Women in the Assembly and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14
Many women’s roles discussions hinge on what to do with 1 Corinthians chapters 11 and 14. They each say something about male spiritual leadership, and they each say something about women’s roles in light of that reality. But at first glance, they seem contradictory, leading some people to feel like they must alter the natural understanding of one or the other. My best understanding, however, is that there is a way to understand both to mean exactly what they say, without having to strain the language of either passage. Unfortunately, not understanding how they could fit together has led some churches to almost entirely dismiss some very clear teachings of Scripture, based on what I believe is a not-so-great-rationale, but I’ll explain that as we go along. First, the issue itself…
1 Corinthians 11:5 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
The first part of 1 Corinthians chapter 11 discusses male spiritual “headship,” and says that women were supposed to wear head coverings to show that men were the spiritual leaders of the church. We don’t entirely understand the head covering issue, and most people understand it to have had a cultural meaning in those days that Paul was encouraging them to acknowledge and uphold. Maybe we’ll try to figure the head covering thing out another time. But for now, notice what it says women were to do:
“Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every women who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved.” (1 Corinthians 11:4-5 NASB)
Whatever the head covering meant, the women were to do it while praying and prophesying.
The problem is how that idea fits with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where Paul is talking about how the worship assemblies should function, including prayer and prophesy:
“The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is improper for a women to speak in church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35, NASB)
So to summarize: chapter 11 suggests that women prayed and prophesied somehow and somewhere, but chapter 14 says that women are to be silent in the assemblies (in the full context of chapter 14, “silence” means not leading in speaking or prayer, as verse 28 and 30 show).
We can discuss another time why passages like this do not mean that God hates women or that God is oppressive to women. For now, let’s just say this: throughout Scripture God makes choices as to who He wants to lead, without it being a value judgment on those who are not called to lead. I do not fit the qualifications for elders, but I do not think God is thereby saying that those who do fit those qualifications are inherently worth more or thereby considered more talented than I am. God chooses who leads, and I trust Him. Those who are chosen will have more responsibility and thereby more judgment before God.
For the sake of this article, let’s assume God is not unfair in His teachings, and let’s simply try to figure out what He’s saying and what He isn’t saying. Our question: How can chapter 11 say women pray and prophesy, but chapter 14 says they must be silent in the worship?
Let’s consider the logical options…
Option #1 – Some believe 1 Corinthians 14 is not a universal teaching about the assembly.
Many people have come to adopt the idea that chapter 14 must be a specific teaching meant for Corinth and not for all churches. They wonder if maybe some of the Corinthian women were being unruly in the assembly, and so Paul was simply asking those Corinthian women to be silent rather than all women in all churches.
But there are big problems with this assumption. First and foremost, there is not a bit of evidence for it in the passage. It seems to me that it would have to be deemed necessary by the context to invent such a scenario, and I’m not sure it is. Secondly, contrary to any attempt to limit it to a specific problem in Corinth, the commandment is presented as a universal commandment at the end of verse 35: “it is improper for a women to speak in church.” Paul is not saying they simply needed a temporary silence of women. Rather, he is presenting a principle of what is proper and what is not. The third problem with limiting 1 Corinthians 14 is that there is another passage, from Paul, that says almost the exact same thing regarding male leadership in worship:
A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. (1 Timothy 2:11-13)
In short, any attempt to suggest that 1 Corinthians 14 was only meant for a specific situation in Corinth seems strained, and passes too quickly over the universal language both in this chapter and in the companion teaching of 1 Timothy 2.
Option #2 – Some believe 1 Corinthians 11 is not talking about public praying and prophesying.
Others argue that 1 Corinthians 11 must not refer to public prayer and prophesying of the women. In other words, since chapter 14 clearly discusses the public assembly, maybe chapter 11 is only talking about private prayer and prophesying.
At first glance it is plausible. After all, the context doesn’t demand that Paul is discussing the assemblies like chapter 14 does. And the first clear mention of assemblies comes later in chapter 11 in verse 17 (“you come together”) when Paul switches gears to discuss their treatment of the Lord’s Supper.
However, the question quickly becomes: what exactly do you mean by “public?” At home alone with no one else around? Surely prophesying implies that other people are present, in order to hear the prophecy that is being given. And surely since women are to have their head covered there must be at least someone else present to see their head covering as the necessary “symbol of authority” (in addition to the angels noticing the sign of authority, as mentioned in verse 10).
So while I think it makes sense that chapter 11 is not discussing the church assembly since chapter 14 is so clear (and I think it is wise to assume Paul doesn’t lose his mind between chapters 11 and 14), it does seem that whatever praying and prophesying women were doing was in some way public for the head coverings (whatever they were) to be necessary at all.
So it doesn’t seem right to say that the praying and prophesying wasn’t public in some way. But it also doesn’t seem right to say that the praying and prophesying must have violated clear teaching from Paul about the assembly and male leadership in worship from chapter 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Is there any other option for reasonably believing that the praying and prophesying was both public but also not in violation of the clear passages about women not leading men in worship? I don’t hear it mentioned often, but I think there is a good option remaining…
Option #3 – Some believe 1 Corinthians 11 is discussing public prayer and prophesying, but is not discussing the mixed church assembly or contexts that would violate the clear teaching on male leadership in worship as given in 1 Corinthians 14.
