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Published Date: October 5, 2023

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Difficult Passages in the New Testament and How to Understand Them

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Whenever the subject of the biblical equality of women and men arises, certain difficult passages in the New Testament are brought up. These have been consistently used to prevent the full partnership of women in the home, church, and world. How do we understand these passages in a way that rightly explains the Word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15)? My goal as a New Testament scholar has been to find coherence in my interpretation of passages, books of the Bible, and the Bible as a whole. (“How does Scripture make sense?”) This is more than an academic project for me; I have been convinced that obedience to the Word of God is indispensable in order to have a life that is worth living (1 Tim 3:16). In order to obey the Bible, it has to make sense.

Some of the classic passages that have been used to prevent the full partnership of women are in the books written by Paul: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16; Ephesians 5:22–32 (cf. 1 Pet 3:1–7); 1 Corinthians 14:34–35; and 1 Timothy 2:8–15. Each of these has interpretative problems recognized by virtually all biblical scholars, regardless of their convictions about the role of women. This is important because one of the first principles of interpretation is to never base a major theology or practice on a passage with an interpretive problem. This principle has not been observed, since these passages have been the primary texts that have been used to prevent the full partnership of women.

Why These Texts Are Confusing

There are a number of reasons why these passages are confusing for scholars and readers alike. The traditional interpretations that most of us are familiar with and that have influenced translations have created some confusion. They are confusing when they do not account for the details of the text and when they contain a verse or passage that does not seem to fit in the context. They are confusing when they do not correctly reflect the meaning of the original Greek words or grammar and when they contradict other parts of Scripture.[1]

Sometimes traditional interpretations neglect the literary context—how the other verses in the book explain or interpret the text. Sometimes they miss the context of culture, or, when Paul is confronting or critiquing Greco-Roman culture, they assume that he is adopting or endorsing it. Sometimes the assumptions and explanations of what is going on (the story behind the text) create contradictions. One of the most important recent contributions to the interpretation of these texts is that of word studies that challenge the meaning of key words that traditional interpretations rely on. Finally, traditional interpretations leave out other texts that should be considered, such as Jesus’s and Paul’s theology of servanthood and submission and God’s choice of the weak, foolish, and those with low status to shame the powerful, wise, and those with high status, as in 1 Corinthians 1:27–28. These issues lead me to find the traditional interpretations of these texts to be implausible.

To make sense of these passages, we must look at the Greek syntax[2] and grammar, determine the meaning of passages and words within the context of the passage, and research the context of culture and what insights it might give us.

Women in the Home

Three passages used to subject women to men in the church and home are 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, which is used to subject women to men and to argue for male and female gender roles, Ephesians 5:22–32, and 1 Peter 3:1–7, which are both used to subject wives to husbands. Each of these passages present submission as a Christlike attribute that is meant to characterize all of God’s people (cf. Phil 2:1–11), and women are used as models for this Christlike attribute.

1 Corinthians 11:2–16

In this passage, our first focus is on a key word: “head.” The meaning of “head” (kephalē in Greek) plays a crucial role in the interpretation of both 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and Ephesians 5:22–32. Paul says: “Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.” “Head” has been misunderstood in traditional interpretation as meaning “authority.” Because this verse occurs near the beginning of the passage, it has been assumed that the topic of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is man’s authority over women in the church, an assumption which is used as a lens to interpret the rest of the passage.

The problem with this is that “head” does not mean authority in the natural language of Ancient or Koine Greek. It has a range of meanings where the Greek understanding of the literal function of the head is extended to different metaphors or types of figurative language. The meaning for “head” that best fits the passage is the source or origin of life, a meaning that was often used in family relationships. We know that “head” was understood to be the “source of life” in the phrase “the head of Christ is God.” It was used to refer to Christ’s eternal generation and used to argue for equality in the Godhead in early Christian tradition. In the text, Paul creatively plays with the word “head,” both as a metaphor and literally, to argue theologically for different dress codes for women and men in worship. The only reference to authority in the passage is in 1 Corinthians 11:10, which in the Greek refers to a woman’s authority.

There are three things that are vital for understanding what this passage might have to do with women’s function in the church and home. The first, as stated above, is that “head” does not mean authority. The second is that this passage indicates the women and men have the same important functions in the church service: they are both praying and prophesying in vv. 4–5. There is a discussion about dressing differently in the church service in terms of wearing head coverings, in which women have instructions and men have restrictions, but women and men have the same roles. The third is that 1 Corinthians 11:10 states that a woman should have authority. A formal equivalent (word-for-word) translation in the Greek is: “a woman ought to have authority over her head.” Translations like the CEB, NIV, and NRSVue read this way, but most others have added the words “a symbol of” to the statement so that it reads, “a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.” This causes the verse to have the opposite meaning: instead of having authority over her own head, a woman ought to be under authority. This tampering with Scripture should be a scandal!

