Churches Faith Builders Email Updates Biz Directory Commerce
Lesson Seven: Women and the Assembly in Corinth

Women Serving God: Wednesday Evening Study Series
John Mark Hicks and Mark Manassee
March 10, 2004

Women and the Assembly: Corinth

I. Texts.

A. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (NIV)

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

Now 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. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

In the Lord, however, 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. 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.

B. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (NIV)

As in all the congregations of the saints, 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.

II. Exegetical Questions and Perspectives

A. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

1. Context.

a. 1 Corinthians 11-14 are generally read under the broad rubric of “public assembly”—a time when the church gathered together.

b. 1 Corinthians 11 addresses two problems:

(i) the wearing of headcoverings in the assembly and

(ii) the division within the assembly surrounding the Lord’s Supper.

2. Argument.

a. Paul wants men to pray and prophesy uncovered, but women to pray and prophesy covered.

b. Paul both roots his exhortation in the honor relationship that is sustained by “headship.”

c. At the same time, Paul reminds the Corinthians that men and women are mutually dependent upon each other.

3. Questions.

a. What is the nature of this gathering in 11:2-16? Public? Private? Mixed?

b. What is the meaning and significance of “head” in 11:3?

c. What is the nature of prayer and prophecy in 11:4-6?

d. What does “honor” signify?

e. What is the significance of the “headcovering” in 11:3-16?

f. What is the nature of Paul’s appeal to creation in 11:7-9?

g. What is the significance of “authority” in 11:10?

h. How does 11:11-12 balance 11:3-10?

i. Why does Paul appeal to hair length as part of his argument?

j. What is the significance of 11:16?

B. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

1. Context.

Tongue Speakersno interpreterbe silent (v. 28)two or three only
Prophetsreceives a revelationbe silent (v. 30)two or three only
Womeninsubmissive speakingbe silent (v.34)ask at home

2. Argument.

a. Occasion: Disorder in Worship (cf. 1 Cor. 14:40)

b. Injunction: Women should be silent (it is not permitted for them to speak).

c. Reason: They are to be submissive or everything should be done decently and orderly.

d. Ground: As the law says or God is not the author of disorder but peace.

3. Questions.

a. What does “silence” mean?

b. What is the nature of the “disorder”? What is the occasion of this text?

c. What is it that the law says, and where does it say?

d. Who are these women?

III. Interpretative Approaches

A. Alternative Approaches.

1. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

a. Describes a specific situation where only women are present, but this does not explain why women must be "veiled" if no men are present. One covers their head to honor the male, just as the male uncovers his head to honor his head, Christ.

b. Describes a private situation other than the public worship assembly, but this is inconsistent with the immediate context where the Lord's Supper is also present in this assembly (1 Cor. 11:17ff) and that it addresses an assembly practice (11:16).

c. Describes a public situation outside of the assembly (e.g, a street corner), but this does not fit the immediate context (as under b).

d. Describes the participation of inspired women in a public assembly without permitting uninspired women to participate because it would violate male "headship," but this implies that God inspired women to violate his created order of "headship."

e. Describes the participation of women in a worship assembly where they audibly lead the assembly in prayer and prophesy as long as they reflect creation values through appropriate cultural symbols (“veil”).

2. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

a. The text does not apply today because it deals with miraculous gifts that are now unavailable, but this fails to recognize that Paul is applying a principle based in the law. The principle has a broader application than this situation.

b. Commands women to be totally silent in the assembly (e.g., no singing, no confessing, no praying, etc.), but this does not recognize the specific situation of this text and it contradicts 11:3-6.

c. Prohibits women from leading the assembly in any kind of public speaking (e.g.., they may sing but not lead singing), but this also fails to recognize the specific situation of this text and it contradicts 11:3-6.

d. Prohibits women from either (or all of the below):

(1) asking their husbands questions during their prophesying, or

(2) disrupting the judging of the prophets by asking questions, or

(3) disrupting the assembly by insubmissive behavior.

B. A Complementarian Understanding.

1. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

a. Due to the principle of headship (11:3), Paul desires gender differentiation. Paul clearly makes some distinction between genders in terms of the practice of the church. This reflects a “honor” relationship between “heads” that is rooted in creation (11:7-9). Paul is concerned that women honor their heads when they pray and prophesy. This is balanced with the mutual interdependence of genders in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12. Thus, the text teaches a kind of complementarianism.

b. He calls Corinth to symbolize gender differentiation through the "veil" (more appropriately, the “hood” or where a covering is pulled up over the head by those who lead religious rituals in Roman pagan religions).

c. Praying and prophesying are audible acts in the assembly in which women not only participate but also lead (cf. 1 Cor. 14; e.g., at least prophecy is for the edification of others).

d. Thus, female participation in church life must be contextualized within the culture so that gender distinctions/relationships are appropriately maintained and symbolized. When they have the “sign of authority” on their head, female participation is encouraged and expected (11:10).

e. We must define “headship” in biblical contexts and then permit it to reshape whether we call a particular function in the church or assembly a headship function. Gender distinction is maintained by different uses of the coverng so that leadership in praying and prophesying does not violate male "headship."

f. There is a divine intention that arises out of God’s creative act in the beginning which, according to Paul, invests responsibility and accountability in the male for spiritual headship in the family and church. But this does not undermine the participation of women in the assembly as long as “headship” is appropriately symbolized in the culture. Women may pray and prophesy while at the same time honoring their “head.”

2. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35

a. Deals with disorder in the worship assembly of the Corinthian church (14:26-40).

b. Commands silence in specific situations for tongue-speaker, prophets and women. The Greek term for silence here is total silence—don’t utter a sound!

c. The law says women should be submissive which means that they should be silent in that specific situation--the nature of the silence is demanded by the principle of submission. The women are to be silent because they should be submissive, and they should be submissive because the law teaches submission. Consequently, they should ask their questions at home rather than in the assembly.

d. The call to submission is rooted in the “law,” which probably refers to God’s act of creation (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:7-9).

e. The advice to ask husbands at home indicates the nature of the silence commanded--it prohibits disruptive speaking or intrusive questioning, not speaking in general.

f. Probably, the women who are addressed here are the wives of the prophets. The article before "women" in 14:34 may function as a possessive pronoun (as in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4, 14, 16), but this is not definitive. But the reference to "their own men (husbands)" in 14:35 seems to indicate the nature of the problem. Instead of asking their husband questions in the assembly, they should ask at home.

g. Or, the text could be read as calling for silence on the part of women because:

i. they are disrupting the judging of the prophets by asking questions, or

ii. they are disrupting the assembly by insubmissive or inappropriate behavior.

C. An Egalitarian Understanding

1. Introduction.

a. At the outset, it is important to note that in a letter in which Paul addresses a variety of problems for correction he does not write to just the leaders or men but in fact “to the church of God which is in Corinth” (1:2)—“the brothers and sisters” or “brethren” (1:10).

b. In I Corinthians 12 Paul addresses spiritual gifts and the one body with many members. Spiritual gifts are rooted in the triune God—Spirit (12:4), Lord (12:5), and God (12:6).

c. There is no indication that any gifts are given on the basis of gender but rather are activated by God (12:6) as the Spirit chooses (12:11) for the common good (12:7).

d. Paul considers prophecy to be one of the more helpful and important gifts (12:28; 14:1-5).

e. Like the Pastorals there is a great concern for how the actions of the church will be perceived by outsiders (14:22-25).

2. I Corinthians 11:2-16.

a. At the outset, it is striking to note that both men and women “pray” and “prophesy” in the assembly of the church. Paul’s argument is directed toward the manner in which men and women pray and prophesy.

b. In light of Acts 15:30-32 and I Corinthians 14, “a prophet is someone who speaks for an extended period of time in the context of the gathered body of believers, proclaiming words that exhort, strengthen, comfort, edify, and teach…. prophecy and preaching do overlap to a high degree, more than many have realized.” Dr. Ken Cukrowski

c. An on-going scholarly debate surround whether “kephale” means “head” in the sense of “authority” or whether it means “source” in the sense of origin or source of nourishment. There are detailed arguments on both sides of the debate. Paul is clearly using the word with a double meaning since he uses it both literally and metaphorically.

d. In support of origin or source of nourishment are Genesis 2:21-13; Colossians 2:19; and Ephesians 4:15-16. Many would see I Corinthians 12:8 as the best definition of “kephale”—“Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.” As a result, Christ would be the source of all men by being the agent of creation (I Cor. 8:6), God would be the source of Christ whether by his sending the Son at his human birth (Gal. 4:4) or his origin as the wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:30, 2:7).

e. Paul could have used a word like “lord” but did not. However, even if “kephale” has the sense of “authority” it is an authority subverted by the example of God in Christ (I Cor. 11:11-12; Ephesians 5:23, 25, 29).

f. Paul is careful to make sure that people do not misunderstand what he says in 7-10 by emphasizing mutuality and the common creation/new creation in 11-12. This mutuality is in keeping with what would have been a shocking sexual ethic in a patriarchical culture. “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does (I Corinthians 7:4).”

g. Paul is concerned to maintain gender distinctions while women and men pray and prophesy in order not to bring “disgrace” (11:4-6) or a charge of impropriety (11:13) upon the church.

h. Paul does not invest responsibility and accountability in the men but rather the whole congregation. Paul does not write to the men to shape up the women but to the whole people of God for them to be collectively responsible and accountable to each other in the Lord.

