February 9, 2010

The following sermon was preached by the Rev. Amanda Currie at a chapel service at St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon on Tuesday, February 9, 2010. Amanda had been invited to share a sermon on “a difficult text” during the annual “Winter Refresher” at the college.

1 Corinthians 14:26-40

Hi! I’m a Presbyterian. Some of you United Church folk may be slightly familiar with Presbyterians. After all, you still have a little Presbyterian-ness within your own church structure and polity. The Presbyterian system of church government is one of the things that makes Presbyterians Presbyterian, but we’re also known for our emphasis on scripture study and preaching. Some of you may be wondering if a Presbyterian preacher will be capable of staying within the short time frame given for this chapel service… We’ll see.

Anyway, Presbyterians generally take scripture pretty seriously. We read and preach on both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, and we are hesitant to dismiss a passage or a book just because its content makes us uncomfortable.

If you’ve hung around with any Presbyterians, you may know that there is a long-standing joke that the unofficial motto of the Presbyterian Church is “Let all things be done decently and in order,” and so you’d think that this text about decent and orderly worship would be a standard passage for regular preaching and reflection.

But amazingly, I’ve never preached on it before. I can’t say that I’ve been specifically avoiding it, but I normally preach the lectionary, and the lectionary avoids it. It goes straight from the topic of “LOVE” in 1 Corinthians 13 to the topic of “Resurrection” in chapter 15, and totally ignores Paul’s teaching on “orderly worship” in chapter 14.

Probably like most mainline churches, Presbyterians usually worship in a fairly organized and ordered way. Whether we’re in a big city downtown church, or in a small rural congregation with 15 close friends and family, we know who’s going to preach on Sunday, who will pray, and who will lead the singing of the hymns. It’s all planned out (hopefully with the Spirit’s guidance) and we follow whatever gets printed in the bulletin.

We shudder at the thought of someone standing up to respond to the sermon, to lead an impromptu praise chorus, or to pray extemporaneously for God knows who or what. Just imagining the free-flowing, semi-chaotic worship that Paul was commenting on in Corinth may cause us to sigh with relief that we don’t have those kinds of problems to deal with. We agree… our “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” and our worship is certainly peaceful… even if it is sometimes rather boring and predictable.

The first part of today’s text is just fine. We’re good at keeping our worship orderly and peaceful. Everything is under control, so there’s nothing to worry about… until we get to verse 34: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

Well, shall I sit down? Perhaps one of the men present would like to take over and explain how we might understand this text and interpret it for today…

Though I do, as a Presbyterian, take the scriptures seriously, I was also born eight years AFTER the Presbyterian Church in Canada began ordaining women to the roles of ministers and elders in the church. I’ve grown up in a church that no longer takes “women should be silent in the churches” literally.

I suppose one might just say that verses 34-36 are an aberration. Paul couldn’t get EVERYTHING right. He was a product of his time and culture, and perhaps he couldn’t yet imagine women as preachers and teachers, on an equal footing with their male counterparts. Maybe we can just set these verses aside.

In fact, that’s almost exactly what many commentators do today. Well, they don’t just say “I don’t like that bit, so I think I’ll just ignore it.” Instead, they look carefully at the text and conclude that Paul probably didn’t write verses 34-36. Someone else likely added the section later, as the letters were being gathered and distributed at the turn of the 1st to 2nd centuries.

You see, most biblical scholars agree that the letters in our bibles today are not in their original form. Where we have 2 Corinthians, they guess there were probably 5 different letters to Corinth that were spliced together into a relatively coherent whole. And the same would be true for 1 Corinthians. So perhaps, these verses were added later, during the process of gathering and editing the letters into the 1 Corinthians that we know today.

There’s good reason to consider the possibility that Paul didn’t write these verses. Many point out that this section’s rejection of women’s leadership in worship directly contradicts what Paul says elsewhere about women in the church. They argue that these verses don’t come from Paul at all. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary puts it this way: “This harsh passage, urging women’s silence in church and subordination to their husbands, with an unspecified reference to ‘the law’ as support, is probably an insertion by an editor who subsequently took this Pauline letter and brought it into conformity with the practices regarding women in his own subsequent-to-Paul time.”

