Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World


The Pluralistic Environments of the Old and New Testament.

During the 1950s the Student Christian Movement series Studies in Biblical Theology published texts that highlighted the pluralistic environments of the Old and New Testaments respectively, the one written by G.E. Wright, the other by F.V. Filson.  Each pointed to the distinctiveness of the faith of each testament against the religious culture to which it came.  More recently, and based on up-to-date data, a collection of essays, One God One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism (ed. B.W. Winter and A. Clarke, Cambridge: Tyndale Press, 1991), has contributed further to this subject.

Religious pluralism, which has become new to us in western culture in recent times, was not new in the broader historical background of the New Testament era.  It was, in fact and in particular, a distinguishing mark of the Graeco-Roman culture of the world in which the heralds of Jesus went forth to proclaim him as the unique Lord and Christ.

 Paul’s History: from Pharisee to Apostle

I suspect that for his first thirty or so years Paul had limited exposure to the religious pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world.  True, he spent his first years in Tarsus in Cilicia but seems to have been shielded from Hellenistic influence in a conservatively Jewish family, perhaps through home schooling by a tutor.  His practical world was probably the home and the synagogue with little exposure in Tarsian culture.  By his mid-teens Paul was living in the holy city, enrolled in the academy of Gamaliel the foremost rabbi of his generation, where he would have been immersed in the judgments of the scribes.  Jerusalem was indeed the ‘holy’ city, free from the evils of the Hellenistic world.  Paul’s letters, written considerably later, whilst displaying a preacher’s gift for a rhetorical turn of phrase, inhabit the intellectual universe of the Greek Bible.  There is no trace of the literature of the Greek classics in the letters of Paul but echoes from the Septuagint abound.

His radical redirection from attempted destroyer of the faith to its passionate preacher began to bring him into contact with Gentiles.  During his so-called ‘unknown years’, the fourteen years between the Damascus ‘call’ and the Jerusalem ‘agreement’ that he should go to the Gentiles, there is evidence of his foundation of gentile churches – in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41).  Titus, the uncircumcised ‘Greek’ who accompanied Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem, is a prominent example of a Gentile who had become a Christian during the decade or so that Paul spent in the ‘regions of Syria and of Cilicia’ where his proclamation of the faith he had formerly attempted to destroy had come repeatedly to the attention of the churches in Judea (Gal. 1:21-23).

The big question, though, is: Were Titus and the members of the Syrian and Cilician gentile churches  God-fearers or idolaters?  Francis Watson argued that Paul did not begin to evangelize outright Gentiles until the journey to Cyprus, Pisidia and Lycaonia recorded in Acts 13-14, having concentrated to that point in his ministry to Jews, a conclusion readily based on evidence from the book of Acts.  The early chapters of Galatians, however, strongly imply that throughout the ‘fourteen years’ Paul had been preaching the Son of God to the uncircumcised.  For their part, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer incline to the view that these Gentiles were synagogue-connected God-fearers.  This would help explain why Paul was repeatedly beaten in the synagogues (2 Cor. 11:24).  He asserted that the crucified Messiah, not the Law, was the true and only route to ‘life’ with God.

The evidence from Acts 15:23, 41 points conclusively to Paul’s ministry to Gentiles through his decade in Cilicia (based in Tarsus) and Syria (based in Antioch).  If Hengel and Schwemer are correct – that these Gentiles were mainly God-fearers – it would mean that the Gentiles Paul met were those who had already separated from pagan pluralism in their attendance at the synagogues, adopting instead the ways of Judaism.

In this case it would mean that Paul’s first missionary foray – which was in Cyprus and Southern Galatia – was the first occasion when Paul encountered outright pagans in any number, front on.

Paul and Idolaters

Paul’s mission letters, written during the decade of the westward missions (AD 47-57) in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia, give abundant evidence of former idolaters who were now members of his mission churches.

In Pisidia and Lycaonia (ca. 47/48)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods (theoi); but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain (Gal. 4:8-11; cf. 5:20 – ‘idolatry’/eidolatria)

In Macedonia (ca. 49)

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols (eido|la), to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come  (1 Thess. 1:8-10)

In Corinth (ca. 50-56)

Therefore, my beloved brothers, flee from the worship of idols (eidolatreia) (1 Cor. 10:14; cf. 1 Cor. 8-10 passim).  What agreement has                   the temple of God with idols (eido|la)?…Therefore. Come out from them, and be separate….(2 Cor. 6:16,17)

In short, the documents of Paul from the missionary decade (AD 47-57) reveal that he gathered into his churches significant numbers of idol-worshippers as well as those ‘God-fearers’ who had already left the temples to join the synagogues.

Mixed Churches

In Paul’s letters we are able to pick up references to Jews and Gentiles within the congregations of the Pauline mission.


