Thomas Jefferson, Headship, and I Corinthians 11

My writing has taken me down a twisted, rocky path. But it’s ended at a beautiful destination – one that is tweaking how I think about gender in the Scripture.

I started with a manuscript addressing hard things in Scripture concerning women. I wanted to wrestle with as many of the hard passages as I could, and none seemed quite as convoluted and unhelpful to women as I Corinthians 11’s presentation of headship and head coverings. (If you aren’t familiar with the chapter, I suggest you stop and read through it – this post assumes a basic familiarity with it.)

I wrestled. And studied. And talked to others who wrestled with me. No one has helped me think through this quite as much as Hannah Anderson. The thing that finally unlocked I Corinthians 11 for me was applying the number one law of hermeneutics – the Bible is the best commentary on itself. Was I Corinthians the only place the Bible talked about head coverings? No, actually, it wasn’t. In fact, there is a highly relevant passage in Scripture that tells us exactly what Paul is referring to when he warned about head-coverings and the shame of a shaved head in Corinthian culture. It’s found in Deuteronomy 21.

10 “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, 11 and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her.

There you have it, folks. I Corinthians 11 decoded, and all from a simple cross reference in Scripture. The hair issue is about protection from sexual subjugation in a culture in which women were regularly used as sexual slaves. This was major issue in Corinth. And the entire world really. Women were taken captive, and female slaves were considered the sexual property of their owners. Their head covering was integral to their representation in that culture. A woman’s shaved head (and in Corinth apparently even just going without a head-covering) represented her status as a captive.  A recent New Yorker article on the hair styles of the presidential candidates pointed this out as well.

“Ted Cruz would fit perfectly in ancient Rome. Carly Fiorina, absolutely not: short hair was a sign you’d been conquered.

God’s children were to act differently. In the Law, if an Israelite took a female captive that he wanted sexually, there was a process. She went through a ritual to mourn her losses, and the Israelite then must marry her. He could not force her to be his sexual slave without the protections of the covenant relationship of marriage. And from the next chapter, Deuteronomy 22, we know that God took the marriage covenant very seriously. Covenant marriage under the Law, especially to a woman who was without family protection, offered the woman much needed protection, provision, and representation (consider also Boaz and Ruth).

Things hadn’t changed much between the time the Law was given in Deuteronomy and the time Paul addressed the church at Corinth. A friend of mine recently visited the acropolis at Corinth and learned of its long history of sexual subjugation of female captives. I could recount what she told me of its sexual history, but we really don’t need to look much further in the United States than our very own founding fathers to see exactly what the issue was.

My kids and I love the musical Hamilton, and therefore, we’ve been learning a lot about Thomas Jefferson. I was intrigued last week to read this story in the New York Times about Jefferson and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. I knew of Sally, but I researched her deeper. I learned that there are no pictures of Sally, but accounts say that she was a beautiful light skinned woman who Jefferson began a sexual relationship (non-consensual since she was a slave without the ability to say no) when she was quite young. She eventually had six children believed to be fathered by Jefferson. After reading the NY Times article, I went to the Monticello website to read more about Sally Hemings.

And I cried.

I’d been studying I Corinthians 11 too long to miss the significance of her story. For what I learned was that, beyond just being the mother of six of Jefferson’s children, Sally Hemings was also likely the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife, fathered by Jefferson’s white, respected father-in-law John Wayles. Wayles had a daughter by a covenant marriage that he recognized who became Jefferson’s legal wife. Wayles educated that daughter and saw her married to a brilliant, powerful man. But John Wayles had another daughter, Sally. This daughter was born from a relationship of captive sexual subjugation. Her mother was a slave with no rights. Her father provided Sally and her mother food, shelter, and clothing. But he didn’t claim either as his own. He didn’t take responsibility for Sally the way he did for his daughter of covenant relationship. Neither Sally’s mother or Sally herself carried his name or the protections and privileges that went with it.

