The Corinthian Ekklesia-Head Coverings: Part 3

In the previous post from our study of the meaning and application of head coverings from 1 Corinthians 11, we observed how the argument, and really the defense of the practice, was rooted in the order of creation, namely that Adam was created first, then Eve from Adam. Likewise, we saw how this supported our earlier thesis that head is most likely a reference to source in this particular use and that because of this, honor is required from woman to man and man to God.*

As we examine this section more closely, specifically verses 8-12, we notice a fascinating pattern that will help us more clearly interpret the overall sweep of the passage, including the somewhat confusing verse 10. These five verses, and I’m willing to concede the entire passage, is structured as a chiasm. A chiasm is a literary device where a pattern is repeated around a central idea. It is called this because the Greek letter chi, which resembles the English letter x, when halved shows a mirrored pattern. For simplicity, below is a chiasm:
  • A
    • B
      • C
    • B’
  • A’
When a chiasm is structured in this way, and it doesn’t have to follow this exact pattern, the ‘C’ is highlighted as the central or primary point. Point A is reemphasized in point A’, as is B to B’. As it relates to our passage, the chiasm, at least as it is internal to the whole section, is as follows:
  • A – Verse 8
    • B – Verse 9
      • C – Verse 10
    • B’ – Verse 11
  • A’ – Verse 12
Understanding the presence of this literary device, helps us to better see and realize the argument that is being framed. With this in mind, we find that in verse 8 the apostle defends his position on the use of head coverings, when women pray or prophesy, by appealing to creation itself, further developing the argument that was introduced in verse 7. The background for his appeal is Genesis 2:21-22 where God caused a sleep to come upon Adam before taking a rib from his side, closing it, and forming woman from man. In supporting this, verse 9 is essentially a commentary on the passage from Genesis stating that God’s divine ordering in creation, Adam first then Eve, was for the purpose of creating Eve for Adam, to be his help (see also Genesis 2:20). The full passage under our consideration in this post is cited below:
For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man.
Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
10 For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
12 For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God.

1 Corinthians 11:8-12 KJV
As stated above, we find the ordering of creation summarized in verse 8 with the priority of man. Then, in verse 9 we read of God’s divine purpose for woman, being created for man as his complimentary help, perhaps more literally, his counterpart (Gen. 2:18).

As the defense for the doctrine of head coverings continues to unfold, and we ought to be reminded that this teaching and application was common among the churches, we arrive at another difficulty in verse 10. The ESV tips their interpretive hand by translating this verse as, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Having already made the unsupported conclusion that the reference here is husband and wife, instead of man and woman rooted in creation as we’ve seen, they now supply the little phrase, symbol of, to the word authority leading one to interpret the head covering as “a symbol of authority” which is then read back to mean the husband’s authority over the wife. This particular interpretation, albeit a popular one, gets a little tangled.

First, as we have seen the context supports the relationship of man to woman rooted in their creation, not in their marriage; this is a broader principle and application than husband and wife. Second, as already noted symbol of is not present in the verse, so the KJV would be more accurate, “For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.” However, this doesn’t answer what this power is referring to and subsequently what the head is: is it her own physical head or metaphorical head, the man? (Remember we previously looked at the different, multiple uses of head in this passage)

Next, the clue to answering this rests in the meaning and use of power, here the translation of the Greek word exousia. As Kistemaker points out in his commentary, “In Greek, however, the term exousia never has an objective or a passive sense, that is, being under someone else’s authority. It always has a subjective or an active sense relating to one’s own authority.” (pg. 376) This means that it is likely that the ESV choice, symbol of authority – which for them would refer to the husband’s authority over the wife, is an incorrect interpretation/translation. Instead, the reference is to power/authority that belongs to the woman and that which is exercised over her own head. Given the context in which we have just travailed, the use of head here must refer to her own physical head.

Third, exousia, here translated as power by the KJV, is a word familiar to Paul in 1 Corinthians having used it ten times in nine verses (7:37; 8:9; 9:4; 9:5; 9:6; 9:12; 9:18; 11:10; 15:24). In every case except two, the KJV translates the word as power. In 1 Corinthians 15:24 the choice is made for authority, which is contextually supported in reference to Christ putting an end to all rule and all authority and power. There, exousia is authority while power is the familiar word, dynamis. However, in 1 Corinthians 8:9 the translation choice is liberty, contextually referring to the right of believers to eat the meat offered to idols, or not. The translation choice of right here leads into the majority usage of the word in 1 Corinthians 9, again dealing with the right or liberty to do or not do something. In this case, Paul’s right or liberty to be funded financially or not. It carries this meaning in all six uses from the chapter and the ESV recognizes this with their translation choice of right in every instance. The justification that Paul gives in chapter 9 for exercising this right is grounded in natural law (1 Cor. 9:8-10). It is equally compelling that his argument in this passage from chapter 11 is likewise grounded in natural law, here expressed as the creative order.

