Scholars have long wrangled over the meaning of New Testament statements about the relative roles of women and men, and always central to the debate are the Apostle Paul’s outspoken declarations. Was he a pragmatic libertarian, or an imposing legalist, or something in between?

The issue of women in church history bristles with controversy. Two groups fight it out. One holds that women have always, until recent years, had subordinate roles in the church. This was proper, these scholars say, because Paul clearly stipulated that women should be silent and submissive. Obviously, they say, the early church followed his instructions.

But the other group presents an impressive collection of women in leadership roles in the church’s early centuries. It’s surprising, they say, that any women could have such prominence in a maledominated society. They cite Jesus’ tradition-breaking acceptance of women and assume that Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia, et al., followed in that spirit.

Christianity’s unique “servant-language” doesn’t help much. Following Christ’s example, the church avoided terms and titles that would suggest domination. Its leaders were simply “elders” and “deacons” (servants). That makes it confusing for modern-day detectives. When Paul calls Phoebe a “deacon,” is he referring to a church office she holds? Most other uses of this word in the New Testament indicate church office. But some conservatives say this cannot be, in Phoebe’s case, because Paul elsewhere limits the diaconate to men. We have similar confusion with the two ministrae arrested by Pliny in the 2nd century. Were these just helpers, as some historians assert, or were they “ministers”? The language could mean either.

The two positions thus have radically different views of history, both supported, to some degree, by the evidence. Traditionalists see the church adopting a certain order, based on apostolic teaching. Feminist scholars generally see the free exercise of ministry gifts by men and women in the first century or two.

The debate often sets up as Jesus vs. Paul. The traditionalists often underestimate how radically Jesus broke with the tradition of his day in his treatment of women. The feminists often discount or disparage Paul. And many, many in between wonder why it has to be “either/or.” Doesn’t Paul preach the gospel of Jesus? Is there no continuity?

The Importance of Paul

Paul stands at the start of church history. An understanding of his writings and how they were read is foundational to a good understanding of early-church practice regarding women in leadership and ministry.

Several major questions loom: Was Paul restricting women for pragmatic or theological reasons? He uses theology, but does he use it as proof or merely as illustration? If he is being pragmatic, do his practical reasons continue today, or did they fade in subsequent generations? Was Paul declaring a new order for the church or was he mitigating the effect of a sexist society? Was he placing restraints on believers coming from a libertine culture or was he adapting Christian freedom so that it would not be misunderstood, by those within the church or without?

Wait! say the traditionalists. Why all these questions? Can’t we just take Paul at face value?

The problem is that face value doesn’t work. Paul’s commands are strong and specific, but their very specificity may limit them. There are seeming contradictions, strange allusions, rabbinic reasoning. The pertinent texts, taken together, cry out for a second look.

The Unity Principle

The keynote text in such a re-examination is Galatians 3:28. If this bit of theology is foundational, it forces a re-reading of the other texts on women.

Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul is talking about salvation, faith in Jesus, being “baptized into” Christ. Galatians is a theological treatise, one of Paul’s earliest. He is not specifically referring to the relations between men and women at home, in the church, or in society. His basic point is that we are all one in God’s eyes. It would be possible to accept this as a spiritual reality and leave it at that. Many commentators do.

But theology has implications. We must ask how this unity of male and female bore itself out in the church and in Christian living. The references to Jews and Greeks and slaves may help.

The Book of Acts shows us the expansion of Christianity from the Jewish world to the larger Greek world. There were some rocky times. Do Gentiles need to become Jews in order to follow Christ? No, it was decided—after some debate. The Galatian churches were apparently in the middle of this controversy, as zealous Jewish believers tried to force the demands of the Law on them.

In many cities throughout the Greek world, the church started in the synagogue and spilled over into the lecture halls or private homes of the Gentiles. Jews and Gentiles together made up the church, and there was some friction.

Elsewhere, Paul talks of Christ as “our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two” (Ephesians 2:14–15). Yet, Paul was careful not to offend the Jews needlessly. He did not flout the laws of the Temple when he visited Jerusalem with the Gentile Titus. Yet, he was quick to chastise Peter for breaking fellowship with Gentiles in the church at Antioch.

