Interpretive questions – 1 Cor. 11:2-26

Here are some interpretive questions I drew up when someone disputed with me about the issue of head-coverings several months ago. I am planning to preach this text soon and so am working through them again.

The text begins in v. 2 and continues to v. 16. I contend that verse 1 is the tail end of chapter 10, though it could be a Pauline transition and could be with either the preceding or the following passage. It also seems clear from the text, even in English translation, that the next break is not until v. 17.

It is worth noting that there is much in this text that seems to be assumed between Paul and his readers (for example the “angels” reference in v. 10). This is important because this Paul’s lean explanation leaves much out that could help us come to a firmer conclusion about the issue under discussion.

1. Does the word for “woman” in 1 Cor. 11:5 mean “wife” or “woman”? The word can mean either and context gives little help here.

If the point of the text is covenantal male headship, then does this mean unmarried women do not have to wear head-coverings? What about young girls? At what age would girls/women begin wearing head-coverings? What if they are grown women but still unmarried? What about widows who are now free from their husbands (Rom. 7:2)?

If the point is covenantal male headship, and the woman wears a covering to signify that she is married, then why does the rest of the text specifically speak about having her head covered when she prays or prophesies? Wouldn’t she have to have it covered at all times? This leads to the next question.

2. The verse speaks specifically of women wearing a covering when praying or prophesying in the assembly (vv. 5, 13). Does this mean that they only wear the covering when they pray or prophesy in church? If so, then does this even still apply since most of us are cessationist anyway?

3. Could the head covering be a woman’s hair? The end of 1 Cor. 11:5 and verses 6 and 15 mention long hair and shaved heads could this then be a reference to a woman’s not having short hair? Could this refer to a woman’s not having her hair down in public, but up (sort of like women in Victorian times)?

4. Verse 10 says women should have their head covered “because of the angels.” What does this mean? If we are unable to determine with certainty what the meaning is, how does this affect our certainty regarding the rest of the text since Paul is giving this as a reason for the woman’s head to be covered?

Other uncertainties include the meaning of the word “head” in vv. 3, 5; “dishonors his head” (v. 4); “uncovered” (v. 5, 13); “glory” (v. 7); “given to her for a covering” (v. 15); and “we have no such custom” (v. 16). (Fee, 492, n. 4)

5. Did every Greco-Roman culture at the time practice the wearing of head-coverings for unmarried women? It appears some did and some didn’t which is one reason many believe this to be a cultural expression unique to Corinth. Could this be a cultural expression unique to Corinth given its history of temple prostitution which was sometimes engaged in by married women who offered themselves to the goddess? If so, what modern cultural expression of submission are used today to express the same thing?

6. How do we account for the history of interpretation of this text? If the older commentators viewed it as binding in every age could it be that they were driven by their cultures (many of which already embraced such gender differences in dress)?

It is not necessarily true that a change in interpretation is a capitulation to the culture (although sometimes it is; e.g. one’s interpretation of Ephesians 4:12 demonstrated by the comma, or lack thereof, after “saints”). Fee notes that many studies published since the 1960’s are either a direct response to feminism or a result of the movement’s influence. If this is so, and given that conservatives oppose radical feminism’s inroads into the church, we would expect conservative commentators to embrace head-coverings rather than not. The fact that many still refuse to see this as a universal command to cover heads indicates that they are not driven by culture but by historical-cultural analysis of the text.

These are questions that one must have an answer to before coming to a conclusion on this text and, consequently, on this issue.

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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