From Galatians the many references to ‘you’ are directed to those Gentiles who have been negatively influenced by the Jewish-Christian ‘agitators’, for example, ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you’ (1:6); ‘O foolish Galatians who has bewitched you?’ (3:1);  ‘Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are no gods’ (4:8); (5:7); ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves’ (5:12).  In Galatians the ‘you’ are Gentile Galatians.

Nonetheless, buried within the text of Galatians we also find oblique references to Jews.  Paul’s review of Old Testament history and promises in chapter 3 is directed to Jewish readers, as summed up in chapter 4: ‘In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (4:3-4).  ‘We’ in Galatians are Jews like Paul and Cephas (‘we ourselves are Jews by birth and not gentile sinners’ – 2:15) but also the Galatian Christian Jews.

First and Second Corinthians

We know that the foundation members of the church in Corinth were God-fearers and Jews.  We would expect that First Corinthians would address issues that affected them, but apart from the reminder that he originally preached ‘Christ crucified’ in the synagogue – as in ‘the “Christ” [Messiah] who ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 1:23; 15:3) – it is difficult to find passages that reflect Jewish issues.  Wisdom from speech, porneia, idolatry, denial of end-time resurrection were issues for Gentiles.  It is otherwise in Second Corinthians where part of the excursus on New Covenant ministry (3:1-18) appears to be directed to Jews who were being influenced (by the ‘peddlers’) to think that the former covenant remained in place, unabrogated.  On the other hand, however, the appeal to ‘come out’ applies to those Corinthian Gentiles who continued to frequent the temples of Corinth (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).


In Romans Paul specifically addresses Gentiles (‘I am speaking to you Gentiles’ – 11:13) and they probably were amongst ‘the strong’ in 14:1-15:7.  On the other hand, he addresses those who ‘know the law’ – that is Jews (7:1) – whom also he addresses in symbolic terms as the ‘weak’ (Rom. 14:1-15:7).  The greater part of Romans is Paul’s response to criticisms that emanate from from a Jewish source or sources (e.g., 3:8; 6:1; 9:1-3).


Passages in Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans indicate the presence of Gentiles and Jews as members of the churches of the Pauline Mission.  These remind us of the pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world where Paul preached his message of Christ crucified and risen, whose members have been included within the churches (cf. Gal. 3:27-28 – ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…’).  Paul does not necessarily signal that his readers for the moment are Gentiles or Jews but they would understand who he was addressing in various parts of his letters.  Today we easily miss the nuanced references to Jews and Gentiles but the original hearers of Paul’s letters would not have been in doubt.[1]

Pluralism in Corinth

As already mentioned most references in First Corinthians relate to Gentiles.  From these we have a series of social snapshots of the kind of pluralism that marked gentile behaviour in the Achaian capital.   Chapters 1-4 focus on the wisdom that comes from rhetoric; from chapters 5-6 emerge of picture of Corinthian toleration of porneia and litigiousness; from chapters 8-10 the language of temples and sacrifices takes us into the world of Graeco-Roman temple worship; the prophesying and tongues-speaking in chapters 11-14 connect us with the oracular language of Delphi and the Pythian priestess; and the denial of resurrection in chapter 15 brings us into contact with Greek soul-based eschatology; chapters 1, 4 and 11 point to the deep social stratification between the ‘not many’ who were ‘haves’ and the great majority of poor free people and slaves who were the ‘have nots’ (with whom Paul identified himself).   First Corinthians reveals a pluralism of beliefs and attitudes amongst the Corinthian Christians, a pluralism that mirrors the pluralism of the city.

Tourists who visit the remains of classical civilizations like Corinth or Ephesus easily have the impression of ancient societies marked by order and beauty.  However, in the course of his travels in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia Paul would have addressed people who worshipped rocks, believed trees could be gods, owned sacred animals, accepted ritual castration and participated in temple prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual.[2]   Moreover, these were societies that crucified ‘difficult’ slaves, sanctioned bloody combats in the arenas, exposed their unwanted children to the elements and bought and sold men, women and children like cattle.  The world to which the apostle Paul came preaching the gospel of Christ was a pluralistic world, both in religion and ethics.  In reality it was by no means in all matters morally elevated or spiritually enlightened.

Corinth, like other cities in the Graeco-Roman world, was pluralist in religion, with ‘many “gods” and many “lords’” (1 Cor. 8:5).  Pausanias, the travel writer who visited Corinth some time after Paul, describes numerous temples and shrines to a bewildering array of deities in Corinth’s public square (agora) – for Artemis, Dionysius, Fortune, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Octavia the sister of Augustus.[3]

Paul adapts the Shema’

Paul’s proposition of the uniqueness of God and of Christ that he makes in 1 Cor. 8:6 is based on the great confession in the Shema’:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.

And you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and

with all your soul, and

with all your strength

(Deut. 6:4).

Yahweh had revealed himself to the people he chose in word and saving act and he was jealous for his name, forbidding the worship of other or alternative deities.