The church also included both slaves and free people. Slaves were numerous in the Roman world, and Christianity was popular among them. Within the church, slaves and their masters had equal rank. In fact, there are instances of slaves becoming church leaders; Callistus even became bishop of Rome (d. 222). Yet Paul does not seek to topple the institution of slavery overnight. He sends the runaway slave Onesimus back home. He commands slaves to be good slaves, to obey their masters

The pattern seems to be this: Paul recognizes the social institutions and says Christians should respect them; but in the church there are new rules, rules of unity. This gives us some interesting groundwork for the male-female relationship. Following the examples of Jew-Greek and slave-free, we would expect that women and men would receive equal treatment in the church, though the relationship at home and in society might need to cater to cultural norms. Thus, the call for wifely submission may have the sense of “As long as you are in a world where women are considered subordinate to their husbands, be a good wife, in reverence to Christ.” (Just as he would say, verses later, “As long as you are a slave, be a good slave.”) As Nancy Hardesty and Letha Scanzoni said in their classic All We’re Meant to Be, the surprise was not that Paul asked wives to submit but that he asked husbands to love and give themselves up for their wives. As with slavery, Paul may have been beginning with the actual world situation in which believers lived and infusing it with Christian spirit.

If this “neither male nor female” was part of Paul’s early teaching, we can better understand the proliferation of women who worked alongside Paul in the cause of the gospel. These were women set free from Jewish and Gentile norms, free to serve God in the church. Lydia, Phoebe and Priscilla are obviously women of intelligence and talent. But newfound freedom can get out of hand, and problems arose in Corinth and Ephesus and perhaps elsewhere. Women seem to have been abusing their freedom, rushing unqualified into leadership, creating disorder in the assembly. Thus Paul would need to correct the situation by ordering silence and forbidding women to teach. Thus Galatians 3:28 would have brought about, in a way, a situation which made Paul’s restrictions in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy necessary.

The Silence Principle

Discussing orderly worship with the Corinthians, Paul states, “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches …. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:33–35).

As some commentators have pointed out, women and men probably sat, synagogue-style, in separate sections of the church. When women had questions about the preaching (as they often would, since they were generally untrained in the Scriptures), they would call to their husbands. In the interest of orderly worship, Paul forbids this.

So goes the theory; but Paul uses awfully strong language for that bit of correction. “They are not allowed to speak,” he says, “… it is disgraceful.” The ideas of submission and silence appear elsewhere in Paul’s writing, so it appears that Paul developed a policy on this matter. And, lest we think this was a unique policy for a particular problem in Corinth, Paul says the command applies “in all the congregations of the saints” (though some have suggested that this phrase applies to the previous verse).

It is possible, still, that Paul is looking over his shoulder here, conscious of popular opinion. That is, it was the disapproval and/or misunderstanding of the surrounding Jews and Gentiles that made it “disgraceful” for women to speak in the church, not any theological matter. Paul’s “weaker brother” passages may serve as examples. Who cares whether or not you eat the meat offered to idols? Just be sure your choice does not deter you or anyone else from the most important thing—a relationship with God. Paul’s major concern was the furtherance of the gospel, and if Jews or Gentiles would be turned off by the clamoring—or even the teaching—of women in the church, better to forgo that privilege. Paul’s following comments, “Are you the only people [God’s Word] has reached?” suggests that the apostle may be thinking of the surrounding public.

The Authority Principle

One of the biggest problems we have with 1 Corinthians 14:33 is reconciling it with 1 Corinthians 11. There, introducing this whole section on orderly worship, Paul writes, “Now 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…. every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved” (1 Cor. 11:3–5).

Note that Paul does not say, “Every woman who prays or prophesies should stop doing that,” as you might expect in light of chapter 14. No, here he acknowledges that women do pray and prophesy in church and merely asks that they cover their heads.

How do you reconcile this with Paul’s prohibition in chapter 14? Some possibilities: 1) Chapter 14 refers to the specific matter of women calling out in a disorderly way, not to their official participation in the service. 2) There are two different types of services in view here, possibly one open to outsiders, in which women were not allowed to speak, and one for the church alone, in which they were. 3) Praying and prophesying, as more freely Spirit-inspired activities, are exceptions to the rule. Women may not lead, read, teach, preach, etc. But if the Spirit moves one to prophesy, who can argue?

But what is this head-covering all about? Paul is drawing an interesting picture here, and punning on the word “head.” Because the “head” of man is Christ, a man should not cover his (physical) head when he worships. Man, as the “image and glory of God,” glorifies God better with his head uncovered. But women’s “head” is man, and thus she should cover her head. Was this so she would be glorifying God and not man? Or is Paul warning the church to avoid the fashions of the pagan priests and temple prostitutes?

