Several passages in 1 Corinthians have been used to claim that women should not be leaders or teachers in the Church. I think St. Paul would be appalled by such an interpretation and that significant scholarly evidence would support this conclusion. (There are many places in this post where I am following the good work by Phillip Payne in his book cited below.)
As I said in the first post in this series, I don’t consider my work in this area to be my own or original. I am just reviewing widely accepted scholarship on these issues. In that first post, I reviewed those New Testament passages that straight-forwardly feature prominent women leaders. In the final post in the series, I explain that Paul’s apparent prohibition of women’s leadership in 1 Timothy is actually a misreading. In this post, I will walk through the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians and show the ways that they proclaim the leadership authority of women.
The first relevant passage is that of 1 Corinthians 7:3-5: “3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The passage that I have highlighted should be considered one of the most revolutionary in Paul’s writing’s on gender and marriage. Wives did not have any legal authority over a husband’s body, though a husband did have legal authority over the wife’s body. This did not explicitly extend to sexual permissions for the husband, but did pertain to her having sexual relations with others. In this context, Paul speaks a radically egalitarian word over the relationships between wives and husbands. Verse 4 speaks directly to “authority” over the body, but the entire chapter has remarkably symmetrical instructions for both genders.
Those that presume that the wife is to have no form of spiritual leadership of her husband will be particularly perplexed by Paul’s instructions to wives: “For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband” (v. 14) and then later, “How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband” (v. 16)?
Later in the same chapter, Paul also directs widows and virgins to remain single. “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.” Paul gives these instructions about singleness because he expects that the Lord will return quickly and it is therefore necessary to be about the proclamation of the Gospel. What might it mean that these widows and virgins would be devoted to the Lord’s affairs if he does not expect them to be proclaiming the Gospel in ministry? Surely this full-time devotion to the Lord’s affairs would require these women to “lead.” What else might they be doing full-time?
By far the most significant passage for our discussion is that of 1 Corinthians 11. Here too we see a vision of Paul’s egalitarian notion of gender roles.
2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
This is a passage that is covered in contextual issues that makes it difficult to interpret, but a thorough understanding of the Corinthian context clears up most of these matters. Verses 14 and 15 help us to understand that when Paul is speaking of covering or uncovering the head, he isn’t talking about wearing (or not wearing) a veil or a hat. Roman and Greek women did not do so. Jewish customs on this varied from place to place. Paul is talking about the length of hair displayed by both men and women, as a footnote to the NIV at this point indicates with an alternative translation (4 Every man who prays or prophesies with long hair dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with no covering of hair dishonors her head—she is just like one of the “shorn women.” 6 If a woman has no covering, let her be for now with short hair; but since it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair shorn or shaved, she should grow it again. 7 A man ought not to have long hair…). Men were expected to have short hair and women were expected to have long hair.
Art from the period shows that respectable women of the period wore their long hair styled up on their head as a natural “veil” that showed their commitment to their husband. It was her covering. For a woman to wear her hair down was to show her promiscuity and to have her head shaved was a penalty to her for adultery, as the shame from Verse 6 indicates. The Dionysiac cult had a prominent temple in Corinth and the women of this cult were known to let their hair down to “prophesy” and also engage in sexual debauchery.
It appears from the passage that some women in Corinth had taken the freedom to let their hair down in worship, even when they were praying and prophesying. He considered this to be a break from cultural mores and improper. This would be equivalent to modern American women wearing a short, low-cut dress or men wearing a Speedo…to do so is simply immodest. To do so in church is unthinkable. And Paul is directing the women not to do this.
His argument for why they should not is bound up with the reasons that persons wear hair up or down. The woman wore hair up as a sign of commitment to her husband. I think Philip Payne‘s explanation of why men having long hair is convincing. He explains that for men to wear long hair was to make them like a woman, so it was to their shame. Paul does not want them to blur cultural gender distinctions. Men should look like respectable men and women should look like respectable women. Men must look respectable because they are the “image of God” (v. 7) and to look disrespectful would bring shame to God. Women looking disrespectful (hair down) would bring shame to her husband. Both are to be avoided.
This discussion of cultural expectations and worship practices would be irrelevant to understandings of modern gender roles, except that Paul introduces the language of the “head of the woman is man” in this passage. Most Bible scholars agree: “head” is not a way of speaking of an authority figure in the Greek language as it is in English and Hebrew. We normally speak of the “head” of an organization and so on. NO GREEK SPEAKER DID SO. Metaphor’s are always culturally bound and often limited to particular regions or dialects. In Greek, “head” was rather a metaphor for the “source” of something. When Paul uses the language of “head” here he is speaking of Genesis 2 when the woman comes from the rib that is extracted from man’s side. He is the physical source from which she came. As Paul often does in 1 Corinthians, he counters this argument by arguing that man is born from woman so the two cannot be “independent” from one another. Woman comes from man, but man is born of woman.
Let’s be very careful here. Paul is not talking about husbands and wives (as he does in Ephesians 5, the topic of my next post). Though the Greek words for man and woman are the same as husband and wife, the context is not marriage but gender generally. Clearly not all women are supposed to submit to all men, so Paul cannot be arguing for this. “Submission,” as some have understood this text, cannot be all women submitting to all men. Further, and this is very important, in the same context he claims that “the head of Christ is God.” If “head” is a role of authority over, then there is a subordination within the Trinity, which the Church has declared as heresy. Rather, Christ comes from God (the Father) as his source when he is begotten. Head cannot possibly mean authority over because the persons of the Trinity have no authority over one another, they are equal in power and majesty.
