Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Inside and Outside the Christian Community at Corinth

1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is a passage that has been described by New Testament scholars as one of the most difficult to interpret. One challenge in understanding this passage is that the second half sometimes appears to contradict the first half. However, I suggest the discrepancies are because Paul is addressing two different and distinct social situations.

In the first half (1 Cor. 11:2–10), Paul’s concern is for social respectability in the broader context of Roman Corinthian culture which was patriarchal and where the social dynamic of honour-shame was pervasive. Paul did not want news of socially suspect hairstyles/ head coverings of men and women praying and prophesying to be spread by messengers (the “angels” in 11:10).[1] Such news could ruin reputations and cause problems for the fledgling church.

In the second half (1 Cor. 11:11–16), Paul’s concern is for mutuality in relationships among men and women who are “in the Lord.” Within the body of Christ, New Creation social dynamics, such as humility, mutuality, and unity, should be the norm. (See, for example, Gal. 3:26–28, Eph. 5:21, and 1 Cor. 12). Sometimes concessions needed to be made for the sake of the broader patriarchal world, but Paul did not want the Corinthian Christians to take these concessions and compromises too far.

Paul’s Arguments from Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16

Despite the two different social contexts of (1) broader Corinth and (2) the Christian community, Paul appeals to the one creation story in Genesis 2 to support his various points.

I recently read Judith Gundry’s chapter on “Gender and Creation in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16” which was published in 1997.[2] I’ve come to several similar interpretations of this passage as Dr Gundry did more than twenty years ago. On page 152, Dr Gundry mentions Paul’s use of the Genesis 2 creation story in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 and the two social contexts that Paul applies it to. I think she’s spot on.

… 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. (p. 152)

Masculine and Feminine Hairstyles, not Veils

As well as discussing Paul’s use of creation, Judith Gundry makes a few clarifying comments about what Paul was addressing in 1 Cor. 11:2–16. She believes he was probably speaking about hair, not veils, as a covering.[3]

In the light of Paul’s statements in 11:14–15 that the woman’s long hair is her glory and that it is given to her “for a covering” and that the man’s long hair is his shame, and in 11:4–5 that the Corinthian women and men “shame their head” by the practices here criticized, it is probably best to assume that covering the head here refers to hairstyles, since in a first-century Roman context there was no social shame associated with women’s not veiling or with men’s wearing a himation over the head. (fn. 1 p. 151)

After a brief explanation of the honour-shame dynamic in the Mediterranean world, Dr Gundry explains how the pneumatics (the men and women praying and prophesying) who had headdresses (or hairstyles) that disguised their gender would have caused shame. Ultimately this shame reflected badly on God as “head” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3) and also on the church.

… the Mediterranean world as a shame/ honor society supplies the background for the shame/glory contrast in 1 Cor 11:2–16. The Corinthian pneumatics’ praying and prophesying with unfeminine or unmasculine headdress takes place in the worship assembly where outsiders might be present and which was thus a situation of potential gain or loss of social acceptability. In 14:23 Paul expresses concern about outsiders getting negative impressions of the community on such occasions. The pneumatics’ head-covering practices ignored the social boundaries between male and female and thus brought shame upon themselves and upon their “heads.” The women shamed the men, and the men shamed Christ. The community’s social acceptability was thus diminished and its missionary task hindered. (p. 154–155)

It is a feature of honour-shame societies that women’s poor behaviour directly affected the honour-shame of men. Gundry further notes,

Honor and shame were especially connected with actions done to the body, and in particular to the head or face as the preeminent part of the body which could represent the whole. (fn. 16 p. 154, citing Malina, New Testament World, 40.)

Paul’s Concern was Shame and Reputations

Dr Gundry dismisses certain ideas that some have attached to Paul’s words about head-covering and hair. I agree with her that Paul’s intention was not to restrict or subordinate women, and he was not thinking about men or supernatural beings driven to lust because of women’s exposed hair. Dr Gundry argues that Paul’s primary concern is honour-shame (or glory and disgrace) and how this would affect the Christians’ reputation in Roman Corinth.

We ought not to treat Paul’s argument that the Corinthians’ head-covering practices are causing shame as a mere rationale for some other agenda, which has been variously defined as, for example, restricting the women’s considerable social power in the community, stopping the man’s glory reflected in the woman’s uncovered head from being displayed during the glorifying of God, or preventing sexual provocation or cultic offense caused by the woman’s uncovered head. It is extremely difficult either to exclude or to substantiate any of these hypotheses. Since, however, Paul explicitly argues against causing shame, this purpose should guide our interpretation of the passage. (p. 155)

Judith Gundry’s chapter makes an important contribution to the discussion on 1 Cor. 11:2–16. It makes a lot of good sense. I recommend reading her chapter in full. Unfortunately, however, I’ve not been able to find it freely available online.


[1] There are four common interpretations of Paul’s reference to the aggeloi (“angels, messengers”).
(1) The aggeloi are messengers or scouts sent to spy out the goings-on in Corinthian churches on behalf of their curious or suspicious bosses. (My preferred interpretation.) More on this interpretation, and Paul’s concern for reputations, here: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, in a Nutshell.
(2) The aggeloi are God’s angels who are invisibly present during worship, perhaps as mediators of some kind, and they expect reverence and decorum. (A possible interpretation.)
(3) The aggeloi are potentially lustful angelic “Watchers” who are aroused by the sight of women’s hair (Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins 7; cf. Gen. 6:1–4; 1 Enoch 6–7; Book of Giants). (My least favourite interpretation.) If exposed hair is a potential source of lust, why is Paul only concerned with the hair of women who pray and prophesy? Why isn’t he concerned with the hair of all the women in the Corinthian church? In other New Testament letters, Peter and Paul are concerned with women’s hairstyles and they don’t tell women to cover their heads (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3). Also, exposed women’s hair doesn’t seem to be a problem in two scenes where Jesus is anointed by women (Luke 7:38, 44; John 11:2; 12:3). (More about hair and the watchers here.)
(4) Some connect the reference to aggeloi in 1 Corinthians 11:10 with a reference to aggeloi in 1 Corinthian 6:2–3. They then infer that because we are able to judge even the angels, women are well able to determine what they will do with their own heads. More in a postscript here: The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. (This interpretation seems strained to me.)

[2] 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, Jostein Ädna, Scott J. Hafemann and Otfried Hofius (eds.) (Gӧttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997), 151–171.
Judith Gundry is Research Scholar and Associate Professor (Adjunct) of New Testament at Yale Divinity School.

[3] While some scholars believe Paul is speaking about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, others, such Judith Grundy, Philip B. Payne, and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, believe he is talking about hairstyles or hair lengths.
Payne, “Wild Hair and Gender Equality in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16,” Priscilla Papers 20.3 (Summer, 2006): 9–18. (Online: CBE Interntational)
Murphy-O’Connor, “Sex and Logic in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 42.4 (October 1980): 482–500.
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.

Explore more

1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is a passage that continues to fascinate me and I’ve written several articles that discuss various aspects of it.
I’ve written more about the honour-shame context of 1 Cor. 11:2–16 and why Paul said “woman is the glory of man,” here: Man and woman as the image and glory of God (1 Cor. 11:7)
An article on the meaning of “head” in 1 Cor. 11:3 is here: 4 Reasons “Head” does not Mean “Leader” in 1 Cor. 11:3
A brief overview of the passage is here: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, in a Nutshell
More articles on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 are here: Category: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16

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14 thoughts on “Judith Gundry on the Two Social Contexts of 1 Cor. 11:2–16

  1. The concept of “two contexts” in tension with each other is so useful! Not just for this tricky passage but also, I think, for many other seemingly difficult or contradictory parts of the NT. I suspect that many modern interpretations muddle the two contexts together because we are so far removed from the world of the first century Mediterranean that we can’t readily recognize which parts of the epistles speak to the temporal and which to the Kingdom.

    As an example: this past week in another neighborhood of the internet, I saw a discussion in which a woman expressed befuddlement that the writer of 1Pet3:1 would say that wives could win over their husbands without saying anything. Silent compliance doesn’t solve problems in ostensibly Christian marriages, she said, so what use would it be in a marriage where the husband isn’t even a believer? I wondered if the many misinterpretations of this verse stem from a lack of understanding of the problem the writer was trying to solve. As I understand it, Christians in that time and place were not merely viewed as odd or fringe, but often as immoral and threatening to the social order. So the writer is really saying, “Look, ladies, if your husband thinks you’ve joined some degenerate wacko cult, arguing with him won’t change his mind, but your actions might.” Silent good behavior was a tactic for the specific situation, not a universal Kingdom principle for wives. Much like the gendered hairstyles could be important to prevent social shame in the context of 1Cor11, but also completely irrelevant “in Christ.”

    1. Yes, the context of 1 Peter 3:1-6 is not modern women in Christian marriages and who live in countries where Christianity is well tolerated.
      The wives Peter was writing to were living with men and in a society that was suspicious of Christians. Much of 1 Peter is about how to minimise abuse and slander from non-Christians.

