This was supposed to be the final post to wrap up this series. I’ve tried to write it about a dozen times, but can’t seem to find the right way to end it.
Maybe because it’s not supposed to end.
I’ll write an official conclusion to this series sometime next week (I hope!). Still, look for more posts in the future without any particular regularity or progression. There’s too much I’ve written about that needs more attention. And there are other texts and topics I haven’t even touched on yet.
One particular text that comes to mind is Jesus’ birth narrative. Specifically, something struck me as I reflected yesterday on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45):
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.
Mary entered Zechariah’s home and she greeted…Elizabeth.
It’s not Elizabeth’s home. It’s her husband’s. She’s “just” a woman, after all. But Mary greets her. Of course, I’m sure Mary greeted Zechariah, too. It would have been incredibly disrespectful not to.
But Luke emphasizes this particular encounter for a reason.
Explicitly, we learn that Elizabeth’s baby (John) leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice (vv 41, 45) because she is carrying the Messiah. This is one way to show that John is filled with the Spirit to prepare the way for Jesus.
It also reminds us that when the right time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman (not just appearing out of no where), to redeem his children (see Gal 4:4-5).
And it’s right after Elizabeth’s encouraging words about Mary’s son that Mary bursts out into song. Her Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55) is one of the most eloquent and theologically-rich expressions of the coming of God’s kingdom you’ll find in Scripture. It’s as if it finally sinks in that God is up to something special in her life and in the world.
All of that is amazing.
Yet I think there’s also another implicit, unstated reason Luke includes this interaction. I base it on the overall trajectory of his gospel and his special focus on women.
Remember, the angel appeared to Zechariah earlier in Luke 1, announcing the conception and coming birth of John. But Zechariah didn’t believe the news. So his speech was taken away until John was born.
And no disrespect to Joseph at all, but he’s a background character in Luke chapter 1. Unlike with Zechariah, the angel doesn’t appear to Joseph, the man, but to Mary. (Joseph plays a bigger role in chapter 2, but still never says a word.)
Then at the end of the gospel, Luke records that women surround Jesus as he dies (23:27). Women are the first witness of the resurrection (24:1-12). Women share the news with the rest of the male disciples, who refuse to believe at first (24:11).
Bracketed in between the beginning and end of Jesus’ life is the acknowledgment that Jesus had women disciples who helped fund his ministry (8:1-3). Jesus also empowered women, like Mary Magdalene, to learn his ways as full-fledged disciple (10:38-42).
Then we have Acts, part two of Luke’s gospel. Women are there when the Spirit comes at Pentecost. Women like Lydia and Priscilla play an important role in the early church.
Here’s the thing. We know that the Kingdom of God brings about the great reversal in human society. God circumvents the authority structures of the world. He exalts the poor, the hurting, the enslaved, the prisoner (4:18-19). He calls those who are suffering and needy “blessed” (6:20-26). Mary praises God for all this in her song.
The great reversal is another reason, I think, why Mary and Elizabeth stand center stage as Messiah is about to come onto the scene.
History tells us men should get the spotlight in announcing the good news of God’s kingdom.
But God doesn’t play by those rules.
We spend countless hours debating whether or not women can give a 30-minute Bible talk in a Sunday worship gathering or serve on a church leadership team.
Meanwhile, it’s not the men, but the women of Christmas who preach to us the wonders of God’s love in the incarnation of his Son.
On a few occasions, after telling someone that I believe women should not be restricted from any leadership in the church, I’ve been asked, Well, what about marriage?
Perhaps you’re okay with women leading in the church, but equal authority in marriage makes you uncomfortable. After all, doesn’t the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands in everything?
When I had a complementarian framework, I believed this (obviously). Even then, I wondered how it worked practically. Oddly enough, the New Testament doesn’t get as specific as the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement.
I believe it’s because we’ve missed the point of these passages, reading them through a lens of power and authority rather than service and sacrifice.
These sections reflect secular ancient household codes. Plato, one of the first to articulate this, taught that women, children, and slaves ought to be ruled over because they belonged to the “mob of motley appetites and pleasures and pains.”
Aristotle, Plato’s student, took the codes to a new level. He created the three-fold structure of husbands-wives, parents-children, and slaves-masters that we find in Ephesians and Colossians.
For Aristotle, a well-ordered home was the cornerstone of society. But a household was only as stable as its patriarchal rule.
His codes addressed men only and taught how men were to treat their subordinates. Aristotle believed men had all the agency in relationships.
“The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior,” he wrote. “The one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”
He goes on to say:
A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.
Women, as Aristotle saw it, were destined to be ruled by men simply because they’re female. That’s what “a constitutional rule” means.
Aristotle was certainly sexist. Most of the ancient world was. But these codes weren’t mainly about gender (though that was a significant part of it), but power. They were designed to keep certain groups of people in power and other groups far away from it.
Then Jesus came and changed everything.
How Jesus Changed Everything
In the New Testament’s version of household codes, a dramatic shift takes place.
Paul and Peter address both parties, rather than men only. The Apostles believed the subordinate person also has agency in their relationships. What’s more, the “inferior” party is addressed first: wives then husbands; children then parents; slaves then masters.
As for those in power? They are never called to lord it over, but to love. The gospel leads them to divest themselves of power, deny their worldly status, and serve.
In other words, the New Testament shows how Jesus brings redemption to human institutions and relationships.
Yet, the New Testament also stops short of prescribing social revolution. Why? Mowczko reminds us, “Christian teaching that blatantly undermined or openly subverted the social structures of the day could have been disastrous for the new Jesus movement.”
Rome was suspicious of any religious group that threatened the Roman way of life. The Apostles were careful with their words.
Besides, they couldn’t have imagined a world in which women had equal rights and slavery would be abolished.
When the opportunity did come, though, Christians took on those social causes.
A Closer Look at Ephesians 5
Now let’s zoom in on Paul’s largest section on household codes, Ephesians 5:21-6:9.
Mutual Submission Defines Christian Community
Before getting to specific relationships within the house, Paul encases the entire discussion with mutual submission. He writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Everything else in the section should be read through this framework.
Then to end the section, he makes what I think is the most radical statement of all: “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way” (6:9).
Can you imagine how many jaws hit the floor? Paul flips the power dynamic of the ancient world on its head.
Men are never told to rule or make all the decisions or make all the money. Instead, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives (5:25), fathers to not provoke their children (6:4), and masters to treat slaves as fellow servants (6:9).
This reflects Jesus, of course. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and give up his life (Mark 10:45). He washed his disciples’ feet and invited them to do the same to each other. He said the first shall be last and the last first.
When an entire community lives this way, it’s called “mutual submission.”
What About the Word “Submit”?
When we read the word “submit” in English we think that it means that someone is in charge and everyone else is subordinate to that person. It can mean that in Greek, too. There was a military usage that meant “to arrange under the command of a leader.”
But two Greek lexicons show that it has a broader, non-militaristic meaning. It can mean “voluntary yielding in love.” or “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”
Only the context can help us. We can’t deny there is likely a cultural aspect of deference to a husband’s authority since Roman cities, like Ephesus, were patriarchal. Yet, since we’ve already seen the call for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21, we know Paul cannot be encouraging a dictatorial-type military submission.
