The Teachings, Part Five
Paul concludes his teachings in the first letter to the Corinthians.
As if to pause for a quick breath before addressing the next question from the Corinthians, vs. 1 and 2 of ch. 11 provide some words of praise, much the way Paul begins all his letters. Then he gives a short preface to the question they asked about head coverings. But first we need to examine the Greek word for head, kephale. The people of the time believed that the body grew out of the head, and so used it as a metaphor for source or origin.1 It was not used in the sense of ruler or authority but progenitor; the usual Greek words for authority included archon (ruler), epitrepo (permission) and exousion (jurisdiction). So when we see the word "head" in English, we must not substitute the modern idea of ruler or boss or authority.
What Paul is doing in verse 3 is to use a play on words to introduce the topic of head coverings, that is, to begin with the metaphorical use and then move to the literal use. With the proper meaning of "head" in mind, the verse says, "But I want you to realize that the source of every man is Christ, and the source of the woman is man, and the source of Christ is God." It is the order of the sources that Paul is emphasizing; if he were trying to convey a chain of command the order would have been God (note God, not Father), then Christ, then man, then woman. But since we know no such chain of command has ever been seen in scripture before and that the order here is not the same as creation order, Paul must be referring to something else. And that something else is what we do see in scripture: God was the creator, and that includes Christ,2 so Christ is the source of man; the first woman came from the first man, and God brought Christ into the world via the seed of the woman. We should also note that no such word as "headship" exists in any form in scripture.
In spite of historical evidence for the meaning of the word kephale and thus the meaning of the passage, male supremacy is largely based upon the assertion that 1 Cor. 11:3 means every man is the boss of every woman, because God is the boss of Christ. This is also in spite of the bulk of NT teachings on mutuality and service, and the context being a question about head coverings. It serves as a classic example of lifting a verse out of context, and the great damage that can be caused by it. Such practices have spawned many cults.
Verses 4-6 could be the words of Paul, or they could be the question the Corinthians are asking, with vs. 7-16 being Paul's answer. I do think that context supports 4-6 being the question, whether quoted directly or being put in Paul's own words. A problem is being presented, involving the social taboo of a woman without a head covering. Such women were seen by society as having loose morals. On the other hand, Jewish men were to cover when approaching God to symbolize their servitude to Him3, but Christians were not to cover because the veil in the temple was torn when Jesus died,4 symbolizing our new standing as children and heirs. That is why Paul says in vs. 4 that a head covering dishonors a man's head. So what was a Christian woman to do? To cover would be to dishonor the sacrifice of Jesus, and to uncover would bring dishonor on her own head because it would label her as immoral. So vs. 4-6 are a kind of moral dilemma, or as we would say today, it put Christian women "between a rock and a hard place."
In answering this question, Paul begins with a reference to creation. He mentions that the man is the image and glory of God. Does this mean that the woman is not? Of course it doesn't; we read in Gen. 1:27 that both male and female are made in the image of God. But what about glory? What does that mean? It means the crowning achievement, something which brings honor. Man was the pinnacle of creation, and this brought honor to God. So we have Paul establishing a fact from Genesis: one who is the glory of another must not cover their head in the presence of that other. So it follows that since the woman is also the glory of another— man— then she too must not cover. Note the "but", the contrasting connector there: the man must not cover since he is the glory of God but woman is the glory of man. This is opposite the interpretation of many that Paul is saying the woman's glory is of lesser status or value compared to the man's. In other words, Paul is not saying, "Since woman is merely the glory of man instead of God, she has to cover her head to symbolize her inferior role to man," but instead, "Man uncovers because he is the glory of another, so women must also not cover for that same reason."
We have additional support for this interpretation from the verses following. First Paul says in vs. 8-9 that although the first woman came from the first man, ever since then all men have come from women. Verse 8, directly following the statement about glory, is given to show why she is his glory; it begins with gar meaning "for" or "because" and provides the justification for the previous statement. But of course the next objection is that Paul follows with the statement about woman being made for man, which they presume without precedent to signify or prove her alleged secondary status. Again, we look in Genesis to see what Paul is referring to, and we remember that Eve's purpose as a "strong one facing" Adam was not to serve him as an underling but to come to his rescue, a strong ally. This makes vs. 10 flow naturally in the context, since Paul says that "for this reason" (referring to her being his rescuer), "a woman ought to have authority over her own head." There are no such words as "a sign of" and it is not implied. And the Greek word for authority Paul uses is exousia, and it is "her own". That is, the woman has jurisdiction over her own head and thus is the one to decide whether or not to cover it.
