A perennial “hot topic” is Paul’s instructions to women in his letters to the churches at Corinth and Ephesus. These sections have been debated for centuries, with many different interpretations. They are often taken out of context and used to tell women to sit down and shut up, which is precisely the opposite of God’s intentions. The individual verses in question include:
But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.1 Corinthians 11:5, 14-15
Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.1 Corinthians 14:34-35
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.1 Timothy 2:11-12 (written to the pastor of the church in Ephesus)
Them’s fightin’ words! 😀
Those words would also be contradictory if we took them at face value. How could a woman cover her head while praying or prophesying if she is keeping silent? How could she receive instruction while prophesying? What is the distinction between “prophesying” and “teaching” or “authority”?
Paul was a deep thinker and a meticulous writer. He would not contradict himself within a few paragraphs of the same letter to Corinth, or between what he wrote to Corinth vs. what he wrote to Ephesus.
Also, in other letters in the New Testament, Paul mentioned several women as colleagues, using the same tone as he did about male co-workers. The women appear to be accepted in the same kind of leadership roles as the men 1.
So, let’s look a bit further to see what God wants us to learn from these passages.
First, some context:
Corinth was a major metropolis, a shipping crossroads, and a notoriously sinful pagan city. Its background was Greek until it was destroyed in 146 B.C., then Roman when it was rebuilt 100 years later by Julius Caesar. Prominent in its culture was worship at the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, which included much promiscuity. Prostitution was wide-spread and culturally accepted. Female prostitutes were often identifiable by their shaved heads and lack of the veils that were worn by most (non-prostitute) women.
Ephesus was also a major city, and also the home of a famous temple of a fertility goddess. The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The book of Acts records a riot that drove Paul out of town, started by those who profited from the Artemis worship and whose business was being impacted by so many converts to Christianity (Acts 19:23-20:1).
In Roman culture, and the Greek culture that preceded and intermingled with it, women were not valued at all. They were treated as second-class or worse: It was acceptable to kill a newborn for being a girl 2. Even in Jewish culture, woman were not respected. In fact, the men had a daily prayer thanking God that they had not been born “a Gentile, a woman, or a slave” 3.
The new Christians in Corinth apparently needed instruction in how to worship together in a way that enlightened all the attendees. From their pagan background, their inclination was to be a bit … enthusiastic … in their religious expression. Everyone wanted to express themselves “right now”, interrupting and talking over each other. Women with new-found freedom, either from prostitution or from second-class citizenship, would be excited to show that they were now a part of the action. In his letters, Paul was correcting them and steering them toward the kind of worship that would bring them closer to God.
In 1 Corinthians 11 (4)…
…Paul is teaching for both men and women to dress in the manner considered “respectable” in that culture 5, especially while leading in worship (“praying and prophesying”). Women converted from prostitution were no longer set apart by their uncovered heads; women experiencing their first chance to be full participants were not to go crazy and abandon all social norms.
Paul is telling everyone, both men and women but especially those leading in worship, to set good examples and not make spectacles of themselves.
In 1 Corinthians 14 (6)…
Paul speaks to women who have not been allowed to have education in the past and who are bursting with questions. He says to save those questions for an appropriate time: a one-on-one lesson with their husbands who do already have the education (and are now expected to pass it along to them!). Don’t keep interrupting the group’s worship time with constant questions.
As for “keep silent”, this verse is the third time in two paragraphs that someone is told to do so. In the paragraph before addressing the women, Paul says:
If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent.1 Corinthians 14:27-30 (my emphasis)
Similarly, for women to “subject themselves” matches verse 32 “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (as in the church members are accountable to one another). The text does not say to whom the women are to be subject: God? Husband? Any man? Just to herself, as in self-controlled?
The pivotal verse here is 14:33, between those two paragraphs: “God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.“.
The point of all Paul’s instruction is for the church to have orderly meetings that are beneficial to all the participants, both men and women.
About Paul’s letter to Timothy in Ephesus (7)…
This is the church where Priscilla and her husband Aquila were both leaders and good friends of Paul. They had mentored another leader, Apollos, who also became prominent in the church (Acts 18:2, 18, 24-28). Obviously, Priscilla was a good teacher who was not expected to be silent. Also, Timothy learned his Christian heritage from the women in his life, his mother and grandmother (2 Timothy 1:5). Apparently, they taught him well for Paul to put so much trust in him to pastor this difficult church while he was still a young man.
