BIBLICAL FOUNDATION: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Should women wear head coverings in corporate worship? When it comes to the discussion on the role of women in ministry and leadership, scholars have engaged considerably on this topic in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Johnson suggests there are 22 debatable issues in this text and argues that the women’s movement over the last century has impacted the biblical interpretation and increased the dialogue surrounding it. While some have argued this entire section is an interpolation, it is widely affirmed that there is no concrete textual evidence for this theory. Thus this passage will be considered in its final form as authoritative for faith and practice in the local Church. The following exegesis will demonstrate that Paul values the participation of women in corporate worship and recognizes their ontological equality with men, yet affirms the distinct roles of male headship and female submission in the church. Paul effectively roots his teaching in the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of Creation. The following seven sections will be discussed: Context (11:2); Meaning of Head (11:3); Prayer and Prophecy (11:4-5); Head Coverings (11:5-6); Functional Difference at Creation (11:7-10); Ontological Equality at Creation (11:11-12); and Concluding Remarks (11:13-16).
Context (1 Corinthians 11:2)
The first of two letters to the church at Corinth was written by Paul from Ephesus in AD 53 or 54 in response to reports about division and requests for clarification on specific matters within the congregation. After addressing a number of specific concerns, Paul instructs on matters of worship in chapters 11 through 14. It is essential to identify the immediate context of the passage. While there are some commentators who argue that Paul is referring to a private or non-church setting, there are three reasons why this is highly unlikely. First, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-14:40 Paul addresses issues that pertain to corporate worship: head coverings, the Lord’s Supper, and spiritual gifts. Paul writes, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). He begins this section affirming the Corinthians for remembering him and maintaining traditions that he had taught them, before he transitions to giving clarification and correction on these three matters of public worship. Second, there is nothing in the text to indicate a private setting. Lenski observes, “It is quite essential to note that no modifier is attached to the participles to denote a place where these activities were exercised. So we on our part should not introduce one, either the same one for both the man and the woman, for instance, ‘worshipping or prophesying in church,’ or different ones, for the man ‘in church,’ and for the woman ‘at home’.” Third, the gift of prophecy was given for the edification of the body and building up of other believers, not just for private use. Paul identifies its purpose later in the same letter, “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Cor. 14:3-4). The most likely reading is that the instructions in this section relate to corporate worship.
Meaning of “Head” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
Paul introduces the passage on head coverings with three pairs. “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). The main purpose of this verse is to lay a foundation for what follows, rooting his arguments for male headship in the doctrines of the Trinity and Creation. The Greek word kephalḗ (head) refers to the top or that which is uppermost in relation to something, which could mean the literal head on the body of a person, or a metaphorical head to whom others are subordinate. Scholars have chosen to interpret it as either: (1) authority over; (2) source, origin, temporal priority; or (3) preeminent, foremost, representative, the part representing the whole. This discussion will argue that Paul uses kephalḗ (head) as a metaphor in verse 3, meaning one to whom others are subordinate. In verses 4 and 5 he uses kephalḗ (head) in both the literal sense of a physical head on the body of a person, and the metaphorical sense, yet the debate remains within the implications of the interpretation of the word in each usage. While there are some scholars such as Thiselton who argue for the third meaning, the majority of the dialogue has been whether kephalḗ (head) means sourceor authority.
The most compelling evidence leads to the interpretation of kephalḗ (head) as authority for the following five reasons. First, Wayne Grudem has demonstrated this to be the most likely interpretation through his extensive research on the term in a variety of contexts in the Bible and ancient Greek literature. Second, the interpretation as source is not supported by evidence in the Greek Old Testament. Schreiner asserts, “Even if it were demonstrated that head does mean ‘source’ in a few passages, it never bears that meaning in the Septuagint, and that is the relevant piece of literature with which Paul would have been most familiar.” Third, the other writings of Paul support his use of kephalḗ (head) to indicate authority. Fourth, to use authority is most fitting in the immediate context of the passage. Fifth, Paul’s literal use of kephalḗ (head) in verses 4 and 5 indicates a connection between the function of both the literal and metaphorical use of the word. Kӧstenberger explains, “From this literal referent—the head as the command and control center directing a human being’s thoughts and actions—it’s a small and natural step to the figurative sense of ‘head’ as denoting authority.”
The significance then, of using kephalḗ (head) to indicate authority is that Paul points to the doctrine of the Trinity as foundational to his instructions which follow. For, just as God is the head of Christ, so man is the head of woman. Schreiner notes, “The point is not that the Son is essentially inferior to the Father. Rather, the Son willingly submits Himself to the Father’s authority. The difference between the members of the Trinity is a functional one, not an essential one.” In the same way, Paul uses the doctrine of Creation later in this passage in verses 7-12 to demonstrate the functional difference and ontological equality of men and women.