Scholars have developed various theories. James Hurley and others have suggested that the text has nothing to do with veils; a woman’s “covering” is her hair, done up modestly over her head. Richard and Catherine Kroeger see Paul in dispute with a head-shaving ritual; since in Christ “there is neither male nor female,” women were trying to look and act like men. Thus Paul says that a shaved head is “a disgrace” and he affirms their womanly appearance.

Once again, Paul uses the language of public opinion in this text. “Dishonor” has to do with reputation; “disgrace” is violation of common decency. “Is it proper. . . ?” Paul asks.

He raises a curious question: “Doe not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” What’s the answer? Well, no. There is nothing in nature that keeps man from growing long hair. Paul must be referring to something else, perhaps the nature of society. And, since society glorifies women with long hair, they should cover it (or put it up), so that God gets all the glory.

Two cryptic comments appear in verse 10. “Because of the angels” has stymied many. Also, the Greek text lacks the word for “symbol of.” It reads, “… woman ought to have authority on [or over] her head.” These phrases have spawned many intriguing theories, too numerous to detail here.

The Headship Principle

Paul talks about the principle of headship again in Ephesians 5: “Wives, sub mit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

What does Paul mean by “head” here? Obviously he is speaking metaphorically. The word kephale literally means one’s physical head, but it has a range of metaphorical meanings. In English, our major metaphorical meaning for head is “leader.” The Hebrew roÕsh is used similarly. But that idea is not found in Greek. Alvera and Berkeley Mickelsen have done good work scouting out the likely meaning of kephale here and throughout the New Testament. They suggest several meanings, depending on the context. The most prominent is “source of life.” In Greek one would speak of the “head” of a stream, its headwaters or source. Christ is the source of creation, Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 11, just as man (through Adam’s rib) is the source of woman. In some cases, the unity of head and body are stressed, as in Paul’s analogy in 1 Corinthians 12: “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” The head completes the body, it is the capstone. This is the meaning the Mickelsens favor for Ephesians 5. Paul later cites Genesis 2:24: “… the two shall become one flesh.” In a context of mutual submission (v. 21), Paul is emphasizing the unity of husband and wife and the unity of Christ with his church, they say.

Eve’s Curse

Probably the strongest passage of Scripture restricting women’s involvement in church ministry is 1 Timothy 2:12–15. This too is enigmatic in parts, though its main emphasis is rather straightforward.

Paul is writing to Timothy in Ephesus. His main concerns in this letter are purity of doctrine and purity of conduct, both in the church at large and in the lives of Timothy and other church leaders. False teachers are about. They are perverting the truth, seducing believers into heresy and immorality.

After urging men to avoid quarreling in the church and urging women to dress modestly, Paul says, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

Conservative scholars say that’s that. How much clearer do you want it? Others claim the command is tied to the particular situation in Ephesus at the time.

Catherine Kroeger has investigated the background of the word for “have authority” used here. Authentein occurs only this once in Scripture and seldom in ancient Greek. Some classical Greek writers used it, and then it generally appeared in shady, sordid contexts. It seems to have meant “to gain power through violence and/or sex.”

If that’s what it means, why does Paul use it? Remember that Ephesus, like Corinth, is a cradle of temple prostitution. Consider that, a few decades later, in the nearby town of Thyatira, a “prophetess” named Jezebel earned a special rebuke: “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality…” (Revelation 2:20). Could this sort of thing have been going on in Ephesus when Paul wrote? Kroeger points out the existence in that area of forms of Gnosticism, which held strange ideas about sexuality and tried to mix pagan mystery religions with Christianity.

But Paul goes on to explain his command, not on the basis of cultural pragmatism, but on the scriptural account of creation and the fall. While mystery religions could come and go, it would always be true that Adam was created first and that Eve was deceived. Conservative interpreters often maintain that this indicates the principle holds true for all time—women should not teach in church. But let’s look at Paul’s reasoning. Does Adam’s being first make men better than women? Few would say that. Does it make men smarter, better able to teach, closer to God? If it did, then men should start studying from animals, since animals were created first. Does Eve’s being deceived make her more to blame for the fall? No, elsewhere Paul blames Adam exclusively. Does it mean women are by nature more gullible than men? Could be, but that’s hard to prove. Is Paul’s command here an extension of the curse, that men should rule over women? This is one of the better possibilities, but what does the coming of Christ do to change that?

