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October 1977 · Vol. 6 No. 4 · pp. 3–20 

The Pauline View of Women

Response by David Bergen 6/4 (1977): 20–21.

Howard J. Loewen

The nature and purpose of this study makes it necessary for us to articulate, at the outset, some of the basic principles and assumptions that will govern our inquiry.

1. The specific question that I am attempting to answer—a question forced upon me both by the biblical data itself and the contemporary concerns of the church—is this: In what direction is the Pauline teaching moving with respect to the status and function of woman (i.e., her role relative to man’s) in the body of Christ, the church.

2. Although the current debate on the role of woman in the church and society has necessarily shaped the kinds of questions that I have put to the biblical data, my explicit attempt is, nevertheless, to listen to the text, and to let the Bible also have its say—and that in a primary sort of way.

3. I am affirming a basic hermeneutic principle that Scripture is its own interpreter. In other words, there exists an inherent clarity within the pertinent texts and data that provides a relatively clear answer to the question we have asked. My point is to avoid rabbinical argumentation about details behind the text (such as might pertain to custom and context) that basically don’t determine the argument one way or the other.

4. My approach to this study is one which assumes a hermeneutic of reading Scriptures under grace and freedom, not under law and enslavement. That basic understanding means that within the context of the church we can aggressively and joyfully wrestle with the meaning of Scripture, knowing that in the Lord we have unity and the confidence to do so. Moreover, this understanding instills in us the surety that the true understanding of Scripture in any area is always for the church a liberating, not an enslaving experience.

From this general perspective we must now approach our subject {4} of “The Pauline View of Woman.” We will attempt to include all the explicitly relevant data, and where necessary move beyond the Pauline corpus of writings in order to inform our discussion. The material has been organized in the following manner: Corinthian Church, Pauline House-tables, Neglected Evidence, Galatians 3:28.


The libertarian spirit of the Corinthian church brought with it a variety of problems. The series of admonitions that Paul gives to the Corinthians regarding their life in Christ (cf. 5:1-13; 6:1-11, 12-20; 7:1-40; 8:1-13; 10:1-11:1; 11:2-16; cf. also 2 Cor. 6:14-18) seems to point to at least one underlying characteristic of the Corinthian attitude—a peculiar kind of moral freedom that tended to detach itself from the law of Christ, thus giving occasion to all sorts of divisions and irregularities.

Some of the irregularities that are reflected in chapters 11-14 pertained to the very nature of the worship service itself. This pericope, therefore, provides a ready context in which to ascertain, to a significant degree, the nature of the involvement of women in one of the early churches—involvement in all its potential as well as in its historic limitation.

1 CORINTHIANS 11:2-16 1

My conclusions on this text are based upon a threefold contention which I will attempt to substantiate in the course of my discussion. First, the issue in this passage pertains to the veiling/unveiling of the head and/or to the length of hair. Whether it pertains to both (as I shall attempt to show) or to either one alone does not alter the basic meaning of the account. Secondly, the problem here centers around a disruption of the worship service through a disregard for the proper relation primarily between husband and wife.

Thirdly, Paul’s main preoccupation is with restoring order within the worship service through maintaining the headship and honor of Christ who is the source, life and meaning of all relationships in his body, which is the church (cf. 1 Cor. 12). This observation is substantiated by the fact that verses 3 to 6 strongly suggest that Christ as head is dishonored if the proper relationship of man and woman is not regarded; that the woman is to exhibit a proper demeanor in the presence of God and Christ (11:10); that the woman, together with man, is dependent upon God, the giver and source of all things which are experienced in Christ (11:11-12); that woman together with man is consciously to imitate Christ (11:1). Thus the over-riding concern of this passage is not only theological (by virtue of the opening argument in verse 3) but profoundly christological. The over-riding concern of maintaining the headship and honor of Christ is further substantiated by the ensuing discussion on the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34) and the {5} oneness of the body of Christ as it relates to the exercising of the various gifts that the Spirit of Christ has given to the church (chapters 12 to 14).

This third contention is particular important because it must serve as the guiding light for our analysis. It is determinative for the conclusions that we shall draw from this text.

Paul commends (v. 2, cf. v. 17) the Corinthians for their faithfulness to the traditions thereby calling us to acknowledge what is implicitly affirmed by Paul in and about the Corinthian worship service.

In v. 3 we are led directly into a theological, indeed a christological argument, in which the focal issue is one of recognizing proper relationships in the divine order of things, particularly here the relationship of husband-wife. 2 In vv. 4-5 Paul extends the argument to the central issue of covering and uncovering. The implication is that there were those who had covered their heads in the worship service. Although some comment could be made about the use of head coverings by men in the first century, 3 the matter need not unduly distract us because Paul’s point is clear: within the context of praying and prophesying (i.e., the worship service) the men/husbands were not to cover their own heads (kephale)—whether with a head gear or long hair—because this would reflect an improper relation to Christ, who, according to v. 3, is their kephale. The logic of v. 3 forces us to conclude that the dishonor lies in the relationship of man/husband to his kephale, Christ. The ultimate concern here is to honor Christ, it is a christological concern.