    2. If you’re referring to me, you’ve summarized my concern in exactly the opposite direction.

      If Peter expected a Christian wife’s proper behavior and silence to have a shot at converting an unbelieving husband (which would presumably lead to improved behavior by the husband), why does it seem that a Christian wife’s proper behavior and silence NOT lead to improved behavior by an already Christian husband?

      Instead, a wife’s silence seems to lead to a husband’s coasting behavior, forcing the wife to do all the adulting in the marriage and even in parenting.

      1. Why do you think CMT might be referring to you?

        Peter tells Christian husbands that the womenfolk are their coheirs and that they should give women respect (1 Peter 3:7). Christian husbands and wives are equal, and they should be able to talk honestly as equals. But there was usually no equality or mutual respect in first-century marriages among non-Christians.

        Life was hard in the first century and most people, men and women, became adults while still teenagers. Coasting wasn’t an option. And there was nothing easy about being a Christian in the first century.

        I’ve written about the social context and the language of 1 Peter 3:1-7 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/1-peter-31-7/

        1. CMT might be referring to my wondering, in a conversation on a different site, if the apostle Peter was delusional!

          I fully get that life was hard in the first century and that Peter was navigating a very difficult social context. What’s weird to me is that, in THAT context Peter hoped believing wives could, by their good behavior and silence, influence their unbelieving husbands toward becoming believers.

          But in too much of twenty-first century Christianity, wives’ silent good behavior does NOT influence more Christlike behavior by their BELIEVING husbands, but instead an entitled set of behaviors that basically results in believing husbands coasting in the marriage, in parenting, in life generally.

          So in other words, far too many wives’ good Christian behavior in the twenty-first century doesn’t “spur [their husbands] on to love and good deeds” but instead to a whole lot of self-entitled laziness. And I find that outcome odd (and discouraging) .

          1. Peter’s instructions make sense to me.

            The Christians were a socially suspect, maligned, and persecuted group in first-century Asia Minor. By showing that belonging to the Christians was not going to lead to weird behaviour from wives, a deterioration in the marriage relationship, and loss of face for the husband, but rather improve behaviour of wives (according to the standards of the time), the wives could, hopefully, continue to belong to the group and attend meetings. And husbands might stop being suspicious of Christians, see them more favourably, and perhaps eventually be won over.

          2. Jo R, you’re right, you probably are the commenter I was thinking of. Sorry if I misrepresented what you said!

            For context-that conversation was about the belief that a wife should rely on prayer and gracious, submissive behavior, rather than direct communication, to address relationship problems with her husband. I don’t know if this idea is widespread outside North American evangelical circles, but it is depressingly common here. Many bestselling books, women’s Bible studies, etc advocate “winning him without a word” as a means for wives to motivate their husbands to change behavior or work on the relationship.

            My thought was that the “two contexts” concept helps explain why 1Pet3:1 does not support this counterproductive idea at all. In its first century context, this verse is pragmatic advice about how to disarm the suspicion a Christian wife would likely encounter from her pagan husband. Behavior change on his part simply wasn’t the point. Marg’s summary below encapsulates what I was thinking.

            Anyway, I didn’t mean to completely hijack this post! It just occurred to me on reading it that (mis)interpreting 1Pet3:1 to mean that Christian wives can magically change their husbands by keeping their mouths shut is just as silly as if someone said that women in 21st century Western churches can’t have short hair because “Paul said it’s shameful.” When people conflate the Kingdom and the temporal contexts of the NT, the outcomes are, as you put it Jo, odd and discouraging.

  2. No problem, CMT!

    And, Marg, my apologies too for hijacking.

    (I’m still curious how “good behavior without words” is not a baseline way to implement “spurring one another on to love and good deeds.” Surely such behavioral examples would constitute more effective spurring than mere verbal exhortation to and description of the intended love and good deeds. )

    1. I’m not really understanding your question, Jo R, or what you see as behavioural examples of “spurring one another on.” But I will say that “spurring one another on to love and good deeds” is said about relationships among Christians, including Christian wives and husbands (Heb. 10:24f). The author of Hebrews addresses these words to adelphoi, that is, to brothers and sisters in Christ (Heb. 10:19ff).

      Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6 are addressed to Christian wives with mostly husbands who have yet to be “won” (an evangelistic term) to the Lord. And there is something potentially scary about at least some of these husbands. Paul encourages these wives to not be afraid and to be “quiet.” This may be for their safety as well as for evangelistic purposes.

