Traditional Interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:7
For a man should not have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God. But the woman is the glory of the man. 1 Corinthians 11:7 (NET)
1 Corinthians 11:7 is a difficult verse to understand and it is set in a difficult passage. Despite the challenges, many commentators of past generations have seemingly interpreted this verse with confidence. Yet they have interpreted it in ways that ignore and contradict what the rest of the Bible says about men and women as the image and glory of God.
A common understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:7 has been that, compared with woman, man is a more direct reflection of God and man has a more direct relationship with God. Moreover, it has been understood that these factors are displayed in the supposed superiority and authority of man in contrast to the inferior and subordinate status of woman.
Writing in the eighteenth century, John Gill summarises the thinking of many of his contemporaries and predecessors:
“. . . man was first originally and immediately the image and glory of God, the woman only secondarily and mediately through man. The man is more perfectly and conspicuously the image and glory of God, on account of his more extensive dominion and authority.”
Image and Authority in the Genesis Creation Accounts
In Genesis 1 we read that men and women were created in God’s image. In the culture of Old Testament times, rulers of vast empires erected images of themselves in areas where they were not physically present (e.g., Dan. 3:1). These images represented “their power and rulership over far-reaching areas of their empires.” Accordingly, men and women, as God’s image-bearers, are representatives of God who is not physically present, and we are to act as his regents by exercising dominion on earth.
Despite the explicit statements in Genesis 1:26-28 that both men and women are created in the image (LXX: eikōn) and likeness of God, many older commentaries on 1 Corinthian 11:7 gloss over these verses and do not mention the authority of women that comes with being God’s image-bearer.
Creation and origins are themes in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: in verses 8-9 and 11-12, etc. So it is reasonable that the Genesis creation accounts be used to help explain some of Paul’s ideas here. Genesis 2, however, which is the creation account that states man was created first and woman second, says nothing about either “image” or “authority.” It would seem, then, that Genesis 1, which mentions both concepts, should be the chapter to inform our understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:7.
In Genesis 1 there is nothing at all to indicate that women, intrinsically, have a lower status or less authority than men. In Genesis 1:26-28, men and women have the exact same status as God’s image-bearers, and they have the exact same authorisation (i.e. authority) and purpose. Men and women are to share the rule of God’s creation. Genesis 2 does not contradict this fundamental principle, and neither do Paul’s letters.
Image and Glory in Paul’s Letters
Paul uses the words “image” (eikōn) and “glory” (doxa) several times in his letters—in verses that apply equally to men and to women.
Romans 8:28-30, for instance, applies to people who love God and have been called. There is no mention of a distinction of gender. These people, men and women, will be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ and glorified (doxaō, the verb of doxa).
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image (eikōn) of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (doxaō). Romans 8:28-30 (cf. Phil. 3:20-21).
In Colossians 3, believers are encouraged to put on the new self which corresponds to the image (eikōn) of the Creator. It is apparent that social status plays no part and has no bearing on those being renewed. This is because Jesus Christ is in all.
… put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge, in accordance with the image (eikōn) of the One who created him, in which there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all, and in all. Colossians 3:10-11 (cf. Gal. 3:28).
Furthermore, Paul writes about “image” and “glory” in other parts of his letters to the Corinthians, not just in 1 Corinthians 11:7, and he doesn’t exclude women. Rather, Paul expected all followers of Christ to be conformed to the image of Jesus who is himself the image of God (2 Cor. 4:14; Col. 1:15; cf. Heb. 1:3).
And just as we have borne the image (eikōn) of the man of dust [Adam], we will also bear the image (eikōn) of the man of heaven [Jesus]. 1 Corinthians 15:49 CSB
We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory (doxa) of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image (eikōn) from glory (doxa) to glory (doxa). 2 Corinthians 3:18 CSB (Italics added)
Paul teaches, undeniably, that men and women bear the image and glory of God. Moreover, men and women can bring glory to God (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:31; 2 Cor. 4:15; Eph 1:10-11). He made us for his glory! In Isaiah 43:6b-7 God says: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Italics added.)
1 Corinthians 11:7 cannot mean that only men, and not women, are the image and glory of God in the usual theological sense. So what does it mean?
The Culture of Corinth and another Definition of Doxa
Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that he is concerned about the disgraceful behaviour of some Corinthian Christians. It seems they were choosing not to wear socially acceptable hairstyles (some say head-coverings) and were wearing their hair in ways that could bring disrepute: long hair for men, short or unbound hair for women. (More on hairstyles/head-coverings in Corinth here.)