While this passage is notoriously difficult, and verse 10 especially so, nevertheless it seems plausible that the summary statement here refers to the justification for why women should exercise their right to wear a headcovering – again while praying/prophesying – as a recognition of the creative order and the headship of man grounded in the primacy of Adam. The alternative is to pray/prophesy with head uncovered, in which case the woman is ignoring creative order and ought to shave her head. Those are the options cover or don’t cover – and subsequently shave your head.

Continuing with verse 10, we arrive at another difficulty, namely what to make of the reference to angels. Some, if not most, commentators recognize the difficulty with this statement and offer little to no explanation for its place in the midst of this passage, particularly if viewed in light of a chiasm. As it is, the word angelos is notoriously difficult because it can mean angel or messenger/envoy. So there exists at least the slim possibility that what could be in view here is not necessarily angelic beings, rather messengers, envoys, or some kind of outside visitor to the congregation at Corinth. While certainly possible, it seems more likely that angels, being created beings as well, do not have the created ordering of the imago dei (image of God) that was given to mankind. Angels, neither marry nor given in marriage and are therefore genderless.

Here, we need to recall our chiasm from earlier and remember that in this pattern, verse 10 is the center, hinge, and likely the point. Having already established firmly the order and priority of man and woman in creation, now shifting to an apparent reason, because of the angels – another created being, the likely appeal is to show the gender distinction between man and woman that does not exist among the angels. But there’s more.

When we view the second half of the chiasm, there is a clear change of direction from Paul highlighted by the little phrase, in the Lord. The first point in verse 11 is that in the Lord neither man nor woman are independent of each other, meaning that there is an interdependence, a relationship. Seeing again that verse 9 and verse 11 are complimentary in the chiasm, we can observe how they relate to each other. In verse 9, the main point was that in the creative order, man was not created for woman, rather woman was created for man. However, here in verse 11 the main point is that, despite the creative order of male primacy or headship there is a mutual dependency. This same point has already been brought forth by Paul in chapter 7 verse 4 and applied in the context of marriage
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 1 Corinthians 7:4
Again, both the headship of man and the mutual dependence of man and woman cannot be experienced by the angels, who instead must observe this ordering making this discussion on the wearing of head coverings as recognition of these gender roles all the more significant.

Finally, in verse 12 we arrive at the second point from the in the Lord side of the chiasm. Whereas verse 8 highlighted the creative order of woman literally being created from man, verse 12 highlights the reality that ever since that original creation of Eve from Adam, man has been ‘created’ from woman. Every man downstream from Adam owes his existence to woman, having come directly from her.

The structure of the chiasm surrounding the verses above serve to highlight the significance of both the distinction in gender roles and their interdependence. As we saw in the introduction of this passage, it refutes a strict egalitarianism but also a strict hierarchy while still maintaining the significance of Adam’s headship that requires public honor from ‘Eve’ in the form of a head covering when praying or prophesying. Because of the created order, the headship of Adam, and his source of primacy in creation, the woman is to honor this by willingly exercising her own authority over her head by covering it when praying and/or prophesying in the gathering of believers.

In the final post from this difficult passage, we’ll look at the remaining verses in the argument for head coverings, then determine whether this practice is applicable for today, and conclude with the relationship of Old Testament gender distinctions to the instructions here (circumcision, temple courts, etc.). *Note: We pointed out in the first post in this series how making the distinction of source instead of authority in this particular passage often garners the label of egalitarian – which in the case of our study is ironic given the passage explicitly refutes egalitarianism and upholds the distinction between man and women. Indeed, the entire point of the passage is to establish and uphold gender distinctions.

**Note: While I am working through this passage, post by post, this presents some difficulties with reaching conclusions too early. Case in point, the passage most certainly begins with a distinction between men and women and should be translated as such. However, above it has become clearer why some make the wife/husband distinction. Even with this, the ESV does not seem to offer a convincing translation. I am holding still to the application of men/women, particularly when we look at Old Covenant distinctions – which were applied to all men and all women, regardless of marital status.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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