Jul 13 - Women in The Church

Women in the Church

July 13, 2014

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Women In The Church – Part 1
July 13th, 2014
1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:33-35

A delegation from Cloe, likely a rich women who opened her home to the church, had been sent to Paul to report on what was happening in the church in Corinth and to ask him for his input on a number of concerns and questions.  

These included the divisions within the congregation based on former leadership, sexually immoral conduct, the misuse and abuse of communion, the misuse of the gift of tongues, and, in our passage, the way women were to present themselves in church. 

Apparently, some women in the church felt that they wanted to attend and participate in the life of the church without having their head covered.  The fact that Paul mentions men at all, is likely only because of the line that his argument took him.  

Paul begins with a general statement about the relationship of a wife with regard to her husband.

2 I commend you because you think about my opinion on all matters and you hold to the traditions as I have delivered them to you.  3 You should know that Christ is the head of the husband, the husband is the head of the wife, and God is the head of Christ.   

Paul commends the believers here, even as the passages that follow point out where they Corinthians have missed the mark … and needed to be encouraged to follow the Christian traditions.

One difficulty in the passage is discerning when Paul was making a general statement about men and women and when he specifically meant husbands and wives, because the terms in Greek are ambiguous:

Paul uses the term
Gune = wife, woman
Instead of the less ambiguous
Thelus = woman, female

He also uses the term
Aner = husband, fiancé, man
Instead of the less ambiguous
Anthropos = man, human

These are the very same words, gune and aner, that he uses in Ephesians 5, where the reference is without doubt to husbands and wives.

I have used whatever translation I thought made most sense in its context.  For example, I used wife and husband in v.3, although it is just as valid to put in woman and man. 

I did so because everywhere else in Paul’s letters except here, Christ is described as the head of the church and the church as the body of Christ, which means that Jesus is the head of all believers regardless of gender (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 10:17; 12:27; Eph 4:15; 5:23;  Col 1:18; 1:24; 2:19).  Just to give you two examples from this very letter:

It is one bread, and because we all partake of the one bread, we who are many are one body.                                1 Corinthians 10:17

You (plural) are the body of Christ and every individual is a member of him.            1 Corinthians 12:27

Another difficulty in our passage is exactly what Paul meant with “head” in verse 3.

Headship could potentially mean a position of preeminence.  The man is in a position of preeminence over the woman in the patristic society of the day, just as God the Father has a position of preeminence over against Jesus, and Christ is preeminent in relationship to men or husbands.  

Again others translate “head” as “source” or “beginning” – the man is the source of the woman just as God is the source of Christ.   This is based primarily on what Paul will go on to say in v.12, that woman originally came from man.

Some commentators think that “head” should be translated “leader”.  The husband is the leader of the wife, just as God the Father is the leader of Jesus.
Others translate “head” as “ruler” – the husband is the ruler over the wife, just as God is the ruler over Christ.

What speaks to these interpretation is that in the creation account of Genesis 2-3, after the fall God placed a curse on the snake, on Eve, and on Adam.  Part of the curse on Eve was that her husband would rule over her (Gen 3:16).

Now take not that the rule of the husband over the wife was a curse because of the fall.  This was not the case in the Garden of Eden before the fall!  It is not God’s ideal arrangement.  

What speaks against this interpretation is that “head” was never used in reference to a ruler or leader in Greek literature.  That does not mean that Paul could not have coined a new meaning.

Others translate “head” as “authority”.  The woman is under the authority of her husband, just as the man is under the authority of Christ, and just as Christ is under the authority of God the Father.  

What speaks for this interpretation is that in the Mosaic Law, wives were considered to be under the authority of their husbands.  While it is simply assumed but never directly stated that unmarried girls were under the authority of their fathers (Ex 21:7 a father could sell his daughter into slavery), it explicitly states that wives are under the authority of their husbands (Num 5:19,20,29).  

Further, as recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus often said that he was not acting and teaching of his own authority, but was saying what God told him to say (i.e., John 12:40-50).

The question really hinges on how Paul viewed the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Messiah.  According to his letter to the Christians in Philippi, Jesus originally was in the form of God and was equal with God, but voluntarily took on human form and lived in obedience to God (Phil 2:6-8).

After the ascension, Jesus is now exalted, seated at the right hand of God, the place of preeminence and honour, and as such is the head of the church (Eph 1:20-23).  

