Gender

Women’s Roles in the Church_Companion_5

Octavia the younger, First Century CE

As I talk about this material, it is important to give Cynthia Westfall credit for her amazing book Paul and Gender. What I have learned on this subject comes from her work and resources cited in her material that I have picked up along the way. 

The creation account is an important part of the discussion on gender. Paul makes use of the opening chapters of Genesis in many of his arguments. Traditionally, when Paul uses the creation account in an argument, commentators have worked under the assumption that any norms taught from the account must be transcendent norms. As transcendent norms, they apply to every situation regardless of the social circumstances. If we are to understand how Paul applies the creation account, we must first deal with the question, did Paul intend the creation account to be a transcendent norm?

If Paul uses the creation account to uphold a social norm that is not intended to be transcendent, then it cannot be assumed Paul is setting a transcendent norm. Interpreters must first establish there is a contextual indicator that leads to a transcendent norm. What we find from Paul’s letters is that Paul does reference the creation when he is dealing with social norms. It is generally accepted that 1 Corinthians 11:3-6 is an example of a culturally bound situation. This means that Paul is not referencing the creation account in order to establish a transcendent norm. Before we go any further it is good for us to have a look at the passages Paul will reference. For now, let’s look at Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-24, 5:1-2.

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

“Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit (matching) for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs (side) and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:18-25)

“This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created.” (Genesis 5:1-2)

Since Paul is informed by Genesis when he deals with the issue of gender, any interpretation of Paul must also consider the themes of the creation account. So, what do we learn from these passages? Keep in mind that we are not trying to do a comprehensive study of everything that Genesis says but are focused on how it applies to gender. Here are a few things we can easily pull from the text.

  • Humanity bears the image of God.
  • It was not good for man to be alone.
    • God made a helper that is “fit” for him which could also be translated, corresponding to him, or matching him.
    • Helper does not imply inferior. It is usually used in reference to God’s help, or assistance during battle. Nor does it imply that man is inferior. Instead the idea of helper implies that it was inadequate to leave man in a solitary state. The act of a helper meeting a need, is the action of a patron.
    • The fact that God took the “rib” of Adam is sometimes used to imply that women are inferior. However, the word “rib” can also be translated “side” and that is the most common translation. The intent of the passage is to say that men and women are connected and equal. They also share the same breath of life.
    • When man sees who God has made, he is so overcome by his attraction for her, he says that a man shall leave his mother and father, in order to be with her.
  • Humanity is given charge over creation.

Now that we have reviewed the necessary passages from Genesis, and listed a few issues related to gender, lets return to our main text in 1 Corinthians 11. We want to look at v.2-16. Here it is below.

“2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”

Before we begin breaking down Paul’s words here its important for us to establish that Paul is addressing what happens in a worship setting. In chapter 10, Paul prohibits getting involved in pagan worship. He then moves into issues of Christian practice in the worship. He addresses head coverings, the Lord’s Supper, and Spiritual Gifts. The fact that Paul is dealing with communal worship is important because it involves women who pray and prophecy in the assembly of believers. Even before we understand the meaning of “head”, “glory”, “man”, and “woman”, Paul has established that women were indeed praying and prophesying in front of the assembly. As the text reads, “…every woman who prays or prophecies….” The issue of v.2-16 is not that men and women have different ministries, but rather there are necessary differences between genders as it applies to apparel. It is also important to notice that both genders are instructed about their apparel. According to Paul, the women must have their heads covered and the men must uncover theirs.

It is generally assumed that the veil is a symbol of submission. However, veiling is a more complicated tradition than a simple sign of authority. In the Ancient Roman world wearing a veil implied modesty and chastity. The apparel of a Roman matron signaled her higher position in society as well her sexual maturity. In contrast, a woman slave or a freedwoman were forbidden from wearing veils because they were viewed as sexually available. According to Cynthia Westfall, A child freedwoman as young as three years old would not be allowed to wear a head covering because of the view that they may have already been sexually violated. Furthermore, if a woman wore attire that resembled the apparel of a prostitute and a man tried to seduce or accost her, they were not liable. We can see this in Roman Law,

“If someone solicits virgins, if nevertheless they were clothed like slaves, he appears to do less wrong; much less is he guilty of injury if the woman is clothed like a harlot, not being clothed as a matron, if the woman was not in dress befitting a matron when someone solicits them or abducts them as a companion for himself“ (Ulpian Digesta 47.10.15.15. translated by Robert C. Knapp, Invisible Romans)