In First Corinthians Paul adapts the Shema’ to encompass Yahweh’s revelation of himself as the Father of Jesus his Son who is Lord.

there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for    whom we exist


one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6).

Paul applies his adapted Shema’ to the pluralism of Corinth.   In First Corinthians chapter 8 he reminds them of his catechesis when he established the church in Corinth.

We know that             ‘an idol has no real existence’ and

‘there is no God but one’.

Paul and the Corinthians ‘know’ that no reality exists behind man-made gods; they ‘know’ that there is ‘no God but one’.  Clearly, ‘There is no God but one’, is adapted from the Shema’, and is also found in various other statements in the New Testament, for example, ‘There is one God and Father of us all’, and ‘There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 2:5).

‘There is no God but one’ also echoes Yahweh’s own self-revelation of his uniqueness in, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’ (Isa. 45:5).  There it is affirmation clinched by denial, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’.  In the Pauline catechesis it is reversed, ‘there is no God but one’.  In pluralist Corinth, with ‘gods many and lords many’, Paul’s denial of the gods and his affirmation ‘there is no God but one’ ruled out the worship of any other deity.

That these gods are said to be ‘in heaven and on earth’ identifies them as current objects of worship.  Later he will say, ‘Flee from the worship of idols (pheugete apo te|s eido|lolatrias) and ‘what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons’ (1 Cor. 10:14,19). In the face of their stubborn continuing involvement in their temples (by some Corinthians) Paul urges in the Second Letter, ‘Come out from them and be separate from them…and touch nothing unclean’ (2 Cor. 6:17).  Paul regarded the worship of idols as defiling

The temple worship in question frequently involved the sacrifice of animals, which occurred on altars outside the cultic shrine.  Large drains carried away the blood from these sacrifices.  Moreover, cultic prostitution often occurred within the precincts of the temple.  Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘flee’ from the twin and connected evils of eido|lolatria and porneia (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14).

The gods do not exist despite the Corinthians belief that they do.  They are ‘so-called gods’ or ‘said-to-be gods’.  Yet though the gods do not exist the Corinthians who worship them are connected with evil spiritual forces as they pray to the effigies of Zeus, Artemis and Poseidon.  They are offering sacrifices to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).

The assertion ‘there is one God, the Father…and one Lord, Jesus Christ’ declares that only the Father and the one Lord, who is his Son, are the ways men and women are to think of God, to serve God and to worship God.  As Paul commented to the Thessalonians, ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1:9-10)

Against the plethora of deities in Corinth and elsewhere Paul is insisting that ‘all things’, that is, in creation and redemption, are ‘from’ the one God, the Father, but that they are ‘through’ the one Lord, Jesus the Christ.  The creation is an entity because its Creator, God is a unity.

By contrast the plurality of ‘gods many, lords many’ implied not the unity of the creation, but its fundamental dissonance, its fragmented-ness.

But according to the gospel everything is ‘from’ the Father and ‘through’ the Lord.  They, who together are ‘one’, are the source and means of the unity of the creation.  They, who together are ‘one’, are also the source of the objectivity, the other-ness of the Creation.  ‘Gods many, lords many’ was implicitly pantheistic and implied that ‘things’ were gods, to be worshipped.  Polytheism and pantheism go together.  But Christian monotheism de-deified the ‘things’ and put the creation at ‘arms length’ to humankind, objectifying it, making it subject to man’s enquiry, but not his worship.  Here the seeds of modern science were sown in the apostolic preaching, which would begin to bear fruit in late antiquity. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

The Unity of the God and the ethical life

First Thessalonians: Sexuality

Two passages should be connected.


you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

            and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who            

              delivers us from the wrath to come (1:9-10).


Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you  received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave  you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification:  that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour (4:1-4).

The ‘turning’ to God from the ‘many gods’ demands at the same time a radical moral ‘turning’.  In the culture of ‘many gods’ there was the acceptance of many sexual partners.  The temples of the many gods were the temples of multiple sexual encounters.  But the ‘turning’ to the God who is one required the commitment to one heterosexual spouse and to the care of the children of that union.  Closely connected to this new commitment was the ‘work ethic’ by which parents took responsibility to provide for their families.

Marital fidelity for the whole of life as an ethical response to the unity of God in creation and redemption occurs repeatedly in the Pauline corpus, no doubt reflecting Paul’s preaching and catechesis.  This in turn arose from the teaching of the Messiah, Jesus.

First Corinthians: others-centred living (agape)

All behaviour now is to be others-centred, inspired by love, for the good of others and for their moral and spiritual ‘up-building’.  But this is not merely to live virtuously, as a matter of cold duty.  All behaviour, whether truth telling, marital fidelity, purity of speech, sobriety, respect for the powers that be, working to support one’s family, contentment (the rejection of the idolatry of covetousness), gentleness and forgiveness all flow from the new relationship with the one, true and living God as revealed in the life, ethical teaching, death and resurrection of the Son of God.

