The Apostle Paul, and the Bible in general, teach an equality between the sexes expressed by how they complete each other.
When 21st-century Christians approach the Apostle Paul's teachings concerning wives submitting graciously to their husbands (Eph. 5:22) and women being silent in church (I Cor. 14:34), they must remind themselves that Paul's teachings were as controversial in the first century as they are today.
The first-century biblical world of Judaism and Greco-Roman culture was characterized by male dominance and chauvinism. But 21st-century North American and European culture is dominated by a politically correct sexual equalitarianism that refuses to accept any distinction between males and females.
For example, when the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, he tells all the Christians (regardless of ethnicity, social rank, or sex, cf. Gal. 3:28) to submit themselves mutually to one another (Eph. 5:21). Then, beginning in Ephesians 5:22, he explains in some detail how that submission and a servant's heart are to be expressed within marriage.
In a culture where wives were considered the property of their husbands, Paul commands Christian husbands to submit to their wives by loving them as Christ loved the church and to fulfill his God-given responsibility to protect, provide for, and lead the family in a godly manner. How did Christ love the church? With agape love—the Greek word for spiritual love—which He modeled by giving His life for the church. It is this agape love that transforms worldly ideas of submission from dominance and subservience to those of humility and service.
In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul penned a divinely inspired essay on this agape love with which husbands are commanded to love their wives: "Love is patient and kind, love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice….Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Love will last forever…." (I Cor. 13:4-8a, New Living Bible). Such agape love requires the husband always to put his wife's needs above his own and to give himself in self-sacrificial service to her.
The wife is to express her mutual submission in marriage by submitting herself to her husband "as unto the Lord" or for the Lord's sake (Eph. 5:22). There is no hint in this passage or any other Pauline passage that women are in any way inferior to men, although that was the dominant rabbinic and cultural tradition of the time. The first-century men who received Paul's letter to Ephesus must have been profoundly shocked by the new, sacrificial demands placed upon them.
When the Apostle Paul turns his attention to women's behavior in church, he once again discusses the issue within the context of the Genesis creation account, which clearly teaches that men and women are of equal value and worth to the Creator (Gen. 1:26-27). Two passages (I Cor. 11:2-16 and I Cor. 14:34-36) concerning women's proper role in worship have been the source of much controversy in recent decades. In the first passage, Paul is dealing with numerous abuses in worship and matters of propriety in the Corinthian church. In I Cor. 11, Paul grants women the freedom to speak or pray in worship, as long as they are veiled or have their heads covered (11:5). To be unveiled is "dishonorable" (vs. 4-5), "disgraceful" (vs. 6,14), "improper" (v. 13), and "contentious" (v. 16). While the mandate of how things are to be done in the church has a cultural context, the appeal to the creation account as the foundation requires a our application beyond cultural diversity. A woman speaking or praying with head uncovered in Corinth would equate with a braless woman in a shear, see-through blouse speaking or praying in church today. The underlying doctrinal principle is that when a woman prays or speaks, she should do so with modesty, godliness and respect for her husband.
In I Cor. 14:34-36, Paul states that women should be silent in church, which at first glance appears to contradict the teaching that women may pray and speak (I Cor. 11:5). However, context is the key here as well. Paul's overarching emphasis in chapter 14 is found in the chapter's final verse, which declares that all things "should be done in a fitting and orderly way" (v. 40). Within this context, Paul is dealing with a specific difficulty of some female Corinthian church members interrupting church services with either untimely questions or outbursts of glossalalia. Some of these church members, by openly disputing with men and demanding their freedom to speak in public worship, were bringing disgrace upon the church before God and the wider community of Corinth (cf. R. C. Prohl, Women in the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957, pp. 27-28).
Once again, the appeal to the law or Torah (v. 34) makes the command for women's submissive spirit in church normative, not mere culture or custom. The church service is to be orderly, and women are to be submissive to their husbands. As with the passage in I Cor. 11, modesty and submission, not head coverings or silence, are the true apostolic teachings.
The last passage where Paul deals with women's role in church is I Tim. 2:11-15. Once again, the context of the teaching is crucial. I Timothy 3:15, which states that chapters two and three are to instruct the people how they "ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God," provides the context of the passage: Within the church, women are not to assume authority over men, just as a wife is to put herself under the authority of her own husband in her marriage. This teaching does not say that all women are to be under the authority of all men or in all institutions, but rather that women are to be in submission to their own husbands and are not to be in an authoritative position in the local church. Once again, the reference to the Creation account makes this a normative theological teaching, not a cultural one. Since the pastoral office is a position of authority (Hebrews 13:7,17), this would preclude a woman from serving a pastoral function in the local church, but would not require silence.
In conclusion, the Apostle Paul's teachings were as controversial in challenging first-century prejudices against women as they are in challenging 21st-century prejudices against any teaching that doesn't genuflect to the altar of political correctness. The Apostle Paul, and the Bible in general, teach an equality between the sexes that is expressed through the way in which they complete (Gen. 2:18-25) each other, as opposed to a gender neutrality that would obliterate distinctive male and female roles.
We should all remember that there are many kinds of submission. There is submission to the divine authority of the Bible, and then there is submission to the pervasive pressure of a secular culture which rejects Scripture's authority when it finds itself in disagreement with biblical teaching. God inspired Paul to warn Christians: "Do not conform yourselves to the standard of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect." (Rom. 12:2, Today's English Version).
This article originally appeared on March 31, 2004.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.