So the relationship between God the Father and God the Son is one of equality, yet also one of temporary submission and voluntary obedience.  However, that oneness with God the Father is restored in his exalted state.

This was also Paul’s ideal when it came to the relationship between husbands and wives, as we read in Ephesians 5.  Despite the equality in Christ, there is temporary submission of the wife to the husband.  However, this presumes that the husband loves his wife as much as God the Father loves the Son, and as much as Jesus loves the church.

Nevertheless, women were given prominent roles in the early church that were lost in subsequent centuries.  During Paul’s time they hosted churches, like Cloe, they financially supported the apostle Paul, and were deacons, like Phoebe.  They were apostles, like Junia. They were co-workers in the church with men such as Paul, like Priscilla, who also taught Apollos. They were in ministry, like Tryphosa.  They were prophets, like the four unnamed daughters of Philip the evangelist.  As we can see from these examples and this verse, women were active, respected and vocal in the earliest church.  I will cover the issue about women not speaking in church when we get to the passage in 1 Cor. 14.

Paul then continues on by first mentioning the conduct of men.

4 When a man prays or prophecies and has his head covered, he dishonours his head.  

We know that Roman and Greek men did not wear a headcovering and they had their hair cut short.

As you can see, hair length varied a bit, but the ears seemed to be visible and the shorter cut was more common.  Beards were less common than in Palestine.  Heads were generally not covered.

So while a man in the Greco-Roman world would not have let his hair grow long, what if Jesus himself had long hair and covered his head with a prayer shawl …  is Paul simply telling the believers not do what the non-Christian Jews did?  

Unlike the Greeks and Romans, Jews did not create paintings, carvings or statues because of their fear that these could potentially be used as idols.  

In the Jewish culture of Palestine, men commonly wore a beard that was cropped, and short hair of dark or black colour.  It is also likely that they carried something on their heads, at least from time to time, for practical reasons: i.e., in order to protect themselves from the heat.  

But we have no idea whether or not a prayer shawl was used in Jesus’ day.  We don’t know whether Jewish men put something on their head, or removed something from their head when they went into the temple or synagogue.  We simply do not know.  

So what did Jesus look like?  What was his hairstyle and his prayer-style?  

The most likely image is not the one with the prayer shawl and longish beard, it is also likely not the long-haired and bearded person on the Shroud of Turin, whose authenticity is still hotly debated among scientists to this day. 

While there were occasions when Jewish men would grow their hair long – the Nazarite vow of total dedication to God for a period of time, after which their hair would be cut off in the temple, it was still very unlikely that men in the church in Corinth would ever
consider growing their hair long.

Which means that Paul wasn’t trying to make Christian worship distinct from Jewish worship.  Men’s hair style and men not covering their heads simply was not an issue.  So he uses it only as a foil to contrast men and women, husbands and wives.  


5 However, if a wife prays or prophecies and she does not have her head covered, then she dishonours her head.  She is no different than a woman whose head is shaved.

Roman Goddess Pietas (piety – a highly valued virtue in the Greco-Roman world) often portrayed with her head covert – possibly as a sign of her devotion.

Paul wants to address the fact that women uncovered their hair in the church by beginning with the relationship of husband and wife.  A wife with uncovered head therefore dishonours her husband because having her head covered in public worship could somehow be construed as a lack of respect for him, possibly because she portrays herself as being promiscuous.  

The other way of looking at this is that women in general dishonoured men in general when they uncovered their heads, but this makes less sense.   

Although women in the Greco-Roman world covered their heads when out in public, even if it was only a token or ornamental headdress, there is no historical evidence that women in the time of Paul were under any compulsion to cover their heads when in public.

However, as you can see from these images, adult women would not wear their hair down while in public, instead drawing their long hair up or on top of their heads in a variety of ways.   

In ancient society, especially Palestinian Judaism, a woman with loose hair was considered to be a loose woman

Jesus with the woman caught in adultery

The Old Testament does not require that women wear headdress, although in the Law, it is presumed that their hair will be bound up.   In the teachings of the Rabbis, modesty of dress was extremely important and it was a serious offence if a woman was considered to dress immodestly.  However they say nothing about head covering. They did command, however, that Jewish women should not appear in public with loose hair.

Could Paul saying that long hair ought to be bound up?  
Paul uses here and throughout our passage a word for "covered," κατακαλυπτω (katakalüpto) which literally means “to veil.”  

