I grew up within a loving family deeply committed to Jesus Christ, and to living as disciples of Jesus within the Anglican Church. The above picture is one of our family heading off to Church on a Sunday morning. My mum always wore a hat to church, as did every other adult female in our church. Early on I asked the minister why ‘ladies had to were a hat?’ and the response brought great delight to this young impressionable boy; ‘The bible says they have to wear a hat to show that the men are in charge’ he said with a smile, but still with serious tone and I remember thinking ‘I’m glad I am a boy!’ That was Sydney in 1968. Fast forward to 1978 when I commenced nurse training in Melbourne and encountered a variety of people who came from different backgrounds and I connected with a Church of Christ community in Melbourne CBD where serious discussion about ministry and mission was encouraged. Into this mix, in 1979 I attended a conference at Belgrave Heights and heard a speaker restate what was told to me when I was 8 years old – that Paul teaches in First Corinthians that women are universally subordinated to men and under their headship because of the evidence of the Creation order. I don’t remember much else about what he said; I do remember walking out of the convention hall having determined that while I did not fully understand what 1 Corinthians 11 was saying, the actual Creation account of Gen 1 and 2 said no such thing about the universal subordination of women, at least not from what I was reading. My journey of Biblical interpretation had begun and it continued into study at Ridley in 1983, and engagement with the writings and personal conversations with three people who became very influential in my life experience in these formative years; Leon Morris, Barbara Darling and Kevin Giles.
1 Corinthians 11:1-16
As I mention above, my first serious read of this text in 1979 left me a little confused and nearly 40 years later, it remains one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament to understand, mostly because we do not fully understand the intricacies of the terms used nor the detail of the cultural context however there are some things we can verify. Firstly, the most important part of the passage is not the comments about the metaphorical use of the term ‘head’ (vs 3 and then also in 4-5). Rather it is about what one ought to do with ones physical head when the male or female are leading people in worship (vs 4-5). Secondly, it seems to me that Paul’s tone is one celebrating the freedom and expectation that exists for women along with men to use the gifts of God in the exercise of ministry in the life of the church. The only reason people jump to focusing on the use of ‘head’ in verse 3, resulting in a permanent subordination of women to men focus in this passage, is because of preconceived ideas that come from another Pauline passage altogether (1 Tim 2). Thirdly, what we know from vs 4-5 is that when the man does something specific with his physical head he disgraces his metaphorical ‘head’. And likewise for the woman. The English word “head” translates the Greek word ‘kephale’ which can either mean ‘authority’ or ‘source/origin’ and it is the context that best determines the meaning we give it in the passage.
In the passage, Paul writes vs 3 “… Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman and God is the head of the Christ” and this verse clarifies the metaphorical head in the following verses. Key in these next verses is “for man does not originate from women, but woman from man”. When we also factor in vs 10 which mentions that the woman ought to exercise her own authority and do ‘something’ with her head, it seems most reasonable to conclude that whatever she is to do with her head, she has authority herself to so determine; the meaning of head is most likely ‘origin’. This is especially so because Paul goes on to say (vs 11-12) that both men and women in creation are mutually dependent on each other (there is nothing about one being subordinate to the other) and both originate ultimately from God.
Bringing all this together, I am convinced that the most likely intention of Paul is to communicate the following; “Christ is the origin of man (for he is the agent of Creation) and the man is the origin of woman (for she came from the man Adam) and the Godhead is the origin of the Christ (as Christ the Incarnate Word was sent from the Godhead). This is especially important theologically because any hint of a permanent subordination of the Christ the incarnate Word to the Father or Godhead would raise significant challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity. And the purpose of him writing what he does in verse 3 is to reinforce the importance that men and women, when leading in the Church through prayer and prophecy, ought not do so with their hair long and hanging down in the case of men nor long and flowing but rather pulled up and ‘covering’ their head, in the case of women because long hair on men and hair not gathered on top of their head on women, has potential sexually promiscuous connotations in the culture of the day; and such action would be a disgrace to their respective ‘metaphorical head’.
Paul’s intention then and now
Paul writes with affirmation and boldness that both men and women ought to celebrate their respective maleness and femaleness, as made in the image of God and enjoy equal partnership as they exercise a ministry of leadership in worship. Praying and prophesying were, without doubt, pre-eminent ministries within the early church that were highly respected and valued. In fact they were so highly thought of that Paul finds it necessary to remind the church that when ministry leadership is offered, it must be done in such a way as to ensure that neither God nor other believers are disgraced in the offering of such ministry. Today the message is just as universally relevant – celebrate the unique giftedness of men and women as God apportions and enable the exercise of such ministry and leadership in a way that brings honour and glory to God.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35
As noted above, Paul has already commended the ministry of public Prophecy and Prayer by both men and women in 11:2-16 so it is not reasonable at all to conclude that he now in chapter 14 commands all women everywhere and at all times and on all occasions to remain silent in gathered worship; rather it is thoroughly reasonable to conclude that the silence specified is of a specific and limited nature. Some do argue that Paul is saying that women may pray and prophesy but not evaluate prophesy, the later being of a higher order and reserved for men. Such an interpretation does not at all do justice to the text that is before us. Verses 29-33 exhort the prophets to speak while those prophets who are not speaking are in a position to pass judgment, that is discern and commend the prophecy. The ministry of prophecy is a revelation from God according to this text, and is intended to teach and exhort believers who are present. Again within the wider context of this letter, men and women together are commended for their prophetic ministry and there is no hint of gender segregation because Paul clarifies that when the women prophesy, they are to do so in a manner that does not disgrace the men present (11:5ff) It seems most likely that the reference to women in vs 35 relates to certain married women who are being disruptive in the way they ask questions and the result is such that Paul restricts these women from asking questions of those who are teaching. Instead, he instructs them to ask their husbands when they get home (vs 35).
Paul’s intention then and now
Not withstanding anything already established in the writing of chapter 11 of this letter, Paul addresses the contentious issue of some women who are disruptive within public worship because of the way they disturb others by asking questions publicly. He advises them that these particular women are to maintain a silent and peaceable demeanor in worship and ask their husbands questions when they are home. As for other women who have a recognized prophetic ministry in the life of the church as well as those who lead in public prayer, they are to speak passionately and boldly with ‘their head covered’ (11:5). I think there is a universality within this general commendation; enable appropriately gifted and appointed women and men to exercise leadership in a godly way and encourage all in the congregation to enter into the shared worship time with a desire to peacefully and graciously learn, respond and encourage one another.