Jefferson continued this generational sexual subjugation. It is thought that Sally was pregnant with her first child by him at the age of 16. There is no record of Wayles objecting to this relationship. Jefferson never freed Sally but did eventually free her living children. His daughter of covenant marriage, Martha, who bore Jefferson’s name and inherited his estate, freed Sally after his death. 

Martha Jefferson and her descendants claimed Jefferson’s name freely. Eventually, the family of one of Sally’s children added Jefferson to their name. They had every right in my opinion, yet in the culture at the time, they were Jefferson’s slave bastards. They had no legal rights to his name. He certainly never claimed them.


Egalitarians argue that head, gr. kephale, in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 means source – the husband is the source of the wife, as Eve was made from Adam’s rib. Complementarians emphasize that it means authority – a wife is under her husband’s authority. But both of those meanings miss the point. Jefferson was an authority in Sally Hemings life! But he wasn’t her head. He didn’t take responsibility for her. He didn’t represent her with his name. He didn’t steward his role in her life or the lives of the children he created with her. He used her. His authority over her resulted in her abuse and misuse.

Headship in I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 isn’t primarily about authority. At least, if you look at how Scripture uses the word throughout the Bible, it isn’t. Headship is about responsibility and representation. It’s about entering covenant with someone and following through on your God-given commitments to them. It’s about owning your relationship with them, both the rights of relationship and the responsibilities. It’s about covering them in ways that protect them and provide for them.

The Greek word for head is used most often in Scripture to refer to the literal head on a body. But there is one other time it’s used that has nothing to do with the head on a body, and I find that use of it especially helpful when we consider I Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5’s figurative use of it to refer to a husband.

Matthew 21:42 Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, This became the chief corner stone; This came about from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes’?

The stone which the builders rejected became the kephale cornerstone. If you think about the difference in cornerstones and chief cornerstones, you start to understand the nuance of headship. And when you then apply that nuance to I Corinthian 11’s application of headship to women caught up in a culture of sexual subjugation, the whole concept breaks open. And it doesn’t break open through some extra-Biblical secret cultural decoder ring. Scripture itself is the tool that breaks it open for us.

What was a cornerstone in the ancient Mid East?

The cornerstone (or foundation stone) concept is derived from the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation, important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. (thank you, Wikipedia)

Jesus is the kephale, the chief, cornerstone of the entire building that is the universal Church. And Christian husbands are called to reflect this in their family of influence. Lots of men have authority. But how many men own their covenant commitments, their responsibility and need to represent their family? Well, if you’re privileged by race or economic status, that entire question likely sounds ludicrous. But if you travel down the economic ladder just a rung or two, you will easily see how this matters.

From my article on Friday –

Another root problem in complementarian thought is that the movement was fundamentally a reaction to 2nd wave feminism. It’s obviously a problem to build a system of teaching from Scripture as a reaction against any cultural movement. But it is even more of a problem when you realize that 2nd wave feminism itself was in many ways a white privileged movement. First wave feminism was not, in my opinion. But 2nd wave feminism hasn’t impacted other cultures the same way it has middle and upper class whites because other cultures and other income brackets struggle with a different set of gender issues than those traditionally associated with 2nd wave feminists (like equal executive pay). Gloria Steinhem and other feminist leaders have long been criticized for their overemphasis on equal pay in the upper echelons of the privileged while only paying lip service to the types of gendered abuse that occur throughout the world among the poor. 

No wonder we’ve been off center in our discussions of headship.

I could (and will) write more. But to summarize this post, I think that I Corinthians 11 presents headship as a husband in a committed covenant relationship with his wife in which he protects her by owning his relationship with her, taking responsibility for her, representing her and their children with his name and protection, and much more. Does authority play a role in the husband/wife relationship? Certainly it does. But there are so many authorities and leaders in life that have nothing to do with headship and marriage that focusing on authority as the point of headship causes us to miss what it’s really about.

