1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a difficult passage to understand and unpack. In this short article, I try to be as succinct as possible and give an overview of how I read it. I appreciate that my interpretation is different from common interpretations. I offer it as part of the ongoing discussion on this tricky passage.
It would be helpful to read this blog post with 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 open. You can read this passage on the Bible Gateway website here.
“Head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3
Paul’s concern in this passage is about socially respectable hairstyles, or head coverings, for the Corinthian men and women who were praying and prophesying aloud in church meetings. All of his statements in this passage must be understood with this overriding concern in mind.
Paul begins with a statement about status, or prominence, which he ties to the idea of origins or “firstness” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8-9). I suggest the man and the woman in the second phrase refers to Adam and Eve.
“Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3 CEB cf 1 Cor. 8:6).
In English, the word “head” can sometimes mean “a person in authority over others,” but the Greek word that Paul used, kephalē (“head”), did not typically have this meaning in ancient Greek. 1 Corinthians 11:3 is not about authority, let alone a hierarchy of authority: Jesus and God are just as much, in every way, the authorities of women as they are of men.
In the first century, men had a higher level of honour and prominence than women. Furthermore, because of the honour-shame dynamic in the ancient world, a woman did not normally have her own honour. Rather, her honour was embedded in the honour of a male relative. This dynamic is the backdrop to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
More about the Greek word kephalē (“head”) in 1 Corinthians 11:3 here.
Reputations in First-Century Corinth
Paul was concerned that inappropriate appearances of women who were praying and prophesying would reflect badly on their husbands or fathers (because that’s how society worked back then), and that inappropriate appearances of men who were praying and prophesying would reflect badly on Christ. And that ultimately God and his church would be dishonoured. (The word “God” is at the end of the statement in 1 Cor. 11:3 in the Greek and in an emphatic position. “God” is also at the very end of 1 Cor. 11:16 in the phrase “the churches of God.”)
1 Corinthians 11:4-7 is about what is on top of men’s and women’s heads (hairstyles or head coverings) while they engage in speaking ministries in church meetings, and this is connected negatively to shame and disgrace (kataischunō) and positively to glory (doxa). (Long hair on men and short or unbound hair on women was socially suspect in the Roman world.)
The Greek word doxa is often translated as “glory” in the New Testament, but it can also have the sense of “repute.” I suggest the implication of 1 Corinthians 11:7, a verse that has been horribly handled in the past, is that the conduct of a Christian man affected the reputation and honour of God (i.e. God’s doxa). So Paul here reminds men that they are, or that they possess, the image of God in order to reinforce his point.
The conduct of a first-century Christian woman affected the reputation and honour of her husband or father (i.e. the man’s doxa). Paul does not bring up the fact that women are also the image of God because it doesn’t add anything to the point he is making in verse 7. There is no doubt, however, that women, as well as men, are God’s image-bearers. There are several verses in both the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament that state women, as well as men, bear the image and glory of God.
More about women and men being God’s image-bearers, and about doxa having the meaning of “repute, reputation” (in footnotes), here.
The “Angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10
I believe 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is about reputation (doxa) and about not giving messengers a bad report to bring back to others who were curious about what was happening in Christian gatherings in Corinth. Paul cared about the reputation of the church in a world that was suspicious of new religious ideas and of behaviour that might threaten social stability. Later in 1 Corinthians, and in other letters too, he expresses similar concerns about reputation.
Verse 10 is at the centre of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 which is structured as a chiasm. Verse 10 is Paul’s main point. He wanted the ministering women to exercise good judgement and have respectable hairstyles or head coverings so that messengers wouldn’t spread damaging reports about the conduct of women in the church. (Note that Paul doesn’t say or hint that women shouldn’t be praying or prophesying.)
The Greek word for messengers in verse 10 is aggeloi. In some contexts, aggeloi are heavenly angels, but at other times, they are human messengers running an errand. The two spies in James 2:25, for example, are called aggeloi in the Greek New Testament. And I suggest the messengers in 1 Corinthians 11:10 were human messengers sent to investigate, spy on, the Christians (cf. Gal. 2:4).
