May 1: 1 Corinthians 11:10

1 Corinthians 1:10

Today’s note is a supplement to the discussion of 1 Cor 11:2-16 in the current series on Women in the Church (Part 1). This verse has been one of the most difficult to interpret of the entire letter, largely due to the way Paul brings together several key words and phrases in such a short and concise statement. The last phrase has been especially problematic. Here is the verse in the original Greek, along with a literal (glossed) translation:

dia\ tou=to o)fei/lei h( gunh\ e)cousi/an e&xein e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$ dia\ tou=$ a&ggelou/$
“Through [i.e. because of] this the woman ought to hold (the) authority upon her head, through [i.e. because of] the (heavenly) Messengers”

Each element of the verse will be examined:

dia\ tou=to (“through this”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) expresses the reason or purpose, i.e. “because of this, for this reason”. It refers back to Paul’s line of argument in vv. 7-9.

o)fei/lei h( gunh/ (“the woman ought”)—the verb o)fei/lw refers to an obligation or debt, i.e. something one owes, but is often used in the general sense, as in English, “ought (to do something)”. As I discussed in Part 1, gunh/ (“woman”) can mean specifically “wife”, just as a)nh/r (“man”) can mean “husband”. Probably Paul assumes the marriage relationship throughout the passage, though he does not limit the man-woman relationship strictly to this. Here the definite article (“the woman”) should be understood as referring to the woman who is acting in the role of speaker/prophet in the worship meeting, not necessarily to women in general.

e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold [the] authority”)—the noun e)cousi/a is rather difficult to translate literally into English; it has the basic meaning of ability, i.e. the ability coming from a person to do something, though occasionally in the sense of a right or permission granted by a higher power. The verb e&xw can mean “to have”, generally, but more concretely “to hold“. The expression in context is, “to hold authority upon the head [e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$]”—i.e., by way of the symbolic head-covering. There has been considerable debate regarding the precise meaning and force of e)cousi/a here; the word has been interpreted a number of different ways, each of which affects the understanding of the overall context of Paul’s statement:

    • To be under the authority of the man (i.e. sign of submission/subordination), according to the hierarchical chain of relation in vv. 3, 7 (cf. also Eph 4:22-24); possibly meaning specifically “under the authority of her husband”.
    • To have (protective) power against the Angels (cf. below), where the head-covering has a kind of ritual/magic purpose.
    • To have the power/protection (of the Angels)
    • To have the authority to speak in the worship meeting; or, perhaps, more precisely
    • To have the authority to speak as a prophet, etc.
    • To be under the control/authority of God’s created order
    • To have authority/control of her own head (or person), i.e. personal autonomy

In several versions (Bohairic Coptic, etc) and writings of the Church Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc), much of the interpretive difficulty has been eliminated by reading “covering, veil” (ka/lumma) instead of e)cousi/a. Several scholars have suggested that this gloss indicates that e)cousi/a may reflect the underlying Aramaic hynwflv (for a veil or headcovering) since the root flv can also mean “have power (over)” (cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 37 ff [citing G. Kittel]).

dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$ (“through the Messengers”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) is parallel to its use in the first phrase (cf. above). The “Messengers” certainly refer to heavenly Messengers or “Angels”; however, the reference appears so abruptly, apparently unrelated to the overall context of vv. 2-16, that it has caused commentators considerable difficulty over the years. The most commonly accepted interpretations are:

    • It is a reference to the Jewish tradition (Gen 6:1-4, etc) of the Angels who lusted after human women—the covering hides the woman from the sight of lustful Angels (and/or men)
    • It refers to ‘guardian’ Angels who protect the women, the head-covering being a (magical) symbol of this protection against evil (including the lust of men)
    • Just as the Angels (in heaven) are pure and holy, so should the women (who participate in the worship service) be pure, as symbolized by wearing the head-covering
    • It indicates that Angels observe (cf. 1 Cor 4:9) and/or participate in the worship meeting, so everything ought to be done decently and in order
    • The Angels are guardians of the created order, which is reflected by the gender-distinction and use of the head-covering

In my view, based on the context of the passage (esp. vv. 7-12), only the last interpretation is likely to be correct. This can be demonstrated, I think, rather clearly, when one observes the chiastic structure of vv. 7-12 as a whole. First, consider the precise parallelism of verse 10:

    • “through this” (dia\ tou=to)—i.e. through (or because of) the order of creation established by God (vv. 7-9)
      —”the woman ought to hold (the) authority upon the head”
    • “through the Messengers” (dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$), i.e. the Angels as guardians of the created order (implied)

Now note the structure of vv. 7-12 (with the statement of v. 10 at the center):

I leave open the possibility that the Angels may represent the new created order (in Christ), which is parallel to (but not identical with) the original order of Creation. In several places in his letters, Paul refers to believers in Christ as a “new creation”—2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; also Rom 8:19-23; Col 3:10 (Eph 4:24), and cf. Eph 2:15. Moreover, a “new age” has come in Christ, with the old having passed away (2 Cor 3:6ff; 5:17, etc). One is reminded of Jesus’ teaching regarding life for the righteous (believers) in heaven, where the sexual distinctions no longer have the same meaning—they will be like the Angels (Mark 12:25 par; Lk 20:36). It is possible that Paul understood believers to have something of this ‘Angelic’ status, in Christ and through the Spirit, even in this life (cf. 1 Cor 6:3; 13:1). In Galatians 3:28 (to be discussed in Part 3 of this series), Paul seems to declare that sexual differences no longer have any fundamental meaning for believers in Christ. Yet clearly, he did not teach that gender distinctions should be abolished in practice, either in the organized Community or in society at large, just as he did not call for the abolition of slavery (as a social institution). However, I do think it likely that he viewed the corporate worship of believers (the body of Christ) as reflecting a new order of creation—that is, the (old) created order transformed and perfected through union with Christ and the work of the Spirit.

A proper understanding of the statement in verse 10 demands that we devote a little more attention to the specific expression e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold authority”), as it is central (cf. above) to an interpretation of the passage as a whole. This will be done in the next daily note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, “A Feature of Qumran Angelology and the Angels of 1 Cor. 11:10” as reprinted in Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. J. Murphy O’Connor and James H. Charlesworth (Crossroad Publishing Company: 1968, 1990), pp. 31-47. Originally presented in the journal New Testament Studies 4 (1957-58), pp. 48-58.

Women in the Church, Part 1: 1 Cor 11:2-16

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

As I indicated in the Introduction, proper interpretation of a Scripture passage requires first a careful study of its original historical and literary context. Trying to interpret a passage out of context, would be like taking a brick out of a wall and then trying to assign specific meaning to the brick, whereas the individual brick really only has meaning in the context of its place in the wall. I begin with the historical and literary context, then follow with a number of key exegetical notes on the passage, before concluding with a summary interpretation.

Historical Context

First Corinthians was written by Paul sometime between 53 and 57 A.D., from Ephesus, to the believers in Corinth—that is, the congregations (house-churches) in the city taken together. Paul’s initial ministry work in Corinth took place c. 50-52 A.D. (Acts 18:1-17), just several years earlier, so these would have been very young churches. There had certainly been some correspondence prior to the writing of 1 Corinthians, including a previous letter by Paul (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-11). Much of Paul’s purpose in writing was to promote and encourage unity among believers; he deals with numerous practical questions and issues related to Church life, which may be divided into two categories: (1) problems which have come to his attention, and (2) questions addressed to him by the churches (cf. 1 Cor 7:1, etc)—the latter seem to be in focus throughout much of the second half of the letter, from chapter 7 on. Many of the questions and issues deal specifically with the organized, corporate worship of the congregations; as such, 1 Corinthians provides perhaps the earliest detail on worship-meetings in the New Testament period.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine the precise background to the matter Paul addresses in 1 Cor 11:2-16. Clearly it relates to the dress, or attire, of the men and women who take an active, leading (speaking) role in the worship-meeting; in particular, the covering of one’s head (and hair) is at issue. There is ample archeological and literary evidence indicating the use of head-coverings—by both men and women—during Roman religious ritual (cf. Witherington, pp. 232-9). The head-covering was used specifically by the person(s) who took an active role in the proceedings, i.e. presenting the sacrificial offering, delivering prophecy, divination, etc. (cf. Livy 10.7.10; Varro On the Latin Language 5.29.130; Juvenal, Satires 6.390ff; Witherington, p. 230f). There is some evidence for women performing religious ritual with their head/hair uncovered in the Dionysian and other ‘mystery’ cults (cf. especially the Andania Mysteries inscription, in Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum II [1917] no. 736, 4); there is also the traditional depiction of the Pythian priestess (oracle) at Delphi. It was customary, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish world, for married women to be veiled or with headdress, especially when seen in public, as a simple matter of decency and decorum. These are just some of the factors which may play a part in Paul’s discussion.

Literary Context

Study of Paul’s letters has benefited tremendously in recent decades by the application of rhetorical analysis—that is, the use of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) techniques of rhetoric, both in the structuring of the letter (i.e. epistolary form), and in the way different sorts of arguments and illustrations are utilized. The basic proposition (propositio) of 1 Corinthians can be found in 1:10—a call for unity among the believers and churches in Corinth—which also serves to express the main cause, or purpose, for which Paul writes. This is expounded initially in the personal narration (narratio) which follows in vv. 11-17, the last statement of which effectively centers the basis for unity in the Gospel and the cross of Christ (v. 17), rather than in the various factions and other influences at work in the churches (vv. 11-16). In terms of classical rhetoric, the main body of the letter is called the probatio (“proof, proving”), in which the author, by various means, gives the reasons in support of his point, and seeks to persuade his audience to accept it. The body of 1 Corinthians can be divided into two main sections: (a) 1:184:21, which addresses the divisions in the churches directly, and (b) 5:116:12, which deals specifically with various issues which threaten unity and proper Christian conduct/attitudes within the churches. 1 Cor 11:2-16 belongs to this latter group, specifically among those questions or issues related to organized corporate worship. The rhetorical context—i.e. the theme of unity—is clear in the short transitional section (10:31-11:1) which leads into this passage. An important subsidiary theme is that of believers’ willingness to subordinate the exercise of the (individual) freedom they have in Christ for the good of the Community (the body of Christ) as a whole.

Exegetical Notes

Verse 2—The introductory praise Paul offers in this verse (e)painw=, “I give praise upon [you]”) is a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentae (“capture of good will”), which the speaker hopes will cultivate a favorable response from his audience. Here it also serves a specific technique for moral/ethical suasion—i.e. ‘I hope that you will, in fact, (continue to) think and act this way’.

ta\$ parado/sei$ kate/xete (“you hold down [i.e. hold firm to] the things given along”)—this is the thrust of Paul’s statement, that the Corinthians will continue to accept and live out in practice the instruction they have received. The word para/dosi$ (parádosis), from the verb paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), is an important term in early Christianity, referring to the authoritative teaching (and example) given down from the apostles and their companions (i.e. the first Christian missionaries) to a new generation of believers. This “tradition” covers virtually every aspect of Christian life in the early Church. In a period before the widespread use of Christian Scripture, apostles such as Paul, and his fellow-missionaries, personally—through oral and written communication—served as a fundamental source of religious authority for the various congregations which were established during their ministry. Paul urges them to continue following his example and instruction, even in difficult matters such as he is addressing—”even as I gave (them) along to you, (I hope you will) hold firm to these things (I have) given along”.

Verse 3—Paul lays the groundwork for his position with an illustrative formula, summarizing the Christian community in a relational (and hierarchical) chain: God—Christ—Man—Woman.

qe/lw de\ u(ma=$ ei)de/nai (“But I wish [i.e. want] you to see [i.e. know]…”)—this introduces Paul’s instruction, what he specifically here wants them to understand.

a)ndro/$gunaiko/$ (“of man…of woman”)—the nouns a)nh/r and gunh/ (“man” and “woman”) can also mean “husband” and “wife”, so it can be difficult to determine if Paul is speaking about the sexes in general, or if he has the marriage relationship specifically in mind. Does he assume, for example, that the woman participating (prophesying) in the worship-meeting is married? This would seem to have some bearing on his argument regarding head-covering.

kefalh/ (“head”)—the force and meaning of this word here in 1 Cor 11:3ff has been much discussed and disputed by commentators in recent decades (cf. Thistleton, pp. 811-22 for a detailed summary). It has the fundamental meaning of “head”, in a literal (physical) or figurative sense. According to the latter, it may denote (1) a position of leadership or high rank (“first, foremost”), (2) a position of authority under which another is subject, or (3) the power under which another acts or comes to be. The question is complicated by the fact that Paul makes the man-woman relationship parallel with the relationship between God and Christ. If the woman is subordinate/subject to man, then, by implication, so is Christ to God; the full chain of verse 3 is formulated: “the head of woman is man, the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God”.

