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On Gender and the Bible: What’s Up with Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? (Part 2)

(For Part 1, click here.) 

This is the second installment in a series engaging with John Mark Hicks’s book, Women Serving God: My Journey in Understanding Their Story, and Scot McKnight’s book, Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. In the first post, we critiqued the methods and tools used by both authors to understand and interpret key texts that lead them to what Hicks calls a “full participation” position of women in the church. In this post we will look at the first of three key texts: 1 Corinthians 11.

Hicks asks no fewer than 11 questions of 1 Corinthians 11, and notes that his shift from no participation to limited participation also came from studying 1 Corinthians 11 where women prayed and prophesied in the assembly (87). We agree that this is an important text to illustrate how women can participate in the assembled church. However, we disagree with Hicks’s reasoning and conclusions.

To help us, we sat down with Dr. Richard Oster, professor at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years and a published expert on the Roman veil practices in 1 Corinthians 11 and ancient Ephesus (1 Timothy 2). Rick pointed us to an excellent resource that the leaders of the church he attends created after extensive study with Rick and others, including their senior minister, Rodney Plunket, PhD. It is called a Study with the Shepherds – Women and Men Serving the Church, which we use extensively with permission.[1] When quoted, we will reference it as SWS.

In this and future posts, Oster will show us that 1 Corinthians 11, as well as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, aren’t nearly as thorny as Hicks or McKnight make them out to be.

Oster: I’d like to say something before we begin. The epistles we have in the New Testament are what scholars call occasional, which means 1 Corinthians was written to the church regarding Corinth, Galatians was written to the churches of Galatia et cetera. And that doesn’t detract one bit from their authority, from their inspiration, from the fact that they belong in the canon of Scripture. However, it does mean that our starting point is to try to understand the issues that are in those letters, to understand why Paul or Peter or John wrote them. Step one of good hermeneutics is to determine what the original authors meant in their letters, and I think Scot McKnight and John Mark Hicks would agree with this.

The issue is, and this is where I begin to disagree with Hicks and McKnight, the Bible doesn’t tell us what part is cultural.

It’s not like Paul sent a letter to the church in Philippi and said, “I’m going to put a little note here, and these things are cultural.” Or to the Corinthians, “Okay men and women, these three chapters are just cultural.” Culture and the problems arising from churches living in culture are responsible for everything and every letter in the New Testament. A good example of something that’s crucial to the Christian faith and practice being addressed because of a situation is 1 Corinthians 15. We don’t have chapter 15 because Paul just said, “I want to share some wonderful theology about the resurrection.” We have that wonderful chapter because there were specific, occasional problems coming from some Christians in Corinth who didn’t understand the resurrection. They didn’t get it. This is the same reason we have 1 Corinthians 13. Some Christians at the church of Corinth didn’t understand spiritual gifts within their religious and cultural setting.

So we must be careful when we say, “Well, this is just something that’s temporal and cultural, and this over here is eternal because it’s not connected to anything situational in the letter.” Those conclusions can be arbitrary, reflecting more of what our own pet theological interests are, rather than something demonstrated on the basis of exegesis.

Q: Hicks claims 1 Corinthians 11 is filled with problems, reflecting an intricate relationship between culture, theology, and church practices in the first century with significant uncertainties. Is this passage really that difficult to understand?

Oster: I hope to show you that it actually isn’t so hard to understand.

SWS: The following interpretation of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 is informed by a historical reconstruction of the relevant context. This reconstruction is based on hard evidence regarding the wearing of head coverings in the first century. Some question the value and validity of historical reconstructions for the purpose of interpreting Scripture. However, we base our ability to replace the “holy kiss” (commanded in Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Th. 5:26) or “kiss of love” (commanded in 1 Peter 5:14) with a handshake by means of a historical reconstruction indicating the first century meaning of the holy kiss or kiss of love corresponds more to a handshake in our culture than it does to a kiss.

