Prophecy, Tongues, and Women in Church

By Pamela Lewis

A Reading from 1 Corinthians 14:20-33a, 39-40

20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. 21 In the law it is written,

“By people of strange tongues
and by the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people;
yet even then they will not listen to me,”

says the Lord. 22 Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. 25 After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

26 What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. 32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, 33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; 40 but all things should be done decently and in order.


Following the more familiar, “but the greatest of these is love,” passage frequently read at weddings, these verses expand on more controversial themes. While a legitimate gift of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues was used by some Corinthian believers as a sign of spiritual superiority rather than as a way to spiritual unity. In Paul’s view, this gift was meant to edify unbelievers and to serve as a means of motivating them to explore the Christian faith, not an action of one-upmanship for believers.

Paul also lays out clear directives for worship etiquette, which, grounded in love, should be orderly and harmonious so as to benefit the Church and to be a true reflection of God. For a church that was struggling and was undermined by immorality and spiritual immaturity, such guidelines were necessary in order to bring healing and unity.

And let’s look at some verses left out of this lectionary passage, 1 Cor. 14:33b-35:

As in all the churches of the saints, 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.

For many modern Christians, it is difficult to accept Paul’s teaching on the place of women in the Church. The stance seems sexist, contrary to other passages that speak of women’s spiritual gifts of prayer and prophecy (despite having to keep their head covered). In his insistence on unity, however, Paul may have been stressing the importance for women not to flaunt during worship their counter-cultural Christian freedoms.

We can be thankful that the role of women in the Church has grown, and that their contribution is incalculable. Paul’s exhortation to his “brothers” to be eager to prophesy and not to forbid the speaking of tongues can now extend to “sisters,” without whose prophetic witness the Church’s voice would be barely audible.

Pamela A. Lewis taught French for 30 years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New YorkerEpiscopal Journal, and The Living Church.

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