On Women in Church Leadership: 1 Cor 11:2–16

Cards on the table, I don’t think there is any role in church leadership that should be reserved for men. I do not presume to write without commitments. Yet, my primary commitment is not to a position on an issue—it is to God’s mission. To put it this way is a careful hermeneutical choice. Whoever wants to engage the discussion about female church leadership already believes it is important, but the reason it is important varies greatly depending on one’s commitments. To some it is important because one position is right and the other is wrong. To others it is important because the unity of the church is at stake. To still others it is important because the outcome may destabilize the status quo or uphold it. Whatever the case, we should realize that our commitments will determine our interpretive procedure. To affirm a commitment to God’s mission is to assume a missional approach to the question.

One additional word about reading biblical texts generally: Texts that are subject to a lot of exegetical debate tend to lead us in a very subjectivist direction, which is a safe place to go when the topic is tense. Yet, it does the church more harm than good to teach merely that we have a diversity of opinion about issues that we deem important. Certainly, when some participants in the study assume certitude is the gold standard of biblical Christianity, there is something to gain by reading texts in order to point out uncertainties in our understanding. Inviting those with overdetermined understandings to reclassify their positions as opinions can be beneficial. But when all we say is, “Some people understand that differently,” we only pretend to have an indeterminate position. In fact, this approach to biblical interpretation simply leaves in place current practices. If we all read it differently, and that’s all there is to it, then we foreclose the need to consider change. In other words, in an intriguing twist, relativism has become a powerful stopgap for conservative Christianity!

We’re going to do something when it comes to women participating in church leadership. If we continue to act as though the relevant biblical texts are too indeterminate to offer any guidance, then what is the point of looking to them in the first place? Moreover, they are not actually indeterminate, much less subject to every reader’s speculation. I have too often listened to Bible class participants say, “I could read this to mean. . . .” We need more teachers who are willing to say, “You could, but you would be wrong.” Bad questions, flawed reasoning, and unfounded conclusions exist; pointing them out is part of teaching the church to interpret well. Not that there is one clear position on every text. A vigorous exchange of ideas is inherent in the interpretive process, but let’s not pretend like we aren’t going to make a practical decision in the end—like we aren’t going to come to some sort of communal determination based on our best understanding—even if it is to do nothing. The question is, how will the text inform our decisions?

1 Cor 11:2–16: At the intersection of mission, gender symbols, and the resurrection

I’m going to insist that we read 11:2–16 in context. This means, of course, reading it in light of a reconstruction of the historical situation of the Corinthian church; this is common enough procedure theoretically, but the reconstruction requires us to handle a lot of information with uncommon insight. It also means reading chapter eleven in light of the preceding and following chapters, something perhaps easier said than done. I find that in a typical Bible class, we have a hard time holding all the strands together. And additionally, reading in context also means reading in light of the bigger story—an even more demanding constructive endeavor. These are challenging tasks, no doubt, but they are far from impossible.

Preamble: 1 Cor 8–10

It’s convenient for our purposes to slide into the text of 1 Corinthians at a point slightly earlier in the letter, when Paul is discussing meat sacrificed to idols. There are a few critical points to make leading up to ch. 11. First, we must note that Paul, being Paul, writes as a missionary. While some treatments of the text ignore this simple contextual fact, it is pivotal both as a historical observation that illuminates what he writes and as an additional component of a missional reading. On one hand, Paul reasons theologically through a worldview that is rooted in the story of God’s mission. On the other hand, he is always engaged in the missiological activity we have come to call contextualization.

We do not need to minimize the concerns internal to the Corinthian church, which might be summed up by the key word conscience. We do, however, need to realize that Paul cannot deal with those concerns except as a part of a bigger missional picture. There is no such thing as internal or pastoral issues apart from mission. This is actually especially clear in 1 Cor 8–10 despite the tendency to read right over it. Notice how conscience in 8:7–13 and 10:23–11:1 frames the discussion, but by the latter passage Paul has shifted from considering the consciences of those “accustomed to idols until now”1 (i.e., converts; 8:7) to the conscience of the unbeliever who hosts the Christian.

