One of the difficult questions in the church today is the position of women in ministry. It is one of the subjects that may fall into a cultural interpretation of scripture. That is, are the passages to be followed word for word or is this one of the subjects that need to be interpreted through the eye of changing culture?
On one hand, I Corinthians 14:34 passage is a difficult passage to deal with because it expresses Paul’s instructions very clearly. “Let the women keep silent in the churches.” Yet, the Corinthian church was rife with all of the considerations that would make one look at the historical situation. Firstly, the Corinthian church had disorderliness of all manner. There were controversies and the people were expressing conflicting opinions in the assembly openly, there were people misusing communion, families were in disarray, and all of the problems dealt with divisively. Add to this the typical position of women in Jewish culture, which was extremely subservient and one must consider the situation.
So, to try and understand the general admonition for women to keep silent, one must also consider the other passages of what the Lord had done in building up the church and before that, with the people of Israel.
I Corinthians 14:3 states that “one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.” Further scripture records in Acts 21: 9 that Philip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. Notice that the gift of prophecy is not a silent gift. And here recorded are four daughters who have been gifted by God with gifts that are not silent.
In the Old Testament, Judges 4, Deborah is recorded as sitting under a palm tree and the men of Israel would come to her for judgment. Deborah also instructed Barak when it was time to go to war. Thereafter she went with Barak for victory. Deborah is famous for being gifted and very useful as a judge and prophetess.
It is also important to note that the cases of Philip’s daughters and Deborah seem to be exceptions to the general case that men were used to lead in these areas. Yet, the Lord saw fit to give these women extraordinary gifts. And the people of God took advantage of these gifts for the good of the Israelites and then the church.
The overarching theme of the book of I Corinthians is that there should not be confusion in the church, but rather orderliness built on love and respect. The orderliness and respect should be for the building up of the church in Christ. So, in many questions the final judgment point is whether it can be done in a way that helps the people. Whether one has been gifted in quiet service or more vocal gifts, all is to be done for the building up of the church. These very public gifts for ministry must be used in a humble way. Women who are gifted with prophecy should not do so with a spirit of entitlement, but with a spirit of service. There will be members of the body who choose not to accept what women have to offer. There will be some members of the body who don’t believe in women in ministry, yet still accept gifts women have to offer. Then there will be those who accept the idea that some women are gifted and will help the body of Christ.
But, the most important part of I Corinthians is that we do all things in love for the building up of the body of Christ. It may turn out that we were not supposed to let that very gifted woman preach a sermon on Sunday morning. But, if it is exhortation leading to salvation, and people accept the lesson in a spirit of thankfulness and love, perhaps we are on the mark anyway.