The passage (1 Cor. 11. 2-34) comprises two sections. The first is concerned with the head-covering, vv. 2-16, and the second with the Lord’s Supper, vv. 17-34. In the first section Paul draws attention to the Lord Jesus as ‘head’ (see verse 3); in the second section He draws attention to Him as ‘Lord’ (see verses 20, 23, 26, 27, 29, 32).
The whole chapter forms part of Paul’s teaching concerning Christian liberty, which occupies chapters 8–14. The issue of personal freedom exercised without regard either for the needs of others or the glory of God (which dominated the section concerned with eating food sacrificed to idols, 8. 1–11.1) continues through to the close of chapter 14. Paul begins and ends his discussion of Christian freedom in chapters 11-14 with teaching directed primarily at the behaviour of women, 11. 2–16; 14. 34–35.
This article provides an outline of the first section, together with expository comments on verses 2-10.
The section from verse 2 to verse 16 can be broken down very simply. It is structured around three main arguments. Paul follows his introductory comments in verse 2 by, (i) an argument drawn from the chain of headship and subjection which extends downward from God to the woman, vv. 3-5a. The apostle then amplifies and explains his point about the shame of the uncovered woman, vv. 5b-6. He follows this with (ii) an argument drawn from creation, vv. 7-10, which closes with a reference to the angels, who (being fully conversant with the details of the creation of both man and woman) look to see the appointed symbol of man’s headship over the woman. At this point, Paul adds a short section, vv. 11-12, to guard against any possible misunderstanding as to the importance and dignity of the woman. And (iii) he draws an argument from nature, and in particular from the covering with which nature provides the woman; namely her long hair, vv. 13-15. All further contention is silenced by an appeal to the final authority of the apostles of Christ and to the universal custom of the churches which they had established, v. 16.
That is, the section can be outlined as follows :
The apostle’s commendation, v. 2
Paul begins by giving credit to the Corinthians for the way in which they had kept in mind the ‘ordinances’ (the traditions, the instructions – lit. ‘the things handed down’) which he had earlier given them. Sadly, his commendation, ‘I praise you’ in verse 2, will soon be followed by his censure ‘I do not praise you’, v. 17. And this because, although, according to verse 2, the Corinthians ‘remembered’ the Lord’s servant and his commands, according to the latter part of the chapter, they utterly failed to ‘remember’ the Lord Himself in keeping with His own commands, vv. 20, 24!
But, consistent with his normal practice, Paul first sounds his note of praise before giving any needed rebuke or correction.1 There had been a time when, as Saul of Tarsus, he had laid great store by the ‘traditions’ of Judaism – as he wrote in Galatians chapter 1, ‘I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers’, Gal. 1. 14. But now his concern lies with ‘traditions’ (the same word as in Gal. 1. 14) which are distinctively Christian. And these ‘traditions’ he had ‘delivered’ to the Corinthians – and in general they had held them fast. There were, however, a few instances where they had gone astray. One of these was in the matter of the covering of the head and Paul proceeds to deal with this failure first. Hence the ominous ‘But’ at the beginning of verse 3.
The argument from the chain of headship vv. 3-6 Verse 3.
Before the Apostle mentions the abuse which he is to correct, he first states the principle on which, in part at least, his correction of the abuse is to rest. There had been a growing tendency among the Greeks to improve the social standing of their women ever since the days of Socrates (some five centuries before), and this had received a fresh boost from contact with the Romans. But the most important factor in the church at Corinth was, no doubt, rather the Christian doctrine of the full equality of the man and the woman in terms of the benefits of salvation. It seems to me that some of the sisters at Corinth were asserting their spiritual freedom and equality with the man by failing to wear a head-covering when engaged in their own spiritual activities and meetings. In so doing, ignorant of the implications of what they were doing, they had overstepped the limits of acceptable Christian behaviour.
Given that there is no ‘Now concerning’ at the beginning of the passage, it strikes me as unlikely that the Corinthians had raised this particular issue with Paul.2 It seems more likely that Paul had heard of this particular failure at Corinth from those ‘of the house of Chloe’, who we know were a principal source of some of Paul’s information about conditions in the church, 1. 11.
There can be no doubt that Paul believed passionately in the personal equality of the man and a woman, vv. 11-12 – just as he believed in their equality in terms of the blessings of the gospel. In all likelihood, prior to his conversion he had recited many times the consecutive benedictions of the synagogue prayer book – ‘Blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a heathen; blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a bondman; blessed be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a woman’3 But all this was now a thing of the past for Paul. Such distinctions had no relevance at all when it came to a person’s standing in Christ. Paul believed, and taught, that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, Gal. 3. 28. (Note that the apostle there follows the same order as the synagogue prayer book.) But Paul equally believed, and taught, that the woman was subject to the man – both in terms of family and domestic matters, Eph. 5. 22, and in terms of their spiritual roles, 1 Tim. 2. 12.
His words ‘I want you to know’ may suggest that Paul was telling the church something new – that previously he had not had occasion to explain the reasons for the accepted and universal church practice of the covering of the head. There had been, I suspect, no reason for him to anticipate any difficulties at Corinth over this teaching; his reference to the custom of ‘the churches of God’ in verse 16 suggests strongly that he had faced none elsewhere. If this is right, the absence of any previous explanation by the apostle probably accounts for the rather gentler tone in which he deals with this issue than that in which he later deals with their inexcusably bad behaviour at the Lord’s Supper and the church fellowship meal, vv. 17-34.
The expression, ‘the head of’ occurs three times in verse 3. The statement that ‘the head of every man is Christ’ provides the basis for Paul’s point in verse 4; and the statement that ‘the head of woman is man’ provides the basis for his point in verse 5.
But why, we may wonder, does the apostle add the seemingly irrelevant statement that ‘the head of Christ is God’? It’s possible, I suppose, that it is no more than Paul’s tendency to complete any series he begins. Compare, for instance, his list at the close of chapter 3; ‘let no one boast in men. For all things are yours: whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or things present or things to come––all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s’, 3. 21-23.
But I cannot help wondering whether there may not have been more to it. And that Paul may well have felt that the ladies at Corinth were more likely to accept his teaching about their subjection to the men if they were reminded that the Lord Jesus willingly submitted Himself to the authority of God the Father.4 There are, of course, vast differences between the three headships mentioned, but they have one common feature – that of an authority and a corresponding submission which springs out of a unique relationship. The reference to God’s headship of Christ should therefore help the ladies at Corinth to understand that subjection does not imply inferiority in any way – that it is perfectly consistent with equality of personal status and dignity.5
I suggest that the apostle places the relationship at issue (that of the woman and the man) in the middle of the series for emphasis, and possibly to avoid placing woman at the bottom of the list.
Having made the point in verse 3 that order and authority pervade the whole of God’s moral and intelligent universe, Paul maintains in verses 4-5a that both the man and the woman should act in accordance with that divinely constituted order. In meetings of a spiritual nature, the man should bear witness that he has no visible head and the woman should bear witness that she does (namely, the man), and that she is subject to him. This distinction is to be expressed whenever believers are engaged in spiritual activities such as praying or prophesying.
First, the apostle envisages a situation where the man prays or prophesies ‘having his head covered’ – literally, ‘having something down over his head’, v. 4.6 The man’s ‘head’, Paul insists, is thereby dishonoured (better ‘shamed’). By which I understand that, at one and the same time, the man shames both his literal head (the ‘head’ mentioned in verse 4a) and his spiritual head (the ‘head’ mentioned in verse 3 – namely, Christ7).
That is, the apostle uses the word ‘head’ in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Otherwise we lose the obvious link which there is with verse 3. When considering chapter 10, we noted that Paul sometimes gives a double-meaning to words, and commented specifically on his use of the word ‘Rock’ in verse 4, and of the word ‘body’ in verses 16-17. I suggest that, in a similar way, the apostle gives here a doublemeaning to the word ‘head’.8
The same holds true, of course, in verse 5. The word ‘head’ refers there both to the woman’s own head (which is to be covered), and to her figurative head, the man.
With such unmistakable emphasis on the ‘head’ of the man and of the woman, I can see no way in which anything other than a ‘head-covering’ can function as an intelligible symbol of the woman’s recognition of man’s ‘headship’. The whole section is concerned directly with head-coverings, from verse 4 right down to verse 13. It is important for us to grasp that the proper subject of the section is headcoverings – and not headship and subjection. As can be seen from the outline of the passage at the beginning of this article, ‘headship’ is only one of three arguments which Paul adduces. And when some argue (as they do) that, in our day, a wedding ring meets the requirement of the text of 1 Cor. 11. 2-16, they should be consistent and say that ‘the finger of the woman is the man’! At no point in the passage does the apostle imply there can be some other way to symbolize submission to male headship. There can be no alternative symbol.9
Throughout the whole passage Paul takes it for granted that the covering of the head is a symbol of subjection – whether that covering is provided by a fashion covering (consisting probably then of a shawl or suchlike – although not a veil – which is a face-covering rather than a head-covering) or by the natural covering of long hair.10 And so, because the woman has a visible ‘head’ (the man), she must, the apostle says, wear a visible symbol of his headship. For the man to pray or prophesy with his head covered would then be to shame himself – in that his covering would be a symbol of subjection (to the woman if she wasn’t covered, whose head in reality he was). It would also be to shame Christ, the man’s spiritual ‘head’ – because it is to Christ alone that God has subjected the man. When engaged in the activities described, the absence of a head-covering on the part of the man announced to all that he neither had, nor acknowledged, any ‘head’ except Christ. For him then to wear a head-covering was to deny this, and, in effect, to abdicate the position and dignity bestowed on him by God, v. 4.
Conversely, a woman who failed (or refused) to wear a headcovering announced to all that she acknowledged no visible head.11 This was to deny her true relation to the man, v. 5a, and was tantamount to rebellion against God’s appointment and government. And so, to preserve the order established by the Creator, she must wear a sign of her functional subordination. Just as the man’s covered head would have the effect of dishonouring both Christ and himself, in the same way the woman’s uncovered head would have the effect of bringing shame both on her spiritual head (namely, on the man) and on her physical head (namely, on herself). First, it would shame the man because her uncovered head would declare that she recognised no visible ‘head’, and would imply that, in her eyes, he wasn’t fit to be her head, and, second, it would shame the woman herself because (in refusing to wear the symbol and badge of her subjection to the man) she would reject the place and position which God in His sovereignty had allotted her.
As is well known, there is an apparent tension between Paul’s words in verse 5 and his words in chapter 14, ‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak’, v. 34. Many suggestions have been offered to explain the seeming contradiction – some of which were examined briefly in the centre pages of Precious Seed, Volume 58, Number 4, November 2003. As explained there, in my opinion verse 5 applies to any situation where the woman assumes a position of spiritual and audible prominence (whether speaking to God (‘praying’12) or speaking for God (prophesying)13) – which position would necessarily be outside of church gatherings14 and would cover meetings among other women.15
In other words, I understand Paul to be saying that when, outside of assembled church meetings, the Corinthian women prayed audibly, or exercised their spiritual gifts, or engaged in any spiritual ministry which gave the appearance of leadership, they were to put on the symbol of their submission to the headship and authority of the men.16
The word translated ‘dishonours’ in verse 4 and the first part of verse 5 comes from the same root as the word ‘shame’ in verse 6 – and would be better translated ‘shames’ to show Paul’s connection of thought. For in verses 5b-6 he amplifies and explains the ‘shame’ which, according to the first part of verse 5a, attached to the woman who prayed or prophesied uncovered. She shames man – her metaphorical head, for she claims to be equal to him.17
Later in the section, Paul will point out that the woman’s long hair is given to her for a natural covering, v. 15. If therefore the woman isn’t prepared to wear the fashion covering, Paul says here, it is one and the same as if she has no natural covering! The distinction made between ‘shorn’ and ‘shaven’ is simple; to be shorn is to have the hair cropped close18, whereas to be shaven means to have all the hair removed with a razor. Let the uncovered woman, Paul is saying, follow through the principle to its logical conclusion; if she is brazen enough to refuse to wear a head-covering on the occasions when she should, let her follow through with her rebellion – let her remove her God-given covering as well as fashion’s covering.19
It seems likely that in first century Corinth for the woman to have shaved her head would mean that she would then have been classed with immoral women, of which there were many. There is some evidence that the Romans had adulteresses shaved and that in the Greek world for a woman even to have her hair cut short was the mark of a prostitute or lesbian.20 Whether this was in Paul’s mind or not, he was challenging the women of Corinth to be consistent; either let them wear both coverings or none at all!
In any case, because God had given their long hair to them as their ‘glory’, v. 15, for them to have removed it (by cutting it very short or by shaving it all off) was necessarily a ‘shame’ to them, v. 6. If therefore, Paul argues, their womanly feelings cause them to shrink back from removing their hair, then those same feelings should dissuade them from removing fashion’s covering, because a like shame attached to both.
The argument from creation vv. 7-12
These verses bring us to Paul’s second main argument – which is drawn from the relationship between man and woman which the Creator established at the beginning.21 To Paul, the believer’s standing in Christ did not override the creative order.
As I understand it, the structure of the section down to verse 10 is as follows. Verses 8 and 9 function as a parenthesis, introduced to support the commands in both verse 7 and verse 10. In other words, man ‘ought not’ to have his head covered because he is the image and glory of God, whereas woman is man’s glory and ‘ought’ therefore to have authority on her head because of the angels. Note that verses 7and 10 are substantially parallel; the men ought not wear headcoverings but the women ought. The apostle gives the reasons in verses 8-9 – note the opening word ‘For’ in verse 8.
Verses 7-8.In what sense, we may ask, is man the ‘glory’ of God and woman the ‘glory’ of man, v. 7? Paul gives two reasons in verses 8 and 9. First, verse 8 argues that woman is the ‘glory’ of man in that she is ‘of’ man – that is, she comes ‘out of’ man as the direct source of her existence.22 Ultimately ‘all things’ are, of course, ‘of’ God, v. 12; ‘for of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever’, Rom. 11. 36. But, in terms of the creation order, man is ‘of God’ directly – and woman only indirectly. That is, the sequence of creation demonstrates how woman brings glory to man; she comes from him and completes him.
Man has God alone for his source and origin, whereas the woman has the man as well. In the case of the man, therefore, the glory for his existence goes directly (and only) to God. In the case of the woman, the glory for her existence goes in part to man – because it is to him she owes her existence directly. Paul’s point here reminds us of the wonderful way in which God made man and woman in the beginning – the one from the dust and the other from a bone. Thinking of the unpromising and unlikely material which the Lord God used then, a brother I know once commented, ‘At our house we sweep out the dust and throw the bones into the rubbish bin’!
Verse 9. A second reason the woman is the glory of the man is that she was created ‘for the man’ – in other words, for his sake. That is, Paul turns from looking at the man as the direct source ‘of’ the woman’s existence, to looking at him as the reason ‘for’ her existence. For Eve wasn’t only formed ‘out of’ Adam; she was formed to be a ‘helper corresponding to him’, Gen. 2. 18 lit.. That is, woman was formed ‘because of’ (‘on account of’) man – for his benefit and advantage. Paul’s point is that it wasn’t the other way around. Nor did God choose to make the first man and the first woman simultaneously. It has been well said that, ‘No other man has ever got so much out of a single surgical operation!’23
The Lord Jesus once argued that ‘the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath’ on the basis that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath’, Mark 2. 27-28. That is, as the representative Man, the Lord Jesus has authority over the Sabbath because it was made for Him. In a not dissimilar way, Paul here argues (on the basis that woman was made for man, and not man for woman) that woman is the glory of the man – and is therefore, as the opening of verse 10 makes clear, subject to his headship and authority.
Verse 10. ‘For this reason’ – that is, ‘because of this’; literally ‘therefore’. This establishes the connection with verses 7-9. Because man is God’s glory, he shouldn’t be covered, v. 7. And, because woman is man’s glory, she should. That is, because (as set out in verses 7-9), the first man and woman were made in different ways, the man’s uncovered head proclaims that he, the man (God’s glory), should be seen; whereas the woman’s covered head says that she, the woman (man’s glory) should not be. Paul is arguing therefore that the implication of the creation order is the same as that of the Christian order set out in verses 3-6. And it is too late now to change either order! Because, at the beginning, the woman was derived from the man and made for him, she should cover herself if she engages publicly in religious activities.
The expression ‘authority (‘power’, KJV) on her head’ reads rather strange at first sight. I have, however, come across one helpful biblical parallel. The literal translation of Numbers 6. 7 reads, concerning the Nazarite, that ‘his separation (‘vow’ in the Greek Old Testament) to God is on his head’. The meaning is obvious – it was actually the symbol of his separation (his abnormally long hair) which was ‘on his head’. Paul clearly uses the word ‘authority’ here in a similar manner; it is the symbol and sign of authority which is on the woman’s head.24 In the context, I suggest, this refers either to the authority of God in establishing the headship of the man, or, more likely, the God-given authority of the man over the woman.25
The Corinthians shouldn’t have had any difficulty in grasping the idea that one thing can function as a symbol of another. After all, such symbolism lies at the very heart of the Lord’s Supper – to which Paul turns in the latter part of the chapter, where he quotes the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘This is my body’ and ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’, vv. 24-25. Alas, it is clear that there were some in the church at Corinth who were guilty of despising both the symbols of the Lord’s death and the symbol of the order of headship which He established!
To be continued
Compare 1 Cor. 1. 1-9.
Contrast 1 Cor. 7. 1, 25; 8. 1, 12. 1, 16. 1, 12.
These particular benedictions go back a long way. Jewish tradition ascribes them to the so-called ‘Men of the Great Synagogue’, who were active between the fifth and third centuries B.C.
The Lord Jesus was subject to the Father, for instance, in that it was the Father who sent, 1 John 4. 14, and the Son who was sent, Luke 4. 43.
The distinction between the persons of the Godhead is a functional one, not an essential one.
This is the same expression as is used of Haman in the Greek Old Testament rendering of Esther 6. 12, ‘Haman went to his home mourning, having his head covered’.
Compare references to the Lord Jesus as the Head (i) of the church, Eph. 5. 23; Col. 1. 18, (ii) of all principality and power, Col. 2. 10, and (iii) over all things, Eph. 1. 22
‘Multiple meaning holds the key’, Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), page 822.
In 1 Cor. 11. 2-16, the basis of the symbol is divine order, v. 3. ‘Headship’ is symbolized by a ‘head-covering’, which represents a woman’s submission to her (metaphorical) head – the man. There is a clear and direct relationship between ‘headship’ and ‘head-coverings’. Indeed, Paul seems to prohibit any practice other than head-coverings, v. 16. If each woman is free to express her submission in any way she chooses, how can the angels or anyone else understand what she is doing? In many cultures a wedding ring is of course an accepted symbol of marriage. Surely, the marital status of the sisters is hardly what angels are meant to learn – according to verse 10! Indeed, it strikes me that, given Paul’s careful play on words, to substitute ‘a wedding ring’ (or some other token) as the modern-day equivalent of the wearing of ‘a head-covering’ in chapter 11 is little different to substituting the ‘local Water Company’ for the ‘Rock that followed them’ in chapter 10!
Some take the view that Paul has in mind, not a woman’s wearing of a headcovering, but a woman wearing her hair up, as the symbol of her husband’s authority over her. See, for example, J. B. Hurley, ‘Did Paul Require Veils or the Silence of Women? A Consideration of 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-36’, Westminster Theological Journal, Winter 1973, pages 191-212. Hurley interprets verse 5 as teaching that every woman who prays or prophesies with her hair loose and falling down her back dishonours her head. He asserts that ‘the Corinthian women no doubt saw the loosing of hair as a sign that they possessed authority equal to that of men’. But his supporting arguments strike me as weak in the extreme. For an insightful critique of Hurley’s view see Thomas R. Schreiner (under the heading ‘What is the Adornment for Women in this Passage?’) in ‘Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity’, 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16’, being chapter 5 in ‘Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, A Response to Evangelical Feminism’, Edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.
Some claim that the woman referred to in verses 5 and 6 is a woman who is married to the man referred to in verse 4. I see no justification for this and take the reference to be to all women because (i) marriage is not mentioned – or hinted at – anywhere in this passage, (ii) the principles taught illustrate the fact that men in general are the head of women in general, and (iii) the issue concerns male-female (not husband-wife) distinctions.
