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Women in the Church: Part 1 (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

As I indicated in the Introduction, proper interpretation of a Scripture passage requires first a careful study of its original historical and literary context. Trying to interpret a passage out of context, would be like taking a brick out of a wall and then trying to assign specific meaning to the brick, whereas the individual brick really only has meaning in the context of its place in the wall. I begin with the historical and literary context, then follow with a number of key exegetical notes on the passage, before concluding with a summary interpretation.

Historical Context

First Corinthians was written by Paul sometime between 53 and 57 A.D., from Ephesus, to the believers in Corinth—that is, the congregations (house-churches) in the city taken together. Paul’s initial ministry work in Corinth took place c. 50-52 A.D. (Acts 18:1-17), just several years earlier, so these would have been very young churches. There had certainly been some correspondence prior to the writing of 1 Corinthians, including a previous letter by Paul (cf. 1 Cor 5:9-11). Much of Paul’s purpose in writing was to promote and encourage unity among believers; he deals with numerous practical questions and issues related to Church life, which may be divided into two categories: (1) problems which have come to his attention, and (2) questions addressed to him by the churches (cf. 1 Cor 7:1, etc)—the latter seem to be in focus throughout much of the second half of the letter, from chapter 7 on. Many of the questions and issues deal specifically with the organized, corporate worship of the congregations; as such, 1 Corinthians provides perhaps the earliest detail on worship-meetings in the New Testament period.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine the precise background to the matter Paul addresses in 1 Cor 11:2-16. Clearly it relates to the dress, or attire, of the men and women who take an active, leading (speaking) role in the worship-meeting; in particular, the covering of one’s head (and hair) is at issue. There is ample archeological and literary evidence indicating the use of head-coverings—by both men and women—during Roman religious ritual (cf. Witherington, pp. 232-9). The head-covering was used specifically by the person(s) who took an active role in the proceedings, i.e. presenting the sacrificial offering, delivering prophecy, divination, etc. (cf. Livy 10.7.10; Varro On the Latin Language 5.29.130; Juvenal, Satires 6.390ff; Witherington, p. 230f). There is some evidence for women performing religious ritual with their head/hair uncovered in the Dionysian and other ‘mystery’ cults (cf. especially the Andania Mysteries inscription, in Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum II [1917] no. 736, 4); there is also the traditional depiction of the Pythian priestess (oracle) at Delphi. It was customary, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish world, for married women to be veiled or with headdress, especially when seen in public, as a simple matter of decency and decorum. These are just some of the factors which may play a part in Paul’s discussion.

Literary Context

Study of Paul’s letters has benefited tremendously in recent decades by the application of rhetorical analysis—that is, the use of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) techniques of rhetoric, both in the structuring of the letter (i.e. epistolary form), and in the way different sorts of arguments and illustrations are utilized. The basic proposition (propositio) of 1 Corinthians can be found in 1:10—a call for unity among the believers and churches in Corinth—which also serves to express the main cause, or purpose, for which Paul writes. This is expounded initially in the personal narration (narratio) which follows in vv. 11-17, the last statement of which effectively centers the basis for unity in the Gospel and the cross of Christ (v. 17), rather than in the various factions and other influences at work in the churches (vv. 11-16). In terms of classical rhetoric, the main body of the letter is called the probatio (“proof, proving”), in which the author, by various means, gives the reasons in support of his point, and seeks to persuade his audience to accept it. The body of 1 Corinthians can be divided into two main sections: (a) 1:184:21, which addresses the divisions in the churches directly, and (b) 5:116:12, which deals specifically with various issues which threaten unity and proper Christian conduct/attitudes within the churches. 1 Cor 11:2-16 belongs to this latter group, specifically among those questions or issues related to organized corporate worship. The rhetorical context—i.e. the theme of unity—is clear in the short transitional section (10:31-11:1) which leads into this passage. An important subsidiary theme is that of believers’ willingness to subordinate the exercise of the (individual) freedom they have in Christ for the good of the Community (the body of Christ) as a whole.

Exegetical Notes

Verse 2—The introductory praise Paul offers in this verse (e)painw=, “I give praise upon [you]”) is a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentae (“capture of good will”), which the speaker hopes will cultivate a favorable response from his audience. Here it also serves a specific technique for moral/ethical suasion—i.e. ‘I hope that you will, in fact, (continue to) think and act this way’.

ta\$ parado/sei$ kate/xete (“you hold down [i.e. hold firm to] the things given along”)—this is the thrust of Paul’s statement, that the Corinthians will continue to accept and live out in practice the instruction they have received. The word para/dosi$ (parádosis), from the verb paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), is an important term in early Christianity, referring to the authoritative teaching (and example) given down from the apostles and their companions (i.e. the first Christian missionaries) to a new generation of believers. This “tradition” covers virtually every aspect of Christian life in the early Church. In a period before the widespread use of Christian Scripture, apostles such as Paul, and his fellow-missionaries, personally—through oral and written communication—served as a fundamental source of religious authority for the various congregations which were established during their ministry. Paul urges them to continue following his example and instruction, even in difficult matters such as he is addressing—”even as I gave (them) along to you, (I hope you will) hold firm to these things (I have) given along”.