The Corinthian assemblies were made up of believers from different cultural backgrounds. Roman Christians and non-Roman Christians brought different head covering customs into the early church. Since the use of head coverings related to authority and submission for at least some in the Corinthian church and for Paul, he had to give them clear instructions regarding the covering of the head while speaking in the church’s assembly.

The Roman view: The wearing of devotional head coverings was the norm for Roman women and men and amounted to a religious law. This affected the way both women and men were viewed when speaking in the Corinthian church. Many, if not all, Roman Christians would have considered it irreverent when women or men took an active role without covering their heads. See images below that display the Romans’ use of head coverings in worship settings and in depictions through which they conveyed their religious reverence.

The Non-Roman View: Non-Romans did not possess that “religious law.” As a result, it is almost certain that those whose backgrounds were Greek, Egyptian, Asian, German, etc., did not have their heads covered when taking a leading role in the assembly. Greek authors, for example, actually state how strange the practice of the Romans seemed to them. Greeks distinguished themselves by their speech and education; but Romans by what they wore, especially in worship settings.[2] Consequently, when Roman men took a leading role in the church’s assembly with their heads covered, the non-Romans viewed that as odd; and Paul and almost certainly others, viewed it as an affront to the biblical doctrine of headship. When women did not cover their heads while praying or prophesying, it appeared to Paul and almost certainly to others that they were not honoring the biblical doctrine of headship.

To keep this in perspective, covering the head was not the general social attire for either Romans or non-Romans.

The head covering issue only applied when taking an active role in a worship assembly. Ancient altar reliefs portray Roman pagan worship in which the only person in the procession with a head covering, whether male or female, is the one officiating a specific act of worship at the moment. Outside of these settings, Roman men typically uncovered their heads in the presence of others, especially among social superiors. This was also true for some of the more well-to-do women.[3] This helps us place limits on the application of the text. It is not referring to what women or men should wear in public or even in worship assemblies generally. In 1 Cor. 11:2-16, Paul’s instructions only apply to persons who are praying or prophesying in the assembly.

Also relevant to this question is the awareness that not all women in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s time were accustomed to living lives publicly secluded from social and religious activities or being kept from participation and leadership in religious priesthoods. On both the first (Acts 13:50) and second (Acts 17:12) missionary journeys Paul encounters “women of high standing.” These were women of wealth and civic significance. In Paul’s time and world there were women who held high civic offices and even served as priestesses and high priestesses in various religions, even the emperor cult. It is certainly possible historically that some women of high standing and wealth (like those addressed in 1 Tim. 2:9) felt constrained by the gender understandings affirmed by Paul and, therefore, preferred not to cover their heads.

Put simply, Paul required the men not to cover their heads when they spoke in the assembly; and he required the women to cover their heads. Those requirements were to resolve confusion regarding the church’s posture relative to the biblical doctrine of headship.

In conclusion, we see that both men and women spoke in the church’s assemblies.

Q: Hicks questions the meaning of head (kephale), noting that sometimes it is literal and sometimes metaphorical and calling it one of the thornier problems in the passage. He asks if it is a metaphor for authority or rank or a metaphor for source or origin (97).

Oster: I believe a straightforward reading of the text, along with the archeological evidence we will soon consider, reveal that kephale (head) means authority. First of all, interpreting the word “head” to mean “source” creates all kinds of Christological problems. In 1 Corinthians 15:28 Paul says that Christ will be in eternal submission to God, the Father. Secondly, taking kephale (head) to mean source contradicts most of the imagery in the New Testament. Anybody in the first century who heard the phrase “father and son”, which is a recurring image in the New Testament to describe the relationship between God and Jesus, is not going to think “source.” They’re going to think authority.

It seems like special pleading to take Paul’s assertion that “the head of Christ is God” to mean “the source of Christ is God.”

Q: But some translations use “husband” and “wife” instead of “man” and “woman.” Is Paul addressing husbands and wives, specifically, or men and women, generally?

SWS: Paul is addressing both men and women.

