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1 Corinthians 11.

2-16: An Interpretation
Bruce K. Waltke [Bruce K. Waltke, Professor of Old Testament, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia.] In 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 the Apostle Paul discusses the appropriate headdress for the sexes. If churches would include that passage (along with 1 Cor 11:17–34) as part of their reading at the celebration of the Lord‘s Supper, they would be guarded against some of the extreme positions of the women ‘s liberation movement and the theological error that denies a hierarchical structure of the sexes. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, and as a result many believers are succumbing to pressures from both without and within the church to abandon Paul‘s clear teaching on this subject. Perhaps this text has been neglected because of the many interpretive problems with which it confronts the expositor. In the light of the present crisis facing the churches regarding the social ordering of the sexes and the centrality of this text to that discussion, it seems fitting to reconsider the passage. A fresh interpretation will be attempted by considering some of its key theological terms and concepts, by reconstructing its historical background as much as possible, and by synthesizing its argument to expose Paul‘s intention. Although Paul does not say so explicitly, it seems probable to suppose that some of the individualistic Corinthians were proposing that their women throw off their traditional veils which symbolized their subordination to the men. Such a radical cultural change, they may have argued, would be consonant with the radical, revolutionary character of Christian theology. Indeed, a strong case can be made for the social parity of the sexes and therefore against the wearing of a veil symbolizing a hierarchical relationship. For example, the Lord Jesus accepted and BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—47 promoted not the lower standard of the Mosaic law, given after man ‘s Fall, but the higher standard exhibited in the creation before the Fall (cf. Matt 19:3–9). Whereas

God had predicted that in Israel‘s future He would do just that: ―I will pour out my spirit on all mankind. He even commended Mary‘s ―manly‖ posture of sitting in the living room enjoying theological discourse over Martha‘s ―womanly‖ posture of taking care of the practical needs in the kitchen (Luke 10:38–42). A. Cullmann shows that in the primitive church the χαρίσματα were part of the worship service centered in the Lord’s Supper (Oscar Cullmann. if they are equal both in the old and new creation. Moreover. according to Genesis 1:26–28. exclaimed. Deborah (Judg 4:4). Early Christian Worship. and your sons and daughters will prophesy‖ (Joel 2:28). Paul explicitly states in his letter to the church at Galatia that men and women are spiritual equals as the children of God (Gal 3:26–28). So then. a statement showing that he regarded her as his equal. Jesus had accorded women the same dignity He bestowed on men. and Anna (Luke 2:36). Steward Todd and James B. such as Miriam (Exod 15:20–21). demurs here. trans. ―This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh‖ (Gen 2:23). Then. who is otherwise zealous not to bring new converts under old ways and traditions. Acts 21:9). he 1 1. in the new dispensation He gives gifts to all as He pleases (1 Cor 12:7–11). Adam. even as He was pleased to give His gifts to individual women in the old dispensation. 26-32). In fact. Torrance [London: SCM Press. Moreover. Through Joel.1 The old symbol of subordination surely seemed outmoded. too. Thus it may be assumed that some of the women at Corinth were indeed prophesying along with the men (cf. the creation accounts assume their ontological equality. for to treat the sexes as positionally equal would destroy the order God intended for man. a text showing their complementary nature and inferring their ontological equality. 1953]. After introducing the subject of traditions (1 Cor 11:2). But Paul. when presented with his wife. why maintain a hypocritical symbol that masks the theological reality? But even more significantly than any of the above considerations is the fact that God was pleased to give the Spirit‘s gifts to the church without regard to sexual differences. pp. Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20). . In addition. God created man as male and female in His image.the Law assumed a lower social standing for women.

