In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul goes on about church-goers covering and uncovering their heads in worship. At least most people agree that the setting is worship, and the majority understand Paul to be talking about head coverings rather than hair length, although that is a possibility given the wording.
Yet very few of us thoroughly modern Millies and Billys get stuck on the hat issue, thinking we have to apply the passage literally. At least here in the colonies. English royal weddings may flourish under the weight of over-the-top head coverings, but here in the New World men may wear hats and women can arrive hatless to church.
Not only that, these hatted and unhatted individuals can talk in church if they want to.
Most people believe head coverings meant something in Paul’s world that they do not mean today, and agree that we would be missing the point if women simply wore hats. Instead, they search for the timeless principle underlying Paul’s instruction that does have relevance for a hatless world.
Some find this principle in verse 3.
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. (1 Cor. 11:3)
Those who set up camp at this verse argue that it establishes a chain of command: God the Father has authority over Jesus, Jesus has authority over men, and men have authority over women. The timeless principle, so it goes, is male authority.
Others contend that’s not the point at all. If this describes a chain of command, they note, the list is out of order. God should be first, Christ next, followed by man then woman. They believe verse 3 means Christ was the source of every man in creation; the first man was the source of the first woman in creation; and God is the source – the sender – of Christ to earth in the incarnation.
As I wrote in my posts Jesus as Head of the Church and Is a Husband Supposed to Be in Charge of His Wife?, this view holds a lot of merit. It’s our attachment to English that is getting in the way since kephalē, the Greek word for head, very often meant “source.” You might need to read the verse like this to get past your automatic assumptions about its meaning:
But I want you to realize that the kephalē of every man is Christ, and the kephalē of the woman is man, and the kephalē of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3)
Read it like that a few times. It may help you distance yourself from your English head.
But let’s assume for a moment that we don’t want to navigate this scholarly mêlée, that we don’t possess enough Hebrew or Koine or Philo to have confidence that it’s no longer Greek to us. That to us this debate looks like a road sign with arrows pointing in opposite directions, and we have no idea which way to go.
What can we do?
Well, there’s always context: where did Paul himself take the idea of headship in 1 Corinthians 11?
If headship is all about men being in charge, we would expect to find indications of that in the passage itself. And that’s precisely what some people claim about verse 10, the only verse that mentions authority. Verse 10 doesn’t refer to male authority, however, as many newer translations are acknowledging. Compare the older NIV to the updated one.
For this reason, and because of the angels, a woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. (1 Cor. 11:10, NIV 1984)
It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. (1 Cor. 11:10, NIV 2011)
Why the switch?
The newer NIV moved to a translation that is closer to the original Greek, backing out of the gratuitous addition of words to this biblical text that has been followed by most English translations up to the present.
To be exact, the Greek reads like this:
For this reason a woman ought to have authority over her head, on account of the angels.
Did you get that? Paul said women should have authority over their own heads. In other words, Paul asserted the exact opposite of the historical interpretation of the verse, which was that men have authority over women.
This may come as news to you if you’ve been reading a translation that adds words like: “a symbol of authority on her head”; “a sign of authority on her head”; “a token of authority on her head”; “a veil on her head”; “a sign of the authority over her”; or “a covering on her head to show she is under authority.”
No wonder we’re confused.
From the addition of a couple of words to virtual rewrites, these translations have the effect of completely reversing what Paul wrote: his assertion about a woman’s own authority is transformed into proof that women are under men’s authority.
How did that happen?
Well, I wasn’t there in 1862 when Young’s Literal Translation invented “a token of authority” or 1901 when the American Standard Version came out with “a sign of authority,” but I have my thoughts. This verse counters the way people believed the world ought to function, so they added words to explain “what Paul really meant.”
Contrary to the urban myth, Paul empowered women to make decisions for themselves, rather than granting men the power to do it for them. He expected them to do the right thing, of course. No doubt about that.
What else would we expect to see in this passage, if the point is male authority? Well, Paul prohibiting women’s public, verbal ministry, that’s what.
Instead we see Paul affirming women’s ministry by assuming that women would be part of the oral communication of truth. He stated it so casually, as though to say, “Of course we need to hear the voices of women.”
…every woman who prays or prophesies… (1 Cor. 11:4)
Fine, you say, women can speak. But they have to get permission, right?
Well, if the point of 1 Corinthians 11 is men’s authority over women then yes, we would expect Paul to require women to receive authorization from men before they spoke.
This is, in fact, the way most churches apply the passage today. A man or a group of men decides whether it’s a good idea to let a woman speak in church. Women know it works that way and in churches where it is clear that they will not be allowed to speak, they do not bother to ask.
Surprisingly, Paul didn’t go there. The unwitting source of World War III took it for granted that women would speak on their own initiative.
But when they do, they ought to cover their heads.
Paul didn’t limit a woman’s verbal ministry, nor did he say that a woman has to get permission before she talks. What else did Paul not say?
Well, that women should submit to men in their dress. Why didn’t Paul remind everyone of male authority over female attire? That would have been so easy: “Come on gals, just wear what the men are telling you to wear. You know they have authority over you, so get with the program.”
