Notes on Prayer: 1 Corinthians 11:4-5ff

1 Corinthians 11:4-5ff

In the previous two studies on 1-2 Thessalonians, we saw how prayer played an important role in Paul’s letters, with the references in the introduction (exordium) and exhortation (exhortatio) sections framing the body of the letter. The focus was on Paul’s relationship to the Thessalonian congregations, with an emphasis on mutual prayer—that the Thessalonians would continue to remain faithful to the Gospel message, and that Paul’s missionary work in proclaiming the Gospel would continue to have success.

Prayer is given decidedly less emphasis in the letters that involve deliberative rhetoric (including forceful polemic) by which Paul addresses controversial issues. There is scarcely any reference to prayer in Galatians, for example, and it is also less prominent in 1 Corinthians. In particular, the framing sections of 1 Corinthians—a long and complex letter with an elaborate rhetorical structure—make very little mention of prayer. The thanksgiving in 1:4-9 resembles that of Thessalonians, but the positive aspect of mutual relationship (and the specific mention of prayer) is noticeably absent. This is not coincidental, as the idea of divisions (and divisiveness) within the congregations immediately takes center stage in the introduction (1:10-17). There has been a disruption in the relationship, and, indeed, throughout the letter Paul works hard urging the Corinthian believers to resolve the divisiveness and to strive for unity.

The primary references to prayer relate specifically to public prayer in the setting of congregational worship. This worship setting is one area where divisions within the congregations were manifest. And, since public prayer was an important component of the congregational worship, it is not surprising that Paul addresses it as part of his instruction to the Corinthians.

1 Cor 11:2-16 deals with the subject of the relationship between the sexes (between men and women) for those who have an active role participating in the public worship. This context is vital for a proper understanding of the passage—it deals specifically with women who function in a ministry role within a public worship setting. The charismatic nature of congregational life in Corinth meant that believers—both men and women—who where uniquely gifted (by the Spirit) in different areas were encouraged to exercise those gifts. It is clear from Paul’s discussion in chapters 11 and 14 that women were participating as prophets in the congregational worship setting. Paul does not deny the validity of this, whatever his personal preference might have been; he accepts women serving in this role, but would require of the Corinthians that they take steps to maintain a clear distinction regarding the relationship between men and women in these roles.

The issue, for Paul, clearly centers on those who speak, in the Spirit (in a ministry role), during the congregational worship. In verses 4-5 he refers to both men and women who are “speaking out toward (God) or foretelling [i.e. prophesying]”. The verb used is the common verb for prayer, proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”). The verb profhteu/w is translated literally as “foretell”, but this can be misleading, since the prefixed element pro– (“before”) can be understood in a temporal sense (“beforehand”), but also in a positional/relational sense (i.e., standing “before” someone). The latter is often the specific meaning in the New Testament, matching the denotation of the root abn in Hebrew, where a ayb!n`, usually translated “prophet”, refers more properly to someone who functions as a spokesperson for God, communicating His word and will to the people. Similarly, Christian prophets—those gifted/inspired by the Spirit—communicated the word and will of God within the congregation.

Gifted women are allowed to speak in the congregation—both praying (in the Spirit) and prophesying—as long as they did so with their head covered. The purpose and significance of this specific detail has been much discussed by commentators. I have addressed it at length in the earlier series “Women in the Church”, and will not repeat that discussion here. The symbolism of the head/hair covering was clearly important for Paul, though modern readers may not find all of his arguments entirely convincing. It would seem that charismatic tendencies within the congregation led many believers in Corinth to consider the gender distinction (of the older order of Creation) to have been replaced by the egalitarianism of the new order. And, indeed, Paul’s own declaration in Gal 3:28 (cp. 1 Cor 12:13), along with the general logic of his teaching regarding the spiritual unity of believers in Christ, points in that very direction.

