(Painting: "A Praying Italian Woman," by Martinus Rørbye, 1836, oil on canvas)
- Paul’s Aims – To understand this passage, we need to keep in mind the context of what Paul is trying to achieve. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with gender status (see verses 11-12), so it must be about something else.
o #1 – (Practical) Paul wants the Corinthian women, who apparently have been coming to worship and offering public prayers and prophecies without head coverings, to scale it back a bit and put their head coverings back on. This seems to be mostly because it is culturally inappropriate in their specific context for the women to be without coverings. (Scholars speculate that with the arrival of Christianity, which was a radically liberating message for women in the 1st century, some women took it a little too far and expressed their newfound spiritual freedom in ways that would have brought cultural shame on the new Christian community—in this case, by leaving aside head coverings in a local culture where it would have been considered immodest for women to do so.)
o #2 – (Theological) Paul wants to put the men/women issue in the wider context of a theology of worship. The way the church worships is his predominant concern throughout chapters 11-14. (Note: his main idea, then, does not concern either gender status or family structure, but rather the way that male and female roles carry symbolic meaning in the church’s worship).
- v. 3
o Here is one of the most important clues to this passage, and the point at which most of our surface-level English readings of the passage go wrong. The word for “head” in Greek is kephale, which is the word Paul uses here. However, this word had a different set of metaphorical meanings in Greek than it does in English. In English, it makes us think almost immediately about authority (such as when we talk about “heads of state”). This was far and away not the most common way to read this word in the Greek, however—very, very seldom is kephale used to give a metaphorical meaning close to “authority.” (Such a metaphor wouldn’t have made sense to them, anyway, since they considered the “directive” parts of anatomy to be in the chest, not the head.) A much more plausible metaphor is that of “source,” which is how Greeks commonly used kephale. (In English, our word “head” still retains some of this function when we talk about “headwaters” or a “fountainhead.”) Thus, Paul is saying that Christ is man’s source, and woman’s source is man. This reading is confirmed by Paul’s later allusion to the Genesis account of Eden (see vv. 8-9); and of course that story shows that Adam’s source was from God, and Eve’s was from Adam. Thus Paul is using the analogy of the creation story to describe the symbolic roles of men and women in worship, not any sort of authority structure that divides them.
o Note: depending on what translation you use, you might find references to “woman” all the way through, or you may find a distinction between “wife” and “woman.” This distinction does not appear in the Greek. Only one word, gune, is used throughout the passage. This word can mean either “woman” or “wife” depending on context. My interpretation is that in this passage, Paul is talking about the symbolic roles of men and women in worship (not marriage), so “woman” should be used throughout. Just be aware that if your translation switches over to “wife” on occasion, that’s just an interpretive choice of the translator, not a distinction within the original text itself.
- v. 4
o When Paul says, “…dishonors his head,” note that he’s referring not to the physical organ, but the metaphorical image he just established. In other words, if Corinthian men were to pray with their heads covered (against the culturally-appropriate bounds of modesty), it would dishonor Christ.
o Note that this is clearly a culturally, locally-bound command. Paul cannot be thinking of this as a universal command, because Jewish men (including, presumably, himself) did pray with their heads covered. The important point is the metaphorical symbolism that Paul is setting up, and he wants that to be played out in ways that are culturally appropriate in the Corinthian context.
- v. 5
o Again, if “head” means “source,” then Paul is saying that women uncovering their heads dishonors man. The word that Paul uses for “man” is the Greek word that specifically refers to the male gender, but many commentators feel that he is extending that meaning in some parts of this passage to include all of humanity—i.e., women ought not to go uncovered because it would dishonor their symbolic position of representing humanity in the relationship of worship.
o Notice that the women in Corinth are publicly “prophesying” in worship, and that Paul doesn’t censure them for it here—this is a hint that he actually does give equal status and great freedom to women.
