1. It’d be a mistake to pull 1 Corinthians 11 out of the rest of the letter
Paul has been systematically addressing issues in the Corinthian church where they have adopted or not yet put off the Corinthian approach to life; Paul has consistently been urging the Corinthian church to be who they are in Christ. The problems so far have been ‘too much Corinth in the church, not enough church in Corinth”… It makes sense for us to understand whatever problem he’s addressing in this chapter as a problem that is, in part, cultural. There’s a certain logic to how Paul has addressed issues in the church throughout the letter; he’s coming from somewhere (1 Cor 1:1-9) and going somewhere (1 Cor 15) in a sustained and united message to the Corinthians.
2. It’d be a mistake to start in verse 2, not verse 1.
Paul’s answer to ‘who you now are’ is ‘you are in Christ’; in the next chapter he’ll call the church ‘the body of Christ’; when he says ‘follow my example as I follow the example of Christ’ this is his approach to answering the ethical dilemmas he is dealing with in Corinth around sex, dining, and status, that come from the Corinthian culture.
The example of Christ (and his life, death, and resurrection) is the central point of the ‘traditions’ Paul has passed on to the church (see also 1 Corinthians 15).
3. The issue here is about how men and women pray and prophesy in public
We might naturally be drawn to weird stuff about head coverings (where there’s probably something cultural going down), but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Paul sees women speaking in a church context; and in chapter 14 he’ll talk about prophecy being the most desirable gift.
It’s clear he’s talking about something public or visible; because whatever the scandal involved in this behaviour he’s addressing is, it’s a public thing. In the next little section (from verse 17) he continues addressing what they do when they come together; this seems to be the context for lots of what he says from here until chapter 14. The ‘location’ of the issues in chapters 8-10, around eating food, is about the homes of non-believers, and idol temples; these seem unlikely locations for public prayer and prophecy (where people are able to pay attention to what someone is wearing).
4. ‘’Men’ and ‘women’ in this verse could equally be translated ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ and probably should be
This makes a pretty big difference about how this passage lands, and whether this is about general relationships between men and women or the particular relationship of marriage. If it’s about marriage, then the veil — the head covering — was a sign that a woman was married; it symbolised the life-changing ‘one flesh’ inter-dependant relationship that married couples share. To take the veil off when praying was a declaration of independence. This puts the picture of a marriage relationship in 1 Corinthians 11:3-5 in the same ballpark as Ephesians 5; and when Paul comes back to how married couples are to speak and interact in church in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 he’s explicit (though ‘woman’ is used again, that ‘she should ask her husbands at home (another tricky passage, but one that somehow has to relate to this one where women are freely praying and prophecying).
Paul’s emphasis in both these passages seems to be on the need for people in an inter-dependent relationship not to disgrace one another, with these two explicit references to how wives are to relate to their husbands in the context of church gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:6, 14:35). The disgrace in chapter 11 seems to be caught up in acting in a way that denies what is true about their relationship: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman [wife] is not independent of man [husband], nor is man [husband] independent of woman [wife].” (1 Cor 11:11). Paul is going to go on to establish that in the body of Christ we’re all actually dependent on one another; marriages are a particularly dependent relationship-reality within this bigger dependent relationship-reality of the church. If married couples are being independent of each other; what chance does the church have of being the united body of Christ that Paul says they have to be?
5. The ‘head covering’ is most likely a cloth veil, not simply hair length (though hair length could communicate very similar things in the culture).
Paul moves from a ‘covered head’ to statements about hair length because there’s a connection between the symbolism of hair and how one adorned it in the ancient world. Hair being cut off was a sign of marital unfaithfulness in both Rome and Israel; Paul is basically saying “if a woman deliberately and publicly takes her wedding ring off (the veil) she may as well declare herself unfaithful to her husband (cut her hair off),” and then there’s a conditional statement ‘if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or head shaved, then…’ — it’s worth reflecting on whether it is actually disgraceful or a symbol of a woman denying her marriage, for a woman to have short hair in our culture (it’s not). The cultural symbolism caught up in hair matters; and the wedding ring is a nice modern equivalent here; but really it would be any time a wife does things to suggest her marriage isn’t a reality.
6. A bloke covering his head in a veil had a particular meaning too
There are statues from around the Roman world that depict emperor Augustus covering his head when praying in temples; statues created desirable norms; they were a bit like billboards with the latest fashion. The emperor was the pontifex or pope of the Roman religions; the chief priest; and covering your head while praying made a particular claim about a person’s relationship to the gods, but also their status in the city. Christian men might choose to cover their heads in this way in imitation of the emperor as a claim about their status in the life of the church. Just like the woman’s veil, a man praying with his head covered was a status symbol inconsistent with the Gospel; and with our relationship to one another (where Paul will go in chapter 12), in marriage, and under God (11:3, 7).
7. Paul emphasizes the way the Gospel shapes the marriage relationship so a married couple’s equality, inter-dependence, God-dependence, and difference are on display; behaviour that undermines this undermines the Gospel.
If we want to apply this passage to today’s context we need to think about how our public practices allow married couples to display these qualities of their relationship within the same qualities of relationship that are on display as we corporately act as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). When Paul says the wife is the ‘image and glory’ of man, he isn’t denying Genesis 1 which says both men and women are made in the image of God; but recognising that marriage reshapes how we reflect the image of God in oneness. Marriage comes with a sacrifice of independence in how we operate in the world.
“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” — 1 Corinthians 11:11-12
What Paul does talk about is a sort of voluntary internal ordering of the marriage relationship in a way that mirrors the relationship between father and son. Without going into too much theology stuff on the Trinity; it’s really important to hold that the father and son are equal, and that the son voluntarily submits to the father out of love; not because he is a subordinate. People — both men and women — are quite free not to marry (in fact, Paul reckons that’s better — 1 Cor 7), but once you voluntarily enter a marriage that fundamentally changes how you operate in the world.
Paul talks in terms of headship; but his message from Chapter 1 has been that Christian relationships are shaped by the pattern of the cross; not the pattern of power and status and standing over people we see in Corinthian life. The cross inverts the way this inter-dependence plays out (especially against the backdrop of Roman culture which was very patriarchal where the husband was the authoritative head of the household and things went the way he wanted (which is part of what started a trend in Corinth of liberated wives who went around with their heads unveiled).
One application here is that we should be distinctly different in our marriages because we have a picture of interdependence in how we understand the Trinity, and love because of how we understand the Gospel (eg 1 Cor 13) — this is where the ‘example of Christ’ and the tradition Paul has past on ‘as of first importance’ (1 Cor 15), becomes so important. So for married couples the question in this passage is ‘how do we operate together in public in a way that reflects the example of Jesus as we see it in the Gospel and who we are together’?
8. The angels thing is weird if you forget the rest of the letter (and still a bit weird if you don’t).
“It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” — 1 Cor 11:10
This isn’t just a random reference to supernatural beings as justification for a position; but rather a statement about our status as human beings in God’s ordering of the world — as image bearers who reflect God’s glory; as members of the body of Christ, we are ruled by God alone, and as Paul has said earlier, we ‘rule’ or ‘judge’ the angels. This is a statement about human dignity and how essential that is to our humanity (and is part of why the voluntary nature of marriage and this inter-dependence is important).
“Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” — 1 Corinthians 6:3
Still confusing though…
9. If we use this passage to emphasise the difference between men and women; and difference in roles in the church we miss that Paul is talking about interdependence and about shared roles in the mission of the church.
Most of the talks I’ve heard on this passage over the years end up clunkily trying to say things about hair length, or hats, and about how women and men need to look different in order to affirm our difference. If it’s more about marriage and wives and husbands looking married; and men not ruling like Caesar or a Corinthian priest, then perhaps we need to take the conversation back to how we allow men and women to pray and to prophecy in the life of the church; and then think about what that might look like for married couples (single people don’t have to worry so much about this particular interdependence being expressed in their contributions to church life — possibly part of why Paul reckons singleness allows for more effective ministry). Paul will go on to talk about how we’re all interdependent members of one body… so singleness doesn’t completely let you run around as a loose cannon… but a better question than ‘how long can my hair be’ might be ‘what does it mean for women to pray and prophecy’?
Paul does consider prophecy the best gift; the one to be most eagerly desired. In a future post we’ll consider what prophecy actually is and how it happens in our church (and what it might mean for women and wives to prophecy appropriately in the life of our church community).
Nathan Campbell – Pastor, Creek Road South Bank