Verses 4-5—Paul states his position in these two verses, regarding how men and women, respectively, who actively participate in the worship-meeting, should treat their head (kefalh/). Note the wordplay with verse 3—here the “head” is taken literally. It is important to note that Paul is referring to those who take an active, leading role (i.e. speaking) in the meeting, summarized by the two verbs proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”, i.e. pray) and profhteu/w (“foretell, tell before”). The prefixed element (preposition) pro/ (“before”) can be understood as either “tell something beforehand, i.e. foretell” or “tell something before (i.e. in front of) others”. The New Testament usually has the former meaning, especially when referring to the Old Testament Prophets announcing the future (regarding Christ); however the latter meaning better fits the corresponding Hebrew abn, as referring to a spokesperson or representative of God before the people. In the context of early Christian life and worship, Paul clearly also has this broader meaning in mind, especially as prophecy (or prophesying) is regarded as the second greatest of all the “gifts” (charismata) of the Spirit (second only to apostleship), cf. 1 Cor 12:28ff; 14:1ff (also Rom 12:6). According to chapter 14, the uttering of ‘prophecy’ was central to the worship-meeting, similar to, and (it would seem) characterized as, both revelation and teaching. It refers primarily to the communication/presentation of the word of God—as such, it holds a comparable place to preaching and the traditional sermon of later times. In 14:26-31, Paul indicates that it was common practice for multiple persons to deliver a prophetic message at a meeting, though he recommends no more than two or three, in turn.

kata\ kefalh=$ e&xwn (“having/holding down [upon the] head”)—this refers to some kind of covering upon the head; it is not clear if Paul has something specific in mind, he seems to be speaking generally (i.e. anything upon the head).

kataisxu/nei th\n kefalh\n au)tou= (“he brings down shame/disgrace [upon] his head”)—Paul bluntly states that a man who prays/prophesies with something on his head disgraces/dishonors his head. The play on words (from v. 3) could mean that he dishonors Christ (his “head”) as well.

a)katalu/ptw| th=| kefalh=| (“without a cover[ing] down [upon] the head”)—for a woman who prays/prophesies, the situation is opposite: doing so without a covering on her head brings disgrace to her head. Again, according to verse 3, this could be taken to mean that she also dishonors the man (i.e. her husband, her “head”), and, by extension, Christ.

Verse 6—At the end of v. 5, Paul introduces a comparison between the shame of a woman prophesying ‘uncovered’ and that of a woman whose head/hair has been shaved off (i.e. cut by a razor, cura/w). In verse 6, he uses the parallel verb kei/rw (“shear”), which can be used of sheep, but also in the context of the Nazirite vow. Paul doubtless is indulging in a bit of rhetorical exaggeration here: he is trying to emphasize that this is no trivial matter; in his view, within the cultural-religious context of the Christian worship-meeting of the time, a woman participating in this way without head-covering, was shameful and scandalous. It must be admitted that the precise force of Paul’s argument is lost for us today.

Verses 7-9—Paul draws upon the Creation account in Genesis, establishing two arguments from Scripture: (1) Man is the image of God (v. 7, Gen 1:26-27), and (2) the woman (Eve) came out of man and was produced to be his companion (not the other way around) (vv. 8-9, Gen 2:18-23). In fairness, it should be said that neither of these arguments seems particularly compelling for us today; the first, indeed, is actually somewhat problematic. The original context of Gen 1:26-27 makes clear that “Man” (<d*a*) is best understood as (hu)mankind—male and female together—and yet here Paul seems to read <d*a* as “the man” (Adam), i.e. the male. There are, I think, two ways to interpret Paul’s specific wording in verse 7:

    • The man is the image and glory of God, while the woman is the (image and) glory of the man
    • Man (male and female) is the image (and glory) of God—the woman is (also) the glory of the man

The first interpretation indicates a strict subordination, in which it is hard to avoid the idea that the woman’s status/position is somehow subordinate to the man’s. The second view is less obviously offensive to modern-day sensibilities.

do/ca (“esteem, honor”, i.e. “glory”)—this word is typically translated as “glory”, but this can be somewhat misleading; “honor, esteem, dignity, etc” is closer to the fundamental meaning. It is used to render the Hebrew bodK*, literally “weight”, but also in the sense of “dignity, honor”, and is likewise translated “glory” frequently in English. The Genesis account (Gen 1:26-27) to which Paul alludes makes no mention of “glory”, but Paul has added this as a kind of interpretive gloss, it would seem, to make it more fitting to the man-woman relationship in his argument. It would be rather strange (and inappropriate) to speak of woman as the image (ei)kw/n) of the man; he has deftly substituted in “glory/honor/esteem” (do/ca) instead. Paul does not use the kind of reciprocal language as in 1 Cor 7:2-4 etc—he does not say “…and man is the glory of woman”. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul specifically has in mind the marriage relationship. Even so, in what sense is the woman (or wife) the glory/honor of the man? This must be answered in light of the conceptual framework of 11:3 (cf. above).

Verse 10—The statement is central to verses 7-9 and 11-12, both of which refer to the created order. This is key to a correct interpretation of this difficult sentence.

e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold authority”)—the noun e)cousi/a is rather difficult to translate literally into English; it has the basic meaning of ability, i.e. the ability coming from a person to do something, though occasionally in the sense of a right or permission granted by a higher power. The verb e&xw can mean “to have”, generally, but more concretely “to hold“. The expression in context is, “to hold authority upon the head [e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$]”—i.e., by way of the symbolic head-covering.

dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$ (“through the Messengers”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) is usually understood in terms of reason or purpose (i.e. “because of”). The word a&ggelo$ (ángelos) most likely refers to a heavenly Messenger (i.e. Angel), as commonly in the New Testament and other Jewish writings of the period. This seemingly ambiguous phrase will be discussed in detail (along with verse 10 as a whole) in a separate note.

Verses 11-12—Paul returns to the theme of vv. 7-9, that of man and woman (husband and wife) in the created order of things—but instead of a hierarchical (vertical) relationship emphasizing subordination, we find a reciprocal and complementary (horizontal) relationship emphasizing interconnection. Both aspects of the relationship ultimately stem from God (vv. 7, 12b), and are to be understood within the context of Christian unity—”in the Lord” (e)n kuri/w|). For more on the relation to vv. 7-9, cf. the note on verse 10.

Verses 13-15—here is a further argument from nature (fu/si$) and custom, parallel to the argument from Scripture in vv. 7-9ff. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to ‘judge for themselves’ is a rhetorical device—i.e. “surely you yourselves must realize…”—placing the argument in the context of reason and common sense. It is possible to be thrown by Paul’s syntax, but the argument in vv. 14-15 is quite simple: it is natural for a woman to have long hair, and a man to have shorter hair => it goes against nature (and is thus shameful) for a man’s hair to be long and woman’s to be short. A head-covering and long hair each serve, in their own way, as a peribo/laion—lit. something “cast around” one’s head (i.e. a mantle or hood). Long hair comes to a woman by nature, the head-covering by way of custom and ritual symbolism.

Verse 16—Paul finally appeals specifically to Christian custom and tradition. The word sunh/qeia refers to something (Christians) habitually do together, i.e. common custom. According to Paul, the custom of women praying publicly or preaching/prophesying in the worship meeting with their head covered (and the reverse for men), was something that all “the congregations [e)kklhsi/ai] of God” observe.

filo/neiko$ (“fond of quarrels”)—this adjective refers to someone who “loves a quarrel”; the element nei=ko$ connotes strife or fighting with a desire to gain victory. In English idiom we might paraphrase as “one who loves a fight and always wants to have it his/her own way”. Paul’s exact phrase here is, “if any(one) thinks/seems [dokei=] to be fond of quarrelling…” He appears to be anticipating some opposition to his instruction; it may also simply be a rhetorical device—i.e. even if you do not accept my arguments, realize that you are going against the accepted practice and custom of Churches everywhere.


In many ways early Christian life and worship represented something entirely new. In the Jewish Synagogue tradition, women were segregated from men and limited to private (silent) prayer during the worship meeting. This was not so in the early Christian Community, in which men and women, from the beginning it would seem, worshiped together side-by-side essentially as equals (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:1-4, 17-18). On the other hand, there was a tradition of women oracles and officiants of the religious ritual in the Greco-Roman (pagan) world. It is possible that Paul (along with other early missionaries) was attempting to navigate a middle way between these two competing religious-cultural approaches. Women could take an active, leading role, together with men, in the worship meeting, but only insofar as they worked within the proper order of things. This would seem to involve an established (and customary, cf. verse 16) dress code, whereby the women who spoke (praying publicly or prophesying) were expected to do so with their heads covered. Paul offers a number of arguments in support of this custom; it is not clear to what extent these are unique to Paul or reflect earlier traditional teaching. His arguments center around the relationship between men and women according to the order created/established by God. Most likely Paul (and others) felt that the (ritual) dress-code related to the worship-meeting expressed a specific Christian understanding—i.e. how men and women now relate to one another in the Community of Christ, which reflects a new created order. It is possible that some in Corinth felt that the new order (freedom in the Spirit) meant that one could ignore religious-cultural custom and convention. Paul responds to similar ideas throughout the letter (cf. especially in chaps. 8-10).