Since v. 5 (on the woman) parallels v. 4 (on the man) syntactically, one can therefore assume that the same point is being made as in v. 4, namely, that woman likewise is not showing due regard for her kephale. The disregard for proper relation again remains the focal point whether one takes kephale to refer to the woman’s head per se or to her husband. The important thing to note is that an actual dishonoring has taken place in the worship while she has been praying and prophesying. 4 Disrespect has come through her unveiled presence and participation in the regular worship service. The question that is forced upon us then is, What was it about the woman’s/wife’s unveiled condition that disrupted the proper relationship with the man/husband? Here vv. 5b and 6 provide an additional clue, for the unveiling is compared with having been shaved. Clearly, Paul’s reference to shornness (cut hair) is more than descriptive in nature; its implications are negative. The woman who has cut hair is indeed a disgrace to her husband. What precisely that disgrace was is not clearly stated in the text, but it does seem to lie in the fact of having shorn hair. {6}

Yet the disgrace does not appear to be merely a question of long or short hair per se, as some would contend, but also of a need to have shorn hair veiled in the context of the worship service. The reason for this is that the state of shornness in the first century had overtones of immodesty for women in general and certainly so for the married woman. 5 The thrust of v. 6, therefore, seems to be that there were married women who were shorn, that is to say unveiled, in the Corinthian worship services and that the decorum of such a woman was disruptive of a proper relationship between husband and wife, man and woman. Hence, the force of this passage clearly places the emphasis upon the husband-wife relationship, a perspective we gain from the meaning of v. 3 in which an obvious reference to the Genesis 2 account (the husband-wife relationship) is made. Moreover, it is a fact that in all of the passages (except Gal. 3:28) in which Paul deals with the male-female relationship, the focus is upon that of husband and wife, with an equally strong appeal to Gen. 2 in almost every instance.

Thus, in this text, Paul is requesting that these married women who are disrupting the worship service be veiled—implying that the opposite of being shorn is being veiled and thereby opening the possibility for us to think that to be unshorn in reality means to wear long hair, because by nature a married woman’s natural long hair is her covering. This point is clearly asserted in v. 15: “. . . but . . . a (woman’s) . . . long hair . . . is her pride . . . for her hair is given to her for a covering.” Hence we conclude that the issue here pertains both to veiling/unveiling and length of hair, although the essential meaning of this passage finally does not rest on this interpretation.

In the remaining verses, therefore, we must understand Paul to be attempting to justify why it is not proper for married women to carry on in this dishonorable way. In vv. 7 and 8, he returns to a theological argument premised on both Gen. 1 and Gen. 2, a witness to the fact that for Paul these two texts are not in tension. Man ought not to cover his head because in the order of creation he reflects the image (eikon) and glory (doxa) of God (Gen. 1:26), but woman reflects the glory (doxa) of man for she was created from and for man (Gen. 2:22, 23). Paul is emphatic concerning this distinction in the creation of man and woman; he uses the emphatic alla twice. Man and woman, for him, are different in their created nature, so that the woman cannot portray herself in the same fashion as man, that is to say, unveiled and shorn. For, as Paul indicates in v. 14, by nature (phusis) 6 man is different from woman with regard to the hair they wear. Paul’s concern here is to maintain the proper distinction between man and woman, husband and wife, in order that honorable relationships between them and to Christ will be maintained in the context of the worship service. {7}

On the basis of these assertions, woman, according to Paul, ought to have authority (exousia) on her head by way of wearing a veil or long hair, because of the presence of God (angelous). This in effect is the meaning of v. 10. Woman possesses an authority of her own, a proper and honorable right, to participate in the worship service respectfully. The force of the exousia is active; 7 that is to say the authority is hers but is to be exercised with due regard to her husband or to men and ultimately to Christ and God in whose presence she stands in the worship service. This seems to be the force of the reference to angels. 8

The fact that this authority belongs to the woman herself is substantiated by vv. 11 ff. where we find an emphatic “nevertheless” (glen), clarifying for us that the woman in the Lord (en kurioi) is not independent of man—implying that the statement regarding her authority in the previous verse could lead one to that conclusion. Moreover, it is of supreme interest to note that Paul in the same breath states the converse to v. 11a: nor is man independent of woman. There is a mutual interdependency, for even in the order of creation as in the order of redemption (v. 11), man is dependent upon woman as woman is on man (v. 12a). Neither is independent, for both in their mutual dependency as creatures of God who have been redeemed have their source and origin in God (v. 12b). Perhaps Paul is here recalling Gen. 1:27 where both man and woman are created in the image of God. Certainly v. 12 reiterates the meaning of v. 3 (the headship of Christ and God) and represents the culmination of Paul’s theological and christological argument which concludes with v. 12. Thus the proper relation between man and woman both in the creation and redemption order is one of mutual dependency, in which man is distinctly man and woman distinctly woman.

