heavy weather of the interpretation of this passage (as do the bishops of the Church of England in their Second Report on the Ordination of Women on the Priesthood [GS 829]); but it is not the insoluble conundrum that some have hoped to make of it. Nor is it, plausibly, a later interpolation – a critical opinion that is noticeably losing ground. The argument here fits neatly into the developing pattern of Paul’s thought, and has distinctly Pauline characteristics.

What is Paul saying?

The key to understanding Paul’s argument is the distinction he is making between two sorts of speaking: lalein glosse (speaking in tongues), which he associates closely with prophecy, and lalein en ekklesia (speaking in the assembly). The first area Paul has already made clear to his Corinthians (11.5ff) is a permitted province of women. The second he forbids to women with as firm and categorical a series of injunctions as any in the Pauline corpus.

It is a commonplace among commentators that Paul’s theology was done ‘on the hoof’ – it is occasional (that is to say, directed to a particular audience and need), rather than systematic. But the careful reader soon observes in Paul’s habitual patterns of argument something which, whilst it is not systematic theology, certainly approaches it.

Pauline Systematics

Paul habitually argues on different levels of authority; and so a useful tool in understanding this mode of thought is a list of those levels in ascending order of importance or seriousness. They are five:

1) The general moral code – patterns of behaviour which are thought, by society at large, to be ‘natural’ or unchallengeable.

2) Paul’s own authority as an apostle and founder of churches.

3) The general practice of the Christian churches.

4) The principles of the Jewish Torah.

5) A command of the Lord Jesus Christ.

These levels of authority are sometimes invoked in isolation from each other. Sometimes, however, they are made to work together, as we see at 1 Corinthians 9.1–14, where Paul is demonstrating the fact that he is entitled to financial support for his labours, and that he has quite freely renounced it.

Paul begins by appealing to the common practice of other Christian communities (our level 3 – ‘as the other apostles, and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas’ (v5)). He goes on to talk in more general terms (our level 1 – ‘who serves as a soldier at his own expense, who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?’ (v7)). At a more serious level (our level 4) he appeals to the authority of scripture, or of the Torah (‘does not the law say the same?’ (v8)). His ultimate sanction (against which in Paul’s, and no doubt his hearer’s understanding there can be no appeal) is our level 5 – the claim to have a word from the Lord himself on the subject (‘in the same way the Lord commanded.’ (v14)).

The same levels of authority are used here to forbid women to ‘speak in the assembly’.

Paul has been giving a whole series of instructions about day to day church matters referred to him by the Corinthian PCC. In general that are directions made on apostolic authority alone (our level 3): ‘Be imitators of me as I am of Christ’. The instructions about veils and hairdressing, numbers of speakers, and the availability of interpreters are all of this kind.

Now he brings out his big guns. Not Paul’s opinion alone, but the universal practice of the churches (level 3) ‘as in all the assemblies of the saints’; ‘did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it has reached?’; the Torah itself (level 4) – ‘as even the law says’; and finally, the Lord in person ( level 5) – ‘what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord’ – are the authority by which he speaks.

Then, as though this apparent authoritarian overkill were not enough (and as an eloquent testimony to the intransigence and willfulness of the Corinthians), he adds the threat of formal anathema – ‘if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized’. (The reference is to the saying we have recorded at Mt 7.21–23: ‘Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord … then I will say to them: I never knew you, depart from me you workers of iniquity’; cf ‘if anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed’ (1 Corinthians 16.22) with which in his own hand Paul ends the present letter.)

A crucial distinction

There can be no reasonable doubt, considering the weight of the language used, that Paul is absolutely serious in forbidding women to ‘speak in the assembly’. For faithful Christians, then, it is then a matter of importance to decide what he means by that phrase. Could ‘speaking in the assembly’ conceivably have been a technical term familiar no doubt to Paul’s readers but obscure to us?

There are substantial reason for supposing this to be the case.

The distinction between lalein g1osse and lalein en ekklesia clearly involves one between a charismatic and a formally ordered ministry. Such a distinction the Jews had themselves already been making for centuries.

Lalein glosse (speaking in tongues), like the wider category of ‘prophecy’, is a province open to women as well as men. ‘As even the law says’, the Spirit moves whom it will, men and women, adults and children. Though Paul was of the opinion that in public such things should be ordered and regulated, Heul accepted all this as a matter of fact. A tradition extending from Miriam to Anna was one which a pupil of Gamaliel could be expected to take for granted.

Lalein in ekklesia (speaking in the assembly) is obviously something quite different. We know that simply because Paul can restrict it to men only on the same principles (‘as even the law says.’) which permitted women to prophesy. So what law forbids or permits what activity?

Fruitless hours of research have been expended trying to find a passage in the Pentateuch to which Paul could conceivably be referring. The truth seems to be that Paul is not using ‘law’ in the narrow sense of the canon of scripture, but in the broader sense of Holy Tradition: Mishnah, not Bible. (Though of course neither book existed in Paul’s day in the form in which we know them).

There are two relevant proscriptions in the rabbinic tradition. The first forbids women to take part in the public question-and-answer sessions which were the foundations of rabbinic discourse. A woman, says Rabbi Eliezer, had better do her arguing with her husband privately. (‘If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home’, says Paul, echoing him.)

The second forbids a woman to preside at the Passover meal. The Passover Haggadah includes questions asked of the eldest present by the youngest. Could a dowager, the eldest in her household, be the required respondent? The Rabbis held that she could not. She had better unite her household to that of her nearest male kinsman so that the obligations of the festival could be fulfilled by a male on her behalf.

If we assume – and we have no reason not to assume – that the earliest churches borrowed the ‘dialogue sermon’ from Jewish custom, we have here two restrictions which cover neatly the role of the celebrant at the Christian eucharist. He is, in Jewish terms, both the Rabbi teaching formally (dialegesthai is the verb used in Acts 20.7) and the elder (presbyteros) who heads the table at the Paschal celebration (the role which Paul himelf assumed after that near-fatal dialogue sermon in Troas).

Precisely because the charismatic ministries of the Corinthian community were so lively as to be a cause for concern (and because women, as the law permitted, were active in them), Paul needed to use all the authority at his disposal to make the necessary distinction between such spectacular gifts and the rather more mundane, formally sanctioned ministry of the elders, from which he knew women to be excluded by a specific dictum of the Saviour.

A word from the Head

It has been suggested that by ‘a command of the Lord’ Paul means some word of his own, speaking with the apostolic authority of an ‘ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ’. But this cannot be. Already, (1 Corinthians 7.10–12) he has written: ‘to the married I give charge, not I but the Lord … to the rest I say, not the Lord.’ And again: ‘Now concerning virgins I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.’

Far from his being casual about the distinction, it would seem that, in Paul’s opinion, confusion about the source and nature of spiritual authority is the real problem at Corinth. He is therefore assiduous in pointing it up. Entole (command), moreover, designates, not a general principle, from which Paul might be thought to have adduced particular directive of his own, but a specific ‘precept’ an actual ‘word’.

Here, then, a specific command (entole) of the Lord Jesus is being used as evidence that the general principles of the Law, as they apply in the changed circumstances of Christian worship still hold good. The teaching role and the table presidency of the Church are a male preserve. The Lord, Paul is telling a Corinthian community intoxicated with novelty, willed no change.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the Diocese of Southwark.

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