  3. So in the first century honor-shame culture where men had all the power and women were little more than property, “proper behavior,” whatever exact actions that would have meant in that time and place, by a Christian wife had at least a shot of influencing what had to be an absolutely monumental shift in her unbelieving husband, such that he might in fact become a Christian. And as far as I can tell, such an enormous change in a first-century man’s outlook, beliefs, behavior, attitudes, etc., would in fact have been absolutely stupendous.

    But in the twenty-first century, “proper behavior” by Christian wives, generally considered to include at the very least mainly complete deference to their husbands, often seems to induce what can only be called selfish, entitled behavior where the husband can essentially do whatever he wants with impunity, and if the wife objects, she’s told she’s being disrespectful at best and disobedient—to God Himself—at worst.

    Now, many modern men do not act that way, but in North America, a not insignificant percentage of husbands do develop a most unchristlike attitude and set of behaviors even as their wives drive themselves into the ground to be “good Christian wives.”

    So I’m left wondering, why is there such a difference? Wives then could positively influence their unbelieving husbands, but nowadays so many are unable to positively influence their believing husbands? Or is it that what wives in the twenty-first century are being taught is “proper behavior” actually isn’t proper after all, so that it can’t in fact be an effective influence? Or is the problem something else entirely?

    I guess I’m expecting an “iron sharpens iron” effect, or that wives’ examples can do that “spurring on to good deeds” of their believing husbands. But instead, I look around and see a whole lot of lazy, selfish, and, well, entitled men sitting on their couches, yet expecting their wives to be the ones who sacrifice themselves the way Christ sacrificed Himself. And the best-selling Christian marriage books tend to enforce and reinforce the outcome I’m seeing.

    (Sorry, I’ve wandered far away from your post.)

    1. Thanks Jo R. I acknowledge and appreciate your “sorry,” but also appreciate that what you’re saying is important.

      First a quick personal comment: I always baulk at the idea that women were like “property.” In my mind, it doesn’t accurately reflect the lived experience of many ancient women or even the lived experience of European women 150 years ago who had similarly limited legal rights and freedoms as first-century Roman women. Certainly, some men misused their legal power, but not all.

      I wonder if the lazy husband trope is exaggerated or if it’s an American thing. Or maybe it’s just western men having trouble adapting to modern domestic expectations.

      However, Jerome (c.345 – 420) shows us that it’s not a new thing either. I like this quotation from his commentary on Ephesians where he makes his own observations while commenting on the “fear” (reverence or respect) that the wives in Asia Minor were to have for their husbands (cf. Eph. 5:21, 33). I love it and you might too.

      We must inquire whether wife, and the fear belonging to a wife, is to be understood in a fleshly manner, since wives are frequently found who are much better than their husbands. They rule over them, manage the household, educate the children, and maintain the discipline of the family while the husbands revel and run around with harlots. I leave it to the decision of the readers whether these women ought to rule their husbands or fear them.”
      The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, translated by Ronald E. Heine (Oxford University Press, 2003), 242.

      This still rings true in some households.

      Anyway, I don’t think Peter’s aim was for wives in Asia Minor to improve their husbands. He just wanted the women not to behave in ways that would make things difficult for Christians (who were currently going through a hard time) and make it near impossible for husbands to get saved. If wives started behaving in odd ways and were being a bit “rebellious” (the opposite of “submissive”) once they became Christians, it’s unlikely husbands would have considered Christianity.

      If I’m understanding you correctly, I think you’re applying 1 Peter 3:1-6 too broadly. Peter was writing to first-century Christians in Asia Minor who were being slandered and persecuted. It’s a real concern that some Christian men are behaving badly towards their wives (this, unfortunately, is not a new thing) but Peter’s words, as far as I can see, have almost no relevance here.

  4. Hi Marg,
    I’m wondering – if Paul was addressing the issue of women/men renouncing their usual social gender dress/hairstyles- why does he only talk about doing it “when praying and prophesying” as opposed to all the time/being out in public? Why does he specifically state “while praying and prophesying?


    1. Hi Sarah, What people did when they were out in the community, and how they wore their hair, didn’t necessarily affect the reputation (doxa) of the Christian community.

      What people did during church meetings and how they wore their hair, especially the people who were engaging in vocal ministry, could affect the reputation (doxa) of the Christian community, in particular the reputations of men and of Jesus and ultimately of God (cf. 1 Cor. 11:3).

      My overall take of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is here: https://margmowczko.com/1-corinthians-112-16-meaning/

      1. Thanks Marg,

        Yep I see that makes sense. So if we think about the doxa/reputation being the main concern then it makes sense for it just to be during public worship.

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