Rethinking One of Paul’s Passages about Women

Rethinking One of Paul’s Passages about Women June 12, 2015

Lucy Peppiatt WTCThere are at least five reasons why we ought to reconsider the traditional (women ought to show submission to men in church gatherings) reading of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and these are Lucy Peppiatt’s five:

  1. The “spectacular array of contradictory commentary” on these verses should at least make us think we have not yet found a reasonable solution.
  2. The rhetorical readings of the passage, readings that genuinely resolve the tensions in the passage and with big themes in Paul’s letters, have not been refuted. They’ve most been ignored. Here she refers to Thomas Shoemaker, Alan Padgett, and Jose Vadakkedom.
  3. The historical reconstructions of what was at work behind the women wearing veils theory are far from convincing. Which, she asks in a telling way, is more credible? Women acting totally out of line and out of character or males emerging out of a misogynist culture acting misogynistically in church settings?
  4. The whole shame and honor “respect” Paul — according to traditional readings — wants to keep in tact goes against Paul’s constant rebutting of acting in a ways that bring honor. Put differently, asking Paul here to be pushing the honor categories of the Roman world asks Paul to act against his own teaching.
  5. Paul’s big theme of radical equality in Christ (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11) is mocked by radical inequality if the traditional reading of 1 Cor 11:2-16 is right.

Lucy Peppiatt, in Women and Worship at Corinth, is right on each of these tension points. The passage has not been explained adequately by those who think each of the words in our passage stems from Paul and expresses Paul’s own theology.

The problem at Corinth is a lack of unity in the gatherings. Oneness in Christ needs to be seen in concrete social settings. How they are behaving when it comes to worship, the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts mock their unity. The problems in these areas — note this term — is domination by those with more social cache. (This is my term, not Lucy’s.) So, and this is my reflection, one has to wonder if that same kind of domination is not being expressed in 1 Cor 11:2-16. (At least I do.) Paul’s “in Christ” theology, again, is radical and he knows it; we cannot expect him to undo it in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 by asking the Corinthians to act like the Roman culture all over again. New creation had been unleashed “in Christ” and it was to have radical implications at the social level of fellowship; it was not to be overturned out of respect to the Roman way of life.

Now to our passage: in short, the problems arise because we want to think 1 Cor 11:2-10 and 11:11-16 are expressing the same theology. A rhetorical reading, one that would have been “performed” well by the lector of this letter (see my post from yesterday), suggests these two sections do not cohere theology but conflict with one another because one is Paul’s response to the other.

Peppiatt, along with Shoemaker, Padget and Vadakkedom, proposes then that Paul interweaves words and views of the Corinthian male dominant crowd (found in the letter from Chloe) with his own responses. Thus, the passage would have been “heard” as Paul’s argument against head coverings, head coverings proposed by males who wanted females to be in submission in the public assembly.

Here is the scenario at work in the community of Christians at Corinth, and here she adapts Ben Witherington III’s scenario:

  1. Partisanship centered on particular Christian teachers.
  2. Cultural values of the wealthy that could lead to lawsuits.
  3. Unequal treatment of the lower status folks at the Lord’s table and dining in pagan temples.
  4. Hubris with respect to spiritual gifts.
  5. Disagreements about sexual conduct — inside and outside marriage.
  6. Disagreements on eschatology, esp the resurrection, and over reigning and glory.

Both Witherington and Peppiatt think — and #1 makes this clear — this is about some dominant males. The problem was well-to-do Gentile males. Bruce Winter, too, thinks there is a pervading masculine culture of dominance at work in Corinth (After Paul).

Peppiatt: Corinth was being dominated by some articulate, gifted males and they implemented some oppressive practices that was unraveling the freedom Paul’s gospel created. They wanted to display their glory, honor and authority on their heads (short hair, bald, etc) and wanted women to reflect their honor by what they wore on their heads. The males, in other words, were worldly in allowing the Roman culture of honor and shame to shape what worship looked like. This, she contends, is superior in explanation than the wild women theory.

