Read the passage here.
Our passage today is one of the most notoriously difficult passages in 1 Corinthians, if not in the New Testament. There are a number of reasons for this assessment, which include Paul’s terminology, his logical flow, as well as the cultural (in this case, religious) context. And, as we’ve seen in other parts of this letter, a big part of the issue in interpreting 1 Corinthians is that Paul is talking to people who more or less know what he’s talking about and therefore don’t need a lot of explanation. That is to say (as we’ve discussed before), Paul is engaged in a conversation and we are only privy to one side of that conversation. All that to say that, in this passage, it is difficult to know what exactly Paul is talking about.
However, we are going to do our best, in the limited time that we have, to unpack a little of this and, though we won’t likely arrive at a definitive “interpretation,” try to get a sense of what is going on with this passage in the context of the letter.
To begin with, let’s identify some of the issues with the interpretation of this passage. Now as I said, this is one of the more controversial passages in the NT, and also you may have different questions than I am addressing, so I apologize in advance if we don’t touch on the things you are wondering about.
Having said that, right off the bat, Paul begins this section by saying, “2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.” The question is raised, then, “what traditions?” Based on what’s going on in this passage and the next several chapters, it seems reasonable to assume that, broadly speaking, Paul is speaking about worship practices (indeed, this is the common assumption/interpretation). However, it is difficult to be certain based on the text itself (though v. 4. does talk about women who “pray and prophecy” with their heads uncovered – which seems to be in the context of corporate worship). So, the first question is, “What traditions?”
Moving to verse 3, Paul makes what is a pretty puzzling statement:
But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.1 Corinthians 11:3
Now this verse has caused a certain amount of difficulty for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it has sometimes been taken to mean something about order of authority. That is, it has been interpreted to mean that Christ has authority over every man, that man has authority over woman, and that God has authority over Christ. The difficulty with this, firstly, is that the rest of the passage doesn’t seem to have anything to do with authority. To read it (vv.2-16) as having to do with authority requires making some assumptions that can’t really be located in the text. To put it another way – and bluntly – those who use this passage in order to support the subjugation of women are likely not standing on firm ground (of course, it’s worth noting here that my personal inclination is towards an egalitarian position).
Secondly, and related to this, is the question of the interpretation of the word “head” (Gk. Kephale, kefalh). While in our culture, it is reasonable to, in the right context, interpret “head” as synonymous with “leader” (or something like that), it’s not at all clear that the same metaphorical connection can be made in the Greek. Which isn’t to say that such usage is unheard of (far from it). But it may not be nearly as common a usage as it is in our language. Moreover, and again, it does not seem like this (authority) is the issue that Paul is talking about in this passage. Therefore, in order to translate kephale as “authority,” one is hard pressed to provide suitable justification.
In response to this, some have offered that the preferable translation of kephale is “Source.” If this is accurate, the passage would read (or have the sense of), “3 But I want you to realize that the [source] of every man is Christ, and the [source] of the woman is man, and the [source] of Christ is God.” Now this has much to commend it, and is supported by numerous commentators (including Fee, Bruce). But it is far from certain that this is the best or even preferable translation (not the least of the issues is the possibility that the translation of “the [source] of Christ is God,” smacks of the heresy of Arianism).
All that is to simply reiterate, it is very difficult to be sure of the translation of this verse.
Moving on, as we continue on in the passage, Paul says:
4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.1 Corinthians 11: 4-5
So we can understand that the issue has something to do with having the head covered or uncovered for men and women respectively. Now there are a number of interpretive issues or questions around this, as well. What is unclear is what exactly this means (unhelpful, I know). Of course, it could have to do with some article of clothing – literally a head covering of some sort. Some have argued that what’s referred to is long or shorter hair (for women and men respectively). This is less likely due specifically to verse 5. That is, the fact that Paul says “it would be as if she cut her hair short” makes it extremely unlikely that some women did in fact have their hair cut short – that is, the analogy would not work (re-write this whole section).
More at issue is Paul’s logic or train of thought throughout. And this is difficult because we simply don’t have a good (or any) handle on the specific issue (the aforementioned head covering) or the context surrounding it. We won’t get into it, but in the first paragraph, how is the charge to wear (women) or not wear (men) a head covering related to verse 3 (the discussion around being a “head”)? In the second paragraph (7-12), what does Paul mean by relating head covering (or hair length) to glory (of man and of God)? In the third paragraph, what is meant by a man having long hair being a disgrace (and subsequently that Jesus is almost always depicted as having long hair – as he probably actually did), and a woman having long hair it being her glory?
In short, it’s really hard to follow Paul’s logic here because we simply don’t have a good understanding of the referents or the context.
The last thing we will touch on (and no more than that) is verse 10: “10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her ownhead, because of the angels.” What is meant by “a woman ought to have authority over her own head,” is certainly unclear. Does it mean a woman ought to have control over (that is, ought to keep control over) her own head (and does this literally mean her head, or does it mean more generally herself?) Or does it mean, as some English translations have it, that a woman should have an external authority over her – i.e. that a woman should have a man exercising authority over her? Again, this is simply not clear based on the text (although of course one can insert their own assumptions into the reading of the text).
But even more confounding is, what the heck does Paul mean by “because of the angels”? I should probably say more about this, but because it is so obscure, let me just say that we don’t know what Paul means by this.
Now all this may suggest that we simply have no idea what to do with this passage. But while the passage is definitely difficult, it doesn’t mean that we’re completely clueless. There are in fact some things we can know, or at least be reasonably confident about, regarding this passage. Again, we’re not going to examine each of these things in depth – I’m merely going to provide bullet points. But I hope that will be sufficient.
Firstly, we can be fairly confident that the issue at hand has to do with corporate worship. We can make this assumption based largely on vv. 4-5 of our passage today. But if we also consider the surrounding texts, we see that the next several chapters seem also to have to do with corporate worship. The rest of chapter 11 (17-34) have to do with the Lord’s Supper; chapter 12 (and chapter 13 by extension) has to do with spiritual gifts, and seems to have to do with spiritual gifts in general. But chapter 14 places this in the context of worship, or at least the corporate gathering.
Now of course, this isn’t 100% definitive. I am simply trying to say that it is reasonable to assume that the main concern underlying our passage today has to do with corporate worship.
The second thing we can know comes from consideration of the larger issues in 1 Corinthians. Specifically, we know that one of the issues in the congregation has to do with the understanding of spirituality and assumptions about spiritual maturity. Which is to say that the Corinthians seemed to have a pretty distorted understanding of Christian spirituality, at least in some places. And again, we should point out that it’s not as if the Corinthians’ faith was altogether wrong – that is, at no point does Paul seem to imply that the Corinthians were not true believers. Rather, it was simply the case that their understanding of Jesus and the Way was largely influenced by the assumptions that they carried over from the culture at large.
Now we can’t know exactly how this is worked out in our passage today, but it would seem that there’s something about how the Corinthians are behaving – which is based on these distorted understandings – that is inappropriate for the context (and again, it seems likely that the specific context is worship).
A final thing we can know from this passage is that Paul seems to acknowledge some fundamental differences between men and women. Now we have to be careful how we understand this, especially because of the tendency for some to make this passage (and others like it) mean more than it can or does. For example, as we’ve already said, it’s likely reading far too much into the passage to assume that Paul is talking about authority. But it’s also unclear whether, or to what extent, Paul is addressing ontological differences or cultural differences. So, to this point, though it is evident that Paul is advocating for differing roles for men and women in worship, it’s less clear whether he sees these differences as part of the creation order or part of a cultural (or some other) expectation.
So having said all that, if we can engage in some speculative reconstruction, here’s what might be going on. (And it should be said that I’m following some of the major commentators here). In (very) short, it is speculated that there are some women in the Corinthian congregation who are causing a bit of a ruckus in the context of corporate worship. Now it’s worth noting that not all commentators agree that it’s women who are the problem – after all, Paul’s first word in this passage is to the men. However, on balance, it seems likely that his primary concern is the women.
Now we should also note that the Christian community is distinct among its contemporaries (especially when we consider traditional Jewish worship) in that women are clearly allowed to participate alongside the men. However, the women in Corinth, for lack of a better phrase, have taken their (true) freedom in Christ too far, inasmuch as the exercise of their freedom is causing disturbances in worship. And so this is the situation that Paul is addressing here. And as we suggested earlier, he then goes on in the letter to address additional issues in the Corinthians’ worship or gatherings. That is, he’s concerned with their practice of Christian community.
Now at this point, we usually try to reflect on practical application (or something like that). Obviously, this is more difficult when we don’t have a firm grasp on what exactly is going on in the text. However, I believe there are a couple of things we can at least consider.
Firstly, I want to reflect very briefly on how what we just said may continue one of the themes that we’ve been tracking throughout this letter. Consider the following verses:
- 8:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
- 9:19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
- 10:9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
Now for the particular women in the Corinthian community (based on the speculative reconstruction we discussed), they may be so entranced by their experience or understanding of freedom in Christ that they think that this is the most important thing. But over and over, the New Testament writers (indeed, the entire scope of scripture) remind us that God’s purpose is to create a people for Himself. And while that does not mean ignoring or diminishing the individual, what it does mean is that it’s not all about me. And perhaps nowhere should this be more evident than in worship.
There are a whole host of implications that arise out of this, most of which we won’t get into here. But perhaps one thing which we can consider, especially given our own western, consumer-driven, ego-centric culture, is that worship is not, and should not be, about “what I get out of it.” But lest I digress, I want to consider one more thing.
And that is the significance(?) or value of ambiguity in passages such as this one. If we want to be a little more orthodox, we might use the phrase “mystery.” What I mean is this: In our post-Enlightenment framework, it is often really tempting to think about the value of scripture (or if I’m being more unkind, the utility of scripture) as being dependent upon my understanding of it. And of course, it is extremely important that we understand, and continue to try to understand scripture. It is the word of God; God’s revelation to humankind. Of course we should make every effort to understand it (for of course, scripture is meant to be understandable).
But the dark side of that (if I can frame it that way) is that in my understanding it, I think that I have mastered it or that I now possess it. Scripture then becomes something under my control instead of something I stand under.
So I simply want to say that perhaps it is good that there are parts of scripture that make us wonder. Perhaps it is good that there are parts that are difficult or unclear. Maybe then we can let go of the idea that the value of scripture lies in my ability to explain it. Maybe then, instead of mostly being concerned with what I have to say about scripture, our primary posture can be one of listening.
So with all that said, let’s be reminded again how much is dependent upon the Spirit of God working in us. Make no mistake – and this is largely what Paul is concerned about in 1 Corinthians – we are called to make an effort, to be intentional, to actively seek to live up to the salvation to which we have been called. However, we cannot do any of this without the Spirit of God working in us.
So we trust in God. We will be confident of this, “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”