Three groups that Paul tells to refrain from speaking in 1 Corinthians

Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “women should remain silent in the churches” has long puzzled interpreters, since earlier in that same letter he describes how women should pray and prophesy in the community’s gatherings, and in the very part of the letter where he talks about women remaining silent, only a few lines earlier he says, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.”  (He doesn’t say “each of you, except the women.”)  But the word Paul uses for “remain silent” is sigaō, and in light of our study of that term in the previous post, we can now make better sense of Paul’s statement in its context.

This part of 1 Corinthians is about maintaining good order in worship: “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”  And so Paul says about those who would speak in tongues, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet (sigaō) in the church and speak to himself and to God.”  Rather than confuse the group with unintelligible speech, would-be speakers should refrain from saying what they otherwise might.

In the same way, Paul addresses those who would offer prophecies: “If a revelation comes to  someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop (NIV; ESV “be silent,” sigaō).  Once again, someone who might otherwise keep speaking (a person who has stood up to prophesy) refrains, so that speakers can take turns, in a “fitting and orderly way.”

We should understand Paul’s comments about women speakers in this light.  It’s not that Paul is calling for “silence,” the absence of speech or sound, but rather for propriety and good order.  Apparently there is something the women in Corinth would otherwise “want to inquire about.”  (We’ll explore in our next post what this might have been.)  But the community gathering is not the time or the place for this, so the women should refrain from questioning or challenging the speaker.  Instead, Paul says, “let them ask their husbands at home”—a third-person imperative, granting them permission to do something that was not typical in this culture.  In other words, rather than this being a restriction on women, it’s actually an empowerment of them.

And so we might paraphrase Paul’s words here along these lines:  “Women are not to challenge or question the speaker in the churches.  They are not allowed to speak [in this way], but must be respectful, as the law says.  If they want to inquire about something [that the speaker says that they don’t understand or agree with], they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak [disrespectfully in this way] in the church.”  No conflict there with anything Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians.

An instructive synonym

In the last post we met the word sigē (NIV “hush”), which Luke uses as a synonym of hēsuchia (NIV “quiet”) in his account of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem.  When we look at the other occurrences of the noun sigē and the verb sigaō in the New Testament, we discover that this root is used in a way similar to hēsuchia/hēsuchazō.  It can mean simply “silence,” the absence of speech or sound, but it can also describe a person voluntarily not saying or doing something they otherwise might.

The one other use of the noun sigē is in Revelation: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”  This clearly envisions the absence of speech or sound.  So do several uses of the verb sigaō:
– When the crowds in Jericho tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, that is, to stop shouting “Son of David, have mercy on me”;
– When the Jewish leaders aren’t able to trap Jesus with the question about paying taxes to Caesar:  “Astonished by his answer, they became silent“;
– When Peter, freed from prison by an angel, has to motion for the surprised people in Mary’s house to be quiet so he can tell them what has happened.

More often, however, the verb sigaō describes a person not saying something they otherwise might.  Luke, for example, reports that after the Transfiguration, the disciples who were with Jesus on the mountain “kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”  This doesn’t mean that after the experience Peter, James, and John didn’t speak at all.  They just didn’t talk about what they’d seen on the mountain, not until later.

Similarly, Luke describes how the council in Jerusalem became silent (sigaō) when they heard Paul and Barnabas describe what God had done among the Gentiles.  Significantly, as we saw last time, Luke uses the verb hēsuchazō instead in an identical context earlier in Acts:  When Peter described how God led him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, the apostles and believers fell silent (ESV; NIV “had no further objections”).  This reassures us that the use of sigaō by writers such as Luke (and Paul, as we’ll soon see) can help us understand the intention behind hēsuchazō.

In his benediction at the end of Romans, using sigaō once again in this second sense, Paul speaks of the mystery that was kept secret (ESV; NIV “hidden”) for long ages past, but which has now been revealed and made known.  What’s in view here is once again not the absence of speech (no secret to share), but restraint on speech:  The mystery was waiting to be revealed at the right time.

This brings us to Paul’s controversial comments in 1 Corinthians about maintaining good order in worship.  There has been much discussion about his statement that “women should keep silent (sigaō) in the churches.”  I would argue that we need to understand this statement in light of the two uses Paul makes of this term a little earlier in this same section.  Regarding those who would speak in tongues, Paul says, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet.”  And regarding prophets, he says, “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.”  We’ll explore the implications of all this in our next post.

Degrees of “silence”

We’ve seen so far that the noun hēsuchia and the verb hēsuchazō come from a Greek root that means to refrain from saying or doing something that one otherwise might.  We see this meaning come out in the one other place in the New Testament where hēsuchia is used.  In that passage we also meet a synonym of the word, which will help confirm the understanding we’ve been developing.

In the book of Acts, Luke describes what happened when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem.  He was rescued by the Roman authorities from a mob that was shouting, “Get rid of him!”  As he was being carried into the barracks, he got permission to address the crowd.  Luke records that “Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the crowd” and “when they were all silent” (literally “there being a great sigē“), he spoke to them in Hebrew.  “And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet” (more literally, “the more so they held silence,” hēsuchia).

We see two things here.  First of all, hēsuchia is once again used to describe people not saying something they otherwise might.  Indeed, as soon as the crowd hears Paul claim that God has sent him to the Gentiles, they immediately resume shouting, “Get rid of him!”  They have voluntarily restrained themselves to this point to let Paul speak, but now what they want to say comes out again.  In other words, we might say that they didn’t so much become silent as they stopped protesting—temporarily.