- v. 6
o Here Paul uses a bit of hyperbole to jab at those Corinthians who flaunt cultural conventions by uncovering their heads: “Why not just shave off all your hair, then? Oh, because that wouldn’t be appropriate? Well, going without a head covering isn’t appropriate in your context either, so stop doing it.”
- v. 7
o Here’s the central text for my way of interpreting this passage. This is a highly debated passage, but this is what makes most sense to me. Paul says here that in worship, men and women worshippers are actually symbolic metaphors that should remind us of what worship is all about. Since man came from God as his source, man’s position in worship is a reminder of the glory of God. Worship is all about God, not about us (i.e., not a place to flaunt our own “glory” and so take attention away from God), so the fact that men don’t wear head coverings in Corinth can be taken as a reminder that the glory of God should be unveiled and magnified in worship. Women, on the other hand, symbolically represent humanity, because they came from man. In worship, the glory of man is not on center stage; it ought to be veiled so that we can concentrate our attention on the glory of God. Thus, in the Corinthian context, the fact that women should be veiled for modesty’s sake will serve as a reminder that worship is about focusing on God’s glory, not on ourselves.
- vv. 8-9
o Here Paul clearly invokes the example of the Adam and Eve story, which he has been alluding to the whole way. Since that story is much more about “source” (and partnership) than about “authority” where men and women are concerned (male authority only enters the story clearly as part of the “curse” in Genesis 3, and thus it can’t be considered as part of God’s original design for humanity), this adds credence to our hypothesis about Paul’s use of “head” as “source.”
- v. 10
o This verse gives us a clue that we’re on the right track in thinking about this passage as being all about worship. Paul says that women should wear head coverings “because of the angels.” The most plausible explanation of what he means has to do with imagining worship the way that the early church did (and the way that Eastern Orthodox churches still do): when we worship, it is not just the local church worshiping. Our worship is a microcosm of the worship of the entire Kingdom of God, and we actually participate in the eternal worship of the angels and the departed saints around the throne of God. As such, Paul reminds them that in their worship, angels are also present—all the more reason for women to behave modestly! (An alternative interpretation thinks that the "because of the angels" line refers to the way that angelic beings were entranced by women's beauty back in antediluvian days [see Gen. 6:1-2], and Paul wants to make sure that Christian women aren't similarly seducing any wanton angels with their alluring tresses.)
o This verse also adds the interesting phrase that says that a woman should have a “symbol of authority on her head,” which refers to the head covering itself. This is almost always misinterpreted. Most readers take it to mean that the head covering is a symbol that the woman is under authority. But in Greek, if Paul had meant to say that, he probably would have used the word for “subjection,” not “authority.” The word for “authority” (exousia) is only used in Greek relating to things that have authority or power. Thus, Paul seems to be saying that the head coverings are a symbol of the woman’s own authority. This makes sense if she is representing the place of humanity in worship, because the same Adam & Eve story that Paul has in mind is very clear that humanity is in a position of tremendous authority over all creation.
- vv. 11-12
o Here Paul realizes that maybe some readers might have misinterpreted him and may think that he’s been making a case for the subjection of women. To set them straight, he declares in no uncertain terms the equal status of men and women in Christ. In fact, he begins v.11 by taking women down a notch (“woman is not independent of man”), which would make no sense unless he had just finished giving a teaching about the freedom and authority of women. (Note: a few translations reverse the order of this verse, putting “man is not independent of woman” first—this is not the way the sentence is structured in Greek; Paul actually addresses himself to the women first.) Paul declares both genders complementary, neither independent of the other, and then goes on to remind the men that although in a symbolic sense (thanks to the Genesis allusion), they have their source in God, in an individual sense they all have their sources from a woman. Paul wants to make sure that the men don’t take his metaphorical interpretation too far and use it to proclaim men’s total authority over women.
o Having finished his theological vision of man and woman in worship, he returns to his practical concern: getting those Corinthian women to put their head coverings back on so that they don’t scandalize the neighbors. He even points to the fact that in most cultures, women have longer hair than men, and says, in effect, “See! Even nature is trying to cover your head! So don’t do away with head coverings!”