Although Paul has in effect concluded his theological argument, he nevertheless finds it necessary to make several more appeals regarding this issue. In v. 13 he appeals to common sense and challenges the Corinthians to decide for themselves whether it is really fitting for married women to carry on in this disruptive manner. In vv. 14-15 he appeals to nature to establish the fact that there are certain essential qualities in the distinct natures of man and woman which do not allow them to exchange their identities. Finally in v. 16 he appeals to custom. The very fact that Paul refers to this practice as a custom demonstrates also the cultural dimensions of Paul’s whole argument; it was a universal custom for women to be covered if shorn.

Several observations can now be made regarding this passage:

1. That the problem in this text centers around the decorum of married women in the worship service;

2. That the issue pertains primarily to the proper relationship of {8} married women to their husbands (and perhaps even of married women to men as a whole);

3. That women are full participants in the regular worship service, and that no limitation is placed upon them;

4. That no indication is given that women are without authority or are subordinate in the sense of being inferior or unequal;

5. That the thrust of the passage, primarily in the form of a theological argument, reflects Paul’s concern for unity and orderliness in the church under the headship of Christ in whom men and women are mutually dependent for their existence in creation and in redemption.

1 CORINTHIANS 14:33-36 9

Within the context of the same worship service of the same church, Paul makes another statement about the involvement of women in the church. The text of 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 appears specifically within the context of his discussion on the use of various charismata (gifts). Again, as in the preceding two problems of 1 Cor. 11-14 (veiling and communion), the issue is that of disorderliness in the worship service. The present passage will provide for us the opportunity to reflect upon how the very nature of the early service informs the subject under discussion.

However, first of all we must reflect upon the text within its immediate context. For the present discussion, it is sufficient to limit our frame of reference to vv. 26-36. The issue here pertains to exercising the gifts of tongues and prophecy in an orderly and edifying fashion. Paul’s concern for orderliness and edification pervades the entire chapter (cf. vv. 3-5, 12, 17, 26, 33, 40), and most certainly the entire section of chapters 11-14. He is also in his assertions that all can exercise the charismata; there is no exclusion of anyone (cf. v. 26—each one, all; v. 27—any, each; v. 31—all prophesy, all be encouraged).

In vv. 29-32 Paul suggests that the orderly exercising of the charismata contributes to learning and that for learning to take place through prophesying a prophet must be judged and evaluated, “for the spirit of prophets are subject to prophets” (v. 32). It is with regard to this particular context that Paul then exhorts women to remain silent (sigoo), a practice apparently held in all the churches, unless v. 33b refers to the preceding verses.

On the basis of the immediate context there is no obvious reason, therefore, to believe that Paul forbade the prophesying he earlier condoned (1 Cor. 11). The silence of women must rather be one with reference to the specific problem of the preceding verses. In fact, Paul’s mention of the general exercising of this silence among the {9} churches would seem to suggest a very particular use of it; for as we will later demonstrate, women were hardly silent co-workers in the church. Our preceding discussion of 1 Cor. 11 would bear that out. There the ou . . . lalein (not to speak) is a speaking other than praying and prophesying; it does not refer to praying or prophesying or exercising of any of the gifts heretofore mentioned. Paul’s point thus far has been that all can exercise the charismata.

The context therefore forces us to view the silence as referring to a learning that takes place through the judging and evaluating of prophets in the worship service. 10 So Paul, who does not oppose the learning itself, but what happens when it takes place within the context of the worship services, exhorts the married women to ask their husbands at home. He is emphatic (alla) about the need for women to be subject to their husbands (v. 34), an obvious testimony to the fact that serious disruptions were taking place.

We must never forget that the fact that women were learning, and indeed possessed a keen interest to learn (cf. the true to fact conditional of v. 35), was in itself a new and remarkable, perhaps even revolutionary, phenomenon. The married Christian women in the Corinthian church had quite clearly over-stepped the bounds of propriety, and Paul must command the women to question and learn from their husbands at home, that is, with respect to this particular situation. It is disrespectful and embarrassing to husbands in the church and above all to God, who is a God of order, for married women to carry on in this disruptive manner. The extent of this disruption is perceived in the sarcasm of Paul’s rhetorical question in verse 36.