In a Roman worship setting both men and women wore veils. It was a sign of their devotion. So, whether you were a man or a woman you would cover your head when praying, prophesying, and sacrificing. The issue that seems to be in front of Paul is one of two situations. The traditional argument is that Paul is harshly judging women for their decision to remove their veils during worship. By removing their veils, they are distracting people with their beauty away from the worship of God. Women are apparently making this decision since they are worshipping in the private sphere where veiling was not necessary. This assumption led to many churches wearing a covering during the worship. What is ironic about this position is that Paul is specifically talking about women participating in gender inclusive worship by praying and prophesying and yet the congregations that require veiling usually do not permit women to pray or prophesy. This tradition assumes Paul would be talking to women directly about the issue of head coverings, however in the ancient Greco-Roman world men decided whether women should or should not veil. Paul’s grammar supports a male audience. This being the case, it would make more sense for Paul to be address a problem with men who are asking women to remove their veils.[1] There are a few reasons men might want to ask women to remove their veils during worship. It is possible women slaves and freedwomen are donning veils because of their new status in Christ and the death of their old status. If this is the case men might feel it inappropriate for these women to veil when the culture would certainly not accept it. It is also possible men are asking women to unveil because in the church men and women enjoy a new status as brothers and sisters, and the men are affirming the equality of women.  It is also possible some men had more licentious intentions when they asked them to unveil during worship. While any of these is possible, I am inclined to believe that the issue arose when men asked women to unveil because of the new familial relationships between Christians as brothers and sisters. Women may have resisted this idea of unveiling because veils were a sign of a higher-status person and protected them from sexual advances. During worship, women slaves and freedwomen would enjoy the security and status of a veil they would have to remove when in public.

Pretty quickly, in Paul’s discussion on head coverings in worship, he begins talking about the word “head.” The Greek word for head is Kephale (kejαlή). Paul says “…the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” According to Paul, a head covering conveys different things based on who is wearing it. Men dishonor God in the worship by hiding their heads whereas women dishonor men when they uncover their heads. The question is, what does head mean, and how does it relate to men, women, Christ, and God? One of the difficulties in identifying the meaning of “head” is the range of meaning modern readers apply to it. It is important to note as an example that the common phrase “head of the household” is not an expression in Greek culture.

Joseph Fitzmyer offers a few meanings for head (kejαlή).[2] First, it could refer to one’s anatomical head. This is the most common way it is used. Second, it could be a synecdoche (representative) for the whole person. Third, it could mean source. Fourth, it could mean leader, ruler, or person in authority. Complementarians interpret it as leader or ruler. Egalitarians use source (end point) or source of life (progenitor). The text does not possess any markers to help us decide, except that the only time authority is mentioned in the entire passage is when a woman has authority over herself. If the meaning were decidedly about authority, we would expect Paul to talk more about a man’s authority over a woman. We might even expect Paul to tell women to submit to their husband’s instruction. Instead we have a picture of women praying and prophesying, without any marital restrictions. Paul chooses to emphasize the interdependence of men and women when he says, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” Cynthia concedes that “’head’ may refer to a leader or an ancestor, but in most cases it collocates with figures of authority yet is not the equivalent of ‘authority.’”[3] So head can be seen side by side with the concept of authority but that does not mean it holds the same meaning as authority. Though used in Greek, the connection of head (kejαlή) to authority is not native to the Greek language. Instead “head” is a metaphor for authority in Hebrew. In the Hebrew Bible, “head” is used to mean authority 171 times. When translators wrote the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, they chose to use head (kejαlή) on only 6 occasions. The verses are: Judges 11:11; 2 Samuel 22:44; Psalms 18:43 [LXX 17:44]; Isaiah 7:8-9 [2x]; Lamentations 1:5. A quick read of them shows that none of these have anything to do with 1 Corinthians 11 and the point Paul is trying to make. Paul doesn’t use these passages but refers to Genesis where man (ish) and woman (ishah) live in full equality, share the same divine image, and rule over creation.