The plurality of ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ allowed a plurality in behaviour, a lack of consistency, except that all behaviour was self-centred, not others-centred.  In Corinth each one said, ‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas’ (1 Cor. 1:12) and ‘All things are lawful to me…” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The word agape| was then of uncertain meaning and rare use and its practice was foreign to the pluralistic world.  But in the world that was the kingdom of God this new word agape reigned supreme, based on the revelation of the One God and the One Lord.  This is the antithesis of the ‘I’/‘me’ individualism in pluralistic Corinth.

The word agape and its related words fill many pages in a concordance of the Greek New Testament.  Just as advent of the computer has generated new language and acronyms, so the incarnation of Christ has generated a new agape|-based language.  ‘God so loved the world…’; ‘a new commandment…love one another, as I have loved you’.

It is striking that the passage where Paul affirms that there is ‘one’ Father, ‘one’ Lord in rejection of the ‘gods many, lords many’ is a passage where he affirms the indispensability of love (agape|) for the other person (1 Cor. 8:1-13).

            Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.  This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If                        anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if  anyone loves God, he is known by God (1                Cor. 8:1-3). 

‘Knowledge puffs up but love builds up’, that is, ‘builds up’ the other.  The man of ‘knowledge’ in Corinth who ‘knows’ that ‘there is no God but one’ and that there are ‘no gods’ and ‘no lords’, but yet who eats food in an idol’s temple is outwardly still an idolater, still in effect an idolater, despite his theoretically true but privatively held ‘knowledge’ about God and ‘no gods’.

‘Puffed up’ by his ‘knowledge’, true as it is, it nonetheless means that he does not ‘know as he ought to know’.  For to truly to ‘know’ the One God is to express that knowledge in truly loving the other person.  A self-centred knowing of God – even if the knowledge is accurate – that does not love the neighbour is not ‘a knowing’ of God at all, despite the truth and accuracy of that theoretical knowledge.  These are scary words for theologians and their students.  The overwhelming number of German pastors contemporary with Bonhoeffer were rock solid about justification by faith but went along with the Nazis in their hatred of the Jews, in acquiescing in the ‘final solution’.

When we read First Corinthians we find there is a single Corinthian ethic underlying the many issues Paul deals with.  Underlying factionalism, fornication, litigiousness, temple attendance, the eucharistic meal, tongues-speaking and resurrection denial, there is one Corinthian foible.  ‘Each one of you says, I’; ‘all things are lawful for me’.  Life in pluralistic Corinth was all about ‘I…me’.

The theological worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-centredness’ went together. Societies that have a worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-first’ are societies with limited future, despite their wealth and technological achievement.  Dissonant plurality in theology is inevitably expressed in the dissonant ethic of selfishness and points to inevitable social fragmentation.

It is for this reason that Paul repeatedly calls his congregations to exercise ‘truth-in-love’.  The Graeco-Roman context was one of endless squabbles and discord, a dissonance that was all too easy to express in the social life of the churches of Paul’s mission, but also today.  Not only is this discord debilitating for a congregation’s mission to bring Christ to the world, equally it gives expression to the ego-centred ethic that is the accompaniment of the pluralistic worldview.  The body of people who together confess the great catholic creeds must also be a people united in others-centred love.  Not to do so is to deny the ultimate truth of those creeds.

It is striking that in Paul’s list of 15 ‘works of the flesh’ in Galatians 5:19-21, which he says are ‘evident’, no less than 8 are social sins – enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy.  (Philo’s vice list has 141 items!)  Paul warns the Galatians against ‘biting and devouring one another’ and he pleads with them not to become ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’.  Whether Paul is addressing a congregation in Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Philippi or Rome, again and again the message is the same, his plea for unity based on love and humility.  It is not just because of a shared sinful nature that he must make these pleas.  It is because a pluralistic worldview implies a me-first ethical pluralism, a worldview that they claim to have abandoned.

The apostolic message directed the hearers to the One God (unity) in place of many gods (plurality); and to a single ethic, the ethic of love (agape), a way of living that is others-centred (a source of unity) in place of me-centredness (plurality, an inevitable source of division).  The agape ethic is a corollary of the of the Christo-centric theology.

Agape underlies every ethical challenge Paul makes throughout First Corinthians.  But it is an agape that is informed by the ultimate expression of others-centredness, the others-centredness of the Lord who was crucified for others.  Agape is no mere virtue, amongst other virtues, as proposed by the ethicists of Paul’s day.  This agape| was incarnated in the crucified man, the Kyrios.

The apostolic standard agape was and is a hard standard to attain and it is never fulfilled completely.  Yet our best efforts, as strengthened by the Spirit of God, make a radical difference to the way Christians live against the backdrop of the way societies are.  That is the power of apostolic teaching and the power of the Spirit of God.

