Appropriate Speech-Acts: Thinking Carefully about Who Says What When the Church is Gathered (Part 2)


In this post I’m building on Part 1. I want to focus on this: when the church gathers for corporate worship, and both men and women are given opportunities to speak, what are appropriate acts of speech for men and women? More specifically, if we say it is appropriate for a woman to prophesy when the church is gathered (1 Cor 11:5), then could they also preach? In short, I’d say Yes to Prophecy, No to Preaching.

However, I want to admit that what follows is my present attempt to work these things out. I am far from having all the answers and I am sure there is something in what I’ve written below that needs more work and likely some correcting. Feel free to leave a comment and help me think more clearly!

Pursuing Appropriate Speech-Acts

Clearly, there are various speech-acts that occur when the church is gathered. The sermon is not the only time someone speaks. There are prayers and prophecies and songs and hymns and spiritual songs, as well as a time of welcome or the giving of announcements. At any church on any given Sunday, various people will say various things. The question is, who should say what?

For Protestants, the central speech-act has historically been the preaching of the Word. When the Word is rightly handled, God by the power of his Spirit speaks to his people through a fallible human agent. Generally, as the church has gathered, this act of preaching been restricted to men who were able to teach. Why? Because preaching involves teaching, as Paul makes clear (2 Tim 4:2), and is not something a woman should do in the church (cf. 1 Tim 3:15) (for a detailed explanation of these things, Andrew David Naselli has an excellent commentary coming out with Crossway on 1 Corinthians).

Another speech-act that is historically found within the church is the speech-act of prophecy. Though there are arguments for the gift of prophecy ceasing, I’m writing as a convinced continuationist. I believe the gift of prophecy continues and should, therefore, find expression in churches today. Now, given my continuationism, you might (should?) ask how restricting preaching to qualified men fits with my view of the gifts. Doesn’t the Bible talk about women speaking prophetically in the gathered church? Indeed, it seems so (1 Cor 11:5). Then how can I argue that women should not preach but should be given space to speak prophetically?

In short, am I inconsistent? If a woman can prophesy, why can she not preach? That’s a good question and one we need to answer carefully.

Before diving deeper, however, it is important to note that when Paul calls women to be silent in the churches (1 Cor 14:33–35), he is not restricting every type of speech-act. Instead, he is prohibiting a woman from evaluating prophetic speech (cf. 1 Cor 14:30–33). This task is given to men (“let her ask her husband at home”). Therefore, a woman may speak prophetically, but weighing the prophecy is left to men. Thus, the call to silence does not mean every speech-act is inappropriate for women. Paul has something more specific in view.

So far, then, it seems prophecy is open to women but weighing prophecy and the act of preaching is reserved for qualified men. Yet, we need to dig into this a bit more.

Prophesy, Yes. Preach, No.

Importantly, when we talk about preaching and prophesying, we are talking about revelation. Prophecy is when God spontaneously reveals something to someone. This revelation is received and then spoken to the church for their mutual edification (1 Cor 14:3). The Bible is also a form of revelation. Specifically, the Bible is what theologians call special revelation (as opposed to general). So, we have two forms of revelation in view (prophecy and inspired Scripture). One comes spontaneously through human agents (prophecy) and one is found in the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments (Scripture).

When it comes to revelation via prophetic utterance, a man or woman can be the medium (1 Cor 11:5; Acts 2:17; 21:9; cf. Joel 2:28–32). And if a woman speaks prophetically, she must do so in a way that continues to uphold and not undermine the principle of male headship (that meant wearing a head covering in Corinth but I’m not sure what that looks like today). Yet, if a woman does prophesy, she is to remain silent when it comes to the weighing of prophecy (per 1 Cor 14:33–35). Testing the words and then applying them authoritatively to the church is left to men, particularly those who are apt to teach.

When it comes to preaching, the revelatory content is neither male nor female but found in the Spirit-inspired words of Scripture. The revelation has already occurred. Explaining and applying biblical revelation is specifically assigned to men who are apt to teach (cf. 1 Tim 3:2). Again, we know preaching involves teaching because Paul links the two explicitly in 2 Tim 4:2.

Thus, revelation comes to us in the written Word of God and sometimes through the prophetic speech of either a man or a woman. A woman can certainly be the speech-agent who performs a type of speech-act (i.e. prophecy) that delivers revelation to God’s people. Yet, the explaining and applying of revelation, whether it be revelation via prophetic utterance or revelation from the Scriptures, are left to male leaders within the context of the gathered community. In short, in my view, preaching, teaching, and weighing revelation fall under male leadership.

Thinking Practically About Appropriate Speech-Acts

So, at our church, we believe women can speak prophetically while the weighing of such revelation is left to male leadership. Preaching, authoritatively teaching and applying Scriptural revelation, is also left to qualified men. And yet, with all that stated, I want to move the conversation forward a bit more positively.

How so?

I firmly believe complementarians should think more carefully and creatively about what appropriate speech-acts look like for our sisters in the faith when the church is gathered. You do not have to agree with my continuationism to agree that at some point in the history of the church, women were actively involved in speaking prophetically in the assembly.

Given the involvement of ladies, it seems odd that any church would fail to give women a significant voice within the body when it is gathered. Furthermore, what other ways might we involve female followers of Jesus to actively engage when we gather as God’s people?

At our church, you’ll find women involved on the stage. Praying, reading Scripture, and leading worship are things open to the women of the congregation. Indeed, we love to see the godly women of our church up in front, speaking in various ways. In so doing, our congregation sees examples of women who pray Christ-exalting prayers, sing biblically-saturated songs, and hear feminine voices uttering the words of God from the Word of God. In our mind, none of these activities undermine male headship. Furthermore, over the last couple of years, we’ve found this a sweet aspect of church life together.

At this point in the life of our church, we are still working out and thinking through what the exercise of the so-called miraculous gifts looks like when we gather. We are not sure at this point but want to move towards a robust practice of the doctrines we preach. We have work to do, but it is work we will do. Someday, if you visit our church, you might hear a woman speak prophetically under the authority of the elders (in Corinth, head coverings communicated a woman was under authority. What that looks like today, I do not know). You’ll certainly hear women pray and read and sing. All the while, you’ll do so in a place that reserves the specific speech-acts of weighing prophecy and of preaching the Word for qualified men of the church.

We do not order ourselves this way because it’s culturally appropriate or because we are locked in the 1950s. No, we are trying, the best we can, to bow to the Word of the King, who rules his church for the good of his people and the fame of his name.

2 thoughts on “Appropriate Speech-Acts: Thinking Carefully about Who Says What When the Church is Gathered (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Appropriate Speech-Acts: Thinking Carefully about Who Says What When the Church is Gathered (Part 1) | Theology Along the Way

  2. Pingback: Appropriate Speech-Acts: Thinking Carefully about Who Says What When the Church is Gathered (Part 2) | Theology Along the Way – Reformed faith salsa style

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