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Topic 29: Christian freedom: to cover or not to cover


This topic is titled, “Christian freedom: to cover or not to cover.”  Paul is confronted with a number of practical issues in the Corinthian church, issues to which he applies sanctified pastoral advice to distinguish between what is Gospel motivated and what is cultural expectation and how the Christian community functions under both.

1 Corinthians 11: [4] Any man who prays or prophesies… [5]… any woman who prays or prophesies …


Thesis One:  The Scriptures indicate that God chooses to speak to the community of faith through women as well as men.

(A) St. Paul assumes women already are leading worship with prayers and with prophesying.

(1) “[vs 5] … any woman who prays or prophesies …”: The context is the gathered faith community.

(2) Paul’s concern is not the issue of whether or not women should be leading worship.

(3) 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 clearly affirms the Apostle’s recognition of the right of women to pray and preach in public worship services (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26ff.: “…anyone…”).

(4) He does not dispute or forbid this act of worship participation.  He sees it as prompted by the Spirit.   The passage contains no prohibition against worship leadership by women.

◆ The Commission on Theology and Church Relations 1985 document, “Women in the Church,” in working with 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, distinguishes between preaching and prophecy, saying that “preaching is a form of teaching, but the distinctive characteristic of prophecy is that it results from God having put His very words into the mouth of the one speaking (2 Peter 1:21-22)” (CTCR-WIC, pg. 10).

(B)  Several comments on this CTCR-WIC statement as an interpretation of 2 Peter 1:21:

(1) It follows that if women prophesy in worship (1 Corinthians 11:5), and if God is putting “His very words into the mouth of the one speaking,” then God is certainly choosing to gift women for roles of speaking and leading in public worship.

(2) If prophecy is an act which “results from God having put His very words into the mouth of the one speaking” — then this question must be raised: If God uses women to speak “His very words” within the community during public worship, then why does the church refuse women a privilege to practice preaching communication (1 Corinthians 12:28), a privilege God grants?

(3) “After all, Paul was fully supportive of women who prayed and prophesied in churches, and the authority of the prophet was second only to that of the apostle in the church (12:28)” (Perales, Hidden Voices: Biblical Women and Our Christian Heritage, pg. 85).

(4) “The prophet’s task is mediating divine knowledge, bringing to bear on the lives of Christians the revelation of the will and word of God” (TDNT, VI, 854).

(5) Note also Hulda (2 Kings 22); note also Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1) in which God has spoken to and taught the Church for centuries through the voice of a woman.

(6) Teaching and prophecy should be evaluated, as it was in the New Testament (Acts 17:11), on the basis of the Gospel and not on the basis of gender (cf. Groothius, Good News for Women, pgs. 199-200).

(C) “[vs 4]… any woman who prays or prophesies …”:

(1) Taken at surface value, 1 Corinthians 11:5 is clearly inconsistent with what Paul writes later in 1 Corinthians 14:34: ” … the women should keep silence in the churches.”

(2) Is it not inconsistent to forbid women to hold congregational roles such as president, vice president and elder, based on 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 Timothy 2, and yet not insist on hats (head coverings) in worship?

(3) How then is 1 Corinthians 14 to be understood, given God’s gifting and employment of women in leadership and superordinate roles in the Old and New Testaments?


Thesis Two: The specific concern Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 11:7-16 are cultural expectations within both the Corinthian community and the Christian community, a failing of which to meet will give offense to the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 11:7-16: [7] For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. [8] (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  [9] Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)  [10] That is why a woman ought to have a veil [exousian] on her head, because of the angels.  [11] (Nevertheless, in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; [12] for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman.  And all things are from God.)  [13] Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?  [14] Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, [15] but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride?  For her hair is given to her for a covering.  [16] If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God.

(A) The discussion of proper dress decorum within the worshipping community is in a section in which Paul discusses Christian freedom: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.  All things are lawful, but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).

