Letters to the Corinthians: Making Very Little Headway

Few passages are more confounding than 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Growing up, it was always the section that we skipped because the pastor couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. No one who actually read it could wrap their heads around it. Even looking it makes me feel like I’m in over my head. A few years ago, someone got it into their head to examine this passage closely and they started a movement based on it of which they are the head. Odds are the thought of it makes him hold his head up high. I’ve actually seen multiple interpretations – some turn this passage on it’s head, as it were:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

As I said, multiple interpretations exist. Some prefer the literal reading a ‘head’ is obviously the body part unless it’s too ridiculous and then it must imply some figurative meaning. We see the word ‘head’ in this section a total of eleven times and for some of them the literal meaning of ‘head’ seems like it doesn’t fit. So what are the idiomatic meanings for “head”? There’s one even we are familiar with – source, or origin as in headwaters of a river. Another suggest prominence or rank – as in “at the head of the line, sitting at the head of the table”. Elsewhere, in Colossians 1 and 2, we see the word “head” used in a head/body metaphor: “And (Christ) is the head of the body, the church … they have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.” Ignoring all of this, you could arrive at “authority” or “a ruler, one with authority over another” being the figurative meaning of the word “head” in these passages. For us English speakers, the temptation to do so is too great to resist as we have no shortage of head metaphors that do suggest authority some from British English, headmaster, head boy, heads of state, head honcho, heads of household, supreme head (title of the king of the Church of England) … Looking at the oldest English word for head I could find, heafod, it’s primary definition is head (body part), then hair (of the head), and third headman; master, chief. But the word we see in the Greek is kephale. It’s primary definition is head (body part), a person’s life (in a similar sense to one’s head being on the line), the top-most part, the most important part, and finally from the 1300s – a provincial governor which wouldn’t have existed at the time Paul used the word. And anyway, in Paul’s culture, one’s heart was the center of reason, center of emotion, that which was the source of life – that’s why there’s more references to heart (725) than head (482.) Another point to consider are the cultural idiosyncrasies related to hair. We’re not an honor/shame society. More and more we’re seeing women with short hair or no hair at all on the stage, on the small screen, on the big screen, and even in our churches one would be hard pressed to find elderly ladies who do not have short permed hair. Surely the Greeks and the Romans had their own ideas about hair that might not been the same as the Jewish beliefs regarding hair.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Another interpretation lies in the back-and-forth response that goes with letter-writing. We’ve already see some of that when Paul directly quotes them and comments upon or refutes their statement. The idea goes that some sections of this letter are direct quotes from the Corinthians, which Paul refutes as he certainly doesn’t commend them for being right. Who knows, perhaps the Jewish believers felt scandalized by the Greek women who didn’t believe in head coverings worshiping next to their Jewish sisters who were required to wear them. Paul’s solution was to find a way of hair = head covering and head covering = hair so that the question would be resolved; if it’s your custom to wear them, then do so, and if it’s your custom to not wear them, then you don’t have to wear them, just don’t worry about making everybody else conform to your custom. At any rate, it’s a convoluted passage because of how unclear Paul’s argument in relation to the whole passage. We also have problems because different translations arrive at different interpretations for these passages. Like “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” Some Bible might conclude that women need to wear a veil or a head-covering as a symbol of her husband’s authority over her. Looking at the Greek, the word authority (exousia) always refers to the subject – like the centurion in Matthew 8:9 – “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”” It’s never used in a passive sense to suggest some else has authority over the subject of the sentence. Also, the word “symbol of” was added for clarity, some version actually italicize it so that people know it’s not in the original, some don’t. Not only that, ‘because of the angels‘ has more than two dozen possible meanings or interpretations so there’s no consensus on what that means.

