When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, sacred prostitution was influencing the entire city. Men were sleeping with their fathers’ wives. Whether this meant their mothers-in-law or their mothers by blood (both have been suggested; neither would be hard to believe in this culture), Paul rightfully saw this perversion as a defilement among the brethren who called themselves followers of Christ. He made no bones about the fact that they were headed straight for Hell through the destruction of the flesh if they allowed this behavior to continue.
Chapter 6 takes a quick break from this subject to talk about disputes again—and how the believers were taking issues of a spiritual nature into the pagan courts systems for legal rulings against one another—and then it’s straight back to sexual immorality:
Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot [read: hetairai courtesans and pornai]? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (13b–20)
Dissension in the church, then sexual immorality, then dissension in the church, then sexual immorality… These two factors are unquestionably connected. The prostitutes—those who were not only allowed to speak almost anywhere and at any time in the company of males, but who were encouraged to—were controlling Corinth. They were establishing cultural norms that tenaciously opposed both Jewish and Christian values. There certainly were righteous men who didn’t agree with what was going on, especially those from Jewish backgrounds, but it was a reality nonetheless. (For those who assume that all churches or synagogues at this time featured separated seating—men on one side, women on the other—I strongly encourage you to look into Bernadette Brooten’s studies on the nineteen existent synagogues of the ancient world. Whereas this divided seating was the norm for the Jews for many years, by the time of Christ, the practice was waning. More on this at the end of this study.)
Naturally, within the context of a letter such as this, pure marital relationships had to be addressed. Without taking time to study the backdrop of Corinth, a reader of Corinthians may not understand the significance of the principles-for-marriage subsection in chapter 7. In a city with a thousand prostitutes—most of whom were highly educated and held the best class-seats in society, and whose batting eyelashes drew the Christians out from the house of God and into the house of pagan gods for sacred sexual magic rites—an undefiled husband-and-wife relationship that pleases God had to be firmly attended to.
Some holier-than-thou converts in the church at Corinth had sent word to Paul with the assertion, “It’s good for men not to have sexual relations with a woman at all” (7:1)—a concept that Paul gently refuted by admitting that the fleshly temptations in Corinth were so severe that marriage between a man and woman should be allowed (7:2). After admitting that mutual submission of man and wife—one to the other reciprocally—is healthy both in headship as well as sexual relations (7:3–5), Paul says that there is value in remaining single if one can do so without falling into impulsive desire (7:6–9). In verses 10 through 17, Paul continues to discuss marriage in terminology that speaks of gender equality and the notion of marriage as a joint team. In verses 18 through 31, he praises those who surrender to the call of Christ just as they are (slave, free, circumcised, uncircumcised, etc.); in verses 32 through the end of chapter 7, Paul continues to address the pros and cons of being married versus remaining single. In chapter 8, the apostle speaks of food offered to idols (which again denotes the extent of idol-worship within Corinth), and in the majority of chapter 9, he tells of how those doing Christ’s work should find that very work its own sufficient reward.
However, there is a thought-provoking segment of Scripture, 9:19–23, that we should take a closer look at:
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.
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THEOLOGIAN: JESUS HIMSELF STARTED THE FIRST WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
By no means should this be taken to mean that Paul is inconsistent, that he conforms his convictions to those he is around at any given time, or that by “becoming all things to all men” (a popular alternate translation of 9:22), he flip-flops like a weak, wishy-washy minister between beliefs and principles to flatter the company he keeps.
A beautiful saying attributed to St. Augustine (but that probably originated from a German Lutheran theologian in the early 1600s) is: “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.” When Christians must be united about the essentials—Christ was the Son of God, He died on the cross, He rose again, and His blood has provided redemption for all mankind—then it is our duty to ensure that the essentials are upheld…that no false teachers change, twist, or add to those. However, when we approach a nonessential—“under the law” or “not under the law,” etc.—liberty of the individual must be allowed, and squabbles that cause strife in the Body are wicked because they derail the big picture of the Gospel message. But in all things, charity and love for others who may or may not agree with what we believe must be sustained if they are ever to be won to Christ. (Even today, voices behind a new Hebrew Roots Movement are demanding that Christians return to the Mosaic Law dietary rules, refuse to celebrate Christmas, etc., and some of these men and women are quite vociferous and demanding. Dissension within the Body over the nonessentials category will continue as long as we are on this side of eternity.)
By showing kindness and understanding to those born and raised in varying cultures and religions, and by not choosing to vehemently argue nonessential theology in light of the bigger picture (spreading the Gospel), Paul is a greater fisher of men. His ministry to the lost is increased. More souls are reached through this approach.
