1 Corinthians 11:7-16
Man, the Glory of God, Woman, the Glory of Man.
Women’s Head Coverings in Corinth
This Corinthian passage has posed a challenge when it comes to interpreting it in light of what the Apostle Paul said in his other NT epistles. New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee, determined that: “this is a passage in which the apostle has been rather badly handled in the church.”* Many others would agree with this assessment. With this observation in mind, let us have a look at how Gordon Fee provides rich engagement with the text including how others have worked through the issues posed by this passage.
Beginning with Fee’s summary, we will briefly look at how he got to his conclusion. Fee also provides a stern warning to those who might jeopardize the intent of Paul’s aim in this passage:
“Although the paragraph begins with further arguments as to why women should be “covered,” Paul seems to leave that concern momentarily to affirm both that:
(1) Women do have authority over their own heads (although that must be exercised in the context of not shaming their “head” and propriety) and
(2) Even though in the new age the distinctions between male and female must be maintained, that does not mean that one is subordinate to the other.
To read the text as though it said the opposite of what vv. 10-12 seem clearly to say is to do Paul an injustice and possibly to put one in the position of disobeying the intent of God’s Word.”*
With that challenge and warning in view, the diligent student of Scripture can begin to examine more carefully Paul’s intent in this passage. The verses in this passage can be found printed out at the end of this article in the For Further Reflection section.
Looking Alittle Deeper
Paul looks at three areas of abuse in their assemblies:
- Concern about women’s head coverings or hairstyle when praying and prophesying (11:2-16),
- The abuse of the poor at the Lord’s Table (11:17-34), and
- The abuse of speaking in tongues in the assembly (ch. 12 -14).
The 1 Cor. 11 passage has larger contextual questions and, even more, this passage is full of exegetical difficulties. Fee demonstrates the nature of these difficulties as well as the logic of Paul’s argument when the structure of this passage is illustrated. There is a simple comparison between the metaphorical usage of the word ‘HEAD’ and the literal use of the word ‘head’.
2 Now I praise you
because you remember me in all things,
and even as I handed them on to you,
you keep the traditions.
I. 3 But I want you to understand that—
the HEAD of EVERY MAN is Christ,
(and) THE MAN the HEAD of WOMAN,
(and) God the HEAD of Christ.
4 Every MAN shames his HEAD/head;
praying or prophesying having down/against the head
5 Every WOMAN
praying or prophesying uncovered as to the head
For it is one and the same thing
for her to be one who is shaved.
6 For if a WOMAN will not be covered,
let her also be shorn
But if it is disgraceful for her to be shorn or shaved,
let her be covered.
II. 7 For
On the one hand, MAN ought not to have the head covered,
being the image and glory of God;
On the other hand, THE WOMAN
is the glory of MAN:
8 [A] For MAN is not from WOMAN
but WOMAN from MAN;
9 [B] For also MAN was not created for WOMAN’s sake, but WOMAN for MAN’s
10 For this reason
THE WOMAN ought to have authority over her (own) head because of the angels.
11 in any case (nonetheless)
[B’] Neither WOMAN apart from MAN,
nor MAN apart from WOMAN,
in the Lord.
12 [A’] For just as the WOMAN (is) from the MAN,
So also the MAN (is) through the WOMAN,
but all things (are) from God.
III. 13 Judge among yourselves:
Is it fitting for a WOMAN to pray to God uncovered?
Does not nature itself teach you that—
14 On the one hand,
if a MAN grow long hair,
it is a dishonor to him.
15 on the other hand,
if a WOMAN grow long hair,
it is a glory to her?
Because the hair is given to her
in the place of a covering.
16 Now if anyone seems to be contentious,
We have no such custom,
Nor do the churches of God.
The grammatical and structural signals point to a three-part division. By using sets of contrasts, there are distinct characteristics seen when reading about the man and the woman. In each instance, the argument seems aimed specifically at the woman. The problem has to do with her head being “uncovered” while praying and prophesying. These are made clear in verses 5-6 and 13.
Part 1 (vv. 3-6)
Argues from the metaphorical use of “head” that:
-The man would shame his “head” if he were to have (something) “hanging down the head” and
-The woman would shame her “head” if she were to prophesy “uncovered as to the head.” This shows an opposite.
Part 2 (vv. 7-12)
Although the argument here is more complex and full of surprises, it again seems to aim at the woman.
-The man ought not to have his head covered since his is God’s image and glory.