Doxa is often translated as “glory” in the New Testament, but it can also have the sense of “reputation.” The implication of verse 7 may be that the conduct of a Christian man (in particular, a man praying or prophesying with his hair/head in a certain state) affects the reputation and honour of God (i.e. God’s doxa), and Paul here reminds men that they are the image of God to reinforce his point.
On the other hand, the conduct of a Christian woman (in particular, a woman praying or prophesying with her hair/head in a certain state) affects the reputation and honour of her husband or father (i.e. the man’s doxa). Paul does not bring up the fact that woman is also made in the image of God because it doesn’t add anything to the point he is making in verse 7.
That the behaviour of a woman affects the honour of her husband or father holds true for societies that are what sociologists call collectivist. In collectivist societies, such as in ancient Corinth, social conformity is valued and the greater good is considered much more important than an individual’s happiness. Compounding collectivism is honour-shame.
In honour-shame cultures, it can be difficult for a woman to attain honour for herself. Rather, women protect the reputation and honour of the men in their family by being discreet and socially respectable.. This respectability usually has a heavy emphasis on being, and appearing to be, sexually chaste. In such societies, family members, especially women, who display aberrant behaviour or loose morals bring dishonour on the whole family, but especially on the senior male.
It could be that the enigmatic verse, 1 Corinthians 11:10, which includes the phrase “because of the angels,” is Paul wanting the women to exercise good judgement and have respectable hairstyles so that messengers (aggeloi) won’t spread damaging reports about the conduct of women in the church. [Note that there is no word for “head-covering/veil” or “symbol” in the Greek of 1 Corinthians 11:10, and that aggeloi is used for “spies” in James 2:25.]
Many societies in Western nations today are not collectivist. Individual freedoms are prized and idiosyncratic behaviour is more accepted. A person, male or female, who does wrong may disgrace themselves but does not necessarily bring disgrace or shame on their family or father. The context of 1 Corinthians 11:7 may seem foreign to those of us who live in Western, individualistic societies, and the verse’s precise meaning may be inapplicable. However, we still need to take care that our conduct does not bring God or members of our church family into disrepute.
The Chiasm in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Importantly, like many of the statements in the first half of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, verse 7 does not tell the whole story. This passage is written as a chiasm, and we need to look at the second half of the passage to fill in the blanks and read Paul’s more complete thoughts, assuming the first half of the chiasm contains Paul’s own words and he is not quoting the Corinthians which is a possibility.
1 Corinthians 11:4-7 is about what is on top of men’s and women’s heads while they prophesy and pray aloud in church meetings, and this is connected negatively to disgrace (aischros) and positively to glory: hair/heads were affecting reputations. The verses corresponding to 4-7 are 1 Corinthians 11:13-15. Here similar language is used about heads, hair, dishonour (atima), and glory. And we are told that a woman’s long hair, used as a covering, is her “glory” (doxa). Two of the most prestigious lexicons/dictionaries of New Testament Greek, BDAG and TDNT, believe doxa refers to “reputation” or “repute” in 1 Corinthians 11:15. [See footnote 8]
I strongly suggest that doxa has the sense of “reputation” in both verses 7 and 15.
In the culture of ancient Corinth, men typically had more influence than women, but the conduct of a woman could indeed affect the reputation (doxa) of her husband and other male relatives in her birth family and church family. Nevertheless, Paul tells women that they also have their own doxa. By wearing her hair in a style appropriate for her sex, and appropriate to her culture, a woman can uphold her own reputation. This doxa is without reference to others (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7). It is her own doxa! Paul is saying something remarkable here but, as is too often the case, we have interpreted his words through a patriarchal lens and misunderstood them.
Ministry in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Paul plainly states that men are the image and glory of God to make a certain point, but he never states or implies that women do not also have the image and glory of God, or that they have these qualities to a lesser extent. Furthermore, in a passage that is about the hair/heads of men and women who are praying and prophesying, Paul gives no hint that some ministries are more appropriate for men or out of bounds for women.
Most of the older commentaries of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 have minimised the fact that women were praying and prophesying in Corinthian assemblies and that Paul did not silence them. Rather, Paul corrected both men and women without telling either sex to stop ministering. These verses, strictly speaking, do not have a direct application to men and women who do not have speaking ministries. And yet this passage has been teased out to mean all kinds of things to the detriment of women, things that have nothing to do with praying or prophesying in church.