Paul adds yet another reason for a woman having this authority over her own head: "because of the angels". There has been much speculation over this curious statement, including the absurd notion that angels can be moved to lust if they see a woman's uncovered head! And where does the notion of lust enter into this statement anyway, since Paul is talking about authority? How could the lack of a sign of authority move an angel to lust, and who would think this only could happen during prayer and prophecy? Only the worst scripture twisting and poorest logic could hold to such an idea. So what does Paul mean by it? Remember that earlier in this letter he scolded the people for their inability to judge their own disputes, and in doing so he reminded them that they would someday judge angels. Since Paul did not exclude women from that statement, and since he just said a woman has the authority to judge for herself whether or not to cover her head, then we must conclude that he is justifying that authority in a woman because of her equal standing in the eventual judgment of angels.5
Then in vs. 11-12 Paul adds another factor: in the Lord men and women are not independent of each other. And as already mentioned, all come from women, but above all, all come from God. If this is not a clear and explicit statement that there is no intrinsic hierarchy in chronology, I can't imagine what such a thing would look like; Paul just dismissed that idea in no uncertain terms.
Finally in vs. 13 Paul almost mockingly tells the Corinthians to judge for themselves in this matter. But what he says next is almost universally mistranslated. It does not say that nature tells us long hair is a disgrace for men and a glory for women. Where is any such lesson seen in nature? In fact we see the opposite: both men and women can grow long hair naturally. The only way to invent the idea that nature does show such a thing is by turning what the Greek indicates is a statement into a question. It literally reads,
behooving it-is woman uncovered to-the God to-be-praying not-even the nature itself is-teaching you that…
There are no grammatical indicators of a question being asked here; it is a statement of fact: it is fitting for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, and for the same reason it is also fitting for a man, per the overall context. Finally, in verse 16, Paul dismisses the whole thing by telling them that they are the only ones having a problem figuring this out. When he says, "we have no such custom", he means it. Some translations say "no other" custom, but the Greek word toioutos does not mean "other" (that would be allos). So we could sum up Paul's answer as follows:
A woman, as the glory of another, is not to cover her head. But because of the social taboo, let each woman decide for herself, because it's literally her head on the line. She too will judge angels! As for hierarchy, order of creation is irrelevant in the ekklesia, for we all come from God. And not even nature tells us anything about head coverings, as if this were some inviolable divine law and not a social custom. Hair happens— naturally— to both men and women. Just figure it out, will you?! And in case you want to argue with me about this, first consider the fact that nobody else has any such custom.
There is one other point to make before moving on to the next issue: the fact that Paul says women pray and prophesy in mixed gatherings. Otherwise there would be no controversy over head coverings, especially if they signified male authority. In other words, what need is there for a sign of male authority if women can only pray and prophesy with other women? This whole passage concerns what women do during prayer and prophecy, which nobody would think the women are doing silently! If we but think through the implications of some of these novel interpretations, we would see that they are self-contradictory, not to mention making Paul self-contradictory as well, as we will see when we come to another passage about women that some think commands their silence in the meetings.
While in vs. 2 Paul praised the Corinthians for holding to the traditions he had passed on to them, vs. 17 has Paul rebuking them for what they have done to some of those traditions. He mentions "divisions" among them, and from what he describes we see that it was typical worldly class warfare (as a quick side note, it is significant that Paul mentions people getting drunk but never condemns all drinking, neither here nor in any of his letters). But as with his other discussion of the memorial meal, he is not commanding a new ritual but keeping an existing one from getting out of hand. And his rebuke is for the fact that by their attitude they show contempt for the sacrifice of the Jesus they claim to be remembering. His emphasis in this section is clearly on the importance of honoring Jesus; failure to do so is what he calls "an unworthy manner". This is not, as some claim, an excuse for those of presumed authority to put other believers under some kind of inquisition in order to extract confessions from them. It would be better for them not to participate in this meal than to do so with the wrong attitude, and Paul even tells them in vs. 29-31 that some of them have suffered and died because of it. Even so, God's purpose in this punishment is to keep the group pure.
