Does 1 Corinthians 11:3 mean women are forever subordinate to men? Paul is considered to be a strong advocate for women, yet there is a passage or two in his letters that make me doubt this.—An anonymous sister

Of course you're right. Paul is a huge advocate. Even in 1 Corinthians we find women praying aloud in church and speaking prophetically. In Acts, as well as in the greetings sections of multiple letters by Paul, we read of his female ministry colleagues. My reply won't deal with the issues of the head covering, or women speaking in church, or the frequently cited passages 1 Cor 14:34 and 1 Tim 2:12, as they are addressed elsewhere at my website.

Several years ago we were in Switzerland, conducting a workshop on the role of women. In the Q&A session following, one of the older Christians pointed out a problem 1 Cor 11:3 might pose for the "egalitarian" position. Honestly, I don't think I gave a satisfactory reply to his objection. I've been bothered by this, and have continued to mull it over.

I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband [or man] is the head of his wife [or woman], and God is the head of Christ (1 Cor 11:3).

Looking at this verse in terms of a mathematical inequality, it's woman < man < Christ < God. (Here God refers to the Father.) It appears that to deny male headship is equivalent to denying that Christ is the head of all men—or that God (the Father) isn't the head of Christ. But this isn't necessarily so. Let's compare it with a passage earlier in the letter:

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God (1 Cor 7:21-24 NRSV).

The issue in 1 Cor 7:21-24 is slavery (in a broader context of marriage and divorce). Paul would prefer that slaves were free, and he suggests they seek freedom if possible. He illustrates his heart in the little letter to Philemon, where the apostle angles for the release of Onesimus from servitude. Paul does not actually command Philemon to release Onesimus, though he hopes for such an outcome. Some things are more important than freedom (like godliness, honor, righteousness).

Now in 1 Cor 7, three parties are mentioned: slaves, masters, and God. Again, let's look at the inequalities mathematically: slave < master < God. Here's what I think is the big question: Is Paul making an absolute argument for all time, or a socially conditioned one? To put it another way, is Paul addressing social subordination of women to men, or actual (theological) subordination? If the answer is actual, then no one has the right to update Paul by overwriting his clear apostolic teaching. Yet if the answer is social, then Paul's argument is provisional. It is contingent upon social reality, not spiritual reality. The apostle's concern is for order, for the progress of the gospel, and for unity within the Christian community.

I believe it is the latter. Cultural and social matters determine the shape of Paul's reasoning. No biblical writer teaches that a slave is less human than a non-slave. The apostles never claimed slaves should be in chains, only that they were to behave in the proper way if they were. Indeed, "slave < master < God" reflects a society where perhaps 1 in 3 persons was enslaved. A social construct, not a theological truth.

Even though "slave < master < God" doesn't make a lot of sense in our own time, it made sense in the first century. Christians had to learn to live within the constraints and expectations of society. There was slavery, but masters were to treat slaves fairly (Col 4:1). Society was highly patriarchal, but husbands were to love their wives, never behaving harshly towards them (Col 3:19). Children were to obey parents (Col 3:20), but that doesn't mean their Christian parents could treat them harshly (Col 3:21). Each set of relationships, esp. parent/child, master/slave, and husband/wife, could be transformed through the influence of Jesus Christ. That is the greater vision—love, concern, respect, and justice for all. Yet Christians are called to suffer, not to demand their "rights." (This becomes especially clear in 1 Cor 7, plus 1 Cor 8:1-11:1.) Christ transforms the relationships in power structures; he does not necessarily undo them (at least not in this life). Thus Paul can hold: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). Of course there were Jews and Greeks when Paul penned Galatians. Baptism didn't change one's gender, or confer freedom on bondservants, or remove one's ethnic identity. The key words are "in Christ Jesus."

So when I say "slave < master < God" doesn't really work today, it isn't because I'm hesitant to rock the gender boat, or because I find the passage scandalous. Paul's reasoning is much more nuanced than we may at first perceive. This following point is what drew my attention to 1 Cor 7.

When Paul observes slave < master < heavenly master, he doesn't consider slavery an absolute, even though human subordination to God is. If that is so, then he could also understand woman < man < Christ < God such that the first relationship, woman < man, is social, without undermining man < God.

Perhaps it's unnecessary to say this, but I will anyway: Even though presumably we believe in the essential equality of all persons in the sight of God as his image-bearers (1 Cor 11:7; 15:49; Gen 1:26), we do not thereby hold that humans and God are on the same level. After all, we don't experience economic equality, or equality of wealth, height, or strength.

To restate, it's possible to affirm human < God in all cases, in all times and all societies, without approving of slave < master. And just so, striving for equality for women, envisioning a new relationship between the sexes (with the result of loosening or undoing the woman < man part of the equation), doesn't necessarily mean that one rejects man < Christ or Christ < God. I believe that is a good answer to why 1 Cor 11:3 isn't fatal to the argument for the egalitarian view. (I wish I'd seen this back when I was responding to the comment in Switzerland.)

Of course none of this is to suggest there aren't any levels of leadership in the church, or hierarchies of responsibility. Still, using authority to oppress others, or to refuse the operation of the Spirit in their lives, is simply wrong. We are to conduct ourselves as Christ and his apostles did—not as the Gentiles do (Mark 10:42-45).

Please ponder Paul's words about slaves and women. There are important parallels, even if it is possible to take the analogies too far. Paul's reasoning is not only theological, but social. Were the apostle alive today, moving among Europeans or Americans, I suspect his arguments would take different a form.

Back to your question: Does 1 Cor 11:3 prove the perpetual subordination of women? The answer is no.

For more, please see N.T. Wright's helpful article.