1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head. Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since that is one and the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman doesn’t cover her head, she should 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 head be covered.

A man should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God. So too, woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman came from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 This is why a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God.

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.

Well, here we go! Before we jump into one of the more challenging passages about women in the church, I want to say that it’s going to take more than one post to adequately cover this passage.  Furthermore, please know that I am sharing what I have derived from this text with humility and uncertainty. Many excellent writers have written on this passage, and there is still a lot which we don’t understand.   

Today’s post will focus mainly on verse 3. I will try to answer the  question of to which men and women in the congregation this passage applies.  I am setting aside the multiple questions about head coverings, angels and hair length for another post.  It is important to note that this passage discusses behavior in church. However, both the extent of the application of the passage and whether Paul is discussing behavior for gathered church worship are debated.

I believe the passage discusses gathered church worship because verse 16 ends with “ if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God.”  This strongly suggests that the practice described in these verses has to do with church practice to which Paul wants the Corinthian congregation to adhere.  It is also immediately followed by a passage regulating the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Paul seems to be discussing church practice from at least the beginning of chapter 11 to the end of chapter 14.  It is my conclusion that Paul is teaching how congregants are to behave in gathered worship of the church.

So to which men and women does this passage apply?  Let’s look at three versions of verse 3:

3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.  CSB

3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.  ESV

3 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.  NASB

Some data about the verse:

The word for “man” can be translated either as “man” or “husband.”  That word appears twice in the verse.

The word for “woman” can be translated either as “woman” or “wife.”

In the first third of the verse, all three versions accurately reflect the presence of the Greek word for “every” in front of “man.”

In the second third of the verse, “man” or “husband” is connected to the definite article – “the” – and there is no possessive pronoun “her.”  Therefore, the ESV has made a translation decision to state “the head of a wife is her husband.” The word “woman” or “wife” has no article, making the most accurate translation either “a woman” or “a wife.”  Here the CSB differs from both the ESV and the NASB.

In the final third of the verse, all the versions are in agreement, except that the ESV changes the word order.  In the Greek, the word order consistently lists the head second and the person with a head first. In other words, it says:

“Of every man the head the Christ is” and

“head of a woman the man” and

“head of the Christ the God.”

Some important findings from this data:

The man is NOT the head of EVERY woman.

However, we cannot be sure that Paul only intended to be speaking here about husbands and wives in a congregation, in the context of worship.

So the NASB is probably the best translation here, because it helps us to see more accurately the words that are present in the Greek and it lets us know there is some uncertainty about the men and women to whom this verse and passage applies.  Does the passage apply to all men and women in the congregation or only to married men and women?

We know from Ephesians 5:22-33 that the husband is the head of his wife.  Is 1 Corinthians 11:3 just similar teaching to the Corinthian church about husbands and wives?   It is tempting to take the view expressed by the ESV translation, that this headship is simply applicable to husbands and wives.  The leadership of men in the church is not described as headship explicitly (unless you see that in this passage). But in 1 Timothy 2, women in the church are told to be in submission, likely to the elders of their churches, who are carefully selected, godly men.  Submission is paired with headship in Ephesians 5.

I think 1 Corinthians 11 applies definitely to husbands and wives, but I cannot disallow a more extensive application to women in the church.  An even greater problem with translating the words “husband” and “wife” is that beginning in 11:11, it really becomes difficult to maintain that translation through verse 16.  At that point the ESV translators shift to using the words “man” and “woman.” Even though childbearing is brought up as a counterbalance to male pride of headship in verse 11, it is a general reference to the fact that all men are birthed through their mothers, because husbands are not born of their own wives.  The activity described – praying and prophesying – is descriptive of gathered worship, and not necessarily limited to married men and married women. All of this inclines me to apply the instructions of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 to men and women in the church. If this is the case, Paul seems to be instructing men and women on how they should dress their heads in worship to symbolize their gender, and their gender roles.  Interestingly, there is a lot of equality in what they may do in gathered worship in 1 Corinthians 11. The focus is more on how the men and women are dressed while they participate in some equal ways in gathered worship. Men are to pray and prophesy with heads uncovered, while women pray and prophesy with heads covered. We will explore those instructions in a future post.

I see three indicators of equality, and there may be more.  First and most obvious, both men and women are gathered in worship and may pray and prophesy.  Three chapters later in 1 Corinthians 14, we encounter another difficult passage which suggests that women may not speak in gathered worship.  Some writers resolve the apparent inconsistency in the epistle by saying 1 Corinthians 11 is not describing gathered worship, but something smaller, maybe a home group.  But as I said above, the second half of chapter 11 instructs the Corinthians regarding the Lord’s supper, which seems to be an activity of 1st century gathered worship.  Furthermore, praying and prophesying are components of public worship, so I continue to believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is discussing men’s and women’s attire in gathered worship.  (I will propose an understanding of 1 Corinthians 14 in later weeks.) So let me say it again: men and women may both pray and prophesy in church! That speaks of equality.

Second, in verse 2, one of the other relationships with a “head” is the relationship of God the Father with God the Son.  It is heresy to say that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not fully God, equal with his Father and the Spirit. So at least that one relationship with a “head,” is a relationship of Persons with equal natures.  God the Father is head over God the Son, but that does NOT negate the equality of the Son in His nature with the Father. That opens the door wide for us to believe that man is not superior to woman though there is a structure God has ordained which makes a man the head of a woman.  Since we already know that both women and men are created in God’s image, and declared to be “sons” and heirs of God (Galatians 3, see our last post), we can confidently affirm once again that whatever it means for a man to be head over a woman, it does not negate the equality of their natures.  We now have the extra support of the parallel relationship of God the Father and God the Son to affirm the equality of personhood of men and women.

Third, when Paul says “however” in verse 11, he gives what I like to call a  “counterbalance.” He perhaps is intent on curbing male pride here. It seems he is saying to the men not to get puffed up heads over being “head!”  He says the first woman was formed out of a part of the first man’s body – she “came from” the man’s body. Paul seems to be saying in verse 8 that it was a signal of the man’s headship in subsequent generations when the first woman came from him.   But every other man has “come through” a woman’s body. So he also seems to be saying that it is a signal of equality that all men since then have come into this world through a woman’s body. And then he says they both come from God. That is a profoundly equalizing teaching about their natures.  They are both God’s creatures regardless of God’s method of forming them. Let me remind you of the Genesis 2 account. Adam was asleep while God fashioned Eve from his rib and Adam contributed no human (and therefore no inferior) ideas to God’s design of her.

Next post, I will pick up on the difference in the roles of men and women which result from this text.  I will also affirm that both their equality and their roles are intended to unify them. But for now, I urge you to believe that when equal beings are dressed differently or in different roles they may not be identical but they are still equals!

Please follow and like us: