Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Introduction

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).[1] 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.[2] 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.)[3]

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.[4]

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 aggeloi which occurs in 1 Corinthians 11:10 commonly means messengers. 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. Aggeloi also refers to human messengers in Matthew 11:10//Mark 1:2//Luke 7:27, Luke 7:24, and Luke 9:52. I suggest the messengers in 1 Corinthians 11:10 were human messengers sent to investigate, perhaps spy on, the Christians (cf. Gal. 2:4).

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor believes the aggeloi were human envoys, but he thinks they were fellow Christians, “visitors from other churches such as Chloe’s people, who no doubt were the ones who reported to Paul on what they found scandalous in the Corinthian liturgies (1 Cor. 1:11).”[5]

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.)[6]

More about the significance of the created order here.
More about the two social contexts of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 here.

Conclusion

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.[7] In a nutshell, this was Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.


Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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, Richard B. Hays, and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor believe Paul was talking about hairstyles or hair lengths.
Alan G. Padgett writes about the phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:4b, “We thus join a growing number of scholars in rendering kata kephalēs echon as ‘having long hair coming down from the head.’”
Padgett, “Paul on Women in the Church: The Contradictions of Coiffure in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 20 (1984): 69-86, 70.
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.

[4] 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).

[5] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 177.

[6] 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.

[7] We need to be aware that our appearance and behaviour today aren’t unnecessarily inappropriate and problematic in our own cultures.

Explore more

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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New Testament, apostle Paul and women, gender roles

13 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 11:2–16, in a Nutshell

  1. I’m trying not to have an opinion on anything that’s not referenced in the Nicene Creed.
    Perhaps, a better expression of that, is that I’m trying not to build a belief system on anything that’s not in the Nicene Creed.
    Thus, I find it aggravating that I’ve had people try to run my relationship with God and His church by hammering on the significance of these verses.
    Admittedly, it wasn’t the issue you address here, of men being the head of women, that I was clubbed with first. I was a soldier stationed in Germany in 1973 when I became a Christian, and that was a time in which the issue of long hair on men was a battleground in the American churches. I was SEVERELY chastised once, when I mentioned casually that when I got out of the Army, I would grow my hair longer. I didn’t care for that. Seemed to me that it was an example of someone trying to use a passage to enforce their own fashion sense.
    In fact, if I were to look at the Bible I used then, in the margins of this verse:
    “Does even nature itself not teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, ” (I Cor 11:14, NASB)
    I believe I would find this personal commentary: “No, it doesn’t.”
    Much, much later, in my role as a counselor, I had to deal with obnoxious men bullying their wives, and using these verses as a justification.
    It’s really NOT difficult theology to say: neither contemporary fashion nor obnoxious personalities ought ever be permitted to violate something as straightforward as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
    I’m going to go read the Nicen Creed again, and calm down.
    Peace be on your household.

    1. Hi Pat. As we know, in some cultures in Asia and North America, for example, respected men did, or do, have long hairstyles. Paul’s question reflects the culture of Roman Corinth, however, rather than the physiology of hair growth. Some believe that 1 Corinthians 11:14 is about long hair on men which was what some homosexuals in Corinth were sporting; Paul believed homosexuality was not natural. See, for example, Andrew Bartlett’s discussion on this in his book Men and Women in Christ, p.152-153, here.

      It’s a shame that people have had such strong views and made such strong statements, one way or the other, based on a passage that is difficult to understand. And it clearly has been misunderstood in the past in ways that disregard the broader teachings of the Bible. I don’t see a consensus being reached on the overall interpretation any time soon.

  2. If there is “headship” over the woman, it is only in marriage settings. Not every man is over any woman.

    1. Hi Shirley, Ephesians 5:22-33 is about wives and husbands, and only applies to marriage. Paul uses a head-body metaphor in this passage when he tells wives, “the husband is the head of his wife,” and when he tells the husbands “to love their wives as their own bodies.”
      One of Paul’s main concerns here was unity. I’ve written about this passage here: https://margmowczko.com/category/ephesians-5/

      1 Corinthians 11:2-16, however, is not primarily about marriage but about men and women who were ministering in Corinth. The senses or nuances of kephalē here are firstness and status, which Paul tempers in the second half of the passage.

  3. Thank you for your work, Marg! I found you and your wonderful writing five years ago when I was with a complementarian church and suffering from spiritual abuse. Your blog opened my eyes to another way and now I have so much more freedom in my faith.

    Anyway, this post was a great read. You are always incredibly thorough and respectful in how you present your interpretation. Keep up the good work!

    Peace and blessings to you and much love from one sister in Christ to another.

    1. Thanks for your lovely words of encouragement Shannon. <3

  4. Mr Bartlett may know how you feel about his book, but you have placed your comment to him under your answer to me. I haven’t written any book.

  5. Dear Marg,

    I found your insights and interpretations about these difficult Bible passages very interesting. Especially the idea of angels possibly being a spy in some context makes sense although I never have heard something like that before. It would explain why Paul devotes so much writing space and attention to something that affects mainly outward appearances. It all makes sense, however, if these angels were human messengers and potentially dangerous. Interpreted this way, one could call Paul’s veil instructions even a safety rule.

    On the other hand, what is the meaning of this passage for us today? Could there also be a timeless meaning besides Paul’s more practical considerations?

