Paul's Teachings in 1 Corinthians on Women

Sherrie Mills Johnson

Sherrie Mills Johnson, “Paul’s Teachings in 1 Corinthians on Women,” Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 129–52.

Sherrie Mills Johnson is a part-time instructor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

Sherrie Mills JohnsonDuring Paul’s three-year stay at Ephesus in western Asia Minor, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus brought Paul a letter from the members of the Church in Corinth asking him questions concerning doctrines and procedures of the Church (see 1 Corinthians 16:17). We do not have the original letter, but 1 Corinthians is Paul’s response to that letter, and from it we can ascertain what some of their questions were. Paramount among these questions were concerns about the correct relationship between men and women. Was married life wrong or undesirable? If people were already married, would it be better to live as if unmarried? Should widows or widowers remarry? Should Christians leave their non-Christian spouses?

Paul’s response to these questions has been debated for centuries with scholars reviewing them through the lens of the historical, social, and cultural settings in which they were spoken. These discussions are enlightening; however, one cannot fully understand Paul’s teachings unless they are also viewed within the theological framework of the Old Testament teachings from which they originate. When we look at Paul’s teachings concerning womanhood from the framework of Old Testament teachings and add to it what modern revelation has taught us on the subject, Paul’s teachings become clearer.

Background of the Corinthian Epistle

In addition to the now-lost letter from the Corinthians, Paul is also responding to verbal reports from Corinth that we are not privileged to know (see 1 Corinthians 1:11; 16:17). While some claim that the reputation for sexual license associated with Corinth is exaggerated,[1] Corinth was far from a seat of righteousness. Besides being the capital of the province of Achaea, Corinth was a major center of trade and communication. As with any metropolis, it attracted a vulgar and wicked element. But more than that, Corinth’s economic foundation rested not only on commodity trade but on commercialized pleasures.[2] Whenever a society condones this kind of moral laxity, the purpose of and truths concerning womanhood become perverted. In 1 Corinthians Paul reminds the people of these truths.

Paul labored in Corinth for about eighteen months during his second missionary journey (see Acts 18:1–18), then wrote to the Corinthians during his third missionary journey. It was toward the end of his stay in Ephesus that 1 Corinthians was written. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, only a few years had passed since he had lived among them. Thus, Paul knew what they had been taught and already knew and was reminding and building upon prior teachings. Therefore, for us thousands of years later, reading Paul’s epistle is like starting a novel in the middle of the book.

It is also important to note that in Corinth many of the people Paul was teaching were conversant with Judaism. This wasn’t always the case with other areas. For example, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians we find Paul’s teachings in accordance with the Old Testament, but he never assumes that the Thessalonian converts are conversant with it. However, when writing to the Corinthians, Paul bases his teachings on the fact that Jesus’s death and Resurrection were both predicted in the Old Testament. In addition, in Corinthians Paul refers to Old Testament writings in order to substantiate his own points[3] and indicates that these things were just as important in the Corinthians’ day as when they were written (see 1 Corinthians 9:9–10; 10:1–13). Thus an underlying theme of Corinthians is that writings of the Old Testament have been leading up to and preparing the people for the present time. Paul knew his audience in Corinth was familiar with Old Testament teachings and often alluded to and built upon those Old Testament teachings in order to reinforce his instruction.

Old Testament Teachings

Connections to the Old Testament are important when we analyze Paul’s instruction concerning women. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul boldly exclaims that, among other things, there should be no fornication, adultery, or homosexual behavior among the people. In the following verses he explains why: “Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh” (6:15–16).

That “two shall be one flesh” is an obvious allusion to Genesis 2:24: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” By bringing this Old Testament account to the minds of his audience, Paul assumes that what he says and what follows about women will be interpreted based upon what they already know from the Genesis account. For us to understand what Paul is teaching, we also need to understand the Genesis account.

In the Beginning

Adam and Eve’s story begins when God explains, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:18). Most modern speakers combine the words help and meet to make the word helpmeet, which means the same as helpmate or spouse. However, throughout scripture the concept is identified as two words, with meet being an adjective (meaning “adequate, proper, or necessary”) that modifies help. The footnotes to the Latter-day Saint scriptures explain that “help meet for him” means “a helper suited to, worthy of, or corresponding to him,” and President Howard W. Hunter explained that in the context of Genesis 2, meet means “equal.”[4]

The original Hebrew word that is translated as “help” in this verse is ezer. Ezer is used in the Old Testament twenty-one times, and in sixteen of these occurrences the word refers to God (see Psalm 33:20 and 54:4 for examples of this usage). In English the word help can mean “a servant or subordinate,” and therefore Genesis 2:18 has historically been used to claim that woman is a subordinate of man. But ezer is usually used to describe God, and God is subordinate to no man. However, God is our help in that through the Atonement He provided a way to remedy the effects of the Fall.