However, in 11:2-16, Paul’s line of argument indicates that, while the old order of Creation has been transformed, it has not been entirely abolished. He draws upon the Genesis Creation account (vv. 8-9ff) as a primary argument for preserving the (hierarchical) distinction between men and women in that public ministry role—especially if the relationship of husband and wife was involved. Men should pray and prophesy with head uncovered, and women with head covered. This does not refer to private prayer, nor to prayer within the family unit—i.e., between husband and wife, which Paul mentions in passing in 7:5. He is addressing the specific context of the public, congregational worship—where men and woman function in roles as Spirit-gifted ministers.

However one interprets and responds to the detail of Paul’s instruction in 11:2-16, it is most important to keep in mind that his primary concern is to maintain a sense of order and unity within the congregation. The same is true regarding his instruction in chapter 14, where again the place of prayer within the congregational worship is addressed. We will be discussing this passage (esp. verses 13-15) in the next study.

June 20: 1 Corinthians 12:1-3ff

1 Corinthians 12:1-3ff

Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians open an entirely new window upon the early Christian understanding of the Spirit of God, compared with the Pauline passages we have examined thus far in these notes. Paul begins this section with the following words:

“And, about the (thing)s of the Spirit, brothers, I do not wish you to be without knowledge.” (12:1)

The precise meaning of the substantive plural adjective oi( pneumatikoi/ is a bit uncertain. It could refer to persons—i.e., “the spiritual (one)s”, or “the (one)s of the Spirit”, masculine in gender; however, a neuter plural seems more appropriate in context: “the (thing)s of the Spirit”, “the spiritual (thing)s”. Possibly the neuter usage anticipates the plural noun xari/smata in vv. 4, 9, but it is better not to read this word (i.e. “gifts”) into the translation of v. 1.

The phrasing in verse 1 suggests that Paul is responding to something written to him by the believers in Corinth—here certain issues dealing with “matters involving the Spirit”, i.e. the presence and activity of the Spirit among believers in the community/congregational setting. The first issue, mentioned briefly in vv. 2-3, is somewhat obscure and poorly understood by Christians today. Here is how the instruction reads:

“You have seen that when, (as people of the) nations, you were (led) toward the voiceless images, being led [i.e. carried] away, even as you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking in (the) Spirit of God says ‘Yeshua (be) set up (under a curse)!’, and (similarly) no one is able to say ‘Yeshua (is) Lord!’, if not in (the) holy Spirit.”

This advice has seemed rather peculiar to many readers; after all, what Christian would ever curse Jesus? (the noun a)na/qema literally refers to something being “set up” under God’s curse). One has to keep in mind the context of charismatic prophetic experience in the ancient world, by which a person, under the influence of a divine spirit, would be caught up in an inspired ecstasy, often manifest in unusual behavior and the utterance of strange words. This was well attested as prophetic phenomena in the early periods of Israel’s history (cf. the earlier notes on Num 11:16-30; 1 Sam 10:6ff; 16:13-15, etc), though there is rather little evidence for it in the later writings (including the Prophets of the 7th-5th centuries). The charismatic/ecstatic manifestation of the Spirit in the book of Acts (i.e. the Pentecost narrative, 2:1-13ff) would seem to indicate a special reappearance of the phenomenon, associated with the “outpouring” of the Spirit in the New Age. The prophetic experience in the early chapters of Acts is manifested specifically by the miraculous speaking “in other tongues”; however, Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, has in mind a much wider set of spiritual phenomena (vv. 4ff, cf. below).

Believers, under the influence of the Spirit, would speak “in tongues” or otherwise “prophesy” in ways that might seem strange or difficult to understand (thus the need for designated interpreters, etc). Some at Corinth may have been concerned about certain things that might be said in such a state; could people be “carried away” so as to utter something scandalous, false, or even blasphemous to God? Paul addresses their concern (such as it may have been) by contrasting the Christian state of Spirit-inspired prophecy (v. 3) with similar sorts of oracular phenomena among the pagan Greeks (v. 2). As people are led (vb a&gw) toward the false gods (“voiceless images”), they are sometimes “led away” (a)pa/gw, i.e. “carried away”) so as to utter strange and false things (under the influence of false or evil spirits). However, the Spirit-inspired believer cannot utter anything false or contrary to God. Paul states this in the starkest terms by contrasting someone uttering a curse against Jesus with making a declaration of faith. No one under the influence of the holy Spirit could say anything against Jesus; similarly, no one under the influence of a false/evil spirit could declare the truth of Jesus as Lord.

