December 26, 2010

To Live is Christ — in context

Yesterday I was guilty of doing what I tell everyone not to do. I used a verse out of context because parts of it fit what I wanted to say about Christmas. Or maybe it was just one of those “good message, wrong text” errors.

Today, I woke up thinking about how the verse fits the passage where it is located. Some of the ways this passage is interpreted troubles and even angers many women, but it doesn’t need to. The gist is keeping order in church meetings.

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (1 Corinthians 14:26–38)
Prior to Christianity, women were not allowed to learn. In fact, Jewish men daily thanked God they were not born a dog, a Gentile or a woman! However, the coming of Jesus elevated the status of women. They could now learn.

In this new situation, I can imagine the response. Suddenly women could take part in worship in ways not previously encouraged. For some, their enthusiasm overflowed any sense of decorum. They talked too much and at the wrong time, disturbing church meetings with comments and questions. Paul writes that such disorder is not from God. He wants peace, therefore the women who were doing this needed to be quiet and stop their chatter. If they needed to know anything, they should ask their questions at home.

If this interpretation is left there, then this instruction to the church has no value for today. It is a cultural issue without application. However, if that were the only interpretation criteria, soon none of the Bible would have relevance. Figuring out where to draw the line is difficult too, even confusing. I’m certain that God is not the author of that kind of disorder either.

When I read this passage, it seems to me that the culture and the situation in the church at Corinth (the most carnal and disorderly church in the New Testament) must be considered alongside the principles of God taught elsewhere in the Bible. That is, we might be able to say this passage is about a situation in that church at that time, but we cannot throw it out entirely. The passage also has much to say about the heart of God and His desire for His church.

First, all done in worship or other meetings must build up others, helping them to be more like Jesus. That alone is a tall order. However, this section is about speaking in tongues. Much of what it says is about the order and rules needed for that phenomena. Today, some church leaders say this is no longer a valid practice so disregard these verses. Others say if you don’t speak in tongues, you are not filled with the Holy Spirit and tend to disregard these verses also. That results in much disorder over this issue — and as Paul says, God is not the God of confusion. All the mayhem belongs in that “suspected behavior” category.

As for the part about women, does this forbid women from speaking in tongues? Does it forbid speaking anything that is without an attitude of submission? Are females to be like children, seen but not heard? Certainly other passages need to be considered!

Rather than polarizing this into a set of rules governing whether or not I can talk in church, I’m thinking of the principles behind this passage. Some of these believers were behaving in ways that missed the leading and intention of God. Their efforts were out of order and causing confusion. This is not godliness but selfishness. The church is supposed to encourage and give recognition to Christlike behavior, not me-centered activities.

While this is gender-related in this passage, it could be only because of reasons previously given — the women were out of hand. However, I’ve been in situations where the men were speaking out of turn and confusing the issue. It seems to me that the sinful source of disorder should be addressed, not matter who is causing it. God intends that all His children are courteous, polite, considerate, and orderly. He says no disruption, rudeness, and any sort of pushy me-first attitudes.

That said, like the women then, anyone new to church worship today could be ignorant of the godly way to do things. In fact, if Paul were writing this today, he might have said something like this: 

As in all the churches of the saints, the people need to turn off their cell phones. They are not permitted to text either, but pay attention and put their hearts into worship, as the Scriptures say. If they desire to learn, listen to others or ask someone whose background qualifies them to answer. It is shameful for anyone to disrupt worship with selfish and thoughtless behavior. If you have received the Word of God recently and did not realize the need to consider others, now you know. Don’t expect that your ringing phone or ability to text will impress the people of God. Instead realize that the church is far more concerned that you humble yourself and put others first.
Others may not agree with my understanding of this passage. Some think women can preach, teach, do everything. Others think women cannot speak at all. As for me, I’m content with the jobs I’m given, terrified yet obedient when God gives me opportunities to say something, and try my best to listen and obey when He tells me to keep my mouth shut.

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