Women Praying and Prophesying in the Local Church Gathering

Paul has been admonishing the Church at Corinth toward unity through maturity. He has expounded on Christian liberty. The earth and everything on it belong to the Lord. Therefore, we are to eat and drink and whatever we do to the glory of God, not self. We are not condemned by the consciences of others, nor do we condemn others by our consciences. Paul is careful with his words and his ordering of answers he provides to the Church at Corinth. He has intentionally expounded on Christian liberty and conscience prior to addressing the Corinthians’ controversy about head-coverings. It was considered pious and modest for women to wear head coverings in Jewish culture. In Corinth, it seems that some people were causing a controversy by refusing the custom. Doubtless, there are customs we have in our own day that cause controversy in the local church. How do men and women present themselves in the local church gathering? Are men really to be the only teachers? Are there gender and sex distinctions as the local church gathers? While many preachers might skip passages like this or explain them away because of our current cultural paradigm, we want to explain it. Scripture answers according to God’s design, not our depraved and wretched human wills or societal philosophies.

1 Corinthians 11:2-17

2 Ἐπαινῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς ὅτι πάντα μου μέμνησθε καὶ καθὼς παρέδωκα ὑμῖν τὰς παραδόσεις κατέχετε.  3 θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς εἰδέναι ὅτι παντὸς ἀνδρὸς ἡ κεφαλὴ ὁ Χριστός ἐστιν, κεφαλὴ δὲ γυναικὸς ὁ ἀνήρ, κεφαλὴ δὲ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὁ θεός.  4 πᾶς ἀνὴρ προσευχόμενος ἢ προφητεύων κατὰ κεφαλῆς ἔχων καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ·  5 πᾶσα δὲ γυνὴ προσευχομένη ἢ προφητεύουσα ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτῆς, ἓν γάρ ἐστιν καὶ τὸ αὐτὸ τῇ ἐξυρημένῃ.  6 εἰ γὰρ οὐ κατακαλύπτεται γυνή, καὶ κειράσθω· εἰ δὲ αἰσχρὸν γυναικὶ τὸ κείρασθαι ἢ ξυρᾶσθαι, κατακαλυπτέσθω.  7 ἀνὴρ μὲν γὰρ οὐκ ὀφείλει κατακαλύπτεσθαι τὴν κεφαλήν, εἰκὼν καὶ δόξα θεοῦ ὑπάρχων· ἡ γυνὴ δὲ δόξα ἀνδρός ἐστιν.  8 οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀνὴρ ἐκ γυναικός, ἀλλὰ γυνὴ ἐξ ἀνδρός·  9 καὶ γὰρ οὐκ ἐκτίσθη ἀνὴρ διὰ τὴν γυναῖκα, ἀλλὰ γυνὴ διὰ τὸν ἄνδρα.  10 διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους.  11 πλὴν οὔτε γυνὴ χωρὶς ἀνδρὸς οὔτε ἀνὴρ χωρὶς γυναικὸς ἐν κυρίῳ·  12 ὥσπερ γὰρ ἡ γυνὴ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρός, οὕτως καὶ ὁ ἀνὴρ διὰ τῆς γυναικός· τὰ δὲ πάντα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ.  13 ἐν ὑμῖν αὐτοῖς κρίνατε· πρέπον ἐστὶν γυναῖκα ἀκατακάλυπτον τῷ θεῷ προσεύχεσθαι;  14 οὐδὲ ἡ φύσις αὐτὴ διδάσκει ὑμᾶς ὅτι ἀνὴρ μὲν ἐὰν κομᾷ, ἀτιμία αὐτῷ ἐστιν,  15 γυνὴ δὲ ἐὰν κομᾷ, δόξα αὐτῇ ἐστιν; ὅτι ἡ κόμη ἀντὶ περιβολαίου δέδοται.  16 εἰ δέ τις δοκεῖ φιλόνεικος εἶναι, ἡμεῖς τοιαύτην συνήθειαν οὐκ ἔχομεν, οὐδὲ αἱ ἐκκλησίαι τοῦ θεοῦ.  

17 Τοῦτο δὲ παραγγέλλων οὐκ ἐπαινῶ ὅτι οὐκ εἰς τὸ κρεῖσσον ἀλλὰ εἰς τὸ ἧσσον συνέρχεσθε.

Knowledge and understanding (v. 2-3)

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.