In chapter twelve Paul brings up the issue of spiritual gifts, a long-standing controversy in Christendom. Suffice it for our study to observe that the gifts are given by one Spirit as He sees fit, and that these gifts do not come in shades of pink and blue (female and male) or with any expiration dates. And he illustrates the unity of it all with the analogy of the human body. A healthy body has only one head, and all the parts report to that head and not each other. No part has to get permission from another part to do anything, and no part can consider itself either superior or inferior to another. Most importantly, the head and body form one unit, one flesh, and what is true of one part is true of all the others, though each part has its unique function. Note also that Paul in vs. 13 speaks now of our baptism in the Spirit, as opposed to how he viewed water baptism. The parts of a healthy body work together, each part supplying what the others may lack, and it is only when all are functioning properly that the body can accomplish what it needs to.
That all seems so obvious, but think of the implications. Paul says we are supposed to be one body of many parts, all working together and taking our life from the Head, which is Christ. There are no classes of believers said to be excluded from the Body in any way or told that they cannot use their gifts in certain ways or situations; there is no rank among the parts of the Body. And regardless of whether Paul is giving simply a chronology of gifts or some kind of alleged hierarchy in vs. 28, it is impossible to miss the point that he has repeated: all parts are needed equally. It is quite likely, since Paul began the chapter with a reference to how the people viewed such things as spiritual gifts when they were pagans, that this whole matter came up because they were alarmed that such things could happen among believers. That is why he prefaced his discussion with a way to test the spirits, and closed it with a plea to stop going after the more exciting or "presentable" gifts.
Chapter thirteen is perhaps the most familiar of all Paul's writings, but how poorly we have put it into practice over the centuries! Many today forbid criticism of popular teachers because "they teach correct doctrine". But what does this chapter say? Over and over, the message is "It is worthless without love".6 The rankest unbeliever can recite and analyze the scriptures, and even accurately present the gospel. But as Paul tells us here, it amounts to nothing more than the noise of clashing cymbals if it comes from an unchanged heart. And what about love not demanding its own way, of not keeping a record of wrongs, of being kind and humble, of not tearing others down, of always protecting? All of those things that love does (or does not do) are being violated by the controlling spirit, whether through heavy-handed clerical rule or male supremacism. I cannot count the number of times I've heard "the husband has the final say", as if two best friends are unable to get along unless one is in charge. Love does not demand to "have the final say"! It does not pout or throw a tantrum if it cannot have its way. It does not threaten for disobedience or plot revenge for failure to measure up. It serves; it builds up, it heals, it praises, it cares. How can there be any division by race, class, or sex if this Body is healthy and operates under the law of love? This chapter is a scathing indictment of the demonic doctrines of pride and violence being promoted in the "churches" today.
Chapter fourteen continues on this topic, and Paul reassures the Corinthians that there is nothing wrong with wanting spiritual gifts. He goes on to explain that the most useful gifts are those that build up the Body, as opposed to those that primarily benefit the one having the gift. So much of what is being taught today is self-centered and focused on our own needs instead of looking outward to other believers. Notice in vs. 22 Paul says that the gift of "tongues" (divine power to speak in a language the speaker does not know) is a sign for unbelievers, while prophecy, not called a "sign", is for believers. He explained this in vs. 21, which cites the sign of tongues as the fulfillment of an OT prophecy condemning people who refuse to listen. But we also know that it was a sign for the Jews on Pentecost, and that some of the people in the crowd that day did listen. At any rate, it is a sign for unbelievers, while prophecy builds up the community of believers.
Now in verse 26 Paul focuses on how people behave when they meet together, but remember that this is still part of the overall topic of problems in the Corinthian congregation. Paul is not only telling us that everyone participated (in stark contrast to the typical Sunday service or even Sunday School class), but that the Corinthians were doing so to the point where there was chaos. Neither passivity nor confusion is good for the Body, so Paul urges them to tone things down and take one thing at a time. He speaks of order without specifying a liturgy or program, but makes it known that each participant is responsible for controlling themselves. This is the intended character of a Christian meeting. How many "churches" follow this, to any significant degree? How do people build each other up and share their gifts when they sit in pews all facing one direction? And if Paul is in fact prescribing something like that, why does he not mention any sort of leader or presiding officer?
