What Paul Says About Women in The Church

What Paul Says About Women in The Church

In my last post, I began looking at the role of women in the church. I closed that post by introducing Paul’s writings that have bothered Christians when it comes to women in the church. Let’s look more closely now at these troublesome texts.

Christianity in Corinth

The issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (which speaks of women wearing veils and having long hair) is not male control of women but how a woman’s hair or uncovered head affected the understanding of Christianity in Corinth. Apparently, some of the women were bucking culture and letting their hair hang loose, just like the pagan priestesses who went into a prophetic frenzy at the local pagan temple. And they were also shaving their heads, reminiscent of the hairstyle of the city prostitutes. Whether pagan or prostitute, the hairstyles of these women sent a damaging signal to the people of Corinth about the nature of Christianity.

So Paul is asking them to honor their husbands by not representing themselves in the style of the pagans or prostitutes. In Corinthian culture, husbands had power to dominate their wives. But Paul appeals, not to the husband, but to the wife, to view her behavior in the light of the gospel. He calls for mutual respect: “In the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.” Paul calls for mutual regard for each other, and he asks the husbands and wives to work out this problem without being contentious.

How Christians Worship

God is a God of peace, not of disorder. First Corinthians 14:33-35 is a minor comment in a whole chapter that deals with the disruption of worship by those who would stand and speak in unintelligible language. Here, Paul is placing restrictions on this disruptive behavior. His goal, seen in the last words of the chapter (v. 40), is that all things are to be done decently and in order.

Apparently, the Corinthian women have a tendency to take over the services with their frenzied prophecies. So Paul suggests that they keep quiet and talk with their husbands at home. Paul has already instructed them (chap. 11) to cover their heads so that they can pray and prophesy. Paul is not forbidding their participation in worship but simply calling for an end to their disruptive outbursts.

Paul, the Radical Feminist

Paul isn’t saying anything radical when he says that the husband is the head of the wife in Ephesians 5:21-25. In the Ephesian culture, it would be like saying “grass is green.” These verses feel awkward to us but not to them. To them, this was the same old, same old—nothing new.

What is radical in this passage is Paul’s call that husbands and wives submit to each other out of reverence to Christ. The text calls for mutual submission. Because of our modern cultural perspective, this sounds like male dominance; but in that culture, this is radical feminism.

The Redemption of Gullible Women

The primary issue in 1 and 2 Timothy is false teaching. Timothy is dealing with myths, fables, godless chatter, false doctrine, disputes, and divisive arguments. He is charged with guarding the gospel in the face of false teaching.

The women of Timothy’s church were primarily uneducated, as were most of the women in his day. It was definitive of the culture. These women had fallen prey to false teaching and were acting and dressing like their pagan priestess counterparts in the local shrines and temples. They were teaching heresy in seductive ways.

In a radical cultural move, the writer commands that women be allowed to learn, that they not remain gullibly uneducated. Instead, they are to be taught and educated in the ways of truth. It says that this is to be “done in silence.” We often view this in a negative sense, as if the women in Timothy’s church are being told to shut up. But this is actually a complimentary word. To learn in silence means to listen respectfully to those who teach you in faith. Men were called to the same “silence” with their rabbis. And so, the call is for women to be theologically and doctrinally trained by those who know the truth.

We also see in this passage that women were prohibited from teaching, no doubt because they were uneducated and untrained. They were also not to have authority over men. In other literature of the time, the word for authority meant “to murder, to assassinate, or to destroy.” Some scholars think that its use here suggests the kind of control the pagan priestesses held over men in the act of temple prostitution. So women who have not been taught the faith are commanded not to teach or to hold sway over men; otherwise, like Eve with Adam, they may lead the men astray by false teaching.

This text, rather than negating the role of women as teachers, actually calls for women to learn so that they won’t hurt the church by their teaching.

Women in The Church

The church is called to be God’s sign to the world of a new creation, a people who have been redeemed from the curse of sin. This new creation looks like men and women, sons and daughters, and boys and girls working together, serving one another, and loving one another with mutual respect and submission.

The way we treat women is God’s sign to the world that all things are being made new in Christ. We are bearing witness of a God who sent forth a Son to redeem us and to make all things new.