Of course, Paul’s claim to have “become all things to all people” (9:22) has become a prooftext for contextualization in mission studies. But using it as a proof text has taken it out of the context of the argument that spans chs. 8 to 10, so that the missiological implications of ch. 9 have astonishingly remained separate from the discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. Paul does not change the subject in ch. 9 and then come back to meat sacrificed to idols; the fact that it is a continuous argument ought to tune our ears to the missional tone of Paul’s whole approach to the problems at Corinth.

Furthermore, the Jerusalem council foresaw the problem of Gentile Christians struggling to overcome their idolatrous habits and prohibited the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols (15:20; 29). But we mustn’t skip over the fundamental observation: this ruling takes place in reaction to Paul’s Gentile mission. These are missional concerns.

How does the church make the gospel as available as possible without risking continued idolatry among converts? What are the safeguards necessary to ensure Gentile Christians’ covenant faithfulness? Circumcision? Sabbath? Food laws? No—just a minimum to keep them from the risk of idolatry. So also we should see Paul’s theological contradiction of the apostolic decree in Acts 15—when he says there’s no such thing as other gods . . . you’re free to eat meat sacrificed to idols on a don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis—as an example of ongoing, local contextualization. Which, for me, is even more enlightening than the general statement in 9:22.

The situation in Corinth is this: some Christians have reflected on the core theological claims of Scripture, which are monotheistic, and come to question the need for the Jerusalem council’s prohibition of meat sacrificed to idols. “We know,” they say, “that idols are a sham. So what difference would it make?” Paul does not respond with, “Be obedient to the apostolic word!” Instead, he says, “Granted: for us there is just one God, and that knowledge sets you free. But there is more at stake than your freedom.” What is at stake? A couple of issues.

First, Paul seems to be turning their own quotation of the Shema (Deut 6:4–9) back on them by making allusion to Jesus’s combination of Lev 19:18 with Deut 6:5 in the “greatest commands.” The phrase “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:1; foreshadowing ch. 13) invites the Corinthians not to stop at the monotheistic statement of Deut 6:4 but (a) to proceed to 6:5 (“love the LORD your God”) and (b) to remember that Jesus did not separate the love of God from the love of neighbor. Thus, the first thing at stake is whether these liberated Corinthian Christians have learned Jesus’s most foundational teaching.

The second issue brings the first one to a finer point, and it is a point that requires some clarification because of its habitual misuse. Much to the chagrin of many self-proclaimed “weaker brothers,” Paul is not suggesting that the application of the teaching about love is to treat “being offended” as a trump in church conflict. Instead, Paul’s concern is “edification” (evoking the temple imagery never far from of his mind)—and the opposite of edification is not “offense” but “destruction” (8:11; apollumi; cf. 10:9–10). Paul is concerned about causing some to stumble (8:13; skandalizō) into destruction by provoking them to idolatry. There is no hint here of a less dire sense of “stumbling,” as “causing them to sin” or “causing them to fall” would suggest in some translations. In modern Christian jargon, those phrases simply mean sinning, rather than being destroyed, and that misses the gravity of Paul’s argument.

The difficulty of untangling this idea for many Christian traditions is that being right about certain points of doctrine is the meritorious work of salvation that sneaks in the back door. The evidence of this is that being wrong about those points of doctrine amounts to not being a true Christian. Through this horribly distorted lens, many have argued on the basis of 1 Cor 8 that they are “made to sin” by participating in activities that their “conscience” rejects, or even by fellowshipping with others who think differently on certain issues. This is absurd, since Paul is explicitly and publicly announcing that those with the weak conscience are wrong about monotheism! You can’t find a bigger doctrinal error. But that error is not their “stumbling.” Let them be wrong, Paul says, as long as they keep trusting in Christ alone and do not stumble back into idolatry. Being right or wrong is simply not at issue here; that is not what will save or destroy them.

Now we can examine the key connection with ch. 11. I have stated Paul’s concern negatively in the paragraph above: he is concerned about causing some to stumble into destruction by provoking them to idolatry. Now it will help to state the concern positively: Paul is concerned about the love of God and neighbor translating into a missional disposition that places the salvation of others (9:22; 10:33) as the priority over freedom and rights.

We must note a key translational problem in 8:9. The NRSV, for example, reads: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Because freedom and rights are tightly bound together in Paul’s argument, this is a reasonable translation. Unfortunately, it obscures the argument’s flow. The NIV does better: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” The word at issue is exousia, and it is the heart of ch. 9, so we want to see clearly its connection to ch. 8. The idea of exousia is effectively the bridge between chs. 8 and 10.

Chapter 9 starts off with the other key word: freedom. “Am I not free (eleutheros)?” He asks this in parallel with a number of other questions that establish his freedom in far more thorough terms than merely understanding the Shema, as the “strong” Corinthians claimed to do. He then pivots to exousia (9:4–6, 12, 18), which is the expression of his freedom, in order to demonstrate the rights he forgoes “rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (9:12). This leads up to his well-known statement of contextual adaptability:

For though I am free (eleutheros) with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (9:19–23)

Note that freedom has taken a turn from the metaphorical in 9:1 (where he is obviously not talking about literal slavery) to a slightly more socially concrete reference to slavery, alongside the ethnoreligious distinction between Jews and Gentiles. There is an important connection here with 12:13 that is relevant to 11:2–16. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit,” declares Paul, echoing the earlier version in Gal 3:27–28, which says, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Why drop “male or female” in the letter to the Corinthians? Chapter 11 will make the answer clear. For now, we can end the preamble by noting that Paul has included the weak Christians among those who need to be saved by all means—in particular, by the relinquishment of rights. This is the meaning of his exhortation to the strong: “But take care that this exousia [right] of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (8:9). And it is the meaning of his closing comments in the section:

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (10:31–11:1)


My adaptation of the NRSV

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces[dishonors; kataischunō] his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces[dishonors; kataischunō] her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful[shameful; aischros] for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection[glory; doxa] of God; but woman is the reflection[glory; doxa] of man.

Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.
For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority[exousia] on her head, because of the angels.
Nevertheless, in the Lord
woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.
For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman;
but all things come from God.

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading[ dishonor; atimia] to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory[doxa]? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

By affirming the section break between 11:1 and 11:2 I do not mean to communicate a radical disjunction between the two passages. We are changing topics, yes, but we are not leaving the overarching concerns and logic of Paul’s discourse behind (which could be traced all the way from ch. 1, but starting in ch. 8 is long enough). The major connection at the transition point is the glory of God (10:31; doxan theou) and the terms semantically related to glory/honor and shame/dishonor that run through 11:2-16. I will come to the major implication of this connection directly.

First, what is the tradition that Paul commends them for keeping? Other uses of tradition would warrant substituting gospel as a sufficient interpretation. But we have to wonder what aspect of the gospel is relevant at just this moment. What would Paul have passed on that he wants to affirm but needs the Corinthians to understand more clearly? Now the connection between Gal 3:28 and Paul’s developing argument in 1 Corinthians becomes more intriguing. Wouldn’t Paul’s claim of oneness in Christ regardless of gender distinctions, embodied socially in the ritual of baptism, be just the sort of gospel tradition that might lead the Corinthian church to confusion about how further to embody that gospel socially? I find this possibility to be very strong. Let’s keep in mind, then, that the gospel, for which Paul would give up his freedom, is still at stake in this passage.

It’s not about authority!

