Does the NT teach the subordination of women? An examination of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (part 2): Women-Injustice#11; Justice#22

Does the NT teach the subordination of women? An examination of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (part 2): Women-Injustice#11; Justice#22 June 22, 2021

There is no question that 1 Cor 11:2-16 appears to teach that women are subordinate to men. But does it really say that?

It is my contention that a close reading of the text confirms that Paul was citing his opponents in order to rebut them.

In my last post, I provided an overview of the problem in Corinth. As I noted, one of the issues behind 1 Cor 11:1-14:40 was that a group of men in the congregation at Corinth—at least a contingency of wealthy men—were asserting their authority over others—primarily women but also including the poorin order to shame them.

In 1 Cor 11:2-16, Paul responds to the Corinthian assertion that women should have heads covered when they are praying and prophesying in church as a sign of their submission to men.[1]

It is important to note that the theme of propriety in worship continues in 1 Cor 11:17-34. There Paul states, “But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse” (11:17).[2] Paul goes on to detail their abuses at communion where it appears that the wealthy were creating divisions at the Lord’s Supper and shaming the poor (11:22).

In 1 Cor 12:1-31, Paul contends against their abuses with regard to spiritual gifts. He begins by noting that all members of the body of Christ are equals:

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).

It is critical to stress that in 1 Corinthians 12 one of Paul’s points in his response to the Corinthians is to declare that all members of the body of Christ are equals. This itself is at odds with the complementarian (male headship) reading of 1 Corinthians 11. According to their reading, all are not equal—after all, the men are “the head” of the women (i.e., in authority over them).

It is also significant that 1 Cor 12:13 echoes Gal 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The only difference between 1 Cor 12:13 and Gal 3:28 is that Paul omits from his list of comparisons “male and female.” The complementarian (male headship) might have us conclude that perhaps the reason Paul omits “male and female” is because he has just argued that male is superior to female (1 Cor 11:2-16). But if this were true, it would contradict Gal 3:28—which explicitly lists “male and female.” And it would be at odds with 1 Cor 12:13 where Paul says: “We were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13).

Man is the head of the woman?

What, then, do we do with the assertion that “the man is the head of a woman” (1 Cor 11:3)? My response is that this statement was something the Corinthians, and not Paul, were asserting.

If this is correct, then those use 1 Cor 11:2-16 to advocate for male headship are actually siding with Paul’s opponents and not Paul.

That Paul is rebutting his opponents explains why Paul, in his discussion on the use of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), states that:

“the head [cannot say] to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21).

Paul is using their words and rebutting them. He is in effect saying, “If you think that men are the head of women, then you must understand that the head cannot say to the feet, I have no need of you.”

Paul follows this up by saying that,

On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (12:22-26).

Paul’s response then is in effect saying that though it may “seem” that women are “weaker” (1 Cor 12:22), God has

“so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body” (1 Cor 12:24-25).

In closing here, I would note that 1 Corinthians 12 continues and advances the argument from 1 Corinthians 11. This is why, when Paul lists spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:28), he places apostles first and prophets second. Why are prophets second and why is this important?

It is important because the question at hand in 1 Cor 11:2-16 was whether a woman should have her head covered when praying and prophesying (11:4-5). Women were prophesying! Which, Paul says, is “second” (12:28) only to apostles. In doing so, he elevates the role of the women who were prophesying!

We may now examine 1 Cor 11:2-16 in more detail. A close reading of which will confirm that Paul’s opponents were arguing that women were subordinate to men and Paul was responding to them.

This I will do in the next post.


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[1] It is interesting that most complementarians (male headship) who refer to this passage in order to support their view of male headship do not believe that women need to have their heads covered—which, if they are correct, is the very argument of Paul. It is my contention, as I will spell out below, that this is not Paul’s argument but that of his opponents.

[2] Interestingly many modern English translations insert “in the following directives” in 11:17 (cf NIV; NET; NLT; NRSV; and the MSG). Neither the NAS nor the NKJV include anything along the lines of “in the following.” Inserting “in the following” into the text, which is not present in the Greek, creates a disjunction between 11:2-16 and what follows in 11:17ff. I have been arguing that chs 11-14 are interrelated in that Paul is making an extended argument relating to the wealthy male congregants in Corinth and their suppression of women and perhaps the poor. When Paul says that he has “no praise” for them, he is referring not just to the abuses at communion, but the abuse of the women who were praying and prophesying and being forced to wear head coverings.

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