(1) He begins the section with pastoral advice on eating “meat sold in the market.”  One may eat whatever is put before one without “raising questions of conscience” but if the statement is made that “this has been offered in sacrifice,” then for the sake of the other’s conscience one must refuse” (1 Corinthians 10:27ff.).  He does not want anyone to stumble and is “seeking not my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:27-33).  The question is one of giving offense.

(2) A similar question of custom which was an issue among the Corinthians is addressed by Paul: “Is it fitting for a woman to pray or prophesy with head uncovered?”  The question is not, “Is it fitting for a woman to pray or prophesy?” but the question addressed becomes “Is praying and prophesying with head uncovered proper?”  The issue is not preaching but “what is beneficial” regarding dress.

(B) There were cultural expectations.

(1)  In the Corinthian community (indeed in both Greek and Jewish social thought), “a woman’s hair was considered a sexual enticement and should be kept bound up and under veils” (Perales,  page 86).  To keep hair bound up was to that culture a wholesome practice and in light of Dyonisian worship, a positive witness (Gritz).

(2) “But the veil may also have been simply a symbol of womanly dignity, esp. befitting a Christian woman” (Arndt, Gingrich, pg. 278).

(3) “Disheveled, unbound hair and wildly tossing heads characterized the worship Isis, Cybele, and Dionysus” (Gritz, Paul, Women Teachers, and the Mother Goddess at Ephesus, pg. 85).

(4) There must have been some who were throwing off cultural expectations, saying they mean nothing because they “were free in the Gospel.”  Yes, “all things are lawful,” says Paul (10:23, “but not all things are beneficial.”

(5) “[vs 4] … with his head covered with her head unveiled …”: “Paul’s concern centers in the distinct witness that Christian men and women give in their worship practices, and that dress not become a cause for offense within the Christian community or a barrier to the distinct witness of the Christian community in a pagan world.

(C) Paul recognizes these cultural expectations:  “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil….. does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Corinthians 11:4-6, 11).

(1) First, Paul addresses cultural expectations, even honoring them: from creation (“…does not nature itself teach…”) and social customs of respectability (“…disgraces his head…disgraces her head…”):

(2) Paul sees this applicable to the worship context: “a man worshipping with something on his head disgraces his head.  A woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled disgraces her head: it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved” (vs. 4).

(3)  Honoring cultural expectations is one way of not getting in the way of the Gospel, or of dishonoring Christ.  Corinth was known as a particularly licentious city, making behavior norms a witness even more important. Today we, too, have certain dress expectations when someone enters for worship.  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial.”

(4) For Paul the concern is that the Gospel not be hindered but “have free course and be preached for the joy and edifying of God’s holy people.”  Paul addresses cultural issues which impact the “free course” of the gospel, and so here he asks, “Is it fitting for a woman to pray or prophesy with head uncovered?”  He is asking, “Does the failure to observe the cultural expectation of women’s headdress block someone from hearing the gospel?”


Thesis Three: Paul has “no word from the Lord” in this situation as he does in other situations (7:6, 12, 17, 25, 40; 11:23), but he does undergird his argument with Gospel expectations and pastoral understanding.

(A) First, Paul reminds them that they are connected in Christ.

(1) “Christ is the source of every man, the man is the source of the woman, and God is the source of Christ….” (vs. 3).  And vs 12: “… And all things are from God” is a restatement of verse 3.  These themes underlie the passage.

(2) Paul reminds them of what they share in common “… in our life in the Lord …”:  verse 4 (man prays and proclaims) and verse 5 (woman prays and proclaims) and verse 11 (woman is not independent, man is not independent) and verse 12 (the church recognizes that God brings male and female into a new relationship in Christ).

(3) “[vs 9] … created for woman, but woman for man …”: The Greek dia with the accusative means “on account of” [with the genitive it would mean “through”]: because of man’s aloneness and inability to find companionship and intimacy with the animals, God created woman.  Adam did rejoice in his equal: “This, at last, is bone of my bones ..” (Genesis 2:23).

