Author: Lucy Peppiatt is an evangelical charismatic minister, theologian, and principal of Westminster Theological Centre in Cheltenham, England. She has pastored churches in the Church of England alongside her husband, Nick Crawley. Her research focuses on the Trinity, 1 Corinthians, and Paul’s view on women.
Full title: Women and Worship at Corinth: Paul’s Rhetorical Arguments in 1 Corinthians
Women and Worship at Corinth (2015) may be the most intriguing book-length contribution to the Christian theological debate on women’s roles since the Kroegers’ I Suffer Not a Woman (1992). It is a thorough defense of the idea that Paul was quoting his opponents at certain points in 1 Corinthians 11; thus, the passage about head coverings for women is a Corinthian argument Paul is opposing, not a command he is giving them. An overview of her argument is available from the OnScript podcast.
The setting of 1 Corinthians
On 1 Corinthians as a whole, Peppiatt writes:
The letter is written to admonish the Corinthians for ways in which they have begun to depart from Paul’s original teaching and practices, and is a response to their reply to his original epistle.Woman and Worship at Corinth, p. 2
This means that there is a lot of missing context, and—like the similarly problematic passage in 1 Timothy 2—commentators and preachers resort to (rampant?) speculation with regard to the church situation Paul is responding to. In both passages (1 Cor. 11, 1 Tim. 2), Pauline teaching on women seemingly contradicts Pauline practice (e.g., Rom. 16, Acts 18).
In this book, Peppiatt defends what she calls a “rhetorical reading” of both 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, asserting that Paul is quoting his opponents in both passages. She is not dogmatic, however, and begins the discussion by freely admitting her biases. She writes that even a “flat” reading of these texts is circumscribed by the limits of the reader’s imagination in reconstructing the context, and thus, there is no unproblematic (“literal”) way to read the text without coping with contradictions and difficulties (contra, among others, David Pawson).
What is the rhetorical reading?
It is already universally accepted that [Paul] quotes some Corinthian slogans in 1 Corinthians in order to make a point. These verses include 6:12, 13; 7:1; 8:1, 8:4; 10:23; and 15:12.Women and Worship at Corinth, p. 4
A rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 will be unfamiliar to some readers, but we know that quotations were not always signalled by ancient writers, and that Paul quotes others many times in 1 Corinthians. A rhetorical reading in 1 Corinthians 14:34–36 has also been proposed convincingly for some decades. Here I’ve bolded the verse where Paul is apparently quoting his opponents. The disjunction is obvious in verse 36.
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.1 Corinthians 14:34–36, KJV, emphasis added to show proposed quotations
What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?
Given a rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 14:34–36, it is likely that Paul was dealing with some sort of misogynism in the church at Corinth (unlike those at Philippi and Ephesus, where women apparently held great influence). If we follow the “flat” reading of both passages, Paul truly intended for women to be veiled, at least in Corinth, during Christian worship, in which they pray and prophesy (11:5); but he also (somewhat confusingly) instructs women to be silent in church (14:34). The overlapping contradictions in these chapters, along with their contradictions to the early church’s recorded practices, require further explanations, and Peppiatt points out that scholars are routinely confused by many aspects 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.
A rhetorical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 was first proposed by Thomas Shoemaker in 1987, in a single “underdeveloped” article. Peppiatt has fleshed this out and found that quite a few contradictions result from a “flat” reading of 1 Corinthians 11.
Below is 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, showing the proposed quotations from Pauline opponents in bold.
2 Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. 3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.1 Corinthians 11:2–16, emphasis added to show proposed quotations
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. 5 But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.
6 For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.
7 For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8 For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. 9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. 13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? 14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? 15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. 16 But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
Why do we need a rhetorical reading of this passage?
- Paul himself had long hair when he was in Corinth. Why then would he condemn long hair in men?
- Paul contradicts himself within the passage: Are men independent of women, or are they interdependent?
- Paul contradicts his own words later in the letter: Do women have to stay silent, or can they pray and prophesy with correct attire?
- “Apostleship for Paul is marked by public dishonor and disgrace.” (p. 70) Why then does Paul appeal to shame and honor? Did he not say in the same letter that the apostles were disgraced before angels (1 Cor. 4:8–13)?
- Even if we believed this was motivated by some local custom, historians do not point to any coherent custom in ancient Corinth regarding veils or hair.
- Paul does quote his opponents elsewhere. “In sum, it seems that Paul does quote texts from others when composing his letters, and that he does not always signal those overtly with written cues . . .” (Campbell’s Deliverance, p. 541).
- Paul mentioned the headship of Christ over men first. The order is not insignificant.
- Paul used the word “nevertheless” (Gk. πλήν) in between two apparently contradictory passages.
- Practically no church obeys the letter of 1 Corinthians 11, even though its argumentation is apparently rooted in the creation order, and therefore—according to Lucy Peppiatt and Michael Lakey—its commands should be considered transcultural if we choose the flat reading of the text.
- Interpreting male headship as meaning “authority” (in v. 3) requires us to apply the same language to the Trinity, which leads to eternal functional subordination (EFS), which has been historically condemned as heresy.
- Finally, we have no idea what is meant by the phrase, “because of the angels”! The line of thought drops off quite abruptly.
One final note
In his booklet on the topic, Michael F. Bird writes that 1 Corinthians 11 cannot be used to keep women out of ministry anyway, because the point of the passage is that women can “pray and prophesy” publicly if they follow culturally appropriate guidelines of modesty and unostentatiousness.
For more on this topic, see Peppiatt’s 2019 book, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women: Fresh Perspectives on Disputed Texts, which is a more thorough defense of Christian egalitarianism.
 Pepiatt cites: Allison, “Let the Women Be Silent in the Churches” (1988); Flanagan and Snyder, “Did Paul Put Down Women in 1 Cor 14:34–36?” (1981); Manus, “The Subordination of Women in the Church: 1 Cor 14:33b–36 Reconsidered”; Odell-Scott, “In Defence of an Egalitarian Interpretation of 1 Cor 14:34–36″ (1987).
 Some scholars, such as Murphy-O’Connor, have also argued that a scribe who disagreed with Paul added the bit about silencing women in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35; thus, it is a scribal “interpolation”. This is supported by some manuscripts in which the verse order is rearranged, with verses 34 and 35 being moved after verse 40 (though verses 34 and 35 are never omitted in the existing manuscript tradition). Odell-Scott argues that this was a scribal re-arrangement which lent to us a more positive interpretation of the verses about silencing women.