There are several interpretative options that discuss what exactly Paul was addressing in his discussion of head coverings (the practice of veiling); here is an explanation that makes sense of the culture, the language and grammar, and the content of the passage. In the context of the culture, head coverings meant virtue, honor, and protection for women—among other things, it was a boundary that prevented sexual abuse. Because of its meaning, most women wanted to veil, but not all women were allowed to (prostitutes, slaves, and freedwomen did not qualify). In cases where husbands or male authorities ordered women not to veil, at least some defied them—that is, we have cases where women chose veiling instead of submission.[3] There is a consensus that Gentile women were attracted to Christianity precisely because of the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic,[4] so it is plausible to assume that the Corinthian women converts would choose to wear a head covering that symbolized that ethic.

If that is the case, rather than attacking the women and shaming them for not veiling (as is assumed in the traditional interpretation), a better explanation is that Paul is supporting all women believers in their choice to experience honor and protection in the church in Corinth, and he is trying to prevent them from being shamed. Twice, at the beginning and end of 1 Corinthians 11, in vv. 2 and 17, Paul indicates that he has been commending the Corinthians, but (in contrast) will now get tough about their practice of communion. Women have historically found no commendation in this passage, to say the least; the traditional interpretation has been harsh, demanding, threatening, and demeaning to the women in the church at Corinth (far more so than the discussion of communion!), and by extension it has been a source of condemnation to women historically.

While there are alternative ways of reading this passage, the main point for us is that in 1 Corinthians 11:2–17, women have the same functions in the worship service as men. This passage does not teach or support any difference in roles or authority structures in which women are subordinated.

Ephesians 5:(18) 22–32

Ephesians 5:22–32 has been understood in traditional interpretations to explicitly teach the unilateral submission of wives to husbands. The verses are clearly concerned with how husbands and wives relate to each other, but is unilateral submission the point of the passage? The reason I include v. 18 in parentheses above is because that is where the passage actually starts in the original Greek, which makes a big difference! We will see that submission does not mean unilateral subjugation, but mutual submission. And again, “head” does not mean authority, but refers to the husband as “source of life” of the wife in the creation account, which Paul exegetes literally as a head-body relationship.

The big news is the issue with the grammar: Ephesians 5:18–24 is one sentence. It starts in 5:18 with the general command to “be filled with the Spirit,” followed by participles in vv. 19–21 that are either the means of being filled with the Spirit or the result: psalming, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and submitting to one another. In v. 22, the sentence continues with “wives to husbands.” There is not a participle or a command for wives to submit, so the submission of the wife must be understood as the same action as the mutual submission referred to in v. 21. This can indicate that the cultural expectation of the submission of wives is now a model to all believers of how to mutually submit, in the same way children are models of faith. This is consistent with other pairs of unequal relationships in Jesus’s teaching and Paul’s letters—God chooses the weak, the foolish, and those with low status as models of faith and Christ-like behavior.

Given that vv. 18–24 forms one sentence, the grammar does not support a break with a new section in v. 22 called “Wives and Marriage,” which we see in most translations influenced by traditional interpretation. These begin and end the section they have created with emphatic commands to wives to be subject to their husbands, making wives’ subjection the point of the passage. In the Greek, wives are never given a single command; all the commands in the passage are given to the husbands with particular emphasis in v. 32 on loving their wives in order that (hīna) the wives may respect their husbands.

Rather than unilateral subordination of wives to husbands, the passage is about mutual submission that is reciprocal between a husband and wife. As a model of submission, the wife submits to her husband as her head, the source of her life, which is what is expected of her in that culture. If the husband is his wife’s head, then she is his body. The husband is therefore commanded to treat his wife like she is his (male) body, which reverses their roles: he is to nourish and nurture her, which is a stereotypical description of women’s work, and is reinforced by Paul’s description of similar types of actions done by Christ on behalf of his bride, the church. The Greco-Roman household codes are addressed, altered, and subverted in a way that maintains the cultural demand of the submission of wives, but places the focus on the husband’s equally submissive love and care for his wife.

The main point for us is that women are a model for the mutual submission that is associated with all believers who are filled by the Spirit. The husband is to treat his wife the way that he wants to be treated—with reciprocal care.

1 Peter 3:1–7

1 Peter 3:1–7 has been understood as collaborating the “clear teaching” of women’s submission in the home in Ephesians 5:22–32, particularly vv. 1–2: “Wives, likewise, submit to your own husbands. Do this so that even if some of them refuse to believe the word, they may be won without a word by their wives’ way of life” (CEB). The first thing to note is that the topic or argument of these verses is that wives practice submission with a mission to convert their husbands. Also, like Ephesians 5:22–32, this is a part of a bigger passage that addresses the behavior of all believers.

