There are a number of passages in the New Testament that seem to express the Apostle Paul’s personal opinion about certain issues, including matters of right and wrong, and the status of women. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when indicated otherwise or when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
In 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul states, “I, not the Lord, say. . . .”
And in 1 Corinthians 7:40, he says, “. . . according to my judgment. . . .”
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 8:10, Paul states, “And in this I give my advice. . . .”
Taking into consideration other passages, such as 1 Corinthians 7:10, in which Paul says, “I command, yet not I but the Lord,” it seems reasonable to conclude that when Paul refers to himself as the source of statements about behavior, he is expressing his personal opinion, unless he states otherwise, as he does in this verse. This suggests that at least some of Paul’s statements about various matters may not have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.
On pages 457-458 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., provide the following perspective about this issue:
First, concerning 1 Corinthians 7:12, Paul is referring to the fact that the Lord did not directly address this issue when He spoke about divorce and marriage (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:4-12). So Paul does speak to it here, giving his authoritative view on whether a believing wife should stay with an unbelieving husband.
Second, Paul was not uncertain of his possession of the Holy Spirit on this matter, since he said clearly “I also have the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 7:40). So this passage cannot be used to show that Paul disclaimed divine authority.
Finally, Paul clearly affirmed his divine authority in this very book, declaring what he wrote as “words . . . the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Cor. 2:13). Indeed, he concludes the book by saying, “the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord (14:37). So his words in chapter 7 should be taken in harmony with these emphatic claims.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary supports the explanation of Geisler and Howe with regard to 1 Corinthians 7:12, stating,
[T]he Lord had not so expressly spoken to this case as to the former divorce. It does not mean that the apostle spoke without authority from the Lord, or decided this case by his own wisdom, without the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. He closes this subject with a declaration to the contrary (v. 40). . . .
With regard to 1 Corinthians 7:40, Paul’s comment at the end of verse that “I think I also have the Spirit of God” suggests that, despite his indication that his prior statement is based upon his judgment, he believes that his judgment is guided by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, insofar as the specific matter about which he is commenting is concerned, Paul’s judgment is not just personal opinion, since it is divinely-inspired.
What about what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:10? In this passage, Paul appears to be saying that he is not speaking authoritatively (i.e., he seems to be stating his personal advice with regard to the matter he is discussing). Paul may have been trying to make it clear that what he is saying in this passage is solely his own advice. Based on 1 Corinthians 7:40, however, it is more likely that even when Paul was giving what he regarded as personal advice, he was guided by the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s Declarations about the Role of Women in the Church
One particularly controversial matter is whether or not Paul’s declarations about women were inspired by the Holy Spirit or just his personal opinion, since several of them seem to reflect an unfavorable attitude toward women.
In this regard, let’s consider a couple of passages that Paul wrote about the role of women in the church.
I Corinthians 14:34-35: Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
1 Timothy 2:12-14: I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression.
With regard to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,
[Women] are not permitted to speak (v. 34) in the church, neither in praying nor prophesying. The connection seems plainly to include the latter, in the limited sense in which it is taken in this chapter, namely, for preaching, or interpreting scripture by inspiration. And, indeed, for a woman to prophesy in this sense were to teach, which does not so well befit her state of subjection. A teacher of others has in that respect a superiority over them, which is not allowed the woman over the man, nor must she therefore be allowed to teach in a congregation: I suffer them not to teach. . . . [S]ome think that these general prohibitions are only to be understood in common cases; but that upon extraordinary occasions, when women were under a divine afflatus, and known to be so, they might have liberty of speech. They were not ordinarily to teach, nor so much as to debate and ask questions in the church, but learn in silence there; and, if difficulties occurred, ask their own husbands at home. . . .It is God’s law and commandment that they should be under obedience (v. 34); they are placed in subordination to the man, and it is a shame for them to do any thing that looks like an affectation of changing ranks, which speaking in public seemed to imply, at least in that age, and among that people. . . .
In reference to the same biblical passage, a lengthy footnote in the New International Version of the Bible (NIV) explains,
Some believe that in light of 11:3 there is a God-ordained order that is to be the basis for administration and authority. Women are to be in submission to their husbands both at home (see Eph 5:22) and in the church (see v. 34; 1 Ti 2:11-12) regardless of their particular culture. According to this view, a timeless order was established at creation. . . .
Others maintain that Paul’s concern is that the church be strengthened (v. 26) by believers showing respect for others (see vv. 30-31) and for God (see v. 33) as they exercise their spiritual gifts. Such respect must necessarily take account of accepted social practices. If within a particular social order, it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church – and it was in this case (v. 35) – then she shows disrespect by doing so and should remain silent. There were occasions, though – even in this culture – for women to speak in church. For example, in 11:5 Paul assumes that women pray and prophesy in public worship. Thus his purpose, according to this view, was not to define the role of women but to establish a fitting (vv. 34-35) and orderly (vv. 27-31) way of worship (v 40).
