With the rise of feminist thinking over the past two centuries and the break of modern thought from church doctrines, the issue of women’s place in the Bible has come under criticism. One character of frequent debate is the Apostle Paul, with 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and 14:34-36 being particularly scrutinized pieces of his writings. In 1 Corinthians, a letter written to a church in Corinth in the first century AD, Paul discusses how women should only prophesy with their heads covered, depend on men (11:1-16) and not speak in church (14:43-36). Obviously, passages like these stand in stark contrast against today’s mindset of gender equality, or do they? Many writers like Ellen Battelle Dietrick, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and Robin Scroggs think so. However, an examination of these women’s arguments shows that they do not adequately consider the culture of the time. Taking into account Paul’s audience, one can reconcile his more jarring literature with his overall support of the equality of the sexes and better understand how women fit into a Gospel worldview.
Ellen Battelle Dietrick, a leading feminist thinking in the late nineteenth century, uses the now-common interpolation theory for 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 in a commentary she co-authored entitled The Woman’s Bible. She reasons that because women could participate in ordained ministry in the first two centuries of church history, passages “concerning women’s non-equality with men…are bare-faced forgeries” created “to reduce women to silent submission”. Dietrick continues in the commentary by responding to a counterargument made by an unnamed clergyman in defense of the two Corinthians passages. The clergyman states that Paul’s commands regarding women specifically refer to those in the church of Corinth, which justifies the commands because the Corinthians were known for unscrupulously immoral sexual behavior. Dietrick has two responses. If the rumors about Corinthians reflected the truth, then the men in Corinth likely exhibited similar immorality, and thus Paul’s commands for women to put themselves under men’s authority demeans them. Also, the stereotypes of Corinthians that the clergyman cites reference a city conquered and destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C. and rebuilt by the empire into a new colony. Deitrick states that the culture of Corinth in Paul’s time differed from what the clergyman suggests, and she dismisses the validity of his argument.
Rosemary Radford Reuther, a twentieth century feminist thinker who examines Paul’s theology, discusses what she describes as Paul’s “ambivalence” towards the position of women in the church. First, Radford Reuther takes a step back and considers Paul’s central eschatological doctrine summarized best in Galatians 3:28, written to a contemporary church of Corinth, where Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ” (NIV). According to this, Paul supports a view of equality between men and women on the basis that all are saved through Christ and equal recipients of his grace. Furthermore, scripture depicts women as integral participants in the early church, serving as teachers and prophetesses, and Paul assumes this reality in his letters. Why then, Radford Reuther questions, would Paul speak about the dynamic of men having authority over women in his writings? Like Dietrick, Radford Reuther uses the interpolation theory against 1 Corinthians 14:34-36, asserting that church officials added these verses to protect their patriarchal worldview and maintain power in the Christian community. So, Radford Reuther removes 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 from examination because they are “post-Pauline” literature and therefore do not accurately reflect his viewpoints.
Radford Reuther continues by analyzing 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, specifically the part where Paul refers to men as “the head” of women as Christ is the head of the Church, to further argue his hesitancy to give women full equality. Paul also says here that women should only prophesy with their heads covered while men should prophesy with their heads uncovered. Radford Reuther explains this difficult passage as Paul struggling between his cultural upbringing in a male-dominated society and his new knowledge of the gospel with its implications for gender roles in the church. Radford Reuther links his struggle to a struggle within the church as a whole in reconciling these two opposing ideals. Paul, Radford Reuther says, extends equality to women with regards to spiritual matters but hesitates when such an extension begins to affect social roles because of his cultural background.
In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published in 1972, Robin Scroggs also evaluates if Paul has a chauvinist nature but comes to the conclusion that he, in fact, does not. Like Radford Reuther and Dietrick, Scroggs disregards 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 again on the basis of ingenuine Pauline authorship. Scroggs also considers Galatians 3:28 to be a founding doctrine of Paul’s view of women. Scroggs differs from Reuther and Deitrick, however, in that she does not find Corinthians 11:2-16 to contain content portraying women as inferior. Paul’s first challenging words here say, “Every man’s source is Christ, the source of woman is man, the source of Christ is God” (11:3, ESV). Scroggs asserts that “source” better translates the Greek than “head” or “authority” as other translations use, and she explains that this verse simply interprets the creation account found in Genesis 2 and does not make a value statement. God made Adam, then Eve from Adam. Paul even points out in verse 12 how man now comes from woman through childbirth, and thus both now mutually depend on each other. Scroggs then describes how the veil covering is not an expression of submission but of receiving new authority: “Since in the created order man had assumed a dominating role based on his priority and creation, but since in the eschatological age there is no such priority, women must show by the head covering that she has left that old order and now lives in the new.” Scroggs gives no explanation for the logic behind the head-covering but also asserts the irrelevancy of such an explanation given that one can understand the intention behind it. Scroggs concludes that Paul is not chauvinistic and that he actually is a “clear voice in the New Testament asserting the freedom and equality of woman.”
I agree with Scroggs’ statement regarding Paul’s support of gender equality, and the context of his writings allows one to see how this stance manifests through all his letters. 1 Corinthians 11 is not meant to create a subordinate power dynamic but reinforce the cyclical and interdependent nature between man and woman. Paul’s ‘dress code’ also fits into a narrative of equality and has applications to us today, just not in a literal sense. In a commentary on 1 Corinthians, Laura Nasrallah, a professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, cites archeological findings to aid understanding veils’ meaning. A statue of Octavian in Corinth, just one of many pieces of evidence, shows that men in that time and area wore head covering when doing pious or religious activities. Because of this cultural connotation, men in the church wearing veils while praying or leading the service effectively identified themselves with pagan practices, an obviously problematic issue. Women in that time wore veils to show they were married. Not wearing a veil in public signaled that a woman was widowed or seeking a divorce. Adulteresses also wore veils and had their heads shaved as punishment for their unfaithfulness. Therefore, Paul’s commands for women to wear veils while participating in service do not discriminate against them but try to protect how they appear morally while performing sacred tasks. Additionally, Paul’s statements about clothing distinctions do not speak to the value of men or women, and readers should interpret them to say as such. From this logic, the passage does not dictate that women should still wear head coverings today as head coverings do not mean the same thing as they did in Paul’s time. Rather, Paul warns Christians to be aware of how they appear to outsiders and to avoid inadvertently identifying with cultures or practices contrary to the church’s beliefs.
In regard to the verses 33-36 in chapter 14, I differ from that of the authors discussed previously and do not consider the verses to be an interpolation. Like Reuther, Deitrick, and Scroggs, I find equality between men and women central to the message of the gospel and therefore central to Paul’s theology as well. These scholars, however, cast off part of scripture simply because they find it abrupt or in conflict with itself. However, by removing these verses, these authors do the same thing they accuse historically misogynistic church leaders of doing: taking specific scriptures that support their own views and pushing aside others. By ignoring this verse, these authors employ the same tactic of altering scripture to fit their opinions. One might argue that this alteration supports a good cause, a true statement, but the best way to approach the problem is not simply to delete the parts one does not like. To the contrary, when one reads an abrupt or difficult verse, one should press in further to understand the meaning of its presence. The Bible sometimes uses extreme opposites to help readers understand that the answer lies in the middle ground, and knowledge of both opposites must be had in order to comprehend the point fully.
Deitrick’s argument about the character of the church in Corinth contains a few gaps. To recap, she points out that the character of the Corinthians would not have been as bad as some claim, and not enough to justify Paul’s alleged demeaning remarks, because the Romans took over the city long before Paul’s birth. She also references Paul converting “honorable women in Greece” and uses this as evidence to contradict the portrayal as Corinthian women as immoral.In the same passage Dietrick quotes, however, the author of Acts says that “now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica” (Acts 17:11, NIV). This verse supports the idea of varying degrees of “noble character” in the area, so Deitrick’s claim about Corinthian women’s good character simply by extension ignores the context. Additionally, when Paul references women in Corinth, his address includes women who have joined after the first women, clearly honorable and capable, with whom he founded the church. It was not uncommon for Paul to found a church and then for problems to arise later. Paul has already written to Corinth once before (5:9), so time has elapsed since the church’s founding, and 1 Corinthians as a whole discusses multiple problems in the church, namely division and spiritual immaturity. One can therefore reasonably assume that the issues mentioned likely arose after his departure from new members that had joined and older members that had slipped up; thus, Dietrick’s evidence against a lack of Corinthian character does not apply here.
But what about the verses themselves? Surely telling women not to talk exhibits a misogynistic stance inconsistent with Paul’s central doctrine, so one should treat the passage as an interpolated forgery. Not so fast. These verses actually provide directions for maintaining order in a service and discourage interruptions, not forbidding speech continually. As Nasrallah points out in her commentary, the “wandering” of the verses, that they come after verse 40 in some manuscripts, points back to a single original source and suggests Paul did write them. One must therefore try to interpret these verses within the context of Paul’s writings and his audience. As explained above, issues within the church at Corinth existed, and these verses appear in a section about the order of worship, detailing how the church should conduct an orderly service. Finally, mere chapters ago, in the first passage examined (11:1-16), Paul discusses women prophesying. As one cannot easily prophesy silently, one can infer that women actually do talk during services.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, Paul more accurately means “women should not speak to interrupt.” Paul does not seek to keep all women silent all the time, rather he attempts to maintain order within the church during service. He writes in verse 27 that those speaking in tongues should do so “one at a time” (14:27, NIV). If people randomly get up and yell at each, then nothing productive or worshipful of God can happen. When Paul says, “they should ask their own husbands,” the same logic applies. (14:35, NIV). He does not want women questioning what others say in the congregation setting but instead wants that discussion to occur at home where it can take place without interruptions. Paul concludes the chapter by saying, “Be eager [my brothers and sisters] to prophesy…but everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:39-40, NIV). This drives home the point that Paul encourages spiritual growth and participation for men and women but also values things being done in an organized way.
The central message of the Gospel states that all can gain salvation through the grace offered by Jesus Christ (John 3:16). The Bible upholds the equality of men and women, and Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians are no exception. By taking into account the culture of the time and the audience of Paul’s letter, one can easily interpret 11:1-16 and 14:34-36 as actively working to preserve the moral integrity and orderliness of women in the church. Those who fight for gender equality today can draw encouragement from this knowledge, knowing that Paul’s theology does not stand in their way.
. Note that when quoting the Bible throughout this paper, versions are provided in the citations. During my initial research, I examined both the NIV and ESV versions.
. Ellen Battelle Deitrick, The Woman’s Bible, 150.
. Dietrick, The Woman’s Bible, 151.
. Rosemary Radford Reuther, “The Subordination and Liberation of Women in Christian Theology: St. Paul and Sarah Grimké” (Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 61, no. 2, 1978), 168.
. Reuther, “The Subordination and Liberation,” 170.
. Reuther, 171.
. Reuther, 172-173.
. Robin Scroggs, “Paul and the Eschatological Woman” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40, no. 3, 1972), 284.
. Scroggs, “Paul and the Eschatological Woman,” 291-293.
. Scroggs 299-300, 302.
. Scroggs, 301.
. Scroggs, 302.
. Nasrallah, 451.
. “What Is the Bible Saying in 1 Corinthians 11 about Head Coverings?” (September 22, 2020).
. Scroggs, 301.
. Deitrick, 151.
. Nasrallah 450.