Prayer and Prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)
In light of the strong evidence to interpret kephalḗ (head) as authority, verses 4 and 5 will now be discussed. “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved (1 Cor. 3:4-5). Paul instructs how every man and woman who prays or prophecies ought to conduct themselves in corporate worship. Given the aforementioned context of corporate worship, most egalitarians and complementarians can agree that Paul affirms that both men and women can pray and prophecy in church gatherings. Most can also agree that when prayer or prophecy occurs, Paul is stating that it is to be done in a particular way, men with their heads uncovered, and women with their heads covered. The main divergence occurs when egalitarians argue that this text is prescriptive for women to have teaching, preaching, or governing authority in a church body. This position rests on the assumption that the gifts of prophecy and teaching are the same. However, in the rest of Scripture, prophecy and teaching are presented as separate gifts (Rom. 12:6-7, 1 Cor 12. 28-29, Eph. 4:11). Grudem provides a helpful distinction: “Prophecy in the New Testament is reporting something God spontaneously brings to mind, while teaching is explaining and applying Scripture or the teachings of the apostles.” Schreiner offers further insight, “It is true that those who prophecy proclaim and declare God’s word to the people of God. On the other hand, identifying prophecy as preaching is misleading, since those who preach the Scriptures use the gift of teaching in their exposition.” Thus, the text in 1 Corinthians 11:5 does not indicate that women are to exercise the gift of teaching. Rather, they are to prophecy in such a way that will not dishonour their metaphorical heads by covering their literal heads, which will now be discussed further.
Head Coverings (1 Corinthians 11:6)
In 1 Corinthians 11:6, instructions are given for how and why women ought to cover their heads in corporate worship. “For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head” (1 Cor. 11:6). In the Corinthian context, for a woman to go out in public with her head uncovered was a sign of immodesty and disgrace and had sexual implications. There are a variety of suggestions as to what Paul is referring to as the specific way in which women are to do so. Some scholars believe women were to wear their hair up with a clasp or headband, while others argue for a type of shawl. While the Kӧstenbergers affirm that women likely wore a physical object on their head, they keenly observe that the exact nature of the head covering does not affect the main principle of the text, namely, to physically demonstrate an expression of their submission to male authority. Therefore, these verses support the foundation of male headship expressed at the beginning of this passage (1 Cor. 11:3).
Functional Difference at Creation (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)
In verses 7-10, Paul appeals to the doctrine of Creation to affirm the principle of male headship and female submission in the church by describing the functional difference of man and woman in Creation and the implications of that distinction. “For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 3:7-10).
In verses 7-8, Paul states that men should not cover their head, since they are the image and glory of God, a reference to Genesis 1:27 when God created man. He then teaches that woman is the glory of man because she was created from man, a reference to Genesis 2:21-23 when God took one rib from man and created woman. In verse 9, Paul affirms that woman was created for man’s sake, a reference to Genesis 2:18. This is an essential component to Paul’s reasoning for male headship and female submission. What does it mean that woman was created for man? It is evident that God put Adam in the garden to cultivate it and keep it, then entrusted him with the Law (Gen. 2:15-17). At that point God acknowledged that it was not good for man to be alone and created a suitable helper for him (Gen. 2:18-22). The narrative in Genesis indicates that woman was created to help man with his primary role of stewarding creation and the Law.
In verse 10a, Paul uses “therefore” to highlight the importance of what has just been stated, that woman is the glory of man, woman originated from man, and woman was created for man. In light of these truths rooted in the doctrine of Creation, Paul states that a woman in corporate worship ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, a head covering, to demonstrate submission to the male leadership that have been entrusted to steward the Law. The Greek word exousίa (authority) refers to permission, right, liberty, or power to do something. Some scholars have interpreted this verse to mean that women ought to exercise authority over their own heads to wear their hair up, or that they have the same divine authority as men as long as their heads are covered. However, these arguments are weakened given a plain reading of the text and the explicit references to God’s created order of male headship and female submission. In verse 10b, Paul gives the reason for women to have exousίa (authority) on their heads, because of the angels. Within the immediate context of preserving the intended created order, Paul instructs them to consider the angels who are present in corporate worship. This could be because angels are the custodians of the created order and that one day believers will judge them. The most likely interpretation, however, is that women were to pray and prophecy in a submissive way that respected the created order in the presence of God and his angels, so that he received full glory and worship was not distracted by neither human glory or shame.