The most important aspect of this passage for understanding women’s role in ministry is that these are all directions for women’s participation in prayer and prophesy. Women had taken these roles and now were needing direction for how to properly use them. Specifically, Paul is prohibiting them from taking up the impropriety that other Corinthian women religious leaders (Dionysian cult) had done and leading with their hair let down. Again we see that Paul is not critiquing their role in worship leadership. He affirms these women as leaders of the congregation, but gives further direction as to how to exercise this new authority appropriately.
The final relevant passage from 1 Corinthians is that of chapter 14: “34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
This passage is notoriously difficult, primarily because these verses do not flow well with those just before or after them (passages that pertain to ordering worship, but not women’s participation in it). But it is made even more difficult because 1 Corinthians 11, as we just read, gives explicit direction for how women should pray and prophesy. He cannot possible be saying that women cannot speak at all.
Several interpretations have been given of this passage. Some imagine that Paul is quoting a popular phrase and then refuting it in verse 36. Paul often does this in 1 Corinthians (“Everything is permissible for me…but not everything is beneficial…”), so this is a possible interpretation. Craig Keener, N.T. Wright, and Ken Bailey are among those scholars that suggest that this passage pertains to the disruptive ways in which people would often ask questions of one another or even of the speaker himself/herself as the teaching would go on. These scholars suggest a couple ways that this might pertain to women in unique ways. Bailey and Wright think it has to do with women being basically uneducated and therefore asking lots of questions of the men (and especially their husbands) during the teaching. Keener thinks that the women were asking men that were not their husbands. Given that these churches largely met in houses, it would not be surprising to confuse whether this is public space (where women did not speak casually with men that were not their husbands) and private space (where women could speak casually with men). So Keener thinks Paul is giving instructions, to avoid impropriety, for the women to not ask questions of the other men that are gathered. In all of these arguments, the assumption is that women were being disruptive in the conversation about the meaning of what was being said due to the lack of biblical education that most women had been permitted before they became Christians.
I used to argued just as these men do. I am generally very conservative on textual criticism (Textual criticism is the process of discerning from manuscript evidence what parts of the texts are most original. Many Christians are unaware that the various Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Bible are not all identical and scholars spend a good deal of effort to determine which is the most original version). So I was very hesitant to suggest, as many scholars do, that these two verses were not original to Paul’s letter. The interpretations offered above make sense of the letter and the other evidence around it. But I have been convinced by the work of Philip Payne, who’s work on gender in 1 Corinthians is really excellent, that these two verses were not original to Paul’s letter. Gordon Fee and many other conservative scholars agree with this conclusion.
Payne is an expert on the manuscripts available on 1 Corinthians. The most critical evidences that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 are not original to the text are as follows:
- As I have already stated, the text does not flow well with the rest of the chapter. This alone should never be considered sufficient however. It is only a clue that is reinforced by 2 and 3.
- The early Western manuscripts have these two verses below verse 40 in the text. Other early manuscripts have these verses below verse 33 in the text. This is typical of an “interpolation” whereby a note made by scribes in the margin gets inserted into the text by later scribes. One of the scribes that did so inserted it at the “top” of the marginal note and the other did so at the “bottom” of the marginal note.
- Payne has shown that an early 4th Century manuscript, the Codex Vaticanus (one of the two best manuscripts that we have of the New Testament) has a little mark in the margin of the manuscript (known as distigmai) in all of the places that the original scribe knew that there were variations of the manuscript. The scribe marked well known later additions such as the longer ending of Mark, John 7:53-8:11, and 1 John 5:7 as well as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Even this scholar in approximately 325-350 A.D. knew that these verses were of questionable authenticity. A very early (540’s A.D.) manuscript of the Vulgate, commissioned by Bishop Victor of Capua, did not include these two verses at all. Payne thinks there is good evidence in the manuscript that the bishop required that they be removed because he knew them to not be original.
If these verses are original to Paul’s manuscript then there are several scholarly explanations of how a text that is otherwise so out of line with what Paul has said can make sense in the context. I have reviewed these arguments above. But I have become convinced that Payne is right that they are later additions.
First Corinthians has often been misinterpreted by those that read the text as if they are the primary audience. Paul wrote the letter for a specific audience in the church at Corinth. If read as a text for that audience, then we see that Paul is arguing for radically egalitarian relationships and giving guidelines for the leadership of women within the assembly, not restricting them from it. I think some good work could be done in suggesting how the 21st Century church needs to use these texts in guiding ministry today. Paul is giving guidelines about how cultural norms should or should not determine was is improper or immoral, and he is generally quite conservative about not breaking with these improprieties, even while resisting the cultural norms regarding gendered subordination. I think it is a great mistake to suggest that the 21st Century application of these texts includes restricting women from leadership positions.
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Bilezikian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles. Baker, 2006.
Fee, Gordon. “Praying And Prophesying In The Assemblies” in Discovering Biblical Equality. Intervarsity Press, 2005.
Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Eerdmans, 1987.
Keener, Craig. Paul, Women, and Wives. Baker, 1992.
Payne, Philip B. Man and Woman, One in Christ. Zondervan, 2009.
Wright, N.T., “Women’s Service In The Church”