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Understanding 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 (Part 1)

“You’re capitulating to culture!”

This was the view of the pastor who sat across from me. We were meeting for coffee in my seminary lobby, and the topic of discussion was women in ministry.

In my view, a woman can hold any position of leadership in the church as long as the church has discerned a legitimate calling from God. But, for this pastor, there was no possibility this could ever happen. Scripture, this pastor believed, was clear: women must be under male authority in the church. If you believed otherwise, you were abandoning Scripture and giving in to cultural pressure.

This was neither the first nor the last time I would have this kind of conversation. And, if you’re reading this blog, then you may have had a conversation like this as well. Supposedly, there are two black-and-white options. You either believe the Bible and that women must be under male authority or you’ve capitulated to culture.

The Plan

In this series of posts, I want to argue that this is not the case. Things are not so black-and-white in this debate. I am convinced that the Bible is in full support of gender equality within the church. That is, I do not believe that women should be restricted from the position of pastor or elder on the basis of their sex.

There are many different paths one could take to arrive at this destination. We could survey the examples of female leaders in the Bible (like Deborah and Junia, in Judges 4-5 and Romans 16:7, respectively). Others might opt to argue based on the overall trajectory they discern within Scripture – a trajectory toward something they might call an egalitarian or redemptive hermeneutic.

However, in this series of posts, I want to take a different approach. There are a few texts in Scripture that appear – at least on the surface – to teach the subordination of women to male authority. These texts are often used as proof texts to end the debate. “No matter what authority Deborah may have had,” the claim goes, “these texts rule out female pastors and elders.”

In this series, I want to zoom in and look at one of those texts in detail. The text we will study is 1 Corinthians 11:7-12. The ESV – a translation with a leaning towards complementarianism – translates the text this way:

For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife [or woman] ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

On a quick reading, this text appears “problematic” for someone in my shoes. It may even appear to be misogynistic. While many complementarians would not go this far today, they nevertheless believe that it teaches women must be in submission to male leadership within the church.

Over a series of seven blog posts, we will dive into some of the major interpretive issues of this text. Despite initial appearances, I will contend that these verses honour women and give them authority rather than subjecting them under it. My hope is that this exercise will function as a demonstration that egalitarians do not have to jettison parts of the Bible and capitulate to culture to hold their beliefs.

An Analogy for Interpretation

In the rest of this introductory post, I want to do two things. First, I want to give an analogy for interpretation that will guide us in this series. Then, I will give some brief context for our passage by looking at the context of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Let’s start with the analogy. When we approach a text, we can think of it like a jigsaw puzzle. The goal of the interpreter is to take the pieces (the different elements of the text), and put them together in such a way that they all fit and create a coherent picture (interpretation).

In each post, we will look at a different piece of this text that has to fit into our final picture. Our goal, by the end, is to be able to put all the elements of the text together into a coherent interpretation.

The Context

It goes without saying that I will not be able to explain every element of the text or defend every aspect of my interpretation in detail. And, no where is this truer than this brief description of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Nevertheless, it’s necessary for me to offer some brief comments here as 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 must necessarily fit into its larger context.

In these verses, Paul is largely commending the Corinthian church (contrast verse 2 with verse 17). When he was with them, he gave them a tradition that was universal in the church (verses 2 and 16). The tradition was that men should not cover their head when they pray and prophesy during the church gathering (verse 4). Women, however, should (verses 5-6).

While most of the church held to this tradition, there appears to be a minority that does not. (This minority includes at least some men based on the Greek grammar of 1 Corinthians 11:16.) As a result, Paul congratulates the majority of the church on keeping the traditions he handed to them in verse 2, while at the same time offering theological arguments in support of their decision.

And so, verses 7-12 are part of Paul’s bigger theological argument for his tradition. On the one hand, they argue that men should pray and prophesy with their head uncovered. On the other, they argue that a woman’s hair should be covered when they publicly pray and prophesy.

In the next post, we will focus in on verse 10 and the significance of head coverings.

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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