Paul takes up the issue one more time by appealing to their own sense of propriety. Paul begins with a rhetorical question and ends with a word to anyone who would be “contentious” over this matter. That is, if they are contentious—the churches have no ‘such custom.”
The question is raised regarding what does it mean for the woman to pray and prophesy “uncovered as to the head”?
- The traditional view considered her to be discarding some kind of external covering. The difficulty with this view comes mostly from understanding v. 15 to say that a woman’s long hair is given to her instead of a peribolaion (lit. “a wraparound,” hence something like a shawl).
- It has been argued that the “covering” contended for in vv. 4-7 and 13 is actually the long hair of vv. 14-15, because some women were having their hair cut short. But, this is against the language and grammar of vv. 5-6—be shaved or shorn if they will not be “covered.”
- Some scholars have suggested “uncovered’ refers to “loosed hair.” That is, letting down one’s hair in public and thus experiencing shame.
While this may be an attractive solution in many ways, it still has its own set of difficulties:
a) how the man’s not covering his head in v. 7 is the opposite of this;
b) what to do with v. 15, which implies that long hair, not piled-up hair, serves in the place of a shawl;
c) the fact that there is no sure first-century evidence that long hair in public would have been a disgrace of some kind.
Fee suggests that a modified form of the traditional view seems to have fewer difficulties. In either case, the woman’s action is considered shameful, and for that reason Paul is willing to offer theological justification for maintaining a custom.
So the question arises: Why were some women in Corinth apparently disregarding the customary mode of appearance? From church tradition, this passage provided a reasonable suggestion—that the problem had to do with some women who were being insubordinate to their husbands because of their new-found freedom in Christ. Interpreters regarded this passage as a way to “put women in their proper place” by insisting that they keep the traditional symbol of their subordination—which was the veil.
Fee suggests that it is much more likely that the problem is related to the overall historical situation in Corinth. It seems that some women were praying or prophesying or simply arguing for the right to do so without the customary “head covering.” Their concept of being “spiritual” (pneumatikos) was in play. They also may have had an “overrealized eschatology.” Fee clarifies:
“It seems difficult to understand Paul’s answer unless their spiritualized eschatology also involved some kind of break-down in the distinction between the sexes. Already they had arrived in the Spirit; they were already acting as those who would be “like the angels,” among whom sexual distinctions no longer existed. As part of their new “spirituality” they were disregarding some very customary distinctions between the sexes that would otherwise have been regarded as disgraceful. Paul feels strongly enough about the issue to speak to it, even if his argument lacks its customary vigor.”*
Paul Presents His Three Arguments
Paul proceeds to present his three arguments to them regarding how to appropriately look at this issue:
- An Argument from Culture and Shame (11:2-6)
- An Argument from Creation (11:7-12)
- An Argument from Propriety (11:13-16)
- An Argument from Culture and Shame (11:2-6)
Paul begins his argument by using the word “head” metaphorically to designate three kinds of relationships:
a) Man and Christ
b) Woman and Man
c) Christ and God
The factor of shame for the actions of either the man or the woman is stressed.
“The metaphor in v. 3, which has traditionally been interpreted as defending the need for the woman to maintain her place of subordination to her “head,” namely her husband, is often seen as the point of the whole passage. More likely, however, this is simply an attempt on Paul’s part to remove the problem from the “head” literally by putting it into a broader context of relationships. In any case the literal problem came first, and Paul has used the word metaphorically at the beginning to set the literal problem into a larger theological framework.”
Though the Corinthians may be following the “traditions,” they may not be doing so in proper ways (11:2).
From 11:4, 5, we see the reference to “head”—used in three parts, each using the word “head” metaphorically to express a different relationship: man/Christ, woman/man, Christ/God. “What is not immediately clear, especially to the English reader, is the sense of the metaphor “head,” and thus the nature of the relationships that each of the clauses intends.”
Paul does not set out to prove this theological statement nor does he make it the main point of this section. What is important to him is the behavioral problem–having to do with women’s heads. This is seen in the fact and the form of this construct. Paul prods the Corinthian fellowship to go beyond individual freedom to a better focus of relational responsibility.
“The problem lay squarely on the women’s heads, but it was affecting male/female relationships in the present age.”
Even though the new age had been inaugurated, the behavior of the women in that society was bringing shame on the distinctions of the male/female relationship. This was not of benefit to anyone.
Regarding this section, Fee makes a significant observation. He highlights the fact that people have wrongly understood this passage to be a proof text for hierarchy. Yet, upon closer examination of this section, there is nothing that suggests this. Let us pay attention to what he exhorts:
“The metaphor itself is often understood to be hierarchical, setting up structures of authority. But nothing in the passage suggests as much; in fact, the only appearance of the word exousia (“authority”) refers to the woman’s own authority (v. 10). Moreover, vv. 11-12 explicitly qualify vv. 8-9 so that they will not be understood in this way. Indeed, the metaphorical use of kephale (“head”) to mean “chief” or “the person of highest rank” is rare in Greek literature—so much so that even though the Hebrew word ros often carried this sense, the Greek translators of the LXX, who ordinarily used kephale to translate ros when the physical “head” was intended, almost never did so when “ruler” was intended, thus indicating that this metaphorical sense is an exceptional usage and not part of the ordinary range of meanings for the Greek word.”
The Corinthian understanding of the metaphor would have been that “head” means “source,” especially “source of life.” Paul confirms that man was the original source of the woman (v.12). Therefore, Paul’s concern is NOT hierarchical, that is, who has authority over whom, but rather relational, that is, one being the source of another’s being. This is further seen by the fact that Paul says nothing about man’s authority but that he is concerned with the woman being man’s glory–the one, without whom, he is not complete.
Anything that would blur that relationship in the Greek culture would bring shame on the woman’s “head.”
There is an interesting dilemma for the married woman in the Greek culture when it comes to the wearing of a suitable headcovering in public. Would the church gathering in one of the larger homes, be considered ‘public’ or not? Would their ecclesial gathering be considered being in a ‘home’ or being in ‘public’?
This would also be considered a ‘religious’ meeting where it would be in order for women to be able to prophesy, which would also include bringing a message from the heart of God, using the gift of tongues and interpreting that message in the language of those gathered. Using the utterance gifts of the Spirit, as well as praying, were permitted spiritual activities for all present, including women.
The bottom line was that shame in the Greek culture needed to be addressed. If married women were not dressed in the way that their culture dictated, then it was wrong not to recognize that factor and then for the Christian women to comply when attending the gathering of the saints.
Paul’s summary was that if it is a disgrace for a woman either to have her hair cut short or to be shaved, which it was, then the end run was that: her head should be covered. This would not apply to her hair but would necessitate an external head covering. It seemed that some of the women did not sense the cultural shame of their own actions. Therefore, it was necessary for Paul to provide a corrective.
So, the question for today is: Should married women or women in general need to cover their heads when attending an assembled church? The brief answer is that Paul recognized that the issue was directly tied to the cultural shame of that society. This scarcely prevails in most cultures today.
Fee ponders the fact that “it would seem that in cultures where women’s heads are seldom covered, the enforcement of such in the church turns Paul’s point on its head.”
In addition, we simply do not know what the practice was that they were abusing. Thus, literal “obedience” to the text is often merely symbolic. Unfortunately, the symbol that tends to be reinforced is the subordination of women, which is hardly Paul’s point.
- An Argument from Creation (11:7-12)
It a bit of a surprise for the reader to note, that it is Christ, and not God, who is designated as man’s “head.” “More difficult yet is what is said of the woman, who by way of contrast is called “man’s glory,” but with no mention of her being covered.” What follows explains why she is man’s glory (vv. 8-9).
“Then comes the truly surprising text (v. 10), which because of the verb “ought,” seems to correspond to v. 7a (over against “ought not”).” Instead of mentioning a covering, Paul argues that she should have authority over her “own” head because of the angels. Paul’s entire argument points to v. 10 as the crucial text. This is a very difficult text and scholars have guessed about it over the centuries. Yet, Paul has a rationale for his words and wants his explanation not to be misunderstood.
Fee confirms the point that the argument is quite involved and that it would pay to make the connection and not to miss it. What creates a problem here is Paul’s syntax.
In looking at Paul’s treatment of God’s image and God’s glory, in his reflections on the creation of man, he uses the term God’s ‘glory’. Obviously, this is a difficult term to define.
Fee summarizes his thoughts by stating: “By creating man in his own image God set his own glory in man. Man, therefore, exists to God’s praise and honor, and is to live in relationship to God so as to be his “glory.” What we are not told here is why being God’s glory means no covering; verse 4 indicates that it had to do with his not shaming Christ. But that, too, was left unexplained.”
Paul considers Gen. 2:23 and 18-20 which seems to affirm how man is the woman’s “head”—he is the source of her life. Since “the woman is from the man,” she is also his “glory” because “the woman was created for the man’s sake.”
The question posed is: “How does the woman’s ‘coming from the man’ and being created for his sake, make her his glory?”
The simple answer is that “She is thus man’s glory because she “came from man” and was created “for him.” She is not thereby subordinate to him, but necessary for him. She exists to his honor as the one who having come from man is the one companion suitable to him, so that he might be complete and that together they might form humanity.”
When the first man, Adam, sees the woman, he “glories” in her. Therefore, since man is the source of origin for woman, in Corinth, women in the church fellowship should not be uncovered when praying and/or prophesying. This would be a show of disrespect for one of the “visible expressions of differentiation” in that society and would bring shame on the man by trying to “dissolve the rightful male/ female relationship” that was there.
The key words: “author” and “angels” are very likely from the Corinthians . Verse 10 is “one of the truly difficult texts in this letter.” One crucial reason is the ad hoc character of the passage. There is only one side of the telephone conversation available with only these words as the clues.
Fee outlines the problems, being twofold: “finding a proper sense for exousia (“authority”), and determining the nuance of the preposition epi (“over” or “on”).” Fee shows the weaknesses in the traditional view, which he says “sees the context as referring to the subordination of women” and “tends to go one of two directions”:
(1) Some take exousia in a passive sense. To “have authority over her head” means that she “has” someone else (in this case, her husband) function as authority “over” her. The “covering,” though not mentioned, is assumed to be the “sign” that this is so. . . . The difficulty with this view is that there is no known evidence either that exousia is ever taken in this passive sense or that the idiom “to have authority over” ever refers to an external authority different from the subject of the sentence.
(2) Others take exousia as a metonym for “veil,” and epi as “on.” The difficulty with this “is to find an adequate explanation as to why Paul should have chosen this word as his metonym. Had Paul intended an external covering, he would surely have said that, since several such words are available to him.”
(3) A third alternative is that some have thought that “the “authority” is to be understood as the woman’s new freedom to do what was formerly forbidden, namely to pray and prophesy along with the men.” That is, live up to her new found freedom in Christ. Though this sounds attractive, it is not adequately supported in the text.
(4) This brings us to the possibility that the meaning “to have authority” is the sense of “freedom or right to choose.” Thus: “For this reason the woman ought to have the freedom over her head to do as she wishes.”
Since Fee assesses that “there is no evidence for a passive sense to this idiom, and that such a view basically came into existence for contextual reasons that do not seem to be in the text itself, solution (4) seems to be the best of the possibilities.
The next complexity is the phrase “because of the angels.” Over time, several solutions have been offered. Fee affirms that Paul’s argument includes the fact that man should not be covered and that by implication that a woman should because she is man’s glory. Yet Fee suggests that this is not the whole story—since the woman is not independent of the man. In order that the woman properly exercise that freedom, she should continue the custom of being “covered.” That being said, there is still a lack of certainty since there is not enough information provided.
Fee observes that the structure of 1 Cor. 11:8-9 is a perfect double chiasm. (A chiasm is an X structure.)
A Not is man from woman,
but woman from man;
B Not was created man for the sake of the woman,
but woman for the sake of the man.
B’ Neither woman without man,
nor man without woman,
in the Lord;
A’ For just as the woman from the man,
so also the man through the woman,
and all things from God.
From Paul’s teaching, Fee establishes that men and women are mutually dependent on each other:
“The qualifiers in the second sets (“in the Lord,” all things from God”) are what make the difference. While it is true that woman is man’s glory, having been created for his sake (v. 9), Paul now affirms that that does not mean that woman exists for man’s purposes, as though in some kind of subordinate position to his aims and will. To the contrary, God has so arranged things that “in the Lord” the one cannot exist without the other, not meaning of course that every Christian man and woman must be married, but that as believers man and woman are mutually dependent on each other.”
Fee goes on to say that the final qualifier, “and all things are from God,” which includes at least woman and man, puts the whole of vv. 7-9 into proper Pauline perspective that both man and woman, and not just man, are from God. At Creation, God made man from dust and made the woman from man, but after that, and as is now, both males and females come through the woman.
Again, it needs to be reiterated that this passage in 1 Cor. has been rather poorly handled in the church. Fee concludes this section by stating that Paul affirms both of the following:
(1) That women do have authority over their own heads (although that must be exercised in the context of not shaming their “head” and propriety) and
(2) That even though in the new age the distinctions between male and female must be maintained, that does not mean that one is subordinate to the other. To read the text as though it said the opposite of what vv. 10-12 seem clearly to say is to do Paul an injustice and possibly to put one in the position of disobeying the intent of God’s Word.”
- An Argument from Propriety (11:13-16 )
Paul moved from “a concern over a woman’s being “covered” to a concern for her having “authority” over her head without being either independent of or subordinate to man.” This final paragraph now returns to Paul’s original argument of vv. 4-6.
“By appealing finally to their own sense of propriety, as “nature” by way of analogy helps them to see that, Paul brings to a close his argument over the “rightness” of women maintaining the “custom” of being covered. But Paul is never quite comfortable concluding an argument in this fashion. Hence he draws the whole together with a final appeal to what goes on in the “churches of God.” That he is dealing strictly with “custom” (church “custom,” to be sure) is not made plain, as is the fact that this argument, for all its various facets, falls short of a command as such.”
Fee notes that this is the third time that Paul has tried to correct Corinthian behavior by appealing to what is taught or practiced in the other churches. Although he has spent much effort on this issue, we can observe that it is not something which he has great passion for.
We can perceive that:
- Though Paul argues in this way, he does not give a commandment. This suggests that such a “church custom,” though important to the Corinthians, is not to be raised to Canon Law.
The very ‘customary” nature of the problem in that particular church makes it nearly impossible to transfer it to the multifaceted cultures in which the church finds itself today. This could be, if we knew exactly what the custom was to transfer—and we do not.
It is sensible to realize that in each culture there are likely to be modes of dress that are appropriate and those that are not.
- How Paul deals with this issue in comparison to how he takes on the abuses around the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian church is noteworthy. Much more was at stake regarding their abusive practices of the Lord’s Supper.
To conclude, one notes that the “distinction between the sexes is to be maintained; the covering is to go back on, but for Paul it does not seem to be a life-and-death matter.”
To reiterate, Fee stresses that this passage has been badly handled in the church. This can be understood to mean that this passage has been unsatisfactorily, incompetently, and incorrectly dealt with in the church. By showing where there has been flawed exegesis and weak interpretive methods, these can be placed alongside a more precise handling of the passage for comparison. This should aid the enquirer to conclude the following points:
1. Women do have authority over their own heads (although that must be exercised in the context of not shaming their “head” and propriety) and
2. Even though in the new age the distinctions between male and female must be maintained, that does not mean that one is subordinate to the other.
With careful study of a complex passage, a conscientious student of the Scriptures ought to have a reasonable understanding of these verses and be able to have answers for themselves and for others.
To conclude, in an interview with Gordon Fee by Julian Lukins in 2010, this interviewer finished their article with these words and a worthy admonition to the church from Dr. Gordon Fee:
“Clearly Fee loves the Word, noting that heresies are creeping into the church because of lack of theological understanding and misinterpretation of Scripture. What’s needed, he emphasizes, is Spirit-filled living and sound scriptural interpretation. “If I could say one thing to the American church,” he cautions, “it would be this: Keep integrity with Scripture and spiritual experience.”**
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
* All quotes have been taken from Gordon Fee’s book: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 491 -524. Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
** Julia Lukins is a writer based in Sequim, WA. This is an interview from Charisma Magazine, 9/1/2010. Link: http://www.charismamag.com/spirit/bible-study/11740-a-professor-with-spirit
* * * * *
For Further Reflection
1 Corinthians 11:3-16 from The Message
3-9 In a marriage relationship, there is authority from Christ to husband, and from husband to wife. The authority of Christ is the authority of God. Any man who speaks with God or about God in a way that shows a lack of respect for the authority of Christ, dishonors Christ. In the same way, a wife who speaks with God in a way that shows a lack of respect for the authority of her husband, dishonors her husband. Worse, she dishonors herself—an ugly sight, like a woman with her head shaved. This is basically the origin of these customs we have of women wearing head coverings in worship, while men take their hats off. By these symbolic acts, men and women, who far too often butt heads with each other, submit their “heads” to the Head: God.
10-12 Don’t, by the way, read too much into the differences here between men and women. Neither man nor woman can go it alone or claim priority. Man was created first, as a beautiful shining reflection of God—that is true. But the head on a woman’s body clearly outshines in beauty the head of her “head,” her husband. The first woman came from man, true—but ever since then, every man comes from a woman! And since virtually everything comes from God anyway, let’s quit going through these “who’s first” routines.
13-16 Don’t you agree there is something naturally powerful in the symbolism—a woman, her beautiful hair reminiscent of angels, praying in adoration; a man, his head bared in reverence, praying in submission? I hope you’re not going to be argumentative about this. All God’s churches see it this way; I don’t want you standing out as an exception.
* * * * *
© 2014 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.