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Another well-known interpretation lies in knowing about the one thousand prostitutes who worshiped at the Temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. Paul doesn’t want the Christian women being mistaken for them by asking for them to wear head coverings to show that they are honorable women. Or perhaps they were into ecstatic worship – dancing, chanting, jumping, that sort of thing in which they might cast off their veils and that was scandalous and undignified. Some would read this last section and point out that a woman’s hair is given to her as a covering, so that satisfies the rule and there’s no need to wear a head covering. And anyway, the statement to “judge for yourselves” isn’t rhetorical, as some might assert, but meant to allow the Corinthians to do just that. For us, it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered and it has been my whole life. I know, this practice endured for millennia but it eventually lost its meaning even before hats fell out of fashion. At any rate, the idea that this is a practice of all the churches of God doesn’t seem to have as much evidence. Paul and Peter talked about Baptism in their letters to all sorts of different churches. The Lord’s supper begins with Jesus and is further explained in 1 Corinthians. Questions about the end times are dealt with in Thessalonians and Timothy. The instruction to greet one another with a kiss isn’t in just one place in Scripture. Isn’t it odd that every single other church mentioned in Scripture – from Israel to Turkey to Italy were all on board with this teaching and had no problems whatsoever but only this one Corinthian church in Greece had to have this universal custom explained to them because they failed to understand it and none of their next-door neighbors in Achaia could be bothered to send someone who could explain it (Google Maps suggest either a 24 or 35 hour walk would be required to get from Achaia to Corinth.) So they wrote to Paul requiring two 300 hour walks around the Aegean Sea or two passages by boat through the Aegean Sea could take several days or a couple of weeks (depending on the boat and the wind-speed.) To teach them what their neighbors could not? Why didn’t any other Grecian church write in with the same questions? Why isn’t there evidence that this custom was as wide-spread as baptism or the Lord’s Supper or greeting with a kiss? Surely wouldn’t Peter and Paul have praised women for continuing to wear head coverings as opposed to reminding them not to have elaborate hairstyles with gold woven into it? And yet we don’t see in any other chapter any mention of this universal Christian custom for women to wear something or any teaching for the men not to wear something. How then, can it be universal?

Some would explain that it very clearly teaches headship. Men have authority over women just as husbands have authority over wives in the same way that Christ has authority over the church. Paul is affirming gender distinctions in a church where the women are obviously overstepping their bounds; and he restores general order by affirming the order of creation. It points to the subordination of women to men just as Christ is subordinate to God in the persons of the trinity. Equal in person-hood, but different in roles. Like the Father is equal to the Son, but the Father has his role and the Son has his role that is different. The Father doesn’t die on the Cross, the Son doesn’t tell what the Father to do; but the Son always obeys the Father as wives ought to always obey and submit to their husbands. That sort of thing.

We come at this passage with our own cultural blinders and our own beliefs that shape how we will interpret this passage. Some people will skip it because it’s a perplexing passage. Some will break it down line by line, word by word, and even take a look at the original language to get a better understanding of what they’re dealing with. Some already know what they believe to be true and they see exactly what they expect to see in this passage. I started off this section using a lot of idioms with the word ‘head’ on purpose, to help us to see all the ways we think when we use the word head. We’re especially guilty of using in the sense of authority, but we also use it in a sense of prominence or source or origin. If we just assume we understand what Paul means – that he would use the word head as we would use the word head – then we misread the heart of Paul’s message. Remember what that was? ‘Christ and him crucified.’ Jesus never seemed to big on authority as he was always challenging the religious authorities. In the previous section Paul was talking about the believer’s freedom. In this section, Paul either affirmed it or limited it. It depends on what your are predisposed to see and believe. As for me – all I can say is “I don’t know.”

To use video games as a metaphor, I don’t know if men wearing a head covering impedes prayer -2 and if women wearing head coverings enhances their prayer +2, the logic of the whole passage is almost as confusing as it’s arguments. I don’t know why I get a “one of these things is not like the others” vibe when I look at the various teachings on the subject. I don’t even know which of these interpretations most closely resembles what Paul originally meant or if none of them are correct. I think it’s really easy to come to a conclusion by ignoring the inconvenient parts of the letter – but odds are it won’t be the right one. Whatever Paul originally meant, whatever the right or best interpretation is – we have to remember that we’re a people far removed from this letter’s original place and time and some of it could very well be lost on us entirely – as lost as the other two letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthians that were not immortalized in the pages of the Bible. There is a danger in emphasizing any particular passage above all the rest, making it more important than any others. We could create the Good Samaritan Club, the Golden Rule Enforcer’s League, the John 3:16 Forever Followers, but we would have to understate other teachings to do it. We could promote one verse above all others, but we would have to demote a verse to do it; in the process, we could easily lose sight of ‘Christ and him crucified’ and that is exactly the thing Paul was trying to avoid.


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