More about 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 being structured as a chiasm is here.
Mutuality for those “In the Lord”
In the first half of the chiasm, Paul presents his argument using a hierarchy of status or honour (based on “firstness”) that the first-century Corinthians could relate to. Paul wanted the Corinthians to heed this dynamic for the sake of outsiders, but he did not want them to take it too far. So, in the second part of the chiasm, he provides correctives beginning with verses 11-12.
“In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, and man is not independent of woman (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8). For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman, and all things come from God (cf. 1 Cor. 11:9).”
Outside of the church, there were hierarchies of status and honour. However, within the community of believers, among those “in the Lord,” the ideal is that there is equal honour.
“In the Lord,” men and women are mutually interdependent, and Paul points out that even though woman came from man (cf. Gen. 2:21-22), man also comes from woman (cf. Gen. 4:1 NIV). We’re even. Paul nullifies the significance of man being first and he focuses on God. God is the ultimate source of everything, including us. He is the ultimate “first” one. (Again, the word “God” is in an emphatic position at the very end of the statement in 1 Cor. 11:12.)
There is no hierarchy between men and women who are “in the Lord.” Nevertheless, because of the messengers, and for the sake of reputations, Paul wanted the men and women who were praying and prophesying to have hairstyles or head coverings that were socially acceptable in first-century Corinthian society. In a nutshell, this was Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
This is a snapshot of my understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. I’ve written more here.
More about first-century customs of hairstyles and head coverings, here.
All my articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here.
All my “in a Nutshell” articles are here.
A Spanish translation of this article is here.
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 I like David deSilva’s observation of the sense of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “However, one chooses to translate kephalē (“head”) here, the firstness indicated by the term is difficult to avoid.”
David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 231.
 David deSilva observes that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 “reflects the view that female honour is embedded in male honour …” Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 34.
 Hairstyles, rather than head coverings, may be the issue (cf. 1 Cor. 11:15). Or perhaps it was both. New Testament scholars such Judith Grundy, Philip B. Payne, and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor believe Paul was talking about hairstyles or hair lengths.
Craig L. Blomberg notes, “In verses 14–15 Paul is definitely talking about relative lengths of hair for men and women, so it is somewhat more natural to assume that he has been talking about hairstyles all along.” Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan ), 178.
 In 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, Paul encourages the Corinthian Christians to minister in ways that won’t appear too weird to non-believers.
The appearance and behaviour of women was especially open to suspicion and censure in ancient cultures. Accordingly, Paul wanted the rich Ephesian women to dress with moderation (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Flouting the acceptable dress code would have raised questions of impropriety and even promiscuity. (See Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 208). Paul’s instructions to young widows in Ephesus, some of whom were idle and getting up to mischief, were in order “to give the enemy no opportunity for slander” (1 Tim 5:14 NIV). His words about the socially respectable behaviours of young Cretan matrons were given “so that God’s word will not be slandered” by non-Christians, especially by opponents of the faith (Titus 2:5; cf. 2:8).
Paul wanted Christians to behave in such a way that they would not cause offence to Christians and non-Christians alike. He didn’t want the behaviour of the Corinthians to cause Jews, Greeks and even those within the church to stumble; he wanted them all to be saved (1 Cor. 10:31-33). In his letter to Titus, Paul encourages slaves to be trustworthy in their work “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive” (Tit. 2: 10 NIV). And he wanted overseers to have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7).
 The Greek word for “God” (theos) occurs at the very end of three sentences in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 which is an emphatic position (1 Cor. 11:3, 12, 16). This highlights points in Paul’s arguments and his concern for God and his church. The Greek word for “God” also occurs in 1 Cor. 11:7 and 13 without emphasis.
 We need to be aware that our appearance and behaviour today aren’t unnecessarily inappropriate and problematic in our own cultures.