I agree.

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  • Seraphim Hamilton

    This doesn’t work because the verses that are allegedly Paul’s quotation from the Corinthians have a parallel in 1 Timothy 2, where there is no question about whether Paul is quoting any other person. The idea of Woman as Glory of man is deeply rooted in the Old Testament. Adam goes into sleep-death, and awakes with Eve, his glory, at his side. One goes into death and comes out the other side glorified. Christ goes into the death of sleep and wakes up glorified, both in the sense that He possesses a glorified body and in the sense that His resurrection creates the New Eve, the Church. The same theme is evident in the book of Revelation. The description of the glorified Christ at the beginning of the book is matched by the description of His sister-bride, the New Jerusalem at the end of the book. The Church is the glory of Christ.

    Nor does the description of Woman as the glory of man degrade the Woman. Instead, it’s a description of the Woman as the “Glory of Glories”, a similar expression to “Holy of Holies.” Paul balances the scale by pointing out that just as Woman was made out of Man, so also Man has been remade out of Woman (I take 1 Corinthians 11:12 to be an allusion to the promise of Seed in Genesis 3, fulfilled in Mary’s birthgiving of Christ). The alleged contradiction of the passage with the rest of Paul’s theology comes from the fact that one derives a concept of equality from elsewhere in Paul and then allows that concept to be interpreted by modern feminism rather than by the rest of Paul’s writing. Paul uses the same language of equality in the Church in Ephesians, and there he is unequivocal that the wife submits to her husband- removing the theology of submission makes mincemeat out of the typology of Christ and the Church as well. Is there relationship of mutual submission there?

  • Westcoastlife

    No mention here of the analogy Paul is making? In verse 3 Paul tells us the head of men is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband. Which in ancient Rome/Greece simply meant the man was a citizen, with power in the courts and land, and women were subject to their fathers then their husbands, since they could never obtain citizenship themselves. Paul is reminding men they too have someone they must bow to, Christ. And how do you bow to a guy no longer on earth? The way Christ listened to and followed God while on earth. Regardless if the men are being misogynist here, in that world, men were the heads of their wives. So, he is using marriage as an analogy of how men should view themselves in relation to Christ. The problems start when we try to model marriage on Paul’s culture, the huge difference being – wives are now citizens too, so the analogy falls apart.

  • kwfoster

    These posts proposing a different way of reading I Cor. as a performance have been fascinating. I find myself wanting to see it written either with various proposals of places to place quotation marks or even written out in script form naming the different voices being quoted at different times. It requires some serious imaginative work to begin to read these passages differently (and more historically accurately). I’d love to see a collaboration between scholars and a talented actor to put together an audio or video version of these performed epistles.

  • Westcoastlife

    Oh please, even Paul is running around the ancient world uprooting social orders. People needing wives to submit are so transparent in their need for control and predicability. Try actually following God some time, and not your bank account. Pack your bags, and go somewhere where people have no order in their lives. Just a love of God.

    I lived in Nepal pre-earthquake. It made me aware of 2 things. First, you can follow God and nothing can go easily or orderly for you, following your so-called order is only because you live in a country that supports and favours marriage in their laws and tax structure. Women in Nepal are abandoned by their families, sold into sex slavery, and not even eligible for marriage if they leave Hinduism and become a Christian, as they are not born to the South Asian Christian caste (a high caste) etc. Secondly, if anything, Nepal is like the ancient fertility cults that surrounded ancient Israel. Hinduism is the last remaining ancient fertility cult – older than Hinduism by at least a thousand years. Nepal largely hasn’t developed, so it is still agrarian based as those ancient cultures were. Women perpetually live in a precarious situation unless the family has scads of money. In that ancient “order” (that I like to call bondage), women are controlled by their fathers, forced to marry whoever benefits their father’s family – be it land titles or willingness to take a low dowry – and then are used as servants in their husband’s family. Low down on the pecking order behind the men and Mother-in-law and any at-home daughters. Her only saving grace is if she has a son, then her status and value rises some in her new family. Suffice to say, I can rattle off story after story where that view of women needing to submit to maintain order is really a Satanic form of bondage. So I am proudly a Jesus Feminist as Jesus and I like to uproot social order and empower the disenfranchised to go and live for God, not for man.

  • Westcoastlife

    should read, re. Hinduism “older than Judaism by at least 1000 years.”

  • scotmcknight

    Seraphim, when one is making this kind of comment, we’d appreciate your genuine name rather than a pseduonym.

    Second, the first paragraph is analogous or indirect (glory is not used in Genesis so it is inferential at best).

    Third, Even the glory of glories is an interpretive move and there could well be others that do not fit your move.

    Fourth, equality in Paul — that is explicit in Gal 3:28 and for similar groups in Col 3:11. Deriving equality from elsewhere in Paul is a superior interpretive move than from indirections not in Paul. The charge from modern feminism must be demonstrated from Lucy’s writing in this book. I don’t see it. Not sure how you see the language of “equality” in Ephesians. Yes, mutual submission sets the theme, not just what a wife does to a husband.

  • Lucy Peppiatt

    Thanks for responding everyone. Just to clarify, I don’t do away with the language or concept of submission in my reading of Paul, as I am sure that he was committed to the idea of Christians submitting to one another. Secondly, reading Paul having made the assumption that he views men and women as equal in all aspects of worship and life is not, I believe, erroneous, but has its roots in scripture. Please don’t muddy the water by assuming that modern ‘feminist’ readings are by their nature erroneous; that is simply working on the assumption that patriarchal readings have always been and will always be correct. That there are a number of men and women feeling bold enough to re-read scripture from a new perspective that they actually believe to be an ancient perspective cannot be written off by labelling it as ‘feminist’. That is not a helpful methodological move. I am questioning the assumption that Paul is either a whole-hearted or a conflicted patriarchalist. I think there is enough evidence in the majority of his writing to warrant that question, and indeed, in the end, to deconstruct the whole idea.

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    Hi Scott,

    Seraphim is my baptismal name, the name most people know me by, and it’s the name I go by on Facebook, which is what I’m signed in on. My legal name is Thomas.

    I agree that the first paragraph is an inference. But it’s an inference that’s justified by the structure of the Bible. Eve is described as “built” out of Adam’s side. That’s language that’s typically used of cities, which are why cities are feminine in Scripture: Daughter Zion, Daughter Babylon, and so forth. In Ezekiel, God gives birth to Daughter Zion so that He can marry her: the New Testament unpacks Zion as daughter of the Father and bride of the Son, hence the theme of sister-brides (Song of Solomon 4:9, Rebekah is adopted into Abraham’s house, and so forth) running throughout Scripture. Zion is the sister-bride of the Son, and Revelation, which revolves around Genesis 1-3 in all sorts of ways, does use the word “glory” in speaking of what the New Jerusalem has in relation to her husband, Christ.

    As for glory of glories, it is indeed an interpretive move- but it’s the one I see as best making sense of the fact that Paul simultaneously teaches the equality of men and women and also the submission of wives to their husbands.

    As for your fourth point, I certainly agree that Paul accepts equality between men and women, in the sense that both have equal standing before God, are equally persons, and are equally loved by the Father. What I question is whether this is in tension with understanding 1 Corinthians 11:3 and forward as Pauline. I don’t think so. I think wearing head coverings in Church and submitting to one’s husband is compatible with the equality of men and women: the apparent tension appears to be the basis of the interpretive move articulated above, but I think that in order to create the tension, one has to import one’s understanding of what equality implies from outside of Paul. The overarching point I wanted to make is that unless one excludes 1 Timothy from the canon (as some indeed wish to do!), one has to understand 1 Corinthians 11:3 and forward as Pauline, because 1 Timothy 2 repeats those same phrases in ways that are clearly not quotations.

