Read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
One of the more difficult and obscure passages in the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which seems so distant from the modern world in setting and argument. I read this passage during the week, and flummoxed (again!), I turned to Richard Hays’ commentary on the book for help.
In terms of the presenting issue: It appears that some of the Corinthian women were praying and prophesying with “uncovered heads,” bringing a degree of shame upon the congregation as a whole, and particularly upon either their husbands, or the men in the congregation in general. The shame was particularly in the eyes of those outside the community.
Paul’s argument begins in verse 3 with a proposition in which he presents a hierarchy of being, as it were: the man is the head of the woman, Christ is the head of man, and God is the head of Christ. Verses 4-6 then present the first argument: a woman should have her head “covered” when she prays or prophesies so that she does not “dishonour” her head. If she will not be appropriately covered she should have her head shaved. But if it is shameful for her to have her head shaved, she should be “covered.”
Verses 7-9 develop the next argument, which asserts the priority of the male as both created first and created in the image of God, and so is a reflector of the divine glory. The woman, created second and “for the man” reflects his glory. Verse 10 is cryptic, a third argument that women should have “authority on” their head “because of the angels”—whatever that means, for no one really knows. Perhaps the best guess is that Paul thought that angels were present in Christians’ worship, honoured supernatural dignitaries whose presence should be honoured with good order.
Verses 11-12 then present a different form of argument, almost a counter-argument: women and men are actually inter-dependent “in the Lord,” with both “coming from God.” This argument counters, to some degree, the argument of verses 3, 7-9, which present an ontological hierarchical structure of being. In verses 13-15 Paul appeals to the testimony of nature, a philosophical form of argument usually avoided by Paul, but used here perhaps to chide that Corinthians that in this instance they are not listening to the philosophers they so eagerly embrace elsewhere! Finally, verse 16 anticipates that not everyone will accept Paul’s arguments here, and so he calls for the Corinthians to retain unity with all the churches: this is the prevailing custom in them all.
Hays makes many important observations about the passage, including these:
- We have only one side of the story and we are presupposing what the Corinthians are saying and doing, and why. And we are also unable to fathom the meaning of some of the details of the argument.
- The social context of the ancient Mediterranean is crucial: contemporary views of a hierarchical social arrangement lie in the background of this text, as do presuppositions and cultural conventions concerning gender distinctions, male and female relationships and roles, and cultural mores about clothing and hair, etc.
- Hays notes that the word “veil” or “veiled” (or something equivalent)—used in many English translations—does not appear in the Greek text, and he opts for a translation of “bound” or tied-up hair, in contrast to unbound or loose hair. Unbound hair was worn by “sexually available” women, perhaps including younger unmarried women, but more likely referring to prostitutes. That is, it had a particular cultural meaning that carried some freight of shame in respectable circles.
- Paul’s appeal to Genesis is clumsy and inaccurate, especially in the light of Genesis 1:27 in which both women and men are created in the image of God. Nevertheless he does bring patriarchal convictions to the situation and these must be faced and interpreted honestly.
- Yet Paul’s counter-point in vv. 10-12 is also at odds with the earlier propositions, and indicates a different situation pertaining “in the Lord.”
- Hays interprets v.10 as saying a woman should have (i.e. exercise) authority “over” her head; that is, a woman’s “bound hair becomes a symbol of the self-control and orderliness that Paul desires for the community as a whole” (188).
- That gender distinctions are inescapable features of contingent human life and an overly-realised eschatological outlook compromises this fundamental creational and time-space reality.
If Hays is correct, Paul is concerned that the public reputation of the church is being compromised. Further, he sees the sexual differentiation of male and female as an enduring and valid aspect of the created order, and not to be blurred or eliminated. Paul’s defence of the ontological priority of the male, however, is unfortunately clumsy, poorly justified, and not necessarily valid, especially in the new situation created in Christ. The more inter-dependent model “in the Lord” is preferred, so long as the gender distinctions so deeply embedded in creation, but also of fundamental cultural sensitivity, are maintained.
His comment on Paul’s aim is well-repeated: “The aim of Paul’s letters is to reshape his churches into cultural patterns that he takes to be consistent with the gospel” (190). In this “gospel-shaped culture” gender distinctions are maintained though without functional limits being applied to the role and ministry of women in the congregation. They may still pray and prophesy, exercising speaking ministries within the church, but are to do so with dignity, avoiding any behaviour that might distract from the message, or scandal that would bring shame on the congregation. It goes without saying that Paul expected the same of the men in the congregation, as so much else in the letter to the Corinthians makes clear.