Authority gets read into 1 Cor 11:2–16 for four reasons, two of which are reasonable, and all of which are misguided. (1) Illegitimately, those who read with 1 Tim 2:12 in mind tend to assume a contextless uniformity in Paul’s letters. Such a thing does not exist; 1 Timothy’s vocabulary does not necessarily belong in an exposition of 1 Corinthians. (2) Also illegitimately, some read head to mean authority because that is what it means in English usage. To many such readers (those with no knowledge of first century culture), Paul is “obviously” talking about “hierarchy.” This is a basic mistake. (3) Reasonably, many exegetes take the hierarchical and authoritarian gender relationships of the first century as a working assumption. This is not an illegitimate assumption, just a wrong one. It needs, at the very least, to be identified as an assumption and evaluated as such. (4) Reasonably, many exegetes translate exousia in 11:10 as authority. This is a possible translation, but it is less enticing if (3) turns out to be a bad assumption.

Instead of assuming authority is the big concern in this passage, what happens if we just read it and let Paul’s words tell us what is at issue? This happens: it becomes evident that honor and shame, not authority and submission, pervade the text. What we find is indeed a kind of “hierarchy,” but not what we normally mean by that word—not an authoritarian hierarchy. This should not surprise us since Jesus deconstructed the Gentile notion of authority that would have been a “cultural” point of reference for the Corinthians (Mark 10:35–45 and pars.). It was already unacceptable doctrinally for the church to view authority in that way. Of course, these Christians might have been failing in respect to Jesus’s culturally upside down teaching, but in that case we wouldn’t expect to find Paul insisting on the very understanding of authority that the Messiah had definitively blown up.

Instead, we find a “hierarchy” of honor. This too is a cultural point of reference but one that didn’t require the same sort of challenge that Greco-Roman authority structures had. By stating that Christ is the head of man, the husband of his wife, and God of Christ, Paul communicates no more than the very idea he goes on to explain in terms perfectly understandable to first-century Corinthians: the head is what gets honored or shamed. If a man does something disgraceful, his head (Christ) gets dishonored. If a woman does something disgraceful, her head (husband/male patriarch) gets dishonored. This is a description of what actually happens in first-century Corinth.

Obviously, many Christians read passages like this one with the expectation that it will make a timeless universal statement, as though Paul wouldn’t say something that could be stated categorically unless he is actually stating it categorically. That’s not how language (much less Paul’s usual approach to theological discourse) works, but I understand that the expectation exists for many nonetheless. So it bears saying that, no, he is not describing an abstract truth. He is explaining a situated truth. This is a claim that I think is easy to understand once we follow Paul’s logic and then ask ourselves whether it is still logical in a twenty-first century American context. (Does that mean I’m saying what Paul writes here is irrelevant or isn’t “applicable” today? No. And jumping to that kind of question is a juvenile sort of fear mongering that does great damage to the church’s interpretive process.)

If we accept that Paul is discussing a “hierarchy” of honor, the passage becomes far more self-explanatory than mysterious. In v. 7 Paul actually restates his case in other words: “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection[glory; doxa] of God[theou]; but woman is the reflection[glory; doxa] of man.” Reflection in the NRSV is not a bad choice interpretively, because the point of the honor/shame construct here is how one person in the relationship “reflects” upon the other. But again, it hides the key vocabulary in an unfortunate way. Particularly in this case, glory would help us grasp the prevalence of honor/shame in the passage, but doxa theou would also draw our eye back to 10:31 and remind us that the glorification of God before unbelievers is what is ultimately at stake for Paul.

