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Who has Authority?: Understanding 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 (Part 2)

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 first post, I situated this text in the context of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The big picture is that Paul is arguing that women should cover their head during worship (and that men shouldn’t).

Many see these verses as teaching that women must be subject to male authority in the church. However, my contention is that, when we examine 1 Corinthians 11:7-12 more closely, the text can be understood in a way that supports egalitarian convictions.

In this post, we begin by looking at our first piece of the puzzle: the proper translation of verse 10. Let’s begin by getting a feel for what the possible options are.

Many translations translate verse 10 in a similar manner to the NET Bible translation:

For this reason, a woman should have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

The typical complementarian interpretation of these verses goes something like this: in verse 10, Paul concludes that women should wear a head covering when they pray and prophesy. The head covering is a symbol of a woman’s submission to male authority.

However, this interpretation is much less clear in the NIV translation. It translates verse 10 like this:

It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.

This translation leads to a different interpretation. According to the NIV, the woman has authority (or ought to have it). In other words, Paul is saying that the women should have authority over their choice to wear a head covering. It is a decision within their authority.

The NET and NIV lead to extremely different interpretations. Consequently, one key decision we have to make when studying this text is how to translate this verse. Is the best translation “symbol of authority” or “authority”?

The Data

The Greek word we need to study is the word exousia. This is a common word used throughout the New Testament. Let’s consider a couple of places where it’s used.

First, let’s look at Revelation 2:26-27. In this text, Jesus is speaking to the church in Thyatira. According to the NET translation, he says,

And to the one who conquers and who continues in my deeds until the end, I will give him authority [exousia] over the nations— he will rule them with an iron rod and like clay jars he will break them to pieces…

In this example, Christ is not giving the one who conquers a symbol of authority over the nations. The one who conquers is given authority.

We find another example in Romans 9:21. Still using the NET, Paul writes,

Has the potter no right [exousia] to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special use and another for ordinary use?

Once again, it would make no sense to translate exousia as “symbol of authority.” The potter has authority over the clay which he uses.

These two examples were picked at random. They were picked at random because, as far as I’m aware, the data is indisputable. There are no other instances where the Greek word exousia means symbol of authority. As Thomas Schreiner, a complementarian admits, “there are no other examples of exousia being used this way.”[1]

So, based solely on the words Paul used in 1 Corinthians 11:10, the conclusion is nearly certain. Paul is saying that women ought to have authority over their head. The NIV translation gets it right.

But, if the evidence is so clear, then why do so many translations use the phrase “symbol of authority”?

Addressing Objections

In a word, context. As far as many interpreters can see, it makes no sense for Paul to say that a woman ought to have authority over whether or not she covers her head in verse 10.

We can break this issue down into two different parts.

First, in the eyes of many, translating verse 10 this way makes no sense of Paul’s logic in the surrounding verses. When they interpret verses 7 to 9, for example, they don’t see how the NIV translation fits with their interpretation. Consequently, they add the words “symbol of” to make sense of the text.

These are the types of issues we’ll explore in other blog posts in this series. But, it’s worth pointing out now that this type of objection can cut both ways. If interpreters have trouble matching their interpretation of verses 7 to 9 with the meaning of verse 10, why is changing the meaning of Paul’s words in verse 10 the best solution? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to conclude that their interpretation of verses 7 to 9 is incorrect?

The second part of the context objection has to do with head coverings. Based on 1 Corinthians 11:4-6, it’s clear that Paul wants women to wear head coverings. But if that’s the case, then how can Paul conclude that women have “authority over their own head” (i.e. authority to decide whether they wear a head covering)?

This is a difficult objection to answer if we assume that women wanted to remove their head coverings. If women were rebelling against covering their heads but Paul wants them to cover their heads, then we would have a contradiction.

But, what if the women wanted to wear the head covering? What if women were the ones holding to the traditions Paul gave them (see verse 2), and it was a group of men who wanted women to be uncovered?

Consider Cynthia Westfall’s comments on this passage from her book Paul & Gender:

It is usually assumed without question that Paul was correcting the Corinthian women. However, the passage is more coherent if it is assumed that the Corinthian women were refusing to remove their head coverings or veils, but were being pressured or encouraged to remove their veils by those in authority… This is a type of scenario that is being played out repeatedly in cultures that veil. Women of their own volition wear traditional dress because they are uncomfortable displaying their hair (and arms and legs) in public, or refuse to remove it in home gatherings and parties while governments, men, and even some other women family members insist on the removal for various reasons and motivations. (pg. 32).

If the head covering was a symbol of modesty and honour (see Westfall’s discussion on pgs. 24-37), then it means women would want to wear a veil.

If this is the case, then there would be no contradiction for Paul to argue that women should veil and that they should have the authority to decide to veil. They would both lead to the same outcome: women would wear a head covering.

In conclusion, 1 Corinthians 11:10 says that women should have authority over their own head. Significantly, this is the only place in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 where authority is mentioned, and Paul says women should have it!

The question is “Can this conclusion make sense in light of the surrounding verses?” We will begin to answer that question in our next post.

[1] Tom Schreiner, “Head Coverings, Prophecies, and the Trinity”, in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, (pg. 172, 3rd edition).

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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