Ontological Equality at Creation (1 Corinthians 11:11-12)
After Paul highlights the distinct roles of men and women in Creation, he then affirms the ontological equality of men and women in Creation. “However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God” (1 Cor. 3:11-12). The apostle wants to clarify to the Corinthians that functional difference and ontological equality are not in contradiction. In the middle of these verses are two statements which affirm the interdependence of men and women, “neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of women (1 Cor. 3:11). Paul gives two reasons for this which are rooted in Creation and biology, “For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman.” Verse 11 begins with the phrase, “however, in the Lord,” and verse 12 ends with “all things originate from God.” Some have attested that these phrases relativize gender roles and leadership in worship, and show that Paul does not want the head covering issue to promote any male headship in the church. These interpretations are very difficult to resolve with the three verses which immediately precede these phrases, in which Paul affirms the functional difference of men and women rooted in the doctrine of Creation, and earlier in verse 3 in the doctrine of the Trinity. Given the broader context of this passage then, not only are men and women ontologically equal in their created design and reproduction, the encompassing truths are that they experience this interdependence through Christ and because of God’s created order. Therefore, although women are to demonstrate their submission to male leadership, this does not make them inferior or any less important. Paul bookends these truths of being “in the Lord” and that “all things come from God” to affirm the reality that men and women have identical standing in salvation through Christ and are equal image-bearers of God through creation.
Concluding Remarks (1 Corinthians 11:13-16)
Paul concludes this portion of the letter by inviting the recipients to judge for themselves what appropriate conduct should be in light of his teaching in verses 2-12. “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:13-16). He invites the Corinthians to consider how nature itself affirms a gender specific conduct that is appropriate for men and women. Using nature, Paul effectively reiterates his remarks in verses 4-5 that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her, because her hair is given to her as a covering (1 Cor. 11:14-15). He closes this section with verse 16, “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.” Essentially, Paul is stating that the role distinctions for men and women in corporate worship are rooted in foundational doctrines and therefore are not up for debate. If his commendation of them in verse 2 is to remain, the Corinthians will need to address those who disagree with the practice and provide appropriate instruction.
Summary (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)
In summary, the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has demonstrated that Paul values the participation of women in corporate worship and recognizes their ontological equality with men, yet affirms the distinct roles of male headship and female submission in the church. The text provides evidence that this was a corporate worship setting. Paul roots his teaching in the doctrine of the Trinity and Creation and uses kephalḗ (head) in the metaphorical sense to denote authority. While Paul affirms that both men and women can pray and prophecy in corporate worship, it was shown that the gift of prophecy was not the same as authoritative teaching. In addition, women were to cover their heads to demonstrate that they were praying and prophesying under the authority of male leadership. Paul explains this further by appealing to the doctrine of Creation to show both the functional difference and ontological equality of men and women. He concludes this section by reiterating what has been taught and encouraging the Corinthians to continue in this practice.
This passage provides timeless principles for women in ministry and leadership today. The doctrines of the Trinity and Creation demonstrate both the distinct roles of headship and submission and the ontological equality of men and women. The practice of head coverings for women in Corinth communicated their posture of submission or lack thereof. The principle of male headship and female submission in corporate worship remains in the church today. Women are free to exercise and enjoy their gifts for the building up of the Church, while following the example of Jesus submitting to the Father, and celebrating their created purpose to be helpmates in life and ministry.
Although I disagree with Payne’s overall interpretation of the passage, he affirms the ample scholarship that refutes the interpolation theory in this case. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 109.
Holymard argues for a nonchurch setting to resolve the apparent contradiction that women can prophecy with Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 that women are to be silent. Harold R. Holmyard, “Does 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Refer to Women Praying and Prophesying in the Church,” Bibliotheca sacra 154, 616 (1997): 467, 472.
See Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ, 117-136; and Gordon D. Fee, “Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 11: 2-16,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, eds. Ronald W. Pierce, et al. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 155
See Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of κϵϕαλή (“Head”): An Evaluation of New Evidence, Real and Alleged,” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 145-202; and Grudem, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth, 201-211.
See Thomas R. Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 127.
Garland offers extensive insight on the implications of women being out in public with covered and uncovered heads in the Corinthian context. See David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 518-522.
“English versions often have added a word to the Greek text in order to make the meaning plainer. Thus, the NASB translates verse 10 to say that ‘the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.’ The RSV says that a woman should have ‘a veil on her head,’ and the NIV says a woman should have ‘a sign of authority on her head.’ But the Greek text literally says ‘the woman ought to have authority on her head.’ The words symbol (NASB), veil (RSV), and sign (NIV) are not in the Greek text. All the text says is that a woman should have authority (exousia) on her head.” Pheme Perkins, First Corinthians, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 134.