Does this show that Paul is compromising? No, because nowhere in his epistles does he ever justify negotiating over of the Gospel essentials. Does this show that he has a natural appreciation for certain cultural and social barriers that believers around him find impossible to let go? Yes. By extension, does it show that he is willing to make exceptions to his Gospel-spreading methodologies (not the essential doctrines) based on cultures that receive Christ through different customs, traditions, and techniques as it applies to Paul’s time and cultural backdrop? Certainly. If he thought there was a way to lead a Jew living “under the [Mosaic] law” (9:22), then he graciously showed willingness and patience to see past the cultural and societal cultivating that individual had been imprinted with since birth “to gain some” and “save some.” If he thought there was a way to lead a heathen, Gentile, or “weak” person to Christ, then he “became as weak” (9:22) in that person’s company in order to better relate to him or her and lead that person to salvation—as long as the Gospel essentials were preserved.
Now apply all that we’ve learned about Paul’s support of women ministers to this same pattern of behavior. As clearly outlined in the previous chapter, Paul knew, held company with, and reinforced women ministers. Here in 1 Corinthians 9, he is suggesting—if his example is to be followed—that ministers embrace peaceful witnessing that relates to the company they’re in.
What can we learn from this? That Paul, himself, the ultimate apostolic authority, did support witnesses of the Gospel representing themselves agreeably to one audience in one way and another way to a different audience as it pertains to the social and cultural demands/expectations the listener holds if it “gains” or “saves” more of the “some,” so long as he or she is not disobeying Scripture in doing so. If the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages are not prohibiting a woman from speaking, teaching, or preaching because they were circumstantial/restricted regulations isolated to the goings-on of Corinth and Ephesus (discussed in this chapter and the next), then they are not “absolute” and “normative” regulations that apply literally in every case, but “relative” regulations that apply in similar or exact circumstances. To an audience whose salvation is not hanging upon a woman’s title, she can “become as a reverend,” not “under the law” of tradition that states women shouldn’t preach, as long as her theology is accurate and edifying. (We will address the “law” referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 soon.) That same reverend, however, based on Paul’s primary teaching here, should not force herself into a church filled with congregants who have been imprinted with the idea that women ministers are immoral. To that gathering, she must “become as weak.” (I am obviously not referring to “weak” as in a mousey, fragile, or insubstantial female who can’t make decisions without a man, and so on. I am referring to her role as a minister. Since this example congregation’s view of a woman’s role in ministry might only be to teach women and children, then in that congregation, she should strongly consider allowing her role or title to be “weakened” to that status, so that the “some” can be increasingly “gained.” No minister—male or female—should storm the doors of a church with vigorous proselytizing of his or her own theological convictions and conclusions for the sake of starting or winning a fight or debate. [As to whether there may be occasions when a church’s governing force should be challenged, that is addressed briefly in chapter 7 of this book.] When I was invited to speak, teach, and preach at Jim Bakker’s Morningside Church as I mentioned earlier, I was in the company of those who do not hang their salvation upon a woman’s title; I was in the company of those who, like Paul, support women leaders in the Church. So in that place, I “became as a reverend.” The papers I hold that certify me as a legal reverend in the sphere of church politics have been assigned by mankind; my spiritual certification came from the same Holy Spirit that sent women to preach on the Day of Pentecost.)
But we haven’t yet arrived at the chapter and verse that have caused so much confusion throughout the years, so let’s continue.
Chapter 10 deals with idol worship (again), as well as with offering meat to idols, chapter 11 lands at another interesting perplexity: head coverings. For more insight on this, readers must comprehend the Greco-Roman culture’s understanding regarding the association between hair and fertility. To a modern reader, the concept of hair and fertility being related in any way is foreign. However, as is heavily documented throughout this era (and especially just following it, as seen in the works of Hippocrates of Kos, the Greek “Father of Medicine”), doctors taught that hair was created by intimate body fluids. From Troy W. Martin’s work, the Journal of Biblical Literature (2004), we read that the ancients believed “hair is hollow and grows primarily from either male or female reproductive fluid or semen flowing into it and congealing (Hippocrates, Nat puer 20). Since hollow body parts create a vacuum and attract fluid, hair attracts semen…. Hair grows most prolifically from the head because the brain is the place where the semen is (78) produced or at least stored (Hippocrates, Genit. I).”[i] Of course this “science” seems absurd today, and it is, in light of what we know about hair now, but in the interest of remaining exegetically informed, we must understand the world that Paul was immersed in. Paul did not sanction these Hippocratic teachings, but he was responding to a social and cultural issue regarding decency. The world around him believed this medical teaching, and as a result, a woman with an uncovered head was in a sense making the statement in that culture and time that it didn’t matter to her if she wandered about displaying her intimacy. Whether Paul and his fellow early Christians accepted Hippocratic leanings is irrelevant. For a woman to go into a place of worship and pray or prophesy with her head uncovered was to blatantly associate herself with the behaviors of temple prostitutes and common pagan practices.
But more importantly than what medicine taught was what Paul taught.
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WAIT… A WOMAN PREACHING IN A CHRISTIAN CHURCH… WHAT DOES GOD THINK ABOUT THAT?!