Traditionally, discussions of this passage have focused solely on women. Some argue that Paul mentioned head-coverings for males hypothetically to round out the argument but that it was only the women’s conduct that was in question. While there are some references exclusive to women (11:6, 10, 13), the most natural reading suggests Paul is addressing both genders. Most references are to both genders (11:3, 4-5, 7, 8-9, 11-12, 14-15), and in each case where men and women are paired, men are mentioned first.

A case can be made from the Greek words used (gyne for women/wives and aner for men/husbands) that husbands and wives are the sole concern here. The terms can mean women/men in general, but when paired, often mean wife/husband. Because of this, translators must be careful to determine the meaning based on context. They must be consistent, however, which is a problem with the RSV that alternates between translating gyne as “women” in some occurrences and “wives” in others.

The best understanding is that the text refers to men and women generally, which would certainly encompass husbands and wives in the assembly, but not exclusively. This fits better with 11:11-12, which refers to the origins of men and women. It would also help explain why Paul said “the head of the woman is the man” with nothing in the context to single out a marriage relationship. Note that Paul refers more commonly to every woman (11:5) or a woman (11:6, 10, 13, 15) without any indication of marital status just as he does not limit his instruction to married men but to every man (11:3, 4) or a man (11:7, 14). As Witherington writes, “The argument is not about family relations but about praying and prophesying in public worship.”[4]

Q: Hicks suggests that we cannot be sure whether the covering on a woman’s head is a veil or long hair but that “either way…the exposure of the hair signaled sexual availability, impropriety, and/or impiety” (89). Do you agree?

Oster: No. There is clear archeological evidence of what is going on here in regard to veils and what they mean.

Julius Caesar founded Corinth as a Roman colony in 44 BC, right before he was assassinated. Now, the purpose of a colony is to reflect, in a concentrated form, the language, law, religion, and values of the capital city: in this case, Rome. Roman civilization had particular religious practices, and we can easily find them in archeology and ancient literature. So, if we look at the evidence, we can visualize what Paul is talking about here.

SWS: We know Roman men wore head coverings when they prayed or prophesied in any religious service. While operating without that information, scholars commonly suggested that Paul mentioned men here solely to be even handed because his real concern was the importance of head coverings for women. Now we have ancient texts and other archaeological remains that reveal devotional head coverings were the norm for Roman males as well as females as described in the quotation below:

The Roman psyche had a special interest, if not fixation, with proper apparel, proper for both secular and sacred occasions. …It is not difficult to imagine the tenacity displayed by those of Roman heritage regarding the nature and propriety of head coverings during prayer and prophecy. …Certain Roman sacerdotal officials constantly kept their heads covered….[and] the small group of Vestal Virgins customarily covered [their heads]….while performing their sacerdotal functions. [Even more common was the] garment used in private as well as public devotional acts such as prayer, sacrifice, and prophecy that was typically referred to by the phrase capite velato. This gesture consisted of pulling part of one’s garment or toga over the back of the head and then forward until it approached or covered the ears. …It is this widely disseminated devotional gesture, used by both permanent Roman clergy and by officiating laymen, that provides the matrix of the devotional apparel mentioned in 1 Cor. 11:4. …The conventionality of this Roman practice is attested by Greek and Latin texts, monuments, coins, and statuary remains, all reflecting Roman devotional patterns and mores in both the western and eastern regions of the empire. …Evidence shows the pervasive association of this gesture with significant political rulers, with official and public priestly liturgies, and with devotional expressions of the common people.[5]

See the following images reflecting the Roman practice.

[Bas relief from Arch of Marcus Aurelius showing sacrifice. User:MatthiasKabel / CC BY-SA (]

In this image, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is wearing a head covering while engaging in a religious ritual, the offering of a sacrifice. Note that the others present are not wearing a head covering, only the one who is actively involved in the offering wears a veil.

[Pompeii_Temple_of_Vespasian_altar_close-up. Wmpearl. Public domain.]

