I had the great honor of asking Dr. Lucy Peppiatt (PhD, University of Otago) a few questions about women in ministry and leadership roles. Principal of Westminster Theological Centre where she also lectures in Systematic Theology, Dr. Peppiatt is the author of Women and Worship at Corinth.
How do you respond to those who think of egalitarianism as being a “liberal” or “progressive” position (i.e. unbiblical), and a slippery slope?
Lucy: I’ve just finished a book called Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts (IVP Academic), which will be out in August. The whole idea of the book is to examine the texts that have traditionally been cited to support the idea that there is a God-ordained gendered hierarchy in scripture and to demonstrate that these hierarchical readings are neither ‘plain sense’ nor consistent with the rest of scripture. Obviously I can’t regurgitate the content of the book here, but it was a really interesting exercise for me to do a close study of each of the texts and to highlight the inherent and often intractable problems in using them to argue that God has ordained for men to lead and women to follow. So first I would say that I’m fully convinced that scripture invites a mutualist economy within the people of God where men and women are serving side by side in all capacities. Secondly, it’s clear if one studies the broader sweep of the history of the church that there have always been those who have understood scripture to be endorsing such a pattern. In addition to this, it’s quite clear that Paul himself (who is the person most associated with the idea of prohibiting women from certain forms of leadership) did not follow any practices of excluding women from leading and teaching roles. So I think one would be hard pressed to argue that this is a liberal or a progressive, modern phenomenon.
To a person who is not familiar with the passage regarding head coverings, can you explain the background of the passage, along with some issues that have arisen from this controversial passage throughout history?
Lucy: I’m not entirely sure what you mean here by the background of the passage, whether you mean the passage in its original context or how it’s been received and interpreted through the ages. First Corinthians 11:2-16 is one of (if not the) most complicated set of verses in the Bible and so first I would impress upon any reader of this text that they should do their own study. It’s difficult to give a ‘summary’ to such a complex text. The background of the verses in their own context is that they sit in a letter that is a reply to a letter that we no longer have, so we should assume were clear to their original hearers even though they remain pretty obscure for us. The text itself describes the enforcement of a practice in church for men (to remain uncovered when praying and prophesying) and women (to remain covered). There is some debate about whether this passage is about hairstyles or head coverings. I’m sure it’s about head coverings and this makes most sense of the passage. Some try to argue that Paul is simply instructing women to behave in a culturally appropriate fashion, but the text tells us something completely different from that and we should remember that until recently these verses have consistently been read to be saying that Paul endorses the submission of women to men based on their dependent (and inferior) status in creation. In recent years mutualists have attempted to rescue these verses from their obvious subordinationist message, but I don’t find those arguments persuasive.
So the background of how these verses have been received and interpreted through the ages is that they have traditionally been cited to affirm the idea that a woman should have some kind of ‘covering’ that would then function as an authorizing sign for her to speak (pray and or prophesy) in public worship and would prevent her from bringing shame upon herself, her husband/men in general, God, and the angels. That is effectively what the text tells us so I do believe that this is a valid reading of those verses. But this poses enormous problems for us both in terms of why Paul would take such a stance based on the secondary nature of women when we know men and women were created equal and are equal before God, and what we do now with regard to head coverings! One of the things I take issue with is the avoidance of the clear reasons that Paul gives for this kind of practice and how problematic these reasons are for any readers, not just modern readers.
Paul states clearly that the reason for a woman to be covered is because she is the image and glory of man whereas man is the image and glory of God (so should remain uncovered). Where man should let his glory be manifest by remaining uncovered, a woman should cover herself so as not to shame man. He further elucidates that this is because woman was made through man and not man through woman and woman was made for man and not man for woman (1 Cor 11:7-9). The idea that women have to compensate before God and in public with a physical sign for something they lack naturally is not consistent with the gospel message. The theological implications of this theology clash with both with the picture of the creation of male and female in Genesis, and with Paul’s ‘in Christ’ theology that permeates his letters. Moreover, he goes on to directly contradict this in vv.11-12. In my book Women and Worship at Corinth, I spell out the multiple problems with a hierarchical reading of this passage.
My own conclusion (with a number of other scholars), is that the theology and practice spelled out in this passage is so alien to Paul’s overall message in this letter, and in his other letters that this passage represents an example of where Paul is using a rhetorical strategy to refute his opponents in Corinth. In others words, the idea of women being forced to wear head coverings when they speak in worship in order not to shame their men is a Corinthian practice that Paul is refuting. The strange creation theology then can be attributed to the Corinthians and not to Paul.
Regarding women in leadership roles, what is your opinion on separating church roles or positions by gender? Are there any positives or negatives? Do you think any or some distinctions are important?
Lucy: I see no reason to delineate leadership roles along gender lines.
If you were talking to someone who steadfastly believed (based on their reading of the Bible and specifically 1 Corinthians 11) that women should not be in leadership in any way, what would be your response?
Lucy: I would ask if they would be willing to read Women and Worship at Corinth and to talk with me about it.
What is your opinion on churches or religious organizations that will allow a woman almost any or all free reign of whatever position except an official title?
Lucy: I haven’t actually heard of anything like that before and I don’t understand a view like that or the rationale behind it. Is that rooted in fear or hypocrisy? I’m not sure.
The view many hold is that specific gender roles are laid out in the creation narratives, rather than in the Fall, something Paul reaffirms (1 Cor. 11:7-12; 1 Tim. 2:11-14). How do you respond to the prevalent notion that specific gender roles are grounded in the created order?
Lucy: First of all I wouldn’t subscribe to the view that Paul affirms the idea of specific gender roles rooted in the creation narrative from the verses you have cited. I’ve explained that I think the 1 Corinthians verses are Corinthian views and not Paul’s and I think the 1 Timothy 2 passage is addressing a specific Ephesian heresy being taught by a woman or women teachers in the church. So let’s just stick with the creation narratives, which is of course, a question of translation and interpretation. To begin with I don’t think the language of the creation narratives leads us in a hierarchical direction. There has been some very good work done on this focusing on the question of what kind of ‘fitting helpmeet’ the woman is for the man and how we should translate and understand the phrase ezer kenegdo. In addition to this, studies of Gen 3:16 and the ‘curse’ that falls on the woman as the result of the fall highlight the tragedy of the inequality, hostility, and imbalance that arises out of the fall rather than pointing us in the direction of any original inequality.
There are many studies that bring out the mutuality of the first couple very clearly which is then fulfilled in Jesus’s treatment of women (which is so unstintingly honouring), and Paul’s teaching on the full participation of men and women together as the baptized new creations in the body. Life in the Kingdom is characterized by this kind of freedom. Because this is an exegetical issue, and we find that we have clear choices to make about translation, interpretation, and application, we are confronted with our own predilections and desires and which voices we choose to listen to. I’m satisfied that despite the patricentric and androcentric nature of the Christian faith (something I address in my new book), that God’s intention for men and women is full equality in the church, the world, and the world to come! However, in the end I simply recommend that people do their own research on the texts.
Thank you for your time!
The Principal of Westminster Theological Centre, Dr. Lucy Peppiatt’s research interests include discipleship, charismatic theology, 1 Corinthians, Christ and the Spirit, and women in the Bible. A part of Crossnet Church (led by her husband, Nick Crawley), Dr. Peppiat is the author of Unveiling Paul’s Women: Making Sense of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (2018, Foreword by Scot McKnight) and Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women (2019).