The Apostle Paul’s “Woman Problem”—1 Cor. 11:2-16 (Lesson 10)

1 Corinthian Series, Bible Study Lesson 10

by Reta Haletman Finger

Ruins of a Temple to Demeter
Halfway up the Acrocorinth, the mountain behind the ruins of the city, are the remains of a temple to Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility. Some of the slave women probably prayed at her shrine before they heard Paul’s message. But this was a popular mystery religion, and slaves could not pay the initiation fees for membership. Even goddesses have to make a living…

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!

The veiled Augustus
The veiled Augustus as pontifex maximus, high priest of the Roman Empire. Augustus knew that reviving the religion of the Roman pantheon and merging it with politics would greatly increase his power.

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”?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for these insights about “veils,” Reta! In the Plymouth Brethren Assembly of my youth, head coverings for women and even little girls were necessary at all services to remind us of our submission to God and to all males, even our own sons; and it would disgrace a man to cover his head and join the lowly women and girls. So I am fascinatd with the photograph of a royal male with his head covered in order to offer a sacrifice to God.

  2. Hi Reta,

    I would just like to say that I believe the 1 Corinthians 11: 3-16 passage goes very differently from what is typically taught. I believe that this passage consists of three parts. They are as follows:

    Verse 3 – Paul’s model where the figurative meaning of head is “source”.
    Verses 4-6 – Paul quotes a faction of men from Corinth who wrote him.
    Verses 7-16 – Paul’s rebuttal where he refers back to his model.

    Furthermore, I believe that Jesus Christ, not man, is the image and glory of God. As a result, I do not believe that Paul is referring to a man’s literal head in verse 7, but rather, his figurative head, Christ (vs. 3). Paul is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled.

    If you want to see more on this you can visit my website.

  3. Stacia,
    I guess you’ll have to check Kristen Dugas’s website for further information. She may be right, but the text itself does not indicate where Paul is speaking for himself or is quoting people/men who wrote a letter to him. (This is clearer in places like 7:1.)

    Let me make three further points about this confusing text.
    1) The hierarchy referred to in verse 3 is in conflict with our basic trinitarian creeds which say that all members of the Trinity are equal to each other.

    2) It seems clear that Paul is using some word-play on “head,” which sometimes seems to mean one’s actual head and other times to mean someone with authority over another. To further complicate things, the cultural situation in first-century Corinth is so different from ours when it comes to wearing something on one’s head (for worship only?) and what it might signify that I prefer to leave it back in the first century. The issue here is not about women praying and prophesying/teaching in worship, which they already are doing. It’s about some head-covering that most of us do not view as a theological issue in our culture.

    3) At bottom, our view of the authority of scripture makes a big difference in how we interpret. I believe Paul was human and writes out of a specific situation. Even though I don’t doubt he was Spirit-filled, he was still human and limited. Personally, I think that as a rabbi, he originally assumed men were dominant over women, but had to gradually change his tune because so many of his co-workers were women. In Galatians 3:28 we see some radical equality, so I think we need to see Paul as a “work in progress,” as all of us are on a range of issues.

    Keep on thinking and questioning!

  4. Hi Stacia – I’m sorry I didn’t respond earlier. I just saw your comment today. But to answer your question, you are correct, the word “head” in verse 3 is figurative and the word “head” in verse 5 is literal. The reason why Paul gives his model (vs. 3) with the figurative meaning of “head” is because a faction of men had written him (vs. 4-6) with a literal meaning of “head”. The men were making the case to Paul that every woman (with long hair) who has her head unveiled while praying or prophesying disgraces her own literal head because it was one and the same thing as a woman whose head was shaved. They then go on to say that if a woman (with long hair) was not veiled, she was also to have her hair cut off; but if it was disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved (and she wanted to keep her hair long) then she was to be veiled. So the men wanted women with long hair to be veiled or else cut off their hair. But Paul, in his rebutal (vss. 7-16) tells them that women are not to be veiled. He does this by referring back to his model with the figurative meaning of “head”. So the proper way to understand whether the word “head” is figurative or literal is as follows:

    Verse 3: F F F
    Verse 4: L L
    Verse 5: L L
    Verse 7: F
    Verse 10: F

    I also want to say that there are two reasons how I know unequivocally that verses 4-6 are quoted. The first reason is that the rebuttal portion (vss. 7-16) completely contradicts the quoted portion (vss. 4-6). However, the main reason is that Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God. (See 2 Cor. 4: 3-4, Col. 1: 15, Heb 1: 3, Rev. 21: 23). Paul, in verse 7, is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled.

    So Paul very ingeniously places the men’s words in between his model and rebuttal to tell them exactly why women are not to be veiled. I hope that answers your questions. Take care and God bless.

  5. I would have like Kristen Dugas to explain a further verses 3 and 5, seeing they say respectively, “the head of the woman is the man”; “every woman that prayeth or prophesyieth with her head uncovered dis honoureth her head”. Is this figerative speech or literal? With the man it seems figrative, but with the woman it seems literal. is ther a mixed message, or is Paul seeking to have the woman know her place, their behaviour is a problem in the church?

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