The meetings in Corinth sound like they were a mess: people talking over the top of each other in their enthusiasm to preach and prophesy, others speaking out strange languages with no understanding of what was said, women chipping in from the sidelines. No small wonder that Paul tried to bring some order into things.
He started with the problem of speaking in tongues. It’s a prophetic gift, so there was no point in babbling on in a meeting if there was no interpretation. So the instruction was to be silent. It was as close to a put up or shut up command as Paul could give:
1 Corinthians 14:27-28 No more than two or three should speak in tongues. They must speak one at a time, and someone must interpret what they say. But if no one is present who can interpret, they must be silent in your church meeting and speak in tongues to God privately.
Then he moved onto this business of people prophesying over the top of each other. The instruction was to stop talking if someone else had something better to say:
1 Corinthians 14:29-33 Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said. But if someone is prophesying and another person receives a revelation from the Lord, the one who is speaking must stop. In this way, all who prophesy will have a turn to speak, one after the other, so that everyone will learn and be encouraged. Remember that people who prophesy are in control of their spirit and can take turns. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace, as in all the meetings of God’s holy people.
And finally, the issue of women talking in church, who were told to be silent and save their questions for later:
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 Women should be silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for them to speak. They should be submissive, just as the law says. If they have any questions, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is improper for women to speak in church meetings.
Some people have taken this as a total ban on all women speaking at any time during church. Taken literally, this would include even the greeting of peace be with you and the saying of amen at the end of a prayer and singing of songs and prophecy and prayer and and other speaking activities in any meeting of believers. Nobody argues that.
An argument that women should be silent in church always and forever contradicts Paul’s obvious agreement with the idea of women praying and prophesying in a meeting (leaving the debate about head coverings to another day):
1 Corinthians 11:5 But a woman dishonors her head if she prays or prophesies without a covering on her head, for this is the same as shaving her head.
So back to this issue of silence in church. Who was it for?
- people who wanted to speak in tongues just because they could, but without anyone to interpret what was being said
- people who wanted to prophesy and wouldn’t sit down for someone else who had a genuine revelation from God
- women (who were not well educated in those days) wanting to ask their husbands about something that was happening in the meeting.
In others words, people needed to control their enthusiasm and wait for their turn to speak out.
Further reading: Women “Should Remain Silent” – A Study of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35