Verse 3—Paul lays the groundwork for his position with an illustrative formula, summarizing the Christian community in a relational (and hierarchical) chain: God—Christ—Man—Woman.

qe/lw de\ u(ma=$ ei)de/nai (“But I wish [i.e. want] you to see [i.e. know]…”)—this introduces Paul’s instruction, what he specifically here wants them to understand.

a)ndro/$gunaiko/$ (“of man…of woman”)—the nouns a)nh/r and gunh/ (“man” and “woman”) can also mean “husband” and “wife”, so it can be difficult to determine if Paul is speaking about the sexes in general, or if he has the marriage relationship specifically in mind. Does he assume, for example, that the woman participating (prophesying) in the worship-meeting is married? This would seem to have some bearing on his argument regarding head-covering.

kefalh/ (“head”)—the force and meaning of this word here in 1 Cor 11:3ff has been much discussed and disputed by commentators in recent decades (cf. Thistleton, pp. 811-22 for a detailed summary). It has the fundamental meaning of “head”, in a literal (physical) or figurative sense. According to the latter, it may denote (1) a position of leadership or high rank (“first, foremost”), (2) a position of authority under which another is subject, or (3) the power under which another acts or comes to be. The question is complicated by the fact that Paul makes the man-woman relationship parallel with the relationship between God and Christ. If the woman is subordinate/subject to man, then, by implication, so is Christ to God; the full chain of verse 3 is formulated: “the head of woman is man, the head of man is Christ, and the head of Christ is God”.

Verses 4-5—Paul states his position in these two verses, regarding how men and women, respectively, who actively participate in the worship-meeting, should treat their head (kefalh/). Note the wordplay with verse 3—here the “head” is taken literally. It is important to note that Paul is referring to those who take an active, leading role (i.e. speaking) in the meeting, summarized by the two verbs proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”, i.e. pray) and profhteu/w (“foretell, tell before”). The prefixed element (preposition) pro/ (“before”) can be understood as either “tell something beforehand, i.e. foretell” or “tell something before (i.e. in front of) others”. The New Testament usually has the former meaning, especially when referring to the Old Testament Prophets announcing the future (regarding Christ); however the latter meaning better fits the corresponding Hebrew abn, as a spokesperson or representative of God before the people. In the context of early Christian life and worship, Paul clearly also has this broader meaning in mind, especially as prophecy (or prophesying) is regarded as the second greatest of all the “gifts” (charismata) of the Spirit (second only to apostleship), cf. 1 Cor 12:28ff; 14:1ff (also Rom 12:6). According to chapter 14, the uttering of ‘prophecy’ was central to the worship-meeting, similar to, and (it would seem) characterized as, both revelation and teaching. It refers primarily to the communication/presentation of the word of God—as such, it holds a comparable place to preaching and the traditional sermon of later times. In 14:26-31, Paul indicates that it was common practice for multiple persons to deliver a prophetic message at a meeting, though he recommends no more than two or three, in turn.

kata\ kefalh=$ e&xwn (“having/holding down [upon the] head”)—this refers to some kind of covering upon the head; it is not clear if Paul has something specific in mind, he seems to be speaking generally (i.e. anything upon the head).

kataisxu/nei th\n kefalh\n au)tou= (“he brings down shame/disgrace [upon] his head”)—Paul bluntly states that a man who prays/prophesies with something on his head disgraces/dishonors his head. The play on words (from v. 3) could mean that he dishonors Christ (his “head”) as well.

a)katalu/ptw| th=| kefalh=| (“without a cover[ing] down [upon] the head”)—for a woman who prays/prophesies, the situation is opposite: doing so without a covering on her head brings disgrace to her head. Again, according to verse 3, this could be taken to mean that she also dishonors the man (i.e. her husband, her “head”), and, by extension, Christ.

Verse 6—At the end of v. 5, Paul introduces a comparison between the shame of a woman prophesying ‘uncovered’ and that of a woman whose head/hair has been shaved off (i.e. cut by a razor, cura/w). In verse 6, he uses the parallel verb kei/rw (“shear”), which can be used of sheep, but also in the context of the Nazirite vow. Paul doubtless is indulging in a bit of rhetorical exaggeration here: he is trying to emphasize that this is no trivial matter; in his view, within the cultural-religious context of the Christian worship-meeting of the time, a woman participating in this way without head-covering, was shameful and scandalous. It must be admitted that the precise force of Paul’s argument is lost for us today.

Verses 7-9—Paul draws upon the Creation account in Genesis, establishing two arguments from Scripture: (1) Man is the image of God (v. 7, Gen 1:26-27), and (2) the woman (Eve) came out of man and was produced to be his companion (not the other way around) (vv. 8-9, Gen 2:18-23). In fairness, it should be said that neither of these arguments seems particularly compelling for us today; the first, indeed, is actually somewhat problematic. The original context of Gen 1:26-27 makes clear that “Man” (<d*a*) is best understood as (hu)mankind—male and female together—and yet here Paul seems to read <d*a* as “the man” (Adam), i.e. the male. There are, I think, two ways to interpret Paul’s specific wording in verse 7:

  • The man is the image and glory of God, while the woman is the (image and) glory of the man
  • Man (male and female) is the image (and glory) of God—the woman is (also) the glory of the man

The first interpretation indicates a strict subordination, in which it is hard to avoid the idea that the woman’s status/position is somehow subordinate to the man’s. The second view is less obviously offensive to modern-day sensibilities.

do/ca (“esteem, honor”, i.e. “glory”)—this word is typically translated as “glory”, but this can be somewhat misleading; often “honor, esteem, dignity, etc” is closer to the fundamental meaning. It is used to render the Hebrew bodK*, literally “weight”, but also in the sense of “dignity, honor”, and is likewise translated “glory” frequently in English. The Genesis account (Gen 1:26-27) to which Paul alludes makes no mention of “glory”, but Paul has added this as a kind of interpretive gloss, it would seem, to make it more fitting to the man-woman relationship in his argument. It would be rather strange (and inappropriate) to speak of woman as the image (ei)kw/n) of the man; he has deftly substituted in “glory/honor/esteem” (do/ca) instead. Paul does not use the kind of reciprocal language as in 1 Cor 7:2-4 etc—he does not say “…and man is the glory of woman”. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul specifically has in mind the marriage relationship. Even so, in what sense is the woman (or wife) the glory/honor of the man? This must be answered in light of the conceptual framework of 11:3 (cf. above).

Verse 10—The statement is central to verses 7-9 and 11-12, both of which refer to the created order. This is key to a correct interpretation of this difficult sentence.

e)cousi/an e&xein (“to hold authority”)—the noun e)cousi/a is rather difficult to translate literally into English; it has the basic meaning of ability, i.e. the ability coming from a person to do something, though occasionally in the sense of a right or permission granted by a higher power. The verb e&xw can mean “to have”, generally, but more concretely “to hold“. The expression in context is, “to hold authority upon the head [e)pi\ th=$ kefalh=$]”—i.e., by way of the symbolic head-covering.

dia\ tou\$ a&ggelou$ (“through the Messengers”)—the preposition dia/ (“through”) is usually understood in terms of reason or purpose (i.e. “because of”). The word a&ggelo$ (ángelos) most likely refers to a heavenly Messenger (i.e. Angel), as commonly in the New Testament and other Jewish writings of the period. This seemingly ambiguous phrase will be discussed in detail (along with verse 10 as a whole) in a separate note.

Verses 11-12—Paul returns to the theme of vv. 7-9, that of man and woman (husband and wife) in the created order of things—but instead of a hierarchical (vertical) relationship emphasizing subordination, we find a reciprocal and complementary (horizontal) relationship emphasizing interconnection. Both aspects of the relationship ultimately stem from God (vv. 7, 12b), and are to be understood within the context of Christian unity—”in the Lord” (e)n kuri/w|). For more on the relation to vv. 7-9, cf. the note on verse 10.

Verses 13-15—here is a further argument from nature (fu/si$) and custom, parallel to the argument from Scripture in vv. 7-9ff. Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians to ‘judge for themselves’ is a rhetorical device—i.e. “surely you yourselves must realize…”—placing the argument in the context of reason and common sense. It is possible to be thrown by Paul’s syntax, but the argument in vv. 14-15 is quite simple: it is natural for a woman to have long hair, and a man to have shorter hair => it goes against nature (and is thus shameful) for a man’s hair to be long and woman’s to be short. A head-covering and long hair each serve, in their own way, as a peribo/laion—lit. something “cast around” one’s head (i.e. a mantle or hood). Long hair comes to a woman by nature, the head-covering by way of custom and ritual symbolism.

Verse 16—Paul finally appeals specifically to Christian custom and tradition. The word sunh/qeia refers to something (Christians) habitually do together, i.e. common custom. According to Paul, the custom of women praying publicly or preaching/prophesying in the worship meeting with their head covered (and the reverse for men), was something that all “the congregations [e)kklhsi/ai] of God” observe.

filo/neiko$ (“fond of quarrels”)—this adjective refers to someone who “loves a quarrel”; the element nei=ko$ connotes strife or fighting with a desire to gain victory. In English idiom we might paraphrase as “one who loves a fight and always wants to have it his/her own way”. Paul’s exact phrase here is, “if any(one) thinks/seems [dokei=] to be fond of quarrelling…” He appears to be anticipating some opposition to his instruction; it may also simply be a rhetorical device—i.e. even if you do not accept my arguments, realize that you are going against the accepted practice and custom of Churches everywhere.


In many ways early Christian life and worship represented something entirely new. In the Jewish Synagogue tradition, women were segregated from men and limited to private (silent) prayer during the worship meeting. This was not so in the early Christian Community, in which men and women, from the beginning it would seem, worshiped together side-by-side essentially as equals (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:1-4, 17-18). On the other hand, there was a tradition of women oracles and officiants of the religious ritual in the Greco-Roman (pagan) world. It is possible that Paul (along with other early missionaries) was attempting to navigate a middle way between these two competing religious-cultural approaches. Women could take an active, leading role, together with men, in the worship meeting, but only insofar as they worked within the proper order of things. This would seem to involve an established (and customary, cf. verse 16) dress code, whereby the women who spoke (praying publicly or prophesying) were expected to do so with their heads covered. Paul offers a number of arguments in support of this custom; it is not clear to what extent these are unique to Paul or reflect earlier traditional teaching. His arguments center around the relationship between men and women according to the order created/established by God. Most likely Paul (and others) felt that the (ritual) dress-code related to the worship-meeting expressed a specific Christian understanding—i.e. how men and women now relate to one another in the Community of Christ, which reflects a new created order. It is possible that some in Corinth felt that the new order (freedom in the Spirit) meant that one could ignore religious-cultural custom and convention. Paul responds to similar ideas throughout the letter (cf. especially in chaps. 8-10).

By way of summary, the following points of interpretation may be noted:

  • Women were allowed to take an active (speaking) role in the worship meeting. This included “prophesying” which, in the early Christian context, meant an inspired utterance, a communication of God’s word and will to the Community. It was central to the worship meeting (14:26-33), considered as among the ‘greatest’ of spiritual “gifts” (12:28-31; 13:8; 14:1ff; Rom 12:6ff), and may be seen as holding a place at least comparable to the traditional preaching of a sermon. There may be some similarity with words of “prophecy” in modern-day Pentecostal/Charismatic worship; but a closer parallel is perhaps found in the traditional Quaker service.
  • Women who filled this leading role were to do so with their head covered, while men performed with their head uncovered. The importance of this head-covering was three-fold:
    (1) It followed custom and decorum for women, both in the context of Greco-Roman (and Jewish) society, as well as their participation in religious ritual. There would thus be no cause for scandal when outside observers witnessed Christian worship.
    (2) It preserved a distinction between genders, which, if abolished in practice (and done so carelessly), could likewise bring shame and disgrace on the Community.
    (3) It was a symbolic reflection of the created order (as established by God), which likewise ought to be maintained within the Community.
  • The head-covering also symbolized the authority/ability of the woman to perform her (ritual) role (as prophet, etc) in the worship-meeting. It indicated that she (and the Community as a whole) recognized both: (a) her unique gifting (as a prophet, etc), and (b) the order established by God.

Application of Paul’s instruction in a modern-day (Western) setting is extremely difficult, since the overall cultural-religious context is so very different. Head-covering (and related dress codes) no longer have anything like the same meaning for us today. At one time it was customary for women to wear hats (and sometimes veils) when attending Church services, largely as a matter of pious routine, under the influence of 1 Cor 11:2-16; but this has been almost universally abandoned today. Much more important is the question of the active role of women (as speakers/preachers) in the worship meeting, as well as that of gender distinction—to what extent (and in what manner) should this distinction be preserved and symbolized in corporate worship? Central to Paul’s argument is the relationship between man and woman in the order of creation, which should continue to be reflected even in the “new creation” of the Christian Community (cf. the note on v. 10). Admittedly, Paul’s specific use and interpretation of the Creation narratives of Gen 1:26-27 and 2:18-23 is somewhat problematic for us today; yet it ought not to be simply brushed aside. Perhaps most significant of all is the entire issue of gender distinction for believers in Christ, especially in light of Paul’s famous statement in Galatians 3:28. However, before addressing this verse, it is necessary to examine the other main passage in 1 Corinthians dealing with the role of women in the worship-meeting (1 Cor 14:33b-36), which I will do in the next part of this series.

References marked “Thistelton” above are to Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC]), Eerdmans: 2000, esp. pp. 800-48. A good compendium of modern scholarship (up through 2000), with extensive bibliographic notes.
Those marked “Witherington” above are to Ben Witherington III, Conflict & Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, Eerdmans: 1995. Cf. also his Women in the Earliest Churches, (Cambridge: 1988).

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