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Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

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.