So, here is the big idea: Women in Corinth (and culturally similar communities) have embedded identities. What a woman does in this culture honors or shames not only herself but her head, the male in whom her identity is embedded. The Corinthian Christian women have taken the tradition of gender distinctions being torn down in Christ” to give them the freedom—the right, even—to put aside certain religious symbols of gender distinction: head coverings or hair styles or both. These symbols are culturally inherited from the Corinthian context, which is why they would produce honor or shame in eyes of the unbelievers before whom Paul wishes to glorify God. In this system of honor and shame, there is a kind of cascade effect that looks like a hierarchy, though a cascade probably better illustrates the idea. What the men do honors or dishonors their deity. But if a man is shamed by a woman under his “headship,” then his shame dishonors the deity. When the Corinthian women buck the gender symbol system, that is exactly what happens.

Now I’ll answer some questions to head off confusion.

Can’t a woman glorify God directly? First of all, apologies to the twenty-first century, individualist woman, but things just don’t work that way in every culture. Let’s come to terms with the fact that such autonomy is unimaginable in many cultures. Second, I’m not contending that this was the only way it always worked in every scenario in ancient Corinth. I am contending that this dynamic did exist, and it is sufficient to explain what is going on in this passage. Whether or not there were other ways for a Corinthian woman to glorify God “directly” rather than through her “head” is beside the point.

Isn’t Paul saying that God is the head of Christ regardless of all these cultural dynamics? No. That is why I call this a situated truth rather than an abstract truth. Is it true that Christ’s actions honored (or hypothetically dishonored) God apart from this cultural context? Yes. Nonetheless, God is only the “head” of Christ in this passage’s terms if one understands “head” the way the Corinthians did—as the person whom one’s actions honor or shame. Seeing these dynamics at work, Paul points out Christ’s and God’s place in the headship cascade. “Headship” is the Corinthians’ term for the honor/shame relationship, and Paul contextualizes the glorification of God accordingly.

Isn’t Paul saying how things are—what we are supposed to understand, whether our culture does or not? No. He is speaking appropriately and intelligibly to a particular situation. Were he writing to a typical American church today, he would not say that the husband is the head of the wife in order to make the present point, because the honor/shame construct is foreign to our culture. We would not say that a wife’s actions have dishonored her husband before unbelievers, thereby preventing him from glorifying God. As a matter of cultural description, that is not what a wife’s actions do. It would therefore make no sense for Paul to place God in a headship scheme that means nothing to us or the unbelievers in our culture. It is true for the Corinthians; it does not hold for us. This is contextualization. If it bothers us that Paul is not trying to tell us something that is “true for God,” then we need to stop and ask ourselves where that expectation comes from. God would rather be glorified in terms Gentiles understand so that many might be saved. Alongside God’s mission, the insistence on having an abstract truth about how a wife’s actions reflect on her husband seems idle. And given that Paul is describing a Corinthian view of honor/shame, the idea that God happens to see things universally in the same way seems improbable, to say the least.

With our new working assumption, therefore, we come to the translation question in v. 10. How do we translate exousia in this context? Authority hasn’t played a role in the logic of the argument. There is no indication that a failure to obey or submit is at issue in Corinth. There is every indication that honor/shame is at play, and there is every indication that Paul is still arguing the Corinthians’ freedom in the gospel does not justify placing their rights above love and consideration of the person shamed by the exercise of freedom or, especially, the watching Gentile unbeliever.

Can exousia mean authority in the context of 1 Corinthians? Absolutely. Paul uses it in this way unquestionably in a different argument: “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24). But there is no doubt that a very different usage marks chs. 8–10, which should at the very least free us from an unthinking insistence on “authority.” Still, the expression is a peculiar one. Various translations, like the NRSV, add “sign of” or “symbol of” to the text. Since gender symbols are what is being contested by the Corinthian women, this is an understandable move. But it is only reasonable if authority is what the head covering or hair style symbolized. To risk redundancy, that is not what Paul says. Moreover, we cannot historically identify what such a head covering would have been. The religious gender symbols that would have conveyed honor or dishonor from wife to husband in the eyes of Gentile unbelievers did not have to do with authority. In fact, no known head covering or hair style would have conveyed honor or shame on the basis of symbolizing submission to or rejection of authority.