7–12 ) and by appealing to the nature of creation as presently experienced (vv. woman. 3 ). social structure in God‘s economy (v. like the Hebrew word ‫ראׁש‬which it translated in the Septuagint.‘ or ‗priority. 4–6 ). A chieftain‘s authority in social relationships is largely dependent upon his ‗seniority. to understand the doctrine one must have a clear understanding of ―head‖ (κεθαλή).‖3 Thus κεθαλή is a metaphorical equivalent of ἀπσή. and a metaphorical sense of ―priority.‖ and (2) a resulting positional priority including the notion of ―chief among‖ or ―head over. that the churches‘ universal practice of women wearing a head covering in contrast to men in the public assembly be maintained (v. and we exist through him‖ (1 Cor 8:6. Col 2 2. 213. To reverse this practice. 3 3. Bedale has demonstrated that κεθαλή.‘ in the order of being. . Stephen Bedale. The Doctrine of Headship (11:3 ) At the outset of this argument. he argues. not with the controlling influence of the head over the limbs [a scientific deduction anachronistic for Paul] but with the idea of priority…. cf. He concludes. 16 ). Christ. then. Obviously. a word used repeatedly throughout the passage. 13–15 ). and he proves his thesis by noting the order of the original creation (vv. has two senses: a literal meaning referring to the anatomy.‖ ―ruler.‖ Paul sets forth the basic doctrine that there is a social order in the relationship between Christ. and God. p..‖2 In this latter usage two ideas are present: (1) a chronological priority including the notion of ―source‖ and ―origin.” Journal of Theological Studies 5 (1954): 211-15. “The Meaning of κεφαλή in the Pauline Epistles. would disgrace ―one‘s head‖ (vv. is the ―head‖ of every man because ―through him are all things. man.‖ Paul is using κεθαλή in this metaphorical sense to set forth the hierarchical. Ibid. ―first. therefore.‖ Concerning this enlarged and metaphorical use of the term Bedale reasons that ―this idea of ‗authority‘ would seem to be connected. using the metaphor of ―head. 3 ).BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—48 bases the practice of women wearing the traditional head covering (in contrast to men not doing so) on the doctrine of headship (v.

God is the head of all because ―all things originate BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—49 from God‖ (1 Cor 11:12.v. Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: William B. In primitive Christianity there is a direct connection between prayer and prophecy.” Worldwide Challenge. 1975). trans. See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Walter Kaiser. “προφήτης. 6 (1968): 852. Paul informs the church that apart from prayer or this immediate prompting by the Spirit. Eph 5:23). and man is the head of the woman because ―man does not originate from woman. Thus because of the order in the process of creation there is both a unity and a hierarchy of social relationships that may be outlined as follows: God Christ Man Woman Concerning this hierarchy. ―Such a ranking speaks not of their relative dignity or worth (Is Christ any less than God? Or is woman any less created in the image of God than man?). p.6 Later on. “Paul. responsibilities to each other and ultimately to God.” by Gerhard Friedrich. but woman from man‖ (1 Cor 11:8. Bromiley. Jewett. Gerhard Friedrich. but only of their job relationships. Women. Geoffrey W. 6 6.. 12. Paul K. and ed. cf.1:16). s. 4 4. Kaiser cautions. and the Church.5 believing women should have their heads covered when exercising their priestly rights or when prompted by the Spirit to utter divine truth in the midst of the congregation for the mutual edifying of those gathered together. . p. 5 5. and of course. however.‖4 The Practice of Covering the Head (11:4-6 ) To preserve and to symbolize this order of being. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 53. 1 Cor 8:6). Paul now teaches that whereas men should not wear a covering while praying or prophesying. however. cf. ed. 1976. September.

