Against Patriarchy, Part Fifteen: A Woman Should Have Authority

We will now be finally turning to the key passages used by opponents of women’s ordination, beginning today with 1 Corinthians 11. What we will find is that structural, exegetical, and translation biases have confused and confounded our reading of these passages. Context is, as always, key.

1 Corinthians 11 is structured in an A-B-A-B pattern.

Introduction (vv. 1-2)
A. Right Attitude (v. 3)
B. Right Attire (vv. 4-7)
A. Right Attitude (vv. 8-12)
B. Right Attire (vv. 13-15)
Conclusion (v. 16)

We will examine each of these sections in turn.

Introduction (vv. 1-2)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. Now, I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.

Now, v. 2 is clearly written ironically (Padgett, As Christ Submits to the Church, 122-123). He calls the Corinthians to imitate him, implying they weren’t doing so, and then writes, in v. 3, “But I want you to understand,” implying that there was something they did not understand. The whole point of the letter was the fact that the Corinthian church had not maintained the traditions laid down for them by Paul, who must repeatedly correct them, as even a cursory reading of the letter makes clear. So his tone here is sarcastic, as if he is saying, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (insert eye roll). The Corinthians prided themselves on maintaining Paul’s teaching, but as is apparent from the letter, they have not. Paul must correct them.

Right Attitude I (v. 3)

But I want you to know that the head of the man is Christ, the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.

As we have already covered in some detail, the word “head” here refers to a source or origin, and does not refer to one who has authority over others. Thus, Paul is correcting something the Corinthians (or a faction among the Corinthians) believed, and he does so by appealing to the the origins of all things. He points out that since Christ made all things, He is the source of “the man.” “The man,” then, is the source of “the woman,” while God is the source of Christ. As we may recall, the word man (aner) and woman (gune) can be translated as either man/husband and woman/wife. Since the passage has to do with public worship and not marriage, it is best to translate them “the man” and “the woman.” This makes clear that we’re discussing sources, not authorities, and puts us in the realm of Edenic typology. Paul’s point is not the construction of a hierarchy, but of a river, the ultimate source of which is God. All things come from God alone. This places the ultimate source of woman not in Adam, but in Christ, and God, making them equals as created beings. We have already seen that this is how Genesis 1-3 depicts things.

Right Attire I (vv. 4-7)

“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, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” For if a woman will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. “But since it is disgraceful for a woman to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God,” but woman is the glory of the man.

We should take note immediately that whatever is going on in these verses, the participation of women is assumed. That women are praying and prophesying in the public worship of the Church is presumed, and no critique of it is offered. Instead, how women are to pray and prophesy is what is causing division. The careful reader will also notice that I added quotation marks to this passage. This was done to make clear that the verses within the quotation marks are not misunderstood as representing Paul’s own view. Rather, he is quoting or summarizing the arguments of his Corinthian opponents. These are the views of the troublemakers in Corinth, whom Paul is going to refute in the next sections. It would be bizarre for Paul, a former Rabbi, to claim that covering the head of a male while reading and teaching in worship was dishonorable, for the Jews had always covered their heads in the Temple and synagogue worship.

Instead, this should be understood as a faction who believed that since women came from men, therefore women weren’t as fully the “image of God” as men were, and that therefore certain additional customs of dress needed to be taken when women taught in the public worship of the Church. A number of scholars have taken note of the words Paul chose for this section, which implicitly criticize the topic he is writing about (Padgett, As Christ Submits, 118-121). First, Paul summarizes the claims of this faction, which wanted to require women to adhere to social customs in Corinth while in public worship, claiming non-compliance was the equivalent of shaving her head, another social taboo in Corinth (vv. 4-5). Paul then responds sarcastically by saying that if a woman won’t cover her head, she might as well shave off the whole thing (v. 6), in which he exaggerates their argument as he did to the Judaizers (Gal. 5:12). He then imagines objections, and concludes the section by declaring that “woman is the glory of man.” In this, he appeals back to Genesis 1-2, in which woman, as the pinnacle of creation, is set apart from the man and symbolically, as the last creature made by God, represents the direct image of God no less than the man. Here his appeal returns to his claim of God as the source of both man and woman directly (v. 3). As we shall see, Paul sees this as a claim to the woman’s freedom from a male-dominated hierarchy.