When we compare the phrase Paul uses with the rest of 1 Corinthians, it comes out again in a different place. The wording “to have exousian on” (exousian echein epi) has an almost identical twin in 7:37, where yet another usage of exousia has its moment: “But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control[exousian . . . echei peri], and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well.” Literally translated, the phrase is, “but he has control in regard to his own desire.” Comparing the two verses, there is a variation between epi and periPeri, which in this usage means “in regard to” or “concerning,” in no way affects the decision to translate exousia as “control.” It is clearly the meaning of Paul’s sentence. But since I am arguing that 11:10 should be translated similarly, the question is whether epi will give us any pause. In fact, epi can specifically function as a “marker of power, authority, control of or over someone or someth[ing].”2 The translation of 11:10 in this case would be, “to have control of.” This is the most convincing option to me, and while it is difficult to demonstrate, I believe Paul is making a word play for ironic effect. The Corinthian women believe their freedom in Christ gives them the right (exousia) to do what they want with their heads; Paul says, instead, they ought to have control (exousia) of their heads.

The tension that the resurrection creates

The Corinthian women have the tradition right. They have understood one of the major implications of the gospel. The old gender distinctions are erased in the Lord. Like the service-based authority in Jesus’ teaching and the faith-only inclusion of the Gentiles in Paul’s ministry, this assertion must be socially embodied by the church. Baptism is only the first step, but the Corinthian women’s next step is a mistake. To further demonstrate the demolition of the old distinctions, they begin to do away with other signs of gender—signs that are meaningful to them, as Corinthians. The problem is that they are, therefore, signs that are meaningful to everyone else with a similar culture. Whereas the Corinthian Christians have a perspective on what such cultural reconfigurations mean in the Lord, unbelievers would not interpret them in the same way.

Yet, if we assume that these Christians were even moderately intelligent, the message they were sending to unbelievers almost certainly occurred to them. First, it is obviously no problem being scandalous to the Jews and idiotic to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23). That is par for the course. If Jews are murderously outraged by the inclusion of Gentiles without the “works of the law,” chief among them the sign of circumcision, so be it. There is no longer Jew or Greek! And if proclaiming that good news results in offending them or being shamed in their eyes, the misperception is theirs. By analogy, I suspect the Corinthians reasoned that if unbelievers found the equality of men and women in the Lord, proclaimed through the rejection of gender signs, to be shameful, the misperception is theirs. Better that the good news be proclaimed: There is no longer male or female!

The difficulty is that Paul wants his disciples to live into the resurrection life that is already theirs, but he also wants them to communicate with those who do not understand that life. Men and women alike have died with Christ and been raised with him (Col 2:12; Eph 2:5). Being clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27), they are clothed with a new self (Col 3:10). This new self, this in-Christ self, is the self that is not bound by the old distinctions:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28) In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Col 3:11)

In Galatians, Paul’s next statement is, “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). What promise? “The promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14). In Christ, the power of the resurrection is at work in the present (Eph 1:19–20), and this power is the Spirit (Eph 3:16). Thus, when we glimpse the connections between the Spirit, the power of the resurrection, and the ongoing re-creation of the Christian, it becomes obvious why Paul’s extended discussion of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 is the next place where we find his teaching on the equality of Christians. The Spirit is the great equalizer.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28) In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! (Col 3:11) For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

And in turn, it becomes obvious why the gender signs at issue in 1 Cor 11 have to do with the exercise of a spiritual gift, namely, prophecy. The Corinthians know that the Spirit is given equally to men and women and that a woman gifted to speak on God’s behalf does so from their perspective without distinction from a man who does the same. They also think that the best way to embody that fact socially is to remove the signs of distinction in the act of prophecy.