and interpretation of tongues. He further notes that “by the time of Justin we find that the free expressions of the Spirit…have disappeared” (Cullmann. 8 8.‖8 Although Paul does not use the word veil. 1965). so that her features could not be recognized. she wore a veil as a sign that she was under the authority of her husband. 9 9. 1930). Hooker. Katherine C. 4th ed. After sifting both the 7 7. Clement and Origen [Katherine C. and a hairnet with ribbons and knots. but to preserve the Creator‘s ordering of social relationships they must wear a sign of their subordination.. Lesson 34+. (Oakland: By the author. 359. such as teaching and preaching. 140. “Paul. the church fathers and modern translators merely followed along in this same erroneous rut” (Kaiser. p. 10 10. Women. speaking in tongues. Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. Bushnell traced this mistake back to Valentinus. and the Church. a founder of the Gnostic sect about A. wrote. “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of I Cor.D. Eerdmans Publishing Co.women must not speak at all. when married. such as prophesying.10 . from the service of the Word. Valentinus deliberately corrupted the first term into the second in order to give biblical justification to his needed veil used in the sexual initiation rites of the Gnostic sect. 1969). Warfield.” New Testament Studies 10 (1963–64): 413.‖10 Both Jewish and Greek women wore such a covering. according to Conzelmann. as a symbol of her freedom. p.9 it seems reasonable to suppose that he has this article of apparel in view. Miracles: Yesterday and Today (Grand Rapids: Wm. BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—50 Regarding the meaning of the covering in that culture Morna Hooker.” p. a head-band on the forehead with bands to the chin. M. God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies. Without carefully checking it. Joachim Jeremias. the word ‘authority’ or ‘power’ would be ouershishi while the word ‘veil’ was ouershoun. B. 12). Early Christian Worship. D. In their native Coptic tongue. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: SCM Press. For a classic treatment on the cessation of the χαρίσματα see Benjamin B. Bushnell. 30). According to Kaiser. . “The almost universal mistranslation of this verse *10 + has been ‘veil. ―According to Jewish custom a bride went bareheaded until her marriage.’ Dr. Cullmann sharply distinguishes the free expressions of the Spirit. XI. Jeremias describes the veil of a Jewess of Jerusalem at that time: ―Her face was hidden by an arrangement of two head veils.7 Thus women may pray and give expression to the Spirit.

p. 1968). 121. According to Tacitus the husband of an adulterous wife cut off her hair. 7–12 ). the crucial term about which the rest of the argument is constructed.13 To appear at the public assembly. Hans Conzelmann. trans. 185. ―For a Jewess to go out with her head uncovered is a disgrace (3 Macc 4:6) and grounds for divorce…. with inappropriate headdress would disgrace one‘s head.written and graphic sources. George W.12 In Judaism a woman going out in public without a head covering was considered so shameful that it was grounds for divorce without the husband being obligated to BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—51 pay the ketubah. then. Leonard Swindler. Leitch. Does one dishonor his anatomical head or his social head? The answer is both. he concluded. But when Paul says that one‘s head is dishonored. .‖11 Paul asserts that for a woman not to wear a covering would be as disgraceful as having her hair cut. 13–15 ). and then he argues that it would disgrace one‘s literal and anatomical head (vv. The Disgrace of One’s Social Head (11:7-12 ) The logical particle ―for‖ (γάπ) introducing this section relates it to the preceding statement that improper headdress disgraces one‘s social head. and according to Aristophanes the mother of unworthy children should have her hair shorn. In 11:7a 11 11. 13 13. MacRae (Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1976). 251. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row. Women in Judaism: The Status of Women in Formative Judaism (Metuchen. 12 12. a sign of a disgraced wife or mother. 1975). ed. it must be asked whether the word head is to be taken literally or metaphorically. NJ: Scarecrow Press. it can also be assumed that respectable Greek women wore a head covering in public. First he shows how the reversal of head coverings would disgrace one‘s metaphorical and social head (vv. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. See C. p. p. stripped her naked. and drove her from her house. James W. K. Barrett. The word head in this context is an intentional double entendre and serves as the Stichwort.