Paul Barnett


[1]For example, 2 Cor. 3, which teaches the ‘end’ of the Old Covenant, was surely directed to Jewish Christians.  The Old Covenant was a covenant with ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31); it was not a covenant with Gentiles/the nations.  The ‘new perspectives’ on Judaism and Paul imply that the covenant with Israel still stands, despite Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 3.  But the covenant with Israel/Judah ‘ended’ in Christ and the coming of the Spirit.  Christian Jews in Corinth should understand that culturally they may remain Jews, but theologically they may not.  A true Jew is no longer identified by a circumcised foreskin but by ‘circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [= law]’ (Rom 2:28).

[2]D.W.J. Gill, “Behind the Classical Facade: Local Religions of the Roman Empire,” in One God One Lord, pp. 72-87.

[3]Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.6-7.

On Not Corrupting the Lord’s Supper

1 Corinthians 11:17-34
The Corinthians’ Problem with the Lord’s Supper

Paul was provoked to write because of scandalous behaviour at what he calls ‘The Supper (or Dinner) belonging to the Lord’ (kyriakon deipnon) when the wider community of faith ‘came together’ in the city (which may not have been weekly).  This probably occurred at night since the only ‘days off’ were pagan feast days in honour of the gods.  This may be the reason the ‘meal’ is called a deipnon, an evening dinner or supper.  ’Supper’ is a rather old-fashioned word, though it’s not easy to find something more suitable.

The problem was that the wealthier members who arrived first gorged themselves at a communal meal, some to the point of being drunk, while the (literally) ‘have nots’ – poorer members and slaves – were hungry when finally they arrived (11:17-22, 33-34).  In effect, the wealthier members created their own ‘private dinner party’ from what should have been a meal for all alike, rich and poor, slaves and free.  By their actions the wealthier members created ‘schisms’ or ‘heresies’ (11:18,19) in a community that should have been united in Christ in love and care for one another.  In other words, by expressing the sharp and unjust socio-economic divisions of the wider community they ‘despised the church of God’ and they ‘humiliated’ the (literal) ‘have nots’ (11:22).

With verse 21 Paul gets to the point of his argument, as explained by the introductory ‘For.’

each goes before before [others]
in eating his own dinner.

Some scholars suggest that Paul is critical because a small number of wealthy members ate and drank fine food within the triclinium or dining room (that would accommodate only about ten persons) whereas the rest of the members ate inferior food separated from them in the atrium or courtyard.  Attention is drawn to a description of a meal given by a wealthy host found in Letter 2.6 of Pliny the Younger.

The best dishes were set in front of himself and a select few,
and cheap scraps of food before the rest of the company.
He had even put the wine into little flasks,
divided into three categories…
One lot was intended for himself and us,another for his  lesser friends …and a third lot for his and our freedmen.

Does Pliny’s account point the way to understanding Paul’s displeasure with the Corinthians, especially when understood in terms of a small triclinium for the wealthy separated from an atrium for the poor?  To be sure, there were ‘have nots’ among them (verse 22) which implies that there were also rich members. The ‘have nots’ were ‘hungry’ and, presumably, (some of) the wealthy were ‘drunk,’ so well furnished were they with wine.

This reconstruction of the situation, however, depends too much on our limited grasp of the size of houses in Corinth.  After all, there are only a few houses in the Achaian capital which have been unearthed by archaeologists.  The few excavated villas in Ephesus, however, are significantly larger than those investigated in Corinth.  In any case it is pure speculation to say that the wealthy ate in the triclinium and the poor in the atrium.  It is equally possible that all ate in an atrium (if it was, in fact, a private home; it may have been a hired hall).

A better understanding is based on critical words which appear later: ‘When you come together to eat, wait for one another’ (verse 33).  So understood the ‘sin’ of the Corinthians was that some began eating the meal ‘before’ others.  It follows that those who began before others appear to have been the wealthier members who had time not only to eat but also to drink enough to be intoxicated and those who came later were the ‘have nots’ who were hungry.  Possibly these latter were slaves as well as poorer members whose only ‘food’ on their eventual arrival was the bread and wine of the Holy Communion.  In Paul’s mind the better endowed members should have waited till others arrived and, moreover, shared their food and drink with them.  That some were ‘drunk’ while others were hungry points in this direction.

Here we see something of Paul’s passion for the poor (cf. Gal 2:10), a passion he shared with James (Jas 1:9; 2:1-7; cf. 1:10-11; 5:1; 1:27) and which he expressed elsewhere for the ‘weak’ (2 Cor 11:29).  In this both apostles were following the example of the Lord (e.g., Matt 11:28; Luke 6:20; Mark 9:42; cf. Is 11:4), and the prophets before him (e.g., Is 2:17; Jer 22:16; Amos 4:1).

The Meaning of the Lord’s Supper

Like Jesus and the prophets Paul was deeply offended at this injustice by powerful and wealthy members of the covenant community towards the poor and the weak among them.  Paul’s point is unaffected whether or not the Remembrance Meal is part of a wider communal meal.  It was scandalous to him that while all were ‘equal at the foot of the cross’ they were unequal at the Meal at which the Lord and his cross was to be the focus of the members’ attention.

