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1 Corinthians 11:2-16

You can read the text here.

We have a significant shift in tone as we find ourselves at the opening of a new section. Paul opens with the strongest praise he has uttered thus far in the letter. Paul had given them instruction on how to worship and apparently they had worked hard at following it. However, Paul's instructions apparently had some gaps or there were misunderstandings at some points so Paul proceeded to address some issues he had not foreseen in this and subsequent sections. While the theme of rights and building up the body has not completely disappeared we move on to a new topic: order and gender distinctions in worship.

Paul begins by affirming a series of relationships where Christ is the head of man and man is the head of woman and God is the head of Christ. While 'head' is the most literal translation of the underlying Greek word, Paul is emphasizing a relationship of preeminence and public representation.[1] Paul begins by addressing the behavior of men with some sort of leadership role in worship.[2] They should not have their head covered in worship like the pagans sometimes did in their worship or long hair suggesting that they were sexually available for other men. Then he moves to women in similar roles, affirming that theirs should be covered (presumably to avoid the perception that they were sexually available). Note that shaming one's 'head' is a play on words here also meaning shaming one's husband or Christ himself.[3] During worship all focus should be on God not on sex.

The rest of the passage needs to be interpreted together, for the first half seems to suggest clear hierarchy between men and women rooted in creation but then Paul seems to walk it back a bit stressing the mutual dependence of both genders upon the other even if he does seem to ultimately affirm hierarchy in the family.[4] Note, though, that this hierarchy does not seem to preclude women from prophesying (presumably including teaching) in services. Additionally, as I noted in footnote 4, all of the argument is based on what is shameful, which is culturally specific. Paul's main point is to not bring shame on God through behavior in worship gatherings. That will change as time and culture move on, so I don't think focusing on the specifics of Paul's admonitions in application is actually the way to be faithful to the text. Effort would be better spent thinking about how we bring shame on God in our context today and changing those behaviors.


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[1] Following ThiseltonCiampa and Rosner are usually quite good but I found myself frustrated by them at times. In relation to men being the head of women there they affirm that it's obviously a relationship involving subordination. However when it comes time to address God being the head of Christ there's some handwaving via an appeal to Chrysostom where they claim there's no subordination. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Preeminence does not carry the same type of problem for Trinitarian theology than subordination does. It's roughly in line with other passages like John 7:18.

That men were preeminent over women and that women were publicly representing their husband or father first and foremost in that culture is undeniable. That is obviously not true in our culture so careful consideration needs to be undertaken to determine how God might speak through this text today.

[2] I do not understand how Ciampa and Rosner can be so dismissive of the fact that Paul is dealing with issues of male behavior/attire at worship when that is where Paul starts the discussion (as Thiselton insists).

[3] I don't find this patriarchal. If dressing a certain way implies sexual availability (I don't believe clothing sends that message anymore in our culture - perhaps the equivalent today would be making suggestive glances or 'accidental' flashing) on the part of a married woman then this does bring shame on her husband.

[4] At first glance I thought perhaps that we might have a quotation from the Corinthians here because there appears to be opposing views and 'nevertheless' could signal a response to the previous statements. James McGrath makes the same suggestion (without committing to it). It would be convenient if that were the case which makes me hesitant to formally commit to it. It's also hard to determine, even though Paul is making a Scriptural argument, how much is really a reflection of his culture and the culture in which Genesis was written. Again a very difficult point to litigate, though I think it is highly culturally specific since that is the only frame of reference Paul ever had.

This passage also seems to affirm a binary understanding of gender which is predicated on your gender at birth. Note, though, that the reasoning behind it seems to be that denying it brings shame. Shame is something culturally specific and relative, so one could very reasonably conclude that it is not problematic if culture has evolved to where it is no longer shameful. I do not think many outside the church would find it shameful for a Christian to be transgender so I think we've probably reached that point.

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