Note that by Paul discussing the proper way a woman should “pray” and “prophesy” while her head is covered in church (11:5), he is openly acknowledging that women are allowed to speak in church. Remember, too, that the word “prophesy” comes from propheteuo, which, as we discussed in the previous chapter, means “to teach, refute, reprove, admonish [correct or reprimand], comfort others”—not just serve as a “fortuneteller for God” who speaks for a set period of time.
Certain sects of conservative Christianity still follow these “head covering” rules (men cannot pray with their heads covered and women cannot pray without a head covering), especially in foreign countries. However, in the States, most modern preachers—even those who say women cannot teach or speak in a church—have largely rejected this verse as an “absolute.” Why? There are many interpretations of this chapter, and we will not take the time to visit each one, but the dominating reason is because a head covering in the ancient Greco-Roman culture showed a woman’s modesty, humility, and willingness to submit to her husband. As the principle applies today, a woman should still be modest and humble when she attends church to pray/worship, and she should still submit to her husband. (But remember, as noted earlier, Paul didn’t only think a woman should submit to a man. He spoke of mutual submission, one to the other, in Ephesians 5:21. It’s the principle of reciprocal respect and honor in a marriage.)
Just coming from a reflection on chapter 9, where Paul said he “becomes” what he needs to be for varying audiences, we could also say that if a woman today were to go on a mission trip with her husband to a country where a literal head covering is the decent attire, she should “become a head-coverer” for the sake of the “some,” whereas in America, she should respect her husband by dressing modestly. Still, the conflict remains that most ministers today don’t think an American woman needs to wear a head covering because of the circumstances (Greco-Roman culture) that initially drove that regulation—i.e., they view Paul’s words here as a “relative” and not as an “absolute”—whilst those same ministers will not allow women to teach or preach because they view Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 as an “absolute” regardless of the Greco-Roman and Corinthian culture that drove that regulation. (For those wondering why I haven’t tackled the “creation” comments Paul gave here, I plan to do so in our reflection of Eve.)
Verses 17 through the end of chapter 11 address the “worthy manner” in which the sacrament of communion should be executed (and verse 18 yet again mentions division in the church). Chapter 12 speaks of the spiritual gifts, about which Paul openly acknowledges that “it is the same God which worketh all in all” (12:6): “all” being both male and female. Let’s look at his words thoughtfully:
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. (12:4–12)
We can’t take Paul’s word “man” in these sections (“the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man” [12:7]; “one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally” [12:11]) to be a reference to the male gender. The Greek word here is hekastos: “each or every:—any, both, each (one), every (man, one, woman).”[ii] In other words, “every man,” “every woman,” “everyone,” and the universally inclusive “mankind” are all accurate. To suggest that “man” means only males here would be to alleviate women from having to follow all the biblical regulations that apply to both genders whenever hekastos is used elsewhere (such as Romans 2:6, 12:3, 14:5; Galatians 6:4–5; Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 4:6; 1 Peter 4:10, etc.). Therefore, we see that women and men alike receive the gifts Paul listed here: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discerning of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Comparing this section to the rest of the letter to Corinth, which addresses how these gifts are to be used in church, we see repetitious evidence that Paul supported women speaking in church.
Furthermore, in each log of ecclesiastical giftings Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12, no gift is held higher than that of prophecy: “I would that ye all spake with tongues but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth” (1 Corinthians 14:5). This sentiment is especially prominent in 12:28 when Paul ranks “teachers” (including preachers) even below the prophets: “And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.” Some believe women are only allowed to “prophesy” based on the popular interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:5 and the aforementioned foretelling of Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17–18. But here in chapter 12 of this epistle, prophets are ranked above even the teachers. If we hold steadfast to the “women can only prophesy” idea as an ecclesiastical norm, the implication is that a female prophet outranks a male teacher. On the other hand, if we lean merely on our own understanding (which Proverbs 3:5 commands against), it appears that the Lord’s anointing must fall more heavily upon those who perform miracles and healings, because anyone can claim to be a teacher or prophet, but miracles and healings are only proven when an eyewitness observes the almighty manifestation of God’s power upon the physical and natural elements. Yet in this list, miracle workers and healers rank number four and five on the list.
This is why it’s so important to view the Great Commission as an all-inclusive endeavor! The second that power plays are introduced, it becomes mankind’s game!
Through the end of chapter 12 and all of chapter 13 (the infamous “love chapter”), we see Paul’s ideal of one Body of Christ working together peacefully—without dissension or division, which is a cyclical key concentration of this epistle. It is made clear that if we do not work together for the sake of the lost, then even the most articulate teachings—words so beautiful they might be heard as the language “of angels”—are nothing more than “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (13:1). (The ESV renders this “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”)
UP NEXT: This brings us to chapter 14. The chapter 14.
[i] Troy W. Martin, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Cor. 11:13–15: A Testicle instead of a Head Covering,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 123:1 (2004), 78–80.
[ii] “Strong’s G1538,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 20, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1538&t=KJV.