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    Paul says that women ought to submit to their husbands just as the Church submits to Christ. Your comment presumes that any sort of vertical submission is abusive, and I deny that presumption. Paul would similarly deny it, unless Christ is an abusive husband! Paul did uproot all sorts of social orders, but that doesn’t mean that he uprooted every order. As the Corinthians knew well, the taboo against incest was not uprooted by Paul’s gospel. Husbands were enjoined to look to the example of Christ’s self-giving love for the Church as they sought to love their wives, not to abandon the concept of male headship.

  • patriciamc

    Interesting points. Now, the way I’ve always read the Bible is that Paul could not create doctrine; all he could do was spread Christ’s message and instruct others on how to apply it. So, that’s why I see Ephesians 5:21 as setting the stage for how the rest of the verses are to be read. Basically, through mutual submission of husbands and wives to each other, Paul is giving an example of how to apply Christ’s command to love one another. So, it’s about relationship, even the head verses, and not authority and hierarchy. But I’m not a theologian….

  • GeeJohn

    Hello, Lucy. I hope your scholarship thrives and influences. A general question that doesn’t quite reflect what I think, but is close some days. Why care what Paul thinks? While not denying his mission impact, he seems to offer little in way of linkage to witnesses of Jesus actual teachings in many cases. A great man who bungled a few topics. John.

  • Lucy Peppiatt

    Hi John, thanks for asking. I know quite a few people who think like that so I get the question. I have three reasons (probably more, but three main ones.) The first is that I have a high view of the revelatory and authoritative role of scripture. I do believe the whole Bible has been given to us in order to reveal God’s character to us, his purposes for humanity, and then to show us how to live in the light of that. That means I feel compelled to wrestle even with the difficult bits and to try and fathom what they are saying to us. Second, I see rich connections between Paul and the Gospels, and even the OT, so I couldn’t agree with you on the idea that he has little to offer by way of linkage. I think he applies the teachings of Jesus in very concrete ways to his fledgeling churches. 1 Cor 4, 12, and 13 come to mind immediately for me, but there are multiple examples in his letters. I also happen to think that he had an extraordinary understanding of what it meant to live a Christlike life. I have a deep respect for Paul, and I actually believe the level of revelation that he personally received from Christ and the Spirit was profound, and that he was passing much of that on. I happen to share these views with many who then go on to read Paul’s texts regarding the role of women as a warrant for excluding women from leadership, teaching, and preaching roles. And that’s where I would part company with them. My reason for that is primarily because this latter view makes for (what I argue is) a radically incoherent view of Paul, his theology, his teaching, and his practices, I felt it was a puzzle that needed solving. I’m sure that we’re all capable of being inconsistent and a bit double-minded and compromising at times, but the inconsistencies here were, to my mind, too troubling and problematic not to be revisited. I lay them all out in the book.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I have never understood the whole “God is a god of order” argument, given that Jesus and Paul caused so much DISORDER that they were put to death by the powers that maintain established order! 🙂

  • Westcoastlife

    Paul tells slaves to obey their masters, but if they can gain freedom, to obtain it. Paul tells people (including women) it is better to remain single than marry. The early church, up until the 7th Century favoured celibacy for all believers (unless they came to the faith already married or couldn’t get out of it). The number one demographic of martyrs in the early church were unmarried women (virgins) who refused to marry who their father’s told them to. Why? to remain celibate and unencumbered for Christ.

    There are all sorts of points to be made from this. First, until an upper class Greek girl was married, she was expected to submit to her father, after marriage, her husband. The church, fresh from the apostle’s teachings, openly defy this expectation. IF they were defying their fathers, you better believe they were defying their husbands. Secondly, marriage was the end of freedom for young women, freedom to follow Christ as they wished. So, generation after generation sought to undo the shackles of marriage in order to be free to serve Christ.