Paul’s general teaching about ministry includes women (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; Eph. 4:4-13; etc), and his general teaching about the image and glory of God includes women. 1 Corinthians 11:7, in fact, has nothing to do with an inherent male authority or superiority. It seems these notions have been read into the text by men who were influenced by their own patriarchal culture and their own flawed opinions of the capabilities and worth of women.
Rather than being about male superiority, verse 7 and surrounding verses are about people maintaining gender distinctions in culturally appropriate ways while ministering. Why maintaining gender distinctions is so important to Paul is not altogether clear, but it seems to be about appearances that were socially acceptable and wouldn’t cause offence to outsiders and unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor. 14:22-25). Paul did not want ministering Christians to look unnecessarily odd or offensive.
As followers of Jesus, one of our main goals is to be like Jesus, to be transformed and conformed into his image. And as image-bearers and regents of God, we are to bring him glory as we exercise our God-given authority. These things have nothing to do with our gender. These basic truths must not be overturned by flawed interpretations of one verse in a passage that is genuinely difficult to understand.
 John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament (source).
Augustine (354-430) reasoned that man and woman together are the image of God, and that man alone is the image of God “as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one,” but that woman alone is not the image of God. On the Trinity, Book 12 7.10
 For example, “For man was made to this end and purpose, that the glory of God should appear in his rule and authority. But the woman was made so that by profession of her obedience, she might more honour her husband.” The Geneva Study Bible (source)
 Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence”, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (eds) (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity, 2004), 79–95, 81.
 Neither Genesis chapters 1 or 2 mention doxa, “glory.”
 While both men and women bear the image of God, they also bear the image of ha’adam, the first human (cf. Gen. 2:21-23; 5:3). Note that there is no word for “man/human” in the Greek of 1 Corinthians 15:49. However in 1 Corinthians 15:47, ho anthrōpos, which means “the human” or “the person,” occurs twice.
 Compare God’s words in Isaiah 43:6-7 and in Genesis 1:26-28 with this incorrect statement from the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: “Woman is not the manifestation or representation of the glory of God on earth …” (source)
 Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul tells the Corinthians that their behaviour will affect what unbelievers and inquirers think about church members and about God (1 Cor. 14:22-25).
 Definition 3 of doxa in BDAG’s lexicon includes the word “reputation” and similar concepts/words, and it interprets 1 Corinthians 11:15 (“it is her glory”) as “she enjoys a favorable reputation.” However, BDAG understand doxa in 1 Corinthians 11:7 as “reflection” rather than “reputation.”
Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, (BDAG) revised and edited by F.W Danker, s.v. δοξα, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 256-258.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) similarly notes that doxa in 1 Corinthians 11:15 has the sense of “repute” but in 1 Corinthians 11:7 has “the meaning ‘reflection’ or ‘image.'”
See Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (abridged), trans. Geoffrey W Bromiley, s.v. dokeō, doxa, … (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 178-181, 178 [Kittel 2:232-237].
Interestingly, BDAG begin their discussion of the meanings of doxa by pointing out that doxa (i.e. reputation) can be achieved not just by performing great deeds: “… the Old Testament and Greco-Roman perceptions of dependence of fame and honor on extraordinary performance deserve further exploration. SIG 456, 15 is typical: concern for others leads to enhancement of one’s doxa or reputation.” [Line 15 of this c. 240 BC inscription is translated as “We do in fact exercise care for all the Greeks who come to us as we are convinced that this contributes in no small way to one’s reputation (doxa) …” here.]
 Bruce J. Malina’s chapter “Collectivism in Mediterranean Culture” in Understanding the Social World of the New Testament, Dietmar Neufeld and Richard E. DeMaris (eds) (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2010, 2015) can be read online here.
 David deSilva observes that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 “reflects the view that female honour is embedded in male honour …” Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 34.
 Or, further disrepute.
 Just as the authority or liberty (exousia) in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is her own.
 Paul nowhere states that he prefers men to have speaking ministries. Nevertheless, another commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:7 includes this loaded sentence:
“But the woman ought to be covered especially in praying and prophesying; for it belongs to the man, in preference to the woman, to pray and prophesy; when therefore the woman takes upon her those functions, then some open avowal is most necessary on her part, that woman is still properly and willingly inferior to man.” Bengel’s Gnomen of the New Testament (source)
 It seems some men and women in Corinth believed that gender distinctions—as well as marriage and marital sex (1 Cor. 7:1-6)—no longer mattered now that they were “in Christ.” This sexual renunciation may have been the cause of behaviour and hairstyles that even broader society frowned on. Paul wanted the men and women in Corinth to look like men and women. (More on sexual renunciation in the early church here.)
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