Can you help me respond to some questions on women's role?


I know you have NO shortage of busy-ness, but here I come with another question for you. I had a discussion via instant messaging with a friend, and I'd greatly appreciate your wisdom in trying to decide how to respond. Here are my friend's comments:

I Corinthians 11 talks about why women are to wear head coverings. Not wearing a head covering is a disgrace to the men or husbands. I think this is a cultural thing. Last week, I read about how a Roman man divorced his wife because she went out in public without a head covering.

The end of that passage talks about how nature teaches us that it is a shame for a man to have long hair. Of course, nature doesn't teach us that, because if left to its natural devices, a man's hair will grow long on its own. I don't think it means it's morally shameful for a man to have long hair, else why would God require Samson to have long hair, if it was inherently wrong? So, it seems to be about living peaceably and quietly within societal standards.

I Corinthians 14 says that a woman is not permitted to speak because "it is a shame for a woman to speak in church." Does that mean "church" in the way that we mean church, or is Paul saying, "it is a shame for a woman to speak in an assembly, period" (which it was, I read last week -- women who spoke publicly were frowned upon).

I Timothy 2 starts off with talking about how Paul wanted the Ephesians to live peaceably and quietly so that all men could be saved. I Timothy says that a woman should learn quietly with all submissiveness, not teach and not have authority over a man, but be in quietness, because Adam was made first and Adam wasn't deceived. We typically interpret it as Paul using the Creation principles to back up the specifics of the passage: "don't teach and don't have authority because that's not how God expected women to behave from the beginning." What if Paul is using creation principles to back up what he said about submissiveness? Basically, what if he is saying, "Because of creation principles, you're to be submissive to the men. Because you're to live quietly and peaceably, you're to live as the societal standards tell you to live -- that's part of being submissive. Society says that since you are a woman, you can't speak in public and you can't hold a political office or be an orator. Be submissive to that standard."

The women in Paul's day could have used Deborah and Esther as examples that it was technically biblically correct for them to have authority positions over men, but any woman who tried to be a professor of history in Ancient Rome would have been ostracized. Any woman who prophesied in the assembly would have been a shame to her church family and would have undermined all evangelistic efforts. Today, a woman can be a professor without society thinking she has overstepped her bounds. Only the Amish and Muslims think that she's not being submissive as a professor. Most don't think she's not being submissive by preaching. Only churches of Christ and some Baptists think she's being domineering when she preaches.

One more thought about that: I'm trying to figure out how the Ephesian and Corinthian women would have heard these things. I have a difficult time believing that when they heard these letters, they thought, "I'm supposed to be quiet and submissive in the assembly because this is my church family and my role in the family is one of submission." Women in Ancient Rome weren't allowed to speak their opinions in public, but were encouraged to do so at home. In other words, they had more freedom within their families than they did in public. To me, it makes more sense to think they heard, "Because of the societal standards, and because I'm supposed to act in a way that respects men's idea of how women are to behave, I can't speak in the assembly. Even though it's my family, it's still in public, so I can't speak." They thought, "Because I'm a woman, I'm not allowed to have public leadership roles. I can only teach in private settings, the way Priscilla taught Apollos. It's shameful for me to teach the Bible publicly, just as it's shameful for me to do anything publicly, except conduct business, the way Lydia does up in Philippi. The reason why it's shameful for me to do anything public is because I have to be submissive to men, because that's the way God wanted it from the beginning. He wants men to be the public leaders, and he wants me to be the private leader, who only has authority over my own home. I'm supposed to behave this way in society because God wants me to, and I know he wants me to behave this way because He doesn't want me to teach the Bible publicly." I just don't understand why God won't allow women to preach publicly if He will let them do anything else publicly. I don't think I buy the "because it's within a family" argument, because I don't think women back then would have understood Paul to be arguing that.

Other people have said it's because women can't handle the emotional stress of being religious leaders and that they don't have the intellectual ability. I find that incredibly belittling, insulting, and illogical.

As best I can tell, there are some good points in there, but other stuff that strikes me as being "off." I mean, I agree that women can professors and orators. But not that they can be preachers. I'm just struggling to figure out how to respond. I'd appreciate any insight you can share.

Thank you!


The head covering issue is about showing submissiveness, but your friend took what was defined to be while praying and prophesying (I Corinthians 11:5) and tries to argue against it by using a Roman custom from an unknown era that was general and not specific to worship practices. It overlooks that Corinth was a congregation composed of Roman, Greek, and Jewish members, each with their own societal customs and worship practices. See Images of Head Coverings in Worship.

"Nature," from the Greek word phusis, means what is natural, instinctive, the natural character, or the natural order of things. It does not necessarily mean what happens when something is neglected. Let's take Sampson as an example, the fact that he had long hair was unusual. It was a characteristic that made him stand out from other men. Therefore, in that sense, noting that Sampson had long hair shows that the norm was short hair. See also There are people in the Bible with long hair, so it can't be wrong.

There is no need to guess which assembly Paul was talking about in I Corinthians 14, it is defined in the context: "How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians 14:26). Paul is talking about a worship service.

The claim is made that women were forbidden in society from speaking publicly, but I don't know of any evidence of that. There is a passage that means leading women in Athens (Acts 17:4). Some see this as a reference to women active in the political scene.

I Timothy 2 is about demonstrating submission. Men praying to God for the government is submission to God and to government. Women leading quiet lives and not taking authority over men is also about submission. Paul gives two reasons for the latter: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression" (I Timothy 2:13-14). The claim that women are be submissive in this dress, character, and in teaching because this is how society sees submission at that time is unfounded. Paul did not cite behaviors seen at the beginning. He cited facts as to why women are second in the chain of authority. Nothing is cited as societal practice. See Teaching Unpopular Doctrine.

The remainder are strawmen arguments. I don't know of anyone making them.