Thus Paul must tell them what it means to belong to the ‘new covenant’ by reminding them of the ‘tradition’ he ‘delivered’ to them five years earlier when he established the church (11:23-26).  He ends by issuing a dire warning that they will be ‘condemned with the world’ if they fail to recognise that the ‘coming together’ of the church is a sacred occasion (11:27-32).  Many are ill and not a few have died recently, which Paul takes to have been the displeasure of the Lord in his judgement of them (11:30-32).

Accordingly he tells them that the Dinner of the Lord is only metaphorically a ‘dinner.’  It is a sparse ‘meal’ consisting of some broken bread and wine from a cup.  By the rich creating a ‘private dinner party’ of food and drink it is no longer the ‘meal’ Jesus intended that they eat.  So what did the Lord intend when he instituted the Remembrance Meal at the Last Supper on the night he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot?

We find three elements in Paul’s words (11:23-26).  There is the action of Jesus repeated by the leader taking the loaf, giving thanks to God and breaking it and then taking the cup with wine and offering thanks.  There are the words of the Lord which the leader repeats over the loaf and the cup, ‘This is my body [broken] for you’; ‘this cup is the new covenant in my blood.’  Then, finally, those present together eat the broken bread and drink the wine from the cup.

The Corinthians’ failure to discern that all the congregation – rich and poor – is the ‘body of Christ’ is historically the first known instance of the corruption of ‘Table of the Lord’ (1 Cor 10:21).  Other departures were to follow.  Christians need to return often to the New Testament to ensure that their beliefs and practices at the ‘Table’ are in line with those teachings.  Otherwise distortion and corruption of the Lord’s command will occur and we risk his severe censure, even his condemnation.

Jesus’ ‘Meal’ is Semitic in idiom recalling the dramatic acts of prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel which gave power to their words.  The increasingly Gentile church after apostolic times, however, misunderstood this symbolism and spoke instead in ‘realistic’ language like Ignatius’ reference to the bread and wine as the ‘medicine of immortality and the antidote to death.’  Doctrines of re-offered sacrifice by episcopally ordained priests, transubstantiation and ‘real presence’ evolved over time.  The Reformers recaptured a truer grasp of Jesus’ intention, though many Protestants – perhaps in reaction to pre-Reformation errors – tend not to have the ‘high’ view of the Remembrance Meal we find in Paul.

Our Problem with the Lord’s Supper

One current problem is that we tend to focus too much, relatively speaking, on the consuming and not enough on the watching and listening. When Jesus said, ‘Do this’ he meant all three.  Yahweh told Moses and Aaron to institute an annual Passover Meal as ‘a day of remembrance for you…throughout your generations’ recalling the redemption from Egypt (Exod 12:14).  At the Dinner of the Lord the ‘doing this,’ that is the watching, the listening and the consuming by those present call to ‘remembrance’ Jesus himself. Furthermore, by ‘doing’ all three things those present at the Dinner of the Lord ‘declare the death of the Lord until he comes’ to one another.

Many Anglicans, myself included, feel that Cranmer in his BCP service showed deep insight into the biblical teaching.  To recapture Jesus’ intention that we watch and listen as well as consume I think that the act of breaking the bread and offering thanks for the cup should be clearly visible to all and that his words now repeated should be clearly audible to all.  Otherwise all the focus is on just one aspect, the eating/drinking, which seems to me not what Jesus intended as his way for us to ‘remember’ him.  Furthermore, Paul’s teaching that the ‘doing this’ proclaims the death of the Lord till he comes remains rather lopsided without due attention to the watching and the listening.

Who presided at the Table of the Lord (in the house of Gaius? – Rom 16:23) when the whole Corinthian community of faith gathered  (1 Cor 11:18; 14:23)?  Paul gives no clue as to the identity of the leader.  It is a reasonable conjecture, however, that the most senior presbyter present repeated Jesus’ actions and spoke his words as a remembrance of him.  At the Passover Meal the father of the household took the place of leadership.  In the synagogue the place of honour was given to the most senior elder.  It is probable that the early churches followed the same general principle of ‘experience’ and moral and spiritual ‘respectability’ to secure the dignity and significance of the Dinner of the Lord.

Cranmer’s linking of administering the Lord’s Supper to those who were ‘tried and tested’ for preaching in the churches is sound and should be followed should Lay Administration  become legal.  The idea that the Remembrance Meal is only valid and effective if an episcopally ordained priest presides at the table has no basis in the teaching of the apostles.  The related priestly and sacerdotal view of the Remembrance Meal as a re-offering of the sacrifice of Christ is clearly contrary to the biblical teaching (see Hebrews 9:23-10:10).

In short, the lesson of history is that the teaching of the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writings must be closely adhered to if Dinner of the Lord is to retain the meaning and significance intended by Jesus.  Not least, we should establish our theology and practice from the Bible and not by reaction to what others do or have done.