Now to vs. 34-38, which in some ancient manuscripts appears at the end of the chapter. But no matter where that section winds up, it is still part of the topic of how our meetings are conducted. However, note that in vs. 39-40 Paul explicitly states that the sign gifts are not to be forbidden (again supporting the interpretation that the people were afraid they were pagan influences), and that whatever we do as a group, it should be self-controlled instead of chaotic.
Some insist that Paul clearly prohibits all women for all time from uttering a sound in the meetings. Yet as we just saw in the section about head coverings, there is no other place where a Christian woman would prophecy! He would not have said anything about whether women should cover their heads if they can't speak publicly anyway. But since we know he did assume women were prophesying and did not forbid it before, then we can hardly think he either forgot what he wrote earlier or openly contradicted himself here, especially since both are in the same letter!
Now we come to a very important matter of quotation, and we have clear indicators that put the content of vs. 34-35 in a quote not from Paul but from the Corinthians, specifically their quotation of the Jewish Talmud.7 If this were an OT law, where is it? We have already learned that Paul would not make up a new law for the OT, so it must be there if this is in fact a statement by Paul, but there is no such law. And even if there were, would this be the same Paul that argued so forcefully against putting Christians under it when he wrote to the Galatians? Again, Paul is not forgetful, stupid, or contradictory. And he is not inconsistent; in every other case where he quotes the OT, he makes it very clear. Obviously, either this "new" Paul is an impostor, or the real Paul is quoting non-scripture8— and is about to refute it strongly.
Now that we know those two verses are a quote from legalists in Corinth and not a command from Paul, his rebuttal in vs. 36 takes on a whole new light. It begins with a small Greek letter (eta) which is typically either ignored and untranslated or rendered weakly as "Or". But it is in fact an expression of strong objection, and as such marks the end of what preceded it and the beginning of a rebuttal. Some interpret this instead as an anticipated objection, that is, that Paul is answering a hypothetical objection to his restrictions on women. But not only would such a thing be extremely rare given the patriarchal culture, Paul does not introduce it as he does in every other case of such an anticipated argument (e.g. Rom. 9:19).
So we have these indicators to tell us exactly where the quote begins and ends. And we have the content of that rebuttal: "What?? Did the Word of God come from you?? What?? Did it only come to you?? Let whoever has any sense agree that what I have said [as opposed to this ridiculous quote] is what really came from God. Away with anyone who won't listen!" If "plain reading" were practiced consistently and included all aspects of context including the original language, it would not make Paul's teachings into a tangled mass of confusion and source of endless bickering. This context makes his teaching very plain indeed, such that any who teach the silencing of Christian women in the meetings must do so in open and willful defiance of scripture.
The topic of ch. fourteen is the resurrection of the dead, but there are a couple of things to note about Paul's writing style. In vs. 35 he shows the way he introduces a hypothetical question, one that may be anticipated as a rebuttal or objection to what he has written. This is important to remember for cases we will encounter later where he does not follow this pattern and is therefore not posing a hypothetical question. Another point is in the next verse, which literally means "You fool!" Who would allow such talk today? Yet ironically, there are some "preachers" who in a quest to be "culturally relevant" (yet somehow not actually "bowing to culture") have made a habit of cursing as the world does. But apparently that is permitted only by certain people. However, if Paul has set himself up as an example for every believer and not a privileged class, then there must be times when forceful expression is permissible. Those of the controlling spirit who demand that others only speak as they decree need to learn this.
In the final chapter of this letter Paul addresses the matter of giving to the needy. And as we will see, he does not endorse one of the most ingrained methods of control and what has become a joke among unbelievers: tithing for Christians. We have already learned about the fact that where the priesthood goes, so goes the law, and that non-Jews were never under the OT law at all. We also know that Paul is not an inventor of new burdens nor one to demand a salary nor to set up a ruling class. And of course we know Paul will not contradict himself. With all that in mind, we can at least know what he is not talking about.
