© Rosemary Bardsley 2017

There is only one New Testament text that makes specific reference to male headship in the context of the Church:


In this passage Paul strongly teaches a divinely appointed gender structure in the Church context. He parallels this to the God/Christ authority structure and the Christ/church authority structure. He also grounds it in the original perfect creation of Genesis 2. It is therefore unavoidable and non-negotiable, not tied to history or culture. Role distinctions are thus tied to the nature of God and the original nature of humans. [How history and culture have understood these role distinctions is another matter.]

However, in this passage, the only passage to specifically teach male headship in the Church context, Paul also affirms that women were praying and prophesying in mixed gatherings of the Church. The culturally significant indication that these women had the authority to do so was the head covering worn while engaged in praying and prophesying.

Although grounding gender authority structure in the fact that the woman was created from the man, Paul also affirms the mutual inter-dependence of male and female, and their shared dependence on God. This instructs us that although there is indeed a role/function structure this structure is an order/arrangement determined by God; it is not an order/arrangement issuing from or necessitated by any essential or intrinsic inequality or by any lesser importance or dignity of the woman.

Paul’s overriding concern in this passage is that of honour, as opposed to dishonour/disgrace. The dishonour/disgrace was not generated by women praying and prophesying in public, but by their doing so unveiled. This raises the question: was this perceived dishonour/disgrace because of cultural norms and cultural expectations or is it something derived from creation and/or redemption? Given that in the Old Testament it was men in leadership (the priests) who worshipped with covered heads, the most obvious answer is that the disgrace associated with uncovered female heads was relative to the historical context.


There are two texts that speak of women being under ‘submission’ and ‘silent’ in the context of the Church:

B. 1CORINTHIANS 14:34,35

(a) The broader context [chapters 11-14] is that of appropriate order in the Church when it meets together. In this broader context Paul has already affirmed [without any disapproval] that women were ‘praying’ and ‘prophesying’ [proclaiming God’s word] in mixed gatherings [1Corinthians 11:4,5], and that they had the ‘authority’ to do so [11:10; culturally, the ‘head-covering’ was a sign of that authority]. [In addition, in 14:26, Paul states that ‘when you come together, each of you has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.’] Paul’s instructions in 14:34,35, cannot, therefore, be understood to prohibit women from public speaking in mixed Church meetings. [Such a limitation can only be made by adding to the text. If one person chooses to interpret this verse to prohibit women speaking from the pulpit on the basis of 1Timothy 2:11-13, then another person can just as validly refer to Matthew 28:20 and affirm that Jesus commanded all believers to teach.]

(b) The immediate context of Paul’s instructions is heavily focused on maintaining a peaceful, ordered environment in Church meetings that was conducive to learning and instruction [14:26,31].

  • Prophesy is preferable to tongues because it instructs, encourages, comforts and edifies the church [14:2-5,12,17]
  • Paul would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than 10,000 words in an unknown language that cannot edify anyone [14:18,19]
  • The ‘spirits of the prophets’ are under the control of the prophets [14:32]
  • God is a God of peace, not of disorder [14:33]
  • Everything must be done in a fitting and orderly way [14:40].

Generally, these instructions about ‘order’ in the meeting apply to everyone in the meeting.

Within this general requirement for peace and order, there are three distinct groups of people whom Paul told to stop talking and be quiet:

  • People who spoke in languages, but without an interpreter, were told to ‘keep quiet’ [NIV, 14:28 - sigao].
  • Prophets who were speaking were told to ‘stop’ [NIV], if another prophet had a message [14:30 - sigao].
  • Women who wanted to ask questions during the meeting were told to ‘remain silent’ [NIV] and leave asking their questions till they were at home with their husbands [14:34 - sigao, 35].

In each instance he commands people who had been talking to stop talking and be quiet – to ‘shut up’.

In addition, once a maximum of three people had spoken in languages, no one else was permitted to do so; and, similarly, once a maximum of three people had prophesied, no one else was permitted to do so [14:27,29].

