Fulton County Gospel News

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The Role of Women in the Lord's Church, Part 4

By Ted J. Clarke

The fourth article from Ted J. Clarke on the subject The Role of Women in the Lord's Church is now available online. Having previously discussed The Genesis Connection, he proceeds in this article to discuss First Corinthians 11:2-16 with regard to the Role of Women in the Lord's Church.

 First Corinthians 11:2-16


Three articles last year detailed the fact that the prohibitions placed on women in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:8-15) are all related to the events in Genesis 1-3. We will not repeat what was written in those articles, except to show how all of these passages teach that their authority for restricting the role of women is grounded in Genesis 1-3.

The Corinthian Church

The apostle Paul established the Corinthian church on his second missionary journey (ca. AD 51-54) and worked with it closely for eighteen months (Acts 18:1-18). After Paul left the area the church in Corinth developed a large number of problems. Paul sought to correct these problems by writing at least two epistles (ca. AD 54-55).

In view of the topic of miraculous spiritual gifts mentioned in the first of these two letters and the continuing practice of many who seek these miraculous gifts today, it is worthy to note that although the Corinthian church had a good number of those who possessed miraculous gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12-14), this did not make them a model church nor prevent them from falling into serious religious error, moral and doctrinal. When Paul was informed of these religious problems he did not go back to Corinth and give them more miraculous gifts! Rather, he wrote the two inspired epistles that we have addressed to them, in which he told them what they needed to reform, insisting that what he had written was the word of God (1 Corinthians 14:37; 2 Corinthians 13:10). He also told them that their miraculous powers were temporary in nature and would be superseded by the completed and perfect word of God (1 Corinthians 13:8-10; Ephesians 4:8-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; James 1:25; Jude 3). A proper understanding of the purpose and duration of miraculous spiritual gifts will be helpful in understanding some things relative to the role of women in the Lord's church in First Corinthians.

While First Corinthians 11:2-16 does not specifically mention that the women spoken of as praying and prophesying were miraculously gifted, there is a strong likelihood that they were (Acts 2:17; 21:8-9; 1 Corinthians 14:1-2, 12-15, 26-35). However, even if they were not so gifted, this does not have an adverse effect on what we will teach that this passage means.

What Is the Problem?

Liberal theologians, religious feminists, and many of those crying out for the Lord's church to change claim that our passage in First Corinthians 11:2-16 authorizes women to take leading roles such as praying and prophesying in worship assemblies mixed with both men and women. Religious leaders of this persuasion (denominational and brethren) are working to establish women in leadership in the organization, work, and worship of their churches. Pentecostal groups have long held to this practice and the concept is being increasingly adopted by several Protestant bodies. Those intent on trying to restructure the Lord's church to be like the denominations are pushing equally hard and quite a few congregations are placing women into leadership roles, contrary to what the Scriptures permit. We contend that what these religious friends and brethren are teaching on this is serious error.

The Context of the Passage

In chapters one through six of First Corinthians it is clear that Paul is dealing with some specific problems in Corinth that were revealed to him by "the house of Chloe" (1:10- 11). In chapter seven through the end of the letter it appears that Paul answers the questions which the members and leaders of the Corinthian church had written to him (7:1). Chapters 7-16 may mix these problems and questions at times; it is difficult to say. It is likely that 11:2-16 and 14:34-35 deal with the questions asked by the Corinthians. Of course, these passages reveal the problems involved in these areas too.

Many people have had difficulty in reconciling what Paul says in 11:2-16 regarding women praying and prophesying in some exercise of worship, when this is compared with Paul in 14:34-35, where he tells women to keep silent in the mixed worship assemblies of men and women. The problem can be resolved if these two assemblies are not of the same type. I believe that there is good reason to treat the situation in 11:2-16 as distinct from the obviously mixed worship assembly in 14:34-35.

As previously noted, some women possessed miraculous spiritual gifts in the first century church (Acts 2:17; 21:8-9), but that did not mean that they were permitted to use those gifts in the assemblies for worship where men were present. The occasions of which Paul speaks in 11:2-16 may well have been strictly ladies' Bible classes or Ladies' Day type activities as we have today, only with miraculous manifestations. The situations covered in chapters 7:1 through 11:16 seem to be matters of daily life and conduct, apart from the mixed worship assemblies of the Lord's Day. Even the brief reference to "the Lord's table" (Lord's Supper) in 10:16-17 is given to show one could not partake of the Lord's Table at the worship assembly on the Lord's Day and then eat food offered to idols with idolatrous intentions, either at home or when visiting at another's home (10:21,25- 27). Likewise, the main concern discussed in 11:2-16 is God's established hierarchy, not whether it is scriptural for women to pray and prophesy in mixed assemblies for worship.

Paul appears to begin his discussion of problems or questions asked about the Lord's Day assemblies for worship with First Corinthians 11:17-18, saying, "Now in this that I declare unto you [meaning what follows] I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together in the church, I hear that there are divisions among you" - then Paul goes on to discuss those divisions which had shown themselves in the assemblies for worship on the Lord's Day. These were problems regarding proper observance of the Lord's Supper, corrections of abuses of miraculous spiritual gifts (including women speaking out in the assemblies), preaching of Christ's resurrection and ours, and the collection of money to aid the needy (11:17- 16:9).

