Does the NT teach the subordination of women? An examination of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (part 3): Women-Injustice#12; Justice#23

Does the NT teach the subordination of women? An examination of 1 Cor 11:2-16 (part 3): Women-Injustice#12; Justice#23 June 24, 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?

Upon examining 1 Cor 11:2-16, it makes the most sense of the passage, as well as the larger context of 1 Cor 11-14, to suggest that the majority of the argumentation in 1 Cor 11:3-10 are the words of the Corinthians, with a few interjections of Paul, and that 1 Cor 11:11-16 constitute Paul’s response.[1]

This suggestion not only makes the most sense of the passage and its surrounding context but also resolves a very apparent problem with the complementarian (male headship) reading. Namely, that 1 Cor 11:13-15, which contends that women should not have head coverings because their primary authority is God, contradicts the assertions of 11:3-10, which says that women should have head coverings because they are subordinate to men.[2]

1 Cor 11:2-16: a closer look

In looking more closely at the passage, we note that the argument begins with,

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (11:3).

It makes good sense of the text, and all that I have noted previously, to suppose that the Corinthians were postulating the first part of 11:3, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman,” and that Paul responds to them by noting, sure but “God is the head of Christ” in the latter part of 11:3.

1 Cor 11:4-5 then states,

“Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.”

These verses clearly contend that women are under the authority of men and because of this they should have a head covering. To place these words in the mouth of Paul would not only conflict with the whole tenor of the NT, as I have already noted, but would be entirely inconsistent with what Paul himself says in the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 and into 1 Corinthians 12-14.

Paul’s response to the Corinthian assertion that the women should have head coverings because they are under men is to note that both males and females are under God. Since God is the primary authority for both, women do not need to have a sign of authority on their heads to show that they are under men.

Paul provides his complete response and the conclusion to his argument beginning in 1 Cor 11:11. This is evident by the fact that 1 Cor 11:11 opens with Paul’s rare use of the particle “plen” (meaning: “yet, nevertheless, only, but, however”).

The importance of this particle as an indication that Paul begins to present the primary thrust of his argument is picked up by the scholar Shoemaker: “Another term that should be noted is plen v. 11. Although generally translated ‘only’ or ‘nevertheless,’ I believe this particle takes on a special rhetorical function for Paul. Although used only four times in his letters (Philippians 1:18; 3:16; 4:14; and here), it appears to serve as a pointer in each case to an important statement. It is a term that introduces Paul’s central theme in each context. Thus, I have chosen to render it: ‘The point is.’”[3]

In 1 Cor 11:11, Paul begins his response to his opponents’ claim that the woman originates from the man (arguing from Genesis 2) by noting that “in the Lord” neither is independent of the other and that all things “originate from God.”

For Paul, this means that,

“in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God” (1 Cor 11:11).

To the Corinthian assertion that the woman comes from the man, Paul replies, (yes, but), the man comes from the woman and “all things originate from God!”

It makes much more sense of the passage, and it conforms to the larger context of 1 Corinthians 11-14, as well as the tenor of the entire NT, which consistently uplifts the oppressed, to conclude that some of the Corinthian men were arguing that women needed to show their submission to the men by having their heads covered (11:3-10) and that Paul responds by saying that all persons are equally under the authority of God.

Paul then adds that she has long hair and that is enough of a covering (11:15).

Paul concludes his argument in 1 Cor 11:16 by reminding the Corinthians that none of the churches are doing what they are demanding:

“But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.”

In conclusion, I would note that the primary text for male supremacy doesn’t actually teach male supremacy! 

In my next post, I’ll address the “women must be silent” text of 1 Cor 14:34-35.


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[1] This is not my conviction alone. This understanding was first proposed by Peppiatt. In her book she references a number of scholars that support many of her conclusions, though none have advanced the thesis that Paul is citing the Corinthians and then giving his response, to the same degree that Peppiatt has done. I have taken Peppiatt’s arguments and reinforced them by connecting them even more closely with the larger scope of 1 Cor 11-14—something Peppiatt does only marginally.

[2] The Danver’s statement, which contends for male superiority, cites 1 Cor 11:7-9 in point 3 of their affirmations as an indication that male headship is established by God. But 1 Cor 11:7-9 contradicts 1 Cor 11:13-15. It makes the most sense then to conclude that 1 Cor 11:7-9 were the words of Paul’s opponents. The authors of the Danver’s statement are citing Paul’s opponents in order to make their case!

[3] Shoemaker, Cited by Peppiatt, Lucy. Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians (p. 102). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] This is an approach Paul uses often!

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