As a general rule, feminists think that Paul was a misogynist. Evangelical feminists tend to either deny Paul’s misogyny while still being embarassed and confused by him or try to spin him into a proto-egalitarian limited by a sinfully patriarchal culture. All of these views, I believe, are terribly mistaken. But not everyone is so wrong. Rebekah Merkle, author of Eve in Exile and the Restoration of Femininity, understands Paul and the Bible in general much better than any of these groups and even more than the majority of complementarians. She’s definitely not a feminist (much of the book is about how and why feminism gets biblical femininity wrong), but she recognizes that the place women are given in Scripture is mind-blowingly superior to either the place feminists give them (i.e. all the worst places men dwell) or the place many complementarians give them (i.e. on a pedastal in a tidy kitchen). In Eve in Exile, she explores many biblical issues surrounding gender, but my favorite part was her handling of 1 Corinthians 11:3-12, a famously (infamously?) misunderstood key to Paul’s thought.
Now, Mrs. Merkle did an infinitely better job explaining this passage than I could, so I’ll let her speak pretty much entirely for herself:
After he describes who is the head of whom, Paul restates it another way. “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. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man” (vv. 7–8). This, again, sounds suspiciously like women are getting the short end of the deal here. God is glorious, of course, and then man is the image and glory of God, and then the woman is the glory of man. Once more we find the women at the bottom of the glory totem pole. The glory is sort of emanating out from the center, which is God, and getting progressively weaker the further it gets. So if men are like a shadow of God, then women are like a shadow of a shadow, the smallest ripple at the farthest edge. The super badly pixelated image. If we want to know what the glory of God is like we should look at the men because they’re closer to it than the women are, right?
But to read it this way is to read it directly backwards. A quintessentially biblical and very Hebraic way of expressing a superlative is to use the form the Song of Songs or the Holy of Holies. We tend to read this Corinthians passage as if the glory is getting more and more diluted the further it gets away from the center. But stop and think in more biblical categories for a second. If Adam is the crown of creation, then Eve is the crown of the crown. Women are the glory of the glory. When you read of the Holy of Holies in Scripture, are you on the furthest fringe of the holiness, or are you closer to the center? Obviously the holiness isn’t getting weaker as you go into the Holy of Holies, it’s getting stronger, more distilled. Man was created as the image and glory of God, but then along came the woman—second—in an even more concentrated form. The glory of the glory of God. If men are the beer, women are the whiskey. The most potent, strong, and intoxicating version of the glory of God, not the weakest and most watered down. And ironically, this is exemplified by her being created second, as an equal but a helper, as an equal who willingly submits to her head.
Women are not second-class glory. They are the glory of glories, as Christ is the King of Kings and as awards are given to the best of the best. Interestingly, Merkle goes on to connect this directly to the command for wives to submit to their husbands (random tangent: she points out multiple times that, biblically, a wife submits to her own husband, not women in general to men in general):
In fact, that submission itself is what is so glorious, and that is because the willing submission of one equal to another—a submission offered out of love and not out of servitude—is a submission that pictures Christ. Christ, who, as Philippians 2:6 tells us, “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6–8). Christ was equal with God, but willingly humbled Himself. He offered Himself up in submission to God the Father, but not because He was inferior.
When a woman submits to her husband, her head, she is picturing that. She is picturing Christ, willingly submitting, as an equal, to the Head. But what is the end of the story when Christ submits to the Father, even to the point of death on the cross? “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11). That submission ends in exaltation. It ends in glory. He is lifted up and given the name that is above every name.
Of course God the Father and God the Son are equals. More than that, they are not just equals, they are one—but at the same time distinct from each other. In a similar way, of course Adam and Eve are equals. Eve is Adam after all—when he sees her he says, “this is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” She is him, separated from him, glorified, brought back to him to become one with him again. Of course they are equals.
Women need to stop being so offended about being asked to submit to an equal. Christ did not consider it robbery to humble himself and submit to an equal, and neither should we, because when we picture that submission we are picturing the most potent form of glory that there is. We are enacting the story that is at the very heart of all history, the most glorious story ever told. This is not a weak, watered down, pitiful little glory, the one the furthest away from the center. It is the most powerful, the most magnificent, the most intoxicating, the most concentrated picture of glory that can be found in creation. And we are privileged to be the ones asked to do it.
Not everyone will agree with everything that Rebecca Merkle has said here or elsewhere. But gosh dang, it’s better than most everything I hear about women in the Bible.