Dear Pastor Joon, As a young women and follower of Christ, I find it difficult to understand 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. I was hoping to get your input on what is being expressed in these scriptures. Thank you and God bless!
Hey dear sister, in fact, since you happen to know my first name, I’ll also make a sweeping attempt to cover the questionable verses from Apostle Paul about women and ministry. That includes: 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11, Ephesians 5:21-33. I’ve also written about some of these verses here a few years ago. I was a little bit more sassy then, so I apologize in advance for my tone.
Before we get into the verses, I want to graciously offer these considerations. Please feel free to skip around.
1) We may not see eye-to-eye on our interpretations, but disagreement doesn’t have to mean disunity. We can disagree and still be friends. What’s important for a Christian is that we love Jesus, know that he loves us, and that we love one another.
2) Apostle Paul is occasionally called an outdated misogynist for his views on women, but academically and historically, I believe the exact opposite: Paul had such a high regard for women that I’m downright certain it rushed his execution. He declared views that were countercultural to both the Hebrews and the Romans of his day, and are still countercultural. Just one example: Paul wholeheartedly advocated for singleness as a legitimate life-choice in a time when single women were considered uneconomical and sinful.
3) The English translation of Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek is limited in that it’s impossible to have an exact translation of tone, intonation, colloquialisms, and context. Our English Bibles will always sound a little too abrupt. I’ll put it this way: My Asian parents learned English as a second language, and they sometimes sound more “rude” or “aggressive” because they don’t know the proper way to frame words with disclaimers and courtesy. Instead of saying, “Are you busy tomorrow? I’d like to invite you to my place,” they might say, “You come over okay.” They only know the short way of phrasing their intentions, so it comes off as tone-deaf. My parents might say things like, “You people” or “What’s wrong with you” without understanding this can be rude in our modern Anglo-American vernacular. That’s not to excuse when my parents are rude, but to preempt you: our chronological slice of culture tends to filter the Bible as offensive with phrases that never meant to offend. Which brings us to the next point.
4) Words like submit, quiet, and head of the household have such ominous tones today because of heavy verbal baggage and our quick-to-fight culture. We need to release what we think we know about these words in Scripture. Perhaps the irony here is that in labeling these words as “oppressive” or “archaic,” it’s inadvertently given ammo to chauvinists and oppressors when the Bible is not using these terms with our current meanings. Reading the Bible requires a bit of time-travel and historical empathy before we react too quickly.
5) The Bible is going to say some hard things. I can’t water down the tough stuff. The second we pick and choose what we want from Scripture, we’re no longer dealing with a real God, but an idol of our own making. A Bible that never pressed my buttons wouldn’t be a real God at all, but a god in my image. If at any time we push back against the Bible: it’s worth exploring why that happens. Simply, the Bible is always going to challenge some part of our worldview in every culture in every time period, either because it’s wrong or I’m wrong.
As a Christian, I take the view that I’m wrong, though of course, I still wrestle with those difficult parts of the Bible. So it’s worth our time to ask: Why do certain passages of Scripture hit such a raw nerve in my modern sensibilities? What is it offending? Why?
Here are some brief explanations of each of the “problematic passages” about women. I offer these as considerations for you to discern, pick apart, and finally conclude in your own process of conviction. I may very well be wrong in my understanding here and I completely welcome dialogue on this. I’m learning as we all are, and I want to make sure I’m being biblically sound and faithful to my faith.
1 Corinthians 11:1-16
V.3 — But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Please notice right away that there’s no “rank of superiority” here. It says “the head of Christ is God,” which doesn’t mean that Jesus is below the Father. We know from other passages like Genesis 1 that each part of the Trinity has submitted to one another since eternity past.
So what could this mean? As best as I can see it, this is about representation within relationships. The man and woman, if you look in your footnotes in Scripture, is talking about husband and wife. Jesus “represents” God, in the same way that the husband represents Christ and the wife represents the husband. The husband has the additional task of exemplifying Christ as well as seeing that his wife represents their marriage satisfactorily. The wife, of course, should exemplify Christ, but if anything is wrong in her marriage, then the magnifying glass is on the husband.
V.4-6 — Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
In the first century, women with shaved heads were often prostitutes. The church welcomed them. Apostle Paul was most likely attempting to protect the women in this church from judgment and rumors. Please keep in mind that the Corinthian church was already filled with incest, demon worship, abuse of spiritual gifts, and split loyalties. It’s also our sinful tendency to jump to conclusions as a reflex, no matter how hard we try to suppress it. Paul knows this. He in no way seems to be “blaming the victim,” but is trying to restore at least a small part of the church with a semblance of order. He’s trying not to stir the pot any more than it is.
If every woman in church had their head covered, that would be a quick remedy to an underlying problem of judging. It’s also a show of solidarity, like how some friends might shave their heads for their friend in chemotherapy.
V.7-12 — A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.
Paul is presupposing a question. Some men might have asked, “If women are covering their heads to support each other and get rid of judgment, why don’t the men do it, too?” It seems some of the men even wanted to grow their hair long as some of the women. Paul answers that this is unnecessary. He calls back to his earlier statement as his logical reasoning: A husband represents Christ and wives represent their husband. In other words, a man doesn’t need to “save” a woman, and a wife’s happiness is seen by her husband’s leadership (or “glory”) in Christ, not by her husband’s showmanship.
V.8-12 — For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
Paul was stating the “negative” in the previous verses, by saying women should cover their heads in this church because of the current judgment problem. But here he offers a corrective on how things ought to be, by saying that men and women cannot have full lives without each other in community. All this talk about head covers is really symbolism for a deeper issue. Rather than the superficial idea of hats and hair to help each other, there ultimately has to be interdependency.
