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Mutuality and Interdependence of Man and Woman:
An Exegetical Study of 1 Cor 11, 11-12.

K.J. Mercy, Bible Bhashyam. (An Indian biblical quarterly) , 2000, vol.XXVI, no.3, pp.196-204.

Pauline writings are often quoted and interpreted to justify the subordination of women in the church and society. This is because of a few statements on women in his epistles; for example, 1 Cor 11,3-10; 14,34-35, etc. But these negative statements cannot be treated in isolation. They should be interpreted in the light of positive statements on women in Paul and the context in which he makes such statements. The negative statements of Paul appear as responses to some particular problems of local congregations (e.g. of Corinth). They should not be considered as theological affirmations relevant for all situations. Our attempt in this article is to examine Paul’s positive statements on women in 1 Cor 11,11-12.

In 1 Cor 11,11-12 Paul speaks of mutuality and interdependence of man and woman. These verses are the climax of the arguments of the whole section, 1 Cor 11,2-16. In 1 Cor 11,11-12 we read, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God”.

This is the first explicit defence of Paul on the equality of man and woman. But in the same context in verses 3-10 Paul apparently speaks of a hierarchy in man-woman relationship. We can identify four sets of statements in 1 Cor 11,3-10 which illustrates this: (i) The head of a woman is her husband (v.3). (ii) In the worship services woman should wear veil whereas man need not (vv. 4-6). (iii) Woman is the glory of man (v.7). (iv) Woman is created from man, therefore she is made for man.

Here arises the following questions:

i) Why does Paul take two different attitudes? ii) Are they really mutually contradictory?

I. Paul’s Ambivalent Attitude

The section 1 Cor 11:2-16 (l) is ambivalent in nature with two view points, positive and negative, regarding women. In vv.3-10 Paul seems to consider women as inferior to men. But in vv.11-12 he completely changes this attitude and upholds women’s status and continues to be so in vv.13-16 (2) too.

Paul’s two different attitudes are due to the context of Corinth and the Corinthian Christian community. Corinth was the most licentious city in Greece. This was a strategic commercial center by its location on the high road from the East to the West. Therefore Latins, Greeks, Syrians, Asiatic, Egyptians and Jews used to visit the city frequently and some even stayed in the city. Aphrodite temple with its thousand priestesses or cultic prostitutes was an example of Corinth’s immorality.(3) Women were active in some mystery religions and they used excessive freedom. Corinth was one of the centers of Isis cult too. In this cultic worship women did not use veil. Besides, women having dishevelled hair was typical in the cult. In some other mysteries like the cult of Dionysius also women participated without veil.

Moreover, the Corinthian Church itself had several problems. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians tells of several problems of the Corinthian Church. There were divisions in the Church (Cf. 1 Cor 1, 10-18) and moral problems too. In 1 Cor 5:9 Paul wanted them not to associate with immoral men. Many Christian women misinterpreted Christian freedom and turned against their traditional customs (cf. Chs.7; 11-14). Ecstatic speaking in tongues was also practised and this also created confusion. Women came in the worship assembly without veil like women of mystery religions. It is in this context of Corinth that Paul wanted Christian women to wear veil and to keep decency and decorum in worship services.

Therefore, in 1 Cor 11,2-16, Paul is not trying to degrade women by insisting them to wear veil, but to keep the morals of that society. In that society wearing veil was a very decent practice and that gave women dignity and honour. It was in this context that Paul wanted women to wear veil and we may rightly assume that he upholds women’s status in vv.11-12. Therefore, we cannot consider Paul’s statements in vv. 3-10 ad 11-12 as fully ambivalent in nature and that Paul is against women.

II. Contradictory Statements

As we have already noted, some statements in 1 Cor 11,2-16 seem to be negative and some positive. Scholars have come out with several interpretations. Therefore an analysis of these statements is necessary to understand Paul’s position.

1. The Head of a Woman is Her Husband (v,3)

V.3 is interpreted differently by the use of the word head (kephale). Paul says, “The head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God”. Usually, kephale in v.3 is interpreted to mean “authority” to establish that woman is inferior to man. The word kephale has several meanings, “what is first”, “supreme”, “extreme”, “source”, “authority”, “(anatomical) head”, etc.(4) The Hebrew equivalent for kephale is ro’s. In Hebrew ro’s signifies the head of a human being when it refers to human body and also ‘source’ and authority in its abstract sense. In Paul, kephale is used both in anatomical and in abstract sense (cf. Rom 12,2; 1 Cor 12,21; Eph l,21f; 4,15; Col 1,18; etc.) But the context of the passage obviously shows that Paul uses the term in its abstract sense of “source” and not “authority”. Paul in the whole section speaks about the origin of man and woman. He says that man is from God and woman is from man (vv. 7-9). In vv.11-12 he continues to talk about the origin of man and woman.