Paul praises the congregation at Corinth because the people remember him in everything and hold firmly to the tradition as he delivered them, supposedly when he planted the church or sent the letter that preceded 1 Corinthians. This statement seems out of place since Paul has been correcting and admonishing the church up to this point. Paul clarifies for us in his next statement, “But,” meaning that there is something other than tradition he desires from the local church, “I want you to understand…”

In this context, Paul’s reference to tradition is a reference to what he taught—nothing but Christ and Christ crucified and not exceeding the Scriptures (cf. 2:2; 4:6). He praises the Corinthians for holding to his biblical teaching philosophically. Knowledge by itself is not sufficient. Knowledge by itself puffs up (cf. 8:1). Paul desires the Corinthians understand what he taught, not clinging to knowledge as if it were the primary means of faith. We know right and wrong. We have the Bible memorized. We know what is expected. We know theology. We know about God and about one another. We can learn stuff. Would you be surprised if I told you that memorizing Scripture was not the highest thing on the Bible’s list of important things to do? Knowledge is good but quickly becomes an idol. It is more important for us to understand the Scriptures than to have them memorized. Our involvement with the church is not to be obsequious. Our faith is not to be blind. So, Paul praises the congregants for their knowledge because knowledge is good. Knowledge has puffed up, and Paul desires they understand rather than merely memorize.

Concerning their controversy about head-coverings, paul wants them to understand the doctrine of the Trinity—particularly the economy of the godhead. Interesting, here, that a proper understanding of the economic Trinity is Paul’s prerequisite for understanding the posture of men and women in the church gathering. It is almost as if God has designed the church gathering to reveal Himself. It is almost as if what we understand about God applies to every arena of life. 

Christ is the head of every man, here to mean males and not all people in general. There is no way we can get around that as much as we might want to. This does not mean that women cannot be saved unless they are married. Nor does it indicate that women are somehow worth less than men. The text does not say those things. Paul simply writes that Christ is the head of every man. There is some kind of economic structure put in place by God wherein men are directly responsible to God as being under the direct headship of Christ in some way. We do not yet know how. Further, every man, seems to indicate that Christ’s headship as described here is a general headship of a certain type applied over all men, not only those in the local church. This means that every man is in some way directly responsible before Christ. Every man. We do not yet know how.

Man, meaning males, is the head of a woman. Again, we don’t know how yet. All we know is that there is some kind of structure, and our place in that structure is identifiable by our natural sex or gender. We don’t know anything else yet, and we should be careful not to read too much into the text. The designation “a woman” is an interesting one. A closer look at the Greek reveals that the type of woman being referred to is a married woman. So, it should be known that the type of authority Paul is referencing, here, deals specifically with the marriage relationship. Women are not under the headship of every man, but each under the headship of her own husband.

God is the head of Christ. Remember, Paul is here describing the economic Trinity and not the inner-trinitarian relations because men and women are part of Paul’s paradigm. Men and women are not part of the Trinity. There are some who take the statements, here, to argue in favor of Eternal Subordination of the Son, or Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son, but Paul’s statements do not deal with the transcendent Trinity. They deal with the economic Trinity—not relations but operations. So, we cannot take this text to expound on the eternal relations of the persons of the godhead. Just as Paul has not yet revealed how Christ is the head of every man generally, he has not yet revealed how God, here referring to the Father, is the head of Christ economically.

Men and women in the local gathering (v. 4-15)

Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 

The economy of the godhead in these verses has to do specifically with prayer and prophesying. Since Paul has admonished the local church not to exceed what is written (4:6), we know that prophesying deals specifically with speaking God’s word as it has been given—expositing the Scriptures. New Testament prophecy, no matter how creative, is expositing what has already been revealed in the Old Testament and in Christ, the full and final revelation of God (cf. Hebrews 1:1-4). Even Revelation is an exposition of Old Testament Prophecy with the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 24 and application to the First Century Imperial Cult and destruction of the Temple in AD 70. To say that the book of Revelation is new revelation or prophecy is to turn the book of Revelation against the rest of Scripture from the outset—which does not bode well if we want to interpret it well. The economy of God in the local church, then, deals primarily with praying and preaching the already revealed word.

Notice, both men and women are given the opportunity to pray and exposit Scripture in the context of the church gathering. Paul is not, here, talking about two different types of praying and prophecy. His words are equitous, only not according to the current social-justice definition. We would have to have an inconsistent hermeneutic to claim that only men can pray or prophesy in the local church and women can only prophesy to younger women and evangelize outside the church. We want to be consistent in our hermeneutic so that our interpretation of Scripture is correct. If anything, we must say that men and women, in the church and out, have a responsibility to pray and preach God’s word to all creation. From the outset, then, we know that this instruction does not deal with the ability of men or women to preach. It does not deal with the differing responsibilities of men and women, since we are here described as having the same responsibilities to pray and preach—all men being under the headship of Christ and all women being somehow under the headship of men. We do not, here, receive a restriction on what women can do in the church or the types of ministries they can be involved with—even being granted to both pray and prophesy in the context of the gathered church.

Yet, men and women are to take different postures as they pray and prophesy—meaning that there is a difference. Neither is to pray or prophecy disgracefully. For men, it means praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered. For women, it means praying and prophesying with their heads covered. There are some who explain this text by saying that Paul is simply admonishing men to present themselves like men and women to present themselves like women and some who claim that this is binding law for all Christian women (that they must still wear head coverings today), but I think something more is going on here that will become clearer as we move through the remainder of the text.