Among the spiritual phenomena listed by Paul in verses 7-11 is diakri/sew$ pneuma/twn, the ability to judge/discern between spirits—that is, between the holy Spirit of God and other (false/evil) spirits. The fundamental meaning of kri/si$ has to with separating out, i.e. making distinction, such as between the true and false. The author of 1 John deals with a similar question of discerning between true Spirit-inspired teaching regarding Christ and that which is “antichrist” (against the Anointed), deriving from false/evil spirits (2:18ff; 4:1-6). In such a charismatic setting, where Christians relied on Spirit-inspired utterance for authoritative teaching and guidance, determining what speech was genuinely from the Spirit was a definite challenge for believers at the time.

The manifestation of the Spirit in the book of Acts, as crystalized in the Pentecost narrative (2:1-13) and the citation of Joel 2:28-32 in the speech of Peter that follows (vv. 17-21), would suggest that all believers were to function as Spirit-inspired prophets. Yet, here in 1 Cor 12, Paul lists prophecy as just one of the spiritual “gifts”, though certainly among the greatest of these gifts (12:28; 14:1ff). It would seem Paul has in mind that only certain individuals would possess the gift of prophecy, though his exhortation in 14:1 (and the instruction that follows) implies that all believers can (and perhaps should) possess this gift; it may only be the immaturity of believers  that limits or hinders possession and use of the gift (2:6ff, 14-16; 3:1-4ff). The egalitarian principle expressed in Joel 2:28-29 / Acts 2:17-18, and realized, to some extent at least, in the early Jerusalem Community, would seem to be maintained by Paul (and others) in the Corinthian congregations. In the congregational setting, different persons could prophesy in turn, including both men and women, though with certain restrictions (cf. 11:2-16; 14:13-40, and my earlier articles in the series “Women in the Church”). Practical considerations meant that not all believers in the congregation would actively perform as prophets, even if that were the ideal.

There may also be a valid distinction between the settings of Acts and 1 Corinthians—that of Acts is the early Christian mission (proclamation of the Gospel among the nations), while 1 Corinthians 12-14 has in view the interaction of believers with each other, in community. One may rightly say that all believers are called to be prophets, in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel, while, perhaps, this role is reserved for certain (gifted) individuals within the Community setting. We may compare, for example, the situation in Acts 6, where select individuals were called upon to serve at the table, while the apostles (i.e. the Twelve) focused more exclusively on preaching and teaching. Yet, certainly, men such as Stephen were perfectly able (and gifted by the Spirit) to preach the Gospel with skill and power, and scarcely limited to role of diako/no$ (servant) at table.

The rich assortment of spiritual “gifts” (xari/smata) outlined by Paul in 1 Cor 12:4-11, 27ff (cp. Rom 12:3-8) certainly marks a profound development of the prophetic tradition regarding the Spirit which we see in the book of Acts. From the single, overriding idea of believers functioning as inspired prophets (i.e. spokespersons for God), with the special manifestation of speaking in the tongues (languages) of the nations (i.e., for the mission to the Gentiles), in 1 Cor 12-14, the Spirit is described as manifest in a wide range of “gifts”. Even so, Paul’s discussion does focus essentially on the same two phenomena central to the Acts narrative—prophecy and speaking in tongues. Here “tongues” appears to have a rather different meaning than in the book of Acts, where it clearly (at least in the Pentecost narrative) refers to the miraculous ability to speak/preach in the languages of the nations. In 1 Corinthians, by contrast, Paul seems to have in mind a special sort of ‘heavenly’ language with which one may communicate with God. He devalues it use and importance within the public, congregational setting, since there were significant challenges regarding interpretation, which made it better suited for private worship. Also, as one reads between the lines, it is likely that some at Corinth were particularly enamored with the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues”, and it may have been used among them as a status sign. Paul gives much greater weight to prophecy, since it represents the long-standing tradition of inspired communication of the word and will of God for His people. The close association between the Spirit of God and prophecy, in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, has been well documented in the earlier notes on “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”.