But how does this meaning apply to women? In the beginning of creation, God declared that the man alone has a problem (see Genesis 2:18). In Genesis 1:27, God states that he is going to create mankind in His own image and that the image of God is male and female. The man is only half that image—he has the necessary authority of the priesthood but not the power to bear life. Alone neither a man nor a woman can become a god. President Spencer W. Kimball once quoted Moses 2:26, adding comments in brackets. He said, “And I, God, said unto mine Only Begotten, which was with me from the beginning: Let us make man [not a separate man, but a complete man, which is husband and wife] in our image, after our likeness; and it was so.”[5] This concept is beautifully illustrated by the Hebrew word for bride, which is kallah.[6] Kallah is derived from the primary root kalal, which means “to complete or to make perfect.”[7] Alone man had a problem: he could not procreate. He was incomplete. He needed help to be completed in the image of God. President Boyd K. Packer explained, “Man and woman, together, were not to be alone. Together they constituted a fountain of life. While neither can generate life without the other, the mystery of life unfolds when these two become one.”[8]

In both Genesis and Moses, what follows further illustrates this principle. After explaining that it is not good for man to be alone, the reader expects God to create woman. But instead “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field” (Genesis 2:19–20).[9] This was not a small task. The exact number of animals on the earth is unknown, but scientists estimate that the animal kingdom consists of between nine and ten million species. We have no way of knowing if there were more or less in the beginning, but we can assume there were millions. Therefore, it could have taken months, if not years, to accomplish this task, and it meant a longer period of time for Adam to be alone. This may indicate that there is something very important the Lord wanted Adam and all of us to understand before he created woman.

As Adam named the creatures of the earth, he presumably saw them in pairs. He named the cow and the bull. He named the hen and the rooster. He named the mare and the stallion. In this process, Adam saw that every living creature had a counterpart—except for himself. “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:20).

Only after Adam saw that all of God’s other creatures came in pairs and recognized that he had no counterpart, that he was incomplete, did God create woman. Therefore, God caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam, and as he slept God removed one of Adam’s ribs and created from it a woman.[10] Adam’s reaction? “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). Adam recognized that Eve was the necessary remedy to complete him. Likewise Eve was not whole without the man. Sealed together they are completed in the image of God—male and female.

Eve’s part of the partnership is exemplified when Adam names her Eve “because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). Notice Adam does not say that Eve is the mother of all human beings or that she is the mother of everything living except for him. Instead, Adam declares her “the mother of all living.” Again the meaning is symbolic. Besides initiating the Fall, which gave Adam and all of us mortal life, Adam is dependent upon his union with Eve in order to have eternal life. In Doctrine and Covenants 132:19–20, the Lord explains that a husband and a wife who are sealed by His power and are obedient “shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fullness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods, because they have no end.” It is only as a righteous couple that they can do this.

One Flesh

If one does not understand the symbolic meaning of what has been occurring in the Adam and Eve account, the verse that Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians seems like almost an editorial comment thrown into the narrative. But when understood, the verse is a powerful capstone. “Therefore,” or in other words, because man and woman need to be completed in the image of God “shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

After quoting this verse, Elder LeGrand Richards wrote:

It is evident that the Lord did not have in mind that they should be one in purpose and desire, for he makes himself clear as to what this oneness should consist of: “one flesh.”

Jesus understood this principle fully as we learn from his statement: “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Thus Jesus gave us to understand that both man and wife should be “one flesh.”[11]

In the eyes of God, a husband and a wife are no longer two separate beings, but are one unit or one flesh. When Paul reminds the Corinthians, “What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh” (1 Corinthians 6:16), he is calling upon the Old Testament account to stress that it is through the sexual relationship that two souls are made one. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland explains it this way, “Sexual intimacy is not only a symbolic union between a man and a woman—the uniting of their very souls—but it is also symbolic of a union between mortals and deity, between otherwise ordinary and fallible humans uniting for a rare and special moment with God himself and all the powers by which he gives life in this wide universe of ours.”[12]

Within the marital relationship, this union is a synergistic process that is holy and sacred, a process of establishing a man and a woman in the image of God. Outside the marriage relationship, sexual relationships are a sharing of soul with someone unauthorized by God. It is thus a perversion that diminishes and dissipates the soul of the person instead of increasing, expanding, and conforming the couple to the image of God.