If we treat head (kejαlή) as “source of life,” it is easier to see the connection of head coverings to the creation story. Eve was made from Adam. He is the source of her life because it is from his body that she shares in the breath of life which God breathed into Adam. This symbolizes their unity, but also puts Eve, as well as the rest of mankind, in the position of coming from Adam. It is not however, required that it mean, a hierarchy between man and woman. The creation account, that Paul references, doesn’t support the argument of hierarchy. Instead both men and women are bearers of God’s image and given the task of ruling over creation. It is better then, to define the meaning of head as source of life, in which Adam is the source of life for Eve because God breathed into Adam. The idea that God is the source of life for Jesus, is a sense that is common to Paul’s teaching. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….” Complementarians scholars have challenged the idea that “source of life” is a reliable definition for the term head based on the claim that the use of head as a metaphor for source of life, is not acknowledged by major lexicons.[4] Yet we do have examples of head being used in the metaphorical sense of “source of life.” Artemidorus in, The Interpretation of Dreams writes, “Another man dreamt that he was beheaded. In real life, the father of this man, too, died; for just as the head is the source of life and light for the whole body, he was responsible for the dreamer’s life and light.”[5] Cleary Artemidorus believed that head (kejαlή) can be a metaphor for source of life. More examples are available for those who want to learn how other writers used “source” or “source of life” as a metaphor for head.[6]

Furthermore, it is important for us to connect Paul’s understanding of head (kejαlή) with Jesus’ teachings on authority and Paul’s thoughts on Kingdom life. The church in Corinth is a young congregation having only existed for about five years. Most of the believers in Corinth were Freed Slaves or the children of freed slaves. By the world’s estimate most would not have been considered the mature or the wise. Paul writes, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1:27-29). Here we see how God uses the things that are foolish and lowly, in the eyes of the world, to accomplish his work. Later, in chapter 12 of 1st Corinthians Paul talks about giftedness and the parts of the body. Here Paul argues that the parts we deem less honorable should be bestowed greater honor.  By doing so, Paul is reversing how people think about honor. Paul is influenced by Jesus’ teachings on authority. In Mark 10:31; Matthew 19:30; and Luke 13:30, Jesus teaches that the first will be last and the last will be first. In Matthew 23:12 and Luke 14:11, Jesus teaches that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Additionally, the very act of Christ becoming human represents a movement toward lower status rather than higher status. This picture of authority culminates in the cross where Jesus is seen by the wise to have been utterly defeated and disgraced. This act that appears as foolishness undermines the power-driven authority and honor to which we are accustomed. The church has, unfortunately, moved toward a power arrangement more like the world than like Jesus. What Paul seems to be doing, is taking the word head (kejαlή), knowing full well the range of its meaning, and cooping the term to meet the picture of authority Jesus presents. It’s not enough to understand the range of meaning of (kejαlή), it must fit into the picture Jesus has portrayed for his Kingdom. The issue of kingdom life is a struggle for Paul, because he recognizes that though the Kingdom has come in Jesus, it has not come fully. Most agree that, in the eschaton, there will be no gender inequality. Where people disagree is in life between now and then. Should we not argue for living the kingdom life, as much as is possible as we wait for Christ’s return? That appears to be Jesus’ argument on the sermon on the mount. The beatitudes reflect the kingdom life and from there Jesus guides his disciples into kingdom living.

The issue of glory arises in this text as Paul says, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (11:7). It’s quite easy here to assume Paul is saying that women are not the glory of God, however this is a logical fallacy. As we have read in Genesis, both men and women are made in the image of God. As we look at the next few verses, an appropriate backdrop is 1 Esdras 4:14-17. In this text, three men discuss what is superior. The first writes that wine is superior, the second writes that the king is superior, and the third writes that women are superior, but truth above all is victorious. About women the author writes,

“Gentlemen, is not the king great, are not men many, and does not wine prove superior? Who is it, then, that is master over them, or who is lord over them? Is it not women? Women give birth to the king and to all people that are lord over sea and land. And from them they were born, and it is they that brought up those who plant the vineyards from which comes the wine. And it is they that make men’s robes, and it is they that bring men glory, and men cannot exist apart from women” (1 Esdras 4:14-17, NETS).[7]

“And as a result you must realize that women are lords over you. Do you not labor and toil and bring and give everything to women?” (1 Esdras 4:22, NETS).

