I CORINTHANS 11:3-16
by Stafford North
I Corinthians 11:3-16 is one of the most controversial passages in scripture. Some say it is a statement of Paul's erroneous views about women having subordinate roles to men. Some say this passage instructs women on how to speak in the assembly and should, therefore, take precedence over Paul's prohibition for women to speak there in I Corinthians 14:34. Others have concluded from this passage that women are required to wear coverings (hats) in church in our society today.
Seeking the answers to a series of questions will help us explore this passage to learn what message Paul would want us to get from it today.
1. What is the general principle with which Paul begins this discussion?
Paul mentions four individuals or groups among whom God has an order of headship or 1eadership. The order is God, Christ, man, woman. While Christ is equal to the Father in nature, His role is subordinate. Jesus Himself said, 'I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me" (John 5:30). So, while the Father and Son were equal in divinity (Philippians 2:6), Christ's role made Him subordinate to the Father.
Similarly, men and women are equals in many respects. There is "neither male nor female" in our standing in Jesus (Galatians 3:28). But Paul says here that in assigned functions, women are in subordinate roles to men.
Thus, the revealed order of authority is God, Christ, men, women.
Some have contended that the words here should read: God, Christ, husband, wife. Thus, they say, wives are subject to husbands, but women, as a group, are not subject to men as a group. They base this position on the fact that in Greek the same word is used for both "man" and "husband," and, similarly, the same word is used for "woman" and "wife."
If, then, there is only one word for these two meanings in Greek, how do we know which is intended in a particular passage. The context determines. In, for example, I Corinthians 7:1, Paul writes that "it is good for a man not to touch a woman." Certainly he does not mean a man should not touch his wife. But in the next verse, Paul uses the same word in saying, "each man should have his own wife." So the context in each verse tells us which English word use to choose.
In I Corinthians 11:4, then, which use is intended? man or husband? woman or wife? A few verses later in the same discussion, Paul uses these same words again in speaking of the same groups of people. In verse 8 he says that "man does not originate from woman, but woman from man." Since Eve was made from Adam, man "originated" from woman. This verse, however, could not properly read "husband does not originate from wife but wife from husband." Woman originated from man but wives do not originate from their husbands. Verse 9 continues, "for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake." Clearly, in this passage Paul is using the words for man and woman in the sense of "men generally" and "women generally" and not in the more restrictive sense of husband and wife. With this position agree Oster, Lenski, and MacArthur.
In other passages, Paul elaborates on these differing roles of men and women. In I Timothy 2:8-10 he charges men to lead in praying and women to be active in good works. He continues in verses 11-12: "Let a woman 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." Following the order of authority he gave in I Corinthians 11, Paul says that men are to fill the roles of leadership--they are to teach and lead prayers where a role of authority is involved. He is obviously discussing places where men and women are together and where someone is leading the group. When he says, for example, that the men should be the ones to "pray in every place" as opposed to the women praying, he cannot mean private prayer for women can do that anywhere as well as men. So he must here, have reference to those more public occasions where someone is speaking a prayer for all assembled.
The reasons Paul gives in I Timothy 2 for man's having the position of greater authority are similar to those in I Corinthians 11. "For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression" (I Timothy 2:13-14). Women in Greece were famous for being "oracles" and "prophetesses" in the pagan temples where they spoke publicly in the worship of the pagan Gods. Paul is certainly not, then, basing his statements about the submission of women to men on local Greek culture. His reasons, rather, go back to creation and the Garden of Eden, apply everywhere and are eternal.
So Paul says the men are to take the lead in teaching and speaking public prayers in those public occasions where men and women are together and there is a position of leadership. Women may, of course, teach other women (Titus 2:4) and do many other good works.
In I Corinthians 14:34, likewise, Paul says that women are to be silent in the public assemblies of all the churches, even as the Law taught. So, he says, as in the Old Covenant where men were the priests and led in public worship, so in the New Covenant men are to be the leaders in worship. There were women who led in something things in the Old Testament, but they did not lead men in worship.But what does he mean here by "silent?" He immediately defines that for us when he says, "they are not permitted to speak, but let them be subject themselves." Thus, they are not to speak out in any way that does not show subjection. They may sing, say " Amen," or join in group readings. But they are not to speak in any way that would be taking authority--preaching, leading prayers, leading singing, reading scripture, and similar positions of leadership.
God has given us other applications of the principle of male spiritual leadership in addition to commanding that men lead in the group worship. Men are to be the elders to lead the congregations of the church (1 Timothy 3:1-2), and men are to be the leaders in the home (Ephesians 5:23-24).