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

Paul alludes to the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1:27, we see that people were created in God’s image. In Genesis 2, we see how the woman came to be. Man was created first, the image and glory of God on the earth. What does it mean that man is the image and glory of God? Paul does not remove women from the Imago Dei. He does identify men, particularly, as the primary picture of God on the earth for God’s glory. God desires to be perceived as masculine, so He created man first as His glory on the earth. Yet, it was not good for man to be alone. It was good that he have a helpmate—woman. So, God caused man to fall asleep and fashioned woman from his rib. Paul considers the order of creation binding, as if God’s operations are applicable to the way people do things—as if God did things the way He did intentionally and as if He wants us to honor Him in the way we also do things. Man was not created for woman’s sake. There was no woman when man was made. He was made for Christ’s sake. Woman was made for man’s sake, as his helpmate. Therefore, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head.

Lest we think that women are an afterthought, we consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 5—identifying men as the picture of Christ and women as the picture of the Church, the object of Christ’s doting, grace, and faithfulness unto death on a cross. God created two sexes, two genders, in order to present a picture of the relationship between Himself and His bride, His church. Here, Paul is saying that men and women have a responsibility to posture themselves according to the purpose for which God designed each. Since the Church has Christ as her authority, women are to posture themselves under the authority of men in the local church—not having any restrictions as to what they can do, but having a posture as the image of Christ’s bride for the sake of worship. Every man and woman has such a responsibility before God because this is about God’s glory, not ours.

In the First Century, that meant head coverings. Today, there are other appropriate postures for worship and presentation, and we should think through those together—they certainly include the filling of church offices, particularly the office of elder, and the filling of the pulpit, which is place of the elders as they serve the congregation through authoritative preaching. If women, though, are not restricted in what they can do, why does Paul write to Timothy:

But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (1 Timothy 2:12-15).

Paul’s teaching is consistent. Women are not to teach with authority over men. They are not to exercise authority over men. Why? Adam was created first. Eve was deceived and fell into transgression, being, as a woman, the primary picture of the redeemed of God—His Church. Women are to remain quiet, meaning humble (living in quietness). They are preserved through childbearing, a picture of the expanding kingdom of God in covenant community (the Church). Even in 1 Timothy, childbearing and rearing is a picture of the expanding Church and the role of the redeemed in Christ’s expanding kingdom. Men are the primary messengers (the image and glory of God), rendered as “angels” in most english translations. Women are a glorious picture of the redemption and salvation of the whole world, and many miss it, having to explain away these difficult teachings, because the church has, in large part, forsaken covenant theology. Biblical gender distinctions are not restrictive but awe-inspiring and revealing. Christ loves His Church, and His kingdom is expanding through His church.

Economically, the Son always does the Father’s will. Christ has praying and prophesying authority over every man, and every man is responsible to pray and prophesy according to Christ. Every man has praying and prophesying authority over a woman—each one’s wife respectively. This structure is in no way restrictive. Instead, it is a picture of Christ and His church. Liturgy, what we do and how in the worship gathering, is therefore itself a presentation of the Gospel. Applied, this text is not a legalistic instruction for women to wear hijabs. Instead, it is an admonition for men to posture themselves like men and women to posture themselves like women because God had a real purpose for designing and creating two sexes the way He did. God is the one to be honored. Every man and woman, in the local church and out, believer and unbeliever, has this responsibility before God—which is why Paul condemns effeminacy, adultery, homosexuality, and fornication as sin in Chapter 6, verse 9. All those things remove us from the posture of worship and from ourselves being the image of God—who receives all glory through what He has made, including us.

However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

Paul clarifies that neither man nor woman is worth more than the other. They are equal and codependent. We are to judge for ourselves whether it if right for a woman to pray with her head uncovered according to her basic presentation in nature—as if sex and gender distinctions are plain by both common and scientific observation. Women are feminine by nature. Men are masculine by nature. We should not change the way we were born by presenting ourselves otherwise.

Contentiousness (v. 16-17)

But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.

Paul anticipates some level of contentiousness in reaction to his teaching because he is not teaching in line with the cultural paradigm in Corinth. We often wonder about the relevance of Scripture being written 2,000 years ago. Yet, the controversies of today have not changed from the time Paul wrote this. Replying to the contentiousness of those in Corinth, he states that if one is inclined to be contentious about sex or gender distinctions to the glory of God, we (meaning the apostles and Sosthenes; cf. 1:1) have no other practice. In fact, this is a controversy foreign to the other churches. Such distinctions to the glory of God alone are agreed upon and it is nonsensical to argue in favor of another way. Why? Even nature speaks plainly that there are perspicuous distinctions. In the cultural paradigm of Corinth, Paul appeals to natural and divine order while the world around him appeals to no order at all.

Paul praised the Corinthians for their knowledge, but in giving this instruction he does not praise them because they come together for the worse rather than the better—coming together for their own purposes and social causes rather than to honor Christ as the head of the Church, seeking to live quietly and humbly before Him.

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