As Paul gives advice and admonition to the Corinthians, he repeatedly alludes to the Genesis account, and what he says must therefore take into account the meaning inherent in the Creation story. First Corinthians 7 begins with Paul responding to a question posed by the Corinthians: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (v. 1). “To touch a woman” is a euphemism for sexual relations.[13] The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) makes it clear that the verse which follows is Paul speaking and not part of the Corinthian’s question.[14] As we have established, the scriptures in Genesis explain that physical relationships between a husband and wife are not only permissible but sacred and holy—they are to be one flesh. Paul knows the Corinthians have been taught this, but presumably someone has come among the Corinthians preaching celibacy or asceticism or perhaps misrepresenting Paul, and these teachings have confused them. Paul therefore attempts to reinforce what they know about chastity and marriage: “To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2), and again later he says, “I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot abide, let them marry, for it is better to marry than that any should commit sin” (JST, 1 Corinthians 7:8–9).

If we take these verses out of context, it may appear that Paul is discouraging marriage and that he has never been married. Whether he was never married or is now a widower is unknown. It is possible that in verse 29 Paul is speaking to those being sent forth as missionaries. The Joseph Smith Translation for this verse reads, “I speak unto you who are called unto the ministry. For this I say, brethren, the time that remaineth is but short, that ye shall be sent forth unto the ministry” (JST, 1 Corinthians 7:29). Thus his advice not to marry (see 1 Corinthians 7:8) and his declaration that those who do “shall have trouble in the flesh” (7:28) may mean that it will be easier for missionaries to do the Lord’s work if they will remain unencumbered by family while they are serving (see also JST, 1 Corinthians 7:32–33).

As has been stated, we have no knowledge of Paul’s marital status. However, the Genesis account that Paul refers to and builds upon in his teaching establishes the importance of marriage. Later Jewish law required a man to marry,[15] but at the time of Paul it is unknown what the law required or if it required anything concerning marriage. In answer to the question of whether Paul was married or not, President Joseph Fielding Smith cited 1 Corinthians 11:11: “Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.” He then explained, “That being true Paul would have to be a married man.”[16] In any event, what follows tells us that Paul respected and believed in marriage.

As Paul continues, he confirms the sanctity of the marriage relationship by instructing the Corinthians that if they are already married they should not leave their nonbelieving spouses. As he explains this, Paul constantly stresses the balance that exists between man and woman. He teaches them that an unbelieving husband can be blessed by a believing wife, and an unbelieving wife can be blessed by a believing husband (see 1 Corinthians 7:14; see also D&C 74:1–7). If the unbelieving spouse should depart on his or her own accord, then that is all right, and Paul notes that neither “a brother or a sister is . . . under bondage in such cases” (7:15).

Equality of Men and Women

Many philosophies of the world today tell us that men and women are equal and that equality means sameness.[17] The gospel of Jesus Christ also teaches that men and women are equal but that equality means balance. As President Packer explained, “Men and women have complementary, not competing, responsibilities. There is difference but not inequity. Intelligence and talent favor both of them.”[18] President Spencer W. Kimball reinforced the eternal nature of this principle when he said, “In the world before we came here, faithful women were given certain assignments while faithful men were foreordained to certain priesthood tasks.”[19] In addition, President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “There is nothing in the teachings of the gospel which declares that men are superior to women. The Lord has given unto men the power of priesthood and sent them forth to labor in his service. A woman’s calling is in a different direction.”[20] President Packer explained the importance of these differences: “The separate natures of man and woman were designed by the Father of us all to fulfill the purposes of the gospel plan.”[21] He goes on to explain that while duties are different, “blessings bestowed impartially upon man and woman alike include: Baptism; the gift of the Holy Ghost; the testimony of Jesus; personal revelation; the ministry of angels; the responsibility to teach, to testify, to exhort, to edify and to comfort; the faith to be healed; and many other spiritual gifts. All under a uniform standard for worthiness.”[22]

The Order of the Priesthood

Without this equality there could not be unity in the Church. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul stresses the importance of unity and being one in Christ.[23] Paul teaches that this unity or “at-one-ment” should characterize God’s people. The Prophet Joseph Smith explains the importance of the organization that makes this unity possible: “The spirits of men are eternal. . . . They are organized according to that Priesthood which is everlasting, ‘without beginning of days or end of years.’”[24] Many of the words we use in conjunction with the priesthood illustrate this concept. The Prophet explained that before being called Melchizedek, the priesthood “was called the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” (D&C 107:3; emphasis in original).