Again, what you see here is the man specifically involved in the act of worship has a head covering. The people who are doing the accompaniment are not covered, and the people who are watching are not covered.

[CaesarAugustusPontiusMaximus. RyanFreisling at English Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

This is the Emperor Augustus attired as capite velato since he is participating in a religious ceremony. Missing from his right hand was the bowl used in religious ceremonies. The term for this bowl (phialē) is found about a dozen times in the book of Revelation.

Oster: Paul is not telling everyone to wear a head covering when they’re in a worship service. He’s talking about the men and women who are doing the praying and prophesying. And that’s what you see in the statuary, coins, and friezes. It’s the people who are specifically involved in those acts of worship who are covered. It demonstrates submissiveness, respect, and awe in the presence of the deity. This was pervasive throughout the entire Roman empire. From the Tigris to the Thames, this is how a Roman would worship, and the Romans stand out by themselves in this unisex practice of head coverings. Both men and women covered their heads as they worshiped.

Q: Why would Hicks and so many others believe that this passage is about sexual propriety, not authority?

Oster: He’s probably quoting somebody who doesn’t know any better. No scholar knows everything. We each have our areas of expertise, and so we must be careful who we reference for interpretations. Hicks is a scholar of Christian doctrine and church history, and a very good one at that. He’s a diligent student of Scripture, and we’re good friends. But the archeological evidence contradicts his interpretation. If wearing veils was about sexual propriety, why would men wear one?

This is not the kind of covering you put on when you go shopping at the Agora. This is not the kind of covering you wear when you come into a sacred building or into the assembly. This is a covering for praying and prophesying. It’s worn only during those two acts; pagans also wore them while performing sacrifices, but Christians no longer had that need.

So, this archeological material gives us a visual example of what that would look like. The veiled men and women are the people who were actually involved in worship. They’re the covered people. The other people who were in the assembly in a secondary way, participating and observing, they don’t cover. This would be true of the pagan temple worship as well as the church of God in Corinth. At Corinth, not everybody’s praying or prophesying, simultaneously and out loud; it’s just the men and women with uncovered and covered heads.

Q: So, are you saying that Paul is making a distinction between a unisex, Roman practice in worship and a Christian one that reflects an eternal order between God the Father, Christ, men, and women?

Oster: Yes. Paul says that every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but that every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. Paul is addressing a situation where men’s heads are covered and women’s heads are uncovered.

And what does Paul say? He says it’s a dishonor. It’s communicating, visually and culturally, a misunderstanding of this headship relationship in verse 3, where Paul lays a theological foundation for his instructions on head coverings: “But 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” (1 Cor. 11:3).

The Corinthian church was culturally mixed. The Greeks, the Jews, the Egyptians, and the people in Asia Minor did not have this practice. It is unique to Roman worship. The Roman Empire encompassed many geographical locations, each with its own religious norms, practices, and mores. The Romans are in charge and there are Romans in this Corinthian church, so Paul is sorting out how to get them on board with everyone else so that they reflect the truth about headship and authority in relationships.

Q: So you believe that this a theological issue rather than a cultural one, of men and women worshiping and interacting in ways that reflect an eternal truth. Right?

Oster: Yes. I think that what is bothering Paul is that the women have their head coverings off, while the men simultaneously have their heads covered in the assembly. This is sending the wrong message; it looks like the men are in submission to the women. But the eternal truths are laid out at the beginning of chapter 11.

SWS: In 1 Cor. 11:3, Paul uses the term “head” (Gk. kephale) to describe the relationship of God to Christ, Christ to man, and man to woman. Paul’s point is the relationship between man and woman corresponds in some way or ways to the relationship between Christ and men and the relationship between God and Christ. Certainly, some things contained in sacred texts are cultural, but when Paul explicitly connects the headship of men to the headship of God and the headship of Christ, he makes clear male headship is not subject to change as culture changes. In this sense, Paul is applying a universal principle of headship to a specific, cultural issue (head coverings) in the Corinthian church. 1 Cor. 11:3 expresses the spiritual reality that women are to express submission to men just as Christ does to God. A specific way this was to be displayed in Corinth was the wearing of head coverings.