Peter constrains or defines “submit” in 1 Peter 3:1 to mean mutual submission in a similar way that Paul does in Ephesians 5:18–21. Peter begins the passage with a command to all believers to submit to and honor everyone (1 Pet. 2:13, 17). He then links the submission of slaves to the general command with a participle in 2:18: “slaves submit,” linking their submission to Christ’s suffering. Correspondingly, the submission of wives is linked to the general command and the submission of slaves in 3:1: “wives likewise submit.” Finally, in 3:7, Peter links the directions to husbands with the general commands, the submission of slaves and the submission of women with “Likewise . . .,” and requires the verb “submit.”  Consistent with the general commands, husbands practice submission by honoring their wives, taking into account their vulnerability, and treating them as co-heirs to the gracious gift of life. In other words, submission is required of all believers, but Peter then gives specific directions on how slaves, wives, and husbands practice it.

The main point for us is that this passage reframes a slave’s submission as Christlike, a wife’s submission as missional (cf. Titus 2:1–10), and a husband’s submission as empowering. This teaching subverts the cultural understanding of what a wife’s submission entailed; the practice of evangelism in the home was critiqued in the culture as subversive, but that was a primary way that the gospel spread.

Passages Used to Restrict Women in Ministry

Although the teachings on spiritual gifts indicate that a person’s gifts determine their function in the church and their obligation to exercise his or her gift(s), two passages commonly used to restrict women’s full participation within the church are 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:9–15. 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 has traditionally been taken to prevent women from speaking in church, and 1 Timothy 2:9–15 has been used to prevent women from holding positions of authority in church. However, these passages are particularly confusing in their contexts; we will see that neither of these passages actually addresses ministry in the church.

1 Corinthians 14:34–35

The traditional understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is confusing because (1) it seems out of context at the end of Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts and (2) ordering women to be silent in the church contradicts what has just been said in the previous four chapters. Most scholars and churches do not understand this as absolute silence; typically, women have not been forbidden to sing, but there is no biblical basis for where they draw this line. The  traditional interpretation has fostered an approach that is both legalistic and arbitrary in application. There is also a text-critical issue: the earliest texts mark this passage as having textual variants—that is, it was omitted or in a different place in some manuscripts—indicating that the early readers also found these verses confusing. Gordon Fee and Phillip B. Payne argue that the evidence indicates this passage should be omitted from the Bible, but we will attempt to interpret the text as it stands.

The context of 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 constrains the meaning of the command for women to be silent in the churches. In 11:5, women pray and prophesy in the church; in 1 Corinthians 12, women have gifts given by the Spirit for the benefit of the church, and most of them require speaking. In 14:27–33, right before these verses, those with the gifts of prophecy and tongues are told to be silent while others speak, because talking over each other creates disorder. The content in v. 35 clarifies that women are being told not to talk while others are speaking, and instead ask their questions at home. Women would have been disruptive with questions because in the first century, they typically had less education and were not socialized in group learning. Asking questions is neither the exercise of a spiritual gift nor a ministry.

The main point for us is that this command in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 does not negate the functions that the previous text distributed by the Holy Spirit to all believers, nor does it prohibit women from leading in prayer; it addresses women who are attempting to talk or ask questions at the same time that others are exercising their spiritual gifts, praying, and ministering in other ways.

1 Timothy 2:9–15

1 Timothy 2:9–15 is, without a doubt, one of the most confusing passages in the New Testament. Dan Wallace lists eight interpretive problems in v.12 alone,[5] and of course there are more, not the least of which is v.15 which states that a woman will be saved through childbirth, raising not only a vital theological question about the salvation of women but also a question about how it is relevant to the passage! Some who defend the traditional interpretation that prohibits women from holding authoritative positions in the church say that even though there are interpretive problems, the main point is clear. However, that begs the question (particularly since so many interpretive problems lie in the prohibition itself), and perhaps some interpretive problems are caused because the main point has been missed by the traditional interpretation.

First let’s place a focus on 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority (authenteō) over a man; she is to keep silent” (NRSV). There is a word issue concerning the Greek word authenteō, which is mistranslated as “authority” in traditional interpretations and translations. This is a serious problem because authenteō is a verb that is never used for ministry or pastoring in any occurrence of the word in the database of ancient Greek texts. When this action is done to another person, it involves control or use of force, such as the master of a slave, a tyrant, or even a murderer—most often the subject doesn’t have the authority to do this action to another person. Jesus forbids all his disciples from behaving in this way in Matthew 20:25–28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (NRSV).

