Discuss how Paul’s teaching on ministry by women in 1 Corinthians should be applied in today’s church.


How do Pauline teachings in First Corinthians impact the ministry and role of women in today’s church life? Are women permitted to be in positions of authority and leadership, such as pastoring, preaching and teaching? The matter is debated today more than it ever was in the past (Laney, 2002, p. 8), and scholars are divided in two broad categories: complementarians and egalitarians. Both sides claim scriptural support for their positions, therefore the different conclusions must be determined by exegetical differences, presuppositions, the role of textual criticism, and the understanding of the Sitz im Leben, amongst other factors.

We shall begin by describing each side’s general stance, looking at foundational verses. We shall then carry out comparative exegesis of relevant texts. Finally, we shall determine the applicability of such texts to modern day church as we come to our own conclusions regarding women’s role in ministry.


Danvers’ complementarianism (CBMW, 1988) is rooted in a long history of exegesis and is said to reflect the “created order” (Burk, 2019, p. 32). It actually begins with a threefold point of equality between men and women, also shared by Roman Catholicism (CDF, 2004): (a) equal worth as bearers of the imago dei (Gn 1:26-27); (b) equal standing with respect to God’s redemptive work (1 Pt 3:7), as Christ took on the very nature shared equally by men and women (Heb 2:17); (c) equally bestowed with the role of vice-regents in the dominion mandate (Gn 1:28), though the outworking of such role may differ due to the dissimilarities between men and women (Burk, 2019, p. 35). Complementarianism affirms functional distinctions between genders: in the household, husbands are to exercise self-sacrificial loving leadership, and wives must joyfully submit to it, as per texts such as Ephesians 5:22–33, 1 Peter 3:1–7, etc. (p. 38). In the church, though co-heirs of the promises (Gal 3:28-29), only men can be elected to some governing and teaching roles (1 Ti 2:11–15; Tit 1:6-9). Complementarians further root these social differences into the created differences (Gn 1:26-28) between “male and female” (p. 38), agreeing that human sexuality informs the theological dimension (CDF, 2004). Genesis 2 is used to establish both man’s headship and woman’s helper-ship as roles that are part of God’s original design (Schreiner, 2005): (a) man is created before the woman; (b) God designated Eve as a helper to Adam; (c) Adam names the animals and the Woman (Gn 2:23; then “Eve” in 3:20).[1] Thus, complementarianism holds that men and women are equal in worth, but different in role and function.


Egalitarians point to biblical examples of women leading as prophets, apostles, deacons, and house church leaders (Torjesen, 1993; Madigan & Osiek, 2005) and rely on extra-biblical evidence that testify to the same effect (Belleville, 2005). Nevertheless, egalitarianism became prominent in the early 1980s (Mickelsen, 1986; CBE Staff, 1987).

The foundational text is Galatians 3:28, which is seen as declaring obsolete all differences that may hinder unity within the Church (Sudderth, 1999, p. 1). Additionally, egalitarians rely on the concept of mutual submission (Mk 10:42-43; Eph 5:21).

Whilst acknowledging biological differences, egalitarianism rejects male hierarchy over women as part of God’s original design (Payne, 2015, p. 3). They argue that the Hebrew word ʿēzer in Genesis 2:18—often used of God himself—never conveys the idea of subordination. Interestingly, Roman Catholic theologians concur (CDF, 2004), as they agree that male rule in marriage is the result of the Fall as per Genesis 3:16. Furthermore, egalitarians believe that man and woman were co-culpable in the Fall (Gn 3:6; Ro 5:12-21). Finally, they reject as fallacious male leadership arguments from the order of creation (Young, 2009), and contend that the woman is the culmination of mankind’s creation (Payne, 2015, p. 3).

Thus, egalitarianism seeks complementarity without hierarchy (Pierce, Groothuis, & Fee, 2005).