In verse 22, where Paul begins his instructions to wives, the Greek word for “submit” actually isn’t there. It has to be carried over from verse 21.
Again, the societal norm was for wives to respectfully defer to their husbands. Every single wife reading this letter would have expected Paul to write what he did.
But while he affirms this expectation, he frames it through the lens of the gospel: submit, but only as the church submits to Jesus. (So, never to an abusive husband, for example.)
Paul shows wives (and children and slaves) dignity by starting with them. But he saves most of his words for husbands, who had the upper hand in the relationship.
If verse 21 commands mutual submission, we have to ask, “How should husbands submit to their wives?”
Verse 25 gives us the answer. Husbands are not to use their power to their advantage, but love their wives and lay down their own lives, like Jesus.
It was Jesus, after all, who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Phil 2:6). He voluntarily laid his life down for the good of others.
Husbands, Paul says, do the same.
What Does It Mean to Be the “Head”?
Verse 23 says that the husband is the “head” of the wife. When we use the word “head” as a metaphor in English, we use it to mean an authority figure. But that wasn’t the natural Greek meaning for “head.”.
I’ve shown in another post that the Greek word for “head” can mean source. In Ephesians, Paul is using it in the sense of a source that provides connectedness and nourishment. The focus on Christ’s “headship” stresses his love, sacrifice, and cleansing of the church–not his “authority.”
One mistake Christians often make–and I will be the first to admit I’ve made it–is that we say, “Marriages are to be a picture of the gospel.”
Where do we get that? Not Ephesians 5. Paul never says this. It’s actually Christ and the Church that is the picture to emulate.
Roman husbands had the power and legal right to treat their wives however they pleased. This was the case for nearly all societies throughout history. Even if a husband wanted to buck the trend and love his wife, he didn’t have an alternative option to follow.
Paul uses Christ and the Church as an analogy to show husbands what it’s like to love their wives, be united to their wives, and nourish them rather than harm them. That’s what a “head” does for its “body.”
Most marriages in our country today, religious or secular, actually encourage both people to love and nourish each other. I hope we’d all agree this is a good thing!
We need to remember that this was not on a Roman man’s radar in the first century. Men were not taught to love a woman. Paul’s instructions to husbands were radical. Even unheard of.
Like all divine analogies for human behavior, however, it breaks down at some point.
In verses 26-27, Paul talks about how Jesus treats his church. But husbands don’t cleanse their wives of sin or sanctify them (even though I’ve heard pastors at weddings say they do).
He comes back to husbands in verse 28 and tells them to love their wives “in this same way.” Paul’s point isn’t that they become Savior 2.0.
It’s that husbands must obey the Golden Rule even in marriage. If husbands are commanded to love their neighbor as themselves, how could they do anything less for their nearest neighbor?
Because Christians (myself included) have read this passage through a lens of patriarchal power, we’ve entirely missed the point.
It has nothing to do with a husband’s leadership and a wife’s subjugation. It has everything to do with the gospel’s transforming work. The powerful become meek to bring unity with and nourishment to those society deems inferior.
In other words, Paul wants husbands and wives to look at Jesus and his Church as an example of loving unity. He wants married couples to function as one because that was God’s design in the beginning, after all (v 31).
Consider this practically. It’s very difficult, I’d argue impossible, to have sincere unity in a marriage if one person makes all the decisions, always gets the final word, bears all responsibility for everyone’s spiritual growth, makes/controls all the money, or does any and all of the things complementarians claim husbands should do.
That’s not unity. At best, it’s a benevolent monarchy. At worst, it’s an abusive dictatorship.
But Do Parents Submit to Children?
Is it crazy to claim children and parents mutually submit to each other? Maybe you think my view doesn’t hold water because this is where the dam bursts. Everyone has an authority to submit to, James!
Yet in their own unique way, parents do submit to children (gasp!).
Children submit by obeying their parents.
Parents–specifically fathers here–are commanded to not exasperate their kids. This is how the one with power “mutually submits.” Parents are still responsible to raise their children. But because of the gospel, fathers voluntarily give up whatever “right” their culture says they have just for being a parent.
Finally, it’s interesting to me that Paul writes that children obeying parents in the Lord “is right” (6:1). But he doesn’t say that about wives or slaves submitting. Paul accommodates the general cultural expectation for wives and slaves without commenting on its ethics.
Remember, too, that Paul never tells wives to obey their husbands.
Paul covers a lot of ground here, his longest discussion on marriage. If there was any place we’d expect him to assert in the clearest terms possible that husbands are in authority over their wives, this would be this place.
But he doesn’t. In fact, he does the exact opposite as he paints a beautiful picture of equality.
The context at the beginning of this chapter is sex. Some of the Corinthians were duped into believing abstinence in marriage was a good thing. Paul refutes their false belief. Listen to verses 3-4.
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
WHAT?! He tells husbands and wivesthey have authority over each other in the bedroom. Equality. Dignity. Servanthood. Sacrifice. Mutual submission. For both partners.
To first-century ears, this would have been absolutely astonishing.
If Paul believed that husbands were to be the leaders in marriage (that they have “headship,” as the biblical manhood/womanhood movement says) and that their decision was always final, why wouldn’t he have taken this perfect opportunity to clearly articulate that view?
If you’re thinking that maybe women should submit in everything except sex, then you haven’t read many evangelical books on sex lately. Or ever.
Paul said wives’ have authority over their husbands’ bodies because he believed in and taught mutual submission in marriage (again, see Ephesians 5:21). He applies that principle here to sex.
This vision is unparalleled in the ancient world. But it was the foundation for a “new way” to do marriage.
When we dig a bit deeper into the Scriptures and look beyond our own cultural biases, we see that a Christian vision for equality in marriage is not far-fetched or the product of a liberal agenda. Its source is the very life and mission of Jesus.
 Marg Mowczko, “The household codes are about power, not gender,” 2/17/19. We know these codes were primarily about power because a female master had power over her male slave and a mother had power over her male child. Nevertheless, gender and power were (and still are) intertwined because it was men who had all the power in the ancient world! Still, the ancients believed men were more powerful by nature. Unfortunately, some Christians still believe this today!
 Osiek, “Household Codes.”
 Mowczko, “The household codes.”
 Craig Keener, “The Case for Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5,” CBE Blog, 6/1/2016. What does Paul mean when he says “in the same way”? Earlier he told salves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear…obey them…serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord” (vv 5-7). So he means that masters ought to obey and serve their slaves! In other words, mutual submission.
 In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul calls Christ “the head” of the Church, but emphasizes the nourishing role Christ has with his church.
 You might be thinking, “Ah! But Peter does!” In 1 Peter 3, Peter does tell wives to submit to their own husbands and uses Sarah as an example of obedience. Notice two things: 1) Peter never actually tells wives to obey, and 2) he is only talking to wives who have unsaved husbands (see v 1). Peter’s instruction has a very practical, missional emphasis. It’s like he’s saying, “Wives, don’t abuse your freedom, become preachy, and push your unsaved husbands further away from Jesus!”
