My Journey to Affirming the Ordination of Women (Part VI)

In the previous post in my series on women’s ordination, I promised to tackle what I consider to be the most significant NT texts concerning the issue: 1 Cor 11 and 14, and 1 Tim 2-3. These texts tend to dictate how the others are interpreted.

As I wrote previously, the differences between egalitarians and complementarians often come down to this question: are the texts that speak of male headship in the home and in the church commands for every time and place, or are they time-bound concessions to patriarchal culture and to the peculiar scrutiny faced by first-century Christians in a hostile pagan context? Complementarians appeal to statements that ground male authority in the pre-Fall status of Adam and Eve, whereas egalitarians point to other passages that elevate the status of women to equality with men.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Tim 2:9-15 seem to find a basis for male headship in the order of creation. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 (like Titus 1:5-9) appears to assume that “overseers”[1] are male (“a one-woman man”). 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 explicitly commands women to be silent in church, which would imply only male leadership.

1 Corinthians 14

1 Corinthians 11-14 is broadly addressing issues pertaining to corporate worship, including head coverings (11:2-16); the Eucharist (11:17-34); and the use of sign gifts in worship for the edification of the body (12 and 14, with an excursus on love in ch. 13). The most troublesome text is 14:34-35:

34 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. 35 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 Cor 14:34-35; NASB)

The face-value meaning of this text (that women should not speak in church) is immediately problematized by two factors. First, there are text-critical problems; Hays has outlined all the issues and possible solutions quite well, but in short, there are good reasons to believe that this is either a post-Pauline interpolation or a command tailored to the Corinthian situation.[2]

The bigger issue is the apparent inconsistency with 11:2-16, which presumes that women will prophesy in church within certain parameters. Whatever 1 Cor 14:34-35 means, it does not seem to mean that women should never speak in church, and in my experience in complementarian churches, it is never applied this way. Even in my PCA church that only permits ordained men to lead worship and preach, women and unordained men are permitted to give missions reports and other sorts of announcements. Women (even ones with husbands!) are encouraged to speak up and ask questions in Sunday School and after church services. (They are not encouraged to disrupt the service with questions, but neither are men!) If there is a recognition that if 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an authoritative part of Scripture (not a later addition), it is intended for a specific time and place in which uneducated women are misapplying their new-found freedom in Christ by disrupting the church service.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has many puzzling elements, including the idea of a man being “head of a woman,” and whether that is intended for married couples only (use of ανηρ and γυνη in tandem can mean “husband and wife”); what is the connection between head-coverings, hair, and authority; and why the angels are mentioned. I do not presume to solve all these issues. However, I will offer two points. First, Martin argues quite convincingly that Paul presumes the Greco-Roman physiological understanding of a woman’s long hair as part of her reproductive system–sounds quite strange, I know, but his evidence seems quite solid. If this is the case, then a “head-covering” in worship for women is completely consistent with the biblical view that reproductive parts should not be exposed in worship of YHWH (I’ve written about this here). It also implies that “head” has to do with “source,” and the reference to angels is an allusion to the fallen angels of Gen 6:1-4 who had sex with human women (cf. Jude 6-7, 14-15; 1 Enoch 6ff.). The focus is proper respect for God’s authority and unique place as Creator, worthy of worship.

Second, 1 Cor 11:2-16, like the rest of 11-14, assumes the use of sign gifts (prophecy, and tongues-plus-interpretation as prophecy) as authoritative revelation. Many complementarians are cessationists (as I am), arguing that these gifts were for the apostolic era only, because we find no satisfactory way to draw a line between the authority of the apostolic gifts and the apostolic witness contained in the NT. This leads us not to write off 1 Cor 12 and 14 as irrelevant for the church because it speaks primarily of gifts that the Holy Spirit no longer gives, but rather to draw out principles for worship and church unity in all times and all places. One of these principles seems to be that women and men receive all sorts of spiritual gifts, and each Christian–male or female–should exercise his or her gifts for the edification of the body. If a woman in Paul’s day possessed the spiritual gifts of tongues or prophecy, Paul didn’t say that the woman should suppress the gift–he said she should use it within the proper parameters of a church service: not while someone else is speaking, only a few on each occasion, and (if tongues) with interpretation. These are the same parameters for a man’s exercise of spiritual gifts. It seems to me that the cessationist case that “prophecy is on par with Scripture” elevates the status of women as bearers of authoritative word from God in the early church.[3]

