Editors’ note: 

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Many complementarians build their case for rejecting women elders/pastors on Paul’s argument from creation in 1 Timothy 2:13–14. Paul’s prohibition cannot be culturally limited, they argue, since the apostle doesn’t argue from culture but from creation. He argues from the order of creation (“For Adam was formed first, then Eve”) and from the order of accountability in creation (“Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived”). Based on Paul’s inspired reasoning, then, complementarians conclude women may not “teach or have authority over men” (v. 12) in the context of the local church.

But can’t this reasoning also be applied to 1 Corinthians 11:8–9, where Paul makes a similar argument from creation to bolster his position? In the context of 1 Corinthians 11, he demonstrates that women need to have their heads covered while praying or prophesying. To prove his point, he argues from creation, saying that the woman was created from man (“For man was not made from woman, but woman from man”) and for man (“Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”). Isn’t it inconsistent to reject Paul’s appeal for women to wear head coverings while affirming his command for women not to teach or have authority over men, since in both contexts Paul uses virtually the same (creation-related) reasoning?

This apparent inconsistency is raised by Craig Keener when he writes, “Although many churches would use arguments [from the order of creation] to demand the subordination of women in all cultures, very few accept Paul’s arguments [in 1 Cor. 11] as valid for covering women’s heads in all cultures. . . . We take the argument as transculturally applicable in one case [1 Tim. 2], but not so in the other [1 Cor. 11]. This seems very strange indeed.”

A closer examination of the two texts, however, shows it’s consistent to reject the need for women to wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11) while affirming they are not to teach or have authority over men (1 Tim. 2). The reason for this distinction is that in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul only indirectly uses the argument from creation to affirm head coverings for women. The direct application of his reasoning is to show that creation affirms gender and role distinctions between men and women. Therefore, Paul’s argument from creation which demonstrates men and women are distinct cannot be culturally relegated. The application of this principle (i.e., head coverings), then, can and does change with culture. In contrast, the argument from creation in 1 Timothy 2 applies directly to Paul’s prohibition, and therefore is not culturally conditioned.

Argument from Creation (vv. 7–9)

In 1 Corinthians 11:7–9 Paul writes:

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

Paul is not directly making the case that head coverings are needed for women when they pray or prophesy. He doesn’t say: “A woman must have her head covered when she prays or prophesies. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Instead, Paul uses the Genesis creation account to affirm his previous statement that “woman is the glory of man.”

Even in verse 7 when Paul explains why a man must not cover his head (“since he is the image and glory of God”), the focus isn’t so much that a head covering is wrong in itself but on the disgrace or shame it brings. It’s inaccurate to claim Paul uses an argument from creation to affirm the need for women to wear head coverings. Instead, Paul appeals to creation to demonstrate the differences between men and women that God established from the beginning—and violating these distinctions brings shame instead of glory.

Five Surrounding Arguments

This interpretation is supported by a number of clues found in the context of the passage:

1. Argument from Headship (v. 3)

The manner in which Paul introduces his discussion strongly suggests head coverings are not his main concern. In verse 3 he states, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” It seems obvious something more important is at stake since Paul clarifies the functional relationship between man and Christ, woman and man, and Christ and God. In their relationship, the man has authority over the woman just as Christ has authority over the man and God the Father has authority over Christ. Functionally, the wife is under her husband’s loving authority and therefore must demonstrate her submissiveness by wearing a head covering.

2. Argument from Hairstyles (v. 6)

Paul’s comparison of a woman who prays or prophesies without a head covering to a woman with a man’s haircut also signifies that the main issue at stake is gender and role distinctions, not merely a piece of cloth on one’s head. In verse 6 Paul explains, “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head” (NASB). Just as it’s wrong for a woman to blur the gender distinctions by wearing a man’s hairstyle, so too it’s wrong for a woman to blur such distinctions by not covering her head while praying or prophesying. Paul presses this analogy by saying if a woman wants to disgrace both herself and her husband by having a man’s hairstyle, she might as well go all the way and shave off her hair.

3. Argument from the Nature of Head Coverings (v. 10)

It’s important to notice the passive nature of a head covering. A head covering was a sign or symbol pointing to a greater reality. It had no meaning in itself, but was a concrete expression of an intangible truth. Thus, Paul isn’t concerned with head coverings per se. Rather, he’s concerned with the meaning that wearing a head covering conveys.

4. Argument from Nature (vv. 14–15)

Verses 14 and 15 state: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” By using the term “nature” Paul isn’t referring to culture or “social conventions” but to God’s design in creation (cf. Rom 1:26–27). God created women to have longer hair than men and thus nature teaches us it’s not fitting for a man to have long hair and appear like a woman. Paul’s argument from nature, then, doesn’t directly prove women must wear head coverings but that the differences between men and women are part of God’s creational design. Because the distinctions between men and women are part of God’s plan, it’s imperative the Corinthian women wear head coverings.

5. Argument from Practice (v. 16)

In verse 16 Paul writes, “We have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” According to Paul, the wearing of head coverings wasn’t limited to the church at Corinth but was a custom in all the churches. Such a universally accepted custom suggests the presence of an underlying (transcultural) principle governing the need for such a practice. Paul’s argument, then, is women must wear head coverings when praying or prophesying because of a more important underlying issue—God created men and women differently, and we must not seek to eliminate such distinctions.

Distinction from 1 Timothy 2:12

Unlike 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s argument in 1 Timothy 2:12 is based directly on creation. In other words, Paul’s appeal to the creation of Adam before Eve demonstrates the different roles God established based on creation. Therefore, the order of creation becomes the reason why Paul prohibits women from teaching men. The Genesis account gives the reason why a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man. Because 1 Timothy 2:12 is based on creation, it transcends cultures.

But Paul’s argument from creation in 1 Corinthians 11:8–9 is not directly given to mandate women must wear head coverings. Rather, his argument from creation explains how man is the image and glory of God, and how the woman is the glory of man. Christian women are not required to wear head coverings today when praying, since the symbol of a woman’s head being covered is different today than it was during the time of Paul (at least in many cultures). Consequently, Paul’s argument from creation is only indirectly linked to the need for head coverings.

The transcultural truth that undergirded Paul’s admonition, however, still applies for us today. Women are different from men, and this distinction must be maintained in the church and in the family. In contrast, Paul’s argument from creation in 1 Timothy 2:13–14 directly follows the prohibition for women not to teach or have authority over men. Thus, verses 13 and 14 are best taken as the grounds for that prohibition, and they are transcultural. Therefore, the command for women not to teach or have authority over men should be upheld in the church today.

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