. Richard Hays says, “Paul offers a paradigm-shattering vision of marriage as a relationship in which the partners are bonded together in submission to one another.” Quoted in Philip B. Payne, “What About Headship?”, 146.
We’re almost at the end of our biblical exploration of what the Bible has to say about gender roles in ministry. This post will be the last on that topic. Then in just one post, I’ll address what gender roles, if any, should be held in the family. Finally, I’ll close out this series with a few posts on application and personal reflection as I’ve journeyed through this process of changing my view.
One of the most controversial passages from Paul on gender comes in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Here it is in the ESV:
[T]he women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
This seems so harsh of Paul, doesn’t it? What in the world is going on here? Let’s dig in.
Two Verses, So Many Possibilities
When we look around at how Christians have interpreted these words, we find that there are no less than seven major interpretations on verses 34-35! Seven!
Any time a verse or passage has that many possibilities, it’s a big clue that we shouldn’t build a doctrine or practice on that passage. Christians can “agree to disagree” on this text.
Let’s get one thing clear right away, however: Paul cannot be saying that women are not allowed to speak in church. Why? Because 1 Corinthians 11:5 implies that Paul expects women will pray and prophesy in church! Paul wouldn’t contradict himself.
Whatever 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is saying, we can be sure it’s not a timeless prohibition against women speaking in church. So what does it mean?
A Common Complementarian View
One of the more common views among leading complementarians goes like this: Paul means that women are to be silent in reference to the evaluation of prophecy.
I believe complementarians need to interpret this passage this way in order to maintain their practice of not allowing women to “exercise authority over men.” Is the complementarian view accurate though? I think it fails to take into consideration several things:
While Paul mentioned weighing prophecies in verse 29, that’s not in close proximity to verses 34-35. Would the Corinthians have made the connection between verses 29 and verses 34-35?
If women can prophesy (11:5; 14:26, 31), why wouldn’t they be allowed to judge a prophecy?
The women in question are not in a place to evaluate prophecies. Paul words clearly call them to learn at home by asking their husbands. It seems they don’t understand what’s going on in the worship gathering at all!
The larger theme in chapter 14 is order-disorder in worship. If women did evaluate prophecies, that would actually contribute to order. The issue must be some other kind of disruptive speech.
I believe there are at least two better interpretive options for Christians who want to be faithful to the text of Scripture. Let’s look at both of those options.
Option 1: Purposeful Silence For Undisturbed Worship
Paul’s priority in chapter 14 is to help the Corinthians understand that disorder in the worship gathering keeps people from being edified. Put positively, well-ordered worship benefits everyone because then everyone can understand what’s going on.
First-century worship gatherings were much more participatory than ours today. There was plenty of opportunity for confusion and chaos to break out because everyone–not just one man on stage–was involved in speaking, teaching, and, yes, even leading. Hence the call for silence on certain occasions.
The word “silent” (Gk sigaō) occurs in verse 34 and two other times in this chapter:
In verse 28, someone speaking in another language must be silent if no one can interpret for everyone else to understand.
In verse 30, if multiple people want to prophesy, the prophet who has already spoken should be silent when another is ready to speak.
In verse 34, if women want to learn something, they are to be silent during the gathering and ask their husbands at home.
Each of these occurrences of sigaō is in the present, active indicative. By using this verb form, Paul calls for particular individuals to pause speaking for a specific reason at a specific time–not for all time. Any kind of speech that disturbs worship should stop until it is appropriate.
Sigaō is only used ten times in the New Testament. It is never used in a way to command silence forever. It’s always immediate and occasional.
Bill Rudd writes, “By addressing these groups, Paul did not assume that every tongues-speaker, prophet, or woman was part of the problem. It is likely that these three parallel scenarios involved a few people who needed to stop speaking so others could participate.”
The female prophets referred to in chapter 11 are not called to stop prophesying! After all, they don’t need to learn something from their husbands at home. They are actually the ones doing the instructing alongside male prophets!
Why does Paul emphasize female silence? What about men? Is this where we see Paul the Middle Eastern chauvinist rear his ugly head? I don’t think so.
As we’ve discussed before, it’s a well-known fact that women in the first century were not as educated as men. Women didn’t enjoy the same social and business opportunities, and their understanding of Greek and other local languages was less refined than men because of it. Simply, women were at an extreme disadvantage in any social setting, including in the church.
Add to all this the fact that Corinth was one of the most diverse cities in the Roman Empire. This is why Paul spends an entire chapter addressing “languages” (aka “tongues,” i.e. languages other than Greek) and interpreting those languages for the benefit of everyone.
If the entire point of chapter 14 is the intelligibility of speech in the worship gathering, doesn’t it seem likely that there were some women who were confused at what was being said during worship? Isn’t it plausible, even probable, that some women started to interrupt with questions or chat among themselves as humans often do when they’re unengaged?
Kenneth Bailey paraphrases Paul’s message to the Corinthian women:
[Women,] I know your Greek is limited. But your husbands have learned a bit more Greek than you have managed to absorb. They have to in order to function on the job. You have not had this chance and it is not your fault. But things have gotten out of hand on a number of levels. Please be helpful and put your questions to your husbands after you return home. I have just told the speakers when to be quiet. This is a situation in which you also need to listen quietly even if you can’t follow what is said.
Understood this way in the Corinthians’ context, we begin to see Paul as a compassionate and gracious friend willing to guide the Corinthians as they learn how to worship together.
Option 2: Paul Refutes a Corinthian Quotation
The second possibility is that Paul quotes a Corinthian belief and then refutes it. He does this often throughout the letter (6:12; 7:1-2; 8:1; 8:22-23; 10:23).
Verses 33b-35 is the Corinthian quotation; verses 36-38 is the refutation.
I’ve heard the argument that this quote is “too long” to be an actual quote. Why? Because the other quotations Paul cites (see above) aren’t that long.
My response: haven’t you ever read an article with long and short quotes?
Who’s to say Paul can’t cite a four-word quote here and a four-sentence quote somewhere else? Why do we think we’re the arbiter of what Paul can and can’t do?
Is it a quote or not? We have good reasons to believe it is.
First, the end of verse 34 includes something odd. It says that women are to be in submission/subject “as the law also says.” But there is not one place in the Old Testament where women are told to be silent or to be submissive to men.
Complementarians argue that Paul refers to the Old Testament in general or Genesis 2 where Adam is the “firstborn.”
But this doesn’t make the best sense of “the Law” (capital L for Torah Law), especially as Paul uses it in his letters.
This must be referring to some other law entirely.
Beth Allison Barr, in her book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, suggests an interesting possibility. Barr says that the Oppian Law (in effect from 215-195 BC) is likely the background here. The Oppian Law was designed to limit female freedom, particularly their public displays of wealth.
Now, 195 BC is over two centuries before Paul writes to the Corinthians. That’s quite the distance in time! But Barr shows that even during the first century AD, the Oppian Law had left its mark on Roman society. Cato the Elder, who opposed repealing the law, gave a speech about the danger of women’s freedom. In that speech he said,
I walked through a band of women…I should have said, “What kind of behavior is this? Running around in public, blocking streets, and speaking to other women’s husbands! Could you not have asked your own husbands the same thing at home? Are you more charming in public with others’ husbands than at home with your own?” (my emphasis).
