Don’t miss the forest for the trees.
In the well-known maxim above, I’m thinking of “the trees” as the numerous fine points of interpretation that we encounter when grappling with those 1 Corinthians passages that are frequently featured in complementarian /egalitarian discussions. In chapter 11, for example, these “trees” include the metaphorical meaning of kephalē and the phrase “because of the angels.” In chapter 14, the phrase “as the law also says” and theories about the authenticity of verses 34-35 quickly come to mind.
Please don’t misunderstand—there would be no forest without the trees, and I join many readers of Arise in being especially interested in each of those “trees” and even their several branches. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out a fact that typically goes unnoticed and unmentioned. A fact, a “forest” if you will, that is foundational to the nature and purpose of this letter from Paul to the Corinthians.
It’s simply this: 1 Corinthians was written to a woman. Yes, it was also to the Christians of Corinth. But it was prompted by a woman and her concerns about Christian life in Corinth.
Her name was Chloe. She was a leader in a Corinthian house church, and she sent a letter to Paul about problems in Corinth. Paul refers to “Chloe’s people” in 1 Corinthians 1:11. “Chloe’s people” are probably the three-member delegation whom Paul mentions later, in 1 Corinthians 16:17: “I was glad when Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus arrived, because they have supplied what was lacking from you” (NIV).
To be fair, not all New Testament scholars agree with me on the identification of these several names in 1 Corinthians. Some suggest Chloe was a resident of Ephesus (as Paul currently was) rather than a resident of Corinth, and “her people” were those who had traveled to Corinth and returned with a report. Those people could be her family, employees, slaves, etc. Honestly, we can’t know for sure Chloe’s role, but we do know for sure that she was in the inner circle of the scenario that prompted Paul‘s letter. That is to say, without her we might not have 1 Corinthians; without her, Paul would surely have written the letter differently.
The overarching situation (the “forest”) matters. Consider these illustrations:
Imagine a group of people discussing the merits of Robert’s Rules of Order. Some of them think Robert’s Rules of Order are obsolete and should be abandoned. At some point, it would be shrewd for someone on the opposing side to mention that the discussion is being held according to Robert’s Rules.
Another more poignant example: A group of Christian men is studying and deliberating the complementarian/egalitarian question. If one of the books being studied is written by a woman (regardless of the position it promotes), it would be ironic if the men came to a complementarian position as a result of their study. That is to say, part of the foundation for their belief that women can’t teach men would be the teaching of a woman to men! (Part of what makes this example poignant, of course, is that this very thing has happened many times.)
The broader scenario (again, the “forest”) matters.
It matters that Philippians was sent by Paul, a prisoner, to the Christians of Philippi, by the hand of Epaphroditus who had earlier brought Paul encouragement from Philippi and then fallen ill.
It matters that Galatians was sent to several congregations in a region where the work of Paul’s opponents was taking hold.
It matters that one of Paul’s letters was sent from prison, “To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and to Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home” (NIV). It matters that Tychicus carried both this letter and the letter to the Colossians together.
It matters that Revelation was written to encourage Christians to stand firm in the face of growing persecution.
And it matters that a woman was central to the scenario behind 1 Corinthians. It matters that Paul responded. And it should be emphasized that his response wasn’t anything like, “I’m not going to validate Chloe’s concerns by responding. After all, ‘women should be silent in the churches.’”