He could not have meant a literal veiling.  Men simply never veiled themselves, even though they may cover their heads if they wished.  Veiling among women simply was not common at that time, not among Romans, Greeks or Jews.

Neither does it seem logical that Paul would use the word “veil” to speak of the ornamental or token headpieces, or to the headbands used by Corinthian women.  It was likely that the hair was not exposed.

It makes most sense to see something like a shawl or scarf that was raised to cover the head when a woman spoke, possibly like this picture from the catacombs which looks a lot like the coin bearing the image of the Roman goddess pietas.

In contrast, the hair styles among the rich women in Greco-Roman society were not uniform but were uncovered and could be very ornate.  They no doubt set patterns which were emulated by others, much as the styles of our movie stars and 'high society' set patterns today.

Hair-styles became more and more ornate among the well-to-do.

In 1 Tim, women in the church are told not to have the “braided hair” that was the growing trend in society because that was seen to be immodest.

Women are to dress themselves with decency, modesty and reserve.  As is fitting for pious women, their adornment should be good works, not braided hair, gold, pearls, or expensive clothes.          1 Timothy 2:9-10

So Paul might have been urging the Corinthian women to desist from imitating the avant-garde "fashion leaders" of Greco-Roman society and return to more traditional attire.

Other scholars speculated that the Corinthian women wanted to remove their head-coverings in church because this corresponded to the customs of the pagan mystery cults in contrast to the priestesses of Isis, for example, who did cover their heads.  Much of what I read though is pure conjecture.  

Paul continues

6 If a woman does not wear a head covering, she might as well get her head shaved.  But if it is a disgraceful for her to have her hair cut very short or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.  

In the OT a shaved head was considered shameful, which is why being forced to shave one’s head, was considered to be highly insulting.  But the same was true in most cultures throughout the years.

1944:  Women with shaved heads being paraded through Paris as collaborators with the Nazis

For Paul, a women/wife who speaks in church without the proper head attire is just as disgraced and humiliated as if she had her hair cut off.

Paul then goes on to further his argument by recourse to the creation story

7 The man must not cover his head because he is the image and glory of God, while the wife the glory of her husband.  8 Further, the man did not originate with woman, but the woman from the man.  9 And, the man was not created for the woman, but the woman for man.

So God created man(kind) in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.                        Genesis 1:27

God YHWH said, “it is not good that the man (or: mankind; or Adam) is alone.  I will make for him a fitting helper.”                     Genesis 2:18

God YHWH placed a deep sleep on Adam and, while he slept, took one of his ribs and closed the side with flesh.  God YHWH built a woman from the rib which he had taken from Adam and brought her to him.                                    Genesis 2:21-22

What Paul is arguing is that the woman/wife should have her head covered because Adam was created in God’s image, because she was created from Adam’s rib and because she was to be a fitting helper for him.  

I’m not at all sure how much water that argument would hold today.  Paul seemed to have forgotten that women were also made in the image of God.  And in the NT we read after all, that all believers are transformed into the image of Christ and the image of the creator, not just males.

Paul continues to make his case.  And he says something very unusual. 

10 Because of the angels, a wife should carry a sign of her authority on her head.

What in the world could Paul mean??

He could be refereeing to a common held belief held in 1st century Judaism that the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 were in reference to angels.  

When man multiplied on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive.  And they took as their wives any they chose.        Genesis 6:1-2

The giants born to them who drowned during the flood were considered the source of demons.  It assumes, of course, that angels were male sexual beings (over against Jesus’ teaching)

This view may also be reflected in other passages in the NT.  For example

When Christ was dead in the body but alive in the spirit, he went and made a proclamation to the imprisoned spirits who disobeyed in the days of Noah …        
                                                                    1 Peter 3:18-20

If God did not spare the angels when they sinned ….                            2 Peter 2:4

And the angels who did not stay within their position of authority ... (but) indulged in sexual immorality …    
                                                                              Jude 6-7

In Paul’s mind there might have been some danger that this event would repeat itself.  Today we are likely to dismiss that possibility, but it is reasonable to take the point that women who may be dressed inappropriately will inadvertently elicit impure thoughts by men, to the shame of their husbands.  

Paul follows up by making a concession to women, so his application of the Genesis account isn’t taken too far.

11 But in the Lord there can be neither the woman without the man nor the man without the woman.  12 As the woman came from the man, so man is born into the world by the woman.  But everything originates with God.

Ultimately, Paul reinstates the equality of men and women since they are interdependent and both originated from God.  In essence, Paul has just purposefully weakened his own argument from Genesis.