Still others say that in this context Paul is discussing primarily the disruption of worship by women who become involved in noisy discussions surrounding tongues-speaking and prophecy. Instead of publicly clamoring for explanations, the wives were to discuss matters with their husbands at home (cf. v. 35). Paul does not altogether forbid women to speak in church (see 11:5). What he is forbidding is the disorderly speaking indicated in these verses. [Note: Although it is possible that there was a problem of disorderly speaking by some women, the context for 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 doesn’t seem to provide support for this hypothesis.]
The following comments in The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version (NSB: NKJV) also indicate that some women in the church at Corinth were disrupting worship:
It has been suggested that Paul was addressing a particular problem in the Corinthian church, a group of women who were disruptive. This verse has also been interpreted as a prohibition on women interpreting prophecy, judging the prophets, or speaking in tongues. [Note: As previously noted, the context for 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 doesn’t seem to support this hypothesis.]
With regard to 1 Timothy 2:12-14, Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,
[Women] must be silent, submissive, and subject, and not usurp authority. The reason given is because Adam was first formed, then Eve out of him, to denote her subordination to him and dependence upon him; and that she was made for him, to be a help-meet for him.
According to Paul, women must be learners, and are not allowed to be public teachers in the church; for teaching is an office of authority, and the woman must not usurp authority over the man, but is to be in silence.
Another lengthy footnote in the NIV Bible addresses the biblical passage as follows:
Some believe that Paul here prohibited teaching only by women not properly instructed, i.e., by the women at Ephesus. Such women tended to exercise authority over, i.e., to domineer, the men. Others maintain that Paul did not allow a woman to be an official teacher in the assembled church. This is indicated by the added restriction concerning exercising “authority over a man” (a male), i.e., functioning as an overseer. . . .
Paul based the restrictions on Ge 2-3. Some argue that “For” does not express the reason for woman’s silence and submission, but is used only as a connective word. . . . The meaning, then, would be that Adam’s priority in creation illustrates the present situation of male priority in teaching at Ephesus, and Eve’s deception illustrates the deception of the untrained and aggressive Ephesian women involved in false teaching. Thus the prohibition is not universal and permanent but restricted to the church situation. . . . Under different circumstances the restrictions would not apply (e.g., 1 Co 11:1-5).
Others believe that the appeal to the creation account makes the restrictions universal and permanent. 1. Adam was formed first. Paul appeals to the priority of Adam in creation, which predates the fall. Thus he views the man-woman relationship set forth in this passage as grounded in creation. 2. the woman . . . was deceived. Paul appears to argue that since the woman was deceived (and then led Adam astray), she is not to be entrusted with the teaching function of an overseer (or elder) in the public worship services of the assembled church.
Also in reference to 1 Timothy 2:12-14, the NSB: NKJVsays,
It seems best to understand this passage as teaching that women may exercise their spiritual gifts in a variety of ministries in a local assembly (see 2 Tim. 3:14; Titus 2:3,4), as long as those gifts are exercised under the appropriate leadership of men. Other commentators have viewed this verse as an example of Paul using his apostolic authority to curb the spread in Ephesus of false teaching (see 1:3–7) that apparently was becoming popular among some women who had not been properly instructed (see v. 11). [My comment: Neither of the two points of view noted in this paragraph seems to provide support for women to teach men in a church setting.]
Paul offers reasons for the directives of vv. 9–12. Adam was formed first refers to Gen. 2:7–25. In God’s order of creation (see 1 Cor. 11:9), Adam was made before Eve. This is an implied reference to the privileges that a firstborn received in ancient society. These privileges were not given on the basis of inherent superiority but instead on being born first. . . . [My comment: Genesis 3:16 also provides a scriptural basis for a woman to be subordinate to her husband.]
With regard to both 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:12-14, Geisler and Howe declare on page 498 of their book,
[W]hatever Paul may have meant by the “women be silent” passages, he certainly did not mean that they should have no ministry in the church. . . . For one thing, in the same book (of 1 Corinthians), Paul instructed women on how they should pray and prophesy in the church, namely, in a decent and orderly way (cf. 11:5).
[W]hen understood in context, the “silence” passages are not negating the ministry of women, but are limiting the authority of women. Paul asserts that women were not permitted “to have authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12). Likewise, he follows his exhortation to “keep silent” by reminding them to be “submissive” (1 Cor. 14:34). Of course, men too were under authority and needed to submit to the headship of Christ over them (1 Cor. 11:3). Indeed, the ultimate proof that there is nothing degrading about being submissive is that Christ, who was God in human flesh, is always submissive to the Father, both on earth (Phil. 2:5-8) and even in heaven (1 Cor. 15:28). That male headship and leadership is not simply a cultural matter is evident by the fact that it is based on the very order of creation (1 Cor. 11:9; 1 Tim. 2:13).