Looking at their absence in society helps us understand what God created husbands to be to their wives. Any wife who has had a husband abandon his responsibilities (and there are many) and walk away from covenant relationship with her can tell you exactly what her family is missing, what she has to make up in his place, the weight she has to bear and the triple work she must do. I’ve watched my best friend do this. And she did it! She was strong, and by God’s grace and a lot of help from her earthly father, she raised her sons to love God. She was faithful in church, paid her bills, and raised her children. But it was hard, and she felt the gaping hole left by the abandonment of her husband daily. I get disgusted by the headlines around the discrepancy in women’s pay in Hollywood. It’s hard to muster up outrage that Jennifer Lawrence made $3,000,000 less than Bradley Cooper in their last movie when nationally, $108 billion dollars is owed mostly by men to their children’s mothers in back child support.

The feminist response is to downplay the vulnerability of women. Be strong. Be powerful. Don’t let men define your identity. The problem is that women’s statistically smaller size than men and their bearing of children inherently puts them in a vulnerable position. Short of all women taking steroids worldwide, we are not likely to average out to the size and strength of the average male. Ever. And the human race will die out if women don’t allow themselves into the vulnerable position of childbirth and rearing. The Bible recognizes this vulnerability, and Peter specifically addresses it and the inherent role of husbands in this vulnerability in I Peter 3.

7 You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

The stakes are high – that a husband’s “prayers will not be hindered.” A husband’s protection, representation, and responsibility at a woman’s weakest and most vulnerable time is a non-negotiable with God.

In conclusion, this probably sounds very much like old school headship. And in a sense it is. It’s an age old concept, arguably put in motion since creation. And though western culture is working like crazy to minimize it, in my opinion, the foundational need for husbands to bear their responsibility in their homes in order for the home to be set straight will never go away.

Why then is there so much dissonance around this concept in today’s churches? There is a very big problem, in my opinion, with how headship has been handled in the complementarian movement. I have loved exhortations to men to “man-up” and bear their responsibilities. But it has been the lip service paid to protection and responsibility without the hard actions in reality, particularly around the topic of spiritual and sexual abuse, that has really undermined this teaching. Instead of their headship elevating the status of the vulnerable, a number of complementarian leaders abused their headship to walk over the vulnerable. They confused headship with authority and forgot to protect and represent the vulnerable under their care. They made it unsafe to be vulnerable, and that is a travesty in God’s design. It is serious enough that their prayers will be hindered.

There are a few men speaking and acting on abuses. In our presbytery, there are godly men speaking out particularly on the topics of racial prejudice (which included much spiritual and sexual abuse). But again and again, there is another story of a conservative man who in theory believes in headship who allowed his daughters to be molested, or molested them himself. There are pastors who look away again and again when men in their church use a young woman who is not in position to give consent, men like Thomas Jefferson with an air of respectability who still see women as sexual objects. What should be a load bearing cornerstone that contributes to the full functioning of other stones instead becomes a stone that crushes others under it. If the leaders who put forward headship can’t call out those who abuse it, their moral authority to speak on the subject erodes away. 

NOTE — I haven’t addressed the functioning of wives in the concept of headship – I’ll point out now that the cornerstone doesn’t consume or subsume the other stones. It contributes to their best use, and the other stones bear weight and contribute to the alignment of the building as well. In my next post, I’ll talk about the interpretation problem of conflating apostle and elder in the New Testament and prophet and priest in the Old which has made correct interpretation and application of what women can do in the Church nearly impossible. This has contributed to a de-emphasis of women’s essential role in the health of local conservative churches and resulted in closing off opportunities to women in conservative churches that were clearly given to women in Scripture.

34 Responses to Thomas Jefferson, Headship, and I Corinthians 11

  1. Angie April 24, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

    Again, thank you. I appreciate the connections you have made between scripture and history and pray this does much to advance the conversation. I do have a question. You write: “Does authority play a role in the husband/wife relationship? Certainly it does.” I agree; historically men held authority over their wives, thus the Bible assumes it. However, the Bible no where prescribes authority in marriage, and we find ourselves living in a time and place where husbands do not have legal or cultural civic authority. Do you not believe men can be called to covenant responsibility without conferring upon them authority?

  2. Wendy April 24, 2016 at 9:18 pm #

    It depends on how you think of authority, Angie. I think the concept of submission implies a type of authority, but it is a relational one — a wife supporting and aligning herself with the mission of her husband, which only works when his mission is aligned with God's.