The roles of men and women, then, are different. Men are to be the spiritual leaders in the assemblies, in the shepherding of the congregations, and in the homes. Women, on the other hand, are to serve in the home, in teaching other women, in private evangelism, in caring for others, and in many other important functions.
So, I Corinthians 11:4 teaches that the order of authority is God, Christ, man, woman. The roles God wants each to fill require this arrangement. Having stated this general principle, Paul then proceeds to discuss the particular issue in question in Corinth.
2. To what activities of women does Paul now apply this principle?
In I Corinthians 11, Paul mentions two specific activities of women about which he is speaking: praying and prophesying. What do these mean? Prophesying is listed in the next chapter as one of the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:10). "Prophesying" in scripture is always applied to the act of speaking forth the message of God while being guided by the Holy Spirit. The word "prophesy" is never used in scripture to describe delivering a message of one's own making. Peter said "no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:21). So there were women of Corinth with the spiritual gift of speaking to reveal the will of God.
Paul also mentions women who prayed. But what praying does he mean? Because anyone may pray silently anywhere, he obviously is not here discussing personal private prayer. Since he links praying with prophesying, we would naturally look for some connection between the two. Since prophesying involves speaking to others, the praying here, then, appears to be speaking a prayer in the presence of others. Since some praying was done while under the leading of a spiritual gift as mentioned in I Corinthians 14:14-16, it is possible that the praying Paul has in mind here is praying while under the influence of the Holy Spirit just as the prophesying was.
The question Paul addresses, then, is this: when women have spiritual gifts to prophesy and, in connection with this, also pray, are they released from the general rule of their subordination to men? That Christian women of that time had the gift of prophecy is clear from the mention of Philip's four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). So when women were thus honored with spiritual gifts, were they no longer subject to the spiritual leadership of men? And if they were so released, would they also be released from the signs women used in that culture to show their subjection--a complete covering over the head?
Paul's answer to these questions is clear in the text. Women who pray and prophesy remain in the same relationship to men; they are still subject to them as the general principle states. They are not, therefore, to remove that covering which, in the Corinthian society, was a sign of the distinction between women and men.
That hairstyles and head coverings can send a message comes as no surprise. Some in our day use extreme hairstyles to show their disdain for the mainstream of society. Long hair for men has, in recent times, been associated with protest. Removing a hat when the national anthem is played is a sign of respect. Today in certain Muslim countries, women wear a covering when in public. Jewish men pray with a small cap on their heads.
There is no indication that the Corinthian women had already begun a practice contrary to what Paul was teaching. As he begins this section in verse 2, he commends them for holding firmly to the traditions he had delivered to them. But a question needed answering: Were women who had been favored with spiritual gifts therefore released from their subordinate role and also from the customary societal marks of that subjection? Paul's answer to both questions is "No." These and all other women still had different roles from those of the men and they should still follow the customs of their society which showed that men and women were different in positions.
According to Oster and Linski, the Romans had customs about covering the head in worship. Jews, on the other hand, then or soon thereafter, developed the custom of a man's head being covered when he prayed. Today in some African societies, no woman would go to church without wearing a traditional head covering.
Paul, then, is not dictating social custom. He does, however, base a portion of his argument to the Corinthians on their local customs. He says, "Judge ye for yourselves: is it proper for a women to pray to God with head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a dishonor to him" (I Corinthians 11:13-14). So, Paul says, I have told you of the order of authority--God, Christ, man, woman. This is fixed. If your society has customs that correspond to this divine order, follow them. Paul, undoubtedly, knew that various societies had different customs of dress and hairstyle and that the message sent by these styles varied. He was not seeking to dictate these. But when a society has a custom which expresses a divine principle, certainly Christians should not violate the custom lest they appear to be violating the principle. In a society with customs contrary to the biblical principle, of course, one certainly should not follow the customs.
A similar view is expressed by both MacArthur and Lenski in their commentaries on these verses.
3. Where does Paul have in mind that these women might be praying and prophesying?
There are four possibilities for where the women about whom Paul is speaking might be praying and prophesying: (1) in the public assemblies of the church where both men and women were present, (2) at public occasions where only women were present, (3) in private occasions where men and women were present, and (4) in private situations where only women were present.
