A simple starter for 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

The passage we’re looking at here can be found at the following link. The NIV 2011 was chosen, not because I think it represents the best translation, but because it is the Bible my church is using.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (NIV 2011)

First Corinthians 11:2-16 (NIV 2011) is a pretty easy passage to understand, but a difficult one to accept – at least in our day and age. It speaks of biblical truths that rub our culture completely the wrong way. It is so far outside the Overton Window that even when people determine to accept it, they flail about in the dark, not knowing how to apply it outside of the narrow good/bad dichotomy our culture presents to us. All they can say is, “What I once thought was bad, I now accept as good by faith”.

Truth be told, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is merely the most visible part of a whole theology of gender, family and bogey-man patriarchy. It’s like a flag put on the highest peak of created truths that underlie our existence. Sadly, the acceptance of these truths has been steadily eroded for years, even centuries. Yet without these truths the effectiveness of the gospel would have been derailed.

But that is definitely getting ahead of ourselves. First and foremost, it is most helpful to read the passage and simply see what it says.

So here goes.

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. 

This is the beginning of a new section of Scripture, a discussion of traditions held to in the Church. They are Christian traditions, passed on by Paul in the context of setting up the local Church. And while the Corinthians have been holding faithfully to those traditions, Paul still has some things he needs to say.

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man,[a] and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

First, man has a head, and he is Christ; woman has a head, and he is man, Christ has a head, and he is God. This whole passage is a discussion about the heads of men and women, which is why the verse begins with man/Christ and woman/man, and then rounds off the summary with Christ/God.

It’s not explicitly stated here what the metaphorical use of the word “head” means, though later we will get more of an idea. What Paul does say here is that wearing something on the head while praying or prophesying either dishonours or honours the metaphorical head, depending on whether the wearer is a man or a woman. A man with something on his head while praying or prophesying dishonours his head, Christ, whereas a woman who does not have something on her head while praying or prophesying dishonours her head, man.

What is the reason for this? Paul gives us more information about the woman than the man. He compares an uncovered head with a shaved head, saying that short hair or a shaved head is a disgrace for a woman, therefore she should cover her head while praying and prophesying. The meaning is clear: there is something about long hair that is appropriate for women as a group – it is womanly – and wearing a covering on her head while praying and prophesying is equally womanly. Therefore, failing to cover her head while praying and prophesying is an unwomanly disgrace.

But how does a woman also dishonour man when she prays and prophesies with her head uncovered? If a woman’s womanliness is connected to covering her head – a symbol of man being her head – then it is womanly to recognise man as her head. Therefore, symbolically rejecting man as her head by praying and prophesying with her head uncovered is both unwomanly and dishonouring to man. Or, to make the connection even more explicit, if a woman dishonours man by rejecting him as her head, she is rejecting her womanhood.

A man ought not to cover his head,[b] since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 

Paul goes on to explain further.

The reason man should pray and prophesy with his head uncovered (as opposed to the woman being covered) is that man is the image and glory of God. An image represents someone or something. Think of the pictures of the Queen people used to have in their houses, or the images we see on the TV that represent political figures, celebrities or even fictional characters. Man was created to be the living image of God to his creation, and through his life and actions to display the worth of God, to be his glory. This, of course, was achieved to perfection in Christ, but is also something to be achieved to a lesser degree through man in general. To cover the head of man is to symbolically reject an integral part of man, and so dishonour his head, the ultimate image and glory of God – also a man – Christ.

Woman, on the other hand, is the glory of man. This is not to say she does not image God, but she does so by being the glory of man. She is man’s helper, as taught in Genesis and restated by Paul in verse 8. To combine verses 7 and 8 we can say man was not created from woman or for woman, he was created as the image and glory of God; woman was created from and for man. Note that the woman is not the image of man. That is not her job. Woman is the glory of man, displaying the worth of humanity through her unique and cooperative contribution as helper. And as helper, she images God through the hidden “behind-the-scenes” work often attributed to the Holy Spirit (who himself is God, but is never called the image of God). She builds up the family of man to image and glorify God to Creation.

10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own[c] head, because of the angels. 

As verse 10 says, it is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her head. “Own” is an addition by the NIV translators who are suggesting that a woman has the authority over her own head, but this is contrary to the structure of the text from verses 7 to verse 10:

Verse 7 speaks of a man not covering his head and gives an explanation;

v7b-10 then gives an explanation and speaks of a woman covering her head.

The early Church Fathers also often literally changed the word “authority” to “covering” when quoting this verse in their writings. Paul is not talking about authority a woman has, but authority she wears.

The use of “authority” here shows that the metaphorical heads discussed here include the idea of authority. It also points forward to the final four words of verse 10. “because of the angels”.

There are two main ideas about why Paul mentions angels here, though there are usually differences in the details. One, elect angels are directed by the woman’s covered head to the image of God in man, and ultimately to the perfect image and glory of God in the Son of Man. Two, fallen angels are put on notice that a covered woman is submitting to created order, and to stay away.

But there is a third way to read “because of the angels” that is more in keeping with the flow of the passage. The covering is not a sign to angels but a reminder to the woman of the authority of her head over her as discussed in the previous verses “because of the (fallen) angels” who regularly deceive women into rebellion toward their created order (Genesis 3; 6:1-2; 1 Timothy 2:14; and apparently in the situation Paul is writing to here).

This reading fits also with the passage in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, which teaches the same concepts of authority, deception, and order of creation.

(Angelic deception is not limited to women, of course. Fallen angels encourage all people to rebel, even as they rebelled against God. A woman’s position is just an historically ripe opportunity for fallen angels to encourage rebellion).

11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Paul then heads off overweening egos. Even though woman was made from man and for man, man is also born of woman. There is interdependence between the sexes. But even the interdependence is not everything – we are all dependent on God.

13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Paul then returns to the main point of the passage, rephrasing it this way: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? “Judge for yourselves” he says, obviously expecting them to be more than capable of doing so by looking at nature (not “the nature of things” as the NIV puts it). Long hair is a disgrace for a man. It is unmanly for a man to have a womanly characteristic, whereas it is appropriate and glorious for a woman to have long hair, because long hair covers a woman – and she has something to cover. The unspoken conclusion to this is that long hair tells us it is womanly to be covered, and therefore it is proper for a woman to also be covered in prayer.

In verse 16, the word “other” in the NIV is actually the word “such” in Greek. Paul says he and his fellow workers, the churches of God that existed at the time of Paul’s writing, (and most that have existed since that time) did not and have not allowed the practice of women praying with their heads uncovered (see v13).

So why should we?

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