So what does Paul mean when he says for a woman to “receive instruction quietly and with all submissiveness” and not to “teach or exercise authority over a man” but to “be quiet“?
The words “quietly” and “with submissiveness” are appropriate for any student. A teachable attitude is important. No one will learn much if they are resistant and argumentative with their instructor.
A clue may be in the word “authority”. Paul is clearly saying that a woman should not dominate (the better translation of the Greek authenteō) over a man. Interestingly, this is the only place in the entire New Testament where the word authenteō is used. (The English “authority” is usually a translation of Greek exousia, as in when talking about Jesus’ authority.) But Jesus taught servant leadership, where those in authority never dominate others, anyway.
Another clue might be the abrupt switch in gender and plural/singular references between these two verses and the ones around them.
- The word translated “men” in verses 1-6 is anthropos, a gender-neutral word that means “humanity” or “mankind”.
- Verse 8 gives instructions to men (Greek aner, specifically male).
- Verses 9-10 gives instructions to women (gynaixin, female and plural).
- Then our verses 11-12 use the singular (Greek gynē, a woman).
- The following verses in chapter 3 say “men” in English translations, but the Greek tis is neutral; it behaves more like “those (who do or say something)” or “one (who does or says something)”.
The explanation proposed by David Hamilton in the book “Why Not Women?” (written along with Loren Cunningham and Janice Rogers) is that there could have been a specific woman causing problems in the Ephesian church, such as trying to take a leadership role without the right attitude and knowledge. Timothy would have known who Paul meant, so Paul could be discreet and not mention her by name. This particular woman needed to be taken aside and not allowed to influence others until she herself was better trained.
If that is the case, then the lesson for us today would be: Leaders should lead with gentleness and humility, and be open to correction when they are wrong.
As I said at the beginning, these passages have been debated for centuries. I certainly can’t claim to have the last word on exactly how we should live by them. It’s possible, I suppose, that the strictest connotation is correct: Women should everywhere and always be covered and quiet. That would be out of character with all the rest of the Bible, though.
There are many references throughout the Bible to God’s love for everyone. Also, strong women are celebrated throughout the Bible 8. It seems doubtful that God would make women in His own image (Genesis 1:27), design them to be the perfect complement to men (Genesis 2:18), die to provide for their salvation (1 Timothy 2:5-6), give them gifts and talents (1 Corinthians 12:4-7) … and then want them to sit in a corner and not grow and contribute to His church alongside the men.
It’s also possible, I suppose, that Paul was wrong, and that what he writes should not be considered God’s word. But these letters aren’t included in the New Testament arbitrarily. They are there because their very earliest recipients treasured them and recognized their Spirit-led authority.
Paul did more than any other single individual (other than Christ Himself) to share the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. Paul’s specific mission from God was to spread the news of Jesus beyond the Jews, out to the Gentile world. Paul’s credentials as an apostle and prophet were often attacked, but he always defended that he was giving the message that God had given to him (Acts 9:1-26, Acts 26:1-23, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, 1 Timothy 1:1).
Since it is equally possible, and more consistent with Scripture, that Paul’s instructions are related to specific issues, customs, and people within the churches at Corinth and Ephesus, I choose to go with that. I’ll say that what God wants us to learn from these passages is that:
- All Christians, men and women, are to contribute to the whole of the church.
- No one should cause a disturbance by their dress or behavior in a way that reflects badly on Christ to the world or interferes with others’ worship.
- Everyone should be willing to continue learning with humility.
As the first verses of our passage in 1 Timothy 2 tell us, the overall goal is for us to:
…lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men [anthropos, everyone] to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.1 Timothy 2:2-4
Footnotes and Scripture References
- Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2) Priscilla/Prisca (Acts 18:2, 18, 26; Romans 16:3-4; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19), Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11)
- Reminder, the text is: “But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.
Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.“
- Men with short hair and uncovered heads, women with the reverse, long hair/covered head,
- Reminder, the text is: “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.“
- Reminder, the text is: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.“
- Miriam (Exodus 15:20-21), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Priscilla (Acts 18:24-28), the “ideal woman” of Proverbs (Proverbs 31:10-31)