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…

In these verses Paul explicitly says that covering or uncovering your head is important when praying and prophesying. But what does Paul mean by “prays and prophesies”? Is he specifically talking about those two activities, or is he using a phrase to encompass the activities of a weekly church meeting?

The most likely answer is that Paul is using the phrase, “prays or prophesies” to refer to the activities of a weekly meeting for the following reasons:

  1. Paul has begun a new section of the letter from 1 Corinthians 11-14. While chapter 11 discusses traditions as a subsection, the whole section is about what happens in a church meeting.
  2. Even though there is no explicit reference to church meetings in chapter 11 verses 2-16, verse 17 and 23 indicate that they are continuing a discussion within that context.
  3. In the passage from verses 2-16, Paul mentions uncovering or covering the head five times:

– in verses 4 – 5, he links it to praying and prophesying

– in verse 7 and 10 he does not mention any context (leaving it implied from verses 4-5)

– in verse 13, when discussing women covering their head, he only mentions praying.

This variety of expression regarding context implies that Paul is speaking generally, using “prays and prophesies” as a synecdoche for the activity in church meetings. If this is the case, then Paul did mention church meetings in the first 16 verses of chapter 11.

  • Paul discusses prophecy at length in chapters 12 and 14. He uses the word prophecy in two ways:

1) Paul usually uses “prophecy” in a general sense that covers all intelligible Spirit-inspired speech as opposed to tongues, including revelation, a word of instruction, and so on (14:6, 19, 26 etc). He even includes singing and prayer (14:15)!

2) In 14:6 Paul also once uses the word “prophecy” in a more specific sense, within the more general sense.

Paul’s usage here strongly suggests that when he says, “prays and prophesies” in chapter 11, he is encompassing all speech in a church meeting.

  • Since Paul forbids women from speaking to the church assembly in 14:34-35, the prophesying he says women take part in (v5) must refer to a more general type of speaking that woman are permitted to carry out, i.e. congregational singing or speaking.
  • It is true that Paul includes prayer under prophecy in 14:15. Why then does he separate the two in chapter 11 verses 4 & 5? It would appear that he is differentiating between the two in terms of what women can do within the assembly. While both men and women pray and prophesy, women’s prophecy is limited to congregational speaking, while women’s prayer can be (and was historically) silent (see 14:28). This is why Paul is happy to shorten the phrase “prays and prophesies” to “pray” in verse 11:13 – not that women are unable to prophesy during church meetings (though in a limited fashion), but there is more emphasis on prayer in the assembly for them.

That being said, it would not be wrong for women to cover and men uncover at times outside the weekly church meeting. In the same way spiritual gifts are used outside a church meeting, there is no reason why a woman might not cover their heads and men uncover their heads during other times of prayer or study. However, the passage itself does not directly address those times, and so those would be left up to each individual’s/church’s decision.

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