In 1 Cor. 11:7-8, Paul writes, “man…is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Paul clearly connects the principle of male headship all the way back to creation. That connection rules out the possibility of headship being just a cultural issue of Paul’s time that can be ignored today.

Paul also ensures this headship is not be understood in any authoritarian or dominating sense.

Adam needed help, thus “woman for man” (11:9), and “woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman” (11:11). In addition, all men owe their existence to women (11:12). Through these words, Paul teaches interdependency and mutuality; men and women stand in need of each other.

Paul also presents the argument from nature (11:13-15). He argues we know by nature that what one has on the head can be gender distinguishing. He knew his Corinthian readers would acknowledge that if they woke up one day and all women were bald and all men had long hair, something would not be right with the universe. Paul is using that awareness to help his readers recognize that head coverings also can serve as means of distinguishing between women and men.

At the conclusion of 1 Cor. 11:2-16, Paul conveys his awareness that some may not agree with his instruction. So, he warns against anyone being contentious and affirms his teaching as universal practice for all churches (11:16).

Q: Who would want to argue about it?

Oster: The Roman Christians, of course. Paul is telling them that the dominant values of the Roman Empire, that their worldview, is wrong. The Roman Christians are going to argue and be contentious about that. So, Paul says, “All I can say is that we have no other custom than this, and all the churches of God feel the same way about it.”

And remember, Paul’s language is not nearly as strong in this instruction as it is in the coming passage on the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Christians aren’t likely intending to be rebellious about head coverings; they just grew up in a culture where we know, from the evidence, that head covering in worship was a gender-neutral issue. It was a unisex practice.

Another historical point that helps us understand what the original readers of this letter would have heard is that the Corinthian church is a missional church. There is no one who grew up in a Christian home. The oldest convert, when Paul writes 1 Corinthians, is five years old. It’s a church filled with immature Christians. Paul starts this section of the letter off gently by saying, “I want to commend you…” He just wants this issue of head coverings while praying and prophesying adjusted. He wants it fixed. And his reasoning is theological: there is an order to creation. Women praying with uncovered heads while men pray with covered heads is not showing proper respect for headship.

Q: Hicks wants to help the reader understand what prophesying means and where women are doing it as he moves to his full participation position. He believes that there is no explicit distinction between assemblies within 1 Corinthians 11-14. Do you agree?

SWS: Yes. [1 Corinthians 11] does pertain to the assembly as noted above and as additionally supported in the points below.

The phrase, “I praise you,” in 11:2 connects to the phrase, “I do not praise you,” in 11:17. Paul employs these phrases to connect 11:2-16 to 11:17-34. In this way, he makes clear these two passages are discussing activities that are somehow related. Since 1 Cor. 11:2-16 discusses the use of head coverings and 11:17-34 discusses the Lord’s Supper, how are these passages related? 1 Cor. 11:17-34 refers to Lord’s Supper observance in the context of believers assembled for worship. We know that because in 11:18 Paul writes, “when you come together as a church” (NIV). The Greek word for “church” here is ekklesia, which literally means “assembly.” If both the praying and prophesying in 1 Cor. 11:1ff and the Lord’s Supper observance in vss. 17ff are not occurring in the context of believers assembled for worship, then the verbal connection Paul makes is bewildering at best and misleading at worst.

1 Cor. 11:2 is the beginning of a three-part section (11:2-14:40). It is beyond dispute that part two (11:17-34) and part three (chapters 12-14) address activities taking place in the assembly. To view part-one as addressing an activity taking place outside the assembly is to ignore the verbal connection it has with part two (noted above) and the fact that it precedes and is connected to two sections which unquestionably address activities taking place within the assembly.