You can hear an echo of this reflected in 1 Corinthians 14 (see italics). What if the Corinthians, in an effort to bolster their position on limiting female freedom, particularly when it comes to speaking gifts, used a defunct Roman law as their foundation? Anything is possible for a church that believed sex between married couples was bad (see chapter 7) and getting drunk at communion was good (see chapter 11).
I’m very intrigued by this possibility. However, there’s another option available to us. It’s possible that “the law” is a reference to Jewish oral law. Notthe written Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament), but rather the oral rabbinic tradition–God’s law that was not written down (according to the rabbis). The Mishnah, one of the major collections of the oral law, states that it’s sinful for a woman to speak with a man in the worship gathering.
It’s pretty likely that the diverse Corinthian church would have dealt with a Jewish faction that impressed aspects of the oral law on it. We have reason to believe this happened to almost every church in the New Testament! These oral laws circulated among the house churches (“as in all the churches,” v. 33b), negatively influencing their behavior.
Second, in verse 36, Paul uses “Or…Or” as a signifier that he is refuting what he just wrote (verses 33b-35). In other quote refutations, Paul uses the words “but” instead (see 6:12-13; 7:1; 8:1, 8; 10:23-24).
Taking these two points into consideration, we now read Paul’s words in a different light. Consider this possible translation, which is almost identical to the NRSV. I have added the quotation marks to help us see what is likely the Corinthians’ quotation.
“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you men the only ones it has reached? Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.
You may have noticed the addition of “men” in the second “or” phrase (“Or are you [men] the only ones…”). The reason for this is that Paul uses a masculine plural pronoun here rather than a female one.
If he was correcting women in verses 34-35 for speaking during worship, then we’d expect him to use a female plural pronoun. But he doesn’t. On the other hand, if verses 34-35 is a quote the Corinthian men used to silence women, then it makes sense for Paul to address them directly in his correction.
Understood this way, we see that Paul refutes a false Corinthian belief that women are not allowed to speak up in the assembly. He chides the men, reminding them that they haven’t cornered the market on God’s word.
Do you see the ironic twist? Complementarians have taken a passage meant to encourage women’s participation in the gathered church and instead used it against them.
Summing it All Up
Paul may be calling for a temporary silence on a select group of women who chatting or asking nuisance questions during worship. Or Paul may actually be correcting the Corinthian men who were trying to silence women.
At this point, if I had to choose one option, I’d probably lean toward option 2. But there’s also the possibility that verses 34-35 aren’t original to Paul and were added later on.
Whatever option we go with, we know that Paul does not silence all women for all time in the church’s worship. He had just encouraged female participation in chapter 11 and never limited women in his discussion of spiritual gifts (chapter 12).
Both options are reasonable and don’t require playing fast and loose with Scripture to make it say something it doesn’t. These options, in my opinion, make better sense than the traditional patriarchal explanation.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Paul ends the chapter by encouraging both genders to use their speaking gifts: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (vv 39-40).
 This is the view of complementarians like D.A Carson, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper. See D.A. Carson, “Silent in the Churches,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 179-197, which represents this view. Carson writes, “Paul’s point here…is that [women] may not participate in the oral weighing of such prophecies.”
 Notice the connection between prophecy and instruction/teaching/learning in 14:6, 19, and 31. Because of these verses, I try not to draw too thick of a line between “prophecy” and “teaching.” In Paul’s mind, it seems to me, there is quite a bit of overlap. But that’s for another post.
 Again, these are generalities. Priscilla, a member of the Corinthian church, was obviously a highly educated person who traveled with her husband. Lydia, a successful businesswoman in Philippi, likely didn’t face these obstacles. The point is that the typical first-century woman was at a tremendous disadvantage compared to the typical first-century man.
For modern readers like you and me, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of the more difficult passages to interpret and understand in the New Testament.
It’s often been a proof text for complementarians who believe men (specifically, husbands) are designed by God to be in authority over their wives. Verses 9-10, specifically, are levied against women: “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a wife ought to have a symbol authority on her head” (ESV).
There it is, women were created for men and men are in authority over women.
Is this another tally in the complementarian column?
It’s not that cut and dry. Arguing this way ignores other details in the text and Paul’s overall concern for a specific problem in Corinth.
I’ll work through the passage a few verses at a time. Here’s what I hope you’ll see. The issue is not who can lead in the church’s worship but how those leading present themselves.
Most interpreters believe this passage is about women wearing a literal head covering–a hijab (headscarf) something similar. But the end of the passage gives us a big clue that the issue has more to do with hairstyles.
In verses 14-15, Paul writes, “Does not the very nature of things [Gk physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”
As Paul summarizes his whole argument, he seems to indicate that a woman doesn’t need to wear anything on her head. He literally says, “Her long hair is the covering!” We must keep this in mind whenever we see the word “cover” or “uncover” in the text.
Paul desires, then, for men to look like men and women to look like women, in that particular culture. He isn’t concerned with gender subordination, but with gender distinction.
We’ll come back to Paul’s conclusion later on in the post.
Now, let’s take a look at the cultural background of the passage before getting to the commentary.
The Cultural Context
Corinth was a multiethnic metropolis. The church there, like most other churches in the Roman Empire, consisted of both Jews and Gentiles. In this first-century context, women wore their hair up and covered, while men wore it short and uncovered. In worship gatherings, Roman men and women often covered their heads. Jewish (non-Christian) men also covered their heads with a tallit.
For Jewish women, head coverings were a matter of propriety outside the home. If a woman’s hair or head was exposed, it was deemed immodest and inappropriate. The rabbis put it this way: “A woman’s hair is a sexual incitement, as [the Scripture] says, ‘Thy hair is a flock of goats.”
Wealthy Roman women, on the other hand, often wore elaborate hairstyles and were less likely to cover their hair in public (see 1 Timothy 2:9-10 and 1 Peter 3:3).
Consider also that nearly all historians believe that ancient prostitutes did not cover their heads, precisely because a woman’s hair was seen as an enticement. Prostitutes, including those in temples, were common throughout the Empire.
Some Corinthian women may have used their freedom in Christ to dress however they wanted in worship, not realizing it may not be beneficial for everone (see 6:12; 10:23). Others may have taken Paul’s mantra “In Christ…there is no male or female” to an improper extreme. Perhaps the way they wore their hair or coverings was an attempt to blur any gender distinctions.
Now, consider that churches met in homes, where any woman, Jew or Gentile, couldleave their hair uncovered for their husbands and family to see. This may have caused a lot of confusion for many of the Corinthian Christians meeting in those homes.
As a collectivist culture, how the Corinthians conducted and presented themselves publicly–including the style of dress and headwear–would bring honor or shame to their family and community. You see hints of this as Paul uses words like “dishonor” or “disgrace” and “glory.”
