Thursday, December 2, 2010


A dear friend of mine called the other afternoon a bit perturbed over a message she had heard in church.  The speaker had started with an Old Testament text, then moved to 1 Corinthians 11 and began to preach that women must wear head coverings in church.
This upset my friend greatly.  She’s a woman in her 80s who has been involved in active ministry most of her life.  She of course, is not one to be swayed by one sermon.  Her concern was for the younger, less mature women in the church and how it had upset them, and for those who might be turned off to the Gospel by what she perceived as legalism.  She wanted an opinion and some comments from me.  We talked for about a half hour and I promised I would write down some thoughts on the passage.

The passage under discussion is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:
2. Now I am praising you because you remember me in all things and you hold tight to the traditions, just as I handed over to you.
3. Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.
4. Every man praying or prophesying with head covered disgraces his head.
5. But every woman praying or prophesying with head uncovered disgraces her head, for (she is) one and the same with her who is shaved.
6. For if a woman is not covered she should have her hair cut off.  But if it’s a disgrace to a woman to have her hair cut off or be shaved she should be covered (or cover herself).
7. For a man should not have his head covered since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is man’s glory.
8. For man is not from woman, but woman from man.
9. For indeed man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man.
10. For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels.
11. However, neither is woman without man nor man without woman in the Lord.
12. For even as the woman (came) from the man, so also the man (comes) through the woman.  But all things (come) from God.
13. You yourselves judge among yourselves.  Is it proper for a woman to pray to God uncovered?
14. Doesn’t even nature itself teach you that man, if he wears long hair it’s dishonor to him?
15. But the woman, if she wears long hair, it’s glory to her?  Because the long hair is given to her corresponding to a covering.
16. But if anyone supposes himself to be a disputer, we do not have such a custom, neither (do any of) the churches of God.
This controversial passage has been argued passionately by many as have just about all New Testament passages having to do with women’s roles.  It is one of those passages that I usually avoid digging too deeply into for a number of reasons.  The main reason, however, is that whatever interpretation I come up with will upset some persons.

There are those who use it, I believe, in a way that suppresses women in the ministry.  There are also those who attempt to ignore it completely, or who desire to make it say what it does not.

As I attempt to understand it, three questions come to mind:
• The most important question is:  is there an order of authority to be recognized and followed as the basis for what follows?
• The second question that needs to be dealt with: are women allowed at all to take part in the public worship of the church?  Often those who make the covering a requirement also require that women keep silence in the assembly.  This requirement may range from absolute silence to allowing them to sing or play musical instruments.
• Third, does this passage teach (as it seems to) that women are to have their heads covered?  If so, why, when and with what?  To many, this is the major question.  In some churches women are required to wear some sort of covering in public worship, often a lace veil or something resembling a doily.  I recall that my mother, a Roman Catholic, though she attended church infrequently, would always wear a hat when she did.  For many older women in my youth, even Protestants, it was the thing to do.

I will attempt to deal with these questions in order as I go through the text. This is not a commentary on the whole text, simply an attempt to deal with these questions.

Before I get too far, some notes on word meanings and translations of certain words:
• “man” (14 times) and “woman” (16 times) are aner and gune, the same words that are elsewhere translated “husband” and “wife.”
• “traditions” and “handed over” (verse 3) are paradoseis and paradidomi. Though paradoseis often refers to human traditions, as Paul uses the words, these are not simply “customs” to be accepted or rejected, but are revealed truth.  In 11:23, Paul says that he “handed over” (paradidomi) the truths of the Lord’s Supper.  In 15:3, he uses the word of his “handing over of the first things,” the facts of the Gospel itself.  Also see 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6.
• “nature” (verse 14) does not speak of nature as we usually think of it – that which we can observe in the world of plants and animals – but simply “the way things are” – human nature or disposition.  Paul says of himself and Peter in Galatians 2:7, “we are Jews by nature.” Romans 2:14, “The Gentiles do the things of the Law, by nature.”
• “corresponding to” (verse 15) translates the word anti, which usually means “in place of.”
• “custom” (verse 16) is sunetheian and speaks of an optional practice which may or may not be ignored. In 8:7, it speaks of self-imposed dietary restrictions (“custom of the idol”).

I believe the “traditions” that Paul “handed over” to the Corinthians refer not necessarily to the issue of women’s coverings, but to the doctrine related in verse 3.  There is a “headship” order to be recognized and followed.  Though the context is that of public worship, the principles go beyond.  They apply to every aspect of our theology and practice – our understanding of God and of human relationships.