Yet the question must be asked, Why is it that women as well as men would be found speaking out at all in a worship service? Our own worship service setting would hardly call forth the response Paul gave to the Corinthian church, for neither women nor men speak out. The early worship services were structured in such a manner that there was a much greater representation of gifts in a given service. Moreover, the sermons (prophecies) were not presented by one person to a spectator audience. Thus the difference in settings explains the uniqueness of the problem Paul had with women using the worship service to assert themselves improperly. The church was in fact involved in the discussion of the sermons, and this is where the disorderliness appeared.

Thus the silencing of women in this text can also be understood in the light of the command, in this very chapter, for others to be silent. Earlier Paul has exhorted those who speak in tongues (v. 28) and those who speak a revelation (v. 30) to remain silent (sigao) unless and until it can be done in an orderly and edifying fashion. In the early church even insubordinate men, some of whom were {10} prophets, are firmly commanded to be silent for they are upsetting church and family by teaching the gospel for base gain (Titus:10-11).

Again, several conclusions can be drawn from our discussion of this text:

1. That Paul’s concern here is with unity and orderliness within the body of Christ, particularly as it pertains to the worship service;

2. That the issue is the disruptive activity and behavior of women in the worship service;

3. That the concern centers around the husband-wife relationship in the worship service (cf. the reference again to Gen. 2 in his appeal to the law in v. 34);

4. That there is no veto of any gift placed against the woman;

5. That the text implies a relatively high degree of woman’s involvement in the church, and that the silence placed upon her pertains to a particular situation that involves a certain kind of speaking with regard to a certain way of learning;

6. That there is no fundamental contradiction between 1 Cor. 14 and 1 Cor. 11.


The themes of unity in Christ, propriety in worship, and reciprocation in marriage that we have ascertained in the Corinthian correspondence, primarily with respect to the role of the married woman in the worship service, will now be considered in the framework of another set of passages which in general belong to a single literary genre—that of the household list of rules, or house-tables (from Luther’s designation of Col. 3:18-4:1 as a Haustafel). The major explicit texts of these household regulations are Col. 3:18-4:1, Eph. 5:21-6:9 and 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7. 11 The major implicit household texts, those which echo the Haustafel, are Titus 2:2-10; 3:1-8; 1 Tim. 2:1-15; 6:1; Rom. 13:1-7. Our purpose will be to comment briefly on the major explicit text of Eph. 5:21-33 (Col. 3:18-4:1 is a parallel account) followed by a more detailed consideration of the major implicit household text of 1 Tim. 2:8-15, which in regard to our discussion is the crux interpretum of the house-table passages.


Ephesians 5:21-33 stands at the beginning of the house-table trio of instructions to be subject (hupotasso): wives/husbands, children/parents, slaves/masters. One is immediately struck by the fact that the exhortation to be subject is a reciprocal one (allelois, v. 21). This fact must be kept in mind as we reflect momentarily on the broader context of Eph. 5:21-33. This context is established at the beginning of the {11} ethical/practical section, in Eph. 4:1-6, a text which sets forth primarily the oneness and unity in Christ. This theme is then picked up in v. 21. The stress on mutual submission is clearly a continuation of the earlier emphasis in Eph. 4. Oneness and unity in Christ is established only as there is subjection to one another out of reverence for Christ (v. 21). This applies to all the relationships in 5:21-6:9. This over-arching theme allows us to capture the single most important motif of 5:21-33, namely the oneness of Christ and the church, which is then effectively used as an analogy to speak in extended detail about the relationship between husband and wife. Following this lengthy exhortation (primarily to husbands), he concludes his discussion, in vv. 31-33, with a forceful statement about oneness in marriage, a unity which he compares to the mysterious relation between Christ and the church. The emphasis of this text therefore lies upon the mutual interdependence, respect and submission in the marriage relation. In the context of Roman society where a dominant patriarchal family order was the established practice, the insight of Eph. 5 is indeed enlightening!

1 TIMOTHY 2:8-15

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is a house-table remnant that also places the discussion into a worship service setting. In that regard it is reminiscent of 1 Cor. 11 and 14. From the syntactical construction of vv. 8 and 9 it is clear that the woman is a participant in the worship service. As in 1 Cor. 11 she also prays. The verb “to pray” in v. 8, where it refers to the men, extends to v. 9 which has no verb. Prayer has been the subject throughout vv. 1-7. Verse 8 establishes the fact that men are not to pray with outward gestures when the inner content of their heart is over-taken with anger or quarreling. Likewise, women are not to exercise prayer in the worship service in a manner that distracts, such as takes place through immodest dress and hair style (v. 9). Rather modesty and sobriety are to be exercised in the worship service, and the married woman 12 should rather be characterized by good deeds as befits her (v. 10).

