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 15, 2021

 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 are two of the more common passages cited by those who affirm male headship (i.e., complementarianism: or female subordination) in the church and the home.[1] I will contend that an examination of these passages affirms precisely the opposite of what the complementarian suggests.

In fact, I will argue that the best reading of these passages suggests that the complementarian reading of 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 is actually siding with Paul’s opponents rather than with Paul.


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

A first glance at 1 Cor 11:2-16 finds women performing tasks (praying and prophesying) that unquestionably affirm their elevated status in the NT. In fact, in the very next chapter Paul suggests that prophets are second only to apostles (1 Cor 12:28). This alone suggests that Paul was contending for an elevated view of women in 1 Corinthians.

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

The complementarian reading of 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 suggests that the problems in Corinth were instigated by out-of-control women.

Over the next three posts, I will argue that it is far more accurate to conclude that it was the men in Corinth who were struggling to accept women as equals. As a result, these men were attempting to retain their authority and trying to silence the women who were exercising their newfound liberties in church.

Must women have their heads covered 1 Cor 11:2-16?

There is a significant difficulty facing the interpreter of 1 Cor 11:2-16 from the outset: namely, one must discern if and when Paul was quoting the Corinthians and when he was speaking himself.

We know that Paul was responding to a letter they wrote to him (cf 1Cor 7:1). The question is: does Paul responding to the Corinthians by citing their arguments and then giving his response? Or, are the words in these passages only the thoughts of Paul? Complementarian readings assume that the words in this passage are Paul’s.[2]

I will contend that if these are only the words of Paul, two problems arise: first, he contradicts himself; and secondly, he sets forth a poor interpretation of Genesis.

If we conclude that Paul is citing his opponents and then responding, the contradiction is actually Paul’s response to them and the poor interpretation of Genesis is his opponents’ words and not his.

That Paul may well be citing his opponents in this passage is supported by the realization that in 1 Corinthians itself, beginning in chapter 7, Paul is clearly responding to a letter they wrote to him:

Now concerning the things about which you wrote” (1 Cor 7:1).

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

The problem is that there are some occasions in which it is difficult to discern when Paul is citing the Corinthians’ letter and when he is not.

Another problem here is that in order to understand 1 Cor 11:2-16 (and 14:34-35 also) we must determine what was actually happening in the church at Corinth. Complementarians, and even some who are not complementarians, set forth an historical reconstruction of the situation in Corinth.[3]

They contend that the women in Corinth were abusing their newfound liberties in Christ (praying and prophesying in church) and that Paul responds to this by putting limitations on the women: i.e., they must wear heading coverings (1 Cor 11:2-6) and they are silenced (1 Cor 14:34-35).

I would begin by questioning 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 women were causing a major rift in a 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 (1 Cor 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 affirms the equality of the outcast and the oppressed.[4]

In addition, throughout Paul’s ministry, he expended great effort to tear down walls that were erected between Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2:11-22), male and female (Eph 5:21-33)[5] 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.

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.”[6]

I would contend that it was the men who were causing the rift. It was they, and not Paul, that were attempting to restrict the women by mandating that they wear head coverings.

This, as I will argue over the next two posts, is not supported by the text of 1 Corinthians 11. Nor does it fit with the rest of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11-14.[7]

My argument will build on the work of Lucy Peppiatt.[8] I will close this post with an extensive quote from her and then I will expand on her argument in the next two posts.

Peppiatt contends,

“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.[9]

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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] The only other NT passage one may cite is 1 Timothy 2. This passage, however, which does restrict women from pastoral ministry, does not do so because they are inferior. Consequently, 1 Cor 11 and 14 would be alone in the entire NT in asserting that women are inferior.

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

[6] Peppiatt, Women and Worship, 76.

[7] 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.

[8] Peppiatt, Women and Worship.

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

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