    Paul and Jesus both don’t want us believers to put their faith or lives in other people’s control – just in Christ’s control. In many cultures, marrying meant wives loosing control – the passage isn’t a submission to husbands decree. That is a huge misreading of Paul’s letters, rather it is submission to the authority of a household. So, Paul says wives obey your husbands, kids obey your parents and slaves obey your masters, that is directly addressed to the head of a Roman household, assuring them that converting and treating others as equal won’t upend his authority, rather, he needs to also come under the authority of Christ. So who gets that command? Any husband? No. The head of a house. So, since my father-in-law is still alive, in ancient Greco Roman times, I would need to submit to him. My Mother-in-law, who would likely have a ton of power over me, would be expected to submit to my father-in-law too AND so would my husband as the “child” of my father-in-law. Until his death, he would hold the family estate, money and citizenship. He would have the legal right to take people to court and enforce the law in his own household. Hopefully, for my sake, he’d be good.

    Now a days, I don’t submit to my father-in-law (he wouldn’t expect me to, anyways). Nor does any woman I know in Canada, but I sure knew women in India who had to, they had to veil/head-cover around their father-in-laws and any older brother-in-laws (Hindus as well as muslims). So, no, the social order being analogized by Paul in this letter is a long-dead social order in the West. I know plenty of churches and Christians who insist woman submit to their husbands, but I have NEVER heard a sermon telling me or other wives to submit to our father-in-laws. We don’t need to, we have complete freedom to take someone to court, insist the law apply to us, call the cops on our own, etc. And, it would be a sin for me to give up my freedom and put my self into submission (control) of another person. I listen to God. If God were to tell me to do something my husband didn’t want me to do, hands down, I’m listening to God. There is no law in the land preventing me from following God as I hear him call me to follow him. For ancient women, they lost the right to follow God when they married. They either had to sneak around, or could end up killed for defying their father-in-laws.

  • Westcoastlife

    Not an axe to grind, but a frustration that people continually lift an analogy that works only in Ancient Rome (head of the households were the only people in a house with legal standing or power) and apply it as a formula for marriage. It doesn’t have anything to do with modern day, equal-before-the-law, citizens getting married. In any marriage in Canada, at least, both parties stand equally before a judge to apply to get a marriage license. Both parties have to sign for that licence to become legal. In a divorce, in my province, the judge splits all personal assets 50/50 (that freaks other nationalities out, but, be careful who you marry). Either spouse can apply for a divorce. When you hold that up to ancient Rome, it is not even comparable. A husband is no more a “head” over a wife today than an employer “owns” an employee. In ancient Rome, men owned their wives and workers (slaves) and were the only ones the law would protect. If either a wife, daughter or employee (slave/servant) didn’t do as the household head wished, they could end up as lion snacks. So, in order to prevent death and misery, it was wise to submit control.

    In our day and age, we are not called upon to give up our freedom, neither as an employee, nor as a wife. I would tell any Christian thinking of taking a job where they sign away too much of their rights and freedom to be cautious, since God is who we should trust as our provider and maintaining our freedom so we can follow God is something we always need to keep in mind in life. Likewise, women can now get married as equals. I would caution any woman to avoid giving up her freedom to keep a husband or church happy. My husband married me as an independent individual adult. He would never want me to hand decision making power or spiritual authority over to him. I’d view it as a sin, ultimately, I am responsible for my own decisions in life, so is he. No pastor or husband can hear from God for me, so I can’t give them a power God hasn’t. My job is to follow God. If by submit you mean respect, fine. But that is not how submission is being preached today, and that is a dangerous precedent to set – telling adults to hand over spiritual authority to another adult.

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    I’m Orthodox, and we still follow Paul concerning celibacy. But I’m not talking about whether celibacy is preferable to marriage, I’m speaking of what the order of marriage is.

