Posted by: vicholdsforth | January 26, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 4: 1 Corinthians 11)

In part 3 we took a look at Genesis and concluded that a pre-Fall subordination of Eve is the result of presupposition, rather than a plain-sense reading of the text.  Complementarians point to 1 Cor 11:3 in an attempt to support this presupposition.

One of the most important things to remember about 1 Corinthians is that this is a corrective letter to a church that has some pretty serious problems.  This is the church where the rich people start a sumptuous fellowship meal early and tell the lower-class members a later start time, after they’ve eaten all the good food, and gotten drunk, to boot (11:17-22).  It’s also the church in which one of the members is sleeping with his step-mother and enjoying the approval of the rest of the members (5:1-2).  These are only two examples of the many serious problems in this group of believers.  So we need to consider carefully whether the mandates here are binding upon all believers or meant to correct a specific problem.  There’s a lot to consider here, so we’ll need to look at this passage in two installments.

Before we look at verse 3 in our next installment, let’s have a look at its context, up through verse 16. This passage discusses head coverings for men and women, along with the idea that “the man is the head (kephalay) of the woman” (verse 3).  Veils and hats do not have the same significance in modern America that they did in the first-century Middle East, so cultural understanding is essential to an accurate interpretation and application of this passage.  The head covering worn by Jewish men during prayer symbolized the fact that they were cut off from God.  Because of the work of Christ, we are no longer cut off; thus, Paul instructs the men that they no longer need to observe this custom.   Some Corinthian women, on the other hand, wore elaborate hairstyles that were considered immodest or even seductive by the lower classes and Jews.  Furthermore, ecstatic pagan worship involving the tossing of the hair and cult prostitutes with shaved heads were part of the cultural backdrop of Corinth.

Paul’s instructions here are simply a call for the women in this particular body of believers to exercise their Christian freedom in a manner that is considerate of the sensitivities of others, especially insofar as it detracts from the spread of the Gospel.  We see a similar cultural accommodation when Paul recruited Timothy:  even though Paul stood firmly against the Judaizers (Gal 2:11-12), he nonetheless had Timothy circumcised so his uncircumcision would not be a stumbling block to unsaved Jews (Acts 16:3).  There are two textual clues that indicate that these injunctions were not meant to be a universal mandate.  The first is in verse 11:  “In the Lord, however…”  In other words, all this commentary is not about spiritual realities or anyone’s status in Christ.  It therefore must be pertinent to the local situation.  The second textual clue is verse 16.  Some of the newer English translations render this “we have no other custom,” but this is an erroneous rendering that is easily dismissed by checking Strong’sToiautayn (5108) is not defined as “other,” nor is it translated “other” in any of the scores of other passages in which it is used.  The correct rendering, and the one preferred by most translators throughout history, is, “we have no such custom.”  In other words, we don’t do this.  Other churches don’t do this.  How much more clear could it be that this is a situation-specific directive?

To close our contextual overview, let’s take a look at verse 10.  Translating just the words that appear in the original text, it reads, “Because of this, because of the angels, the woman ought to have authority on/over her head.”  (Many translations insert the words “symbol of” or “sign of” prior to authority, but they are not present in the original text, and obfuscate its meaning.)  Are there any textual clues to help us decide which is preferable, “on” or “over?”  Once again, a perplexing reference holds the key:  “because of the angels.”  Some commentators have posited the notion that women need to dress modestly because we are surrounded by salacious angels and we ladies must avoid tempting them.  This interpretation is a bit untenable, as it begs the question, “If angels can lust after me during worship, what am I supposed to do when I’m alone with my husband?”  More importantly, it bypasses the illumination provided by the immediate Scriptural context found in chapter 6, verse 3 of the very same letter:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?  How much more the things of this life!”  The context thus informs us that the preferred rendering is “over:”  “The woman ought to have authority over her own head.”  In other words, if a woman is going to judge angels in the next life, certainly she should be able to decide for herself what is appropriate attire for a church gathering.

Without context, anyone can find verses in the Bible to support just about any thesis they like.  In spite of the confusing addition of superfluous words to the original text, Paul has left little doubt that this portion of the Biblical text is situation-specific.  Having done our due diligence, we are ready for the next installment, which will focus attention on 1 Cor 11:3.



  1. Bravo! I wish there was a Bible that provided this kind of cultural context. Paul’s teachings would not be so quickly dismissed as chauvinistic.

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