The prophesying of 14:1-40 took place “when the whole church comes together” (14:23), which suggests the prophesying of 11:2-16 was in the same context. Certainly, prophecies were common in a variety of settings outside the assembly, but in 1 Cor. 12-14 Paul is referring to the exercise of communicative spiritual gifts in the assembly.

Even in Christian circles, women probably would not have had much, if any, occasion to minister to men in “one-on-one” settings, since these encounters would be easily misinterpreted within the gender restrictions of that culture. Since the wearing of head coverings by women was to show submission to men, they would not have been worn when men were not present. Therefore, the only setting in which they would have been needed was the corporate worship assembly.

The reference to angels being concerned about gender-specific behavior (11:10) makes best sense when seen as analogous to Jewish beliefs about the role of angels in public worship.

In 11:16, Paul refers to the practice of other “churches,” which favors a reference to the gathered assembly. As noted above, the word, “church,” translates ekklesia which means “assembly.” If it does not have that meaning in 11:16, it would be the only exception in thirteen occurrences of this term in chapters 11-14.12

Q: So, if we agree with Hicks that women were praying and prophesying in the assembly, and can still do so, what roles are prohibited for women, if any?

SWS: The prohibited role is one of an authoritative teacher who guides the congregation in faith and practice.

This fundamental difference between prophet and teacher is evident in the OT distinction between prophet and the teaching office of priests. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the OT priesthood did not consist of only butchering animals and offering grain and animal sacrifices but also teaching. In the OT it was not the duty of prophets to regularly provide instruction based upon Scripture; that was the duty of the priests. Note the teaching duties of priests referred to in these diverse OT texts:

  • 2 Kings 17:27 – “Then the king of Assyria commanded, ‘Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there; let him go and live there, and teach them the law of the god of the land.’”
  • 2 Chr. 15:3 – “For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest, and without law.”
  • 2 Chr. 19:8 – “In Jerusalem also, Jehoshaphat appointed some of the Levites, priests and heads of Israelite families to administer the law of the LORD and to settle disputes. And they lived in Jerusalem.”
  • 2 Chr. 31:4 – “He ordered the people living in Jerusalem to give the portion due the priests and Levites so they could devote themselves to the Law of the LORD.”
  • Deut. 17:18 – “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites.”
  • Deut. 31:9 – “So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel.”
  • Jer. 2:8 – “The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.”
  • Jer. 18:18 – “They said, ‘Come, let’s make plans against Jeremiah; for the teaching of the law by the priest will not be lost, nor will counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophets. So come, let’s attack him with our tongues and pay no attention to anything he says.’”
  • Ezek. 7:26 – “Calamity upon calamity will come, and rumor upon rumor. They will try to get a vision from the prophet; the teaching of the law by the priest will be lost, as will the counsel of the elders.”
  • Ezek. 22:26 – “Its priests have done violence to my teaching and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean,…”
  • Ezek. 44:24 – “‘In any dispute, the priests are to serve as judges and decide it according to my ordinances. They are to keep my laws and my decrees for all my appointed feasts, and they are to keep my Sabbaths holy.’”
  • Mic. 3:11 – “Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money;”
  • Hag. 2:11 – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says,…’”
  • Mal. 2:7 – “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty.”
  • Ezra 7:12 – “Artaxerxes, king of kings, To Ezra the priest, a teacher of the Law of the God of heaven: Greetings.”
  • Ezra 7:21 – “Now I, King Artaxerxes, order all the treasurers of Trans-euphrates to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, a teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you—…”
In OT Scripture, the priest was always male, never female.

In the NT, teaching and prophecy are identified as different ministries and gifts in the early church:

  • Acts 13:1 – “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.”
  • 1 Cor. 12:28 – “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles.”
  • 1 Cor. 12:29 – “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?”
  • 1 Cor. 14:6 – “…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?”
  • Ephesians 4:11 – “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.”
  • 2 Peter 2:1 – “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.”