    Personally I believe that the veil — or the head covering or hairstyle or whatever it might have been — could be the same item that Apostle Peter calls the “adorning” that is not outward but “the hidden man of the heart” or “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3: 1-4). Every woman who prays or prophesies in a church does need this “invisible veil”, regardless of what she decides to do with her hair. Like Peter says, it is “in the sight of God of great price”, and people will notice it even though they can’t see it.

    1. Hi Emmy, I see it a little differently from you. The timeless message we can take from this passage is that Christians should not be unnecessarily controversial or offensive to broader society, as this will reflect badly on fellow believers, on Jesus Christ, and ultimately on God. This message is especially relevant today!

      The context or backstory to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and to 1 Peter 3:1-6 are different. Peter’s words were given to wives in Asia Minor who had non-believing Jewish or pagan husbands. Peter’s concern was evangelism; he wanted these husbands to be “won.” And he doesn’t mention a veil or any other kind of garment.

      Paul was concerned with the outward appearance of the men and women who were speaking in Corinthian assemblies.
      Peter’s concern was the inward attitude in wives who he implicitly advises not to speak.

      I’ve written about “gentleness” for the women and men who Peter addresses in his first letter: https://margmowczko.com/gentle-quiet-spirit-1-peter-3/

      I’m not following why the Corinthian women need any kind of veil, visible or invisible. Paul tells these prophesying/ praying women that their (long) hair is a covering (1 Cor. 11:15).

      One thing both passages (1 Cor. 11:2-16 and 1 Pet. 3:1-6) have in common is the idea that believers should behave themselves in a world that could be hostile to Christianity.

  6. Marg, thank you so much for your insights on these texts. I am learning a lot! I am preparing a lesson to teach on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. One argument I have heard to solve the apparent contradiction with this text and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is that the praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11 is not in the worship assembly. Have you heard that argument? How would you respond? Thanks!

    1. Hi Randy, I have heard that argument. It doesn’t make sense. Why would Paul care about what men and women were doing with their hair/ heads if they were praying and prophesying privately where people cannot see or hear? Paul wanted the more prominent members of the Corinthian church, those praying and prophesying aloud in meetings, to look socially respectable. His concern in the first half of the passage was reputations in the broader community.

      There is no real contradiction between 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 1 Corinthians 14:26-40. In chapter 11, Paul addresses the issue of the appearance of men and women who were praying and prophesying. In chapter 14, Paul addresses unruly speech and he silences men and women; three groups are silenced in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 using the same Greek verb. As well as silencing problem speech, this passage is bookended with encouragements for orderly, edifying speaking ministries without any suggestion some of these ministries are only for one sex or the other.
      https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-1434-35-in-a-nutshell/

      I recently read Judith Gundry’s chapter on “Gender and Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” which was published in 1997. I wish I’d read it sooner. On page 152 of her chapter, Dr Gundry briefly describes Paul’s use of the creation story in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and the two social contexts that Paul applies them to. I think she’s spot on and has little to do with 1 Corinthians 14:26-40.

      … Paul has a complex view of creation with respect to gender, that he can read creation within a patriarchal framework as well as an egalitarian one. He appeals to creation to support instructions which presume a hierarchical relationship of man and woman as well as to undergird their new social equality in Christ without denying their difference. These contrasting readings or uses of creation come about through Paul’s theologizing from two contrasting social contexts. On the one hand, he has in view the Corinthians’ wider social context, a hierarchically-structured shame/honor society, and on the other hand, the cultic context of Corinthian worship that burst the patriarchal framework. The tension in Paul’s argument thus correlates with the tension in the Corinthians’ life setting. In dealing with this discrepant life setting he uses a theological method characterized by the interplay of culture, creation, and eschatological life in Christ as mutually interpretive loci of theological reflection. Creation is not univocal for Paul but can have different “meanings,” depending on the social location from which it is viewed and the interplay with other loci for theological reflection on gender.
      Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “Gender and Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: A Study in Paul’s Theological Method” in Evangelium, Schriftauslegung, Kirche: Festschrift für Peter Stuhlmacher zum 65. Geburtstag, editors: Jostein Ädna, Scott J. Hafemann und Otfried Hofius (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997), 151-171, 152.

  7. Hi Marg,
    Thank you for your article and amazing work on this website. It has massively helped me in my journey to egalitarian theology.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are about Lucy Peppiatt’s argument that portions of 1 Corinthians 11 (especially verses 7-9) represent thoughts of the Corinthians that Paul refutes.

    Thank you for your time!

    1. Hi Katherine, Thank you.

      The two sections of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (verses 2-10 and verses 11-16) seem to be saying different, even contrary, things, and scholars have come up with various ways of explaining this difference. I used to think, similarly to Lucy Peppiatt, that the first half contained the Corinthians’ thoughts that Paul then corrects. However, I no longer believe this. Rather, I read that passage as Paul addressing two different contexts.

      In the first half, Paul’s concern is the reputations of Christians in Roman Corinth where respectability, tied to gendered customs, was important. But Paul does not want the Christians to take this too far, especially the concept of unequal honour. So in the second half, he reminds the Corinthian Christians of their mutuality in the Lord. Within the church, Christians are equal.

      Judith Gundry explains the two different contexts, and Paul’s use of Genesis 2 in both sections, well: https://margmowczko.com/judith-gundry-1-corinthians-11_2-16/

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