An idea: Perhaps Paul is using Scripture not to prove his case, but to illustrate it. Picture it. God makes man first, puts him in the Garden, tells him not to eat from the forbidden tree. Then he makes Eve. An old Hebrew tradition says that Eve never got the command straight from God; Adam told her. Maybe that’s why she got it wrong when the serpent confronted her. Eve, the receiver of God’s Word second-hand, was thus deceived. Another tradition says she seduced Adam into joining her in sin.

Now fast-forward to Timothy’s time. Women are learning the Scriptures, many for the first time. In Jewish culture, and in Greek society, women generally depend on their husbands for education. What they know, they know second–hand. It’s a time when dangerous heresies run rampant. In 2 Timothy, Paul refers to false teachers who creep into homes and “lead captive silly women,” as the KJV quaintly puts it. The “silly” women are not unintelligent, just unlearned. Like the second-created Eve, they get their knowledge second-hand, if at all. Like Eve, they are easily deceived. Like Eve, they can lead their husbands into sin, possibly through sexual wiles.

Christ brought new freedom to Gentiles, slaves, and women. Understandably, women were eager to use their newfound freedom in the church. But the worst thing that could happen, Paul sees it, is for some converted temple prostitute to take the pulpit and bat her eyelashes and flash her jewelry and spout off some half-baked theology she heard from the Gnostic guru down the street. We’re talking Paradise Lost all over again should learn in silence, Paul says.

The implication of this view is that Paul’s command is very temporary. Once Christian women were as well-versed in the law as men, it would be a different story. In fact, the best application of this passage today might be the football hero or rock star who becomes a Christian and immediately begins “teaching” the faith, through Christian talk-shows, books, and magazine interviews.

Verse 15 remains a problem, for everyone who reads it carefully. The word for “kept safe” usually means “saved,” but that would rewrite Paul’s theology. We are all saved by God’s grace alone, not through childbirth. But are Christian women “kept safe” through childbirth? Many die in labor. “Childbirth” can mean “the birth of a child” and, in the context of the Genesis story, may be a messianic reference to the child of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head, that is, Christ. Perhaps “saved” here means “restored,” or “delivered from the effects of the curse.” Might Paul be saying that women have borne the curse of Eve for millennia, being ruled over by their husbands and often kept in ignorance, but the promised Child, Christ, has brought deliverance from that and other curses? Though now Christian women still suffer the effects of Eve’s curse, and must be forbidden to teach while they are still learning, they will be restored to full participation in church ministry, if they continue to prove themselves worthy of the task, by means of faith, love, holiness, and propriety.


These are mere possibilities presented here, alternate readings of pertinent texts. What did Paul really mean? Did he intend for his commands to stay in effect throughout church history? The church fathers generally assumed that he did, and many moderns agree. But then why does Paul commend his many female colaborers in the gospel? How does that jibe with Jesus’ teaching and practice? And how can we reconcile it with the liberating theology of Galatians 3:28?

Historians, and biblical exegetes, deal with hypotheses, balancing data to get a reasonable picture of what actually went on in the past. Different scholars can reach radically different conclusions, because they balance the data differently.

On the question of women’s involvement in the church, do you start with order or freedom? If you start with 1 Timothy 2:12–14, you will see the creation order prescribing something basic about men and women: Men are to lead. Granting this a great deal of weight, you are forced to find alternate explanations for what seems to be conflicting data. Galatians 3:28 becomes a spiritual truth without any particular application in the hierarchy of church life. Phoebe was a servant, Priscilla an exception. The “deaconesses” mentioned in early church history held subordinate positions—as Paul intended—and the paucity of references to women in leadership indicates that there were few, as was proper.

But if you start with Galatians 3:28 and the unity of men and women in Christ, you read the data very differently. Paul’s theology offered new freedom to women, and many used it to minister effectively. Some, however, misused it, forcing Paul to recommend certain restrictions of female leadership. These were for specific places at specific times, as indicated by the continuing leadership roles of women like Lydia, Junia, etc. Women continued to serve in positions of leadership in the first century or two, but their ministry over time became more and more restricted.

We have been too quick to assume that we understood Paul. Feminists often write him off as a chauvinist. Traditionalists often affirm what they see as his simple logic and desire for order. But, on closer examination, his logic is not that simple (at least to our 20th-century minds), and some of his proposals seem downright disorderly (or perhaps they are proposing a new order). He seems more pragmatist than chauvinist—a fact that should jar idealists in both camps.

We need to keep researching, keep debating, keep sorting out Paul’s teachings on women in the church. We may find more surprises.

Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer from Westville, NJ, and a regular consulting editor for CHRISTIAN HISTORY