Yet Paul didn’t do that. Instead he told women not to disgrace themselves or dishonor their husbands by uncovering their heads. In other words, dress in a culturally appropriate way that reflects well on you and your husband.
Women who lead in church face this all the time: how do I dress in a way that does not draw attention to my body? How do I get up in front of people without them focusing on the wrong thing? I want my listeners to pay attention to my message, not my body or my attire.
In today’s world it’s uncomfortable when someone is on the platform wearing a low-cut shirt or tight pants, whether it’s a woman or a man. This is what Paul was getting at.
Our concern for others should trump our insistence on dressing however we like. No, most of us don’t wear head coverings, but every society has cultural norms. Those norms change over time, which is why it’s now okay for women to wear pants to church and men to keep their ball caps on, something that a generation ago would have been unthinkable. Yet we still have norms, and we need to consider how our eschewal of them is affecting those around us, those we are called to love as we love ourselves.
We obey this passage by not dishonoring others by our attire.
The point is not the hats, not the heads, but the honor.
Okay, you say, but Paul linked male headship to the creation narrative in this passage, didn’t he? Doesn’t that mean men were created to be in charge?
Only if headship has to do with authority. That’s what we’re looking at today, what we can’t presume just because of what “head” means in English.
Yes, Paul did refer to creation, but not in the way commonly assumed.
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…. (1 Cor. 11:7-10)
Did you get that? The first woman came from the first man; he was her source. And the woman was created for the man as his strong help, his bride, his delight. For Paul these facts demonstrate that men and women have different glories, an assertion that has led to a lot of speculation over the years, but one that most likely simply refers to the fact that men and women reflect the two sides of the “marriage” relationship God desires to have with mankind.
The main thing I want you to note here, however, is that Paul utilized the creation order to defend two ideas: Men should not cover their heads, and women should have authority over theirs. These ideas, taken together, do not point to male authority.
So why did Paul say that man is the kehpalē of woman?
In Paul’s world, a woman had a responsibility to honor her husband in everything she did, including how she dressed. Not only was he her originating source in creation, he was also her source of provision in this life. This reflects the fact that everyone had a duty to publicly honor their “source,” whether that be their parents, their patron, or their husband. So here in 1 Corinthians Paul used a play on words to explain that a wife’s uncovering her physical head dishonored not only herself but also her husband, her metaphorical “head.”
This is partly cultural and partly timeless. The idea that our inappropriate attire can embarrass or dishonor our family is timeless. The assumption that women could disgrace men, but men could not disgrace women, is cultural. In the ancient world dishonor flowed in one direction: from a woman to a man. Everything a woman did reflected on her husband’s honor. On the other hand, a woman possessed no honor of her own, so she had no honor that her husband’s misbehavior could impact.
Paul’s world reminds me of growing up in an era when a woman’s embarrassing behavior lessened your respect for her husband, while the same behavior from a man only made you feel sorry for the wife. People figured a man should do something about his wife’s actions, but assumed a woman had no control over her husband. A woman’s behavior dishonored herself and her husband, but a man’s behavior dishonored only himself and God.
This no longer holds true. In today’s world the way a Christian man dresses, talks and behaves reflects upon himself, his wife and Jesus. This pertains to a Christian woman as well: her attire and behavior reflect upon herself, her husband and Jesus.
The timeless principle here is to care enough about others that we do not dishonor them by the way we dress or the things we do. This is a responsibility we all hold toward one another.
We see this mutuality in what Paul says next, the key to the entire passage. If you remember anything from this text, this is it. You can take it to the bank.
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. (1 Cor. 11:11-12)
Paul had just emphasized women’s authority, but he didn’t want the ladies taking things too far. So he reminded them of their responsibility to their husbands. Then Paul reminded the men that, as it turns out, not one of them would be here if it weren’t for their moms. And, by the way, since we all come from God, no one should get a big head about who came from whom.
As men and women we are interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent.
So to sum up, looking at the passage itself we don’t see male authority; we have to bring it to the text with the assumption that “authority” is the figurative meaning of kephalē. Yet there is no internal support for this view. Men aren’t called to limit women’s public, verbal ministry, women aren’t instructed to get permission to speak, and men aren’t expected to control women’s attire. Rather, women can speak on their own initiative and possess authority over their own beings, though Paul was confident they would do the right thing.
Just giving you a heads up.
 Too many to mention, but including respected scholars and pastors like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and Thomas R. Schreiner. See Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991/2006) for examples of this perspective.
 Numerous, including Gordon D. Fee, Philip B. Payne and Cynthia Long Westfall. See their individual works or Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005) for more on this view.
 English Standard Version, 2011; New King James, 1982; New American Standard, 2011; New English Translation; New Revised Standard, 1989; American Standard Version, 1901.
 New American Bible, 2011.
 Modern Language Bible, 1969.
 Revised Standard Version, 1952.
 New Jerusalem Bible.
 New Living Translation, 2004.
 New International Reader’s Version.
 The Living Bible, 1972.