(c) In this context Paul’s prohibition of women ‘speaking’ simply uses a verb for talking – laleo [v34,35]. It is a very general word with no specific reference to teaching or preaching. Given 11:5, where women are praying and prophesying in public meetings, we cannot understand that Paul is here, by this general verb, prohibiting women from speaking roles. Verse 35 gives an immediate explanation of the kind of disruptive talking he intended to prohibit. Paul is addressing these instructions not to women who were exercising any of a range of communication gifts of the Spirit in the meeting (they are covered by verses 26-33), but to women who wanted ‘to inquire about something’ in the context of the meeting. They are women who wanted to learn, not women engaged in edifying the church by their spiritual gifts. His instruction in verse 35 is that ‘they’ [the women he has told to be silent in verse 34] should ask their husbands at home, rather than disturb the meeting with their questions.

(d) A further consideration in this text is Paul’s use of the verb ‘submit’. There are three interesting facts about Paul’s use of this verb:

In v32, Paul uses the verb hupotasso in the Passive Voice. Here he states that the ‘spirits of the prophets’ are to be controlled [‘subject to the control of’] by the prophets. The Church meeting is not a ‘free for all’ – even the God-given desire/urge to prophesy is to be subjected to control by the prophets.

In v34, where Paul says women ‘must be in submission’ he uses the Middle Voice of the verb hupotasso. The Middle Voice indicates that it is the woman who controls herself – she deliberately holds herself in ‘submission’. This ‘submission’, whatever it is, is not imposed on her; she chooses it and imposes it on herself.

Paul does not, in this context, state to what or to whom woman are to submit themselves. He simply states they ‘must be in submission’ – which could reasonably be translated ‘must keep control of themselves’. Just as the prophets are to keep their ‘spirits’ under control, so the women are to keep themselves under control. In the context of Paul’s requirements for peace and order in the Church meetings these women, who are eager to learn, are to keep themselves under control in order to achieve the peaceful learning environment for the whole gathering demanded by Paul.

There is actually nothing in vv34,35 that specifically mentions male headship. It is only inferred by interpreting the prohibition/disgrace of women speaking to refer to women teaching.

(e) Paul states that women must be in submission ‘as the law says’. This phrase evokes considerable discussion. Nowhere does the Old Testament law actually command women to be in submission. Paul in 1Corinthians 11 and 1Timothy 2 bases his understanding of male headship and female submission in Genesis 2, and it may be that is what he is referring to here. But these are creation truths, not commands. To refer this to Genesis 3:16, as some traditionalists do, is to overlook the fact that Genesis 3:16 is not a command any more than the ‘pains in childbirth’ (v16) and the ‘sweat of your brow’ (v19) are commands.

The KJV reads ‘but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’ [italics in the KJV indicating a translators’ insertion.] The margin in the KJV and Amplified Bibles note Genesis 3:16 as a reference. Both the insertion and the margin reference are interpretative additions to the text, not translations of the actual text. But it is the KJV that informed much of the traditionalist understanding for generations.

(f) Paul states that it is ‘disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church’. The word is aischron. It is variously translated ‘shame’, ‘shameful’, ‘shocking’, ‘a disgrace’. It is used only here and in 1Corinthians 11:6 and Ephesians 5:12 (and a variant in Titus 1:11). Note that Paul does not state that it is ‘immoral’ or ‘unlawful’ or ‘sinful’. He is not talking about the morality or legality/lawfulness of women asking questions in church [or, of women teaching in the church, if ‘speak’ is understood as ‘teach’]. Vine states that the word refers to ‘that which is opposed to modesty or purity’. Strong refers to ‘indecorum’. ‘Modesty’ and ‘indecorum’ are relative terms – relative to the historical cultural context. They mean different things in different generations and different geographical locations.

Paul’s use of aiskron here, as in 11:6 about uncovered heads, suggests a reference to what was considered shameful/disgraceful in the historical context. And here we face a dilemma: even if Paul’s statement is based on the perceptions of his historical/cultural context, those same perceptions are present today in the minds of traditionalist complementarians. They have been conditioned by their own context [a history and church culture of understanding this text to prohibit women preaching/teaching men]. For a woman to preach/teach in the church meeting is in their perception, in their personal historic religious context, disgraceful. So the position today is that while our general historical/cultural context sees no disgrace in a woman teaching men (indeed it considers the prohibition of women teaching men disgraceful), there are within the Church both men and women, brought up in a church context that viewed it as a disgrace, for whom it actually is a disgrace.