    The idea that Ephesians 5 is simply based on the order of the family in Rome just does not work. Whenever Paul speaks of marriage, whether it is in Romans 7-8 or Ephesians 5, there is a very thick Old Testament background. In both Ephesians 5 and 1 Timothy 2, the background is Adam and Eve, which Paul explicitly quotes in Ephesians 5. Adam is summoned to guard and cultivate the garden. Eve is then pulled out of his side. The Serpent comes to Eve, and Adam is with her. He does not guard her. This is absolutely essential for understanding the whole nature of marital symbolism in the Old Testament. Priests are spoken of in the same terms that Adam is spoken of, and the priest is a guardian of the Bride Israel. That’s why Judges dischronologizes a Levite failing to guard his unfaithful wife. The Levite symbolizes God as husband of Israel, and the unfaithful wife symbolizes Israel. These threads (Adam as husband, Yahweh as husband) come together in the incarnation. But they both depend on the idea of male headship, where headship is understood in the sense that the man is the guardian of the woman.

    You might have to submit to your father-in-law in India or ancient Rome, but you wouldn’t according to the Bible. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” The symbolism of Ephesians 5 presumes that the union of the husband and wife creates a fundamentally new reality, one which is created out of the division of the old family and the union of the new.

    As for slaves, I again must register my disagreement. Slavery is a common theme in the Old Testament. When one comes to what Paul says about slavery, one ought not to jump immediately to Roman culture, but to Paul’s Bible. A slave is a part of the household, and the husband is the head of the household. According to Exodus 21, the slave who loves his master has his ear circumcised, at which point he becomes a son of the father of the household, paralleling Yahweh’s own transference of Israel from slavery to sonship. This is why the slavery of the slaves to Christ is a model of their service to their masters. Christ is the incarnation of Yahweh, and Israel (which becomes the Church) is Yahweh’s slave, adopted into His household as the son. We might discuss the ethics of this whole theology some other time; but the fact is that all of Paul’s theology is fully accounted for against his Old Testament background, and that includes his commandment about headship.

    Finally, a word on the idea that Hinduism is older than Judaism. This is one reason why it’s so important to avoid slicing Genesis 1-11 out of the Bible or attempting to absorb its ideas without accepting its history. While Hinduism is certainly older than the Sinai covenant, Hinduism is not older than faithful Adamic-Noahic monotheism. On this, I recommend Corduan’s “In the Beginning God.” Paganism did not precede the true faith- idolatry is not more basic to our humanity than faithfulness. Idolatry will naturally lead to oppression, as you point out.

  • Nancy2

    Right ….. A man’s wife is his property. A wife is just supposed to be the property the man loves the most and takes care of the best. And, the wife is supposed to be the man’s most obedient property. The man serves God, and the woman serves the man.
    Paul didn’t uproot slavery, he told slaves to obey their masters.

  • RJS4DQ

    Paul didin’t abolish slavery – but he also didn’t declare it right or good. We can look at 1 Cor 7 for example.

    1 Corinthians 7:21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.

    1 Corinthians 7:23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings.

    Personally I think that he has the same message for women. A relationship of mutual submission with a fellow believer is a good thing (although perhaps not his ideal, which is singleness). Other relationships are to be born with as necessary in a manner consistent with good followers of Christ.

  • Nancy2

    I’m not wrong …. I was being sarcastic (I should have been more clear). I agree with you. My comment was directed at the seraphim. I’m so tired of hearing “vertical submission” and “male headship”! I’ve been a member of an SB church for many years, and the SBC just keeps pushing Biblical Patriarchy. I have commented recently on Wade Burleson’s blog under the name “Nancy”.
    Sorry about giving you the wrong impression.

  • RJS4DQ

    Thanks for the clarification. It can be hard to detect sarcasm, and we do get serious comments like this on occasion.