Every once in a while, reading the Scriptures, you want to board a time machine just to see what was really happening. You read something in Paul; you know he’s responding to a question in a letter that was sent to him, or speaking to a situation that was reported to him by someone else. But you don’t have the letter, or have to make guesses about the situation. And without some key pieces of information, it’s often difficult to understand what Paul may be trying to say, leaving the door wide open for a variety of interpretations and misinterpretations.
As suggested in the previous post, the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 is just such a passage. Paul begins thus:
I praise you because you remember all my instructions, and you hold on to the traditions exactly as I handed them on to you. Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered shames his head. (1 Cor 11:2-4, CEB)
He opens with a positive affirmation — “I praise you” — which contrasts strongly with what he will say just a few verses later — “Now I don’t praise you” (vs. 17, CEB) — suggesting that whatever we make of the issue in verses 2 to 16, it’s nowhere near as important as the abuses surrounding the Lord’s Supper (vss. 17-34).
Here, he seems to be saying something like “I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to follow what I’ve taught you, but…” A situation has arisen in the Corinthian church pertaining to covering one’s head in worship: apparently, women were expected to, and men were not. Some of the women, however, had begun praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered, creating controversy. The situation, in other words, has to do with actual physical heads; but as a theological “big picture” lead-in, Paul also uses the word “head” metaphorically.
Thinking of Paul’s parallel statement in Ephesians 5:23 (“A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church,” CEB), some have argued that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is making a theological case for some form of male headship, the essential lesson being that by praying with their heads uncovered women were rejecting the authority of their husbands (or of men in general).
Again, we can’t know for certain — but a case can be made for reading the text very differently. The same Greek word, kephale (as in the English “encephalogram”), can literally mean one’s physical head, or can be used metaphorically. But as biblical scholars have noted, the usual metaphoric meaning of “head” is not some hierarchical model of authority, but “source,” as in the “head” of a river. Given that Paul will soon refer to the fact that Eve was created from and for Adam (vss. 8-9), it makes sense to read verse 3 as saying that the “source of the woman is man.”
Note also what Paul says directly about authority in the passage. Here it is in the NIV: “a woman ought to have authority over her own head” (vs. 10). Contrast that with the older version of the NIV: “the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” The word “sign” is actually not there in the Greek; the translators rendered it that way because they interpreted Paul to mean that the head covering in question was in fact a public sign of the authority (her husband’s?) she was rejecting.
How else, then, could Paul’s words be understood? He’s used the word “authority” in the letter before. It’s part of the Corinthians’ bumper-sticker theology: “Everything is permitted” (CEB). Paul has already responded to their use of this slogan twice (6:12,10:23), both times with a “Yes, but”: Yes, you have the freedom / authority / right to do this or that, but that doesn’t mean you should.
In other words, when Paul says that a woman should have “authority over her own head,” he may mean, Yes, her freedom in Christ includes the authority to decide for herself whether to pray with her head uncovered — but just because she can doesn’t mean that she should (and here are a number of reasons why it wouldn’t make sense for her to do so!).
Compared to the clear and forceful way Paul argued against both sexual immorality and idolatry, his reasons for women covering their heads seem confusing, even half-hearted. It seems more likely that he’s trying to restore good order than teaching the authority of men over women. Indeed, he almost seems to studiously avoid such a reading:
However, woman isn’t independent from man, and man isn’t independent from woman in the Lord. As woman came from man so also man comes from woman. But everything comes from God. (1 Cor 11:11-12, CEB)
Even if Adam was created first, men are born of women. Men and women complete and complement one another, and what matters even more is that both are “in the Lord,” and “everything comes from God.”
In the third and final post in this series, we’ll look at possible applications of the passage.