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What About the Angels?: Understanding 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 (Part 5)

Recap and Putting the Pieces Together

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 Part 4, we considered how Paul draws from the creation account in Genesis 2 to defend his assertion that woman is the glory of man (in addition to being the image and glory of God). In today’s post, we return to verse 10 and seek to understand why Paul refers to angels.

On a first reading, you may have missed it. But, in 1 Corinthians 11:7-12, angels make a brief and mysterious appearance. In verse 10, Paul writes, “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels” (NIV).

In order to understand this statement, we need to begin by drawing some of our previous conclusions together. So far, each post has focused in on one particular piece of the 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 puzzle. Now we need to put those pieces together.

After offering general context in the first post, I addressed a key translation issue in 1 Corinthians 11:10 in the second. On the basis of the Greek word Paul uses, I argued that Paul is saying women should have authority over their own head. That is, other men and women should not be able to prevent them from veiling when they pray and prophesy in church.

In that post, I also noted that the main reason translators add the words “symbol of” in this verse is because of the context. In particular, they don’t see how woman being the glory of man (verse 7), finding their source from man (verse 8), and being created because of man (verse 9), would mean women ought to have authority. Verses 7 to 9, they might say, show that Paul thinks women should be under male authority – not that they ought to have their own authority.

But, based on our third and fourth posts, we can now see that Paul’s conclusion in verse 10 easily fits within its context. Women, Paul argues, have an additional glory. In creation, she was praised for being “from man” and was the only land creature not made from the ground. Additionally, she was created to help meet the need of man. She was necessary for man to fulfill his calling.

And so, Paul concludes, “it is for this reason, that a woman ought to have authority over her own head.”

Now, if Paul had left things there, that would have been fine. His position was defended.

But, with four words, Paul adds a second argument. Women ought to have authority, he says, “because of the angels.”

In the rest of this post, I want to explore what that could mean.

A Proposal

When we come to the phrase “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10, the first thing we need to acknowledge is that it is mysterious. Paul doesn’t mention angels anywhere else in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Furthermore, there is no obvious connection between women having authority over their head and angels.

Despite this, it seems reasonable to assume that Paul would have expected at least some of his original audience to understand it. Consequently, there must be some alternative source of knowledge that would help them understand the connection.

One possible source of this information is what Paul has already written in 1 Corinthians. Is there another discussion concerning angels in 1 Corinthians that can shed light on our text?

There are three prior references to angels in 1 Corinthians. The first occurs in 1 Corinthians 4:9 and the third in 1 Corinthians 10:10. Neither of these passages illuminate our text.

However, the second reference to angels is a different story. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-6, Paul addresses Corinthian Christians who have disputes with one another. He tells them it is shameful that they take these disputes before “the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people” (verse 1). In verses 2 and 3, Paul then gives reasons why the Corinthians should be able to adjudicate these disputes among themselves. He writes,

Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! (NIV, emphasis added)

Now, how exactly all this will work out in detail is another issue. But, in 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, the logic is clear. It is an argument from the greater to the lesser. If the Corinthian Christians will one day judge angels (the greater task), then they should be able to sort out disputes concerning things in this life (a lesser task).

If we take this reasoning and apply it to our text in 1 Corinthians 11:10, then it fits perfectly. In 1 Corinthians 11:10, it is precisely a woman’s authority to judge the “things of this life” that is at issue. Paul affirms that women ought to have authority over her veiling practices (an issue of this life). Why? Because, in the future, she will have an even greater authority. She will have authority over angels.

To put it in the form of a question, how could the Corinthian men prevent women from making this type of judgment when Christian women will be judges of angels? Paul’s argument is that they must not do so; women ought to have authority over their head because of the angels.

Once again, then, we see that these verses hold a high view of women. Paul is not contending for female subordination. He is defending their right to have authority over their veiling practices.

In the next post in this series, we will examine 1 Corinthians 11:11-12. Do these verses fit with the interpretation offered thus far throughout these posts? Or, as one complementarian argues, do they refute it?

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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