July 1999

Shameful Speaking: 1 Corinthians 14:35

September 1999

Paul says, ‘It is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:35).

But how do we square this with earlier words from the same letter in which he allows a woman to ‘pray and prophesy’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) ? Has Paul contradicted himself?

What is the answer to this problem?

1. Various Solutions

Various solutions have been proposed by scholars and theologians:

(1) The verses in chapter 14:33b-35 have been introduced after the writing of the Letter by someone else (so Gordon Fee). They are an interpolation. But Fee himself notes that the earliest and best manuscripts have the text as we find it in our Bibles.

(2) The setting in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was not the public and plenary meeting of the assembled congregation, but a private meeting (so John Calvin). But this is sheer conjecture. Paul is addressing both women and men in their self-presentation as with covered and uncovered heads in relationship to their public life in the church. Furthermore, it is clear that ‘prophecy’ occurred when the whole church assembled (14:23-24; 26).

(3) The women in 11:2-16 were single but the women in 14:33b-35 were married (so Schlüssler Fiorenza). Again, this is conjectural. But 11:2-16 is written against the background of Genesis 2, a passage about marriage. The whole point of the passage is that the praying and prophesying woman should acknowledge the ‘headship’ of her husband by bearing the sign of ‘authority’ on her head, namely, some kind of head or hair covering.

(4) Paul’s permission for a woman to pray or prophesy was a temporary diplomatic concession that he would overturn when he came to say what he really meant in 14:33b-35 (so Antoinette Wires). Apart from imputing questionable ethics to Paul it implies that he treated the Corinthians like fools.

Each of the above solutions is unsatisfactory.

2. Working Methodology

My working assumption based on thorough manuscript support is that both 11:2-16 and 14:33b-35 are authentic and that we must do justice to both passages. Many people, however, downplay or remove one or other of these texts so as to concentrate on the other. Feminist-inclined readers will somehow rid themselves of 14:33b-35 while anti-feminist readers will tend to ignore or explain away 11:2-16. Surely, to be true to the Scriptures and to the integrity of the apostle within this one Letter we must address both texts. Being selective on ideological grounds is not the way forward for genuine discipleship. We must allow the Bible to address us.

I have written about 11:2-16 in a short study called ‘Hair’ which is also on this web page.

In brief, let me repeat that Paul’s permission for a woman to ‘pray and prophesy’ was set against a specific problem at that time, namely, the failure of prophetesses publicly to uphold their husbands’ place in the marriage. This they were doing by discarding head covering, the contemporary cultural ‘sign’ of a husband’s ‘authority.’ Paul could have taken the easy option to forbid women prophesying outright, but he did not do this, nor should we.

But let me concentrate on 14:33b-35.

Our proper method is to stay close to the original text as we have it, and to suggest only those reconstructions of the Corinthian situation that are justifiable. As ever, we must set our text in context.

3. Order in the Assembly: 14:26-35

In 14:1-25 Paul has shown the Corinthians the relatively low worth of ‘tongues-speaking’ compared to ‘prophecy.’ Now in 14:26-35 he turns to give firm directions to bring order out of the chaos in the church meetings in Corinth.

That chaos may be inferred from
(a) his observation that ‘God is not a God of upheaval but of peace’ (verse 33),
(b) his insistence that everything be done ‘decently and in order’ (14:40), and
(c) by the specific limits he sets for (i)’tongues-speakers,’ (ii) ‘prophets,’ and (iii) women speaking.

(i) ‘Tongues-speaking’ is limited to two or three, each of whom must only speak ‘in turn’ (verse 27). Furthermore, one of the ‘tongues-speakers’ is to ‘interpret’ the meaning to the congregation (see on verses 13-16) otherwise the ‘tongues-speaker’ is to be silent.

(ii) ‘Prophesying’ is to be restricted to two or three speaking, with the remaining prophets listening in silence and ‘discerning’ what is being said (verse 29). If a ‘revelation’ comes to another prophet seated the speaker is to be silent (verse 30). This was to allow ‘only one at a time’ is to speak (verse 31).

(iii) ‘The women are to be silent in the churches’; ‘they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be in submission’ (verse 33a-35).

4. Shameful Speaking (14:33b-35)

We must note that in 11:2-16 Paul speaks of ‘a woman‘ (singular) praying or prophesying but that in 11:33b-35 he enjoins ‘women‘ (plural) to be silent and under submission. Evidently, Paul is now addressing women as a group. His direction that wives ask their ‘own’ (Greek: idious) husbands their questions at home (verse 35) suggests that women were seated separately from their husbands, as in the synagogue.

My suggested reconstruction of the situation Paul was seeking to redress is as follows:

* A prophet has spoken and a time of silence should have ensued before the next prophet arose to speak.

* Instead, various women seated together were breaking the silence by calling out questions.

