The Created Order and the Exegetical Task
The Created Order
So God created mankind in his own image. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27, English Standard Version)
God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. (Genesis 1:27, The Message)
I intentionally decided to begin with this passage, not only because it is found at the beginning of the Scriptures, but because it forms the foundational ethic for many complementarian viewpoints. The argument goes something like this:
The male and female distinctions between Adam and Eve are vital aspects of what it means to be created in the image of God (the imago dei), and therefore these distinctions cannot be ignored. Genesis clearly states that God created humans in his image, and he specifically created them in two genders. Furthermore, Paul himself directly quotes this text to justify his explanation for limiting the ability of women to teach in 1 Timothy 2 (vs. 11-15).
On the surface, this is a completely sensible argument, and it is one that I subscribed to myself until recently. N.T. Wright himself admits to believing this perspective until the fallacy of it was discovered in one simple point: the two-gender distinction is found throughout all of creation, and is not at all unique to humans, the bearers of the imago dei (Wright, 2004).
Humans are indeed distinct from animals and plants, and Christians believe that it is the imago dei that separates us. It cannot be argued, though, that existing as male-plus-female is what it means to bear the image of our Creator, for the simple fact that mammals, fish, birds, and most plants also exist in male and female form, and Genesis makes it clear that only humanity bears his image. This is not meant to trivialize the male/female genders; on the contrary, Genesis attests to the fact that the two genders are an intrinsic aspect of all of creation, and working out what this means in a broken world is something we are all called to do. I am certainly not arguing for the church to pursue some form of a gnostic, hermaphroditic, sexless ideology and existence. However, our understanding of being God’s image-bearers must be disentangled from our understanding of gender roles. Bearing the imago dei is not limited to a matter of being male and female; it is a matter of being human.
We will briefly return to this idea when discussing 1 Timothy, for Paul uses it as a basis for later arguments.
I Corinthians 14
As in all the churches of the saints, 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. 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. (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, English Standard Version)
Possibly one of the most infamous, and misused, texts relating to gender roles is found here in 1 Corinthians. The passage is rightfully controversial, for as Greg Boyd says, “if we’re going to interpret these verses literally and apply them consistently, not only should women not teach or have authority, they also should not be allowed to ask questions in church” (Boyd, 2008). Before diving into the context of this passage, it is crucially important to remember Paul’s directives found earlier in the same letter:
…but every wife who prays or prophecies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:5)
The assumption Paul makes here is that women will in fact be praying and prophesying in church gatherings, and his concern is not with whether or not they should be doing so, but simply how they should be dressed. Every culture has unspoken social rules and outward methods of expression (In America: wear black at funerals; a white wedding dress signifies purity; red, white, and blue on July 4th indicate patriotism, etc.), and in Corinth, gender was clearly designated through styles of hair and clothing. However, Paul himself was known for teaching early in his ministry that there was “no male or female” in Christ (Galatians 3:26). In this context, it is quite plausible that Corinthian women took this edict seriously and began tearing off head-coverings or letting down their long hair when participating in church services, thereby blurring the strict social distinctions (Wright, 2004). Similarly, it is quite possible that the women felt a social pressure to “be more like men” when praying or prophesying, and to rebelliously express this by dismissing the outward social female markers. Wright sums up Paul’s perspective nicely:
"The underlying point then seems to be that in worship it is important for both men and women to be their truly created selves, to honour God by being what they are and not blurring the lines by pretending to be something else." (Wright, 2004)
However, the issue of how to understand Corinthians 14 still remains. In fact, reading Corinthians 11 in this light only seems to make those two verses in chapter 14 all the more confusing. If women in the Corinthian church were permitted, even encouraged, to speak, and needed only to keep their head covered when doing so, why would Paul then turn around and suddenly require them to be silent at all times? Two compelling explanations are offered by biblical scholars.
First, as argued by Gordon Fee and later supported by Richard Hays, verses 34 and 35 are believed by some to be an interpolation, not originally written by Paul, but later added to the letter by another scribe. This argument is supported by the fact that early manuscripts of the Corinthian letters place verses 34 and 35 at the end of the chapter, rather than in their current location. Whether or not this “interpolation theory” is accurate, the verses do indeed exist in very early manuscripts (early enough to be canonized), and therefore should not simply be explained away because “Paul didn’t write them himself”. Furthermore, the question of gender appears multiple times in other aspects of Paul’s writing, and simply ignoring these two verses does not resolve every tension. Nonetheless, it is a compelling argument, and I would encourage you to study the work of Fee and Hays to better understand the hypothesis (see references).
The second argument primarily draws from the historical Corinthian context, and this is the position I personally find to be more convincing. To best understand it, a few contextual clues are important.
First, Corinth was understood to be a town primarily composed of “transportation workers, porters, and metal workers,” meaning the inhabitants came from many locations and likely spoke a wide variety of languages (Bailey, 2000). However, since the advancement of Alexander the Great’s empire, the “common language” throughout society was Greek. Additionally, in this cultural setting, men were the ones who would typically be responsible for making business connections, selling or exchanging goods, and similar public tasks which required a greater command of the common tongue, much more so than the typical woman. Interestingly, I observed a similar phenomenon when I visited Uganda: English was officially the national language; however, individuals who were not required to interact with other tribes, through business or personal connections, had no reason to speak anything other than their local dialect. In Corinth, it logically follows, then, that the women who attended the gatherings in this context may have had a more difficult time following what was being taught. As a result, it may have become common for these women to frequently ask questions to their Greek-fluent husbands in the middle of the service, or to simply lose interest and begin talking with others. This idea is compelling for several reasons, not least of which because it directly addresses Paul’s command for women to ask their husbands questions at home. In any case, Paul’s central concern in this passage is clearly maintaining order in worship services in a town that seemed to be reputably disorderly. Eugene Peterson’s translation of the same text captures this well:
Wives must not disrupt worship, talking when they should be listening, asking questions that could more appropriately be asked of their husbands at home. God’s Book of the law guides our manners and customs here. Wives have no license to use the time of worship for unwarranted speaking. Do you—both women and men—imagine that you’re a sacred oracle determining what’s right and wrong? Do you think everything revolves around you? (1 Corinthians 14:34-36, The Message, emphasis mine)
It is a grievous error to use these passage to suppress the role of women in church gatherings today. As we have seen, Paul assumed that women would always play important roles in these communities, and these texts must be read as specific directives to communities that were dealing with specific, cultural problems. This is not to say the texts are irrelevant! On the contrary, I believe we in America have much to learn from Paul’s teaching of gender expression in the church.
In the next post of this series, I will attempt an exegetical discussion of 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 2.
Baily, Kenneth. (2000). Women in the New Testament: A Middle-Eastern Cultural View.
Boyd, Greg. (2008). The Case for Women in Ministry.
Fee, Gordon. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians.
Hays, Richard B. (1996). The Moral Vision of the New Testament.
Wright, N.T. (2004). Women’s Service in the Church: A Biblical Basis.