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The Glory of God and Man: Understanding 1 Corinthians 11:7-12: (Part 3)

Recap and Introduction

In this series, we are attempting to understand the difficult text of 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 – a text relevant to debates about the equality of women and their roles in the church. In the previous post, we saw that verse 10 says women ought to have authority over their head. This is the only reference to authority in this text, and Paul says women should have it.

Today, we will examine an ostensibly misogynistic Bible verse. In 1 Corinthians 11:7, Paul writes, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (NIV).

For many readers, the implication seems clear: women, unlike men, are not the image of God. They are, in some way, less than.

We can see this interpretation throughout church history. For example, Augustine has this verse in mind when he writes, “Woman was given to man, woman who was of small intelligence and who perhaps still lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by superior reason. Is this why the apostle Paul does not attribute the image of God to her?” (De Genesi ad literatum 11.42).

Another Interpretation

However, Augustine’s view does not necessarily follow from what Paul has written. There is another interpretation possible. And not only is it possible; it’s preferable.

Notice what Paul does and does not say. Paul says that man is the glory of God and woman is the glory of man. But, he does not say that woman is not also the glory of God. It is possible that women are both.

Now, at first, this might come across as a rather desperate attempt to rescue Paul from his misogyny. And yet, I believe there is more to commend it than might first meet the eye.

It is virtually undeniable that, in these verses, Paul has the creation account from Genesis 1 and 2 in mind. This is clear from Paul’s statement that man is the “image” of God (compare with Genesis 1:26) and his other comments in verses 8 and 9.

But, when we go back to Genesis 1, we find something significant. In Genesis 1:27, it says that both male and female are created in God’s image. Here’s what it says:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NIV, emphasis added).

Consequently, if Paul is saying that women are not the image and glory of God, then he is contradicting Genesis 1:27. However, if he thinks women are both the glory of God and the glory of man, then his interpretation is consistent with Genesis.

As a result, we’re faced with two options. The first option concludes that Paul is a misogynist who believes that women are not the image and glory of God. But, if we go with this interpretation, then Paul is also directly contradicting the Genesis text – the very text that is the basis of his argument!

Alternatively, we can go with option 2. The second option says that Paul believes women are both the glory of God and the glory of man. In this interpretation, Paul is in complete agreement with the Genesis text.

As a Christian who believes in the unity of Scripture, the second option is more compelling.

And, it isn’t just me. Many modern complementarians agree. Thomas Schreiner writes, “Paul is not denying that women are created in God’s image, for he is referring to the creation accounts here and was well aware that Genesis teaches that both men and women are created in God’s image”.

If Schreiner is correct, then verse 7 can hardly be interpreted as misogynistic. Instead of saying women are inferior in glory, Paul is saying they have an additional glory! They are both the glory of God and man.

The Bigger Picture

If my interpretation is correct, then we have clarified one harmful misinterpretation of Paul’s words. However, we still might have questions concerning the bigger picture. What does it mean to say someone is the “glory” of God or man? And, what might that have to do with head coverings?

Unfortunately, space precludes me from giving detailed defenses of my answers to these questions here. But, let me give you a brief answer.

When Paul talks about “glory” in verse 7, it has both a social and physical component. Socially, it overlaps with the concept of honour. Physically, it overlaps with the concept of beauty (like in the transfiguration where the disciples see Jesus’s “glory”).

We can see that Paul has both these elements in mind in 1 Corinthians 11 based on his comments in verses 14-15. At the social level, Paul contrasts “glory” with “dishonour”. At the physical level, he refers to a woman’s long hair as her “glory.”

Consequently, when Paul refers to men as the “image” – a word which also has physical implications – and “glory of God,” I take Paul to be saying that there is something about the physicality of men that reflects the one true God they worship. In other words, men represent and reflect God to the world. As a result, when they worship, they should not cover up that glory. To do so dishonours God; it physically diminishes the reflection of his glory in his image (see 1 Cor 11:3-4).

Women share this identity: they represent God as his image bearers. But, in addition, they are also the glory of man. Women have a unique honour and beauty that men do not share (which 1 Corinthians 11:15 and other ancient writers say is particularly represented by a woman’s hair).

But, according to Paul, this additional splendor points to “the glory of man.” And, in the context of worship, we might reasonably suppose that only God’s glory should be on display. As a result, when a woman prays and prophesies, she should cover her head (see 1 Cor 11:5-6). Her beauty and the honour that it brings should not compete with the glory of God.

Now, I understand the logic of this interpretation will feel strange to us. Culturally speaking, we’re far removed from thinking about “images” during worship and their physical significance. We do not live in a culture where a wife going out in public with her hair uncovered is grounds for divorce.[1] Nor is wearing a veil a common occurrence in secular western life. And as a result, we should be cautious about applying this text in any simplistic manner.

Nevertheless, I contend that, even if we find it strange, it is what Paul says: “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.”[2]

In our next post, we will look at 1 Corinthians 11:8-9. In these verses, we will see that Paul gives two arguments from Genesis chapter 2 in support of his assertion that women have the additional glory of being “the glory of man.”

[1] For an ancient example, see Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Deeds and Sayings 6.3.10. Consider also Kenneth Bailey’s comments in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 248. [2] For a more elaborate defense of this position, see Cynthia Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ, pgs. 66-70.

Nathan Drover is the lead pastor at Perth Andover Baptist Church. He lives in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick with his wife Sabrina. Nathan is passionate about biblical studies, the unity of the church, and seeing both men and women live out their calling for God's glory.

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