In the last essay we studied 1 Cor. 10:23-11:1. In those verses, Paul took up the subject of meat sold in the marketplace, which was a completely different issue from eating meat at the pagan temples.
In this essay we are studying 11:2-16, which concerns the topic, men and women in worship. Paul has completed his arguments against participation in pagan worship, so he turns to some strong criticisms of the Christian worship practices in the Corinthian church. Once again the information about their worship likely was coming from their letter. But first, in verses 2-3, Paul praises them. It appears that he wants them to know up front that his feelings towards them are not all negative.
Notice in verse two that Paul praises them for two things. First, he praises them for remembering him “in everything,” whatever “everything” means. At the very least it means that they have shown respect for their memories of him, in spite of their attachment to Apollos or other preachers.
And second, he praises them for maintaining the “traditions” that he had delivered to them. Again it is not altogether clear what he means by “traditions.” But it likely refers to the basics of the Christian faith that he taught them. This praise was important, because Paul must now correct them at several points. And he doesn’t want to discourage them.
Paul is concerned about several matters relating to public worship, as we shall see as we move on from here through chapter 14. And the first, which we a studying this morning, has to do with public worship and head coverings.
Beginning at verse three Paul uses the word “head” metaphorically to deal with three relationships, namely, Christ and man, man and woman, and God and Christ. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult passage to interpret. Much debate has surrounded Paul’s use of the term “head” here. He obviously is setting forth a general principle about headship. But we must ask what Paul meant by that concept. There are two basic interpretations.
The first basic interpretation we might call the “traditional” one. It is that God intended the term “head” to mean an authority to whom one is subordinate. Therefore the basic meaning of the verse would be that Christ is subordinate to God; man is subordinate to Christ; and woman is subordinate to man.
The second basic interpretation is that “head” means source, in the sense of origin. From whom does one come? In this interpretation the meaning would be: Christ has come from God; man has come from Christ; and woman has come from man.
Under either interpretation, the clause, “the head of Christ is God,” refers to Christ as incarnate. That is to say, the traditional view states that Jesus became subordinate to God when he became incarnate as a man. And the source view says that Christ originated from God when he became incarnate as a man.
The clause, “the head of every man is Christ,” has two aspects under the source view. Christ is the source of man in the sense of physical creation (John 1:3). And Christ is the source of man in the sense that he is the source of his new Christian life.
The other clause literally reads, “the head of a woman is the man.” I remind you that the two basic views are that man has authority over woman, or that man is the source of woman. The meaning of the authority view is self-explanatory. According to the source view, man is the source of woman, because Eve was created from Adam’s side. This is supported by verses eight and 12.
I agree with Barrett and Fee that the best interpretation of “head” is source rather than authority. The source interpretation seems more plausible to me in light of verses 8-9 and 11. In those verses Paul definitely speaks about woman’s creation from the man. Therefore I do not believe that this scripture supports the traditional view. If one chooses to take the traditional view, it seems to me that it is important to establish that subordination of women to men does not imply inequality or inferiority any more than Jesus’ subordination to the Father implies inequality or inferiority.
In 11:4-16 Paul discusses men and women in worship, with a particular emphasis on head coverings. We also get some more details on the “headship” issue?
Before we move ahead with this paragraph, I want us to discus the word “veil” and its verb form. In our culture veils are not common anymore, but occasionally we see references to wedding veils, which frequently cover the face. The veils to which Paul refers would have been the typical Jewish veil that covered the hair and upper body, but not the face. If a Jewish woman went out without a veil, she would be transgressing Jewish custom.
Another thing we must take note of is the fact that Paul definitely is dealing here with public worship. One could pray in private, but prophesying only took place in worship services. Therefore Paul is disturbed by the Corinthians’ actions during community worship. Apparently in Paul’s view, some of them were expressing their freedom in Christ in an inappropriate way by flouting the traditions about head coverings.
Notice that Paul begins with the men. They must be bare-headed when they worship, because if a man wears a head covering during worship he “disgraces his head.” Of course this raises the question of how to interpret “head.” Is he disgracing his literal head, or his metaphoric “head”? If it is his literal head, he is covering the fact that he is the “image and reflection of God,” as seen in verse seven. If he is disgracing his metaphoric head, then he is disgracing Christ. Fee believes that Paul may have had both of these in mind. And that is possible. However, notice that Paul says nothing specific to indicate that the men actually were disgracing their “head” in this way, though some of them may have been doing it.
In verses 5-6 Paul turns to the women. The rest of the paragraph makes it clear that some of them have been disgracing their metaphorical “head” by praying and prophesying during worship with their physical heads uncovered. And the woman’s metaphorical “head” was the man, which some interpret as her husband. In any case, Paul is saying that according to prevailing custom, the women who were doing this were bringing shame on the men, or on their husbands. Indeed Paul declares it equivalent to a woman’s having her hair cut off or shaved, both of which would bring terrible shame on her. All of this was a matter of custom, but Paul believes that this whole matter goes beyond custom. If you look ahead to verse 14, he declares that nature teaches the same thing. But notice that he never says it is a command of God. Barrett summarizes verses 4-5 quite well by saying, “Man disgraces his head by wearing a veil, woman disgraces hers by not wearing one.”
When we ask how this scripture should be applied today, it is difficult to use it to demand that women wear head coverings in church services. There has been a strong tradition in Roman Catholicism for women to wear veils on their heads while at worship. And a few devout Protestant women have done it. For many years it was customary for women to wear hats to church, and that practice may have had roots in this scripture, though most church people would not have realized it. Moreover Paul’s concerns here are so strongly tied to the cultural norms of his day that most scholars would agree that the teaching is not the will of God for all time. In other words, it cannot simply be brought into a twenty-first century culture from Paul’s first-century culture.
Moving on to verses 7-16, we see Paul making several theological arguments to nail down his case. First, verse seven elaborates on verses 4-6 by declaring that man “is the image and glory (NRSV ‘reflection’) of God” and that “woman is the glory of man.” This is so, because God is man’s metaphoric “head,” and man is woman’s metaphoric “head.”
Second, in verse eight Paul points to the fact that woman was made from man rather than the other way around. Of course this is a reference to Gen. 2:22, when God made woman from the rib, or side, of Adam. This also supports the interpretation of “head” as source. Man was the source of woman just as God was the source of man.
Third, in verse nine he reminds us that man was not created for the sake of the woman, but the reverse was he case. This explains why woman is the glory of man. She was created for his sake. She provided him with a suitable helper (Gen. 2:20b) and mate.
Then, fourth, in verse 10 Paul continues, “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” This verse raises three issues. I will lay out all three, and then we will discuss them. One is his use of the phrase, “For this reason.” Paul could have been referring to what he had just said. However he also could have been referring to what he was about to say. Or he could have had both in mind. In any case, I believe the important information is the new information, “because of the angels.”
Two, Paul’s bringing of angels into the picture makes an already difficult passage even more difficult. Barrett reminds us that in the culture of the day angels were thought of as “guardians of the created order,” and they were thought of as being present at worship services. By not wearing a symbol of God’s authority on their heads, the women could be offending the angels.
Finally three, Paul uses the word “authority” instead of veil, or head covering. Again I believe Barrett has as good a handle on this as any. He suggests that for women to pray and prophesy in church services, they need the authority of God to do so. The head covering symbolizes a covering for the glory of man (her metaphoric “head”) so that she can receive authority from God to glorify him. The head covering symbolizes that God-given authority.
A fifth theological argument is seen in verses 11-12. Man and woman are totally interdependent. She comes from him; he comes through her. But they both come from God and are dependent on him.
Verses 13-15 repeat the ideas already covered in earlier verses, so we will move on to verse 16. In verse 16 we see that Paul believed he had said enough. Notice that he does not conclude with a command forbidding women to pray and prophesy in church. He is not against that. It appears that he just wants the Corinthians to know that if their women were going to do it, they must do it under God’s authority. And interestingly, he also wants them to know that there was no custom in any of the other churches for doing it.