An order can be a group of people united or organized in a formal way.[25] In addition to being part of its title, the importance of organization is further emphasized by the fact that a man receives office in the priesthood by being ordained to it. Ordain comes from the Latin root ordinare, which means to put in order. Once ordained with priesthood power, a man has the authority to officiate in ordinances. This English word comes to us through the Middle French ordenance, which means “an act of arranging.”[26] Thus we see that the very titles and vocabulary of the priesthood help us understand the significance of order within the gospel and allow us to define priesthood government on earth as a system by which every righteous individual is united within the proper order—the family order—and empowered to function and progress within the plan of salvation. A man takes his place within the priesthood by being ordained to an office in it. A woman takes her place in the order of the priesthood when she marries in the temple. Upon marriage both the man and woman together enter the patriarchal order of the priesthood. While woman is an integral part of the priesthood, this does not mean she holds the priesthood. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie explains, “Women do not have the priesthood conferred upon them and are not ordained to offices therein, but they are entitled to all priesthood blessings. Those women who go on to their exaltation, ruling and reigning with husbands who are kings and priests, will themselves be queens and priestesses. They will hold positions of power, authority, and preferment in eternity.”[27]

President Spencer W. Kimball stressed the equality that should exist in the patriarchal order. “Our partnerships with our eternal companions, our wives, must be full partnerships. . . . Our sisters do not wish to be indulged or to be treated condescendingly; they desire to be respected and revered as our sisters and our equals. . . . We will be judged, as the Savior said on several occasions, by whether or not we love one another and treat one another accordingly and by whether or not we are of one heart and one mind. We cannot be the Lord’s if we are not one.”[28] President Ezra Taft Benson said, “Adam and Eve provide us with an ideal example of a covenant marriage relationship. They labored together; they had children together; they prayed together; and they taught their children the gospel—together. This is the pattern God would have all righteous men and women imitate.” [29] President Gordon B. Hinckley also said that when a couple understands what it means to be sealed in the temple, they understand that “there would never be in that home any ‘unrighteous dominion’ of husband over wife, no assertion of superiority, . . . but rather an expression in living which says that these two are equally yoked.”[30]

Perhaps nowhere in scripture is this balance more beautifully explained than in 1 Corinthians 11. Verses 3 to 16 are a discussion of appropriate head coverings while praying and prophesying. Paul begins by drawing on the Genesis account again and reminding the people of the established priesthood order of the Church of Jesus Christ: “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 11:3). This is not a hierarchy in the sense of it representing subordination but a line of authority that organizes the family of God. God and Christ’s intent is to make us one with Them, not to have us eternally subordinate to Them. If we want to be one with Them, however, we must be obedient to the eternal laws that allow this to happen. Thus a line of authority in priesthood order is of little concern to those truly striving to be one with God because they realize that the goal is to understand and implement the will of God. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who is in charge or who officiates. If all are seeking to do the will of God, the decision is the same no matter who announces it.

Paul next explains that “every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head” (1 Corinthians 11:4). The Greek text literally says that a man should not pray with anything “hanging down from the head.”[31] In other words, it allows for a head covering as long as it doesn’t hang from his head as a veil does. The next verse states that “every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head” (11:5). Paul does not say that a woman can’t pray or prophesy. Instead he instructs how she should do it—with her head covered.

Older (and some modern) New Testament commentators claimed that this veiling of women was a sign of her subjection to man.[32] But this does not take into account the context of Paul’s discussion. Both Paul’s words and the style he uses to express those words stress that while there needs to be order there is also equality and interdependence between man and woman as shown in a double chiastic structure:

A For the man is not of the woman;

A′ but the woman of the man.

B Neither was the man created for the woman;

B′ but the woman for the man.