Comparative exegesis

1 Corinthians 7:1-17. Though marriage is not the focus of our essay, it is nonetheless relevant, since the arguments brought forth by both camps revolve around the issue of male authority, be it in the household or in the church. Egalitarian Hays (1997) affirms that these verses present a “paradigm-shattering vision of marriage” with spouses “in submission to one another” (p. 131). It is indeed difficult to disregard the “symmetrically-balanced wording” (Payne, 2015, p. 6) used throughout. Complementarians would argue that Ephesians 5:22-33 must complete the picture with its teachings about wives’ submission to the headship of husbands. Egalitarians point out that, grammatically, the submission of wives is linked to the mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 (Payne, 2009, p. 277). Complementarians Hurley (1981) and Knight III (1991) agree. Payne argues that Paul used social conventions to convey mutual submission in marriage: he commands wife submission because of both Graeco-Roman and Jewish expectations, but then distances himself from the denigration that came with that custom, by calling husbands to Christ-like sacrificial love. Complementarians fear an implied mutual submission between Christ and the Church (Moore, 2006, p. 3). However, the egalitarian argument is not about submission to authority, but about mutual sacrificial love; it is argued that the mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 is the same as the mutual Christ-like love in Ephesians 5:2. 

Regarding the metaphorical use of “head”, complementarians hold the traditional understanding of “authority” as established (Grudem, 1985), whilst egalitarians usually favour “source” (Payne, 2009, p. 121). The former seems less proven than previously thought (Cervin, 1989), and it has become generally difficult for both camps to have evidence-based arguments (Johnson, 2004, p. 188; cf. Thiselton, 2000, p. 812-22). Furthermore, scholarship is now conceding Paul could be creating new metaphorical uses in certain contexts (Dawes, 1998, p. 127, 133). With this in mind, egalitarians highlight that Ephesians 5:23 is an emphatic apposition that defines “head” as “saviour”, which to them strengthens the reading of “head” as “source” of life from which the Body grows (cf. Eph 4:15-16; Col 1:18; 2:19), just like man is the source of woman (Gn 2:22).

1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Whether one is egalitarian or complementarian, this passage undoubtly shows women praying and prophesying (v. 5), which many equate to women leading in public worship (Johnson, 2004, p. 185), even on par with teaching and preaching (Massey, 2002, p. 31). The complementarian view is straightforward (Bearden, 2005, p. 16): “head” (v. 3) means “authority”, and women can only participate under male headship, wearing a sign of said authority (v. 10). From an egalitarian point of view, Paul introduces the idea of headship (v. 3), only to instruct both men and women not to dishonour their head (v. 4-9). The apostle is using a shame-honour motif customary of the time (Johnson, 2004, p. 186), which he reinforces with a chronological reading of the creation account. Yet, Paul immediately counters the cultural man-woman hierarchy with the actual status of men and women in Christ: they are interdependent (v. 11) and they both originate from God (v. 12). Once again, Paul seems to assert the cultural standard of the time, only to counterbalance the negative implications with the new-creation reality of men and women in Christ. Regarding κεφαλή, egalitarians hold that the context does not allow for the sense of “authority over”: in each case, the “head” is the archetype—or “honoured source”—of the other (p. 185). That is exactly how Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) treats the word (p. 191). Finally, new scholarship (p. 189; cf. Payne, 2009, p. 199-210) seems to establish the matter of the head coverings as being about hair styles, which fits with Paul’s creation-rooted honour-shame argument: men must appear honourable (short uncoiffured hair), and so must women (long coiffured hair). 

1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Egalitarians admit this text means exactly what it appears to say (Payne & Huffaker, 2021, p. 111), hence it has puzzled virtually everyone (Payne, 2009, p. 216-69). The reasons are many. The text plainly contradicts other verses in the same epistle: 11:2-16 speaks of women prophesying and praying; in 14:5 Paul would like everyone to prophesy; similar implications hold for 14:24, 26, 31, and 39. Other NT passages seem to present women in positions of leadership (Acts 18:24; Ro 16:1-16; Col 4:15; 2 Jn 1:13). And Peter’s sermon on Pentecost is a reminder that God always planned for women to prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). 

Complementarians, too, find it hard to reconcile their view with the command given in this text (Burk, 2020). Their common resolutions include the idea that Paul is forbidding women from judging prophecies, because they are not permitted to teach men as per 1 Timothy 2:12 (p. 32). That, however, leaves open the possibility for women to speak for other reasons, including learning, which the passage forbids (v. 35). Other resolutions seem to likewise fall short (Ranzolin, Jr., 2014). 