  3. Angie April 24, 2016 at 10:49 pm #

    I am using “authority” in the sense it is typically understood and how it would have been understood historically between husbands and wives, especially at the time the Bible was written, hence a directive to wives within the household codes. From an online dictionary:

    1. the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.

    2. a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political administrative, sphere.

    If I understand, you are assuming authority because of the directive for 1st century wives to submit?However, Wives in the 1st century were legally and culturally subject to real, practical authority because of the prevailing inferior nature of women? This is what I am trying to understand. I agree the instructions to the 1st century husbands to agape give a new ethic for the marital relationship than the prevailing culture at the time, but the husbands didn't cease to have real legally and socially sanctioned practical authority. Why attempt to simulate a hierarchy, even if in language only, when authority is not legally or socially recognized much less sanctioned because women are now largely considered equal in their essence and dignity under the law, at least for some of us.

    Thank you for hosting a gracious conversation and allowing us to join in.

  4. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 12:09 am #

    I do believe that submission involves authority. But John Stott points out in his commentary on Ephesians that Paul speaks to wives in Ephesians 5 as free moral agents with a choice in the matter. They are to willingly offer their submission. Submission that is offered by the one submitting is true submission. Submission that is coerced or demanded is actually oppression.

    Thanks for interacting, Angie.

  5. Bailey April 25, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

    I love this thoughtful thread — thanks, ladies. I'm wondering, Wendy, whether it's correct to think of submission and authority going hand in hand. Right before the family household code, Paul tells all Christians to “submit to one another.” Does that mean my fellow brother and sister in Christ has authority over me? I'd argue that it does not, that this form of voluntary submission is a laying down of actual rights and power for the sake of considering others better than ourselves. It's starting from a place of equality or even superiority, but then results in surrender for the sake of the other. It's modeled on the sacrifice of Jesus, who emptied Himself for us — and we definitely don't have any legitimate authority over Him. That's what makes the voluntary sacrifice so precious and powerful.

  6. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

    Well, there are multiple words going on here. And their meaning and practical application overlap, though they are not exactly synonymous. Jesus sacrifices and serves us, but he does not submit to us. He submits to the Father. In fact, He was very specific about that in conversation with Mary and Joseph when they lost him as a child at the temple. So there is a slightly different connotation to the ideas of service and submission. As for Ephesians 5, yes, everyone submits to someone. Paul clarifies his statement by giving 3 specific situations in which we should get behind the mission of another. Wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters. Parents should sacrifice for and serve their children, but they should not submit to them. Two different things (though with overlap) in my humble opinion. 🙂

  7. Bailey April 25, 2016 at 1:17 pm #

    Right — so does that mean that submission automatically involve authority? Or are you arguing that it perhaps depends on the practical application? Submitting to my sister in Christ doesn't involve authority, but submitting to my husband does?

  8. Angie April 25, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    ­Oh, to have an edit option. I was back and forth from the comment box to other things and see I picked back up in some wrong places on my last post. That makes for a garbled comment.

    Thank you for your response; however, I was hoping you would address the points from my initial comment.

    First, hierarchy and authority are no where prescribed or commanded. It is assumed because 1st century wives were subject to the legally and socially sanctioned real, practical authority of their husbands. We are not? Because we are told to submit and honor the governmental rulers, we don't impose the governmental structure of the 1st century Greco-Roman world. So, why impose a hierarchy of unilateral male authority and female submission when we do not live under that. To do so, in my opinion is not required to honor the spirit of the text and can be counter-evangelistic.

    Second, do you believe men must have authority over their wives conferred upon them to fulfill their covenant obligations?

    If I may add something to this discussion from your comment. Complementarianism appears to me to be androcentric. I think that is why the complementarian focus is so largely on manhood and masculinity. This seems to seep through in comments such as submission being about the husband's mission, granted with a caveat of being aligned with God's. I wonder though, who decides? Husband? It is his mission, after all. I believe a God/Christ-centered alternative is male and female in a Blessed Alliance leveraging their strengths and energies on mission to steward God's good creation and announce Christ's reign.

    I appreciate your feedback as it helps me understand your perspective and sharpen my own thinking.


  9. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    I would say that I do not have an obligation to submit to my sister in Christ. I have an obligation to Christian love that includes deference, humility, and service. But I do not have an obligation to get behind my Christian sister's mission the same way I do my pastors' or husband's. “Submit to one another” in Ephesians 5:21 is clarified by the 3 specific examples Paul gives after it.

  10. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

    I don't like the word hierarchy, because it's not a word the Bible uses. But the Bible does command a wife's submission to her husband in multiple places. So I'm not sure how you get that hierarchy and authority are nowhere commanded.

    I know I am disappointing some, but I've been pretty up front that I believe Paul's instructions in Ephesians 5 should still constrain Christian wives today.

  11. mtwemc April 25, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    We don't understand the 1 Peter 3 passage if we think of “weakness” as faulty or incapable. To follow your thoughts the cornerstone should be strong whereas the stained glass window is “weak”. Peter doesn't see his model, Sarah, as incapable, but calls husbands to be like Abraham and value and protect their Sarah (which Abraham sometimes failed to do). I agree that headship is not about privilege but taking responsibility. Paul Meiners

  12. Jennifer April 25, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    So I realize that most of the comments being posted are definitely focused on the theology of this article. I appreciate that more than you know as a pastor's wife who is attempting to educate the women in our church that THEOLOGY MATTERS! However, I want to comment on this article as a wife and mother of three adult (and married) daughters. Thank you. This is the kind of stuff that I spent hours talking with my girls about while they were growing up. I was raised by a divorced feminist mother back when Helen Reddy was belting out “I am Woman Hear Me Roar!” and then met Christ at 26. I waited 4 years after that to see my husband saved so you can imagine the challenge I faced when being told often and early in my Christian life “wives submit.” I am a firm complementarian and yet I knew that there had to be more to that command than blind obedience.
    Thankfully I have been blessed to have married a man who owns the headship of the 4 women entrusted to him by God. We all flourished under the loving leadership he displayed in our home but it took lots of digging into the Word of God about passages relating to roles of men and women. I believe the teaching that you are attempting to do for women is invaluable and much needed in our conservative Christian circles especially. So again I say, “thank you” and may God continue to bless and use your ministry.

  13. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 5:24 pm #

    That's very encouraging, Jennifer!

  14. Erica Maine April 25, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    I just noticed an interesting difference between NASB and NIV when comparing the two on BibleGateway. Verse 10:

    “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” (NIV)

    NASB, which is what I've had as my primary study Bible all my adult life, simply says, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”

    The only thing I've heard that harmonizes these two translations is what you've written here, Wendy. I never until now questioned whether reading in “symbol of [male] authority on her head” is eisegetical, because I hadn't made the connection between this and ancient Israelite/Roman cultural treatment of women. I just knew that the vibe didn't quite sit with me, as you described on Friday.

    In this light, it's a symbol of her own spiritual authority as a person. And the connection to all those verses about being free in Christ, not a slave, is very deep and very clear.

    It seems better to recognize and embrace the presence of authority concepts in this passage, then. 🙂

    There's an important conditional in the passage, too. “[I]f it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.” (v. 6)

    Now I can clearly see the principle that makes it not about the head covering itself and removes legalism. If the surrounding culture would demean or misunderstand a woman's agency, then she ought to indicate it in a way that the culture can recognize. (We need this in our own culture today!) Such emphasis is placed on this in the passage, but in modern conservative preaching I've only heard that emphasis redirected onto wifely submission through, as Angie says, androcentric assumptions about the nature of authority.

    By the way, Angie, your point about governmental authority and changing laws over time is helpful to me in considering all this as well. I'll be keeping that element in mind going forward as I continue to re-study this topic.