C For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.

b′ Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman,

b neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.

a For as the woman is of the man,

a′ even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. (1 Corinthians 11:8–12)

The climactic stress placed on the line “for this cause ought the woman to have power on her head” again tells us that Paul is not speaking of the subordination of women. While this line has been debated a great deal, and there is no consensus as to what Paul meant, it is obvious that it is not about subjection. Paul goes to such lengths to express the equality and balance of the roles of men and women that for him to be urging the women to be veiled as a symbol of their subjection to men does not fit the context. There is no equality or balance in subjection. In addition, Paul has just stated that according to the line of authority man comes under Christ. If veiling were a sign or symbol that one is under some authority, the man would also be covered.

Others have explained that Paul is urging women to maintain a standard of modesty defined by their culture.[33] This interpretation is based upon a later Jewish (Mishnaic) custom which stipulated that married women wear veils, and it is uncertain whether this applied at the time of Paul. But, as Richard B. Hays points out, “It is hard to see how their being unveiled in worship could be regarded as controversial or shameful.”[34] If Paul were merely urging propriety or decorum in dress, why did he limit it to times of prayer? If modesty were the issue, it seems he would urge them to veil themselves whenever they were in public, but he specifically states that the covering is to be done when praying and prophesying. This indicates that it must have symbolic meaning for these religious practices. As Morna D. Hooker points out, “The essential point for [Paul’s] argument is the contrast which he sees in [glory] between man and woman: it is on this contrast that the different regulations regarding head-coverings are based.”[35]

To substantiate his teachings, Paul refers to the Genesis account, not to practices of culture or decorum. Paul recounts that the first woman was created from the man. As we have seen, woman was created to solve the problem of his incompleteness—his inability to procreate alone. Man needs woman. As we are taught in the family proclamation, “The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”[36]

So if veiling does not mean subjection nor is it merely a matter of modesty, what does it mean? Traditionally headgear has often served as a symbol of a person’s power. In facsimile 3 of the book of Abraham, we are told that Abraham’s headgear represents the priesthood and is “emblematical of the grand Presidency in Heaven.” Even though headgear has disappeared as a distinguishing feature in our culture, we still recognize the symbolism in a king’s crown, a mortar board, a nurse’s cap, or a chef’s hat. Today some even imitate others by adopting headgear that once belonged only to participants in certain activities, such as people wearing baseball caps to be like baseball players or cowboy hats to be like cowboys. These hats, while having a practical aspect, also originally signified the abilities and attainments of the person who wore them. Therefore, the veil could be a symbol of a woman’s power and could be why Paul uses the word “power” to describe it (see 1 Corinthians 11:10). Perhaps a woman wears a covering on her head while praying or prophesying as a symbol of the power she brings to the union with her husband—the reason she “is the glory of the man” (1 Corinthians 11:7). While the meaning has been lost, the tradition of veiling still exists in our culture in a modified form at weddings—the time when the man and the woman unite. The tradition of a veil worn by brides may indicate that at one point it was well understood that the veil represented the life-giving power a woman brought to the marriage.

It is important to note that even if at the current time the power to bear life is not operative because a woman is not married or because medical problems prevent conception, every righteous woman will have and will exercise this power at some point. Therefore, the veiling symbolically represents for all women, married or not, mothers or not, the power woman adds to a man’s priesthood authority that conforms them to the image of God.

In Corinthians 11:10, Paul acknowledges that the veil is a symbol of a woman’s power. He says, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” Joseph Smith changed the word “power” to read “covering”;[37] however, the symbolic meaning is still retained by the context. In Paul’s own words, it isn’t because of subjection, modesty, or tradition that a woman is veiled while praying. He says that the reason a woman is covered is “because of the angels.” Angels were traditionally considered to be the protectors of the eternal order of the heavens. As F. F. Bruce explains, “She should keep her head covered because of the angels, who are guardians of the created order.”[38] Thus women are to be veiled while praying to symbolically remind both women and men of the essential role women play in the plan of salvation, the power to give life. As is stated in the family proclamation, “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”[39]

Paul goes on to make another analogy that, while obscure to us, probably helped the Corinthians to better understand the meaning of the veiling and further substantiates that the veil could be a symbol of woman’s power to bear life. Paul equates the veil to women’s long hair. In his Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism, Maurice H. Farbridge uses biblical stories where hair plays an important role, such as the story of Sampson, to conclude that “hair, like blood, is a symbol of life.”[40] Paul seems to take for granted that the Corinthians understand this meaning. They knew that a shaved head could represent death or a misuse of a woman’s ability to give life and that long hair was a covering like a veil—a symbolic tribute to a woman’s power to give life. As Paul explains, even nature concurs that woman’s long hair—like the veil—is a symbol of her power because men, who do not have the power to bear life, may lose their hair while women usually retain their hair (see 1 Corinthians 11:14).