The ‘praying’ is clearly audible; the close association with ‘prophesying’ shows this. The Greek word ‘suggests some sort of verbal activity … uttering prayers’, Godet.
In both cases, the person who acts is in direct contact with God. The person who prays speaks directly to God; the person who prophesies speaks directly from God. If there ever was an occasion when a woman appeared to be assuming ‘authority’, it would be when she was praying or prophesying. Such activities certainly involve a ‘leadership dimension’.
I note, in verse 3, the Lord Jesus is portrayed as ‘head’, not of (not in or over) the church – local or otherwise – but of ‘every man’. As far as I can see, there is nothing in verses 2 to 16 to suggest that Paul has meetings of the church in mind.
Although this interpretation of 1 Cor. 11. 2-16 was reached from an examination of the biblical text itself, readers may be interested to compare J. N. Darby’s comment on the passage, ‘We are not as yet come to the order in the assembly. That commences with verse 17’, Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, footnote to his notes on 1 Cor. 11. 2-16. Similarly, writing about verse 5, W. E. Vine comments, ‘this statement cannot refer to the gatherings of the assembly. There are other occasions than that of an assembly gathering when a woman can exercise the oral ministry of prayer or testimony’, 1 Corinthians. (A similar position is taken by Meyer, Lenski and MacArthur in their commentaries.) ‘The daughters of Philip the Evangelist and others must have exercised their gift in private, and there is no evidence that until late in the second century anything else was thought possible’, Ernest Evans, The Clarendon Bible, ‘Commentary on 1 Corinthians’, page 118. But, as I see it, if the symbol of the headship of man was required in a non-church setting, it would have been automatically expected in the formal meetings of the church. Paul had no occasion to refer to the latter because the abuse at Corinth had not extended that far.
But would an informal setting exaggerate the distinction between non-church and ‘church’ gatherings in the early Christian centuries, in that many churches met in houses? I do not think so. For the fact that a church meets in a home does not affect the characteristics of a formal church meeting, whether in the first century or today. An official church meeting, in contrast to many other meetings, means at the very least that the meeting comes under the authority of the church elders (and not the owner of the house – as would a private meeting) and that, circumstances permitting, all church members are expected to be present. I note that, even though the church at Corinth met in the home of Gaius, Rom. 16. 23, Paul is careful to distinguish between practices which were appropriate when the saints met as the church and practices which were appropriate outside of the church; see 1 Cor. 11. 20, 22, 34; 14. 18-19 etc.
Some have argued that a covering of a woman’s head is necessary in order to hide the glory of her metaphorical ‘head’ (man) in the presence of God and His angels. That is, in the presence of God and the angels, ‘the glory of man must be hidden. If she were to pray or prophesy with uncovered head, she would not be glorifying God, but reflecting the glory of man’, M. D. Hooker, Authority on Her Head: An Examination of 1 Cor. 11. 10, New Testament Studies 10 (1964): 413. Attractive as the thought is, I fail to see how the woman disgraces the man by not covering his glory.
Daniel B. Wallace and other Greek scholars identify ‘shorn’, v. 6, as ‘a permissive middle’, which would mean that, if a woman willfully refused to wear a head-covering, she should willingly submit to having her hair cut.
The RSV wrongly translates verse 6, ‘if a woman will not veil herself’. But, as Gordon Fee notes, ‘The use of the word “veil”. . . is an unfortunate one since it tends to call to mind the full veil of contemporary Moslem cultures, which covers everything but the eyes. This is unknown in antiquity, at least from the evidence of paintings and sculpture’, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary. I am aware that Irenaeus, when writing against the Valentinians between 182 and 188 AD, quoted 1 Cor. 11. 10 as ‘A woman ought to have a veil upon her head, because of the angels’ – using a Greek word often used for a veil (e.g. 2 Cor. 3. 13-16 and the Greek Old Testament of Exod. 34. 33-35, where it is the ‘face’ of Moses’ – and not his ‘head’ which is in question. But it is important to note that Paul does not use that word – either in 1 Cor. 11. 4-7 or in 11. 10.
According to Tacitus, the (Roman) husband of an adulterous wife cut off her hair, stripped her naked, and drove her from her house; and according to Aristophanes the mother of unworthy children should have her hair shorn; C. K. Barrett, ‘A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians’, page 251. Also, among Jews of Paul’s day, a woman convicted of adultery was to be shorn or shaven – which action marked her publicly declared guilt.