This glory. The key word drawing the moral obligation for both men and women and uniting the first part of this section is ὀθείλει (vv. 8 . But this widely held 14 14. 6). Gen 2:21). Because of this order and purpose in the creation. In Greek thought an ―image‖ gives tangible. the woman ―is (ἔζηιν) the glory of man. the created glory of God should not be veiled in the worship of the Creator. Conzelman. hold that the headcovering worn by the woman is a symbol of her being under authority. however. perceptive expression and substance to that which is invisible. it is obvious that the meaning of ―image‖ (εἰκών) and its connection to a man‘s face must be clarified. the logical conclusion is now drawn: ―Therefore. then. like the glory of the gospel of Christ. 9 .‖ The particle ―for‖ (γάπ) introducing 1 Corinthians 11:8 points to the twofold basis for this assertion: she was made out of (ἐκ) the man (v. Gen 2:18). Paul wrote. But whereas man ―exists for‖ (ὑπάπσει) God‘s glory.14 Thus Christ is the ―image of God‖ (Col 1:15). the woman ought to have authority (ἐξοςζία) on her head‖ (v. pp. man also gives expression or substance to the glory of God. ―[He] is the image of God… [and God gave] the light of the knowledge of [H is] glory in the face of Christ‖ (2 Cor 4:4.Paul argues that a veil on a man would disgrace Christ because it would veil the image and glory of God mediated to man through Christ. Since Paul argues that a man must not cover his head because he is the image and glory of God. . and significantly this image and attendant glory is manifested preeminently ―in the face of Christ. and this glory is in some sense resident in the head. Even BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—52 though the new image of God in Christ transcends the old image as the brightness of the sun transcends the light of the moon. According to 1 Corinthians 11:7. 187-88. cf. 10 ). and in 11:7b–10 he shows that a woman without a veil would in effect be displaying positional equality with the man and would thereby usurp the glory that properly belongs to him by the Creator‘s design. and she was made ―for the sake of‖ (διά) man (v. Almost all will agree that ―authority‖ or ―right‖ is used here as a metonymy for the covering on the head.‖ Of Christ. cf. Most commentators. 7a and 10 ). ought not to be veiled (2 Cor 3:12–18). A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

p.10 . and that in fact quite the reverse is true.‖ she writes.15 followed by Bruce. Therefore. Without investing ἐξοςζία with new meaning the passage most simply means that the covering gives her the ―authority‖ to pray and prophesy. In the case of man. the veil serves two different functions: for the man it would hide his glory. But this interpretation should be rejected because it offers no clear connection between veiling the man‘s glory and the woman‘s right to pray and prophesy. and for the woman it symbolizes her subordination to the man. Clements and Matthew Block (Greenwood.16 reasons that the veil is necessary in order to hide man‘s glory in the presence of God and His angels. XI. Ronald E. but reflecting the glory of man. ―the glory of man must be hidden. By wearing a covering she preserves the order of creation while exercising her priestly and spiritual right. 413. F. 415. Hooker. . for in the case of both the man and the woman the veil functions as an instrument of hiding another‘s glory. 15 15. SC: Attic Press. But how precisely does it do this? Or to put the question another way. Moreover. “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of I Cor. 1 and 2 Corinthians. but in the case of the woman. Finally.view runs into the strong objection that this is never the meaning of ἐξοςζία elsewhere. ‖17 This interpretation has consistency in its favor.” p. this interpretation severs the BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—53 connection between the use of the veil in the church with its use in the culture of that day. v. and in God‘s presence this must inevitably turn to shame. she would not be glorifying God. 106. however. man‘s glory should be veiled. New Century Bible. If she were to pray or prophesy with uncovered head. ed. God‘s glory must not be veiled. 17 17. ―In their presence.10 .” p. 16 16. What is the veil‘s function? Hooker. it is unclear in this view how the woman disgraces the man by not veiling his glory (cf. a connection assumed in verses 5–6 . “Authority on Her Head: An Examination of I Cor. this writer prefers the normal interpretation that the veil symbolizes her subordination to the man. F. 1976). even as it did for Moses (2 Cor 3:13). for it is a symbol of subjection. 4 ). Accordingly. Hooker. XI. Bruce.