The problem, then, is not the Corinthians’ understanding of the traditions they received. It is that they fail to perceive the tension where gender symbols, resurrection, and mission intersect. In Paul’s judgement, it does not serve God’s mission best in the Corinthians’ situation to challenge the signs of gender propriety, because the gain in proclamation of the good news that there is no longer male or female is offset too strongly by the dishonor of God (not to mention other likely negative results that Paul would just as soon avoid whenever possible). This is the truly challenging thing about 1 Cor 11:2–16. The passage has long been regarded as difficult for the wrong reasons. Neither the obscurity of the historical situation, nor the supposedly universal argumentation about a cultural practice (whether covering or hair style) that is unanimously regarded among scholars as particular and relative, nor the possible conflict between women prophesying in ch. 11 and being silent in ch. 14 are nearly as difficult as understanding Paul’s missional calculous of communication. Every communication of the gospel risks misunderstanding and negative backlash, because it is always mysterious and unintuitive for hardhearted people (that is, for people), and because it always challenges the hearer in rock-bottom, fundamental ways. The question is not whether it will provoke any number of negative, culturally particular reactions (e.g., dishonor, anger, disgust, disdain, embarrassment, confusion) but whether, in any given situation, this communicative act gains enough to risk that reaction.

Paul knows that the dynamics of the gospel internal to the Corinthian church aren’t going to change. The Gentile who gets a look at how men and women relate to one another in the church—with mutual submission and without authoritarianism—may draw that same conclusion that removing head coverings produces: the women are dishonoring the men. Everyone has an equal place at the table, a voice. The Spirit provides leadership through gifts rather than positions, and the gifts are not distributed by gender. All of this and more is plenty to set off negative reactions. Just as the claim that a Jewish nobody crucified by a Roman governor is Lord, and Caesar is not, is sufficient to get Christians killed once Caesar realizes what they are saying. But Paul is not rushing to put up social signs that dishonor Caesar. Doing so would not only provoke too much negative reaction but would also probably fail to communicate the key idea: Jesus is Lord in a way that changes everything.

In the same way, Paul reckons that setting aside gender symbols in this situation not only provokes too much negative reaction but also fails to communicate what the Corinthians intend. Instead of saying, “Look what the Spirit is doing among us, both male and female,” their symbolic actions communicate, “For us, men are women and women are men,” and “Among us, it’s okay for wives to shame their husbands.” This is a net loss for the gospel. Are the Corinthians incorrect that the symbols they want to get rid of also send the wrong message? I don’t think so. They are just incorrect that getting rid of them sends the right message and ultimately glorifies God.

So this is the tension Paul deals with: not just that clear communication is difficult but that the new life the church lives internally—resurrection life—is foreign to those who are not in Christ. God’s mission is to include them (reconcile them) too, but what the church perceives in the Lord pulls against what the unbeliever perceives, and perception is critical for their inclusion. Here is how Paul expresses the tension at the point where mission, gender symbols, and resurrection meet (my translation):

A For man is not from woman but woman from man,
B nor was man created for the sake of woman but woman for the sake of man.
Consequently, a woman should have control of her head, because of the messengers.

Nevertheless, in the Lord,

B’ neither is woman independent of man nor man independent of woman.
A’ For just as woman came from man, so also man comes through woman.
And all things come from God.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this statement for interpreting the passage. The reason a woman should have control of her head is A and B. This is an argument not in the Lord. There is, however, a diametrically opposite argument in the Lord. Despite A and B, in the Lord B’ and A’. Paul clearly grants that there is a perception in the Lord that pulls against his argument. Why doesn’t 12:13 mention men and women? Because the Corinthians are already all too familiar with that dimension of the gospel, and he has already admitted the point here in 11:11–12. Knowing that the Corinthians are likely to resist correction, Paul does not want to make more of the fact that there is no longer male or female.