Today’s post is an excerpt from A Charitable Discourse: Talking About the Things That Divide Us. Click here to read the first post in this series, “Women in the Biblical Church.”


  1. Pam McGraner says

    Wonderful article!

  2. Here is another perspective on 1 Corinthians 14:


  3. I find Gal. 3:28, also penned by Paul, as a commanding Scripture on this issue:

    “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    If we are all the same in Christ, we should give each other that same respect and dignity.

    • Joe, I love this text! It speaks of the newness the Sprit brings to the church. Hearing women preach can be seen as an inbreaking of the Spirit. Thanks!

  4. thanks for another helpful post Dan. What about Paul’s reference to female leaders in Romans 16? To me, this list along with Peter’s quoting of Joel in Acts 2 have always provided a clear New Testament lens for understanding more difficult passages like those in 1 Corinthians and 1 and 2 Timothy.

  5. Wow! Had not heard some of this, but from my studies I have thought that these passages were addressing behavior having to do with cultural issues in relation to the church. And I had noticed that Paul taught “submit one to another” first, but that is usually left off by those who teach “submission” by the wife (or woman). I also know that the Greek word used for woman can mean “wife” and is referring to an uneducated woman, so your thoughts on the women not speaking out because they were uneducated confirms what I keep saying. I have a speaking gift, so it has been hard for me to be accepted in some circles, and I am not uneducated or speaking heresy either! I have not been trained in anyone’s Bible school, but have been taught by the Lord, as per 1 John 2:27, spending many hours in study of God’s word, which I love. Thank you for this!

  6. Thank you for presenting Paul as an advocate for women. Women have long struggled under the oppression of those texts, and have longed for the day when men viewed them as theologically capable as well. Women still struggle with a dominant culture within the Church that doesn’t view them as theologically capable, and still permits the unequal treatment, heavy unequal work loads, obstructions within the ordination process, and prejudices against women that look a lot like ridicule, mockery, putting down, and hyper-sexualizing women (and therefore keeping them from ministry for all of those reasons).

    May I challenge you on one thought – when you mentioned Eve, are you implying that Eve was presenting a false doctrine to Adam, and if so, why is she to blame for the false doctrine? I know your answer will be that the snake tricked her, but there is still an idea there that Eve was somehow more vulnerable than Adam. The reason this is significant is because this passage, right from Genesis, and mixed right in with Paul, is precisely the argument men use to say that women are “less than” men. Which, obviously, is not Gospel, and clearly is not in agreement with Paul’s request that men and women should be submissive to each other. Your thoughts?

    ~Theresa Moxley

    • Theresa, Paul may have simply been using order of deception, not defending Adam while blaming Eve. Adam ate too. And the impact of the sin on him is that he sought to rule the woman from then on. I don’t think the garden places either sex in a more enlightened postion than the other. Both begin to cover up so as not to be vulnerbale to the other.

    • I cringed at the statement , “like Eve with Adam, they may lead the men astray by false teaching.” Yikes! I know that many blame Eve for sinning FIRST, but I just want to point out that the scripture says Eve ate and gave it to the man “who was with her.” With her. Right there watching silently, it would seem. And he was the one who had received God’s rule directly from God. Eve didn’t lead Adam astray. He was right there with her – with her – and participated willingly. No record of him arguing with or correcting the serpent – or Eve. I’d say he was equally complicit in the “first” sin.

  7. Michael G. Edwards says

    Very interesting, thank you.
    Better than an article I read recently by John Piper.

  8. Enlightening! Thanks for sharing

  9. I dont know if I agree with this. What about Titus 1:6 He should be the husband of one wife to be an elder.

    • As I understand this, it was common in Biblical days for men to have multiple wives and the Christian church thought it best to have one wife. It was not referring to divorced and re-married men it was referring to men who have multiple wives at one time. Makes so much more sense.

  10. I grew up in a church that taught the false idea that women could not be leaders of any sort in the church. When I got older and began to really study this, I found out the teaching I sat under as a child was incorrect. I so value the input of all Christian leaders – both male and female – and I know that God honors the service of these saints regardless of gender. Thank you for sharing this!

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