3. I Corinthians 14:34-35

a. There are good grammatical reasons for ending v. 32 with a period and letting v. 33 be a complete sentence reading, “For God is a God not of disorder but of peace.” This sentence would then provide a bracket with v. 40 “…but all things should be done decently and in order.”

b. Paul addresses some wives who seem to be disrupting the assembly with questions in a haughty manner.

c. They are told to be silent as are the tongue speakers (14:28) and prophets (14:30) who are also disrupting the assembly.

d. Paul’s reference to some wives being “submissive, as the law also says” is unusual. Elsewhere, Paul actually makes a quotation from the law (I Corinthians 9:8; 14:21). What texts or body of material Paul is referring to is speculation. However, it seems clear that Paul is calling for deference to the assembly similar to I Corinthians 16:16 where the same word is used.

e. The overarching concern is that the assembly must be conducted in an edifying and orderly manner (40) rather than with the total and permanent silence of any group of members.


Egalitarian: Thomas Robinson, A Community Without Barriers: Women in the New Testament and the Church Today, pp. 49-80; Carroll D. Osburn, “The Interpretation of 1 Cor. 14:34-35,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, ed. by Carroll D. Osborn (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 1:219-242; Osburn, “1 Cor. 11:2-16—Public or Private?,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995), 2:307-16; Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 19-100; and Ben Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp.78-103.

Complementarian: Thomas R. Schriener, “Headcoverings, Prophecy, and the Trinity,” 117-132 and D. A. Carson, “Silent in the Churches,” 133-147 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper; Mark C. Black, “1 Cor. 11:2-16—A Re-investigation,” in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, ed. by Carroll D. Osborn (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 1:191-218.

Headship: Joseph Fitzmyer, “Another Look at Kephale in 1 Cor. 11:3,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989), 503-11, provides survey of the arguments. From an egalitarian perspective, read Gilbert Bilezikian, “A Critical Examination of Wayne Grudem’s Treatment of Kephale in Ancient Greek Texts,” in Beyond Sex Roles, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), appendix; Catherine Clark Kroeger, “The Classical Concept of Head as ‘Source,’ in Gretchen G. Hull, Equal to Serve (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1987), 267-283. From a complementarian perspective, read Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephale (“Head”): A Response to Recent Studies,” 424-476, in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem and John Piper and Jack Cottrell, Headship, Submission and the Bible, 109-242.

Excusus on “Veils” (John Mark Hicks):

a. The headcovering in Corinth is not the middle eastern “veil” but the Roman practice of capite velato where leaders in public rituals would pull a covering over their head as part of the religious ritual. Only those leading the ritual would cover their head—both men and women. Rick Oster has demonstrated this in his article “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: Historical Context of I Cor. 11:4,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 481-505. There is archaeological, epigraphic, numismatic and literary evidence to prove his case.

b. Corinth was a Roman colony. The previous Greek city had been destroyed in 146 BCE. but begun again as a Roman colony in 44 BCE. The city during Paul’s day was a mixed culture, but predominately Roman.

c. Paul opposes the asexual Roman practice of headcoverings. Rather, he wants to adjust the cultural practice in order to reflect the appropriate “honor” relations in the community.

(1) Apparently, both men and women were wearing the headcovering, so he distinguishes the practice in order to introduce gender distinction. Men do not wear the headcovering, but women do.

(2) However, there must have been another problem in Corinth. Why does Paul emphasize that women should wear the headcovering? Probably there were some women, by virtue of their Greek culture (where women did not wear any headcovering in rituals), did not wear the headcovering. They may have even seen this as a sign of freedom in Christ.

d. Consequently, the headcovering is a ritual (worship) practice in Roman religion that has been carried over into the Corinthian assemblies. Paul does not mind the headcovering, but he thinks it should symbolize the honor relationships between genders. Thus, men must honor their head not wearing the headcovering and women must honor their head by wearing the headcovering.

Mb>References to the Roman Practice:

"Why is it that when they worship the gods, they cover their heads, but when they meet any of their fellow-men worthy of honour, if they happen to have the toga over the head, they uncover?" (Plutarch, Moralia, The Roman Questions 10)

"It is no piety to show oneself often with covered head, turning towards a stone and approaching every altar, none to prostrate upon the ground and to spread open the palms before shrines of the gods . . ." (Lucretius de Rerum Natura 5.1198-1201).

". . . and when now thou raisest altars and payest vows on the shore, veil thy hair with covering of purple robe, that in the worship of the gods no hostile face may intrude amid the holy fires and mar the omens" (Virgil Aeneis 3.403-409).

"It was in accordance with the traditional usages, then, that Camillus, after making his prayer and drawing his garment down over his head, wished to turn his back; . . ." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus The Roman Antiquities 12.16.4).


Bible Search

Add Bible to your site

Jul 2019
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31      
Site-specific content Copyright (c) 2000 or Used by Permission
All other content Copyright (c) 2000 FaithSites, Inc. All rights reserved.
Use of this site is subject to Terms of Service and to our Privacy Policy.

If you are offended by anything on this page, click here.