While we cannot know for sure how many of these Paul had in mind, we can, for certain, eliminate the option of the public assemblies where both men and women were present. We reach this conclusion, first of all, because of the way Paul begins the section which follows. After concluding his discussion of women's praying and prophesying in verse 16, he begins his next subject in verses 17 and 18 like this: "But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church,
I hear that divisions exist among you. . . ." As Paul now turns to a discussion of the sinful way in which the Corinthians are taking the Lord's Supper, he says, "first of all when you come together as a church." Thus, he had not just previously been discussing what they did when they were "together as a church."
On this point Lenski writes: "The matter becomes clear when we observe that from 11:17 onward
until the end of chapter 14 Paul deals with the gatherings of the congregation for public worship and with regulations pertaining to public assemblies. The transition is decidedly marked: 'that ye come together,' i. e. for public worship, v. 17; 'when ye come together in church' (ekklasia, no article), v. 28; and again: 'when ye assemble together,' i. e. for public worship, v. 20. In these public assemblies Paul forbids the women, not only to prophesy, but to speak at all, 14:34-36 and assigns the reason for this prohibition just as he does in I Tim. 2:11, etc." (p. 437).
This leads us to the second reason that Paul's admonition to the women about praying and prophesying is not regarding the public assembly. As Lenski points out, just three chapters later Paul says that women are to "keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak" (I Corinthians 14:34). It is strange that some assume wrongly that the I Corinthians 11 passage is about the public assembly and then seek to use it to negate the clear statement of I Corinthians 14. Rather, we should accept the clear prohibition for women to speak in the assembly of the church in chapter 14 and let that show us that the comments in chapter 11 are not about the assembly. Surely we must give Paul, and the Holy Spirit who directed this writing, more credit than some who say in chapter 11 Paul told the women how to do what he forbids them to do in chapter 14.
The first two reasons, then, to eliminate the public assembly as a possible location where the women could pray and prophesy are (1) because Paul makes a clear transition to assembly matters in verses immediately following and (2) because Paul forbids women to speak in the assembly shortly after in chapter 14.
There is an additional reason, however, to eliminate the public assembly option: there was ample opportunity for women to exercise their gifts of prophecy and prayer outside the assembly. Paul, for example, used his gifts privately with Sergius Paulus and Elymas as recorded in Acts 13:6-12. Agabus, likewise, was a prophet who brought Paul a message from God in a private setting reported in Acts 21:10-12. In Luke 2:36-38, Anna, called a prophetess, wanders the temple grounds speaking to people privately. She encounters Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus and speaks of Him as the redeemer to come.
Since prophetic gifts and praying were done in private settings, the women Paul instructs in I Corinthians 11:3-16, could have exercised their gifts with women only or in private settings where men were present. We cannot know for sure which. What we do know for sure is that Paul was not giving instructions for women exercising their gifts in the public assembly.
With this conclusion both MacArthur and Lenski agree.
We can, then, draw some important conclusions from our study of this passage. (1) God gave men and women different roles and those assigned roles place men in the position of leadership in spiritual matters. (2) Even women who had spiritual gifts of prophecy and prayer were not exempt from God's order. (3) When a society has customs about the attire and appearance of men and women which correspond to God's order, we should follow those customs. (4) Paul does not here dictate social customs or hairstyles for all societies. (5) Paul's discussion here is not about what women do in the public assemblies and this passage does not, therefore, teach that women may speak in the public assembly. (6) Also, since this passage is not about the public assembly, it does not teach that women are required to wear a covering in the assembly of the church. (7) There were opportunities for women to exercise their gifts outside the assembly and there are ample opportunities today for women to use their abilities to serve God in appropriate ways.
So the question about the roles of women in the church is a question of authority. The Bible decrees that men are to have the spiritual leadership among His people. This was God's way from the beginning. This means now that men lead in the worship, lead in the work of the church, and lead in the home. Women also have important God-given roles--just as vital, but different. They are to teach other women, be active in a host of good works which provide an opportunity for exercising a wide range of talents, and meet the challenge of being good mothers and wives.
Another question of authority is whether we accept the authority of the scriptures about the role of women. If we can choose to reject God's Word on this point, then we have the right to reject it on any point we chose. God has revealed His plan. If God did not intend any differences in the roles He assigned to men and to women, then why did He put passages like I Corinthians 11:3-16 and I Timothy 2:8-14 in the Bible? If he did intend a difference, then we should accept that difference and practice what He has said.
R. C. H. Lenski. The Interpretation of St. Paul's First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians. Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1963.
John MacArthur, Jr. The MacArthtur New Testament Commentary: I Corinthians. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
Richard E. Oster, Jr. The College Press NIV Commentary: I Corinthians. Joplin: College Press Publishing Company, 1995.