Pursuing Partnership, Part 19: What Does the Bible Say? Interpretive Challenges in 1 Corinthians 11

Pursuing Partnership Series: Men & Women In Leadership
Part 19: What Does the Bible Say?  Interpretive Challenges in 1 Cor 11:2-16

By Heather Althoff, ThM (Dallas Seminary), LifeWay Church – Missions Pastor


The Disputed Passages: A Second Look at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
For the last many weeks, we have slowly walked through three difficult and disputed passages having to do with women in the church. We have seen that an understanding of the nuanced meaning of words and the context into which these exhortations were written are major keys to properly interpreting and applying these texts for Christ-followers today. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is no exception. In this passage, Paul is in the middle of a corrective letter to a church full of Gentiles who live in a large, decadent city dominated by the frenzied, sexualized worship of Dionysus. There has clearly been opposition to Paul even from within the church itself, and he writes to them on issue after issue about how their behavior is betraying the gospel and life in the Spirit. In the midst of this letter, Paul picks up the issue of behavior in the worship service. Apparently, some men and women were doing things that Paul considered dishonoring and disgraceful. And here, of course, it gets confusing.

All About Heads
Throughout verses 2-16, Paul repeatedly refers to heads—man’s head, woman’s head, Christ’s head, people’s own heads. As in English, “head” can refer to a physical head or any number of metaphorical meanings (see previous posts for more on the metaphorical possibilities for kephale in Greek[1]). This passage clearly uses the term “head” in multiple ways, and your understanding of those ways can greatly affect the overall meaning that you see here. It begins in verse 3 with an ordering of man, woman, Christ, and God. While many scholars see source relationships and respect depicted here[2], others continue to see intrinsic authority and leadership affirmed. Unfortunately, the idea of ordered authority that extends to the Christ and God has led some into dangerous, even heretical waters of eternal subordination within the godhead.[3]

In verses 4 and 5, Paul addresses something that men and women were doing with their physical heads while they prophesied that in some way dishonored their heads. Debate centers on whether they were dishonoring their source, authority, or their own physical heads—and the practical implications of each interpretation. A cultural understanding of head coverings would be extremely helpful for our understanding here. But there seem to be differing views as to whether veiling or head-covering was common practice for Greeks and Romans, and if it was common practice, what exactly it signified. One scholar has argued that this passage doesn’t even refer to head coverings, but hairstyles that signified the disgraceful revelries and homosexuality prominent in the cult of Dionysus.[4] The actual Greek words do not say “head covering,” but “hanging down from the head.” Whatever it was that they were doing, it could be considered disgraceful and dishonoring, and in the woman’s case, had an equivalent meaning to shaving her head. Some argue that a shaved head indicates a prostitute, while others argue it refers to an adulteress.

The order of Creation
Ultimately, it is the meaning of the action, not the action itself, that is significant for us in verses 4 and 5. Veiling practices and hairstyles may change over culture and time, but the message that they were sending somehow undermined a Spirit-filled life. Verses 7-10 connect this message to God’s image and glory, and in some way to the angels. Those who view the head-covering actions of verses 4 and 5 as symbols of authority tend to see the explanation in 7-10 as an affirmation that the order of creation involved an order of authority. For those who see verses 4 and 5 depicting hairstyles symbolizing undisciplined sexuality and a repudiation of marriage norms (homosexuality for men and adultery for women), the explanation in 7-10 is a bit more nuanced. A man should not wear this kind of hairstyle because he is the image and glory of God. In other words, he should accept himself as God made him and bring God glory. Blurring gender lines by wearing an effeminate hairstyle associated with homosexuality rejects God’s moral standards and his creative nature expressed in procreation. In the next phrase Paul affirms that a woman, not another man, is the glory of man—the one in whom he glories as Adam did over Eve in Genesis 2:23. In this case, verses 8 and 9 affirm that Eve was created from Adam, corresponding to him, and therefore his only appropriate mate. The fact that she was created specifically for him, to be his partner, further affirms God’s will that sex and marriage are to be between a man and a woman.

Authority and Angels
Verse 10 is simply difficult for everyone trying to make sense of this passage. First, there is confusion over whose authority the woman ought to have over her head. Secondly, no one fully understands what angels have to do with Paul’s argument. Those who see an ordered authority depicted in this passage, view verse 10 as affirming a woman’s need for a man’s authority over her head. Often, to make that clear, they add the word “symbol” or “sign” before authority. Others argue that “authority over her head” implies the woman’s own authority over her own head—in other words, exercising authority or control over her head, say by wearing her hair in an appropriate way.

As for the angels, they may indicate the guardians of the created order, fallen angels who took liberties with weak women, human messengers who might report to authorities, or good angels who were often associated in Paul’s letters with worship. While it is unclear to us how the presence of these angels strengthen Paul’s argument, it was apparently clear enough to the Corinthians that Paul could simply leave it at a mention.


Isn’t it obvious?

Verse 11, begins with “nevertheless” or “however” in order to break off the discussion and emphasize what is important. He emphasizes the mutuality of men and women and their non-differentiation “in the Lord.” His words closely parallel Galatians 3:28, affirming their oneness “in Christ.” Many scholars note the more direct refences to source relationship as well as issues of hair, claiming that they support similar understandings in the verses above. In any case, Paul assumes in verse 13 that he has made his case, and that the Corinthians will agree with him about what is proper behavior and what is disgraceful. He appeals to their own judgement and “the very nature of things.” In the Greek mind, nature was considered the origin of culture, and thus, could also refer to the established way of doing things. To Paul, it is obvious. If only it could be as clear for us today.

Resources to Consider:
Complementarian Perspective:
Schreiner, Thomas R.  “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity” pgs. 124-139 in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Crossway 1991

Smith, Claire, “Head to Head about 1 Corinthians 11:3-16” article posted on The Gospel Coalition’s Australian Edition website on September 6, 2017. https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/head-to-head-about-1-corinthians-11/

Alternative Perspectives:
Giles, Kevin.  7 Points in Support of the Nicene and Reformed Doctrine of the Trinity, Priscilla Papers, Publication Date:  2017-07-31.  Journal Volume:  31.  Issue:  3.  Season:  Summer. (Paper given at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting, November 2016)

Mowczko, Marg. Blog posts relating to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/1-corinthians-11-2-16/

Payne, Philip B.  Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, The Priscilla Papers, Publication Date: 2006-07-31. Journal Volume: 20. Issue: 3. Season: Summer.


[1] See Pursuing Partnership blog 15A on headship in Ephesians 5.

[2] It is somewhat encouraging to know that this was debated even in the 4th Century. Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria (376-444) speaks of source in 1 Corinthians 11:3, “Thus we say that the kephaleo of every man is Christ, because he was excellently made through him. And the kephaleo of every woman is man, because she was taken from his flesh. Likewise, the kephaleo of Christ is God, because he is from him according to nature.”

[3] See Kevin Giles’ arguments against eternal subordinationism. 7 Points in Support of the Nicene and Reformed Doctrine of the Trinity, Priscilla Papers, Pub:  2017-07-31. Vol: 31. Issue:3. Season: Summer. https://www.cbeinternational.org/blogs/7-points-support-nicene-and-reformed-doctrine-trinity

[4] For detailed support of this argument, see Philip Payne, Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, The Priscilla Papers, Pub: 2006-07-31. Vol: 20. Issue: 3. Season: Summer. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/priscilla-papers/wild-hair-and-gender-equality-1-corinthians-112%E2%80%9316