Thus the text is speaking to the attitudes and actions of men and women in prayer in the regular worship service. With respect to the married woman, the issue is one in which her elaborate dress and hair-style is a distraction to the worship service. The language here implies immodesty; it also implies an upper class woman whose hair style speaks of high fashion and whose attire betrays wealth. It is this kind of woman that is unduly asserting her immodest presence in the worship service.

In v. 11 a further reference is made to the woman’s participation in the worship service. She is to learn (manthaneto) in silence (hesuchia) and subjection. Verse 12 explains it further: I permit no {12} woman to teach (didaskein) and exercise authority (authentein) over man, but (alla) to keep silent (hesuchia). From our earlier observations, we can assume that the reference here speaks of the relation of a married woman to her husband; and from a parallel problem in 1 Cor. 14 we can assume that the problem here too is one in which the married woman has engaged in a kind of learning (manthaneto) in the worship service that calls forth the exhortation to be silent. 13 The problem seems to be one of married women “lording it over” (authentein) their husbands, seemingly a problem common to some of the Pauline churches. That in fact is the force of authentein—to act on one’s own authority, the opposite of mutual dependency. 14 And it is this kind of teaching (didaskein) that is referred to here. Married women are not to teach dominatingly over men, but to learn in silence (hesuchia). The term hesuchia literally means quietness, stillness, gentleness—implying not “not to speak” but “not to dominate”. 15 The thrust of the text is, therefore, for the married woman to learn with due regard to her husband and certainly other men. Again it is a disrupted male-female relationship that is at stake.

In vv. 13-15 again, as in other passages, a conscious appeal is made to Gen. 2, and here even to Gen. 3, to substantiate the point that the married woman is not to lord it over her husband. The reference to Gen. places the weight upon Eve as the one who became the transgressor by being deceived (Gen. 3). The question that emerges is, Why is Eve appealed to? Was it because women in Ephesus (the likely destination of 1 Tim.) were like Eve? Were they like Eve in distracting or misleading men—in this case through their immodesty (v. 9)? In any case, the reference to Eve speaks of a harsh judgment upon the Christian women at Ephesus. The fact that there may be a concern about the marriage relationship expressed here is substantiated by similar concerns throughout the Pastorals (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3; 5:11-15; 2 Tim. 3:6; Titus 2:3-6). 16

However, the woman is nevertheless assured of salvation if she continues with modesty in faith, love and holiness—clearly a reference to the immodesty expressed in v. 9. The problem with v. 15 lies in the reference to being saved through childbearing. Three possibilities exist: a) as a statement already assumed or implied in the preceding statement of v. 14 which indirectly refers to the curse on Eve; that v. 15 now picks up on that implied thought and the curse will be removed through her faithfulness; b) that in child-bearing, as a natural function, the women finds her supreme role; c) that through child-bearing the Messiah came; an explicit reference to the new Eve. In either of the three options, the main emphasis of the text remains: that the woman will be saved through faith, love and holiness, with modesty, which in fact is the basic thrust of v. 10. Thus v. 15b recaptures the emphasis on proper female decorum in vv. 9-12. {13}

Our discussion of the Pauline house-tables therefore leads us to the following conclusions:

1. The fact that these rules were written and repeatedly used suggests a certain disregard for the principles taught in them. The regulations were given because a spirit of freedom, unduly exercised, seemed to pervade a number of the Pauline churches.

2. There is a strong emphasis upon the unity and oneness in Christ that is particularly brought out in the repeated references to the reciprocal duties and mutual dependence of husband and wife. These texts never allow us to lose sight of the fact that essentially the same requirements are placed upon man as upon woman, for in Christ they are joint-heirs.

3. As joint-heirs of the promises of Christ, woman is not restricted in her exercise of the charismata; there is no veto placed upon her in principle.

4. Although the house-tables very much reflect the hierarchical structure of Greco-Roman society (e.g. master-slave), they contain principles, teachings and emphases that counter the trends of that society—including the area of male-female relationships.

5. The house-tables reflect a deep concern regarding the matter of Christian conduct as a witnessing influence in church and society, particularly as it relates to relations in marriage.

6. The house-tables place a strong emphasis upon the institutions of marriage and home, wherein the woman too has an important responsibility.


Thus far we have considered only the theological and practical statements appearing in the Pauline literature. Many discussions on womanhood begin and end with these statements. Yet there is a corpus of evidence that is frequently overlooked, but which in fact, in its cumulative effect, is crucial to understanding, determining and supporting the direction of the Pauline view of woman ascertained to this point in our discussion. This evidence pertains to the actual involvement of women in the Pauline churches. 17 Since the degree of that involvement tends to be quite substantial, both qualitatively and quantitatively, we can only present it here in summary form. We will move through the Pauline churches according to the established order in Acts, followed by a perusal of the evidence in the Epistles, as well as including data from other parts of the New Testament.