[This raises the issue of Christians aware of their freedom in Christ engaging in activities that give offence to a fellow believer, or cause a fellow believer to stumble. Paul addresses such situations in 1Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14:1-23. In both passages the onus is put on the ‘strong’ believers to forego their freedom out of consideration of the ‘weak’ fellow believer.

In the matter of the roles and functions permitted to women in the church, this seems to put the onus on the woman who is gifted by God to teach to forgo the liberty to speak to men if by speaking to men she would give offense to or cause her fellow believers to stumble. Paul’s command in Romans 14:19,20 is ‘Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.’ Or, reworded into the current discussion: ‘Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of permitting women to teach men.’

On the other hand, while Paul commands such consideration of the ‘weaker’ brother on some issues, he does exactly the opposite on other issues – issues where the grace nature of the Gospel is seriously threatened. For example, in Galatians 2:5 he states ‘We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.’

The question becomes: Is the traditionalist (extreme complementarian) perspective compromising the Gospel of grace, or is it not? If it is not, then the ‘weaker brother’ principle might apply to ensure peace in the church. If it is, then it must be resisted and disempowered.]


C. 1TIMOTHY 2:11-13

[see also Note #3 & Note #4 in this study. ]

(a) The broader context of this letter generally is

A concern for the preservation and proclamation of God’s truth [1:3-7, 18-20; 3:2,9; 4:1-16; 6:2-5, 20,21.]

A concern for administrative integrity in the church: selection, appointment and management of elders, deacons, deaconesses [3:1-13; 5:17-21]; the care and management of widows [5:3-16]; issues of discipline [various verses].

These concerns constitute a large part of Paul’s instructions given to Timothy in relation to his oversight of and responsibility for the Church in Ephesus. The instructions were not written to the Church, but to Timothy.

(b) The immediate context is that of prayer [2:1-10].

Paul gives Timothy a general exhortation: ‘I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people’ [v1]. Paul follows this with explanations about who to pray for, and why [vv2-7].

In this context of prayer he instructs Timothy about how men [v8] and women [vv9-10] are to pray. That his instructions about women relate to prayer is evident in his use of hosautos kai [‘in the same way also’] at the beginning of verse 9. [The NIV reduces this to ‘also’.] Just as men are to pray in a specified demeanour, so also are women. Prayer is not an occasion for expressing anger or debating issues [v8 – men], nor for vaunting elaborate and expensive fashions [v9 – women]. In addition, the instructions regarding both men and women are governed by Paul’s ‘I want’ in verse 8; he does not repeat this in verse 9. And to both he gives a positive instruction and a negative prohibition – this way, not this way.

These instructions about appropriate demeanour for women who are praying are reminiscent of Paul’s instructions about head coverings for women praying and prophesying in 1Cornithians 11:5ff; they encourage the modesty and decorum which is the opposite of the aischron (the lack of modesty and decorum) which he strove to prohibit in 11:6 and 14:35.].

Another point of interest is the connection between ‘prayer’ [v1,8] and ‘worship’ [v10]. The women praying are those who ‘profess to worship God’. The Greek for ‘worship God’ is one word – theosebeia – theos – God; sebes – from sebomai – worship. Note that Strong includes ‘worship’ in the meaning he gives to ‘prayers’ [v.1] and ‘pray’ [v8].

The context therefore, like 1Corinthians 11, but not as clearly, has women engaging in public prayer. Paul’s concern is not to shut this down, but to ensure that the women so engaged are appropriately dressed, and that their daily lives reflect their public profession of worship.

(c) Paul moves straight from his instructions about men and women in prayer/worship to his statement ‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission’ – verse 11.

Note that at this point Paul is talking about women learning, as he was in 1Corinthians 14:34,35, not women teaching. Women are to learn in quietness and full submission.

‘Learn’ is the usual word for learning – manthano. It is related to the noun mathetes which translates into our English ‘disciple’ – which is literally, a pupil, a student.