Additional issues with this passage are: (a) it appears to disrupt Paul’s flow of thought (Conzelmann, 1975, p. 246); (b) the command seems directed to all women in all churches, whilst the rest of the instructions are addressed to the Corinthians (Payne & Huffaker, 2021, p. 112); (c) the unqualified appeal to the Law is uncharacteristic of Paul, nor was it customary for him to invoke the Law for instructions on Christian worship (Brown & Twist, 2013). Thus, a persuasive—though not water-tight—case can be made that these verses are a post-Pauline interpolation (Barton, 2003, p. 1345). Payne (2009) lists fifty-five studies in support of such a conclusion. Codex Vaticanus’s Distigme-Obelos symbols at the end of 14:33 could further strengthen the argument (Payne, 2017), though some dispute the presence of such symbols (Fellows, 2019; Krans, 2019).


How to apply these teachings today? First, it is necessary to understand whether certain commands are universal, or bound to a time and a place in history. Second, applicability depends on whether we accept complementarian or egalitarian interpretations. 

Obviously, with this epistle, Paul is preoccupied with order in church worship. One of the issues in Corinth was sexual immorality, and chapter seven addresses that in connection with marriage. Incidentally, the passage appears to lend credence to the egalitarian view of marriage, as their reconciliation of Ephesians 5:22-33 seems more satisfying than the complementarian alternative.

In chapter eleven, Paul seems concerned with how morally-indifferent cultural practices could cause needless offence and hinder the church’s mission (cf. 9:19–23; 10:33; 14:23; cf. Johnson, 2014, 185-86). Christian freedom makes all things permissible, but cannot make all things profitable (1 Co 10:23). Since social markers of female-male identity are unlikely to disappear, and so is a certain degree of honour-shame culture (DeSilva, 2000, p. 25-26), Paul’s command ought to be heeded, whether one accepts the egalitarian or complementarian understanding of the passage. How it is applied, however, changes based on the view one adopts. Under complementarianism, women are to wear a veil as a symbol of male authority (1 Cor 11:10), which is unlikely to be the correct understanding, both exegetically and historically (Payne, 2009, p. 181).[2] Under egalitarianism, a woman in Christ participates in worship on par with men, as long as she honours her head, as should men. The latter option works alongside the culture, whereas the former is likely to work against it on many occasions, creating friction.

The passage in chapter fourteen is crucial. If accepted as Pauline, we are faced with a universal command. Any other attempted resolution—whether complementarian or egalitarian—seem to fare poorly. One little-known resolution may consign this command to history: it suggests a distinction between Gentile-Pauline churches and Apostolic-Jewish assemblies in terms of conduct (Willingham, 2018), claiming the command only applies to women in the latter. However, the evidence to support this seems inadequate. On the other hand, the passage resembles the attacks women received when entering the public arena (e.g., teaching), as they were seen as competing for male honour (Torjesen, 1993, p. 145-46). Egalitarians argue that women were prominent as leaders in the early church whilst it was private, but when it became public, it imposed on itself the gender roles of the culture (Corley, 1993; Tucker, 2005). This could lend weight to the post-Pauline interpolation theory. Whatever the understanding, this passage seems to have been widely ignored in practice.


We have found egalitarian arguments insightful and ofttimes convincing, and still set within a conservative evangelical framework, as also acknowledged by leading complementarians (Grudem & Piper, 1991, p. xii). We find ourselves agreeing with Carlson-Thies (2004) that the complementarian view of equality in the dominion mandate is somewhat of a caricature, as ultimately it is really man alone who has authority over everything, woman included (p. 8). We also find it undeniable that male rule over woman was the result of the Fall (Gn 3:16), not God’s original design. Finally, we cannot but echo this question: if the Spirit equally imparts gifts to both men and women, can the Church achieve its full potential by restricting the female members of the Body (Payne & Huffaker, 2021, p. 16)?


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[1] This is seen as a mark of Adam’s authority over Eve (Clines, 1990, p. 39).

[2] Egalitarians read the sentence in verse 11:10 as “the woman ought to have authority over her head”, paralleling “man ought not to cover his head” (11:7). Furthermore, in Hellenistic culture veils were not a sign of male authority.