So he goes on to yet another argument, that of “nature,” or common sense.

13 Judge for yourself! Is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?  14 Doesn’t nature itself teach you that it is disgraceful for a man to wear his hair long while long hair is to the glory of the woman?  15 Hair was given to the woman as a covering.  

Paul takes for granted that women wear their hair long while men wear their hair short, based on the current sense of decorum, and states that the same should be true of the head-covering of women while they are speaking in the assembly.

As I have already pointed out, one doesn’t follow from the next because we are not at all sure that Greek women had their heads covered while in public, in other words, covering of a woman’s head went beyond the sense of decorum of the day.

Paul was very much aware that all of his arguments may not persuade those back in Corinth.  So he reverts to pointing out how things are normally done.  

16 However, if someone wants to quarrel about this, know that we and the churches of God have no contrary practice. 

So the whole issue may simply come down to the fact that Christian women in other churches were expected to wear head-coverings at religious gatherings when they spoke (and possibly also when they didn’t), even in places like Corinth, where society did not require a woman to wear any head-covering.

The reality is that what Paul speaks about no longer applies as it did back then.  In general, men still wear their hair shorter than women, but wearing ones hair long or short, tied up or left loose, covered or uncovered is not considered a moral issue among most Christians.

When a young man comes to church with long hair and wearing a baseball cap, he likely does not do this in defiance, to upset people, nor does he do this because he desires to disrespect God.  

And if you think men traditionally haven’t worn head coverings in church, you likely are not aware that they are extremely common among the clergy over centuries, despite Paul’s omission, based on the Aaron and his sons being told to have a head covering on when ministering in the temple.

If keeping one’s head covered in the assembly is so wrong for men, why do priests get away with it?

Or if you think that women in churches have all given up wearing head coverings, you may not realize that Paul’s words are still applied literally by nuns and some RC and Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, the Coptic church, as it is among the Amish and traditional Mennonites, and other denominations.

However, I doubt that many women feel that cutting their hair is in any way dishonouring to themselves or their husbands.  I also doubt whether many husbands would feel disrespected by their wives or think of them as promiscuous should they cut their hair, not wear a head covering, or wear their hair long and loose.

So where does that leave us today?

1. Be careful not to elevate the personal convictions of biblical writers and common practice of the early church to a moral imperative – not to do the reverse 

- taking a moral imperative and putting into the category of a personal opinion of a biblical writer or as common practice of the early church.

It takes a considerable amount of study and insight to figure out whether something that is written is a moral imperative for all ages, a cultural necessity, or simply a common practice.

In this instance, I am inclined to think it is not the first nor the second but the third.

While Paul thought that women should have their hair up, and likely have some kind of shawl or scarf that they could cover their heads with when praying and prophesying in church, he based his conviction predominantly on normative behavior in the churches. 

If we consider this a moral issue, then at least we should be consistent.  What I mean is that a woman who complain about men wearing long hair or a baseball cap in church, herself should wear her hair long, probably put up in a bun, and she should cover her head when saying anything, even a prayer, in church.

2. Dressing with modesty is as important today as it was back then. 

I think that some Christian women have no idea what modesty in dress actually means.  Comments about high skirt-lines or low neck-lines are seen as coming from those who are repressed, uptight, and old-fashioned.

Let me tell you, when I was young, young women wore hot-pants, and I was very glad they did as I letched after them.  I don’t think that women are even aware of where men’s minds go if they dress inappropriately.  

3.  The “headship” of husbands will likely look different today than it did in Paul’s day

Headship likely did include the idea of being in authority.  In the patristic society of Paul’s day, wives did not have much recourse if their husbands were abusive.  True headship assumes that the person in charge acts in the best interest of those under his authority.  

So the kind of unquestioning obedience of a wife that was considered a virtue, does not take into account that women today have total recourse to end a marriage.  And many women have a career outside the home.  As a result, marriages today have to become much more of an equal partnership than was necessary in Paul’s day.    

4. The role of women in the early church should be recovered

As well, what it meant for women to live in the patristic society Paul was familiar with is ultimately based on the curse placed on Eve after the fall.  It is not God’s ideal.

We already have many hints that this ideal is in the process of being restored in the early church, as women were in positions of leadership, carried titles like deacon, apostle, and prophet, and were actively involved.  

And I hope and prayer that this will be restored in our day with sensitivity and prayer.  


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