It’s obvious from chapter 11, that women ARE praying and prophesying at the church in Corinth, and Paul not only makes no effort to stop it, but he seems to assume that it is quite proper. We can’t forget that this is the apostle who wrote to the Galatian Church: “there is neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus” – And who, throughout his writings recognizes and commends many women for their leadership in the churches: Phoebe, Euodia, Apphia, Prisca, and others.

In the six undisputed letters apart from 1 Corinthians, no passage suggests any limitation on the roles or functions of women in the Pauline churches. Now, Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles (which are not likely Paul’s work, and which were written later)… these are less positive towards women.

Many speculate that the church’s stance on women changed over time, and not for the better. As Paul’s assurance of the immanent end of the ages failed to materialize, his followers felt increasing pressure to re-accommodate to the social structures and practices of their unbelieving neighbours.

And so, as some well-meaning church leader at the end of the first century read Paul’s encouragement to allow each person in the Christian community a chance to share a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation, he felt it wise to clarify what the church now meant by “each person” – each person, except the women, who must, of course, remain silent.

At some point in our Christian lives, and perhaps especially for those of us who become women preachers, we have to grapple with texts like these. For some, the conclusion is to reject Paul… He must have been a sexist, so I’ll reject everything he says! For others, the conclusion is to reject the passage, arguing that Paul didn’t write it, so we can ignore it.

Still others wonder about what was going on in the Corinthian Church that could have prompted such a strict instruction for the women to be silent. Worship was quite different in Corinth back in the mid-first century. The people didn’t gather in a public building like the church buildings that we take for granted today.

Instead, their worship took place in the people’s homes. What was normally private space, and the sphere of women and children, was transformed on the Lord’s Day into a place where the whole Christian Community gathered. It included women, men, and children… began with worship, and then the sharing of a community meal.

And so, some have imagined the women both participating in the worship and simultaneously getting things ready for the meal. I can picture a hostess ducking out to stir a pot, and missing a little of the service. “What just happened? What did I miss?” she would say to her sister. “I’m not sure” might come the response, “I was distracted because my one-year-old started to cry, and I was trying to calm her down with a feeding.” And then another mother might join the conversation, filling in her friends on what they missed, followed by further discussion on what they thought of it.

It’s not unreasonable to imagine the women of the church having their own little conversation on the sidelines, while their husbands participated in the main service. But it must have been awfully hard to hear one another and to concentrate. It would have been the kind of disorder in worship that a Presbyterian would find very difficult.

I like this analysis quite a bit because it makes sense of the instruction in that time and place, but argues against applying the same rule to all the women in the churches today. But there’s another interpretation that I like even more. This one takes note of Paul’s style of writing throughout the book of 1 Corinthians.

You see, Paul is responding to concerns that have been raised by some of the Corinthian Christians themselves. A group of folks referred to as “Chloe’s people” have come to Paul to tell him about all the issues and squabbles in the church at Corinth. And Paul is writing back to try to address those concerns and to provide some advice.

One of the things Paul does is to quote something that is being said in the community, and then to respond to it. For example, in chapter 10, Paul quotes a popular saying among the Corinthian Christians: “All things are lawful.” He accepts the saying, but responds to it by adding, “But all things are not beneficial, not all things build up.” Or in chapter 8, he quotes the saying, “no idol in the world really exists” and then goes on to explain why eating food sacrificed to idols should still be avoided so as not to confuse those who do believe in idols.

In our passage, some of suggested that Paul may be doing exactly the same thing. He begins by quoting what some people in Corinth are saying: “Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

Can you imagine? That’s what some of the people in Corinth are saying? And Paul, who heard this news from Chloe’s people, who believes that in Christ there is neither male nor female, and who commends and encourages the women who work alongside him in the sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, responds to this blatant exclusion of half the people in the church with two sarcastic questions: “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?”

Whether Paul addressed those questions to women in the church who wouldn’t stop chattering while someone else was preaching in the service, or whether he addressed them to others who wanted to keep the women silent altogether… Either way, the point is to open up our church communities so that we can listen to the many voices that are faithfully seeking to share God’s Word.

I have no doubt that I, a woman, have been called by God not to remain silent, but to open my mouth to sing, to preach, and to pray in the community of God’s people. May God give me the wisdom to also know when to listen. And may we all be led to make space for more voices in our church communities, through which our loving God will guide, comfort, encourage, challenge, and direct us. Amen.