The problem could be stated like this: “We are in someone’s home. BUT this is a community gathering, basically open to the public. Should her hair really be exposed like that? That’s basically a come-on! She’s bringing shame on her family! On herself! What do we do?!”
Put this way, it’s easy to see that the Corinthians had very real problems in their context.
Paul cares about hairstyles (or head coverings) because, as Marg Mowczko writes, “[He] did not want the Corinthian men and women to wear hairstyles that were sexually or morally confusing.”
The issue isn’t that women are leading and they need to stand down and submit to men. It’s that Paul doesn’t want anything–even hairstyles–to bring disrepute on the faith community and the gospel itself.
Because of these real-life problems, the Corinthians needed real-life solutions.
On to the passage.
Verse 2 is introductory, so I’m going to start with verse 3 because that’s where much of the controversy lies. Verse 3 contains the word “head,” which is kephale in Greek. In the passage, kephale occurs 14 times.
Complementarians claim that this word kephale means “authority” or to be “in authority over.” This is how we often use “head” metaphorically in English (“She is the head of a company”). So, complementarians say, men/husbands are the authority over women/wives. And that settles the issue.
But is “authority” the best way to understand kephale? I don’t belive it is.
Almost exclusively, kephale means the literal, physical head of a body. And in antiquity, it rarely ever meant “authority/in authority over.” In fact, the Liddel-Scott-Jones Lexicon (LSJ), one of the most authoritative Greek-English lexicons, doesn’t list “authority” as a possible meaning for kephale.
In our short passage, every time kephale occurs it refers to the literal, physical head of a person, except for each occurrence in verse 3: “But 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.”
How should we understand kephale here? I think we have two options that work better than “authority.”
Option 1: Source/Origin
First, we could understand it in the sense of source or origin. Man was created by God. Woman comes from man. The Christ (Messiah) comes from God.
But if kephale means source or origin, wouldn’t we be guilty of the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was created by God the Father?
Of course, Jesus was not created! But “source” doesn’t only have the connotation of “beginning.” As Richard Cervin writes, “[T]he English words origin and beginning are not always equivalent. The origin of a book, movie, or play is not the same thing as its beginning.”
Instead, we have the option to understand “source” as meaning “to come from.” The Son is begotten of the Father. The Son was sent by the Father. The Messiah (Christ) is most definitely from God.
This idea is clearly articulated later in the Nicene Creed, written about 300 years after 1 Corinthians: Messiah Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light…begotten, not made.”
Option 2: Prominence/Honor
Kephale can also have the sense of “prominence” or “honor.” LSJ offers “the noblest part” as one possible meaning.
As I mentioned above, the Corinthians, like the Jews, were a collectivist, honor-shame culture. Women did not have their own honor. Their honor was connected to and derived from a male relative (usually a husband or father). Yet women could bring shame and disrepute upon their family.
This is the likely backdrop to Paul’s words in verses 4-5:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. (NIV)
Notice the language of shame Paul uses in those verses: dishonors (twice) and shaved (a symbol of shame in the ancient world).
I’m inclined to think “head” mustmean source/origin or prominence/honor precisely because verses 4-5 make clear that both men and women are praying and prophesying!
This is something patriarchal commentators often miss. The passage cannot possibly be used to restrict women’s leadership activity because both genders are exercising their God-given spiritual giftsin the Corinthian congregation.
Paul assumes both genders will pray and prophesy–both leadership activities in the first-century–when the church comes together. He never says, “Men, you need to step up and lead! And, oh ladies, please submit and let the men do all the talking!”
So what’s Paul’s point? He wants to prevent women (or wives) from bringing shame/dishonor on the men (or their husbands) in the church becuase of their hairstyle or lack of head covering.
Whichever option we choose, both fit the cultural context much better than the complementarian view that focuses on men being in charge.
Paul’s solution to all this was very simple: Ladies, cover your hair. If you don’t want to do that, why don’t you shave it all off? (see v 6). Of course, Paul knows a shaved head reeks of shame. That’s why he essentially says at the end of verse 6, “Just cover your head.”
He’s not putting women “in their place” here. As the Apostle of the heart set free, he never treated women that way. Ever! Indeed, the high-status women he met on his missionary journeys would have never joined the Jesus movement if they weren’t treated as equals.
Paul helps the Corinthians understand how the church ought to conduct itself in the midst of a society that has certain norms and expectations for men and women. Yes, they have freedom in Christ. Praise God for freedom! But using your freedom is not always beneficial (cf. Gal 5:1).
While women must cover their heads, Paul writes in verse 7, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”
Notice that he does not say that “woman is the image of man” but the glory of man. The word for glory here is doxa (think “doxology”). It does usually mean “glory” but it can carry the meaning of “good repute or honor.”
Considering that Paul talks about disgrace/dishonor throughout, it’s reasonable to conclude “glory” relates to the honor/shame dynamic (see verses 14-15 as well). Complementarian Craig Blomberg concedes, “In both places [glory] probably carries the sense of ‘honor.'”
What’s Paul saying then? A Christian man’s behavior affects how people view God. He can bring honor, glory, a good reputation to God’s name. Similarly, a first-century woman’s behavior can affect her husband or family’s honor and reputation.
Listen to how Marg Mowczko puts it:
In honour-shame cultures, it can be difficult for a woman to attain honour for herself. Rather, women protect the reputation and honour of the men in their family by being discreet and socially respectable. This respectability usually has a heavy emphasis on being, and appearing to be, sexually chaste. In such societies, family members, especially women, who display aberrant behaviour or loose morals bring dishonour on the whole family, but especially on the senior male.[17
What about the “created order” in verses 8-9? Complementarians teach that a wife exists to serve and support her husband and his calling based on who was created first.
It shouldn’t take someone being an egalitarian, however, to see that this is outside the scope of the passage. Again, Paul’s not saying anything about gender roles. They would need to be read into the passage. Instead, Paul’s talking about one’s physical appearance in a worship gathering to prevent bringing shame upon oneself and family.
Verses 8-10 bring up an interesting translation dilemma. Look at the ESV:
8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created for [dia] woman, but woman for [dia] man. 10That is why [dia] a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of [dia] the angels.
You can see from the brackets that the word “for” is the Greek word dia. It’s one of those elastic Greek pronouns that can be translated many different ways. The ESV choose to translate dia as “for” verse 9. Curiously, it’s translated as “That is why” at the beginning of verse 10 and then as “because of” at the end. (The NIV is almost identical to this, by the way.)
It’s perfectly reasonable to translate dia as “because of” every time, however. In fact, “for” is not a common translation for dia. With a word occurring four times this closely, there’s no reason to translate it differently if one translation makes good sense for every occurrence. “Because of” works quite well all four times:
8For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created because of woman, but woman because of man. 10Because of this, a wife ought to have [a symbol of] authority on her head, because of the angels.
Why does this matter?
Remember back to our discussion of Genesis 2? There we saw that the woman was created so that the man would not be alone. Notmainly that he’d have a romantic partner (though that’s part of it, I’m sure). In the context, he needed someone to help him work and keep the Garden. The man was needy. God sent him help. The man finally found his “corresponding strength” (‘ezer kenegedo in Hebrew) in the woman.