(4) “[vs 11] … in the Lord …”: In the Church, mutual respect for the sensitivities and situation and roles of the others is the motive for the choices of Christian freedom. Paul underlines mutual interdependence; yes, woman follows man in creation history, but man needs woman.  There is no chain of command, no established hierarchy, but Paul balances the ideas and comes to an equity with differences conclusion.

(5) This text, as well as Genesis, says nothing about “authority” or “headship.”

(B) Another perspective: “It would seem that in this one passage we have a chart of Paul’s mind.  Trained by one of the best of the rabbinic scholars and a product of his culture just as much as we are products of ours, Paul instinctively (“naturally”) thinks women should be subordinate.  When he reads Genesis 2, he thinks that the story of Adam’s rib indicates that Eve is created subordinate to Adam, because this is what the rabbinical tradition teaches about Genesis 2.  But there is nothing in the text of Genesis 2 which implies subordination, and even the rabbinic tradition admits that women and men are interdependent and both dependent upon the divine spirit.  Paul has elsewhere written that in Christ there is neither male nor female.  So his conscience makes him uneasy as he uses the argument of woman-from-man, and he stops to admit that ‘everything comes from God.’ and that woman is no more a product of man than man is a product of woman.  When he returns to his opinion that women should wear long hair as a covering, he no longer uses the rabbinical theology but switches to an honest and overt appeal to custom” (Mollenkott, Women, Men, and the Bible, pgs.100).

Thesis Four: The question, “Who is on top of the heap?”, is morphed into the reminder, “All things come from God.” Paul does undergird his thinking with his theology.  The Scriptures center church practice in the Gospel, and not in a Law-oriented “order of creation.”

◆  “The apostle argues for male ‘headship’ on the basis of Gen. 2:18-25, which teaches that the man did not come from the woman but the woman from the man and that the woman was created for the sake of the man [emphasis added]” (Commission on Theology and Church Relations, “Women in the Church,” pg. 22).

“The word which Paul uses to describe this order – subordination – (The Greek word for subordination is hypotage, which is formed from the word tasso – to appoint, to order, to arrange, and hypo – under.) – does not carry with it any notion of inferior value or oppression. This term is used by Paul simply to refer to order in the relationship of man and woman to one another.  St. Paul teaches in 1 Cor. 11:7-9, “For 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 was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.)” (CTCR-WIC, page 23).

(A) The CTCR-WIC statement (pg. 23) interprets 1 Corinthians 11:7-9 to mean that Paul subordinates woman because of the order of creation: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”   However, had the CTCR document continued in chapter 11 and quoted verses 11 and 12, the document would have shown Paul enlarging his readers’ understanding by showing that “in the Lord,” in the community of Christ, relationships are changed and that any “built-in order” does not control the relationship: “[11] (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; [12] for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.)”  By stopping the Biblical quotation at the end of 11:9, the CTCR exegetes clearly “load” the argument in the favor of subordination (in the English sense) and/or simply confuse the issue.

(B) “[vs 8] … man was not made from woman, but woman from man…”: Paul uses these words to explain verse 7, in which he indicates culturally that man should not cover his head, but woman should cover hers.

(C) “[vss 11-12]… nevertheless…”: A verse later Paul enlarges his argument so that his listeners will not continue to use a Genesis derivation-from-the-male “orders of creation” argument  to support subordination; his Christian insight is that “in the Lord … all things are from God.”

(D) “[11] (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of  woman; [12] for as  woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.)“: Here (in verse 11) Paul rebukes his own Jewish rabbinic interpretation (vss 7-9) as determinative, using the following arguments:

(1) “[vs 11] … in the Lord …”: Paul chooses instead an interpretation and practice centered in the Gospel (“… in the Lord..”).

(2) This, for Paul, leads to mutual interdependence (“…woman is not independent of man nor man of woman …“) as opposed to domination – subordination (“…Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man …”).  The Christian insight overrides Jewish custom and midrash teaching.

(3) Paul uses the created order to highlight a reversal of the priority of male over female (“so man is now born of woman”).

(4) “All things are from God“: God’s creation intention, not custom or religious restriction, obtains.


