1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Married Women and Merely Cultural?
This section of Scripture is often misunderstood in different ways. Although there are some inexplicable portions to the passage, we should be able to avoid some of the common misconceptions.
Bonnie Bowman Thurston wrote a book entitled, “The Widows: A Womans Ministry in the Early Church,” and in her volume Thurston makes some of the same mistakes that others have made in the past. Let us examine several of her assumptions. This author writes, “Paul apparently has married women chiefly in mind in Corinthians, and he appeals on the basis of established custom.” In rejecting Tertullian’s writing about women, Thurston says, “He [Tertullian] does not seem to comprehend the obvious fact that Paul admits that women, as a matter of course, pray and prophesy in public worship.” She continues, “While Paul appeals to the common custom of his time, Tertullian seems to be asking for a return to a practice that has passed out of fashion.” (Other writers could be cited to illustrate the same contentions.)
Let us address these points, one by one. First, does Paul only have married women in mind in this passage? On the contrary, Paul begins the section by writing: “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” (1 Cor. 11:3). Obviously, the apostle is offering a basis upon which he will build his succeeding argument (in verses 4-16). Paul uses the common terms for the male (andros, from aner) and female (gunaikos, from gune), the former meaning a man “in distinction from a woman,” and the latter meaning “a woman unmarried or married” (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). Vine says that the context must decide the meaning. Since the context gives no indication that a husband or wife is under consideration, it is better to see this as a reference to male and female, per se. This is why most Bible versions use “man” and “woman” in this passage.
Furthermore, Paul’s argument in verses 8-9 demands the general meaning of male and female and not husband and wife: “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.” Verses 11-12 also indicate that Paul is speaking in general terms in the passage. Therefore, the passage does not only refer to married men and women, as Thurston implies, but refers to all men and women, regardless of their marital status.
Second, Thurston says that Paul “appeals on the basis of established custom” or “the common custom of his time.” Read the passage for yourself to see that Paul fails to make this connection. It would have been a simple matter for him to say, “I write this that you may not violate the established order in Corinth and violate the custom of women wearing head veilings that proper women in the community wear.” But nothing like this is to be found in the passage. Rather, the apostle appeals to Scriptural principles, the creation order, the angels, and personal conscience or a sense of rightness (vv. 4-15). Above all, he appeals to the apostle’s own practice and that of the assemblies of God in general (v. 16). There seems to be no hint that the Corinthian women are to wear veils because the Gentile or Jewish women practiced this in similar circumstances. In fact, history and iconography show various clothing customs at the time.
Third, Thurston claims that Paul “admits that women, as a matter of course, pray and prophesy in public worship.” This also presents a problem. If we only had this chapter as evidence, we might well conclude that women did pray and prophesy in the public meetings of the saints. However, Paul proceeds to discuss this very subject in Chapter 14 of the Corinthian letter. Paul writes, “The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. . . . It is improper for a woman to speak in church” (vv. 34, 35b). It is possible to see the paragraph as beginning in the latter part of verse 33; if so, Paul prefaces his clear prohibition with the statement, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women.” In other words, as in 1 Cor. 11:16, Paul indicates that in all the assemblies of God’s people, the women remain absolutely silent in the meetings. He places his own apostolic authority on this command by writing, “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (v. 37). Paul is conveying the very will of Christ in this matter.
If Paul absolutely forbids women from addressing the assembly, particularly in the matter of prophesying (in Chapter 14), we surely cannot assume that he permitted in Chapter 11 what he disallows in Chapter 14. The only conclusion that I’ve been able to come to is that the praying and prophesying mentioned in Chapter 11 refers to that which the women were doing in non-assembly or non-public contexts. In the first century, the Christians were not so bound to public meetings (which would have been in private dwellings) as many are today. There would have been many opportunities for women prophetesses to prophesy and women to pray in less than public contexts. Evidently, this is how we are to see the activity of Philip’s “four virgin daughters who were prophetesses” (Acts 21:9). Of course, women would have been permitted to pray (silently, as they listened to a male lead, 1 Tim. 2:8), and this might well be covered by Paul’s reference to praying in Chapter 11.
The misunderstandings that we have briefly considered above show that we need to look at the text of Scripture and make sure that what we believe can be substantiated from God’s Word. Let us keep from assuming that every author is unbiased about every subject. We must admit that there are difficult aspects to the text we have considered and we do not have all of the answers to these problem areas, but we can understand the fundamental thrust of Paul’s instruction.