Seen this way, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “women…are placed by God in the human scene as the strong who come to help/save the needy (the men). In this reading of the text, Paul the Middle Eastern male chauvinist disappears.”
Yet some complementarian somewhere is still shouting, “BUT THE CREATED ORDER!”
The problem with “created order,” as Kenneth Bailey points out, is that if we want to give priority to what’s first, then the empty void at the beginning would take the cake. But creation moves from lower forms of life to higher ones.
What comes later is most precious.
The crescendo of Genesis 2 is the formation of the woman. Humanity, indeed all of creation, has reached its apex when she enters the story.
Now, what about verse 10? I should have mentioned at the beginning that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a chiasm. This is a literary structure in the shape of an X (chi = X in the Greek alphabet). A chiasm is used to emphasize a particular point. In the case of our passage, verse 10 is at the center of the chiasm. This means that while we may debate about what Paul meant here or there, we can be sure that verse 10 was his “big take away.”
Verse 10 in the ESV says, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”
Having “a symbol of authority” (a passive activity) would mean women are subjugated to men, evidenced by their head coverings.
Walter Kaiser calls this “one of the weirdest twists in translation history.” Why?
The word for “a symbol of authority” in Greek is exousia. It’s just the typical Greek word translated “authority,” It’s never used in a passive sense, but always active. In other words, authority is not something done to you, it’s something you have or do.
The NIV gets it right: “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head.”
Paul wants the Corinthians women to know they have authority to pray and prophesy in the gathering so long as they present themselves in culturally acceptable ways.
If you are still unconvinced at this point, listen to verses 11-12. These two verses reveal Paul has little regard for “created order” when it comes to gender roles.
“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (NIV)
So what if the first woman came from a man? Every man since has come from a woman (aka his mom!). Much more importantly, everything comes from God.
He meticulously expresses the interdependence and partnership of both genders under God, without elevating one over the other.
Paul ends this discussion by appealing to nature. “Does not the very nature of things [Gk physis] teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him?” This word physis can be understood as “naturally” or “what’s natural” to you.
In other words, Paul expected men to wear their hair short and women to wear their hair long because that is what humans naturally do. Of course, hairstyles have deviated from this at times in certain cultures. But we can all agree that for the most part, this has been humanity’s norm.
Then, as I mentioned in the introduction, Paul says something that helps us make sense of the whole passage: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” The word “covering” here is different than the word Paul uses for “cover/covered” (vv 4, 6, 7) and “uncovered” (v 5, 13). It means something like “cloth, clothing, robe.”
But Paul’s usage here suggest that women do not need to wear anything on their head. Their appropriate hairstyle is sufficient! Biblical scholar Philip Payne agrees:
“This implies that Paul did not require women to wear any item of clothing on top of their modestly-done-up hair. After all, why would Paul end his argument by stating that a woman has been given long hair as a covering if his point all along was to require a garment head covering?”
In the end, the issue isn’t authority, but how men and women distinguish themselves in worship by their appearances–namely their hairstyles.
How Do We Apply This Today?
As we read more and more of the biblical text, we begin to see that we can’t always make one-to-one applications. That’s the case for this text! In many Western contexts today, women can wear short hair and men can wear long hair and no one is confused or offended by that.
Complementarians, who think the passage is about authority structures, will apply this passage by saying women who participate in worship need to wear a wedding ring as a sign that they are under their husband’s authority. But this passage is not about which gender has authority, so that application is completely off base.
To apply the text, we start with the abstract principle: don’t present yourself in a way that is sexually or morally confusing. Getting to the concrete expression will vary from place to place.
One scholar offered this wise approach:
The cultural markers for [the uniqueness of each gender] will vary widely from time-to-time and from place-to-place, but the principle endures. Although our appearance should not be dictated by the culture around us, we should be sensitive to how we appear within that context—especially regarding those to whom we minister.
In other words, be free, but do not use your freedom as a cover up for evil (see Gal 5:1).
Summing It All Up
Once again, we see that a passage traditionally held to favor complementarians can easily be explained another way that is faithful the cultural context and takes into consideration all that Paul has to say about women.
FirstCorinthians 11:2-16 isn’t about gender roles or gender subordination. It’s about gender distinction in worship. Men and women both led worship in Corinth and Paul knew this. He never told women to stop leading because it wasn’t wrong for them to do so. His aim was to remind the women not to ignore cultural gender norms so that they did not distract others from worshiping God.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,”Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005, writes that Paul may desire that men stop the practice of covering their heads because of the Jewish tallit, mainly because it symbolized the law (and thus the guilt that comes with failing to uphold the law). Because there is no condemnation in Christ (Rom 8:1), why should men continue to cover their heads?
 Quoted in ibid., 305. See Babylonian Talmud, Berakot 14a for original quote. It is very unclear to me how a flock of goats can be an illustration for a sexual enticement. Alas, I am not an ancient Jew. And I never will be.
 Craig Keener, “1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), on BibleGateway.com..
 Remember 14:24 which suggests the possibility that anyone may enter the gathering at any time, even unbelievers.
 Marg Mowczko, “A note on nature and hairstyles in 1 Cor. 11:14-15,” 9/2/2021. “Sexually” doesn’t mean “She’s trying to be sexy.” Instead, it’s related to the physical makeup of an individual (e.g. is this person male or female?)–what the ancients called a person’s “constitution.”
 Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), on BibleGateway.com.
 Richard Cervin, “On the Significance of Kephalē (“Head”): A Study of the Abuse of One Greek Word,”Priscilla Papers 30/1, April 30, 2016. In this case, the text would mean something like 1) the origin of every man is Christ since Christ is the agent of God in creation; 2) the origin of woman is the man (Adam) since the woman was “taken out of man” (see Gen 2:21-23); 3) the origin of Christ is God since the Christ (i.e. not Jesus’ last name but literally “the Messiah”) comes from God. See Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 302.
 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership (Colorado Springs: Lewis and Roth, 2003), 61-63 also uses the Nicene Creed to prove his point that Jesus is equal but subordinate to the Father. But the authors of the Nicene Creed were surely not trying to show that Jesus was subordinate to the Father. They wanted to be clear he was equal to the Father. While complementarians may be uncomfortable with this “source” language, it makes me equally uncomfortable to say that the authority of Christ is God! If Jesus is “of the same essence of the Father,” then isn’t he of the same authority? It’s true that Jesus says he can only do what he sees his Father doing (John 5:19). But he can also say that no one can take his life from him and he has authority to lay it down (John 10:18). Something has to give. So while Jesus does submit to his Father, we should be very careful to argue that Jesus was always subordinate to his Father or continues to be lest we begin to sound like we’re saying he is “not quite as much God” as God the Father. This, too, is straight from the Arian playbook.
 The ESV Study Bible, “1 Corinthians 11:14,” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 2008, a complementarian work, says, “Paul’s point is that men should look like men in that culture, and women should look like women in that culture, rather than seeking to deny or disparage the God-given differences between the sexes.”
 Jeremy Gardiner, “Can Wedding Rings Replace Head Coverings?” critiques the typical complemetnarian application. This is a very interesting perspective because the author founded the “Head Covering Movement.” Yes, there is such a thing. And of course it would be a man who leads it.