* Furthermore, it seems likely that the disruptive wives were addressing the questions to their own husbands who were prophesying.

By this reconstruction the integrity of both texts 11:2-16 and 14:33b-35 is preserved. In both texts Paul was addressing differing aspects of the same problem, namely, a lack of submission by Corinthian wives to their husbands in the public life of the church. In the first, women were prophesying, but without the ‘sign’ of a husband’s authority on their heads. In the second, women were subverting their husbands’ authority by unseemly public questioning of their husbands’ prophetic utterances.

While the ‘subjection of wives to their husbands’ is uncongenial to many in modern western societies it is a clear teaching of the apostles (cf. Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Tim. 2:11; 1 Pet. 3:1). It must be noted that in each case this ‘submission’ is ‘wife-to-husband’ and not ‘woman-to-man.’ It is conjugal submission.

Did Paul establish this ‘submission’ rule for his churches of the Gentile provinces or did it apply to all the congregations of the apostles ? His injunction finds an echo in Peter’s words ‘Wives be subject to your husbands’ (1 Pet. 3:1) and suggest this wife-to-husband submission was common to the churches of the New Testament.

Paul’s appeal, ‘Even as the Law also says’ is unclear as to whether ‘Law’ means the Old Testament as a whole or just the Pentateuch. A further problem is that the verb ‘be subject’ is not found in the OT. One OT text possibly in Paul’s mind is the Septuagint version of Genesis 3:17 where God addresses Eve: ‘Thy submission (Greek: anastrophe – ‘way of life’) shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’

Paul was deeply concerned that the gathering of believers in Corinth be orderly. Meetings had become dominated by the babble of ‘tongues-speaking’ and the oracles of many prophets. Both ‘tongues-speakers’ and ‘prophets’ failed to wait until others had finished speaking. Wives were breaking the silence by calling out questions to husbands across the assembly contributing to the din and upsetting the order of the sexes. Such chaos did not reflect the character of the ‘God of peace’ in whose name they were assembled, nor did it facilitate the purpose of their meeting together, their ‘up-building’ (verse 26).

Not least, such behaviour may have brought the Christians into disrepute locally. After all, ‘outsiders’ did visit these meetings (14:16,23,24) and doubtless reported what they had observed in the wider community.

5. So is it Shameful for a Woman to Speak?

What is the ‘bottom line’ and ‘take home’ message for us here and now? It is that women, whether or not publicly ‘prophesying’ in the church should note carefully that their self-presentation in public touches their husbands role as ‘head’ and potentially affects the stability of relationships in the home. In short, Paul is urging that care must be taken to preserve a husband’s God-given ‘authority’ in the family. Of course, Paul’s words also support the principle of courtesy by husbands to wives in public, but that is not his main point in these two passages.

But is it always and under all circumstances ‘shameful for a woman to speak in church’?

Based on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 it is permitted and assumed that women did pray and prophesy in the assembly. There is a clear mandate for this in First Corinthians. For those who think otherwise I suggest (1) a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 in the context of the passage (verses 26-35) where it is clear that ‘speaking’ = ‘asking questions‘ in the assembly; it is not an outright ban on women ‘speaking’ per se, but ‘questioning,’ and (2) a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Those of us who claim to be Biblical need to be, in fact, Biblical, that is, take on board all the relevant scriptures. Liberals (among others) don’t like 1 Cor 14:33b-35 and excise this text from their canon. Conservatives need to be careful they don’t remove 1 Cor 11:2-16.

‘Prophesying’ I take to be speaking the word of God, with special emphasis on the blessings of the Kingdom and the woes of hell (see 1 Cor. 14:3, 24-25). ‘Prophesying’ does not simply equate with today’s ‘church preaching’ (which is probably quite close to the ministry of the New Testament ‘teacher’). Prophesying is an expression of agape/’love’ (1 Corinthians 14:1) and is a ‘gift’ that ranks high among the gifts of the Spirit for the ‘up-building’ of the congregation, in fact second only to apostleship (1 Corinthians 12:29). Is it right to silence the voice of women prophets in the church when the apostle Paul sanctions their ministry ? I do not believe we have a right to do this based on 1 Cor. 14:33b-35.

‘Prophesying,’ however, is a ‘charism’ given for occasional ministry that does not carry with it the routine ministry of an ‘office’ in the way the work of a presbyter or pastor-teacher does. Based on 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7 I believe the ‘office’ of teacher to the congregation is a ministry that should be restricted to married men. The week in, week out teaching of the faith by the pastor carries with it a special ‘authority’ which is closely connected with and an expression of a man’s headship in the family. Based on 1 Timothy 2:11-3:7 it is appropriate only for such a man to exercise this ‘authority’ over the families that compose the congregation.

But that aside I do not believe that it is ‘shameful’ for a woman to prophesy or pray in the assembly.

The above reconstruction and exegesis has been influenced by E.E. Ellis, Pauline Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pages 67-71, with some changes.