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Does the NT teach the subordination of women? An examination of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (part 1): Women-Injustice#10; Justice#21

Does the NT teach the subordination of women? An examination of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (part 1): Women-Injustice#10; Justice#21 June 17, 2021

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 are two passages cited by those who affirm male headship in the church and the home (i.e., complementarians).[1] And, on the face of it, these passages sure seem to support the notion that women are subordinate to men.

I will argue, however, that the best reading of these passages shows that the complementarian reading (i.e., male headship) not only contradicts what Paul was saying but it puts the interpreter on the same side as Paul’s opponents.

Women were praying and prophesying in churches (1 Cor 11:2-16)!

The question at hand in 1 Cor 11:2-16 is whether or not women were to have a head-covering as a sign of their subordination to men when praying and prophesying?

Note: the fact that women were doing so (praying and prophesying in church) affirms the elevated status of women in the NT. Paul even argues in the very next chapter of 1 Corinthians that prophets are second only to apostles (1 Cor 12:28).

Are these Paul’s words? Or, was Paul citing the words of his opponents?

Another difficulty faces the interpreter of 1 Cor 11:2-16: namely, one must discern if and when Paul was quoting his opponents in Corinth and when he was speaking for himself.

A key question, which is often overlooked by many, is whether or not Paul was responding to the Corinthians by citing their arguments and then giving his response; or, if the words in these passages are purely the thoughts of Paul?

Complementarians opt for the latter reading. They assume that all, or most, of the words in this passage are Paul’s.[2]

However, if these are all the words of Paul, two problems arise:

  1. Paul would be contradicting himself; and
  2. Paul would be setting forth a poor interpretation of Genesis.

If, however, we conclude that Paul was citing his opponents and then responding, the contradiction is a result of Paul’s response to his opponents.

Furthermore, the poor interpretation of Genesis would be that of his opponents’ words and not his own.

That Paul may well be citing his opponents in this passage is supported by the fact that in 1 Corinthians itself. In 1 Cor 7:1 it is evident that Paul was responding to a letter they wrote to him:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote.

The repetition of “now concerning” in 8:1, 12:1, and 16:1 seemingly indicates further instances in which Paul was addressing matters in their letter to him.

What was the problem(s) in Corinth?

Another problem here is that in order to understand 1 Cor 11:2-16 (and 14:34-35 also) we must determine the situation was in the church at Corinth. Complementarians, and even some who are not complementarians,[3] set forth an historical reconstruction of the situation in Corinth in which they suppose that the problems behind 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 were instigated by out-of-control women.

Complementarians argue that the women in Corinth were abusing their newfound liberties in Christ (praying and prophesying in church) and that Paul responds to them by putting limitations on them: i.e., they must wear head coverings (1 Cor 11:2-6) and they are to be silent (1 Cor 14:34-35).

I question this reconstruction. If, after all, the problems in Corinth were with the women, it would represent the only significant instance in the NT in which those who were among the oppressed in society were the ones causing dissension in the church.

1 Corinthians, along with the entirety of the NT, consistently overturns the plight of the oppressed and the marginalized. In fact, in the very next section of 1 Corinthians (11:17-34), Paul rebukes those in leadership of the church in Corinth (11:19) for their actions with regard to the poor: “you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing (1 Cor 11:22).

One of the problems, then, with the suggestion that this passage affirms the subordination of women is that it goes against the entire tenor of the NT, which consistently elevates the status of the outcast and the oppressed.

Secondly, throughout Paul’s ministry he has expended great effort to tear down walls that have been erected between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11-22), male and female (Eph 5:21-33)[4] and slave and free (Eph 6:1-9). The complementarian view would have Paul erecting a new barrier—women must wear head coverings to show their subordination to men—when throughout his writings he consistently tears down such barriers.

Lucy Peppiatt observes, “Those who argue that Paul’s views [as opposed to his opponents] are expressed in 1 Corinthians 11:3–10 must make a much stronger case for why Paul instigates practices that re-establish boundaries and divisions in worship between men and women.”[5]

It is my contention that it is far more likely that the trouble came from some of the men in Corinth who were struggling to accept women as equals. These men were declaring that women were inferior to men and that they must wear head coverings to signify their subordination.[6]

Peppiatt notes,

The Corinthian church was being dominated by a group of spiritually gifted and highly articulate teachers who were both overbearing and divisive men. Under their influential leadership, certain oppressive practices had been implemented, and other destructive and selfish practices had remained unchallenged. It was they who believed . . . that men and women should display signs of their own status before God, one another, and the angels in worship. Because, according to Genesis 2, women were created second, the Corinthians were teaching that they have a secondary place in the creation order, deriving their glory not directly from Christ, but from man. For this reason, they needed to wear a sign of authority/subjection/honor on their ‘heads.’ As man is the glory of Christ, and Christ is the ‘head’ of man, however, he must display this glory by remaining bareheaded. I imagine that these men could have been both powerful and forceful, pronouncing the ‘word of God,’ laying down the law, and arguing that if a woman was bareheaded this was tantamount to appearing before God as a prostitute and thus shaming the men, the angels, and God himself—she may as well appear shaven. They may even have articulated this in their letter to Paul.[7]

I will further support this position in my next few posts!

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[1] Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, 85; Grudem, “The Key Issues in the manhood-Womanhood Controversy, and the Way Forward,” Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, 47-49; Grudem, “The Meaning of κεφαλή (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, 145-48, 157, 164-65, 168-71, 179, 187, 192-94, 196-97; Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 124-39.

[2] Reading the whole of 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 as though they are the words of Paul is a mistake made not only by complementarians. Many egalitarians read the text this way as well. See Belleville, Two Views, 70-78.

[3] It must be acknowledged that most commentators, including egalitarians, present a historical reconstruction in which the women are considered the problem. See Peppiatt, Lucy. Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians, Cascade Books, Kindle Edition.

[4] See my post in which I discuss Eph 5:21ff

[5] Peppiatt, Women and Worship, 76.

[6] It also makes common sense. In a society in which male patriarchy dominates the culture, it is easy to suppose that men, who had been in authority all these many years and are now being told that women are equal in authority, would rebel against Paul and the church.

[7] Peppiatt, Women and Worship, 81-82.


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