The Roles of Men and Women

It is beyond the scope of this paper to address all the passages in the New Testament that have given Paul a bad reputation concerning women. However, there is one last point that needs to be taken into account when reading Paul. Paul understood the importance and eternal significance of the roles of men and women. In the family proclamation we read, “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.”[41] Men and women are equal, but different.

In many passages that seem to denigrate women, Paul is instructing the people as to how these roles should function. When explaining roles, Paul is sometimes influenced by cultural traditions and biases that we do not understand. As we have established, Paul’s audience understood his words from their cultural context, and Paul assumes they are aware of the Old Testament teachings that inform the concepts. Translators have not always been privileged to either the cultural or the gospel context and therefore misinterpretations and the precepts of men have been inserted into the message. To illustrate this in explaining one problematic passage, 1 Corinthians 14:34–35, the New Testament commentator Anthony C. Thiselton writes that “judgments about translation become immensely difficult because they are inextricably bound up with Paul’s assumption that the Corinthian readers would interpret and understand [his] words.” Thiselton then explains that the word translated into “keep silence” could be understood as “let them be silent; let them hold their peace; let them stop speaking; let them not interrupt.” Likewise the word translated as “speak” could be understood as “to speak, to speak in the way just described, to speak in the way they do.”[42]

Equal Partners

What this means to the modern reader is that the best way to understand Paul’s teachings is to know what the gospel today teaches concerning women and womanhood and to interpret Paul accordingly. In our dispensation, beginning with Joseph Smith, women have been acknowledged as equal and full partners with men. Besides being wives and mothers and nurturers of life in whatever capacity they find themselves, they are to participate and contribute to the growth and development of the Church. When Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society, he told the sisters that “the Church was never perfectly organized until the women were thus organized”[43] and that “the society should move according to the ancient Priesthood.”[44] At the very first meeting of what would become known as the Relief Society, Joseph instructed the sisters that they were to “provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor . . . to assist by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the community, and save the Elders the trouble of rebuking.”[45] He also explained that their purpose was “not only to relieve the poor, but to save souls.”[46] At the sixth meeting of the newly organized Relief Society, Joseph said, “I now turn the key to you in the name of God and this Society shall rejoice and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”[47]

Later President Lorenzo Snow taught that “the Spirit of the gospel teaches every man who lives in the line of his duty that he is in the path of right, and so it does every woman. By it she knows she is walking in the path of truth and life. It is this Spirit which teaches the sisters as well as the brethren the right from the wrong; and she has a perfect right to know the truth of her religion—to have a knowledge for herself that the principles of her profession are divine.”[48] In addition, the Book of Mormon teaches that the Lord “imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also” (Alma 32:23).

In all of these teachings it is evident that God loves His daughters and not only wants them to participate fully in His gospel, but encourages them to do so. President Kimball said, “We want our sisters to be scholars of the scriptures as well as our men.”[49] Perhaps it is only by doing this, by studying the scriptures, that women will come to fully understand their divine destiny and be able to help the women of the world understand what blessings and opportunities are available to them. In conjunction with this, President Kimball said, “Much of the major growth that is coming to the Church in the last days will come because many of the good women of the world . . . will be drawn to the Church in large numbers. This will happen to the degree that the women of the Church reflect righteousness and articulateness in their lives and to the degree that [they] are seen as distinct and different—in happy ways—from the women of the world.”[50]

In no other organization or institution in the world are women offered as much as they are in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul knew this and taught it. Where there are concerns or passages that appear to demean women, we need to read carefully and by the Spirit to determine exactly what is meant. If what is said contradicts or departs from modern prophets, it should be regarded as Paul’s opinion rather than doctrine[51] or perhaps the result of error in copying or translating. Today, we are blessed by the gift of continuing revelation, and we can trust in the words of latter-day prophets and know that in the eternal scheme of things, “pure womanhood plus priesthood means exaltation. But womanhood without priesthood, or priesthood without pure womanhood doesn’t spell exaltation. That’s our responsibility, to keep ourselves clean and honor our priesthood so that we can have exaltation.”[52]


[1] See Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 513; Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 290.

[2] Ehrman, The New Testament, 290.

