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Dear Catholic Exchange:
I have a question about the following excerpt from 1 Corinthians 14 that I find disturbing:
As in all the churches of the holy ones, women should keep silent in the churches, for they are not allowed to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. But if they want to learn anything, they should ask their husbands at home. For it is improper for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 33b – 35)
How does one interpret this seemingly draconian injunction against women? The context of these verses is St. Paul’s instructions on the proper public use of charisms such as prophesy and tongues. Certainly, women possessed these gifts (1 Cor. 11), which is something we can see for ourselves in the present day Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. What then, is St. Paul talking about?
Of greater concern is verse 37 of the same chapter: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or a spiritual person, he should recognize that what I am writing to you is a commandment of the Lord.”
Peace in Christ! You asked two questions about some verses in 1 Corinthians 14. (1) In verses 33b-35, St. Paul notes that women are to remain silent in church. Given that the context is the right exercise of spiritual gifts in public worship, how should this passage be understood inasmuch as women also possess spiritual gifts? (2) In verse 37, St. Paul admonishes, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or a spiritual person, he should recognize what I am writing to you is a commandment of the Lord.” I hope this response will adequately address your concerns.
1 Corinthians 11, as you noted, specifically refers to women prophesying. Yet, just a few chapters later, Paul tells women to remain silent in church. Though there may be others, we will offer a few possible explanations.
A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953) proposes that 1 Corinthians 11 may possibly refer, not to public liturgies, but other gatherings that were taking place (p. 1096). This explanation would concur with the fact that the early liturgies of the Church followed the pattern of the Jewish synagogue, in which women were not permitted to speak. In other words, while the early Church recognized spiritual gifts in women, they continued the customs of the synagogue in official worship. St. Paul even refers here to “the law.” This explanation is plausible, but not entirely satisfying.
The Commentary also points out that this injunction against women speaking does not refer to the exercise of spiritual gifts, but possibly preaching or teaching. In other words, preaching and teaching in public worship was done by those commissioned to do so (ordained ministry), but spiritual gifts and their exercise were not so restricted. At first glance, this answer doesn’t seem plausible given the context of the entire chapter is spiritual gifts.
It seems unlikely that Paul changed the subject suddenly and then went back to it in verse 37. However, verse 35 doesn’t make much sense if Paul is still talking about spiritual gifts. Why would Paul say, “If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home,” if he is speaking of prophecy?
If one considers that the larger context is order in public worship (the Corinthians had a particular habit of abusing spiritual gifts, it seems), then it seems more plausible that Paul did, if only for a few verses, go off on a tangent. As already noted, this also makes verse 35 more intelligible. Further, Paul begins this “tangent” by noting that this custom is in “all the churches of the holy ones” and ends by asking the Corinthians if they are the only ones the Word of God has reached. He is saying that they should conduct themselves as the other churches, which, as was noted above, followed the synagogue pattern.
A final consideration is the presence of the Oracle of Delphi near Corinth. Also known as the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, it was located north of the Gulf of Corinth, was regarded as the “navel” of the earth, and had been there centuries before Christianity (see the New Catholic Encyclopedia [Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967], 739 under “Delphi, Oracle of”). What is important about the Oracle, as it pertains to the Church at Corinth, is that an “inquirer” would, after making a sacrifice, present a question to a male priest, who in turn presented the question to the Pythia. The Pythia were priestesses who, seated in a trance and under the power of Apollo, would give an answer. What impact would the Oracle have had on what Paul was writing to the Church at Corinth? Because of the Oracle, still in use in Paul’s time (it was finally suppressed under Theodosius the Great in 390), Paul may have been safeguarding against potential problems. For example, is it possible that a priestess would attend the liturgy and give prophecies? Was Paul trying to avoid this? Could it be that Paul was seeking to prevent scandal by avoiding too close of an association with a pagan practice well-known to the Christians at Corinth?
Your next question regarded verse 37. What did St. Paul mean by saying, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or a spiritual person, he should recognize that what I am writing to you is a commandment of the Lord”? Paul was simply referring to his God-ordained authority to regulate liturgical affairs. Prophecy or spiritual gifts do not endow one with authority in the Church. In fact, exercising spiritual gifts does not even indicate spiritual maturity. Remember earlier in chapter 3, St. Paul had said that the Corinthians were babes in Christ and could not yet understand “solid food.”
In essence, St. Paul, after having laid down rules and directives for spiritual gifts in public worship, was reminding the Corinthians that if anyone thought they could hear God, they had better be able to hear Him through the voice of legitimate apostolic authority. So if one wanted a prophetic gift recognized in the assembly, he would have to recognize Paul’s authority over the Church at Corinth. This is no different, for example, than St. John writing, “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6). Neither John nor Paul assume authority arbitrarily, it is apostolic authority given them by Christ.
I hope this answers your question. If you have further questions or would like more information about Catholics United for the Faith, please contact us at 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484). May God bless your day.
United in the Faith,
David E. Utsler
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952