In v.3b, when Paul says that the head of a woman is her husband Paul alludes to the second creation story. This story tells of the origin of woman from man. The author of the story does not intend to establish the authority of man over woman but to say that the source of woman is man. Paul too uses the term in the same sense. As Barrett rightly opines, “Paul does not say that man is the Lord of the woman, he says that he is the origin of her being.”(5)

Therefore, it is clear that in v.3 Paul uses kephale in the sense of “source” and he introduce a chain of relationships on the basis of origin: God-Christ- man-woman. Here Paul aims to show each one’s position and function and not superior-inferior distinctions. If we say that man is superior to woman because he was created prior to woman, we must also say that nature is superior to humans because God created cosmos before human beings. The chronological order of creation cannot be taken to prove the priority of one over the other.

2. Women Should Wear Veil (vv.4-6)

In vv. 4-6, Paul wants women to wear veil in worship.

The passage runs thus,

“Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head- it is the same as if her head were shaven ...let her wear a veil.”

As we have noted earlier, veiling(6) is the main topic for discusssion in this section. Paul wants women not to pray and prophesy without veiling their head. To appear unveiled, according to Paul is to shame their head. In Corinth slave girls and prostitutes did not use veil in public. But married women did. It is normal that dignified women put a veil over the head when they appeared in public. Therefore, for Paul women wearing veil is not based on the question of women being inferior to man but on their dignity. This could be a system culturally bound. But the basic question is whether Paul meant it to be a sign of inferiority. By picking up the theme of shame, Paul wants them to act decently. Since it is disgraceful for a woman either to have her hair cut short or be shaved, Paul wants to have her head covered. God made man and woman differently and they should appear as God had originally intended them to be.

3. Woman is the Glory of Man (v.7)

Paul says, “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man”.

Paul’s statement “woman is the glory of man” is also interpreted to show that women are inferior to men. Here also Paul refers to the origin of man and woman. The phrase “image (eikon) and glory (doxa)” is found only in Paul. The two words are parallel and explanatory (cf. Rom 1,23; 8,29; 2 Cor 3,18; 4,4). The word eikon in secular Greek means ‘to be similar’, ‘to be like’ etc. When Paul uses the term he has the Old Testament tselem in mind and in Hebrew it signifies a plastic image or a statue. Therefore, ‘image’ for Paul is not an abstract quality of humans, it signifies the whole person including the body. ‘Glory’ is the radiance or brightness that surrounds the body. It is also used as a synonym for eikon. Here doxa can mean the visible form of God - the emphasis being given to the brightness that surrounds the form.

In the verse Paul does not deny that woman is in the image of God. Therefore, the point is not that woman is not created in God’s image and glory but that the glory is derived from man. Here, Paul is thinking of two creation stories and says that woman is the glory of man.(7) There are passages where Paul speaks of the believers’ participation in and transformation into God’s glory (2 Cor 3,18; Rom 8,29-30). Believers participate in God’s glory irrespective of male-female distinctions. Therefore 1 Cor 11,7 cannot be taken as an evidence for a male-female distinction in the original creation of humans in God’s image and glory.

4. Woman is Created from Man (vv.8-9)

This passage is the continuation of the previous verse. The passage runs thus. “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”.

This passage is also taken to establish that women are inferior to men because men were created first. As we have noted earlier, if we accept the arguments that man is superior because he is created prior to woman, then we will have to say that animals are superior, because they were created before human beings. The chronological order of creation cannot be taken to argue either for superiority or inferiority. It seems that depending on the traditional arguments, Paul explains that man is the source of woman. In the second creation story, the term ha Adam is used as a generic term; it is used for Adam before the creation of woman. It is an inclusive term to signify both sexes. It is in fact from this one unified entity that man-woman sexual difference originates. Therefore the second creation story cannot be taken to argue for man’s superiority over woman. From this analysis it is clear that the argument on man’s superiority based on priority in creation is weak. Paul, on the contrary says that the question of superiority of man or woman in Christ is no more valid. Therefore, we cannot consider vv.8-9 as a theological affirmation, but as an exhortation impelled by the Corinthian situation.

III. Mutuality and Interdependence

From the above analysis it is clear that Paul’s negative statements are not so strong as to argue that he had a low esteem of women. His apparently contradictory statements can be explained contextually. The phrase ‘in the Lord’ (v. 11) offers the basis for a new relationship between man and woman in Christ. Paul says that man and woman are not independent in the Lord. Just as woman was made from man, now man is born of woman. “And all things are from God”. His higher views on women outweighs his apparently negative statements. Besides, his statement on man-woman relationship in 11:11-12 corroborates this observation.

For Paul, Christian life is an in-Christ-living, which transcends biological distinctions. They are brought to a new life of mutual respect, co-operation and fellowship. In Christ humanity regains original position, i.e. the harmony that God ordained from the beginning (Cf.Gen 1,26-28). Man and woman are complementary to each other. Each sex is incomplete without the other. In Gal 3,29 also he points to the unity of male and female. Here too the phrase ‘in Christ’ is significant. The passage reads, “There is neither Jew no Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

In Christ all are equal. Mutuality and interdependence are the basic norms. Superior - inferior division is the result of fall. In the beginning God created man and woman in God’s image and likeness and gave equal responsibility and blessing (Gen 1, 26-30). But by the fall the relationship between humans and God, humans and humans, and humans and nature is broken. Disorder and alienation came into existence. But in Christ humanity regains its original position. Therefore Paul says that in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman. Therefore man cannot affirm superiority over woman. The phrase “All things are from God” (1 Cor 11,12) is significant. Not only man and woman, this cosmos and its living and non-living objects, all are from God. Therefore all are mutually interdependent. No one can claim superiority over the other.


1 Cor 11, 2-16 is a response of Paul to a problem of the Corinthian Church about veiling. Paul takes two different attitudes, negative and positive. His negative statements stem from the context of the Corinthian Church. His intention is only to inform them to keep decency and decorum in worship services and not to degrade women. Though he seems negative in vv.3-9, later in vv.11-12 he completely changes his views and brings out his theology based on ‘in Christ living’ and states that man and woman are mutually interdependent. From the analysis it is clear that his apparently negative statements are not negative as such, but positive when we consider them against the culture and context. His arguments are not against woman, but for keeping decency in worship. Therefore we cannot consider Paul’s statements as mutually contradictory but as mutually explanatory. His theology on man-woman relationship based on ‘in Christ living’ shows that Paul is basically egalitarian. Paul’s negative statements cannot be interpreted to establish subordination of woman ignoring hermeneutic principles. The passages concerned must be interpreted against the context of the passage and the contemporary culture and the Pauline theology as a whole, and his high esteem of the life and ministry of women in the church.

Jesus has an egalitarian outlook on man and woman, Paul follows this. Pauline theology based on ‘in the Lord’ is capable of suggesting a solution to overcome all divisions that exist in society. According to Paul all are equal before God and all mutually interdependent. This is the harmony that God made the beginning. As Christians we have to put an end to distinctions that prevent us from growing towards full humanhood. Our churches must broaden its perspectives so that inclusiveness, mutuality and co-responsibility prevail among man and woman equally both in church and society.

K.J. Mercy, Orthodox Theological Seminary Kottayam


1. Authenticity and continuity of the passage are questioned by some scholars like William O. Walker. Cf, “The Vocabulary of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16: Pauline or Non-Pauline?” JSNT 35 (1989) 75- 78; William O. Walker “1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and Paul’s View Regarding Women” JBL 94 (1975) 94-110. But, the context (Chapters 11-14 deal with some mispractices in the worship), Vocabulary (“image and glory”, “in Christ”) etc. show that the passage is Pauline (Cf. Jerome Murphy -O’Connor, “The Non Pauline Character of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16?” JBL (1976) 618.

2. In vv. 13-16, pointing to their culture and church practices, Paul wants women to wear veil. Here, Paul does not try to degrade women, but he wants women to cooperate with their culture because veiling gives women dignity and honour in that culture. In this respect Paul is positive in vv. 13-16.

3. Cf.Clarence Tucker Craig, The Epistle to the Corinthians, Interpreter’s Bible vol.10 (New York: Abingdon, 1954) 7; Archibald Robertson-Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburg: T& T Clark, 1983) i-xxx: James Moffatt, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1959) xviii.

4. Heinrich Elberfeld Schlier, “Kephale” in Gerhani Kittel, ed., TDNT, Vol III (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974) 673-674.

5. C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Black, 1968) 246.

6. Scholars like Murphy-O’Connor, Hurely, Fiorenza, et. al. argue that “long hair” and “loosed hair” is meant here, pointing out that “kalypto” and its cognates refer to ‘loosed hair’ or ‘long hair’. Cf. Jerome Murphy - O’Connor, “Sex and Login(sic) in 1 Corinthians 11,2-16” CBQ 12 (1980) 482-503. James B.Hurely, “Did Paul Require Veils or Silence of Women? A Consideration of 1 Cor 11:2-16, and 1 Cor 14:33b-36” WTJ 35 (1973) 190-219; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Cross Road, 1994) 227 f. But Barrett, Robertson and Plummer, Horden Fee, et al. hold the view that ‘Veiling’ is the problem because kalypto and its cognates have only the meaning ‘to cover’ or ‘to conceal’. Besides, we cannot ignore the veiling system of Greek and Jewish women and Paul speaks of veil again in v.14. Cf.C.K Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians 249- 252.

7. In the first creation story ‘image and likeness’ (Gen 1,26-27) is seen. In the second creation story we read that woman is made from the rib of man (Gen 2,18-25). These two ideas are joined in Paul’s thought.

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