19 But elsewhere when Paul speaks of those spiritual beings that control this world he has in view evil forces (cf. The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (London: Hodder & Stoughton. Principalities and Powers: A Study in Pauline Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press.‖20 Consequently. 2 Cor 4:4. vv. 1:26ff . 1956). namely. pp. According to this literature BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—54 no form of uncleanness or blemish should be allowed in the public assembly because it would be offensive to the angels present in the congregation. Moffatt adds yet another. Caird. He wrote: ―Paul has in mind the midrash on Gn. p. Many interpretations have been offered to explain the connection between the woman‘s headdress and presumably good angels. . The ancient notion followed by some modern commentators that the veil protected the woman against evil angels who lust after them (cf. which some commentators give as the only one. 20 20. B. Gal 1:4. Moffatt offered the explanation that Paul refers to the angels because they were regarded as guardians of the created order. which made good angels not only mediators of the law (Gal 3:19). 152. 19 19. 17-18. 1947). 1 Cor 2:6–8. a woman should wear a covering out of respect for those rational beings who were present at the creation and are concerned with the maintenance of that creation. but guardians of the created order…. vv. the angels are thought to assist at gatherings of public worship. He concluded: ―We are invited by the evidence from Qumran to understand that the unveiled head of a woman is like a bodily defect [cf.18 Caird suggests that the statement means that Christian women must conform to the normal conventions of society. 5–6 . James Moffatt. To this function of angels.The Apostle Paul now adds that this symbol of the created order is necessary ―on account of the angels‖ (1 Cor 11:10). 14–51 ] which 18 18. Gen 6:1–4) must be rejected because nowhere else does the New Testament conceptualize angels in this way. Col 1:13). G. which are regarded as being under the control of ―angels‖ for the time being. Fitzmyer supports this opinion from the Qumran literature which mentions the presence of angels in sacred gatherings. and the notion that such beings might attack women in the act of worship seems ridiculous.

1974). mutual respect for each other. p. 1976). but the reference to 1 Peter 1:12 is less than convincing. as Hurd points out. Charles Caldwell Ryrie.‖23 The context of 1 Corinthians 11 strongly suggests that Paul has in mind not to offend the angels. p. is less than compelling for no evidence exists elsewhere that Paul banned bodily defects from the assembly. Synthesizing the best from the above interpretations.should be excluded from such an assembly…. 22 22. Eph 3:10. Moreover. such insubordination would occur in the sight of those whom the saints will judge (1 Cor 6:3). p. for in that passage the angels were presented as rational beings seeking to learn about God from the revelation of Himself on earth. an unthinkable incongruity. In 1 Corinthians 11:11–12 Paul interrupts the flow of his argument by noting that after the original creation God designed a mutual dependence of the sexes in carrying on the creation. The Ryrie Study Bible: New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press. Fitzmyer.‖21 Fitzmyer‘s understanding. Joseph A. Ibid. 23 23. He notes. This is especially true ―in the Lord‖ because in Him they are not only equal in their humanity but they are also spiritual equals having been baptized together into His body (1 Cor 12:13). MT: Scholars Press. and dependence on God. ―The insubordination of an uncovered woman…would offend the angels who observe the gathering of believers in their church meetings (1 Pet 1:12). 1 Cor 4:9. Applying this truth to life will produce a spirit of humility. 204. 303. the Qumran parallels are ―rather distant. . Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Missoula.. however. But elsewhere Paul presents both the cosmic powers and angels as spectators of men‘s actions (cf.‖22 Ryrie considers the unveiled head as conduct offensive to the angels because it would signify her refusal to recognize the authority of her husband. it may be concluded that the uncovered and therefore insubordinate woman would offend the angels because they are the custodians of the created order. 1 Tim 3:16). BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—55 The Disgrace of One’s Literal Head (11:13-15 ) 21 21. and. 200.