Please don’t get too hung up on the language here, where it says, “neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Paul is trying to throw a little peace offering to the guys by referencing the Creation in Genesis 2, since Paul has been taking it so hard on the men, and then he tips the balance back by saying, “a woman ought to have authority over her own head … so also man is born of woman.” Then Paul caps it off by saying, “But everything comes from God.”
V.13-16 — Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
I think Paul is summarizing here to make sure he isn’t misunderstood: that women don’t need to cover their head in church as much as men don’t need to show it off. It was never about hats and hair. To further this point, Paul states a theological symbolism for men having their heads humbled and women being radiant and expressive, which is “the very nature of things,” or as it’s meant to be. Every other church, Paul says, isn’t really arguing over this issue because their inner-posture is so much more important than their outer-appearance.
1 Timothy 2:11 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
A seminary professor once told me, “Without context, there is no content.”
If we back up earlier in this passage, 1 Timothy 2:2, Paul calls for all believers to “live peaceful and quiet lives.” This entire passage is built on a general doctrine for all Christians. Then Paul zeroes in on the men. In verse 8, he tells “men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.”
This also presupposes an existing problem with Timothy’s church: that men were not praying, possibly even fist-fighting, and holding grudges and bickering. Paul absolutely has to rebuke this in the men.
Next, Paul zeroes in on the women in 1 Timothy 2:11. Again, please consider that the language here, quietness and full submission, don’t mean what we think today. And even if it does, Paul calls for both men and women to have the same quietness and submission, both here and in Ephesians 5:21.
Even more, the women in Timothy’s church and the Corinthian church had a pre-existing problem where they were yelling during the church service. They also had an issue of dressing overly rich and gaudy (1 Timothy 2:9). It’s the only reason Paul would even bring this up; many of his letters contain responses to specific situations which need to be pieced together in hindsight. Paul is alarmed by the lack of reverence for the service, so he sets up a “No Talking” rule, which is exactly what we do for weddings, speeches, and a kid’s first play.
Paul suggests to the Corinthian church that any married woman wait until the service was over to talk with her husband about any grievances, because this is what a team does. Spouses confide in each other calmly rather than yelling in service. It’s at the very least the polite thing to do.
Now I have to ask here: Is it okay for women to get rebuked, too? Is it okay for women to be confronted on their stuff? If that bothers us, then why?
Also: Almost all the verses in the Bible are aimed at men and their responsibilities, and a tiny fraction of verses is aimed at women and children. Some might say this is “ignoring women,” but I actually see this as men being given the extra weight of morality. God has deemed fit that men need more guidance, and I can only dare to say why.
So we can’t have it both ways. We can’t say, “It’s fair that men get rebuked in the Bible” and “It’s unfair that women get rebuked in the Bible.”
Lastly: If anyone wants to use 1 Timothy 2:11 as proof that women can’t preach or teach, I have to point to the deaconess Phoebe and the married couple Priscilla and Aquila, all who were practitioners of Scripture (and I’m sure I’m missing more). And a fun fact: the Bible often operates on primacy, meaning that if a name is mentioned first, then they’re important, just as when a name is mentioned last, they’re ranked a little less (just like Judas is always listed last in every list of the disciples). Priscilla and Aquila are always spoken of with the wife’s name first. Priscilla was either a pastor, a leader, or a boss, but whatever she was, she wasn’t in “full submission” the way we see those words today.
This single passage is one of the most abused in all of Scripture, which appears to say, “Women must submit to men” — but this one’s also the easiest to explain.
Verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That means everyone submits in humility to everyone. So men already have a responsibility to submit, too. Again, submit is not a bad word as we see it now, but implies a lending of trust.
Verse 22 never says, “Women submit to men,” but “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” This is never, ever a permission slip to stay under abuse or to let the husband do what he wants. This is a verse about trusting the husband’s leadership, just as each of us trust Christ to be a good leader. The second a husband isn’t a good leader, he is no longer like Christ, and this verse encourages the wife to call foul.
Verse 23 says, “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church …” Let’s get this right. The husband is called both to submit to his wife and to be the responsible head of the marriage. That’s a tall order.
Verse 25 is the killer. It says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” The Greek work here “gave himself up” is paradidomi, which means to hand yourself over or to go under the power of something else. It’s just as Jesus handed himself over to the cross. This means that husbands are called both to submit and to die. Husbands are literally commanded to love their wives to death, just as Jesus died for us.
I have to ask here: Men, why would you ever use these verses to gain power? Do we realize how much this is asking of us? Do we know how much it takes to be a responsible head of the house? Are we really ready to die to marriage? And if you say, “My wife is the head of the house so I’m fine” — doesn’t that say more about you than your wife? What woman actively says, “I don’t want a responsible man” …? Where are the Christian men who take this passage seriously? I ask that of myself, too.
And this passage in Ephesians isn’t ultimately about earthly marriage, anyway. Marriage is used as a symbolic metaphor for Jesus’s relationship with us. That’s why Paul says in verse 32, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
All these passages aren’t necessarily talking about gender or marriage or head coverings. Paul is using these symbols to relate back to the truth of the Gospel: that there must be a necessary trust, faith, obedience, surrender, sacrifice, submission, and humility between all of us. That’s real connection. That’s God’s love for us, and our love for each other. Each verse here is trying to dig at the root of our pride, to challenge our death-grip on control and withholding.
The way to know how we get these verses is to see how much they make us angry.
Please allow me the grace to press in with love and truth a little bit. If these verses make you immediately jump to outrage over a social issue, then you might be suffering from “chronological snobbery” in which the lens of a time period has projected unintentional meanings.
If these verses make you inordinately mad, it’s possible you have a contrary, conflict-seeking spirit lurking much worse than you think. If they make us pause to consider how much our discussions are conflated with bitterness and division and to seek unity within diversity, then we might be on to something.