  15. Angie April 25, 2016 at 5:58 pm #

    You aren't disappointing me. I am truly trying to understand why someone would fabricate a dynamic that even with their best attempt is not going to look like the paterfamilias' and his wife's relationship. Further, to be clear, I think people are free, at least in the West, to choose the dynamic you are describing. Though the Bible assumes it, the Bible no where prescribes the paterfamilias authority on 21st century American husbands anymore than it prescribes governmental rule to be fashioned after the Roman empire.

    Some of the push back against complementarianism derives from leaders, pastors, and teachers denouncing marriages like my own, non-hierarchical, though very traditional. I think we can build bridges if non-mutualists would recognize non-hierarchical marriages can be a God and Christ-centered Blessed Alliance and if mutualists could recognize that non-mutualists can have satisfying marriages with happy wives.

    Thanks again for interacting. I look forward to reading the other comments.

  16. Christy Rood April 25, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    I know you have a ton of comments on here, Wendy. I won't be offended if you don't have time to answer my question. I do like the idea that headship is more about protecting the vulnerable than lording over women in an authoritarian way. However, if we ever reach a point in history (I believe we are pretty close) where women are not socially vulnerable anymore, will the need for this type of protection disappear? I know you said that the differential in physical strength will never go away, but social norms are making physical strength on par with other strengths, and in many cases less marketable and valuable than mental or leadership strengths. I realize I'm talking mostly about white middle class American/European social norms, but that is the society that most of us are in. So, if that need for protection is gone, should headship also go away?

  17. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 8:30 pm #

    Got it.

  18. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    I wouldn't liken wives to stained glass windows in the analogy I put forward. They are load bearing as well, essential to the building of the house.

  19. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 8:58 pm #

    That's a great question, Christy. I would challenge the idea that we are close to a point in history where women are not socially vulnerable, even in western societies. The number of single mothers below the poverty level in the US is pretty staggering. It's interesting to consider too how white middle class American/European social norms will hold up as Europe in particular is flooded with very vulnerable immigrants.

  20. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 9:00 pm #

    Also, Angie, I very much believe in the Blessed Alliance. A woman's necessary voice and input isn't negated by believing in submission in the home.

  21. Christy Rood April 25, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Christy Rood April 25, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

    OK, so if in my particular society, I feel no need for said protection from my husband, do I still need a “head”?

  23. Wendy April 25, 2016 at 9:49 pm #

    I think the link to submission is helpful. So it's both “what do I need” and “what does the kingdom of God need to function as intended.” Men leverage their privilege for their wives and children. Women leverage their freedom to get in line under the mission of their husband, under the mission of God. I don't think you can separate it out as an individual need.

    But maybe the short answer is, yes, I think you still need a “head” because while we see its personal value in women's vulnerable moments, it also has kingdom value.

  24. ncrozier April 26, 2016 at 6:28 am #

    ” In my next post, I'll talk about the interpretation problem of conflating apostle and elder in the New Testament and prophet and priest in the Old which has made correct interpretation and application of what women can do in the Church nearly impossible. This has contributed to a de-emphasis of women's essential role in the health of local conservative churches and resulted in closing off opportunities to women in conservative churches that were clearly given to women in Scripture.”

    Oh good! I'm so glad you're going here next. One of my big beefs with all the women in ministry arguments and questions about whether women can be pastors or elders or bishops or deacons is that it feels like we don't actually go far enough in our questioning.

    1 Corinthians 14 talks about orderly worship with anyone permitted to speak (if in tongues, then with interpretation) or prophesy and to take turns. Everyone is to weigh what is said. If this was actually how we still worshipped in our church services today, I don't think we would see this huge debate about ordaining women, because women would be freely exercising their gifts in the service as Paul outlines. So why have our church services been reduced to music and sermons mostly in the hands of professional staff? Why have we elevated preaching and teaching and completely gotten rid of prophesying and tongues (unless you're in a Charismatic/Pentecostal denomination)?

    While we have elder and deacon positions clearly outlined, when did we elevate “pastor” as it's own position and confine all the teaching/preaching authority to this one position? In the churches I have attended over my life, the elders don't preach, only the pastors. As far as I know, the word “pastor” is only used in Ephesians 4 “11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up ” – if we look at this list, why are we singling out the pastor role as something women can't participate in when clearly there are women evangelists and teachers and Paul talks about women prophesying. If those roles have any hierarchy (which I don't know that they do) then prophets and evangelists are before pastors.

