Gender Roles in 1 Corinthians 11:2-12

Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you. But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God…For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God (1 Corinthians 11:2-3, 7-12).

We have witnessed a major change in attitudes regarding gender and gender roles in Western culture in the past few generations. Previous cultural consensus has been overthrown; everyone must attempt to come to grips with the new cultural consensus and sort out what is commendable from what is to be rejected. Christians must seek to understand how to manage gender roles in light of what God has revealed in Christ and in the pages of the New Testament (Colossians 3:17, 2 Timothy 3:15-17). The New Testament addresses gender roles in many passages. We do well to explore gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11:2-12.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 Paul provided the Corinthian Christians with instruction regarding covering while praying or prophesying. He intended for the men among them to pray and prophesy with head uncovered but expected the women to pray and prophesy with a covering on their head (1 Corinthians 11:5-7, 10). We can gain much from how Paul makes his argument and the evidence which he marshals to do so.

Paul framed the discussion in terms of the apostolic traditions delivered to the Corinthian Christians and the divine hierarchy: the head of woman is man, the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:2-3). There are many who wish to understand Greek ανερ as “husband” and γυνη as “wife,” in alignment with Ephesians 5:22-33. Whether 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 refers to all men and women or just husbands and wives has been disputed since antiquity (cf. Tertullian’s On the Veiling of Virgins); either way, there remains a divine hierarchy, even as we confess the equality of the members of the Godhead as well as the equality of men and women (John 10:31, 17:20-23, Galatians 3:28).

Most of Paul’s argumentation is rooted in the creation narratives of Genesis 1:1-3:23. Man is the image and glory of God, whereas women are the glory of man (1 Corinthians 11:7); such can only derive from God’s creation of Adam from dust but the creation of Eve from Adam, as Paul explicitly endorses (1 Corinthians 11:8; Genesis 2:7, 21-23). Paul went further: the woman was created for the man, not the man for the woman (1 Corinthians 11:9; Genesis 2:18). Paul has not forgotten Genesis 1:26-28, for he continued by saying that man is not without the woman, or woman without the man, in the Lord, since whereas woman came from the man, all men are born of women (1 Corinthians 11:10-12; Genesis 3:16). In this all things are of God: God created the woman for the man, yet both are made in God’s image, and there can be no man who is not born of a woman.

At this point in the argument any attempt to suggest that ανερ must be “husband” and γυνη must be “wife” breaks down, since what is said in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, 11-12 is true of every man and every woman whether married or unmarried (and this is recognized even in translations that favor the husband/wife interpretation, such as the ESV and the NRSV). Paul thus affirmed distinctions in gender between men and women and rooted them in the story of creation in Genesis 1:1-3:23.

While Paul would go on and make a secondary argument regarding the covering by an appeal to nature (Greek φυσις; 1 Corinthians 11:14-15), his core argument should be very instructive for us for many reasons. Whereas scholars often seek to find reasons to cast aspersions and doubts regarding Paul’s authorship of letters like Ephesians and 1 Timothy, and attempt to argue that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a later interpolation, no such argument has been made or sustained regarding what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:2-12. The association of the arguments from creation and gender roles among Christians is therefore genuinely Pauline; similar arguments in other passages cannot be dismissed out of hand. Above all, Paul does not argue on the basis of culture; his argument is rooted in Scripture, in the creation story.

In many ways Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 leaves us with as many questions as answers. And yet in terms of gender roles Paul’s argument is rather clear. Paul expected the Corinthian Christian men to pray and prophesy uncovered because they are made in God’s image and are the glory of God; the Corinthian Christian women were to pray and prophesy covered because even though they are made in God’s image they are the glory of man, made from man and for man, as seen in Genesis 1:26-2:23. There is a divine hierarchy, for God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man/husband, and the man/husband is the head of the woman/wife. And yet men are born of women; all of us exist because of a man and a woman; and so all this comes from God. From 1 Corinthians 11:2-12 we learn of the continuing reality of gender roles in terms of the order and purpose of creation of men and women in Genesis 1:26-3:23; his views are not rooted in culture but in the revelation of God to man. We do well to uphold the truth of God in Christ and affirm Paul’s teachings about gender!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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