Paul talks here of three “headship” relationships:
• Within the Trinity, God, the Father is the Head of Christ the Son.  Though all three members of the Trinity are equally God, there is a “functional” or “economic” subordination of the Son to the Father.
• There is a “headship” relationship of Christ the Son, to a man.  Christ is my Head, my authority.  I am subordinate to Him.  No one would argue this one.
• The woman is subordinate to the man.  We must remember that he is not saying “women” and “men,” but uses the singular.  This refers, I believe, to the husband/wife headship/subordination.  It is similar to the relationship of the Son to the Father within the Trinity.  The wife and husband are equals, but there is a “functional” or “economic” subordination of the wife to her husband.

Though it does not say clearly in the text, this appears to be an allusion to the fact that the man/woman relationship is somehow an aspect of the image of God. Genesis 1:26a, 27, “And God said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and according to our likeness …’’  And God made man; according to His image He made him, male and female He made them.”

The answer to the second question should seem obvious from the text.  It seems clear that women are allowed to take part in public worship of the church – to have speaking roles.  The restrictions mentioned are addressed to the women who “pray or prophesy.”  They seem to have been doing so in Corinth.  The negative command is directed at those who did so without meeting certain restrictions (verses 5 and 13).  If women were not praying and prophesying, the restrictions would be meaningless.

By the way, there seem to be no restrictions placed on women who do not “pray or prophesy”!

Now to the third question.  If the word “traditions” mentioned in verse 2 speaks primarily of the doctrine of headship in verse 3, as I believe, then the whole issue of women’s head covering falls within some other category.  It is an issue of “custom” (verse 16).  The doctrine is essential; headship must be recognized.  The married woman must have some way of demonstrating her subordination to the husband’s headship.  In Corinth and possibly through much of the first century Mediterranean world, it was demonstrated by her veil.  Paul also mentions the long hair as a symbol given “corresponding to” (or in place of) a covering.”  Apparently this could also serve as a symbol of the wife’s subordination.

It would seem to me, that if the head covering was simply a matter of “custom,” then as customs change, it could lose its significance.  Why shouldn’t symbols be a matter of personal agreement between a woman and her husband?  The issue is not a piece of cloth but the headship/subordination of a man and a woman as a symbol and sign of the relationship of Father and Son.

It is interesting to me that in another passage speaking of public prayer, Paul makes no mention of a head covering. 1Timothy 2:8-10:  “I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger and argument.  Likewise also women to clothe themselves in modest clothing, with decency and discretion not with braided hair and gold or pearls or extravagant clothing, but with that which is fitting a woman professing godliness – with good works.”

Though some would disagree, it seems that here Paul is instructing both men and women about public prayers, giving some requirements as to their inward and outward condition.  Here it is modesty of dress and appearance, not a veil that is required.  The passage in Corinthians was addressed to a particular assembly; this passage seems to be more universal.  Note all the references to “all” and “every” throughout, starting with verse 1.


This passage gives instructions as to some requirements for both women and men in the public worship in the church at Corinth.  Paul assumes that both men and women have speaking roles in the worship.  His concern is that both men and women show by their dress, the headship/subordination that exists within the Godhead and the family.

The particular way that women were to demonstrate this was the wearing of some sort of head covering, or veil or long hair.

I believe that the text teaches that the externals are a matter of custom, not doctrinal truth.  Therefore, as customs change, this custom could change as well.  The important issue is that the husband and wife maintain that headship/subordination.  It would seem that whatever symbols are used should be a matter agreed upon by the wife/husband.


OneBigHappy said...

I just read through my response below and I realize the tone could come off a little harsh, which is not the intent or feeling here as I write it. Your post is excellent and I am only hoping to add to the discussion. -- I have studied this passage at length and I would suggest that coming out of chapter 10, it is clear that the Apostle's larger concern, the context that makes sense of all of his directions in chapter 11, is the issue of disunity and division in the church and it's effect on the advancement of the Gospel. The Corinthians were involved in behaviors that were causing a lot of friction and problems, and it was hurting their witness for Christ in the surrounding community. The details of the disunity were particular to that church at the time, but the main concern is the division resulting from Christians thinking they can ignore culture or social norms (such as head coverings) in the name of Christ, to the detriment of the advancement of the Gospel-- he would not tolerate that. In fact, he would rather choose to be all things to all men so that some might be saved (1 Cor. 9). And the same thing would apply to any church in the world today. If you are doing something in your church that you have freedom in Christ to do, but it so alienates you from the culture you are trying to reach with the Gospel that you lose the influence you need, or if it causes unnecessary division in your church that compromises your witness for Christ, then you need to stop that behavior. -- I think we need to be careful not to lose sight of the principles by getting consumed with the particulars, especially when the particulars aren't really the point.

Bill Ball said...

Thanks for the insights and for placing the issue in context I realize that the church at Corinth had many problems and that it's always a bit dangerous to deal with a passage without taking the entire context into consideration.

Sherry said...

so now you'll have to answer the questions raised by the verses in Timothy: should me wife leave her jewelry at home?

Anonymous said...

really an eye opener for me.

- Robson