The other thing we see is that when the word hēsuchia is used, the focus is not so much on the silence itself as on a person or group’s willingness to hear without argument or protest, because there seem to be degrees of hēsuchia.  We can picture the united clamoring of the crowd dying down to murmuring and the occasional individual shout when Paul gestures to be heard, and then a near silence taking hold when the crowd recognizes he’s a fellow Hebrew and it strains to hear him.  Hēsuchia can be present to a certain extent, and then be present “more so.”  It doesn’t mean absolute silence, but willingness to hold one’s peace.

We must also consider this word sigē, which is clearly a synonym.  Significantly, it’s the one Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 14 when he says that women must “keep silent” in the churches.  We’ll look at this term in our next post and see that it’s used in the same contexts, and with similar meaning, as hēsuchia and hēsuchazō.

Paul Arrested in Jerusalem

Another present-age consideration that doesn’t matter in the coming age: male and female

As we read through the Scriptures we discover that whether a person is a man or a woman is one more consideration that doesn’t seem to matter to God as He looks for agents of his inbreaking redemptive work.

God reminds the Israelites through Micah, “I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.” Miriam is called a “prophetess” in Exodus when she leads a song after the Red Sea crossing (NIV has “prophet” but the Hebrew form is not surprisingly feminine), and she and Aaron insist in Numbers (their words are true, even though their motives are unfortunately bad) that the Lord has spoken through them as well as through Moses.

Deborah is similarly describe in Judges as a “prophetess” and it’s said that she “judged Israel”: “The Israelites went up to her to have their disputes settled.”  In this capacity she was performing a function that would belong to Israel’s later kings.

When David’s general Joab pursued a rebel leader to the city of Abel and besieged the city to capture him, a “wise woman” negotiated with Joab from the city wall and arranged to turn over the leader (actually, throw his severed head over the wall) so the city would be spared.  She was functioning the way a city elder would, identifying a wise solution to a difficult social problem at the city gate. (In this case the gates were closed because of war so the walls served the same function.)

When the law of Moses was rediscovered in the temple during Josiah’s reign and God’s impending judgment was recognized, the king told his highest officials to “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people.”  They went to Huldah the prophetess, even though Jeremiah and Zephaniah were also prophesying in Jerusalem at this time. She responds authoritatively, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says . . .”

We see similar examples in the New Testament: women accompany Jesus, learn from him, provide for him, and care for his crucified body; Philip’s four daughters prophesy; Phoebe reads Paul’s letter to the Roman church; Junia is identified in that letter as an “apostle”; etc.

Even though some interpreters try to parse these women’s roles finely to show that in some way they conform to Paul’s supposed prohibition of women in authority roles, the basic fact is undeniable: God uses women just as well as men throughout the Scriptures as agents of his inbreaking redemption.  So why shouldn’t they be allowed to serve as similar agents today, without restriction?

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptues

More present-age considerations that don’t matter in the coming age

We saw last time that primogeniture is a present-age consideration that does not matter in the coming age, even as it breaks into the present age. There are many other present-age considerations that don’t matter, either, as God looks for willing people to use as agents of his inbreaking redemptive work.

One of the laws in Deuteronomy says that “no one of illegitimate birth nor any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation” (23:2). This law was likely intended as a deterrent, to discourage births outside of marriage and ensure that children had loving, responsible parents. But even though illegitimate children could not even enter the assembly of the Lord (that is, participate in public worship in the tabernacle and temple, the basic expression of community membership), God chose to use Jephthah, an illegitimate child, to be one of the judges who delivered the people of Israel from their enemies. (Jephthah is notorious for offering his daughter as a human sacrifice after his victory, and while this shows his regrettable ignorance of God’s ways, it doesn’t negate the way God used him to deliver Israel; Jephthah is called one of the heroes of the faith in Hebrews.)

The law of Moses teaches deference to the aged.  “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God” (Leviticus 19:32). In keeping with this teaching, Elihu waits to speak to Job until after all of his older friends have spoken. Nevertheless, God uses David to defeat Goliath, even though, as Saul objects, “You are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” Two of the most godly reforming kings of Judah, Joash and Josiah, assumed the throne at young ages.  Paul told Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young.” Instead, Timothy was to use the gift that was given to him through prophecy when the elders laid their hands on him–the inbreaking coming age trumps present considerations.

The people of Israel were supposed to observe a strict separation from Gentiles. Nevertheless, God used many Gentiles as agents of his inbreaking redemptive work. Rahab protected Joshua’s spies and was instrumental in the conquest of Jericho. In the book of Judges, Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, killed the fleeing general Sisera to complete the defeat of Jabin’s armies. Ruth saved Naomi’s life and ultimately became the great-grandmother of David and an ancestress of Jesus. The Persian emperor Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans to return from exile; at one point in Isaiah, Cyrus is even identified as one expression of the “servant of the Lord,” whose ultimate identity is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus himself observed how God showed his reality by rescuing the widow in Zarephath and healing Naaman the Syrian in the time of Elijah, when more faith was found in these Gentiles than in the people of Israel.

Well, I think you see where this is going, but we’ll look at God’s use of women as his agents of inbreaking redemption in the next post.

Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath