The first verses of 1 Corinthians 11 are not easily understood. I’m guessing that the original readers had an easier time of it, but I’m not altogether sure. Paul uses the same words in a literal sense and a figurative sense (as he does in other parts of 1 Corinthians), which can create some confusion.
Here’s the passage in question:
“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 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. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” (1 Corinthians 11:2–16)
There. It says what it means, and it means what it says. Let’s move on.
OK, I won’t chicken out like that. One problem with this passage is that there are several words that aren’t easily translated. Not that they are uncommon words, they’re just used in somewhat uncommon ways. Here are a few examples:
- head — Paul begins by talking about a figurative head: Christ as the head of man, the husband as head of his wife, God as the head of Christ. But then he moves to a discussion of the literal head, which leaves us scratching our heads (all puns intended) about just what he means by the figurative use.
- glory — Man is the image and glory of God; woman is the glory of man. Later he says that long hair is a woman’s glory (in contrast with disgrace).
- authority — The KJV says that a woman should have “power on her head.” Several versions talk about a sign or symbol of authority, but those words (sign, symbol) have been added as an interpretation.
As different meanings of those words are used, so the interpretations shift. Like I said, it’s a difficult passage.
But here are some takeaways that I find, even as I wrestle with understanding specific details:
- Women prayed and prophesied in public. One commentator suggested that this was merely a hypothetical that would then be ruled out by Paul’s teachings in chapter 14. I don’t buy that. Women prayed and prophesied in public. Probably in the assembled church, hence the reference to the presence of angels.
- There are differences between men and women. Were there not, there would be no reason for this passage to exist. Paul’s appeals are theological in nature, not cultural. (see the previous chapters of 1 Corinthians for a good example of a culture-based argument) Galatians 3:28 did not erase gender nor gender differences in the church.
- There is a sense of “hierarchy” to the relationship between men and women. We can talk around that all we want, yet it’s hard to get away from that understanding of verse 3 and it’s discussion of headship. It’s not accurate to say that the Greeks didn’t use the word “head” to refer to the leader or prominent one. They frequently used the word in that way. Philo did, a Hellenistic Jew of the time. Pre-Christian and post-Christian gnostic writers did as well. Many Jewish writings do the same, often basing themselves on the usage in Deuteronomy 28 (verse 11 and verses 43-44).
Even if the word should be translated “source” or “origin,” the idea of hierarchy remains, based on the references to Christ and God. (Christ as “head” of man and God as “head” of Christ)
- Women were to dress in a way that reflected their relationship to man and to God. They were not to try to be men, but women. Even as they practiced a new freedom in Christ, they were to do so in a way that showed respect toward their husbands.
Lots of other details can be discussed and debated. Feel free to do so in the comments.