Both 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 are critical passages for the study of the role of women. Just as is true of divorce and remarriage, we’re not studying the role of women in the church at this time. But for those with an interest in that topic, my thoughts will be found in the ebook Buried Talents.
Rather, we turn to chapter 11 to see how Paul approaches the question of women prophesying and praying without veils.
(1Co 11:8-9 ESV) 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
Here Paul is plainly referring to the order and purpose of Eve’s creation in Genesis 2. He is not revising or adding to Genesis 2. Rather, he is reasoning from Genesis 2. And that means we have to understand Genesis 2 to follow Paul’s reasoning.
(Gen 2:18 ESV) 18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
Eve was created for a purpose: to be a helper to Adam. Now, in English, “helper” connotes an inferior. If I’m a teacher and you are my helper, you’d be subordinate to me.
But the Hebrew word for helper (‘ezer) has no such connotation. Rather, it’s most common use is to refer to God as Israel’s helper (Gen 49:25; Exo 18:14; Deut 33:26; and many, many more)! Therefore, in Genesis 2, this phrase contains no suggestion of inferiority — but it does teach that wives are to support and complement their husbands.
It seems rather odd that Paul should apply to women in general a lesson regarding wives. I mean, are all women suitable helpers for all men? Must all women submit to all men? I mean, would we really teach such a thing?
The commentators teach us that “woman” and “man” in Greek are perfectly ambiguous and can be equally translated “wife” and “husband,” with the distinction being found only in the context.
Therefore, Paul is surely saying in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 that Eve was made for her husband Adam, which is true. She was created to fill a void in Adam’s life.
Paul is therefore arguing that wives may not act so as to bring shame to their husbands in that culture, because for a wife to shame her husband would be to violate God’s very purpose in making wives for husbands — to be a helper. (He addresses husbands’ duties to their wives in Ephesians 5).
Paul then adds,
(1Co 11:16 ESV) 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
Notice that Paul builds his case on Genesis 2 — as fundamental and normative for sexual relations. He then builds on that — without contradiction — by pointing out how the gospel imposes the same — or even stricter — considerations.
Non-Christians need not worry about the practices of other churches. That’s a consideration specific to those who’ve been saved by the gospel of Jesus.
Now, I realize that this is far from a thorough exposition of chapter 11’s teachings on veils and hair, but those are essential, foundational observations. And chapter 11 again illustrates how Paul considers Eden as teaching us about how spouses ought to relate to each other.
(Eph 5:28-33 ESV) 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
In Ephesians 5, Paul refers to Genesis 2 in describing the relationships of husbands and wives (not all men and all women). The husband must love the wife as he loves his own body — because of the one-flesh relationship described in Genesis 2.
Paul further describes the relation of the husband and wife by comparison to the relationship of Christ to his church (which Paul borrows from the frequent Old Testament references to Israel as God’s wife).
Thus, Paul begins in Genesis 1 and 2, and then he builds his case based on gospel principles — which tend to strengthen the case. He doesn’t use the gospel to create exceptions to Genesis 1 and 2. Rather, the gospel tends to intensify what we’ve already learned from Eden.