By way of summary, the following points of interpretation may be noted:

  • Women were allowed to take an active (speaking) role in the worship meeting. This included “prophesying” which, in the early Christian context, meant an inspired utterance, a communication of God’s word and will to the Community. It was central to the worship meeting (14:26-33), considered as among the ‘greatest’ of spiritual “gifts” (12:28-31; 13:8; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6ff), and may be seen as holding a place at least comparable to the traditional preaching of a sermon. There may be some similarity with words of “prophecy” in modern-day Pentecostal/Charismatic worship; but a closer parallel is perhaps found in the traditional Quaker service.
  • Women who filled this leading role were to do so with their head covered, while men performed with their head uncovered. The importance of this head-covering was three-fold:
    (1) It followed custom and decorum for women, both in the context of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) society, as well as their participation in religious ritual. There would thus be no cause for scandal when outside observers witnessed Christian worship.
    (2) It preserved a distinction between genders, which, if abolished in practice (and done so carelessly), could likewise bring shame and disgrace on the Community.
    (3) It was a symbolic reflection of the created order (as established by God), which likewise ought to be maintained within the Community.
  • The head-covering also symbolized the authority/ability of the woman to perform her (ritual) role (as prophet, etc) in the worship-meeting. It indicated that she (and the Community as a whole) recognized both: (a) her unique gifting (as a prophet, etc), and (b) the order established by God.

Application of Paul’s instruction in a modern-day (Western) setting is extremely difficult, since the overall cultural-religious context is so very different. Head-covering (and related dress codes) no longer have anything like the same meaning for us today. At one time it was customary for women to wear hats (and sometimes veils) when attending Church services, largely as a matter of pious routine, under the influence of 1 Cor 11:2-16; but this has been almost universally abandoned today. Much more important is the question of the active role of women (as speakers/preachers) in the worship meeting, as well as that of gender distinction—to what extent (and in what manner) should this distinction be preserved and symbolized in corporate worship? Central to Paul’s argument is the relationship between man and woman in the order of creation, which should continue to be reflected even in the “new creation” of the Christian Community (cf. the note on v. 10). Admittedly, Paul’s specific use and interpretation of the Creation narratives of Gen 1:26-27 and 2:18-23 is somewhat problematic for us today; yet it ought not to be simply brushed aside. Perhaps most significant of all is the entire issue of gender distinction for believers in Christ, especially in light of Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28. However, before addressing this verse, it is necessary to examine the other main passage in 1 Corinthians dealing with the role of women in the worship-meeting (1 Cor 14:33b-36), which I will do in the next part of this series.

References marked “Thistelton” above are to Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC]), Eerdmans: 2000, esp. pp. 800-48. A good compendium of modern scholarship (up through 2000), with extensive bibliographic notes.
Those marked “Witherington” above are to Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Eerdmans: 1995. Cf. also his Women in the Earliest Churches, (Cambridge: 1988).

Women in the Church: Introduction

This series of articles is the result of a request for a study on the topic of Women in the Church, from the standpoint of the evidence and witness of Scripture. It is presented here in commemoration of Mother’s Day (May 10th upcoming), though the question of the role of women (and of gender-distinctions of any sort) in the Church is applicable for Christians at all times and in all places.

This, of course, is a complex and controversial subject, which requires careful and unbiased treatment. I intend to discuss the most relevant passages of Scripture—particularly those in the New Testament—in an honest and objective a manner as possible. However, this should be considered only a starting point. It is hoped that the articles of this study will be enhanced and supplemented by other voices and viewpoints—by women, fellow sisters in Christ, including scholars, authors, and those serving in ministry—who can lend their perspective (and experience) to the subject.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this subject, like many in the Church today, is the wide gulf which exists between ancient and modern worldviews—that is, between the ancient Near Eastern (and Greco-Roman) world and modern Western society. The Scriptures were written and took shape within the former, not the latter; and, with each generation, each passing decade, the modern cultural and religious perspective becomes further removed from the ancient thought-world which served as the matrix for the Scriptural message. Well-meaning Christians today, who attempt to bridge this divide, often fall prone to two different kinds of distortions:

  1. Interpreting Scripture to accommodate the modern view, or
  2. Making the modern view and practice conform with what is believed to be the ‘correct’ view of Scripture

Great harm (and error) can result from each of these tendencies, when approached carelessly or without proper concern for the true Christian spirit. When dealing with a particular passage of Scripture, a careful and faithful approach, in my view, requires the following (in order):

  1. Seek to understand the passage, as best as possible, in terms of its original literary and historical context
  2. Compare the passage with the Christian message as a whole—i.e. as preserved in the Gospel, the New Testament writings (including the Old Testament background), and (early) tradition
  3. Interpret and apply the passage in light of our modern context, as expressed in various forms or practical situations

In these articles, I will be focusing primarily on the first of these steps, though without neglecting the last two. However, ultimately I leave it to the reader to address the third step, according to his or her conscience and the insight of the wider Community.

My approach will be to begin with the passages in the New Testament which relate most directly to the subject—namely, the several key passages from the Pauline letters, which I will be discussing in detail in the upcoming articles. Next, I will supplement this study with a brief examination of the remainder of relevant references in the Pauline corpus, followed by: (a) a discussion of several relevant passages in the Gospels and other New Testament writings, (b) a brief survey of the Old Testament evidence, and (c) a concluding look at the witness of the early Church outside of the New Testament.

The main Pauline passages to be examined in some detail are: (1) 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, (2) 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35, (3) Galatians 3:28, (4) Romans 16:1-2, and (5) 1 Timothy 2:11-15. For many traditional-conservative commentators and Church leaders, the Pauline instruction in 1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:33-35; 1 Tim 2:11-15, etc, provides the authoritative (and definitive) word on the subject. Whether or not one ultimately adopts or accepts this view, it is necessary to take the following interpretive factors and questions into account:

  • The force and extent of Paul’s authority with regard to the instruction in his letters—is it directed at the particular circumstances of his audience, or is it meant to be taken as an (absolute) instruction for all believers?
  • The weight and value of the particular passage in relation to the rest of the teaching and instruction in Paul’s letters.
  • Paul’s particular instruction in relation to the rest of the New Testament witness (especially the sayings and teaching of Jesus)
  • The critical question of the authorship of the Pastoral letters (and Ephesians), whether these are to be regarded as authentically Pauline or pseudonymous—does it make any difference with regard to the authority of the instruction in these letters?

The next article (Part 1) of this series will deal with the first Pauline passage indicated above—1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Upcoming Posts

I am continuing to post articles and notes which originally appeared on Biblesoft’s earlier Study Blog site, along with newly-authored content. Here is some of what you will be seeing here over the coming weeks:

  • Women in the Church (Study Series)—an objective, unbiased study on the subject of the role and position of women in the Church, based on the New Testament and early Christian evidence, with a detailed examination of all the key passages. Posting of articles and notes will be centered around Mother’s Day (May 10th).
  • “Where Did Jesus Go?” Critical Notes on the Ascension
  • The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition—a series of Notes on the key passages and references to the Holy Spirit in the Gospels and the book of Acts; to be posted as Daily Notes running through Pentecost week-end.
  • The Sending of the Spirit—a three-part study series (for Pentecost, May 31st) exploring the accounts of the coming of the Spirit in the book of Acts and Gospel of John.
  • The Speeches of Acts (Study Series)—detailed articles and notes on all the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts.
  • The Law and the New Testament (Study Series)—a continuation of the series (the portion “Jesus and the Law” as already been posted); the next major set of articles and notes with examine Paul’s view of the Law.

Stay tuned for much more to come—including special series on the Gospel of John, Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament, a study on the Covenant-idea in ancient Israel and early Christianity, exploration of the ancient Israelite/Jewish festivals and how they shaped early Christian thought, and additional studies. This along with the regular features:

  • Saturday Series—weekly studies aimed as a introduction to the methods and issues related to Biblical Criticism
  • Sunday Studies on the Psalms—an exegetical study each Sunday on one of the Old Testament Psalms (in order)
  • Monday Notes on Prayer—exegetical and critical studies on important Scripture passages involving prayers and the topic of prayer.
  • Also the periodic special features: Ancient Parallels, Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight, and more!