Philippi. Lydia, the first European convert, (a businesswoman) owned a home in Philippi, which became the home of Paul, Silas, and Luke. Her involvement in the life of the church was significant {14} (Acts 16). Approximately a decade after Paul’s visit to Philippi, he writes a letter presumably from Rome. In it (4:2-3) he addresses Euodia and Syntyche who have heroically labored side by side with him in the Gospel; indeed they are called fellow-workers who do the same sort of public work as Clement and others. After all these intervening years they were still laboring. They are sufficiently prominent that they are worthy of mention, here due to their disagreement. Of the five persons explicitly mentioned in the Philippian church (i.e., known by name), three are women. This fact implies a significant involvement on the part of women in the work of the church.

Thessalonica. In Thessalonica not a few of the chief women believed in Christ (Acts 17:4). Perhaps, because of their social and economic status, these women were the principal support of the church.

Berea. This church also consisted of not a few of the Greek women of honorable estate (Acts 17:12).

Athens. Paul had little success in Athens, yet of the two converts there, one was a woman, Damaris (Acts 17:34). She may have been an educated hetaira (stranger), that is to say, not a high born Athenian woman, since such women were not permitted in such surroundings.

Corinth. Here we encounter the Jewess, Priscilla, who is one of the most prominent figures in the Christian circles of Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. She was among the most important co-workers of Paul (Acts 18). The important facts about her are these: (a) Priscilla and Aquila had an important part in training Apollos, one of the most prominent preachers of the apostolic age; (b) She, together with her husband, had a house-church at Ephesus where they had gone with Paul (1 Cor. 16:19); (c) Later, when she returned to Rome with her husband, she, together with him, had a house-church there as well (Rom. 16:5); (d) Both Priscilla and Aquila were fellow-workers with Paul in Christ, and all the Gentile churches were indebted to them and grateful for their ministry (Rom. 16:3-4); (e) Of the three times that they are mentioned together, twice Priscilla’s name precedes Aquila’s. This implies that she was as efficient a Christian worker, as her husband (Rom. 16:3, 2 Tim. 4:19, Acts 18). It is hardly possible to think that she was a silent worker.

Romans 16. Some observations about Romans 16 are: (a) Eleven of the 29 names in Romans 16 are women; (b) Five women (Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Persis, Junias) are particularly commended for their Christian service. Phoebe and Junias (thought by some to be a woman) were very prominent servants in the church; (c) Of the eighteen men in the Roman church only two are mentioned by name and commended for their work. This might suggest that women were {15} more distinguished for their Christian service than men; (d) It is inconceivable that women did not participate fully in the weekly gatherings, especially being pre-eminently public workers.

Nympha of Laodicea (Col. 4:15). Paul sends greetings from Rome by way of Colossae to her and to the church in her house where the believers of Laodicea meet weekly. She thus has a leading function in the work and worship of the church, perhaps similar to Priscilla’s.

Philemon and Apphia (Philem. 2). It is significant to note that in every instance where a house-church is mentioned in Paul’s letters, there is a woman in the house, or in fact the church itself is in the woman’s house: Laodicea: Nympha’s house; Rome: Priscilla’s house; Ephesus: Priscilla’s house; Colossae: Apphia’s house.

There is not a single indication that Paul debarred women from participating fully in public worship. It is not likely that Paul would have won so many women converts in his European and Asian mission had he a narrow-minded approach to the sphere and influence of women. 18 In each case, women were referred to with respect, sermons were addressed to them equally, and they were accepted as converts without regard to their sex. That is no small accomplishment when one considers the status of women in Greco-Roman society.

There are several concluding observations that can be made on the basis of the evidence considered:

1. Paul was one of the first persons who saw the value of women as co-workers in the development of the church; they were involved extensively in its mission.

2. On the basis of the previous considerations in our study, it is fair to say that for Paul women were co-workers because they are in fact joint-heirs of all the promises and responsibilities in Christ.

3. In the light of this evidence it must be impressed upon us that only in two instances in his entire recorded ministry does Paul restrict in some measure the activity of women (1 Cor. 14 and 1 Tim. 2), and that precisely because they had exercised their new found freedom in the church beyond the bounds of propriety. Yet it must be remembered that even in these instances women were not in essence restricted from exercising any of the various gifts that might be represented. Christian ministries were performed on the basis of spiritual gifts (grace) not natural birth (sex).

4. The impact of this evidence forces upon us the following question: Wherein lies the impetus for such a phenomenon in the early church—that is, the unprecedented number of women involved in promoting a cause in a society where the woman indeed had a {16} subservient role? My contention is that the impetus comes from Jesus himself. If time and space would permit, we would find in Jesus’ life and teaching the same kind of emphasis that we have perceived in the Pauline sphere of activity. 19 However, that study cannot be pursued here.


On the basis of our discussion of the Pauline statements on woman, as well as of the actual practice of the Pauline churches, we have perceived a certain direction in which we find the early church with regard to the involvement of women. That direction is most clearly captured by a text that seems peculiarly idealistic in the context in which it is found. Gal. 3:28 speaks of there being neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ. We have thus far sensed that the Pauline woman has, even in her own hierarchical culture, experienced a remarkable measure of freedom in Christ because the life in Christ also offered an inner freedom. And yet Gal. 3:28 finds a pre-eminently suitable context in the letter to the Galatians because it is precisely the subject of Christian freedom that Paul takes up for discussion, particularly in the concluding chapters. We shall return to this theme following our consideration of Gal. 3:28 within its immediate context.

The immediate context of this passage (vv. 24-27) deals with the contrast between life under the law and life in Christ. “In Christ” is the key concept here; and we might remind ourselves that this truth recalls the emphasis of both 1 Cor. 11 to 14 and most of the house-table texts. In our union with Christ we are all sons of God, all having been baptized and having put on Christ. There is equal worth and mutual oneness in Christ for all. Thus a full identification with Christ for all is emphasized. This full identity is given through baptism and is grounded in faith alone. This is the sign of entering into the new kind of life the Galatian Christians had gone back on. Verse 28 must be seen against this emphasis upon the mutual identification with and oneness in Christ.

In 3:28 Paul lists three deep-seated distinctions that have in fact been overcome in Christ. 20 These three distinctions represent the dominant barriers that existed between people in the society of that day, and in fact define the boundaries of the “all” in the preceding verses. Clearly Paul sees the three as parallel, and we must look for that point which is common to all. The singular point is that the class distinctions are unquestionably overcome in Christ, for in Christ you, who are representatives of these divisions, are all one. The last phrase of v. 28 is of utmost significance for it compels us to interpret v. 28 in the above manner.

Being all one in Christ includes male and female. Both are heirs {17} of the promise which in Gal. 4:31 is compared to being the children of the free woman. Thus there is a new freedom for woman, as well as for man, in Christ. And there is the same breaking down of distinction between male and female as there is or ought to be between Jew and Gentile, the latter being is the particular burden of this letter.

It is of importance to note that the expression “no male and female” reflects accurately the Septuagint rendition of Gen. 1:27. Clearly, the first creation narrative is in mind. It recalls the fundamental truth that both male and female are created in the image of God and, from Paul’s perspective now, recreated in the image of Christ. The truth that emerges from this correlation of the creation and redemption order is indeed liberating for both female and male. Thus the female has the same privileges and responsibilities as the male. However, we are quickly made aware of the fact that it is a freedom to serve (cf. 5:1 f., 13-14 f., 6:3.) It is a freedom to submit to others in service, that is to love, which is the first commandment. Hence, mutual love is also to characterize the interdependence between male and female.

Realistically, however, we must observe that even though Paul utters Gal. 3:28, the relations between male and female were no more resolved than that of Jew and Gentile, or master and slave. But in every instance the early church bears some witness to making a break with the old barriers; and certainly Paul did with regard to the relation of male and female in the work of the kingdom.


1. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church emphasized the oneness and mutual interdependency in Christ of the husband-wife relationship in the context of the worship service and in the exercising of the respective gifts in that service. Paul’s concern is for the orderliness, edification, and unity of the church.

2. In the Pauline house-tables the stress is again on the mutual dependence and reciprocal relations as it relates to husband and wife in particular and especially as it pertains to the witness in and outside of the church community. The concern is not only not to bring disrepute but also to be a positive witness. However, no veto has been placed upon the use of any gifts within the church. Women are in fact actively involved.

3. The “neglected evidence” confirms what has so far been said and is in overwhelming support of seeing women as co-workers because they are in fact co-heirs of the promises and responsibilities in Christ. Thus the thrust is in the direction of full participation of women in kingdom work. Accordingly, the mutual interdependence of male and female, husband and wife, applies to the broader work of the church as well. {18}

4. The direction that we have ascertained from the preceding evidence is confirmed by the most explicit statement in the Pauline correspondence (Gal. 3:28) regarding the oneness of male and female in Christ. This position does not refer merely to spiritual benefits any more than did the relation between Jew and Gentile or master and slave. In all instances this revelational truth has profound implications for the realities of life. Certainly we would argue that Gentiles and servants rightly exercise the benefits and responsibilities of the work of the church. Why not then also the women in our day? Men and women are to exercise their charismata always bearing in mind the proper relations of mutual dependency not only in marriage but also in the work of the church, not only in the creation order but also in the redemption order. Are not men and women equal to the task of the church, jointly responsible for the work in the new creation (Gal. 3), just as they are also mutually responsible for subduing the original creation order (Gen. 2)?