In this second post on Jesus and women, I’ll focus on three specific interactions Jesus had with women: the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and the women at the empty tomb.
I’ll provide a brief commentary on each of these passages. My goal is to help us see the cultural implications these stories reveal. Then, I’ll offer summary statements to help us consider how these interactions should influence gender roles today.
Here’s what we’ll see:
Jesus violated the cultural expectation of how women were to be treated to pave the way for their full inclusion in the life and leadership of the church.
We’re going to cover a lot of ground. To keep this post at a reasonable length, my commentary will be selective. I assume you are familiar with these stories (at least at a basic level). If you aren’t, I encourage you to first read the passages in their entirety.
The Samaritan Woman
The story of Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4 is one of the most well-known and beloved in Scripture. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well after a long journey. He initiates conversation by asking her for a drink. By the end of the story, the woman is the one who’s had a soul-quenching drink of living water.
Jesus shatters all the norms in this passage. First, he talks to a woman. Recall from my last post that self-respecting rabbis did not talk to women in public. Not even to their wives! We see the disciples’ surprise in after they return from getting food. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ Or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (4:27, NIV, my emphasis).
The disciples don’t have the guts to say what they were thinking. But John, the author, was there and is likely recalling the group’s disposition.
The first question has the connotation of, “Would you like us to get rid of her for you?” Disciples were like Secret Service detail for their rabbis. They’d defend him at any cost.
The second question exposes the disciples prejudice. Like us, they were products of their culture. Jesus conversing with a woman was not only a waste of time. It was wrong and scandalous.
Second, Jesus asks a Samaritan for a drink. Jews did not interact with Samaritans because of “smoldering tensions” that began 500 years before due partly to race, religion, and politics. To uphold the expected norm, both Jesus and the woman should not have acknowledged each other’s existence. The woman expresses her shock that Jesus asks her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink (v 9).
John helps his readers understand the context with a parenthetical note, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (v 9b). The Greek word translated “do not associate” in NIV (or “no dealings,” ESV) is sygchraomai. It can also mean “to share a vessel in common”–like a cup or dish.
Late in the conversation, the woman recognizes Jesus is a prophet. She asks him a question about the true place of worship (vv 19-20). Jesus doesn’t debate. Instead, he completely rejects the notion of location-centric worship. True worship about who is worshiped and the manner of worship. (vv 23-24). He reveals himself to be the Messiah (v 26), placing himself at the center of true worship.
As the disciples return to find them speaking, the woman abruptly leaves. Jesus’ word about his messianic identity struck a nerve in her. She runs to tell her whole village about Jesus. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (v 30).
Her testimony resonates with the villagers. The people begin to make their way to Jesus. This would have startled the original readers. That Jesus uses a woman, not a man, to bring the truth about Messiah to this Gentile village was unthinkable. A woman’s testimony was not allowed in a first-century Jewish court. Yet Jesus believes she is a trustworthy witness.
We find out that “many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (v 39). They urge Jesus to stay with them for two more days and, in that time, more Samaritans come to believe in Messiah.
This Samaritan woman–we don’t even know her name–is the first female Christian preacher in history.
The Syrophoenician Woman
The second snapshot is Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. On the surface, the story seems to disprove everything I’m arguing for. Jesus comes across as misogynistic and ethnocentric. But when we understand the cultural context, we discover the complete opposite.
This time it’s a Gentile woman—a Syrophoenician, according to Mark—who violates social custom by initiating with Jesus. She calls him “Son of David” (v 22), showing she has familiarity with Jewish messianic expectations. Her daughter is sick and she knows Jesus can help. Mark tells us she asks Jesus to drive out a demon (Mk 7:26). Matthew notes that she asks Jesus to have mercy on her (Matt 15:22).
Our western eyes focus on the woman as an individual with a need. But we must remember that Middle Eastern rabbinic contexts are communal. Jesus will deal with the woman. But he also interacts with his disciples, who are present (v 23). He’s ready to administer a rabbinic exam to test the woman’s faith. And he will expose the deeply rooted misogyny and ethnocentrism of the disciples.
As a rabbi, Jesus knows he’s not supposed to respond to this woman’s plea in public. So he “did not answer a word” (v 23a). The disciples encourage Jesus to send her away (v 23b). This is reminiscent of their unspoken question in John 4 (see above).
Jesus finally speaks, but only because the disciples are the ones who demand, “Send her away! She won’t leave us alone.” Jesus plays their game and pretends to send her away, pointing out he has only come for Israel (v 24). It doesn’t drive her out; it draws her in. She begs, “Lord, help me!” (v 25).
Jesus could have given in to her request and helped. But remember the cultural context. He’s still dealing with his disciples. They believe this woman isn’t worth the time of day because of her ethnicity and gender. Jesus says what they are thinking: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” (v 26).
That’s a horrific statement. Why did Jesus say this? Listen to Kenneth Bailey:
Jesus here gives concrete expression to the theology of his narrow-minded disciples who want the Canaanite woman dismissed. The verbalization is authentic to their attitudes and feelings, but shocking when put into words and thrown in the face of a desperate, kneeling woman pleading for the sanity of her daughters. It is acutely embarrassing to hear and see one’s deepest prejudices verbalized and demonstrated.
Jesus simultaneously tests the woman’s faith with an insult and exposes his disciples’ sin. She acknowledges the insult but has the courage to respond despite the mounting shame. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (v 27).
What an answer! She passes the test. She knows Jesus is the Savior of the Jews, but she also trusts his compassion is endless. He has come for all people. There is enough left over for her—a “little dog” in the eyes of Jews, even Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus acknowledged her great faith and granted her request. She goes on her way transformed. The disciples were rebuked and corrected. But their story is not over. “An enormous amount of sophisticated spiritual formation is taking place” in their hearts, too. The story of the early church after Jesus’ ascension proves this.
The Women at the Empty Tomb
The final snapshot is from the first Easter morning. At the end of every Gospel, we see women, not men, who meet Jesus at the empty tomb (Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18). The men, afraid because their leader was just executed publicly by Rome, are hiding. The women face the risk and go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.
They don’t find Jesus’ corpse. They find the stone rolled away and an angel who’s as bright as lightning. After the initial shock and fear that followed, they meet the resurrected Jesus. It changes everything.
Jesus says to the women, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matt 28:10). John’s account spotlights Jesus’ interaction with Mary Magdalene. Jesus tells her, “Go…to my brothers and tell them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary obeys and has the privilege of being the first person to say, “I have seen the [risen] Lord!” (20:18).
But the men don’t believe the women (Lk 24:11). This isn’t surprising given their context. Remember that a woman’s testimony was not considered legitimate at that time. Knowing this, we would expect Jesus to appear to men so that they would be the first witnesses of the resurrection.
Not so. Jesus flips the world’s values upside down again. A woman becomes the first apostle of the resurrection.
What Does All This Mean?
I’ve done my best to give you a brief synopsis of the cultural significance of these three interactions Jesus had with women. But what does it all mean for us today?