In vs. 1-2 he tells them to do what he says he told the Galatians: set aside money. Note several things: First of all, it is done on "one/first of sabbaths". "First of Sabbaths" refers to the day of the wave offering, which is the first day of the week after Passover and the start of marking off 7 weeks until Pentecost9 (see verse 8). Second, it is to be done by each individual, and the amount depends on how much the person "prospered". This is not an income tax but an appeal to sharing from the excess God has blessed a person with. Third, We know that the early believers did meet on the first day of the week10 but of course that was not the only day they met.11 There is not any scripture in the NT to tell Christians when or where to meet. Paul tells us explicitly that the purpose is to meet a specific physical need; he is not talking about "worship services" here at all. Fourth, by saying "each one of you" he is putting this into the hands of the givers, not any officiating body or imaginary NT equivalent of the OT "storehouse". And no percentage is given for the statement "in keeping with your income". As he will elaborate in another letter, Paul is emphasizing the voluntary nature of this gift, and it is indeed a gift, not an obligation or compulsory tax. Nothing can be both an act of charity and a tax, just as nothing can at the same time be both a gift and a wage.
The purpose of this collection was never given as a perpetual requirement, but as a one-time event for a specific need in Jerusalem. After the money was collected, the people as a group were to select several from their number to deliver it, and Paul would supply them with letters of introduction. Curiously, the TNIV specifies that men were to do this, but the Greek says "whoever". And if anyone wants to make a doctrine out of grammatical gender in spite of it being erroneous, we should point out to them that if there were at least one male in a group, the grammatical male form of the word was used. There is no word here that is exclusively indicative of males.
In verse 16 we see the word hupotasso again, and remember that it means "to be attached to, to be a support of", as in supporting documentation for a legal claim.12 It is good to at least spot-check the ways Paul uses words that may be the source of controversy, and here again we see nothing to indicate enforced obedience to a ruler or boss. And again in vs. 18 we see that the TNIV chose to use the word "men" when the Greek says "these". Perhaps they interpret it as specifically referring to the ones named, who all happened to be males, but it is not an accurate translation and could be taken by the "plain reading" approach as sanctioning only males for such "jobs".
Finally, we see mention of our familiar friends Aquila and Priscilla, and Paul sends greetings from them and also the ekklesia that meets in their house. It seems from Paul's habits of referring to them that both were likely elders in a congregation. But we cannot close without one more controversy: in vs. 22 Paul wishes a curse upon any who do not love the Lord! If believers today are to be labeled as unloving or divisive when we do not always bless our enemies, then so also must Paul. Could it be that we have misunderstood what Paul said here in 4:12 about not cursing those who curse us, and what he will say later to the Romans?13 Or perhaps we only need to pay closer attention to each context and avoid making universal doctrines out of letters written to specific people. This is a vital question to answer, because when we encounter topics such as women in the ekklesia and we appeal to the time or culture, we are accused of "hermeneutical gymnastics" or reading into the text just to support our dastardly plot to "bow to culture". (Well if Paul can be sarcastic, so can I!)
- 1 Aristotle; Eusthatius stated that the head of a river is that which generates the whole river (Homer, Odyssey 9.140, 13.102, 346. Eustathius, On Iliad, loc. cit.), so also others of that era; ref. also Paul's usage in Col. 2:19.
- 2 All three Persons created: Father (Deut. 32:6), Son (Col. 1:15-20), Spirit (Gen. 1:2)
- 3 Article at http://tinyurl.com/apjxv
- 4 Mt. 27:51
- 5 Another possibility is that the Greek word translated as angels, which literally means "messengers", refers to Roman spies who would infiltrate meetings in order to report upon any possible sedition or rebellion. The argument then is that allowing women to uncover their heads would be seen as a sign of such rebellion and so is not permitted. However, if this were the case then surely Paul would have commanded all Christian women to cover. Also, it doesn't say "because of messengers" but "because of the messengers", and there is no other NT reference to such spies.
- 6 Of course, this does not mean that doctrine is unimportant, only that it must be accompanied by love.
- 7 Gordon Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 707.
- 8 Lest anyone think this is a new interpretation or bad exegesis, let us consult Sir William Ramsey (1851-1939), Professor at Oxford and Aberdeen, the most widely accepted authority on Paul in the early 1900's: "We should be ready to suspect Paul is making a quotation from the letter addressed to him by the Corinthians whenever he alludes to their knowledge, or when any statement stands in marked contrast either with the immediate context or with Paul's known views."
- 9 Lev. 23:5-21
- 10 John 20:19, Acts 20:7
- 11 Acts 19:9, Heb. 3:13
- 12 see The Teachings, Part One
- 13 Rom. 12:14