There were essential differences between the role of the prophet and the role of the teacher. Prophecy seems to be a direct giving of messages to current situations and could encompass ethical exhortation, encouragement, etc. The purpose, intent, or function of prophecy in that setting was strengthening, encouraging, comforting, and edifying the body (cf. 1 Cor. 14:3-4). Women did prophesy in the church assemblies at Corinth.

Q: Hicks claims that because women prophesied in the church at Corinth with God’s sanction and gifting, they can also preach because prophesying was more substantive than teaching or preaching (91). Is that an appropriate conclusion?

SWS: The issue of women teaching and preaching is more complex. In part, the complexity arises from the NT texts themselves. 1 Tim. 2:12 states, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” However, there are other passages where women teach. For example, Acts 18:26 reports, “He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” Priscilla is actually listed first here as she is in four out of the six occurrences of her and her husband’s name in the NT. Many scholars view this placement as a way of indicating that Priscilla possessed or demonstrated some type of superiority relative to Aquila. Evidence supporting that viewpoint is the example of a woman named Julia Severa, who also lived in the first century. When married to a man named Servenius Capito, who was from a family of high distinction, her name is always listed second when paired with his. He died sometime after 63 AD, and Julia Severa married Tyrronius Rapon, who was from a much less distinguished family. When Julia’s name is paired with Tyrronius’s name, her name is always first.[6] However, what is most relevant to our study is in the case of Priscilla and Aquila, a woman is involved in teaching a man, so some level or type of teaching must be within the realm of women’s engagement in ministry.

Additionally, in Phil. 4:2-3 we read of two women, Euodia and Syntyche, in the congregation at Philippi. According to Paul these two women “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my coworkers, whose names are in the book of life.” Clearly these two women helped Paul in his work as a missionary.

However, Scripture describes a level of “Ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2-4; cf. Luke 1:2) that is tantamount to guiding specific congregations in their faith and practice. In the NT, this role is filled only by males, most notably by Timothy in Ephesus and Titus in Crete, who were to “command and teach…with all authority” (Titus 2:15). These men had the duties to “preach…reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2) and were to do so in a formative way that established the order (Tit. 1:5) of proper behavior in the church (1 Tim. 3:15). They were to declare sound teaching (Tit. 2:1, 15), remind people of their duties (1 Tim. 3:15, Tit. 3:1), insist on the truth of Scripture (Tit. 3:8), warn divisive persons (Tit. 3:10), and rebuke false teachers (Tit. 1:13) as gently as possible (2 Tim. 2:25) while being ready to take it to the level of battle if necessary (1 Tim. 1:18). While others within the church could read Scripture, publicly exhort, and teach (1 Tim. 4:13), the teaching of Timothy and Titus carried the weight of command (1 Tim. 4:11) and authority (Tit. 2:15) even to the extent of charging and entrusting others to teach (2 Tim. 2:2, 1 Tim. 1:3). The closest equivalent to the role of Timothy and Titus in today’s churches would be the preacher, who is something more akin to the “pastor-teacher” from Ephesians 4:11.

It is also clear from Scripture that the apostles fulfilled a similar Ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2-4) and that elders served many of the same functions (Acts 20:28-31). We also see evidence that “the council of elders laid hands on” (appointed) people like Timothy and Titus to join in this aspect of their work (1 Tim. 4:15) even to the extent of appointing elders in their contexts (Tit. 1:5). Collectively, these men are the ones who “lead” (Heb. 13:7, 17, Gk. hegoumenois) and “keep watch over” the congregation, primarily as they “speak the word of God” (Heb. 13:7). It is the men who function as shepherds and overseers and are tasked with watching the flock and protecting it from error (Acts 20:28-31). Elders serve this function, alongside the ministers of the Word (Acts 6:2-4) whom “the body of elders have laid hands on” (appointed) to “command and teach” the church as a whole (1 Tim. 4:11-14), sometimes correctively (2 Tim. 4:2). These are the ones who “lead” (Heb. 13:7, 17, Gk. hegoumenois) the congregation.