Eerdmans Publishing Co. Nature. by W. for such a meaning would render the rest of the argument. B. So then the appropriate covering of the head according to one‘s sex is congruent with the natural state of creation and not contradictory to it.‖ he cannot mean ―in place of‖ a covering. This reality is grasped intuitively or not at all. When Paul says that a woman‘s hair ―is given her for (ἀνηί) a covering. both Jewish and Gentile. on the other hand. that is not its sense here. Martin. nonsensical. taught and practiced this regulation. Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm.” in Apostolic History and the Gospel. shows that improper dress disgraces one‘s literal head. Here the apostle personifies ―nature‖ as a teacher of what is seemly and becoming. 231-41. but rather ―asking for‖ a covering. BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—56 24 24. 1970). it would be pompous and fatuous to defend his view. especially that in verses 5–6 . the preposition is used here nearer to its original meaning of ―over against. Though one may argue that such indeed is the case. the practice of covering one‘s head appropriate to one‘s sex is not open to debate as seen in the fact that the whole apostolic church. . “1 Corinthians 11:2–16: An Interpretation. Since Paul invites his readers to judge for themselves whether or not nature teaches that long hair dishonors a man ‘s head but honors a woman‘s head. Jewett correctly comments on this point: Therefore the apostle‘s remark (v.. ed. 16 ) that the churches of God have no such custom (ζςνηθεία) of women unveiling themselves during public worship cannot mean that he regarded the whole matter as mere custom. one cannot say that this is what the text means.24 Conclusion (11:16 ) Although the argument from nature may be debated since it must be judged for oneself. For an opposite interpretation see William J. pp. Although the Greek preposition frequently implies substitution.Paul now turns to the nature of the creation and draws the conclusion that it corroborates the order of creation. Therefore. The order of creation shows that improper dress disgraces one‘s positional head and deprives him of the honor and glory with which the Creator endowed him.‖ Her long hair stands ―over against‖ and ―corresponds to‖ the covering desiderated for the public assembly. Ward Gasque and Ralph P.

25 Unfortunately. Paul never grounded his instructions concerning the behavioral relationship of master and slave to the abiding order of creation. It is clear then that Paul did not teach there should be an abiding master-slave relationship. was part of the apostolic tradition which he had given them and by which they were bound. just as the 25 25. p. the appearance of the headdress will change. But in the case of the male-female relationship he grounded his teaching on theological principles as old and enduring as the creation itself. is the note on which he opens the whole discussion. Rather he both expressly and obliquely suggests that Christians move beyond this institution. Later on. rather do that‖ (1 Cor 7:21). that a woman who prays or prophesies in an assembly of believers should cover her head as a symbol of her submission to the absolute will of God who has ordered His universe according to His own good pleasure. ―If you are able to be free. in fact. this particular custom. 118. This writer concludes. Of course. But the analogy cannot stand.Quite the contrary. 2 ). Jewett. 26 . To the Corinthians he says explicitly. praising them for holding fast the traditions (παπαδόζειρ) ―even as I delivered them to you‖ (v. 26. Man as Male and Female. in the thinking of Paul. Ahaz incurred the Wrath of God by changing the shape of the altar to conform it to Assyrian demands (2 Kings 16:10–11). rather he attempted to humanize the institution through Christian principles.‖26 Some argue that even as the modern church has superseded Paul ‘s instruction concerning the subordination of slaves to their masters by freeing the slaves on the basis of Christian principles. Ibid. he based the husband-wife relationship on the eternal relationship of Christ and His church. This. so the modern church is rightfully liberating women from their subordinate social position on the basis of those principles and truths suggested at the beginning of this article. then. in his letter to Ephesus. This picture of His rule must not be seized by believers into their own hands to shape it according to their own pleasure. Jewett goes on to say that males have been ―slow to acknowledge the inadequacy of the argument. In his letter to Philemon he obliquely suggests that Philemon grant the runaway slave Onesimus legal manumission.

and a woman who. submits to him. but the symbol must be present or the reality and its truth may be lost.). despite her ontological equality with the man. . TX: Dallas Theological Seminary. God has been pleased with the completion of the canon of Scripture to withdraw the gift of prophecy. however. Dallas.practice of the Lord‘s Supper may vary from culture to culture. it would be well for Christian women to wear head coverings at church meetings as a symbol of an abiding theological truth. In the historical process of administering His church. namely. however. a man who displays the image and glory of God through Christ. In the practice of the churches today the apostolic teaching has relevance directly only to prayer. 1 1 Bibliotheca Sacra . Thus the face with which BSac—V135 #537—Jan 78—57 God chose to reveal Himself to the world is one that the world desperately needs to see. In this writer‘s judgment. 1998 (electronic edition.