Thesis Five: The use of the veil can be interpreted fairly to mean that Paul is correcting a social imbalance — women are considered inferior — with a sign.

1 Corinthians 11: [7] A man ought not to cover his head, since he is in the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.  [8] For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; [9] neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. [10] For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority [RSV: “veil”] on her head.  [11] In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. [12] For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.  But everything comes from God [NIV].

◆  “They were asserting their ‘freedom’ by praying and prophesying with uncovered heads like the men (11:4)” (CTCR-WIC, page 28).

◆  “In other words, the laying aside of the head-covering is regarded by the apostle as a repudiation of the relationship between man and woman established in creation” (CTCR-WIC, page 29).

(A) Vs. 10: “…a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head…“:  The Greek in verse 10 is not “veil” or “head covering,” but “authority” (the same Greek word [exousia] as in Matthew 28:18) (Note in Concordia Self-Study Bible, page 1760).

(1) The Greek text does not say males have authority over women or that women are under male authority.

(2) The “only reference to authority in the entire passage speaks of the woman’s own authority (vs.10), and not of any authority her husband has over her” (Groothius, Good News for Women, pg. 160).

(3) The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2) would rule out the male as functioning as the intermediary between women and God.

(4) All Christians are priests and are given gifts regardless of gender “as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11).

(5) Exousia comes from God, his gift to his children, his gift “to all who receive him, who believed in his name” (John 1:12).  It is the gift of the office of the keys (Matthew 16), the authority to forgive and retain sins; it is the power and authority of children of God in whom Christ dwells to “renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises.”

(B) The exousia in Paul’s pastoral opinion ought to be there “because of the angels.”

(1) Angels are messengers of God, extensions of God’s power, who do God’s will and live in his presence..

(2) Angels cover their faces in God’s presence out of respect (Isaiah 6).

(3) Worshipers at Qumran believed angels attended their worship.

(4) Angels are interested in the salvation of God’s people (1 Peter 1:12) and their community life (1 Timothy 5:21).

(C)  The Greek here is not “head covering” but “authority” [verse 10] denoting their partnership or equality with males in the church.

(1) Women, denied equality in the Roman and Greek worlds but granted a partnership with males “in the Lord,” should wear their “authority” (head-covering) as a sign of equal parity with men in the church.

(2) “Paul uses the phrase eichen exousian (‘to have power’) in this verse, and this phrase always refers to one’s personal ability to exercise power (see 1 Cor. 7:37; 8:9; 9:4,5,6,12,18; 15:24; 2 Cor 10:8; 13:10)”  ( Parles, page 88).

(3) “By arranging or covering her head, the woman exercised her own authority to pray and prophesy, just as a queen would wear a crown to display her authority” (Perales, page 86).

(4) Ezekiel 13:17-23: The sign of a prophetess is the veil instead of the prophet’s mantle  (Reumann, page 16).

(5) There are no biblical passages which limit or link exousia to any one gender.

◆ “The headcovering was a custom (v. 15) subservient to a principle (‘the head of the woman is the man,’ v. 3).  The custom of headcovering functioned as woman’s acknowledgment of the principle of headship”  (CTCR-WIC, page 29).

(D) No, it is just the opposite; it is a pastoral application by Paul of the Gospel to affirm the exousia that comes from God to all his children, female as well as male, joined to Christ in baptismal faith.   Paul is saying that when a woman prays or prophesies she “ought to wear” this sign that she, too, even as a woman, has received this exousia.

(E) Or following Kaiser (“Shared Leadership” Christianity Today Institute): “Since the days of the gnostic heretic Valentius (d. A.D.160), the church has incorrectly agreed with him on insisting that the ‘power’ or ‘[active] authority’ placed on the head of a woman by our Lord be revised to read a ‘veil,’ substituting the Coptic ouershoun, ‘veil,’ for the proper word ouershishi, ‘power, authority.’  Almost every modern translation perpetuates this gnostic myth in verse 11, saying, ‘a veil which is the sign of authority.’  However, God has given a unique sphere of authority to women; not a veil nor even a sign!  This is straightforward exposition; all else is oral tradition” (pg. 12-I).