As in Paul’s time, many kinds of teaching involving both men and women take place in congregations today. However, Scripture also indicates that the roles of elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and those who fulfill the Ministry of the Word by communicating authoritative teaching to the congregation (e.g., preacher, Titus 2:15) are reserved for men.

Q: Are not all up-front roles in the assembly––e.g., leading prayer or songs, leading a communion devotional, etc.––part of the same category that should be reserved for men because of the biblical doctrine of headship? Hicks says no. “This is the critical point: headship, whatever it means, does not deny women the privilege of participation and leadership [emphasis his]… not all leadership is a function of headship” (97).

SWS: The relevant biblical texts indicate women can serve in these up-front roles. What needs to be understood is that biblical headship always involves leading, but much of what today is referred to as leading is often not something the NT church would have viewed as the exercising of headship.

We should distinguish the biblical definition of the term “headship” from the contemporary meaning of the term “leadership.” While there is debate as to the exact meaning of “head” (Gk. kephale) in the NT, the most natural reading suggests first in order, chief, prominent, or having authority over. In contemporary culture, “leadership” is used to refer to many activities that are not within the scope of headship as understood in Scripture. We must adhere to a more biblical understanding of “headship” and contrast it with the contemporary meaning of “leadership.” If we do not, we will be controlled by various modern understandings and subjective views like the ones governing current understandings of baptism. Believers should not allow later ideas about baptism to dictate what the NT actually meant by that term. Problems are created when later English meanings are substituted for the original meanings of scriptural terms.

We must not let modern meanings of the terms “leadership” or “leading” define NT headship. Currently the idea of “leadership” is used to refer to many activities that are not within the scope of headship as presented in Scripture. For example, 1 Cor. 11:2-16 makes clear that speaking does not always equal headship because Paul does not object to women’s speaking in that passage which clearly affirms the biblical doctrine of headship.

From early in the OT onwards, God used female “leaders,” as described in some detail in the previous sections. Please be reminded of the OT’s presentations of the roles of Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. In the NT, be reminded of the roles of women like Phoebe the diakonos and prostatis in Rom. 16:1-2, Prisca the “fellow worker” in Rom. 16:3, and Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis who “worked hard in the Lord” in Rom. 16:6, 12. In addition, we have seen that women were praying and prophesying in the assemblies in Corinth, and Paul affirms this vocal participation as long as the biblical doctrine of headship is displayed. And yet that same apostle Paul, in 1 Cor. 11:2-16, refers to the story of creation in Genesis to establish that man is the head of woman.

Today, the primary person commissioned to fulfill the Ministry of the Word role is referred to as our “pulpit minister”; this designation is problematic because others often speak from the pulpit during the assembly to make announcements, offer communion devotionals, etc. Headship is not intrinsic to every role performed from the platform we call the “pulpit.” Scripture reveals speaking roles for women in the assembly and speaking roles in our assemblies are generally best accomplished from the platform.


Since God established the principle of headship at creation, and yet God has placed women in positions of leadership, not all instances of female leadership violate the biblical doctrine of headship, else God has acted inconsistently with his own order. Therefore, in the ministries and worship services of the church, the leadership gifts of women are to be employed in ways that conform to the examples in Scripture, ways that do not violate the biblical doctrine of headship.

In our next blog, Dr. Richard Oster will walk us through 1 Corinthians 14.

[1] The Church of Christ at White Station, Memphis, Tennessee. You can find the entire Study with the Shepherds: Women and Men Serving the Church at

[2] Richard Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: the Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” New Testament Studies, vol. 34 (1988), 494, quoted in Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1995), 234.

[3] Ibid., 235.

[4] Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1995), 235.

[5] Richard Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11:4,” New Testament Studies 34, 1988: 481-505.

[6] William Mitchell Ramsay, The Cities and Bishoprics of Phrygia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), 639.

(This is Part 2 of our series “On Gender and the Bible.” Here are parts 1345, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.)

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