The main point for us is that this word has been widely interpreted as a prohibition of women from being pastors and elders and is often used to exclude them from any form of ministry in a church context that includes women and men, but the word never has that meaning in the Greek. It is contrary to the nature of biblical ministry then, and thus would not apply to any form of ministry now.

What is a plausible way to understand this passage? The topic and context of 1 Timothy 2:8–15 is identified in 1 Timothy 1:3 as the correction of false teaching. Paul gives instructions on this correction starting in chapter 2. Paul counteracts false teaching with instructions for prayer in 2:1–7. Since prayer is practiced everywhere at all times, specific instructions for a worship service is not the context. There is a brief correction of men’s anger and argument (2:8), which are behaviors inconsistent with prayer and holiness. Next there is a correction of ostentatious display and/or immodesty in the women’s culture (2:9–10).

The context of the culture gives us a glimpse into Paul’s strategy in verse 11 for correcting false teaching among the women. The plural address to women shifts to a singular command that a woman must learn. In the Greco-Roman culture, a woman was usually educated in the home, and we see that this was Paul’s strategy for discipling women in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35. He expected husbands to teach their wives in the home. In the Greek, “man” and “woman” is also used to refer to a “husband” and “wife,” and that is how we should translate “man” and “woman” if the context indicates a couple. Many factors indicate that a husband and wife are in view in vv. 11–15: the switch to the singular, the woman being taught in the home by her husband, the summary of Genesis 1–3 which concerns the first couple, and there is an end focus on childbirth, the CEB reads: “I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener.”

The grammar indicates that that prohibition in v. 12 is occasional (addressing the readers’ specific situation) because it addresses what Paul directs at that time: “I [Paul] am not permitting.” This reflects Paul’s intentional use of language: in 1 Corinthians 7 he is careful to distinguish between universal commands of the Lord and his own opinion or directions (vv. 7, 12, 25). The insistence that v. 12 must be a timeless and universal truth because it is based on the universal created order is nonsense. In preaching we can and should derive applications specific to our contexts and needs from eternal truths.

I find the best way to understand the brief summary of Genesis 1–3 is that Paul is correcting the false teaching/myths among the women about the narrative of the Creation and Fall, as well as addressing the concern behind the false teaching, which is the effect of the Fall on women and childbirth in Genesis 3:16: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” Paul is addressing the threat of childbirth and maternal mortality, which has historically been a primary concern of women in daily life and religion and was central in the worship of Artemis in Ephesus. We can see that abstinence from marriage and sex is a big deal in the false teaching in 4:3, and it is probably behind Paul’s push for young widows to marry and have children in 5:14. The CEB reads: “But a wife will be brought safely through giving birth to their children, if they both continue in faith, love, and holiness, together with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:15).


The traditional interpretations of these passages were not reached through the process of exegesis that attempts to understand texts in their linguistic, cultural, and literary contexts. As a result, people who argue for these traditional interpretations are locked into more of an apologetic approach, where they assume they are correct and marshal flawed arguments to defend them. Contrary to the traditional interpretations, these passages do not limit women in the home or in the church and should not be used to defend this position.

Our challenge in handling these passages is to examine Scripture, be consistent in interpretation, and rightly explain the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15). The texts that are used in traditional interpretation to prevent the full partnership of women in the home, church, and society are confusing to read. They are confusing both because every key passage has significant interpretive issues and because the traditional interpretations, explanations, and translations create contradictions with the context of the letters in which they are written and with Paul’s theology. However, the teaching of Paul should be understood consistently: instead of subordinating women, Paul teaches that submission should be characteristic of all believers; instead of restricting women in their function, Paul teaches that every person has a divine mandate and obligation to do the work for which God has created, gifted, and placed them within society and the church.

[1] For example, Paul instructs women on how to dress when praying and prophesying in the church service (1 Cor. 11:5), but has been interpreted as commanding women not to speak in church three chapters later (1 Cor. 14:34–35).

[2]Syntax looks at how words and phrases are arranged to create grammatically correct sentences. It can also show the relationship between words and phrases.” (“Syntax,” Study Smarter.

[3] For example, King Xerxes’ command to Vashti to “display her beauty” to the people and nobles was a command for Vashti to unveil in public. Vashti refused and was deposed as queen (Esth 1:12). In the story of Susannah, Susanna veiled, but two Jewish elders ordered her veil to be forcibly removed against her will “to feast on her beauty” and everyone who was with her cried (Sus 31–33). In the Talmud, a Jewish woman attributed her good fortune to her piety because she refused to remove her veil even in the home (Zohar, parashat Naso 125b–126b).

[4] See Rodney Stark’s explanation for the higher status of women in Christianity in The Rise of Christianity : How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 104–7.

[5] Daniel B. Wallace, “Interpretive Issues in 1 Timothy 2:12,” Bible.Org 

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