(F) Or following Scroggs (Paul and the Eschatological Woman):

(1) Gnostics believed the physical had no value.

(2) Therefore, they believed physical distinctions should be ignored.

(3) Therefore, a woman who wore a veil or kept her hair long was affirming distinctions, a theology the Gnostics denied.

(4) Paul wanted to keep creation reality in focus and admit the distinctions.

(5) And distinctions don’t translate into inferiority/superiority or rank.  God pronounced all creation as “good.”

(6) “He [Paul] just will not suffer any value judgment to be drawn on the basis of the distinctions” (page 285).

(7) This is theological statement by practice.

(G) This passages raises the question: What in Paul’s writings is time- and culture-bound and what is a permanent “word from the Lord”?  Women wearing hats, common in the 1930s and 1940s, is not regarded as normative today.

Thesis Six: Paul finally leaves it up to Christian freedom.  Paul does not bind the people’s consciences on non-doctrinal points.

(A) “[vs 13] “Judge for yourselves…”: Paul finally leaves it up to Christian freedom.  Paul does not bind the people’s consciences on non-doctrinal points.

(1) Note the NEB translation of 1 Corinthians 11:16: “However, if you insist on arguing, let me tell you, there is no such custom among us, or in any of the congregations of God’s people.”

(2) It is not a theological “word from the Lord” that dictates the answer to the questions here.

(B) “… is it proper …”:

(1) We today need to be asking the same question about what blocks the “free course” of the gospel.  The question we need to be asking is the same: Does limiting women’s activities in the church, against today’s cultural expectations of “full use,” block the “free course” of the gospel?  Especially when the “proof passage” texts are filled with exegetical difficulties and offer no clear trumpet sound to prohibit this involvement?

(2)  Are we not giving offense and blocking giving the gospel a hearing when we refuse to employ women fully in the church (“… some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” [1 Corinthians 14:23]).

(3) The CTCR pulls up short by not including in its logic verses 11 and 12, Paul’s infusion of a Gospel motive into the whole argument about order of creation.

Thesis Seven:  So the translation of 1 Corinthians 11:7ff has this sense:

(A) [The basic principle of Christian freedom is “Do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32)]; therefore] [7] a man ought [not ignore culture and thus] not … cover his head, since he is [created in] the image [of God] and [reflects the] glory of God [else culturally he is shaming the one he represents],  but woman [also created in the image of God] [and culturally] is the glory of man, [8] for [historically] neither was man created [with] for woman, but woman [to be a companion] for man [Christian freedom says, “Don’t deliberately offend!” Sometimes self-subjection is necessary for the Gospel to be heard!].

(B) Compare the translation in Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “In a marriage relationship, there is authority from Christ to husband, and from husband to wife.  The authority of Christ is the authority of God.  Any man who speaks with God or about God in a way that shows a lack of respect for the authority of Christ, dishonors Christ. In the same way, a wife who speaks with God in a way that shows a lack of respect for the authority of her husband, dishonors her husband.  Worse, she dishonors herself — an ugly sight, like a woman with her head shaved.  This is basically the origin of these customs we have of women wearing head coverings in worship, while men take their hats off.  By these symbolic acts, men and women, who far too often butt heads with each other, submit their ‘heads’ to the Head: God.  Don’t, by the way, read too much into the differences here between men and women.  Neither man nor woman can go it alone or claim priority.  Man was created first, as a beautiful shining reflection of God — that is true.  But the head on a woman’s body clearly outshines in beauty the head of her ‘head,’ her husband.  The first woman came from man, true — but ever since then, every man comes from a woman.  And since virtually everything comes from God anyway, let’s quit going through these ‘who’s first’ routines. Don’t you agree that there is something naturally powerful in the symbolism — a woman, her beautiful hair reminiscent of angels, praying in adoration; a man, his head bared in reverence, praying in submission?  I hope you’re not going to argumentative about this.  All God’s churches see it this way; I don’t want you standing out as an exception.”