Right Attitude II (vv. 8-12)

For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. This is why a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things from God.

This is the heart of Paul’s critique of the Corinthian understanding of creation and male/female relations. Woman was made from man, making her eschatologically final, a better, greater version of the man. Likewise, the woman was made for the man, which is an allusion to the woman as ezer, deliverer, rescuer, of man, which also puts her in a semi-superior position. Man was “not good” when made himself, incomplete, unfinished. So where do these Corinthians come from, claiming that being sequentially prior makes them superior? He finishes by declaring that “in the Lord,” that is, in the community of redemption bought by Jesus, neither sex is independent or greater than the other, for just as God drew woman from man in creation, so from that time since God has drawn man from woman. And the source of all things is from God.

If this declaration of equality wasn’t enough, however, Paul also writes, “This is why a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.” This is the linchpin declaration by Paul, though you wouldn’t think so by reading the English translation of the ESV. The Greek word translated “symbol of authority” is exousia, and always refers to the authority of the subject it refers to. It never means “sign of someone else‘s authority.” So Paul’s statement actually reads, “This is why a woman ought to have authority over her own head.” That is, the woman can choose how to wear her hair or dress in worship when she prays and prophesies. Long, short, it doesn’t matter “in the Lord.” As Padgett notes, “Despite the common translation in English of ‘veil’ or ‘symbol of authority,’ exousia never means–and indeed simply cannot mean–having a symbol of someone else’s authority on top of something. Recent commentators have recognized the power of this argument from good grammar and semantics but don’t know what to do about it. I suggest we let Paul speak for himself,” (As Christ Submits, 112).

The only thing left to consider is the tricky, almost throwaway, comment that a woman has authority over her own head “because of the angels.” Commentators are divided as to what this refers to and no one theory has gained prominence yet. Either way, it was a reference the Corithians themselves would have understood immediately, because Paul doesn’t bother explaining what he meant. That said (and you can consult the commentaries for in-depth readings), I favor the view that this refers to the fact that the women in the gospels have “become like the angels” in ministering to and with Christ just as the angels did (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40; Matt. 4:11; Mark 1:13), that in regards to salvation, Baptism makes us all “sons of God” (Gal. 3:26-29) and we no longer relate to God by gender, but simply by faithfulness. That, in some certain respects, entrance into the community/Kingdom of God anticipates the final resurrection where the saints will be like the angels (Matt. 22:30; Mark 12:35; Luke 20:36). It is not uncommon for the NT to speak of the principle of the final new creation coming into effect spiritually in the present, and this seems to make the best sense of Paul’s words.

Right Attire II (vv. 13-15)

Judge for yourselves: it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered. Nature itself does not teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair it is her glory. For her hair is given to her as [instead of] a covering.

These verses are typically translated as a series of questions, which are highly confusing when phrased that way. They make far better sense (and do not violate the Greek) by understanding them to be statements instead (Padgett, As Christ Submits, 107-109). This is contrary to Wilson, who doesn’t even bother to examine the Greek (Why Ministers Must Be Men, 24-27), and who concludes that Paul is in fact telling us that nature teaches us that long hair is shameful on men. Paul’s point works the other way entirely. Nature doesn’t teach us long hair is shameful on men or that short hair is shameful on women. How could it? If a man lives his whole life in nature, his hair will grow long naturally, just like a woman’s. It is only when human custom is introduced to the matter that one or the other is decided to be shameful or honorable. God made men’s hair to grow long, after all; and human determinations about length and style after that point are arbitrarily imposed. For this reason, he says, let each woman decide what they consider to be honorable and shameful, and “let the woman have authority over her own head.”

Conclusion (v. 16)

If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Paul finishes his argument against head coverings and hair styles and cultural customs by the female prophets and teachers in public worship by appealing to the tradition of the Church. If anyone wants to disagree on this point, he says, let them observe that neither “we” (probably the apostles) nor the churches of God teach anything remotely similar. The early Church of Paul’s day supported his position, and not that of his Corinthian opponents.


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