‘quietness’, both here in verse 11 and in verse 12, translates the Greek hesuchia, which refers to an absence of clamour more than to the absence of sound. It means ‘stillness’ and refers to what is ‘peaceful, peaceable, undisturbed, undisturbing’. The same word is used in verse 2, where Paul speaks of being able to live ‘quiet’ lives as the reason for praying for national rulers. [It is a different word from the one translated ‘keep quiet’, ‘stop’ and ‘remain silent’ in 1Corinthians 14:28, 30 & 34.] What Paul is forbidding is not the act of talking, but talking in a noisy, clamorous manner.

[Various commentators draw attention to the method of learning then current: students, particularly more advanced students, engaged in discussion/debate with the teacher. It is possible that this is the kind of learning that Paul is forbidding to women. In any case, his focus in this verse is how women were to learn.]

‘full submission’ translates pas hupotage – all submission. As in 1Corinthians 14, nothing is said in verse 11 about whom women are to be in full submission to. The context of the ‘submission’ Paul is requiring is how women are to learn. Their learning is to be ‘in full submission’. This parallels the absence of clamour he has just stated. In other words, women are to learn in a manner that quietly accepts and submits to God’s truth.

(d) Paul expands on the manner of learning in verse 12: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.’ It is in this verse that the man/woman role distinctives are brought into Paul’s argument, and the command about ‘submission’ given clearer focus. Keeping in mind the immediate context is that of women learning:

The apostles, to whom Jesus entrusted the truth he revealed and established, were all men. Along with the Old Testament (‘the prophets’), this deposit of apostolic truth is the foundation upon which the Church is built. [Today this apostolic foundation is recognized as the New Testament canon.] Before the written New Testament existed this apostolic foundation was passed on verbally and guarded against corruption.

This apostolic deposit was non-negotiable, unchangeable and irreducible. It was not open to debate and discussion.

When a woman argumentatively questions or debates the validity or content of this body of foundational apostolic truth, she has ceased to be a learner, she has ceased to be ‘quiet’, she has ceased to be in ‘full submission’, and is clamorously setting herself up as a teacher, assuming that she has authority over both the foundational truth and the men to whom it has been entrusted. She is seeking to redefine the truth.

In this context, [1] John Stott understands that it is the laying down of the apostolic foundation that Paul is forbidding to women; and [2] John Dixon similarly understands that what is prohibited is the passing on and preserving of the apostolic teaching. He believes ‘teach’ has this limited technical sense in the Pastoral Epistles. Both Stott and Dixon (both complementarians) hold that there is very little of this kind of teaching in the church today, and therefore very little teaching/preaching that is forbidden to women.

(e) In verse 13 Paul gives a simple reason for male responsibility: Adam was formed first. In this Paul grounds the God-ordained role structure in Genesis 2 in the pre-fall, perfect world, just as he did in 1Corinthians 11:8-12.

(f) In verse 14 Paul’s reference to Eve is more complex, and is rooted in the events of Genesis 3:1-6. [See Note #3 and #4 in this study.] Although this is a difficult verse, it is most likely the key to understanding and rightly interpreting Paul’s instructions in verses 11 & 12. Paul’s second reason for female ‘submission’ and male responsibility is that ‘it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner’. God had entrusted the Genesis 2:17 prohibition to Adam. Genesis 3 makes it clear that Adam had informed Eve of God’s word. She learned it from Adam. But, deceived by the devil, she did not submit to that word – and in that absence of submission to the word, she also did not submit to Adam, who was responsible for the word, nor to God, whose word it was. Deceived by the devil, she set herself up over that word, debated it and reinterpreted it, then disobeyed it. Her learning was not ‘quiet’ – not without ‘clamour’; her learning was not submissive; her learning overrode the God-ordained role structure; her learning morphed into teaching, in which she assumed/usurped authority over Adam and did so at the expense of Adam’s God-given responsibility. In doing so she also assumed/usurped authority over God and his word. Her word (her understanding), not God’s word, determined her action.

I suggest that this is the kind of learning/teaching that Paul is forbidding.

The obvious flip-side of Eve’s action is Adam’s inaction. At the same time as Eve was usurping authority Adam was opting out of his place and responsibility in the God-ordained role structure. Both failed. But Adam’s failure did not mean he became unaccountable; it did not mean that the responsibility he refused was actually by that refusal removed. That God continued to regard him as the responsible ‘head’ is obvious in Genesis 3 and in Paul’s teaching in Romans 5 and 1Corinthians 15, as indicated earlier in this document.