Once we get a handle on what that says, we might ask: Are there really contexts that fit this option?
If you look around the Bible at prophesying and prayer, what you find is that there are many different contexts in which someone could pray or prophesy without it necessarily meaning they are leading in worship. Now keep in mind, as we just saw, I do believe that the praying and prophesying of 1 Corinthians 11 must have been public in some way, or else there would be no reason to for the woman to “cover her head” and thereby (somehow!) show that she is still acknowledging male leadership. But “public” and “corporate mixed worship” are two different things.
For example, you could prophesy in any number of different circumstances. Prophecy was simply “speaking a word from the Lord,” whether a prediction of the future or a statement about the past or present. When someone prophesied, God was giving them a word from Him to speak to others. In Acts 21:10-11 a prophet named Agabus gives a prophecy from the Holy Spirit, that Paul would be bound by the Jews and delivered to the Gentiles. It was certainly a “public prophecy” (people were present with him when he spoke it), but was not a time of worship.
In fact, even in the Old Testament you find women prophesying in situations that were not associated with times of worship. In 2 Kings 22:11-20, when King Josiah hears the words of the book of the law, he sends his men to inquire of the Lord about these things. They go to a prophetess named Huldah, who proclaims God’s judgment to them. She could prophesy to these men, giving them a word from God, but she was not leading them in worship. This type of prophecy no doubt was found among women in the New Testament as well, such as the daughters of Philip who were said to be prophetesses (Acts 21:9). Of course, women could prophesy in worship with other women without violating 1 Corinthians 14, and perhaps that often occurred in situations such as with the women meeting to worship together on the Sabbath in Acts 16:13. But I think the point is clear: you could be a prophetess who gave the word of the Lord to people without violating the 1 Corinthians 14 principle of men being the ones God expects to lead in group worship.
What about prayer? Could there be a context in which women might be praying publicly and needed to cover their heads (as 1 Corinthians 11 taught) that would not violate the principle that women should not lead men in prayer (as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 teaches)? Once again, I think we find hints in the Bible of several other contexts that would fit. For example, Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that many people prayed aloud in public in the first century, even though some of them did it with the wrong motives, to be heard by men (Matthew 6:5). Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying (Luke 18:9-14) suggests the same thing – many people prayed aloud publicly in the first century. (They also often read aloud publicly, by the way, such as the eunuch in Acts 8:30.) There appears to be at least one example of a woman praying aloud publicly in the New Testament: Anna in Luke 2:36-38. She comes up to Joseph, Mary, and their baby Jesus and begins giving thanks to God. She is praying to God publicly, but not leading Joseph or any of the other men present in a group prayer.
Of course, as in the example of the women worshiping together in Acts 16:13, there were times when women could pray publicly in leading other women in a group prayer. But again, the point seems clear to me: there were contexts in which women could pray aloud publicly in the first century without violating the principle of women not leading men in corporate worship.
Conclusion: Allowing Both Passages to Speak
I realize we might struggle with how chapter 11 and 14 of 1 Corinthians fit together at first glance.
But as you can tell, that third option we mentioned is the one that makes the most sense to me: chapter 11 is discussing public prayer and prophecy, but there are plenty of contexts in which it would apply without having to violate the clear restrictions on women leading in the public worship which are given in chapter 14.
This understanding allows both 1 Corinthians chapters 11 and 14 to mean exactly what they say, without having to invent background scenarios and without having to assume that Paul must have lost his mind within three chapters of writing. In chapter 11 Paul says that whenever women prayed and prophesied publicly they needed to cover their heads to show that they were still under male spiritual leadership, and in chapter 14 Paul says that when the assembly of men and women are gathered together, God wants the men doing the leading in worship.
It is disappointing to me whenever I hear someone pick either chapter 11 or 14 and then try to “eliminate” the other passage with strained arguments to suggest that Paul really couldn’t have meant what he said.
It’s even more disappointing to me when it feels like Christians are trying to dismiss the clear language of chapter 14 in order to make it more pleasing to culture, without the trust that God knows what He’s doing or the trust that honest, humble hearts will still recognize God’s goodness. I sometimes hear people quote chapter 11 verse 5, say “so women must have been doing something,” and then work very hard to dismiss the clear language of chapter 14 and 1 Timothy 2 (which is actually much plainer to understand than whatever is going on in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 with the head coverings issue). And it’s interesting how quickly those same people seem to go from women doing “something” to women doing “whatever we want them to do.”
I hope you and I will trust that God is wiser than culture. And I hope whenever we see two passages of Scripture that are difficult to understand together, that we will seek diligently for how God, in His wisdom, must have meant for both passages to mean what they say. After all, if He gave both passages to us, He must want both to be allowed to speak.