Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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I came across an older blog post today from Matthew Malcolm* where he notes that “Paul has a keen interest in setting up hierarchies of human honour, and then surprisingly subverting them by subjecting all humans to God. This happens at both the beginning and the end of the head-coverings discussion in chapter 11, as well as earlier on in chapter 3.”

Matthew then gives these three examples. In each of the following statements, the word Theos (“God”) comes at the very end of the sentence in the Greek (as well as in most English translations). The final word is in an emphatic position in ancient Greek sentence structure. By using this rhetorical device, Paul grabs the reader’s attention and highlights his main concern which is God.

1 Corinthians 3:21-23

The set up: So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you…
The sting: …and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

1 Corinthians 11:3

The set up: I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife…
The sting: …and the head of Christ is God.

1 Corinthians 11:12

The set up: For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman…
The sting: …but all things come from God.

As Karl Barth said, the ‘secret nerve’ of this epistle comes in those condemning and liberating words: “from God!”

Paul nullifies hierarchies among us who are “in the Lord” by pointing out that each of us, both men and women, come from God and belong to Christ (1 Cor. 11:11-12; 3:23). Moreover, we are all equally under God’s authority who is ultimately the one, not people, who makes things happen (1 Cor. 3:7).

I think Matthew’s observations are insightful, important and liberating, and need to be shared, and he has given me permission to do so.

*Matthew R. Malcolm is part of the Liberal Arts faculty at the University of Pelita Harapan, and is the author of several books including Paul and the Rhetoric of Reversal in 1 Corinthians: The Impact of Paul’s Gospel on Paul’s Macro-Rhetoric (Cambridge University Press: 2014) which is a revision of his doctoral thesis, and The World of 1 Corinthians: An Annotated Visual and Literary Source-Commentary (Paternoster and Cascade: 2012) Dr Malcolm’s blog is no longer online.

Subverting Hierarchy in 1 Corinthians 11

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1 Corinthians 11:9, in a Nutshell
1 Corinthians 11:2-16, in a Nutshell
4 Reasons “head” does not mean “leader” in 1 Corinthians 11:3
All my articles on passages in 1 Corinthians are here.
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority

6 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 11 and Subverted Hierarchy

  1. Devil’s advocate:

    “Paul nullifies hierarchies among us who are “in the Lord” by pointing out that each of us, both men and women, come from God and belong to Christ (1 Cor. 11:11-12; 3:23).”

    Could Paul not be qualifying rather than nullifying?

    1. Hi Hannah May,

      I think Paul is qualifying and nullifying.

      If some Christians in Corinth were reading a gender hierarchy into origins, which I strongly suspect was the case (1 Cor 11:3, 8-9), then the simple and profound fact, that all of us who are in the Lord have our origin or source in God, does nullify a gender hierarchy based on a created order (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

      The conjunction plēn (which occurs at the beginning of verse 11 and can be translated as “except that”) indicates that Paul is expanding on (correcting?) the previous statements. He is introducing ideas contrary to the ones preceding verse 11, ideas that especially apply for us who are in the Lord.

  2. Blessed by the post…it is so liberating.

  3. Marg,
    This article is so awesome! I am was trying for a long time to find the link between the use of the word Kephale in 1 Cor 11 and Ep 5. This article has really some shed light on it for me.

    Just today I noticed that almost all Bibles reverse the order in 1 Cor 11:11 to put man before woman. The original says, However, neither is woman separate from man, nor man separate from woman, in the Lord. This mention of independence follows right after the verse that says a woman ought to have exousian on the head. Most translations also falsely added the words “symbol of” before authority to give off the impression that it is the man’s authority over the woman, not her own authority.

    In light of this article, I wonder if what is happening is that an order of preeminence is in place put there by the Corinthian men to due to being one’s origin and therefore expecting cultural honor in return. In rhetoric Paul affirms them at first, but then in verse 11 says that despite everything said before, a woman should have her own authority over her own head because of the angles which are mentioned earlier as one day being judged by us, note that in the close of the text they are also told to “judge” the matter. Then verse 11 ties into it by saying, nevertheless (despite her own authority to choose what happens to her own head) the woman is not independent of the man…. the man is not preeminent above the woman…all things of God. So then all preeminence and entitlement is overthrown in the Lord. This would have huge implications on Eph 5 where I believe a preeminence of man is in place due to his social and material status and the wife is told to uphold the cultural customs in marriage. Then the husband’s preeminence is overthrown instead of upheld in the instructions to him. If there is a link between “Head” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11 and Eph 5, then I think it is around male preeminence due to the culture, and both are knocked down in the two epistles. The two things required from a woman or wife in that culture were honor and submission to men. 1 Cor 11 requires honor, and Eph 5 requires submission, yet the preeminence of the man is subverted in both places using language for being one in the body of Christ.

  4. I wonder the same thing too Anca. I believe it explains a lot of things.

  5. […] Paul nullifies the significance of man being first and he focuses on God. God is the ultimate source of everything, including us. He is the ultimate “first” one. (Again, the word “God” is in an emphatic position at the very end of the statement in 1 Cor. 11:12.) […]

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