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1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – On Women Prophesying in Worship

Summary

Perhaps reacting against a sexualizing of female prophets who prophesied in Christian worship with unveiled heads and hair, Paul argues for women to prophecy with their heads covered.

Analysis

Paul agrees that speaking words on behalf of God (that is, prophecy) has a place in Christian worship, and that women are not excluded by virtue of their sex from such speaking. However, he objects to prophecy from women whose heads are unveiled. In order to argue for veiled heads on the females who are prophesying, Paul makes observations based in his understanding of theology, culture, scripture, and nature.

From theology, he argues that veils on women somehow honor the hierarchy of God, Christ, man, woman. This is perhaps the argument he is himself least comfortable with: in 1 Corinthians 11:11-12, Paul limits the importance of the hierarchy he spelled out earlier, saying, "Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God." The qualification combines a detail from the story of creation (see Genesis 2:21-22) with the observation from nature that male children are born of women.

Paul also argues for veils from cultural traditions concerning appropriate hair lengths. Part of this argument, he puts in terms of what "nature itself" teaches (1 Corinthians 11:14). As long hair is an appropriate covering for a woman's head and a shaved head is "disgraceful" (1 Corinthians 11:6), so also the veil is an honorable thing and not wearing it is disgraceful.

All of these arguments sound forced and culture-bound to modern ears. What was going on in Corinth that inspired these words from Paul? Scholars conjecture that Christian female prophets may have resembled pagan temple prostitutes with their hair uncovered or loose. Perhaps Paul's position is a response to the tendency of the Corinthians to confuse the freedom of the gospel with moral license.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Head Coverings

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband* is the head of his wife,* and God is the head of Christ. 4Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection* of God; but woman is the reflection* of man. 8Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of* authority on her head,* because of the angels. 11Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

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10 February 2011

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