Early this morning as I was attempting to enjoy the last few minutes of sleep before having to wake up for work, I was sent a message by a friend of mine who lives across the country where it was not quite so early. Her question was whether our church had a doctrinal statement on 1 Corinthians 11:5, which reads: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved,” to which I replied that we did not. In fact, our church only has a little bit that is said about 1 Corinthians 11 as a whole , which was said by a longtime pastor concerning the thought that it was necessary for women to wear a head covering when attending services. Without question, the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 dealing with head coverings is an obscure passage, but as it was brought to me I wish to comment on it and also suggest some reasons why the passage is so mysterious, and why most people who read and attempt to apply it are generally missing the point of what Paul said, especially given the way that this verse involves a larger context relating to women. For whatever reason, I always find myself involved in these larger context despite my own firm belief that few people are less qualified to speak or write at length about women than I am.
Be that as it may, let us look at 1 Corinthians 11:5 in light of its entire context, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which reads: “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”
It is well and good that this passage ends by commenting that the churches of God have no custom of being contentious, which would seem to strike against the contemporary history of the churches of God, which have proven to be nothing if not contentious. I speak to our own shame. The passage begins by Paul noting that the matter he speaks concerning the covering of women’s heads is a matter of tradition that he received, presumably from the apostles and church leadership in Jerusalem, which is all the more obscure because it is only spoken of here. This passage would be a lot less mysterious if there was more context about it, but we deal with the context that we have. What is interesting to start with is that the statements that Paul makes here about the head of every woman being a man, the head of man being Christ, and the head of Christ being God (the Father) has resonance in Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” What we see here is a chain of being, a reminder that although men are placed in authority over women, that men are subject to the authority of Christ as Christ subjected himself to God, an aspect of the biblical doctrine of subordinationism  finds its most frequent expressions in the Gospel of John. It is worthwhile to point out here that this subordination does imply that beings are of a different kind altogether, but rather that there is a relationship of prima inter pares between men and women, although we are the same order of being, just as there is this same relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father and between believers and Jesus Christ as children of God as it relates to eternal life as part of the Family of God. It is this combination of equality and inequality that Paul speaks about here, and which causes such contention in the contemporary age where any statement about the inequality of women vis-a-vis men is a causus belli among us.
It should be noted that Paul is not being sexist here, but is rather seeking to work out the implications between the fact of men being in charge of the family as well as Church of God as well as the spiritual equality that exists between men and women (see, most notably, Galatians 3:26-29). This passage would be less complex if either the inequality or the equality were not present, but because both are present and remain present in our own dealings between the sexes even to the contemporary time in the Church of God, Paul has some delicate work here that loses many readers. The most obvious verse of contention are verses four and five, which point out that while a man wearing a head covering while praying or prophesying (in public, it should be noted) dishonors his head, while for a women the reverse is true. Covering one’s head here is seen as a sign of coming under the authority of someone else. Most remarkably of all, and something that is not given enough attention by many, is that Paul assumes that there will be women praying and prophesying in public, which is not a tradition among many churches of God even to this day. The only reason this subject came up at all because Paul was dealing with a situation where women were involved in the public worship of the Church of God in the city of Corinth, but where it was necessary at the same time to avoid the disorder that is caused when those who are under authority cast off restraint and their proper place in the divine political economy.
It is because women needed to show that they were respectful of the authority over them that they were commanded to wear a head covering when they prayed or prophesied in the congregation, just as men were forbidden from wearing head coverings because to do so would be to undermine their own authority. If women are not praying or prophesying in congregations, it is not necessary that they should wear head coverings because that is the only context where such is necessary according to Paul, who sees no reason that this should be a contentious issue. Admittedly, I am somewhat envious that Paul could consider this a matter of obviousness or at least of reasoned moderation, as there is little that is peaceful or that avoids contention concerning this passage and its larger implications in contemporary liturgy and practice. The question of authority, and one’s recognition of authority, is a point of context when Paul says that women should wear head coverings because of the angels. As we all know, sadly, a third of the angels were not loyal to the authority over them and rebelled against it, becoming the demons that followed their master in hostility to God’s ways. Clearly, Paul does not want the congregations of Corinth or anywhere else to fall likewise as the demons did in rebellion against God by refusing to accept God’s authority over them, a fall that was copied by first woman and then man in the Garden of Eden.
What is left to discuss about this passage are two curious ways in which this passage has lived on in contexts outside of its original one. For one, this passage remains of relevance in the churches of God because it is a common reference when someone wishes to argue that it is dishonorable for men to wear long hair. It should be noted as well that the exception to this rule (those under a Nazirite vow) proves the rule, because such people were under an oath and were therefore in an unfree state, having been bound to avoid touching the dead, drinking the fruit of the vine, or cutting their hair. Because of being unfree through their vow, despite the worth of the service that they provided due to that commitment, they were in a similar place to the restricted status of women. Again, as the taking of a Nazirite vow is not undertaken these days by believers, there are no men who would have long hair for religious reasons, making this passage useful for those who wish to critique others on these grounds. Additionally, it should be noted that beliefs about the covering of women’s heads relating to the authority of men and the modesty of women is related to the survival of such customs in the Middle East, especially but not only in contemporary Islam. Obviously, this is a subject that remains contentious in our times, as much as Paul sought to deal with it graciously, and one should not expect Paul’s statements about the theological implications of hair and head coverings to calm the rough waters of our own tangled thoughts concerning women, the Church, and authority.
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