So, what can we conclude with regard to Paul’s statements that women should keep silent in church? A reasonable case can be made that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was written because of the customs of society at that time and, therefore, it may be appropriate for women today to ask questions and otherwise speak in a church group, since the customs of society are now very different. However, 1 Timothy 2:13-14 indicates that this freedom of speech probably does not include the freedom to teach men. The fact that 1 Timothy 2:13-14 references the order of Creation as the basis for what is stated in the prior verse (i.e., that a woman is not permitted “to teach or to have authority over a man”) suggests the timelessness of the admonition that it is not appropriate for women to teach men in a church setting.
In any case, Galatians 3:28 makes it clear that Paul believed that there should be no distinction in the Church between the status of men and the status of women: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s Writings about the Relative Roles of Husbands and Wives
Let’s now consider what Paul wrote about the relative roles of husbands and wives in a marriage relationship.
1 Corinthians 11:3, 9: I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. . . . Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.
Ephesians 5:22-24: Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
Colossians 3:18: Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
The NSB: NKJV says with regard to 1 Corinthians 11:3, 9:
Submission does not indicate inferiority, but subordination. Just as Christ and God are equally divine, men and women are equal beings. But just as Jesus and God the Father have different roles in God’s plan of salvation, so men and women are given different roles.
Woman for the man is Paul’s way of stating the concept of the “helper” in Gen. 2:20. This does not mean the woman is inferior to the man; it refers only to the purposes of God for man and woman in the creative order.
In reference to Ephesians 5:22-24, the NSB: NKJVdeclares,
Just as Christ is not inferior to the Father, but is the second Person in the Trinity, so wives are equal to their own husbands. Yet in a marriage relationship, a husband and wife have different roles. to the Lord: A wife’s voluntary submission arises out of her own submission to Christ.
With regard to the same passage, Adult Learner Guide (fall 2010), which is used by a number of churches to provide basic information for adult Sunday school lessons, states the following:
Submission rests on a wife’s glad obedience to the command, not on a husband’s supposed right to demand submission. . . . Christian submission is not about male superiority. The Scriptures teach that men and women are equal before God in personhood and value (see Gal. 3:28). [B]y submitting to her Christian husband’s spiritual leadership in the home, the wife in effect expresses her devotion to the Lord. . . .
[T]he model of husband-wife headship is the relationship of Christ to the church. . . .
As Head of the church, Christ is not harshly or selfishly demanding. His demands are given in love for the church’s best interest and for God’s glory.
[F]rom Jesus’ example of submission to the Father’s will, we learn that a Christian husband’s headship in the marriage relationship is a God-given responsibility, not an inherent right. It constitutes a husband’s calling to display Christlike spiritual leadership. Such leadership is always unselfish, sacrificial, and God-honoring.
In reference to Colossians 3:18, the NSB: NKJV explains,
The word submit is a military term meaning to “arrange oneself under another” and indicates a voluntary submission, not an unthinking obedience. The parallel passage of Eph. 5:21 may speak of mutual submission, as some have suggested. Either way it is clear that submission does not denigrate the one who submits.
Collectively, these last three passages indicate that Christians should accept that there is a definite order of authority: God (i.e., the Father) has authority over Christ; Christ has authority over the entire Church, as well as over each man; and each husband has authority over his wife. Without a definite order of authority, there would be uncertainty as to who should be the head of each home. Therefore, God used Paul to specify the proper order, so there is no need for a husband and wife to argue as to who should have ultimate authority in their home. Of course, the husband should exercise his authority with love (Ephesians 5:25; Colossians 3:19).
It should be noted that Paul was not the only New Testament writer who taught that women should be submissive to their husbands. Peter likewise stated in 1 Peter 3:1a,“[W]ives, be submissive to your own husbands. . . .”
In any case, the prior statements by Paul that women should be submissive to their husbands should not be construed to mean that he held women in low esteem. There is ample evidence that Paul’s basic attitude about women was positive. This evidence is reflected in a number of the scripture passages he wrote, including the following, which admonish husbands to treat their wife properly.
1 Corinthians 7:3: Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.
Ephesians 5:25, 28, 33: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it. . . . So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. . . . [L]et each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Colossians 3:19: Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Additional evidence that Paul had a positive attitude regarding women is provided by the following scripture passages, which focus primarily on treating women with respect and/or providing them with assistance if they have needs.
Romans 16:1-4, 6: I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. . . . Greet Mary, who labored much for us. . . .
Philippians 4:2-3: I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life.
1 Timothy 5:1-3: Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, the younger as sisters, with all purity. Honor widows who are really widows.
The Apostle Paul makes it clear when he is expressing his personal opinion, but we believe that God would not have allowed these opinions to be included in the Bible if they were not correct. Therefore, we believe that all the writings of Paul were inspired by the Holy Spirit; i.e., none of Paul’s writings were merely his personal opinion. We also believe that the scripture passages expressing Paul’s statements regarding women, when considered together, indicate that he had a positive attitude toward women and that any indications to the contrary reflect God’s intention that, in certain circumstances, women should acquiesce to men.