Three themes stand out to me. I alluded to them in my commentary, but here I’ll provide a summary statement with an explanation for each.
1. Jesus breaks down the social barriers of gender and ethnicity.
That Jesus crossed both gender and ethnic barriers at the same time is significant. It reveals how closely they are related in Jesus’ mind.
Jesus confronts the disciples’ prejudices in the first two interactions above. He isn’t harsh with them. He understands the water they swim in is dark. But he confronts them nonetheless.
Why didn’t Jesus simply say, “Let’s end our patriarchy today” or “Women are equal footing in ministry with men”? That would have been more clear to us. Giving formal, propositional statements to make a point, however, is a very modern and westernized expectation. If we demand this of Jesus, we’d be asking him to be someone he wasn’t when he lived in this world.
Instead, Jesus confronts them as a Jewish rabbi would–through modeling, interactive teaching, and communal learning. He overcomes the social barriers not by ameliorating institutional norms or statutes (which he did not have the opportunity to do anyway). Instead, he embodies a new kingdom norm in how he treats and talks to women and Gentiles.
Jesus also goes further than just breaking norms. He’s forming his disciples in a new, better way. A Kingdom of God way. He lays the foundation for the early church to embrace the truth that in Christ there is neither “Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” (see Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11).
Objection:Of course we should overcome misogyny and ethnocentrism to respect women and people who are different than us. But that doesn’t mean women should be leaders/pastors, etc. in the church.
My response: There are many complementarians who respect women, of course. But Jesus didn’t elevate women so they’d be “respected,” important as that is. To me, it seems he goes much further (as I argue in my last post). His is goal was to redeem and restore women to their original purpose: serving God as his representatives equally alongside men. The next theme reveals why I think this.
2. Jesus empowered women to be his authoritative witnesses.
No matter how we slice it, the Samaritan woman and the women at the empty tomb were preachers and missionaries. In fact, Mary Magdalene holds the prestigious status of being “apostle to the apostles,” as she’s known in some traditions.
In the world’s eyes, Jesus should have first appeared to men to give credibility to his fledgling movement. But reason he appeared to women was to bolsterthe reliability of the message. It’s astonishing that women would be given this honor in the context. The account is even more credible–no man would have written this unless it actually happened.
But there’s more. I also think it was a profound display of the reversal of the curse. Women are now on equal standing with men in the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not buy in the argument that women were unreliable witnesses. He rejected it in full. To Jesus, what qualified someone to speak and minister on his behalf was not gender, but their connection to him. The testimonies of the Samaritan woman and Mary prove this.
Objection:This has nothing to do with women being pastors in local churches.
My response: That is true…to an extent. But Jesus did not come to start an organization with a hierarchical structure. (In his kingdom, the first are last and the last are first. Jesus’ elevation of women is one example of that value.) Instead, he came to inaugurate his Kingdom—a people-movement empowered by his Spirit to continue his work until he returns. If Jesus can launch his movement by sending a woman to preach to his male disciples, why can’t he send a woman to preach to men and women in churches today? I’m going to make the case in the coming posts that we cannot use 1 Timothy 2:12 as a reason.
3. Jesus ushers men and women into the presence of God.
This point may be one of the most important. It’s most obvious in the John 4 passage, but resurrection implies it, too.
On the surface, I assume most Christians would agree to this statement no matter their position on gender roles. But I want to go much deeper. So let me rephrase it: Jesus is God’s sacred space and, when people are connected to him, they become God’s sacred space.
Deep breath. Hang with me.
Think back to my posts on Genesis 1 and 2. I made the case that in the Garden, God set up his sacred space. In the ancient world, sacred space is the place where the divine dwells with his people who, as image bearers, represent him to the world.
Sacred space is temple space. In the Garden, Adam and Even functioned as priests. In whatever they did, they mediated God’s presence to the world.
Sin and the curse destroyed this. The rest of the Old Testament–from Abraham to tabernacle to temple–is the story of God pursuing a people for his own possession so that he might dwell with them.
Then Jesus comes as God in the flesh. Quite literally, he is God’s sacred space, the place where God’s very presence and glory dwells (see John 1:1-14). He represents God, speaks for God, and acts on God’s behalf. He is the true image of God (cf. Col 1:15; Heb 1:1-3). Those who saw Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9).
In the story of the women at the well, a fascinating development takes place. Jesus reveals to the woman that geography is irrelevant when it comes to worship. Worship isn’t based on a place but in the Person of Messiah. True worship happens when we are connected to Messiah.
When Mary meets Jesus after his resurrection, he has inaugurated the new creation in himself. He is the first of a new creation (see Col 1:18). Now, he’s about to continue his new creation project of radically restoring men and women to their original function as representatives in his world. Whoever is in Christ participates in the new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Mary encounters the risen Messiah; she is face-to-face with the new creation sacred space.
The New Testament will make it clear that God’s people are now the temple of God because God dwells in them by his Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:18; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21-22; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5). God’s people represent him on earth. Paul will use the word “ambassador” to communicate this (see 2 Cor 5:20, NIV). Believers in Jesus do not live or worship in sacred space. We are sacred space because his Spirit lives in us.
When we see Jesus’ words in John 4 to the Samaritan woman in light of this larger work he accomplished, the pieces fall into place. His interactions with women are a part of a bigger reclamation project. He undoes the effects of the curse and raises women up to their original status, function, and authority as God’s representatives.
Objection: This seems like quite the stretch.
My response: You may not be wrong. Please read my next post when I unpack this by talking about how Pentecost changes everything for women (and men) in the church.
After that, we’ll get to Paul (finally!). I know that’s what you’ve been waiting for.
Feature photo: “Christ and the Samaritan Woman” by Henryk Siemiradzki (1890).
 As I mentioned last time, Kenneth E. Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for 40 years has been extremely helpful to me as I’ve learned about Jesus’ cultural context. I highly recommend reading his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 208-209.
 Gary M. Burge, “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman,” John, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), on BibleGateway.com.
 The Old Testament says nothing about the qualifications of a witness. See “Witness” in Encyclopaedia Judaica (2008). However, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian born a few years after Jesus’ death, summarized the common belief of the day: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” See Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4:219.
 Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 212-213.
 Ibid., 220.
 Ibid., 219.
 Ibid., 220-221.
 Ibid., 223.
 Ibid., 225.
 Before Mark’s “extended ending” in 16:9-10 (which is probably not original to the text), the story leaves us hanging with the women’s unresolved fear. This doesn’t need to be in contradiction to other Gospel accounts. Bailey notes that Mark begins his Gospel by telling his readers he’s writing “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah” and Mark closes with “the end of the beginning.” The insightful reader knows that the women are not paralyzed by the initial shock. They overcome their fears. Matthew, Luke, and John reveal, tell the men about the resurrection at some point that day. See Bailey, JesusThrough Middle Eastern Eyes, 197. I should also note that Mark’s Gospel was likely the earliest written and it leaves out details that the others, especially Matthew, include. I had a college professor who once quipped that Mark is the “Reader’s Digest” version of Matthew.
 It’s ironic that this title for Mary is most often used by the Roman Catholic Church since it does not allow the ordination of women as priests.