I continue now with a discussion of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.  Last time I accented the indicators of equality in the passage. Today, I want to begin to unpack the teaching on gender difference.  

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.  

The passage starts with praise for the Corinthians keeping to the traditions of the churches.  Verse 3 then gives a key idea – that there exist these three pairs of relationships in which one member is head in relation to another. For a discussion of what headship means, please see our earlier post.  While we may not  have issues with Christ being the head of every man, we are perhaps puzzled that God is the head of Christ.  But the topic of this passage is actually the middle pair: the man is the head of a woman.  Last week we discussed the question of the extent of this headship.  In this post I will begin by discussing this a bit more.

Some commentators see the three pairs in verse 3 as expressions of a “chain of command.”  They say God is the head of Christ who is the head of men (males), some of whom are heads of specific women.   That is possible, but we don’t have to see the three pairs that way, particularly since they are not ordered that way.  If you number the pairs in the order of the proposed chain of command, they appear in the passage in the order 2-3-1. However, there is some validity to this view, since the word for “every man” is not the word anthropos suggesting humanity in general, but andros, meaning specifically men. This connects it to the same word used in the middle pair – “the man is head of a woman.”  

With or without the concept of a chain of command, it is clear that Paul is teaching about male headship in the church context. It’s worth reiterating here that Ruth and I believe men and women are equally made in God’s image, and that the two arenas where gender roles differ are marriage and the church. It will take further study of a few additional passages to unpack fully what this headship within the church entails.  Interestingly, this passage mainly tells us that such headship exists and how to dress to represent it. With that in mind, the rest of this post will be spent walking through the text verse by verse.

Verses 4 and 5 tell a man to pray with his head “uncovered” and a woman to pray with her head “covered.”  My first observation is that they are to dress their heads differently from one another.  If they do not do this, Paul says they will dishonor their heads.  We will discuss in the next post what it means for the woman’s head to be “covered.”  However, it seems likely to me that the head they both dishonor is the head from verse 3, because verse 7 says that the man is the “glory of God” and the woman is the “glory of man.”  Paul then says in verse 5 and 6 that a woman praying with her head uncovered is equivalent to a woman with very short hair or with her head shaved. I consulted multiple commentaries on the meaning of short hair or a shaved head.  From what I have read, it appears that having short hair or a shaved head was indicative at the time of being either an adulteress, a prostitute or dressing like a man. Thus Paul here in this passage could be suggesting multiple meanings of being uncovered: sexual impropriety, rejection of male headship, or erasing gender differences (androgynous clothing) and acting like a man.  Whichever he means, he says it is “disgraceful.” That is a strong word. Another translation says that for a woman to have her head shaved is “shameful.” In the Greek, the verb “dishonor” and the adjective “disgraceful” are related words from the same root. In the next verse (7), Paul uses the word “glory.” That word, doxa, is essentially the opposite of the word which is translated “disgraceful” or “shameful.”

Each time I teach this passage, women are troubled by the suggestion from the passage that the man alone is the “image and glory” of God.  It is very important to remind ourselves of the Genesis passages (to which Paul is referring) that affirm that women are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28 and 5:1-2, see also The Beginning of us all – Eve in His Image). Notice that Paul does not repeat “image” when he says the woman is the glory of man. I believe “glory” is what he is talking about here, not “image.”  He is certainly not saying that the woman is created in the image of man, as that would directly contradict the Genesis passages to which he is referring.  It is also clear from other passages of the Scripture that women, as all believers, bring glory to God (for example: Exodus 15:20-21, Romans 15:5-9). Therefore, Paul is neither saying that women are not made in God’s image, nor that they do not bring glory to God.

He is instead talking about the way a woman relates to her male head, which may or may not bring him glory.  Using the Blue Letter Bible to understand this word doxa or “glory,” I read there that “persons whose excellence is to redound to the glory of others are called their doxa.” In plain English that means that a woman rightly dressed as a modest or honorable woman brings glory or honor to the man who is her head.  Looking again at verse 5, by not covering her physical head, a woman brings dishonor to her head (the man), when she should instead bring him glory, verse 7.  Verses 8 and 9 then tell the reason why the woman is the glory of the man.

Those verses also tell us how and when male headship in marriage and the church was established: this headship stems from the Creation story.  In verses 8 and 9, Paul says the means of Eve’s creation (out of her husband, Adam) and the stated reason for her creation (to be his helper) both signify that God has structured the relationship of men and women, here in the Church and from other passages also in marriage.  That odd thing God did? Making Eve out of Adam’s body instead of from dust like him – it meant something. It not only showed her unity and sameness with  Adam, but Paul tells us here that it also signaled his headship that she came from him. A similar but not identical relationship is created when a child is born out of the body/seeds of both mother and father.  That child is born under the headship of his or her parents. I am not saying that a woman relates to a man as a child to a parent.  But the way a child is born, and the way Eve was created both signal us of a God-intended structure involving headship.

It is easier to understand verse 9 than verse 8.  For instance, if someone is hired to be my assistant, it is relatively clear that I am the head of my assistant, and not the other way around.  And we are not equals in our role, unless I am inclined to function as equals. So it is as if Paul is saying the woman is hired to be the man’s assistant. The difficulty of this verse is not how to comprehend it, but how it makes us feel, and how it is applied.  (I will say something about this in a future post.)

Verse 10 is a famously difficult verse for several reasons.  The first challenge is the use of the word “authority.” Is it the authority of her male head that is signified by the head covering?  Or is it her own authority, the right to pray and to prophesy in the gathered assembly? The first is the view of most complementarians who see the structure of headship and submission including some authority which God has given to the head.  The second is the view of many egalitarians who believe that the man has no authority over any woman, even with this headship. Personally, I believe this authority on her head is the authority of a male head in relationship to a specific woman.  Why? The passage in general seems to be about relationships, not about independent or individual rights. For both the man and the woman, how they dress their head tells what their gender is and who is their immediate head. It seems to be saying that the behavior of an individual believer has an impact not only upon themselves, but also upon the person who is their head.   If this is true, then for the woman the covering signifies that she is a woman with a human male as her head. A woman who covers her physical head acknowledges her womanhood, her appointed head, and his authority by her covering. A woman who acknowledges her appointed head and his authority honors him.

The second challenge to understanding verse 10 is the reference to the angels, whom Paul says are another reason for a woman  to have her head covered in the church gathering. What do the angels have to do with how men and women dress their heads? One proposed meaning for this reference is the Jewish belief at the time that evil angels (like Satan) preyed on human women, and that to declare that she was under headship by covering her head provided the woman protection against them.  Following that train of thought, a case in point would be Eve who should have been under Adam’s headship in the garden, but Satan preyed upon her and tempted her to reject not only God’s headship but Adam’s and to act independently to her own destruction.

A second proposed meaning for this reference is that angels (good ones) are very concerned for the holiness and order of the human family of Christ, which they help to guard, and so it would grieve them to see humans rejecting God’s creation order and teaching about how to relate to one another for the good of Christ’s body.  Seraphim themselves cover their faces in God’s presence to show their reverence to Him (see Isaiah 6), but this then makes us question why all humans are not commanded to cover their heads during gathered worship.

The reference to the angels is very enigmatic, and is a less prominent argument in this passage.  Perhaps the Corinthians understood Paul’s reference, but we do not. Even though the argument is not clear to us, Paul refers to it as an additional argument in support of women covering their heads to acknowledge semiotically (visually) the authority of the male head God has appointed for them.

However, the reference to the angels is not the only thing which is enigmatic in the passage.  Paul does not use the word for a veil in the passage. He repeatedly refers to the woman’s head as “covered” or says “if a woman will not cover her head …” Finally in verse 15, he says her hair is given to her as a “covering.” Is Paul talking about an additional covering or just feminine hair? And how do we, as 21st century Christians, apply this passage to our lives? I will answer these questions in my next post.

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