    So are pastors and elders the same thing or did we just make the passages about elders apply to the pastor role?

    And if we believe in the priesthood of all believers then should we have ordination at all? And if Jesus says he is the Teacher and that we shouldn't call men “Rabbi” (Matthew 23:7-8) then why do we give our pastors titles that elevate them and create a clergy/layperson divide that shouldn't exist?

    Those all seem like bigger questions to me than whether or not women should be pastors and I feel like if we answered those questions then the debate on women in ministry wouldn't be such a heated topic.

    It seems like we have made the pastor role the only avenue for using the preaching and teaching gifts and so women gifted in these areas feel that the only way they can contribute with their gifts is by being ordained. Other avenues either do not exist, are not recognized or are actively discouraged. I know of one church where the women's ministry was thriving so much that the church elders felt threatened by it and pulled the plug completely! No more women ministering to each other (at least no events or budget or women's ministry staff).

    Thanks for blogging about these topics!!

  25. Erica April 26, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    Great article Wendy! I love the emphasis on “It's about covering them in ways that protect them and provide for them.” Like others, I have a hard time thinking wifely submission is anything but a cultural byproduct. In that society, men were above women, like masters were over slaves. Today, we don't have slavery (at least in America) and we accept women as equals.

    I will say, though, of all the forms of complementarianism I have encountered, I like yours the most. To me, there seems to be 2 cornerstones of complementarianism – wives submit and women can't teach men. I would think some of the dissonance you are feeling comes from the fact that you are such a wonderful teacher. For a long time, I was a complementarian, but I encountered too many gifted women teachers that God had clearly blessed in their teaching of men.

  26. Robert April 26, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

    You're getting a strong reaction on Reddit:

  27. Wendy April 26, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that. I'm not sure I'd call it “strong,” but it was interesting to read. 🙂

  28. Amy April 27, 2016 at 1:41 am #

    mind-blowing. really fascinating. thank you!

  29. Barbara Roberts May 7, 2016 at 8:39 am #

    Wendy, have you read Bruce Winter's two books on Corinthians?

    The one that most deals with women's head coverings is “Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities”. It gives extremely interesting background about the culturally contextual significance of different head coverings and hairstyles for women in Corinth and the 1st C Roman Empire. I don't know whether it would nuance or change your current interpretation of 1 Cor 11, but I encourage you to read it, since you like to dig.
    I th
    ink you'd link Winters the other book on Corinth also — “After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change”.

    Bruce Winter is recongised as one of the foremost scholars on Corinthians today. He used to be a Tyndale scholar.

  30. Barbara Roberts May 7, 2016 at 8:43 am #

    Also, minor point:

    The word 'headship' does not occur in the Bible.

    Maybe, just maybe, the discussion debate controversy would be better navigated if we stopped using the word 'headship' and stuck just to the words that scripture uses.

    This comment is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, but it's worth bearing in mind that 'headship' is not a biblical word when people start getting out their weapons in the comp/egal debate. . .
    Not that you are pulling weapons out, Wendy! 🙂

  31. Wendy May 8, 2016 at 2:12 am #

    Thanks, Barbara. It's not minor, and I should have pointed it out. I tried at one point not to use “headship” for that reason. But it got long to say “the general applications of the meaning of head,” so I left it. 🙂

  32. Anonymous June 15, 2016 at 11:07 pm #

    Wow – I have *never* thought about headship before in the light that you presented it, but as soon as you flipped that other side of the coin from authority to responsibility – bingo! The light went on for me. THANK YOU! This is beautifully written too!

  33. R.J. Anderson November 15, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    Coming a few months late to this discussion, but —

    If the head covering in Corinth was a visible symbol of a Christian woman being protected by her husband or father’s compassionate leadership and therefore not a slave or sexual object, and if the chief importance of head covering among the women in the Corinthian church was to testify that they were under that kind of godly male protection, why does the passage appear to put the onus on the woman herself to choose whether or not she wears a covering? Doesn’t your interpretation make it ultimately the man’s responsibility to “cover” the woman by taking loving responsibility for her welfare, rather than a decision which must be made by the woman and for which she is personally responsible?

    If the woman’s head covering was a badge of honour for her, meant to keep her from being mistaken for or used as a sex slave, why did Paul have to admonish the women of Corinth about praying or prophesying with an uncovered head, especially in the same context as he admonished the men against covering theirs? Surely any woman who had a godly man looking out for her welfare would be eager to cover her head for her own protection, and would have no reason or desire to set that covering aside?

    Yet it seems to me that 1 Cor. 11 strongly implies that a woman might choose, of her own will, not to cover her head — and also insists that her making such a choice is as disgraceful as if her head were shaven, with all the loss of personal “glory” (vs. 15) that would involve. Her lack of covering is not merely tragic, the unavoidable result of her husband or father failing to live up to his responsibilities and so leaving her unable to cover herself — rather, it’s hinted that it is a willful act on the woman’s part for her not to cover, and that refusing to do so is disgraceful to her personally, not merely a rebuke to any men who may have failed her.

    Also, in vss 8 -10 where Paul defends his teaching that the woman ought to be covered, he uses an argument from the order of creation prior to the Fall (so this is not a concession to man’s sinfulness), and also an argument about the angels who are observing God’s people as they worship. Are either of these arguments specific to Corinth or to the first century? Was it only in Corinth that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God? Was it only in Corinth that the angels were watching?

    It seems to me that what’s been discounted from this discussion a priori is the possibility that Paul may have been advocating precisely what the literal meaning of the passage suggests — that it should be a woman’s own personal, principled choice to cover not only her own personal glory (i.e. her hair), but also the glory of man (i.e. herself, the woman) when the church gathers together, so that only God’s glory is symbolically revealed. And furthermore that when men with their uncovered heads and women with their covered ones willingly uphold God’s order in this way, it is a testimony to the angels — both a rebuke to those angels who rebelled against God’s order and authority, and an affirmation and encouragement to those angels who did not.

    Personally, as long as there is a chance (and I think there is a good deal more than a chance) that Paul meant to include the head covering in his statement that “we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God” (vs. 16), and that it is as visible and literal a symbol as the bread and wine he mentions in the second half of the same chapter, I would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to spiritualizing or otherwise reinterpreting this passage as not commanding Christian women to cover their hair with a physical covering of some sort during church meetings. Regardless of all the oppression and misogyny that the modern world thinks head covering implies, regardless of all the earnest efforts by my Christian brothers and sisters to explain it away as a concession to first-century Corinthian culture or the prejudices of the ancient world in general, I believe there is sound reason to believe it is still relevant to us today. And I also believe that if the doctrine of the head covering is taught correctly using the arguments Paul uses in this passage, there is no reason for us women to feel shamed or oppressed or limited by it.

    Unfortunately, this is one of the areas where even those few churches that still practice head covering have seriously fallen down. If it’s taught at all it’s taught by men from the pulpit, where it is likely to be misunderstood and resented by women who have had negative experiences with male authority, instead of being one of the many vital doctrines that the older women can teach the younger as per Titus 2:3-5; and if it’s practiced at all, it’s often practiced with a limited or muddled understanding of what it symbolizes, which is why it can so easily become a badge of pride and legalism. Still, just because a doctrine has been badly taught or misused doesn’t mean the doctrine itself is at fault, or that there is no hope of reclaiming and restoring it to its proper significance.

    Respectfully yours,
    R.J. Anderson
    (the “R” stands for “Rebecca”)

  34. Marg December 13, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    If Sally Hemings had had the same rights and freedoms as Thomas Jefferson she wouldn’t have needed his protection or “headship”. She might even have been able to refuse his sexual advances.

    I live in an egalitarian society where I have the same legal rights as my husband. I do not need my husband’s name or his unilateral protection. So I can’t see how the complementarian version of “headship” applies or can work in my marriage. Instead, we simply help each other out all the time according to our individual strengths and abilities.