Keeping this backdrop in mind we can see how a woman is the glory of man.  It is from man that woman is created (v.7); he is her source of life, but women wield a lot of power over men such as, the inadequacy of man’s solidary state (v.9), the ability to have children, the responsibility of teaching children (women were expected to teach children in the ancient world), and man’s attraction to women  that emboldens them to leave their parents (this seems to be the reasoning Paul has when he talks about a woman’s hair being her glory in v. 15. Paul believed women were more attractive). All of this implies that women have the potential to produce glory for men. Women enjoy the position of being the glory of God and the glory of man. This does not set women above men however, because Paul specifically tells the church in Corinth that men and women are interdependent (v.11).

While the men want the women to unveil, Paul encourages veiling. The veil offers protection and equality that could not be enjoyed in the public sphere. Paul addresses the issue to the men by appealing to a woman’s beauty. He argues from nature that a woman’s hair is attractive. Paul writes, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (v.14-15). Worship is not the appropriate place for gazing at someone who is attractive. The focus of worship is God. This is particularly important when praying, preaching, or prophesying in the assembly; people shouldn’t be distracted by your apparel when listening to you share a message from God. The ask to unveil, whether its intentions were about the new life shared between believers as siblings, or an underhanded method for men to gaze at a woman’s beauty, is shut down in order to preserve the purpose of assembly to glorify God. Furthermore, Paul concludes that women have authority over themselves and its not for others to tell them what to where on their heads. As Paul writes, “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head,” (v.10).

There is a peculiar translation issue attached to this portion of scripture to do with the words for man and woman. Translations vary about whether the text identifies men and women, husbands and wives, or men and wives. The trouble occurs because the words for man (ἀνήρ) and woman (γυνή) are also the same words for husband and wife. Notice the differences in translation between the ESV and the NIV below,

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. (v.4-5 ESV)

“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. 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. (v.4-5 NIV)

Here we can see how these translations have interpreted the passage. The ESV favors the use of wife/husband which leads the reader to a more patriarchal interpretation where the husband has authority over his wife. This would fall in line with the prevailing Greco-Roman perspective of the family. It would be familiar to the church in Corinth as a congregation heavily affected by Roman politics, Roman hierarchical structure, and thought that the traditional family structure was vital to civic life.

The NIV translates this passage woman and man, instead of wife and husband. I am inclined to follow this translation against the ESV, because Paul’s discussion on head coverings is in the context of worship not family life. The reference to Genesis is about the forming of man and women rather than an issue of marriage. The ESV lacks consistency in its argument because it switches from the general “men” to the specific “wives” prophesying. This is not a necessary change for the text, its based on the translator’s presumptions of patriarchal authority and it agrees with traditional Roman values. The NIV consistently translates the passage as man and woman. By doing so the connection to the creation of woman from man can be readily understood. Those who don’t like using the NIV, will hopefully appreciate that the NASB, known for its more literal translation of the text, is consistent with this translation.

All of this comes together to say that in the creation story, men and women enjoyed equality. This is the passage Paul refences as he argues to protect women who want to veil. Both men and women pray and prophecy together in the assembly and they do so with consideration that their purpose together is to glorify God. The distractions of beauty and sexual attraction are not appropriate in the worship because they distract people from worshipping God.


[1] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016), 36-37.

[2] Joseph Fitzmyer, “Kephale in 1 Corinthians 11: 3,” Interpretation 47, no. 1 (January, 1993), http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/resultsadvanced?vid=8&sid=990e637f-0588-4a96-b9aa-3c1de811e162%40sessionmgr103&bquery=joseph+fitzm yer+AND+kephale&bdata=JmRiPWE2aCZ0eXBlPTEmc2VhcmNoTW9kZT1TdGFuZGFyZCZzaXRlPWVob3N0LWxpdmU%3d, assessed May, 20th 2019.

[3] Westfall, 39n112.

[4] Paul Gardner, 1 Corinthians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary On the New Testament / Clinton E. Arnold, General Editor (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), 480.

[5] Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams: Oneirocritica, trans. Robert J. White Noyes Classical Studies (Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Press, 1975), 16.

[6] Orphic Fragment 21A; Philo, De Congressu quaerendae eruditionis gratia 12 § 61, De praemiis et poenis 20 § 125; Testament of Reuben 2:2, Life of Adam and Eve 19:3.

[7] Quotations marked NETS are taken from A New English Translation of the Septuagint, 2007 by the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Inc, Used by permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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