Although the New Testament church itself in no way reached the ideal inherent in its message, its teaching clearly points in one direction. Of course the full consummation and experience of that reality still lies in the future for all generations. Nevertheless that truth has taken hold here and now through Christ. The kingdom is here amongst us, and we must attempt to move beyond even the New Testament application of it. 21 Indeed, the Pauline woman provides for us an image of a full-fledged co-worker in the body of Christ.


  1. Very few scholars consider 1 Cor. 11:2-16 to be an interpolation. But see Wm. O. Walker, Jr., “1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and Paul’s Views Regarding Women” (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 94, 1975), pp. 94-110.
  2. The term “head” (kephale) has the meaning of “source” or “origin” (cf. F. F. Bruce, ed., 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible (Greenwood, South Carolina: The Attic Press, 1971), p. 103; C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1968), p. 249. In this text Paul is, therefore, asserting that the origin and order of relationships are to be found in the economy and purposes of God.
  3. Cf. James B. Hurley, “Did Paul Require Veils or the Silence of Women? A Consideration of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and 1 Cor. 14:33b-36” (Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, Winter, 1973), pp. 193-97. {19}
  4. There is no evidence for thinking of the church here as a smaller gathering in which women would have the opportunity to participate actively.
  5. Cf. William J. Martin, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretation,” Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F. F. Bruce on his 60th Birthday, eds., W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 233f.
  6. Now for Paul the term phusis does not refer to custom but to essence. Its use here recalls Rom. 1:26 where Paul uses it with reference to the homosexual relations between men and between women, where both give up natural (phusiken) relationships for unnatural (para phusin). Even apart from the reference to Romans, it is possible that Paul had in mind especially the problem of, or at least the innuendos to, homosexuality in addressing the Corinthian women and men. Indeed this would be a distinct possibility for a church that had exercised its sexual license with little restraint from within.
  7. Cf. F. F. Bruce, p. 106.
  8. See two key articles on this: D. A. Fitzmyer, “A Feature of Qumran Angelology and the Angels of 1 Cor. 11:10” (New Testament Studies, IV, 1956-57), pp. 48-58; Henry J. Cadbury, “A Qumran Parallel to Paul” (Harvard Theological Review, I, January, 1958), pp. 1-2.
  9. Many scholars take verses 34-35 to be a non-Pauline interpolation. There is a textual problem here in that several lesser mss. place vv. 34-35 after v. 40. Our approach here is to deal with the text as it stands in the best mss. and on the assumption that it is Pauline.
  10. Cf. Hurley, p. 217.
  11. Although there is recognized Pauline influence in the case of 1 Pet. 2:18-3:7, we cannot here comment on the text. Our discussion of this passage in the original presentation demonstrated that the essential thrust of this text is clearly in keeping with the emphases of the other explicitly Pauline house-tables.
  12. The assumption that we are speaking here of married women has its basis in the following facts: Roman society was not accustomed to the unmarried; the passages so far, including the house-tables, have consistently spoken of the married woman; the explicit reference to Adam and Eve the first married couple.
  13. For Paul, trained under Gamaliel and in the rabbinic tradition as such, to encourage a woman to learn (even though in this case in silence), is indeed remarkable for both in Jewish and Greco-Roman tradition learning for women was not really an option.
  14. N. J. Hommes, “Let Women Be Silent in Church” (Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 4, 1969), p. 18f.
  15. Hommes, p. 18f.
  16. Cf. Aida Dina Besancon Spencer, “Eve at Ephesus” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1974), pp. 215-22.
  17. See Eugenie Andruss Leonard, “St. Paul on the Status of Women” (Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol. 12, 1950), pp. 311-20.
  18. Cf. also the following passages for the significant involvement of women in the early church: Acts 1:14; 2:17-18, 41; 4:4; 5:14; 8:3, 12-17; 12:12; 16:16, 19; 21:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:11; 1 Tim. 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:5. {20)
  19. Cf., for example, Mk. 12:41-44; Mt. 12:50; 15:21-28; 27:55; Lk. 7:36-50; 8:1-3; 10:38-42; in. 4:1-42; 8:2-11; 11:1-44; 12:1-11; 13:29; 19:23, 24; 20:1-2.
  20. In one of their prayers the rabbis thank God they are neither a Gentile, a slave, nor a woman. There may be a deliberate attempt here to counter that mind-set.
  21. Krister Stendahl in The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics, Fortress Press, 1966, effectively demonstrates that the degree to which the NT church applies the truth of the gospel is not as such our standard for today.
Dr. Howard Loewen is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts, Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is the Managing Editor of Direction.

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