1 Cor 11:1-16 – Women In The Church

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1 Cor 11:1-16

  1. This text is often used to state that man is above woman in authority in the same way that Jesus is above man in authority. But my assessment is that this text is not about authority at all. The only time the word “authority” is mentioned is in verse 10 where it talks about the authority of the woman.
  2. The reason this text is thought to be about authority is because the Greek word for “head” (“kephale”) is misinterpreted. Using “kephale” as a description of who has the highest authority was, according to Gordon Fee’s Bible commentary “The First Epistle to the Corinthians”, very unusual in ancient Greek. It was so unusual that when Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, the Hebrew word for “head” (“rosh”) was almost never translated as “kephale” when the Hebrew reference was to “authority”.
    1. What the Greeks meant by “head” was rather “origin” or “source”. That both Paul and the Corinthians understood the expression in this way is confirmed by verses 8-9 where Paul writes that the woman comes from the man, i.e. the man is the “origin” or “head” of the woman. Paul is referring to the fact that God created the man Adam before the woman Eve.
      1. Christ is the origin of every man in the sense that Christ is “the firstborn before all creation” and that everything in heaven and on earth was created “in him” (Colossians 1:15-16).
      2. Man is the origin of woman in the sense that God created woman “from the rib that he took from man” (Gen 2:22).
      3. God is the origin of Christ in the sense that Jesus came to earth as a man through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
    1. A further argument that Paul means “origin” when he uses the word “head” is how he uses the word in his letter to the church in Colosse: “He is the head of his body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he might be first.” (Colossians 1:18)
      1. Here we see that Jesus is the “head” of the church in the sense that he is its “beginning” and that he is the “firstborn”.
      2. In Paul’s second letter to Corinth, we can also see that everyone who is “in Christ” is born again and becomes “a new creation”: “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
      3. For the Christian, Christ is the “head” in the sense that Jesus is the beginning of the Christian life, the source of the new life and the origin of the new creation.
  3. To make his point clear, Paul first begins by presenting a hypothetical counterpart to what he says women do. Hypothetically, Paul is saying that it would be dishonoring to Christ if a man prayed with something on his head. Exactly what this men had on their heads is not revealed and we can only guess.
    1. Perhaps Paul was referring to the “prayer shawl” that Jews often wore on their heads when they prayed. While there is nothing wrong with such a shawl per se, there was an obvious danger that if Jewish Christians prayed with such a shawl on their heads, they could exclude Gentile Christians and thus divide the church, something Paul often taught against (1 Cor 7:19, Gal 3:28).
    2. Perhaps Paul was referring to the fact that Romans used to pull their toga up over their heads like a shawl when they prayed to their pagan gods. If even Christians pray that way, it dishonors Christ because you are praying in a pagan way.
    3. But whatever Paul meant in his hypothetical example, both he and the Corinthians seem to agree that it would be as dishonourable to the head of men, i.e. Christ, if Christian men prayed with a shawl on their head as it is dishonourable to the “head” of women, i.e. man, if the woman prays or prophesies without anything on her head. What then was it that the women of Corinth had taken off their heads that would bring dishonor to men in general and husbands in particular?
    4. One possible explanation is that Paul is referring to “loose hair”. The word Paul uses is also used in the Greek translation of Numbers 5:18 where it says that if a woman has been unfaithful to her husband, the priest shall “loosen her hair”. Perhaps Paul is referring to the fact that Christian women, because of their newfound freedom in Christ, began to dress and look like loose women and thus brought shame on their husbands. In our culture, where loose hair is in no way associated with either unfaithfulness or looseness, the parable cannot be directly transposed, but one must understand the underlying symbolic point that Paul is trying to make to the Corinthians.
  4. Since we don’t know exactly what kind of cultural hairstyle Paul is referring to, we can conclude that this is not Paul’s point either. If you start arguing about what kind of head dress or hairstyle men or women should wear in church, you have completely missed the point of this text.
    1. One also misses Paul’s point if one thinks that Paul is writing to establish men’s authority over women.
    2. Rather, Paul’s point is that it is just as bad for men to pray in a way that dishonors Christ as it is for women to pray in a way that dishonors their husbands. It is just as bad for men if the Corinthian women signal unfaithfulness by praying in public with their hair down as it is for Christ if men signal paganism by praying in public with a shawl on their head. Neither men nor women should engage in either.
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