Head Coverings!—An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16

The following paper was prepared for Dr. Steven McKinion’s Hermeneutics class, with the constraints that it be between eight and twelve pages, with at least eight academic sources, two of which had to be journals.

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Overview

First Corinthians 11:2–16 is one of the most controversial passages in modern hermeneutics. The plain meaning of the text is straightforward: Paul argues that men ought to have their heads uncovered and women ought to have their heads covered when praying or prophesying in the church. The interpretive challenge stems from three interwoven issues.

First, the interpreter must decide how to resolve a number of perplexing textual difficulties in the passage. Second, since Paul’s injunction seems to be culturally situated—no one today wears clothing remotely like that of Paul’s day, head coverings included—interpreters must decide how to respond to Paul’s instructions. It is impossible to follow his instructions as the recipients of his letter would, as it is unclear exactly what the “head covering” was. Moreover, as will be seen, Paul’s argument is complex, leaning on a combination of the creation order, and a universal sense of what is appropriate to men and women. Thus, correct interpretation must respect both the creation order and variations in cultural perceptions of propriety. Third, the interpretation of the passage’s comments on the “headship” relationship between men and women have been the subject of much controversy. These difficulties notwithstanding, Paul’s central thesis remains clear: men and women ought to dress in a way that demonstrates the differences between the genders.

Analysis

The passage follows immediately after Paul’s lengthy treatment of the Christian responsibility to give up one’s freedoms for the sake of others. From 11:2 through 14:40, Paul applies that principle to the life of the church, driving it home with the pericope on love in chapter 13, beginning here with the issue of head coverings in worship.1 The passage is structured as an A-B-C-A′-B′ chiasm.2 Following a short transitionary note (v. 2, A), the passage’s three major sections are: an introduction to Paul’s views on head-coverings for men and women with an argument from culture (vv. 3–6, B), an argument from the created order (vv. 7–12, C), and an argument from a sense of propriety (vv. 13–15, B′). Paul concludes by referring any would-be dissenters to the witness of the church at large (v. 16, A′).

A: Introduction (11:2)

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.

Paul opens the text by commending the Corinthians for the ways they have held to the tradition he passed on to them before moving onto his critique. His compliment is apparently sincere, not ironic or sarcastic, and fits his general pattern of encouraging before critiquing.3 The Corinthians, whatever their many faults, have nonetheless held true to the gospel itself. However, many of the problems Paul addresses throughout the book are the result of the Corinthians’ failure to remember that the tradition they received included the promise of future fulfillment. The same is true here: the people of Corinth seem to have taken Jesus’ teaching on the marriage-less (and perhaps by implication, sex- or genderless) future of the saints as the basis for erasing the present-day distinctions between men and women—specifically in terms of their apparel during the worship service.4

B: Heading and Argument From Culture (11:3–6)

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.

Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.

Paul begins his criticism with a much-discussed statement: “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (v. 3, author’s translation). Paul uses “head” (κεφαλή) throughout the passage both metaphorically (as here) and literally (as whenever he refers to head coverings or hair). In verse 3, he notes a set of inherent distinctions: man from Christ, Christ from God, and woman from man. Paul gradually elaborates on and reinforces this distinction in each section of the passage. As such, it serves as the theological foundation for his argument. He is at pains to make clear that the distinction between men and women cannot be ignored any more than the distinction between Father and Son.

Having given his argument its theological basis, Paul clearly states his thesis (verses 4–5a): men ought to have their heads uncovered and women ought to have their heads covered when praying or prophesying in the church.5 Having one’s physical head covered or uncovered respectively dishonors one’s metaphorical head. A woman praying with her physical head uncovered dishonors her metaphorical head, man, because “it is the same as if her head were shaven” (v. 5, ESV), and being shorn or shaven was shameful (v. 6). By contrast, a man having his physical head shorn or shaven was perfectly ordinary; indeed, Paul shaved his own head (Acts 18:18). In other words, by praying or prophesying with her head uncovered, a woman was blurring the distinction God ordained between men and women, while a man dishonored Christ by covering his head—by blurring the distinction the other direction.

Since the wearing or not wearing of a head-covering is clearly a culturally bound practice, most scholars attempt to interpret these comments in light of Corinthian culture. Unfortunately, available evidence on head coverings in the first century is at best inconclusive. Contemporary art and literature suggests that women only sometimes wore their hair covered when in public—certainly not with the kinds of absolute moral implications assumed by many earlier commentators or associated with the Muslim world today.6 Moreover, it is entirely possible that Paul’s instructions ran counter to common liturgical practices in Corinth.7 The attempt to draw broad interpretive conclusions from the cultural setting is therefore a dead end.

Moreover, the focus on Corinthian culture tends to distract from the simple formula with which Paul introduced the section, and for which he argues throughout the remainder of the passage (5b–15). Paul expected the Corinthians to understand that eliminating the distinctions between men and women in worship was inappropriate—regardless of the cultural practices around them. Paul hammers this home for the women in particular in verse 6: women who want to erase these distinctions in worship should carry all the way through and shave their heads entirely—but if not, they should keep their heads covered in worship and thereby reflect the relations God instituted.8 The details were cultural, but note that Paul grounds the argument itself in ontological rather than cultural categories.

Aside: Gender Politics and Interpretation

Since the 1950s, interpretation of the passage has been contested by those arguing for and against women’s ordination. Much of the controversy centers on Paul’s use of the word “head” (κεφαλή) throughout the passage, but especially in verses 3 and 10. Specifically, feminist interpreters have suggested that “head” here means “source,” against the historical reading that it means (at least by implication) “authority over”9—a position assumed by the majority of commentators until the middle of the twentieth century.10 Much of the discussion has centered here on the question of whether women are to be subordinate to men. This is at most an incidental issue for Paul, though. He notes the distinction between men and women not to explain his view of “headship” but rather as the basis of his argument that their behavior in the church should reflect that difference.11 To reiterate: Paul does not define headship in this passage; he rather assumes it. One’s understanding of “headship” in this passage is therefore necessarily informed by one’s understanding of the other passages that speak to the issue of male “headship,” especially Ephesians 5.

C: Argument From Creation (11:7–12)

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

Coming to the center of the chiastic structure, Paul immediately reinforces the general (rather than culturally-bound) nature of his argument, arguing now from the creation narrative. He begins by summarizing his second argument for women wearing head coverings: “man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man” (v. 7, ESV). The obvious inference from the final part of the verse is that a woman ought to cover her head because she is the glory of man.12 The introduction of “glory” (δόξα) is thus not a change in topic, but a continuation of the same idea: as with “(dis)honor” in verses 3–5, so with “glory” here. Man brings honor and glory to Christ with his head uncovered; woman brings honor and glory to man with her head covered. This corresponds neatly to the order Paul outlined in verse 3.13

Paul then expands on and clarifies this idea in a double chiasm in verses 8–12, centering on verse 10.14 In the first sub-chiasm (verses 8–9), Paul argues from the creation order (in language clearly referring to Genesis 2). Woman is man’s “glory” as he is the “glory and image” of God precisely because she originated from him and was created for him. By implication, man is God’s glory because he originated with God and was created for God. This emphasizes Paul’s original point: man is woman’s “head” because man was not made from or for woman, but woman was created both from and for man.15 Thus, the first half of the chiasm is a simple explanation of Paul’s point in verse 7 (itself a restatement of his thesis).

As if anticipating the ways this passage would be abused, Paul quickly moves to restrict its interpretation in the second sub-chiasm (verses 11–12): neither are women independent of men, nor men of women. Just as woman was originally formed from man, now all men are born of women. Thus, although woman was created from and for man, he cannot claim any superiority on that basis: she has become his source just as he was hers. Even more importantly, men and women are mutually dependent “in the Lord”—language that is common throughout Paul’s epistles whenever he is calling believers to unity (cf. Ephesians 2:13–21, Philippians 2:1–2, Galatians 3:28). The ontological relationship between the sexes that God established in creation is to be preserved, but characterized by mutual dependence and unity in Christ—not by domineering or abuse.16

Each sub-chiasm is relatively clear on its own, but the relationships between the sub-chiasms, and between each of them and the turn in verse 10, are less immediately obvious. Indeed, the primary challenge in interpreting this section—and, arguably, of interpreting the entire passage—is understanding verse 10. Translated somewhat woodenly, the sentence reads, “For this reason, a woman ought to have authority on/over her head, because of the angels” (author’s translation). The language of the first sub-chasm suggests that Paul might mean be using “authority” (ἐξουσία) metonymously, despite the linguistic oddity of this move.17. If so, the passage reads, “a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.”18 On the other hand, Paul’s language in the following sentence (“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man”) doubly suggests that he means what the text more naturally says: “a woman ought to have authority over her [own] head.”19 First, the use of “nevertheless” sets the second sub-chiasm in contrast to the turn. Second, the fact that Paul begins by emphasizing that woman is not independent of man (rather than vice versa) suggests that it is her authority, not the man’s, that is in view.20

The reference to “the angels” (ἀγγελός) further complicates matters. The least complicated possibility is that Paul means “messenger”—a position taken by a number of patristic sources,21 in which case the phrase simply means that the behavior of the Corinthians was offensive to visitors from other churches. More likely, however, Paul means angelic beings, in which case there are several possibilities. One is that the angels are present in corporate worship and offended at the woman’s rejection of the order God ordained, being obedient as they are to God in all things.22 Another is that the women, who will someday exercise authority over angels (cf. 7:1) should exercise authority over their own heads now.23 Finally, it is possible that this represents a Corinthian argument that the women already had authority “to be ‘uncovered’ because they were already as the angels… or perhaps because they were speaking the language of the angels.”24

While granting that it is impossible to know for certain which of these Paul intended, it is also important to note that the proposed interpretation of the passage holds true regardless of which option is selected, with regard to both the case of the woman’s authority on/over her head and the issue of the “angels.”25 Paul’s point, once again, is simply that women and men must reflect the differences God ordained between them in their attire in worship. Perhaps women are to wear head coverings as a sign of male authority; perhaps they are to exercise the authority they have over their own heads in loving service to the rest of the community by wearing a head covering self-sacrificially. Similarly, however one understands the angels, the woman’s head covering is a demonstration that she willingly maintains the distinction between herself and men in the worship service (as is the man’s uncovered head). In each case, Paul’s call to self-sacrificial, loving exercise of freedom cleanly cuts through the interpretive dilemma.26

B′: Argument From Nature (11:13–15)

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

Finally, Paul repeats and further explains his thesis in verses 13–15a. He first charges the Corinthians to use their own judgment in this area, clearly expecting them to agree that a woman should not pray with her head uncovered. Then, repeating the key words from the preceding sections—dishonor (v. 14), glory (v. 15a), and covering (v. 15b)—he advances his thesis once more. This time, Paul argues from “nature,” which is not “natural law” but “what everyone knows,” the sort of thing they could judge for themselves (just as Paul tells them to).27

It should have been obvious to them that long hair was disgraceful for a man but a glory for a woman This broad distinction has characterized not only ancient Corinth but most cultures throughout the world. Long hair on a woman is valued in most places at most times; shorter-cut, more functional hair is the usual trend for men. As Paul explains (v. 15b), a woman’s hair itself was given to her for a covering. This is not an indication that a worshipping woman does not need a head covering after all, but rather the final reiteration of Paul’s argument: a woman’s hair functions to distinguish her from a man generally in the same way that head coverings do during worship specifically.

A′: Conclusion (11:16)

But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other28 practice, nor have the churches of God.

Paul concludes the passage by turning to the church universal. Just as he opened by reminding the Corinthians that they were the recipients of the “tradition,” he closes by reminding them that they are not a solitary congregation free to as they will. Instead, they are a part of the broader body of Christ. Any contentiousness about the practice of head coverings thus set them squarely against the practice of all the apostles and other churches. Just as they should not ignore parts of the tradition passed on to them, they should not cavalierly and arrogantly stand in opposition to the rest of the church. Paul confronted anyone who wished to argue the point with the reality that the issue was not up for debate.29

Conclusion

As Paul’s concluding comment in the passage emphasizes, his concern for the practice of the church was theological, not merely pragmatic. He makes no reference whatsoever to outsiders’ opinions (a move he made already in the book; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1–2), focusing instead on ontology, creation order, and “nature.” God’s created order grounds the injunction, the apostolic tradition and the practice of the catholic church center it, and mutual love empowers obedience to it. Men and women should live so as to show their right relationship to God and to each other: man is the glory of God and woman is the glory of man; Christ is the head of man and man is the head of woman. Head coverings, for the church in the first century, were a means of expressing this ontological reality in the worship of the church.

Significance and Application

Plainly, men should not dress like women, nor women like men, in the context of corporate worship—however the particulars of this admonition vary from one culture to another. There is a deeper significance here, though, and more to be gleaned from the seriousness with which Paul treated as apparently trivial an issue as head coverings. First, men and women are gloriously distinct, and a failure to honor these distinctions in worship is a failure to honor God. Throughout the passage, Paul is at pains to emphasize that the differences between men and women were not mere accidents in the creation order, but are ontological realities comparable to the distinction between God and Christ in the eternal communion of the Trinity. Those who wish to blur these differences and distinctions—whether in the culture at large, or in the context of the congregation—are missing something important and glorious in God’s design.

At the same time, Paul’s focus on this small detail should encourage believers to take the shape of their worship more seriously. As Terry comments, this final section emphasizes that “Christ was Lord of the universe, and pagan religion, Greek or otherwise, was wicked… [and] each aspect of pagan religion that made its way into the Christian community must give way before the authority of Christ.”30 This extends to head coverings, to the relationships between social classes in festal meals, to the use of spiritual gifts—that is, to every aspect of the life of the congregation. Believers cannot afford to take lightly the liturgical practices of their congregations, for these liturgical practices reflect the congregation’s views of deeper realities. The unconsidered liturgy is therefore all but certain to include (and therefore proclaim) sub- or anti-Christian views. The God-fearing congregation therefore ought to make its liturgical decisions very carefully, with self-sacrificial love and right theology as the twin guards of orthopraxy—right down to the details of clothing.


Works Cited

  • Bedale, S. “The Meaning of κεφαλή in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954): 211–15.

  • Belleville, Linda L. “Κεφαλή and the Thorny Issue of Headcovering in 1 Corinthians 11:2–6.” In Paul and the Corinthians: Studies on a Community in Conflict. Essays in Honour of Margaret Thrall, edited by Trevor J. Burke and J. Keith Elliott. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2003.

  • Bray, Gerald, ed. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament VII: 1–2 Corinthians. Edited by Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1999.

  • Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

  • Grudem, Wayne. “Does κεφαλή (“Head”) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority over’ in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples.” Trinity Journal 6, no. 1 (1985): 38–59.

  • Grudem, Wayne. “The Meaning Of κεφαλὴ (“Head”): An Evaluation Of New Evidence, Real And Alleged.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 1 (March 2001): 25–65.

  • Lockwood, Gregory J. 1 Corinthians. Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture. Edited by Dean O. Wenthe, Christopher W. Mitchell, Jeffrey A. Gibbs, and Kenneth C. Wagener. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000.

  • Olshausen, Hermann. A Commentary on Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1855. Reprint: Minneapolis, Minnesota: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1984.

  • Payne, Philip. Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009. Cited in Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.

  • Robertson, Archibald, and Alfred Plummer. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Edited by Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs. 2nd ed. 1914. Reprint, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1967.

  • Schreiner, Thomas R. “Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.” In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, 117–132. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991.

  • Terry, Ralph Bruce. A Discourse Analysis of First Corinthians. Dallas: The Summer Institute of Linguistics and The University of Texas at Arlington Publications in Linguistics, 1995.


  1. Gregory J. Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture, ed. Dean O. Wenthe, Christopher W. Mitchell, Jeffrey A. Gibbs, and Kenneth C. Wagener (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000), 357; Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, The International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, ed. Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs, 2nd ed. (1914; repr., Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1967), 226; Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 266–267, 493. 
  2. Partly following Fee, 493–498. The chiastic structure is not quite perfect: in B, Paul includes an introductory statement. This appears to be intentional: he does the same in the construction of section C itself. 
  3. See Fee, 500; Lockwood, 361. 
  4. Fee, 500. 
  5. Note that Paul is not interested here in the question of whether women should pray and prophesy publicly in the church; he simply assumes it. The relationship with 1 Corinthians 14:33–34 and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 is obviously complex. Here it is left aside as inconsequential to Paul’s thesis. 
  6. Contra e.g. Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 26.5; Lockwood, 363, 363 n. 16. See Fee, 492, 506–510; Linda L. Belleville, “Κεφαλή and the Thorny Issue of Headcovering in 1 Corinthians 11:2–6,” in Paul and the Corinthians: Studies on a Community in Conflict. Essays in Honour of Margaret Thrall, ed. Trevor J. Burke and J. Keith Elliott (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2003), 215, 218–219; and especially Ralph Bruce Terry, A Discourse Analysis of First Corinthians (Dallas: The Summer Institute of Linguistics and The University of Texas at Arlington Publications in Linguistics, 1995), 27–31. 
  7. So Terry, 31: “The evidence seems to indicate that, in the first century among the Romans, both men and women covered their heads at worship, while among the Greeks, both men and women uncovered their heads when they worshiped. Thus the tradition which Paul advocated in 1 Corinthians 11 was, contrary to popular opinion today, not grounded in the social customs of Corinth, but opposed to them.” See also Belleville, 224; she rightly notes that the focus of the text is not sociological but theological, focused on corporate prophecy and prayer rather than cultural mores. 
  8. Gregory J. Lockwood, 368. 
  9. The view seems to have originated in S. Bedale, “The Meaning of κεφαλή in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954): 211–15. Against Bedale, see Wayne Grudem, “Does κεφαλή (“Head”) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority over’ in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples.” Trinity Journal 6, no. 1 (1985): 38–59; Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning Of κεφαλὴ (“Head”): An Evaluation Of New Evidence, Real And Alleged,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 1 (March 2001): 25–65; Thomas R. Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 117–132. 
  10. See e.g. Severian, Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church; John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 265; Hermann Olshausen, A Commentary on Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1855; repr., Minneapolis, Minnesota: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, Inc., 1984), 172–177; Robertson and Plummer, 230. 
  11. Note that commentators—whether egalitarian or complementarian, patristic or modern—broadly agree that this is the substance of Paul’s point, here (see e.g. Linda L. Belleville, “Κεφαλή and the Thorny Issue of Headcovering in 1 Corinthians 11:2–6,” 231 and Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles). Unfortunately, as one commentator notes, “[The focus on the passage as a result of the feminist movement] is both good and bad for exegesis. It is good because it has caused scholars to look at the text with unusual care, thus supplying us with a wealth of helpful information and possibilities for understanding; it is harmful, however, when the prior conclusions both for and against women’s equality determine how one is going to understand the text” (Fee, 493 n. 8). 
  12. Lockwood, 372; Fee, 514. 
  13. See Belleville, 215; her suggestion that “it is actually δόξα, and not κεφαλή, that provides the key to understanding Paul’s train of thought” is a step in the right direction, but something of an overstatement given the limited emphasis placed on “glory” in the text. 
  14. Fee, 523. 
  15. As above, the issue of headship is not clarified by the usage here: on the one hand, man’s headship is connected to his being the woman’s source. On the other hand, woman was created for man, which implies more to the relationship than mere origination. 
  16. Egalitarian and complementarian commentators are united on this point: see e.g. Belleville, 231; Fee, 522–524; Robertson and Plummer, 234; Lockwood, 375–376. 
  17. Fee takes the unique nature of this would-be construction, unparalleled in any other Greek usage, as the basis for dismissing it out of hand (519 n. 23)—apparently ignoring his own suggestion, mere pages later, that “exousia was one of the Corinthians’ own words…. Very likely that is the reason for this choice of words, which otherwise appears to be so unusual” (521), which satisfactorily explains Paul’s otherwise odd linguistic choice. 
  18. So the ASV, ESV, HCSB, NET, NIV 1984, NASB, NKJV, NRSV. Others go even further: NLT, for example, has “a woman should wear a covering on her head to show she is under authority.” 
  19. Fee, 520. 
  20. Fee, 522–523. 
  21. Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles; this view, though initially attractive in light of verse 16, is largely rejected by modern commentators on the basis of typical usage in the New Testament and Paul’s use in 1 Corinthians specifically; see Fee, 522. 
  22. Lockwood, 374–375; Robertson and Plummer, 233. 
  23. Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2009), 51–53, cited in Fee, 522. 
  24. Fee, 522. 
  25. This is hardly surprising given the contours of the text: Paul is not engaged in the contemporary debate. The present author’s view, in any case, is that ἐξουσία is being used metonymously (as one of the Corinthians’ own words), while ἀγγελός refers to angels present during corporate worship. 
  26. Insofar as the passage is relevant to the debate on gender roles in the church, verse 10 could provide an argument for either side; the ambiguity of the grammar simply leaves the issue in doubt. 
  27. Schreiner describes nature as “the natural and instinctive sense of right and wrong that God has planted in us, especially with respect to sexuality” (137). 
  28. As here (NASB), many translations seek to clarify this passage by translating τοιαύτην as “other,” but it should be “such,” which is the normal rendering of the word. 
  29. Robertson and Plummer, 235–236. 
  30. Terry, 60. 

Discussion

  • I’m not sure I understand the possibility on v. 10 that you mentioned about women wearing a head covering in loving, self-sacrificial service to the community. Could you explain that more? (I know you take the metonymy view, instead–as I do for now, having not studied 1st Cor. in any depth–but just curious).

    After a quick search, I was amused to find Tertullian’s view: that women should wear head coverings to prevent angels from being tempted to mate with them as the “sons of God” in Genesis allegedly did.

    I’m also curious: what is your view of the relationship with 14:34-35 (tentative as it may be)? I don’t remember what I read Schreiner saying about it, but I’m sure he convinced me, as he’s wont to do.

    Anyway, sober and informative exegesis! Thanks for sharing!

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Oh, Tertullian. I thought about footnoting that, but I was pretty much out of room. Patristic views are fascinatingly varied on this one; quite a few (not just Ambrosiaster) argue that it’s the bishops meant by “angels.”

      On verse 10, I’m basically granting that Fee’s translation (which the NIV2011 followed), “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels,” is potentially valid. Fee’s translation gives the passage the sense that the woman wearing a head-covering is not out of subjection to man, but out of a willingness to lay aside her “right” to have her head uncovered. In other words, she has the authority to have it covered or uncovered, but because uncovering it would dishonor her “head,” she should exercise that authority by covering it. This fits very nicely with Paul’s admonitions in chapters 8–10, which makes it a much more attractive possibility than most complementarian commentators have granted. (I came down on the metonymy view by a hair, and I remain convinced that either view can work just fine with what Paul is actually saying here.)

      Both that and the metonymous interpretation embraced by most other translations involves an interpolation—the metonymy is obviously inferred; in this case it’s the reflexivity (making it “her own head”). Apart from the surrounding context, one would nearly always translate it the latter way, making Fee’s suggestion fairly sensible. On the other hand, the rest of the passage flows much more easily if Paul is doing as Fee suggests: using one of the Corinthians’ own words and therefore ending up with this bizarre and unparalleled construction.

      I feel obliged to note—though I’ll probably write a full blog post on this in a week or two when I get done—that both complementarian and egalitarian commentators absolutely abuse the passage. I trimmed a lot of the polemical material from the final version of the paper, but in an earlier draft I took both sides to the woodshed for the ways they mishandle the text. Both sides are looking for proof for their particular views, and this is a prooftext for both sides. As PJ King noted as we were discussing the passage: when both sides can point to the same sentence as proof for their view, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. Grudem is, sad to say, one of the worst about this on the complementarian side. His famed survey is deeply flawed and he ignores his own evidence along the way—not exactly a shining, stellar moment for his argument. In general, both sides simply bring their presuppositions to the treatment of “head” language in this passage, and it quickly becomes very tiresome reading for that reason.

      As to the relationship between this passage and 14:35–36, I’m not entirely sure what I think yet. I’d need to spend a lot of time with 14 as a section to see what Paul is about there. In any case, I’m not inclined to do like Fee and simply toss out 14:35–36 as a “later interpolation”—a conclusion he reaches largely because he thinks it contradicts 11:2–16. I’m inclined to say it’s original and that Paul knew what he was saying; we just need to spend more time on the text to ascertain what exactly that is. On the other hand, at least one complementarian/traditional commentary (I think it was probably Lockwood, but I don’t remember for sure) suggested that Paul’s approach in 11–14 entails introducing proper behavior if women are speaking in the service, then moving forward to ultimately show that they shouldn’t be speaking. I find that almost as unsatisfactory as Fee’s solution, not least because the proposed parallel, Paul’s handling of eating meat etc. in 8–10, doesn’t actually work the way that commentator suggests: Paul doesn’t conclude that unit by saying, “So don’t eat meat after all,” but rather “So whether you eat or you drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

      That’s a long way of saying I don’t have a good answer yet. Fee is right that the passages are hard to reconcile. Lockwood is right that we can’t just throw it out because it’s hard. When, someday, I’m preaching through the book, I’ll figure it out!

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  • levi thought to say:

    man, architecture school is kids’ play compared to seminary!

    i’m going to have to read this one again, because i really enjoyed it, and also so i can more fully understand it. i was aware of chiastic structure in the old testament, but i never recognized chiasms in the new testament. now, i’m going to pay better attention, especially to paul’s writings!

    thanks, chris.

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    • I don’t know that I’d agree on the comparison between architecture and seminary. Heh.

      As far as chiastic structures go: yeah, they’re all over the place in the NT. It’s actually an incredibly common literary structure in classical and Koine Greek (the word chiasm is from the Greek χιάζω, which is “I shape like the letter χ” and is often used in Greek itself to refer to the literary structure). There are actually a few books in the NT that are built on chiasms, I believe, though I can’t bring them to mind at the moment.

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  • Steve Perry thought to say:

    So the church got it wrong for 1900 years, but we believe we get it right! Modern ministers sat back and watched Eve take down a sanctuary symbol of worship acknowledging God’s governance and Christ the Man as head. Our society now reflects the sexual confusion in the sanctuary. How is it possible for all denominations to agree on removing this visible creed of creation? We are given over to seeing but not perceiving.

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    • Steve, I’m sorry but I think your history is just wrong, and you didn’t interact with my argument from the text at all. You’re entitled to your opinion, but I’m afraid that unless you’re willing to do the hard work of providing your own exegesis of the text and backing it up, all you’ve done is made an assertion—not an argument.

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  • Steve Perry thought to say:

    The worship of God is not a small detail. Paul takes half a chapter to explain this practice. One only needs to look back sixty years or so, take a look at pictures of the church then and now, and you will visibly see the complete break across all denominational lines of this practice. “Consider then the excess of the transgression when being honored with so high a prerogative, thou puttest thyself to shame, seizing the woman’s dress. And thou doest the same as if having received a diadem, thou shouldest cast the diadem from thy head, and instead of it take a slave’s garment.” Chrysostom

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  • dean thought to say:

    I am afraid that the study of Gods word has become a mechanical method rather than depending on Holy Spirit to teach and reveal the truth in the text. It seems to me that a shift has been made like this over the last 30 or so years. I would like to ask this question, would anyone think that a believing soul could rightly extract the meaning of a passage with out a degree posted before their names? I would hope all would say yes, but I think our present thinking may say otherwise, and it seems to me that our contemporary writers are exalting themselves above the common people because of this. I did a prayerful study of Gods word on the subject of men and women wearing differing apparel, I found it quite clear that that would be the case ( different clothing)despite we being free in the Lord, yes being free to obey. The church ought not to be “transgender” in any way shape or form, nor should the man of God be intimidated to proclaim it from the pulpit. In this age we have the resources to be distinct one from another whether it be hair or attire

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