1 Corinthian Series, Bible Study Lesson 10
by Reta Haletman Finger
We’re hearing a lot about the “war on women” in the U.S. news this past year. Much of it has concerned reproductive issues such as contraception, abortion, and rape. Some men find it easier to raise ethical issues that do not directly concern them, just as straight people prefer to talk about LGBT sin than about their own failings. Probably any number of women with some connection to Christianity would put Paul in the war-on-women category as well. First Corinthians 11:2-16 has not helped matters.
In fact, this passage is probably the most confusing in all of Paul’s letters. When I was growing up in the 1950s, it was expected that women would wear a covering on their heads when they prayed. Since one could pray at any moment, we should wear it all the time. My high school German teacher told us girls that it gave us special authority (see 1 Cor 11:10). I almost never heard anything about submission to men.
But as a young adult moving into the mainline or evangelical worlds, I found the opposite: utter disregard for head coverings but a lot of emphasis on female submission. Paul himself seems convoluted because he first sets up a hierarchy of God, Christ, man, woman (1 Cor 11:3), then admits later that, contrary to Genesis 2, man now comes from woman (1 Cor 11:12).
Instructions for the Worshiping Community
With little space to unpack this text, here are only a few observations.
1. Chapters 11-14 in 1 Corinthians center around worship—what to wear, how to share the Lord’s Supper, and how to have an orderly, charismatic worship service—all done with self-giving love. It’s women’s and men’s apparel in their public assembly that Paul is concerned about. Women and men are both expected to pray and prophesy in this context (11:5).
2. Irony abounds in 11:2 because Paul supposedly praises everyone for “maintaining the traditions” he handed on to them. Yet his reason for writing is because they have been doing just the opposite! Is this sarcasm?
3. One may wonder about the “chain of command” in 11:3: God, Christ, man, woman. Is this the same person who opts out of the hierarchical “patronage pyramids” that structure life in the Roman Empire in chapter 9? (see Lessons 3 and 9). This linkage and the mixed messages of this passage indicate to me that Paul is still a work in progress. Educated in Jerusalem as a strict Pharisee (Acts 22:3), Paul no doubt assumed women were inferior. Greco-Roman men would have concurred. Instead of our two-gender categories, they placed everyone on a wide, one-gender spectrum where the male was at the higher end and the female at the lower end. Some women were more “manly” than some “effeminate” men, but the exceptions proved the rule that manliness was privileged over feminine attributes. However, a funny thing happened as Paul’s missionary zeal took him ever westward. Many women were attracted to his Jesus-gospel (see Acts 16:11-15; 17:4; 17:34; 18:2, 26; Romans 16:1-2; 3-7; Philippians 4:2-3, etc.) Out of necessity, women ran businesses or worked for pay as did men. They were household heads and hosted Christian assemblies in various cities like Colossae, Philippi, or Rome. Paul may have been conflicted about women, but he could not plant churches without them. Those Bare-headed, Forgotten Men!
4. We forget that this text is equally about men. Paul’s statement that a man’s head is Christ (11:3-4), is counter-cultural. A Christian man’s head is not his patron, or his emperor, or any of the imperial gods ruling Corinth. We often think Paul was asking both women and men to do the culturally respectable thing by what they wore or did not wear on their heads for worship, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In the museum at ancient Corinth there is a statue of Caesar Augustus offering a sacrifice when he was pontifex maximus, the high priest of the Empire. His head is veiled! It was common practice for men at worship to cover their heads with part of their toga. Evidently, Paul wanted men to demonstrate their allegiance to Christ at worship rather than to Caesar, just as some people in my denomination do not say the Pledge of Allegiance at civic events.
5. Take another look at those praying, prophesying women of 11:5. A friend and I are co-writing a simulation of Chloe’s house church, and we have designated “those of Christ” (1 Cor 1:11-12) as lower-class or slave women who have been baptized in the Spirit, delivered of their internalized status as “nobodies,” and called to be articulate “somebodies” in Christ. They now meet with others of higher classes—perhaps even slavemasters—to worship a God who loves them equally. Though Paul will later call for more order in these worship services, he does not restrict these women from using their spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy.
In fact, we realized when we role-played in costume in our Bible studies, that Spirit-filled exuberance often causes headscarves to slip off!
Questions for reflection:
What, if anything, did your church teach about this text?
How important is proper interpretation of this passage for Christian women?
Do you think Paul is engaged in a war on women—or is a “work in progress”?