Thus, while there is an in the Lord perception, it lives in tension with the missional need to make decisions based on the old perception as well. What “we know” in the Lord, whether it is that there is no such thing as an idol or that the Spirit erases gender discrimination, is not the only consideration for deciding what will glorify God before people with other worldviews—including those of our own number who have not quite assimilated the complete outlook in the Lord. Therefore, we tread carefully in regard to the way we represent—symbolize—the resurrection life we live in reconciled community, so that others might be clothed in Christ and transformed by the Spirit rather than repelled by its foreignness. What this caution does not entail in 1 Cor 11:2–16, however, is the prohibition of the prayerful, prophetic ministry of women who serve to build up (cf. 8:1; 10:23–24; esp. 14:4, 17) the church

I conclude this section with the words of Craig Blomberg, an outstanding conservative scholar and complementarian:

To the extent that prophecy overlaps with what is more commonly called preaching, this passage remains one of the clearest New Testament texts in support of women preachers.

But chapters 12–14 will also make it clear that Paul views prophecy as a spiritual gift, and gifts are not the same as offices. So to say that Paul permits, and perhaps even encourages women to preach—in ways, of course, appropriate to their cultures—does not settle the vexed question of whether they should be elders or overseers. One’s exegesis of 1 Timothy (esp. 2:8–15) should be more relevant to that problem. But given Paul’s greater interest in gifts than in offices, our point here stands: gifted women must be given abundant opportunity, however formally or informally, to preach God’s word to his people as he calls and leads them.3

Female church leadership is not really about social justice

I sympathize with the plea for justice that currently accompanies the progressive position. I sense the injustice that is at the heart of the church’s historical practices. And I believe that justice being a part of the kingdom’s essence is deeply connected to the demolition of the boundaries between race, class, and gender that Paul calls gospel. But making social justice the crux of the debate blinds us to Paul’s way of thinking theologically.

The equal work of the Spirit in women and men is an absolute in Paul’s theology. How the church should represent this in a particular situation depends on what will serve God’s mission. For the same reason—service of God’s mission—systemically quenching the Spirit in women is a non sequitur. It is destructive to ignore the work of the Spirit in women given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11). It is risky in some situations to resist the cultural compulsion to relegate women—every bit as risky as including Gentiles without Jewish acculturation, calling slaves “free,” calling Jesus “Lord,” glorifying humble servants, and calling idols “nothing”—which is exactly why carefulness in the social representation of women’s equality is paramount. But that risk never outweighs the benefit of the Spirit’s work in and through the whole body. Even in Corinth, women still function in the body according to their gifts.

Of course, it is not risky in the present American context to express the “no longer” of Gal 3:28. We find ourselves in the bizarre situation in which Western culture leapfrogged the church along its own trajectory. What was once Paul’s counsel to missional caution as the church strained toward the full realization of its life in the Lord sadly became the biblical justification for resisting the uninhibited full inclusion of women for which the church once longed. We must correct the confusion amongst ourselves that has stifled all the building up of the church that could have happened if women had been allowed to exercise their gifts freely in the body. That alone has been heart-wrenchingly detrimental to God’s mission. But that is not all that is at stake! We have before us one of the greatest opportunities imaginable. The culture of America, broadly speaking, is willing to celebrate the church’s full inclusion of women. It is willing to embrace the message that there is no longer male and female. The other half of the church is being invited by the culture to stand and speak. And our Spirit-gifted women would speak on God’s behalf!

This is not about justice. I am in favor of women having freedom and rights in the church, but they are not what is really at stake, because Christians will lay down their rights in order to seek the good of another. This is about what builds up the church for mission. This is about what bears witness to resurrection life in the Lord. This is about the seeds of the gospel sown in Western culture coming to fruition despite vast segments of the church—and how that dishonors God every bit as much as some ancient Corinthians’ decisions once did. This is about the gospel embodied by communities of reconciliation and spoken by women in the power of the Spirit.

Soli Deo gloria


  1. Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.
  2. Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), s.v. ἐπί, def. 9.
  3. Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary, Kindle ed. (2009), 187.

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