Complementarians need to be cautious about inferring the principle of male authority from the created order in 1 Cor 11:2-16. Some in the complementarian world have argued that female submission to male authority is analogous to God the Son’s voluntary submission to the Father. Mike Bird presents a good introduction to the controversy.

We must recognize the “cultural embeddedness” of the worship instructions in 1 Corinthians. All Christian groups do this some degree, with meat sacrificed to idols, the sign gifts, head-coverings, and other issues. The hard work of interpretation is teasing out principles that guide our Christian teaching and practice, and applying those principles with wisdom in our contexts.

1 Timothy 3:1-7

Complementarians argue that 1 Tim 3:1-7 presumes and teaches that “overseers” should be male, not female. Aside from the context (see discussion on 1 Tim 2:11-15), there are two reasons for this contention. First, the text uses masculine singular terms when referring to the ἐπίσκοπος (overseer). Second, verse 2 says that the overseer should be “a husband of one wife,” literally, “a one-woman man” (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα).

Egalitarians take issue with both of these claims. First, the masculine singular, in Greek as in English and many other languages, is a common way of referring to the general third-person, i.e., it could refer to anyone, male or female. Second, the focus of the phrase “one-woman man” is not the gender of the person, but the disposition of the individual to be faithful to a spouse (if married). Christians have debated whether “one-woman man” excludes those who have remarried after divorce, but most agree that it does not exclude unmarried men or men who have remarried after the death of a first wife. So, the point is not the gender of the person or the total number of spouses the person has ever had (0 vs. 1 vs. 2 or more), but the disposition to be faithful in marriage.

Third, the following section on the qualifications for deacons (3:8-13) seems to allow that women can hold that office (v. 11; cf Rom 16:1). Many complementarians (notably, John Calvin) have held that women are permitted to hold the office of deacon, or deaconess, based on 3:11 and other texts. Yet the qualifications are listed primarily using masculine forms and also include the “one-woman man” provision. The qualifications that are given in masculine forms apply equally to female deacons, in addition to the ones listed in 3:11.

It may be valid to exclude women as elders/overseers based on other texts, but not on the basis of the use of male language in 1 Tim 3:1-7, including the use of “man” in “one-woman man.”

The next post will address 1 Timothy 2:9-15, which is probably the most important text on the issue.


[1] ἐπίσκοποι; Titus 1:5-9 mentions also πρεσβύτεροι, which I take as equivalent terms for the same office, entailing both ruling and teaching authority. Others may distinguish between these two, but the point is that both “overseers” and “elders” would have authority in the church.

[2] Note that some English translations add 14:33b to the sentence, which has the effect of universalizing the command:

33b As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (ESV)

Interestingly the NRSV also does this, but places 14:33b-36 in parentheses and includes this footnote: “Other ancient authorities put verses 34–35 after verse 40.” I’m no Greek expert, but it would seem grammatically justifiable to me to read 33b along with 34-35, if not for the text-critical problem. English translations that read 33b as the conclusion of 33a (not with 34-35) include the NASB (as quoted), KJV, NLT, and NIV (2011). The NIV (1984), interestingly, reads 33b with 34-35.

[3] Of course, this is consistent with passages that speak of women serving as apostles (Rom 16:7), prophets (2 Kgs 22:14; Jdg 4-5; Exod 15:20-21; Num 12:2; Isa 8:3; Acts 2:17), teachers (Acts 18:24-28), and deacons (Rom 16:1). Ironically, many continuationist churches, who relegate the gifts of prophecy and tongues to a second-class status of revelation in order to preserve the primacy of Scripture, ordain women to office.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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