Enduring Principles in First Corinthians 11:2-16

What can we learn from the text that helps us deal with similar situations, and how does this relate to women taking on leadership roles over men in the organization, work, and worship of the Lord's church?

First, Paul teaches a God ordained hierarchy (an order of rank or authority) in which God the Father is Christ's head; Christ is the head of man; and man is the head (authority over) of woman (v. 3). The Greek word (kephale), which is translated "head" in our passage above, means "authority over." This ranking of authority extends even to the Godhead, as shown in verse 3 (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:27-28). Verses 8-9 clearly show that this hierarchy is not a matter of custom, but is rooted in the priority of the man in the order of creation and in the purpose of God creating the woman for man, not the reverse (cf. Genesis 2:18-24).

Second, Christian women, whether miraculously gifted or not, could use the talents which they possessed for praying or prophesying in some group settings outside the regular mixed assemblies for worship on the Lord's Day. However, they must always do so in such a way as to give honor to God's established order for man as "the head" over woman.

Third, this honoring of God's established hierarchy includes showing that submission in ways that are customary in one's culture or society, as long as the custom itself does not violate God's law. In first century Corinth that submission was commonly shown by the long hair and veils as symbols of the women's subordination (vv. 5-10). To act otherwise would bring shame upon the woman, her head, and ultimately Christ and God (vv. 5-6). This would subject the church to unnecessary criticism by society in general, perhaps making it difficult to teach others about Christ. Culture may change, but God's hierarchy must be respected no matter what current culture does or does not approve.

Fourth, to disregard the cultural symbol of submission is a sign of a deeper seated rebellion against God's authority. If God approves of such symbols, as shown by Paul's teaching in 11:2-16, what woman or man dares to ignore God's word on these matters? Rebellion against God's authority caused the angels who so sinned to be cast down and "reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day" (Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4). This is the warning Paul gives in 11:10 to the Corinthians. As God's creatures we must accept the place and role He has created for us.

Fifth, men are not to gloat and think themselves as superior to women. While God's hierarchy places women in submission to men, He warns men not to forget that they need women (v. 11). While the "woman is of the man, even so is the man of woman" (v. 12). Every man except Adam has come from woman; a mother. Man is not complete without the woman (Genesis 2:18), and while the wife is to be subject to her husband in everything as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-24), the husband must, with equal obligation and effort, love his wife as Christ loved the church and as he loves his own body (Ephesians 5:25-28).

Context - Another Possibility

Some may disagree with part of the context of 11:2-16 which I previously set forth, choosing to believe that the situation of the women praying and prophesying in this passage must have reference to the regular mixed assemblies of the church for worship on the Lord's Day. Some contend that Paul in 11:2-16 simply deals with God's hierarchy and the need to observe the cultural symbols of that situation, waiting until he dealt with the use of miraculous spiritual gifts in chapter 14 to condemn the practice of women speaking out in leading roles in mixed worship assemblies (14:34-35). There is something to be said for Paul not dealing with all the possibilities connected with a topic in one section of Scripture. He speaks of eating meats offered to idols in chapters 8 and 10, interrupting that topic with a defense of his apostleship in chapter 9. He also briefly mentions the Lord's Supper (table) in chapter 10:16-17, but waits until 11:17-34 to present more detail about its proper observance. So, he could have referred to women speaking in mixed assemblies in 11:2-16, but waited until 14:34-35 to correct the unauthorized practice. Some who hold to this possibility think that this "skipping around" is understandable if Paul was going in order down a list of questions that the Corinthians had asked him (cf. 7:1).

While this is a possible contextual setting for the differences between 11:2-16 and 14:34-35, I do not think that it is as attractive as what we have previously stated.


First Corinthians 11:2-16 is not a passage that authorizes women to take or accept leadership roles in the mixed assemblies for worship nor in the organization and work of the Lord's church.

God's hierarchy with Him as head over all, with Christ the head of man and man the head of woman is here clearly established as God's law (vv. 3, 8-10). This hierarchy is not cultural, but the symbols which illustrate this submission may change. The symbols in first century Corinth were long hair and veils. It may be different in other cultures.

Women may exercise their spiritual talents in a number of ways that do not conflict with the restrictions which God has set forth. A ladies only assembly for Bible study, special Ladies' Day activities, teaching children's Bible classes, or private Bible studies are possible settings where they may do so (Hebrews 5:12-14; Titus 2:3-5; Acts 18:24-26).

This passage rejects the cries of the liberals, feminists, and change agents of our day who are rebelling against the God ordained authority of man as the head of woman, as Christ is the head of man and God the head of Christ.

Current articles in this series:

#1: Thank God for Godly Women
#2: The Genesis Connection
#3: The Genesis Connection, Part 2
#4: 1 Cor. 11:2-16
#5: 1 Cor. 14:34,35
#6: 1 Tim. 2:11-15



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