Difficult Passages: 1 Corinthians 11 (Part 1 of 3)

It has been requested that I include a discussion of 1 Corinthians 11 in the hard passages series. Now, I’m not going to be able to cover it all in one week, so I’ve broken it into two dealing with the two major issues. In verses 1-16 there is the issue of head covering and worship, and the interesting implications this may mean for gender relations, and in verses 17-34 deal with abuses at the Lord’s supper and what seems, on the surface, the very harsh punishments associated with that. This week I’ll deal with the first half in part one, next week I’ll deal with the other major issue, and the third week I’ll deal with the second half of the chapter. So three weeks, this is week 1.

One of the major themes of 1 Corinthians, is the issue of how to conduct worship. It seems that the Corinthians had become incredibly disordered in their worship style to the point where people were not being edified, others were made so uncomfortable as to be unable to worship, while many nonbelievers did not feel particularly welcome. There were a number of problems and Paul gives, not only here but elsewhere in the book, some very practical ways to deal with these issues. This first section seems a bit odd to us, because Paul is speaking primarily about covering or not covering the head. While there are some who would link this to a view that women should always have there heads covered and men must always keep their hair short, most recognize this passage for what it is; that is, the passage is primarily concerned with a particular cultural practice that Paul wanted the church to steer clear of.

Having the head covered (for men) or uncovered (for women) was a long standing tradition among the Roman national religion. One particular incarnation of that can be seen in the picture of a coin picture I’ve included. There’s another image I came across a few years ago (though I can’t seem to find it now) that demonstrates this even more clearly. In these images, it displays a Caesar as the religious (not merely civil) leader of the people by worshipping and he has very clearly taken the bottom of his tunic and lifted it over his head (click on the picture to be taken to the page from Dartmouth’s Ancient Mediterranean Study Museum that explains the religious significance of it).

In the same way women, if they had their heads covered, were to uncover their heads. Keep in mind, though, that ancient Rome was still heavily misogynistic. The only women who could be present during these ceremonies would be the temple priestesses, who were also often prostitutes for the national Roman cult. In some parts of the empire, and particularly if the woman was a slave to the temple in question, the priestess’s head was shaved, lest she try to run away (so that people could recognize her still). That, it seems, is what is going on here. Apparently the church in Corinth was excited to worship, but they decided to conform too closely to the culture around them. The result was that their worship looked, on the surface, indistinguishable from the cultic Roman practices. While it may (or may not) have been theologically sound, the appearance was too similar. That is an important point. The Christian act of worship is different (by necessity) from the worship of others and it should look different. We have something better to offer.

I have not even made mention of the somewhat radical equality that is going on here. The Roman worship system seemed to try to publicly demean the woman in its worship and Paul did not think this was right. Further, it should be noted that there isn’t an argument that men and women should speak together in the service, it’s merely assumed. “Every woman who prays or prophesies…” The action of the woman praying or prophesying (speaking a timely word from the Lord) is assumed to be the case and this is not discouraged. Therefore, I don’t think we need to have women completely silent in worship services (which if we applied that other verse strictly it would mean women can’t sing, pray, read the bible, share their testimony, or teach mixed gender Sunday school classes for groups over the age of 13 (when the ancient world considered boys to become men). Clearly women do make contributions here and these should be celebrated.

Now, this brings us to the other thorny part of this first half, what does Paul mean when he says man is the head of woman as God is the head of the Christ? And what does all this talk about authority and independence and source mean? Well, I’ll try to deal with those issues (and try to be fair in my dealing) next week.


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