As in other passages, Paul based his view of the functional relationships between man and woman on theological considerations drawn from the creation narratives. That is, he appealed not to social custom but to creation. It has been argued by some that, just as, in one sense, we have superseded Paul’s instruction concerning the subordination of slaves to their masters by freeing slaves on the basis of Christian principles, so we ought to liberate women from their subordinate social position on the basis of those same principles. But the comparison is not valid. Paul never grounded his instructions concerning the relationship of master and slave on any order in creation – but he did ground his teaching concerning the male-female relationship on biblical principles as old and enduring as the creation itself. See Bruce K. Waltke, ‘1 Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretation’, Bibliotheca Sacra, January 1978, page 56.
See Gen. 2. 21-22.
I note that Paul’s argument here proceeds from creation rather than the fall, which negates the argument of those who maintain that the relationship distinction between man and woman is the result of the fall of man and has been removed by the results of the cross of Christ.
Indeed both the NKJV and the ESV expand the text to read ‘symbol of authority on her head’, and the NIV renders it ‘sign of authority on her head’.
It seems clear that ‘authority’ was a key word for the Corinthians; see 1 Cor. 8. 9; 9. 4-6, 12, 18. The big question is whether here in 1 Cor. 11. 10 the ‘authority’ is the woman’s or the man’s. Some expositor’s argue that the woman’s head-covering was the sign of the woman’s ‘authority’ to worship God as an equal with man. They understand Paul to be saying that the woman should wear a sign of her authority in order to allow her to have the freedom and authority to pray and prophesy. See, for example, M. D. Hooker, Authority on Her Head: An Examination of 1 Cor. 11. 10, New Testament Studies 10 (1964): 410-416, and Bruce K. Waltke, 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16: An Interpretation, Bibliotheca Sacra, January 1978, page 52. J. B. Hurley interpreted the reference to ‘authority’ as being the symbol of her authority over the angels, Hurley, ibid., pages 207-208! Such arguments rest on the assertion that the Greek word translated ‘authority’ is ‘not used in a passive sense, either by NT authors or by secular writers. To have “authority” on one’s head is not to have a symbol of the authority of another but to have a symbol of one’s own authority’, Hurley. For a very thorough critique of such views, see Thomas R. Schreiner, (under the heading ‘The Function of 11. 7-10 in the Argument’) in ‘Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity’, 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16’ in ‘Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, A Response to Evangelical Feminism’, Edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem. Schreiner gives seven reasons for rejecting the arguments of these writers, including (a) the fact that verse 10 refers back to verses 8-9, which explain why a woman should have a sign of authority: namely, because woman came from man and was created for man. This makes much more sense if the ‘authority’ is that of the man over the woman; (b) the focus of the context is not on the woman’s freedom but on her obligation – to wear a head-covering; (c) ‘In verses 11-12, he guards against the misunderstanding that women are somehow inferior to men. But he would not need to say this if he had just affirmed women’s authority and right to prophesy in such strong terms in verse 10. But since, in verse 10, Paul really concludes his argument as to why women should wear head-coverings as a sign of submission to male headship, he senses a need to qualify his point in verses 11-12’. Schreiner also challenges the claim that the word ‘authority’ always refers to one’s own authority. He draws attention to an example very similar to 1 Corinthians 11. 10, which came from the pen of Diodorus of Sicily between 60 BC and 30 BC. Diodorus wrote concerning a statue of the mother of King Osymandias, ‘There is also another statue of his mother standing alone, a monolith twenty cubits high, and it has three kingdoms on its head, signifying that she was both daughter and wife and mother of a king’, 1. 47. 5. In the context this means that the statue had three crowns, which were symbols of governing kingdoms. Clearly it was not at all unusual for something on the head to be a symbol of something else. And ‘here the three crowns all represent someone else’s authority – the authority of the woman’s father (who was a king), husband (who was a king), and son (who was a king). In no case is the woman’s own authority symbolized by the crowns she wears’, Schreiner. As I see it, the head-covering of the woman in 1 Corinthians 11 represents the authority of the man to whom she is subject.