[3] In 1 Corinthians Paul says seven times, “It is written” (see 1:19; 2:9; 3:19; 9:10; 10:7; 14:21), obviously drawing upon Old Testament writings. In three places he directly refers to the law of Moses or the children of Israel (see 9:10; 10:1–11; 14:21), and in several places he paraphrases or quotes Isaiah (see 15:32, 54). In addition, he repeatedly alludes to the Creation account.

[4] Howard W. Hunter, “Being a Righteous Husband and Father,” Ensign, November 1994, 50.

[5] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, March 1976, 70.

[6] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), 477–78.

[7] Koehler and Baumgartner, Lexicon, 479–80.

[8] Boyd K. Packer, “A Tribute to Women,” Ensign, July 1989, 73.

[9] In the Abraham account (see Abraham 5:14–21) the creation of woman takes place before the naming of the animals. Most Latter-day Saint scholars agree that this is the spiritual creation of woman and that the Genesis 2 and Moses 3 accounts are the physical creation.

[10] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 242.

[11] LeGrand Richards, “The Eternal Companionship: Husband and Wife,” in Woman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 41.

[12] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” BYU devotional address, January 12, 1988.

[13] William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, 1 Corinthians, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 12:206.

[14] The JST reads, “Nevertheless, I say, to avoid fornication,” rather than “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication.”

[15] For a more complete explanation of Paul’s marital status, see Richard Lloyd Anderson’s Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 24–25. See also Kent R. Brooks, “Paul’s Inspired Teachings on Marriage,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, The 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 76–77.

[16] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. ed. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 5:152.

[17] For examples see Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 236; see also Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).

[18] Packer, “Tribute to Women,” 72.

[19] Spencer W. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 316.

[20] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956), 3:178; emphasis in original.

[21] Packer, “Tribute to Women,” 72.

[22] Packer, “Tribute to Women,” 72.

[23] See 1 Corinthians 1:10–17; 3:16–17, 23; 6:13–20; 8:11–12; 10:16–18; 12:12–27; 15:23.

[24] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 208.

[25] See D&C 88:119; 109:8; 132:8, 18. Order seems to be very important to the Lord. Much of the Mosaic law was characterized by order. The temple furniture was arranged in a specific order, rituals were performed in exact ways and were to be routinely followed in daily life. There is so much prescribed order that while some say its only function was to organize society, it appears to be pointing to more important things—to remind people of eternal order.

[26] For a detailed explanation of the importance of these terms, see Boyd K. Packer, “Ordinances,” in Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1970), 13.

[27] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 594; emphasis in original.

[28] Spencer W. Kimball, in Conference Report, October 1979, 71–72.

[29] Ezra Taft Benson, “To the Elect Women of the Kingdom of God,” in Woman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 70.

[30] Gordon B. Hinckley, in Conference Report, April 1985, 65.

[31] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 405.

[32] See Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1824), 250. For modern commentators who have retained this interpretation, see Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville, KN: John Knox Press, 1997).

[33] See Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 111–12; see also D. Kelly Ogden and Andrew C. Skinner, New Testament Apostles Testify of Christ: A Guide for Acts through Revelation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998), 139–40.

[34] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997), 185.

[35] Morna D. Hooker, “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of 1 Cor. 11:10,” in New Testament Studies 10 (1964): 411.

[36] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995, 102.

[37] Thomas A. Wayment, ed., The Complete Joseph Smith Translation of the New Testament: A Side-by-Side Comparison with the King James Version (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 272.

[38] F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 106. Bruce cites G. B. Caird, Principalities and Powers (Oxford University Press, 1956), 17–22, on this issue of angels being guardians of the order.

[39] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” 102.

[40] Maurice H. Farbridge, Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1923), 233.

[41] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” 102.

[42] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1147.

[43] Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), 131.

[44] Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, comp. and ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1994), 110.

[45] Joseph Smith, Words, 104.

[46] Joseph Smith, Teachings, 242.

[47] Joseph Smith, Words, 118.

[48] Lorenzo Snow, The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, comp. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 140.

[49] Spencer W. Kimball, “Privileges and Responsibilities of Sisters,” Ensign, November 1978, 102.

[50] Spencer W. Kimball, “The Role of Righteous Women,” Ensign, November 1979, 103.

[51] In several places Paul acknowledges that he is sharing an opinion and not the will of the Lord (see 1 Corinthians 7:10, 12, 25).

[52] Harold B. Lee, The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 293.