A summer blog series….
If you had to take a vote, what would you say is the weirdest passage in the New Testament? Some might raise their hand and immediately say “The Book of Revelation.” Ok, that is a whole book, so how about something shorter?
What about Paul’s teaching on “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29? Ok, that’s pretty weird, and yes, Veracity covered that about year ago. How about Jesus and that thing with the fig tree in Mark 11:12-21? Yes, that is a bit weird, too. But if I had my pick, it would be Paul’s teaching about head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
I mean, when I first tried to read the entire New Testament cover-to-cover back in high school, this one just jumped out at me: What in the world is Paul talking about? Here is the whole disputed passage from the English Standard Version:
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 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. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
Some of the things that Paul says sound fairly straightforward, but certainly not all of it. Frankly, if you are like most Christians I know, you probably just gloss over this passage and move onto something else. Better to pretend that something this weird in the Bible did not exist, right?
Well, we probably know that if you really believe the New Testament to be God’s Word, then it might be important to try to make some attempt to understand this chunk of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. God’s self-disclosure in Holy Scripture is not just some random exercise where we can pick things we like and toss out the rest. For that would dishonor the Lord Jesus. Plus, every book of the Bible is its own literary unit. Simply picking out parts of the Bible and forgetting the rest is not a good recipe for really understanding the Bible. However, if most American Christians are honest, we would prefer to ignore this passage, and if you were even to ask Bible scholars about it, they might agree with you as to how difficult this passage is. It is one of the most hotly debated passages in New Testament scholarship.
In this series of blog posts, Veracity will attempt to make some sense about this passage. The significance of this passage is that it plays a vital role in the on-going debates regarding how men and women are to relate to one another in the church; in what sense are husbands to be “head” of the home, should women serve as elders in a local church, etc. This is part of the rather controversial discussion between so-called “complementarians” and “egalitarians” that has continued to divide believers from one another, resulting in church and denominational splits, particularly within the last sixty years, and more intensely within the last couple of decades. I have written about this debate at length on Veracity, in another blog series, but because 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is just so weird, it really deserves special treatment all on its own.
This passage brings up a number of questions. Here is a sample:
- What does “head” mean in this passage?
- Is this passage about a physical head covering, or is it about the length of hair, comparing a man and a woman?
- Is the teaching merely cultural, applicable only to Paul’s first century context, or does it have relevance to 21st century Christians?
- Why does Paul bring up the topic of creation here?
- Why does Paul talk about God’s relationship to Christ?
- What does Paul mean by “image”, “glory,” and “nature” in this passage?
- Does this passage contradict with what Paul says just a few chapters ahead, in 1 Corinthians 14, about women speaking (or not speaking) in church?
- What is Paul’s mention about “no such practice” in verse 16 referring to?
- Does this passage even belong in the Bible?
- Is Paul refuting, instead of teaching, much of what we read here?
- What is this whole thing about “because of the angels” in verse 10?
- How do we apply this passage to us today?
As we head into the summer, over the next group of blog posts, I will write about different views that various scholars take regarding this passage, one by one. My wife often tells me that I typically just lay out different views about difficult parts of the Bible and I do not really land anywhere, and it frustrates her to no end! So, to try to make her a little happier, I will summarize each viewpoint in the successive blog posts, and then you can figure out where I might land in the final analysis. We can discuss different interpretations of the Bible, but in the end, there is a right and wrong way of understanding the text:
- The Traditional View (well, at least it summarizes some of the main points that many Christians have agreed with for centuries).
- The Hyper-Conservative View (otherwise known as the “John MacArthur” view)
- The Symbol of Protection View (challenges the idea that head coverings signify something about authority)
- The Hairstyle View (in other words, this is not about head coverings per se, but rather about male vs. female hairstyles)
- The Quotation/Refutation View (Paul is refuting a Corinthian false teaching)
- The Interpolation View (Someone stuck this passage in the Bible later on, or Paul himself put it in there, and then just ran away….. yeah, seriously)
- The Supernatural Sexual Modesty View (otherwise known as the “PG-13” view…. that is, keep this away from young children)
- Applying 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Today (what do we do with all of this?)
It will take nearly the whole summer of 2023 to get through this, so I will try to make it more digestible in bite-size pieces. I will probably take a few breaks along the way, to spice things up.
I am not trying to say that I have the infallible perspective, but I do think that at least one viewpoint is far superior than others. If you do not want to read anything further in this series, and just want to watch a video, I would highly recommend the work of Christian apologist Mike Winger. Mike has done an excellent, thorough YouTube study of all of the relevant passages regarding the complementarian/egalitarian controversy, even if you do not find all of his arguments convincing. I have previously linked to most of his prior videos on this topic in my review of Kevin DeYoung’s book on this topic, from 2022. While Winger is not a Biblical scholar by trade, he has done quite a bit of homework, and his YouTube talks are high in quality.
However, his longest video is on this particular passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. It comes in at a whopping 6 hours and 46 minutes. WOW!! I can not endorse everything Mike says in nearly 7 hours, but he is thorough. See the video below.
So, if you just want to read a much shorter summary of what Mike Winger says, in Veracity style, stick around for the following blog series. I land at a different place from Mike, but I do appreciate his work. Please feel free to follow on Veracity by clicking one of the “Follow” buttons on the right and/or enter your email address, then click “Follow.” Feel free to comment along the way, too.
Oh….and one more thing…. the reason why I am doing this series…. : About four years ago, my local church held a discussion about the complementarian/egalitarian controversy. The overall presentation was well done, but the discussion stirred up a lot of emotions that rippled through the entire church body, generating a lot of confusion and even frustration.
This particular passage on head coverings was mentioned in a period of just five minutes. Five minutes. That’s all.
I left the discussion having more questions than answers. Since then, not a single sermon, Bible study group, question and answer session, or anything else in our church has attempted to address this passage in a meaningful way. In defense of our church leaders, our church was not obligated to uncover every stone on this. But it still bothered me to have these questions and very few answers. So, since our church leadership decided to bypass this passage, I felt that I had no choice but to dig into this myself, if I was going to understand what Paul was teaching.
As an evangelical Christian, I believe that I have the opportunity and the obligation to share with others the Good News as presented in the Bible. But it is pretty difficult to share my confidence in what the Bible teaches to others who need to hear the Gospel when we effectively gloss over, or even skip, certain weird parts of the Bible, especially a passage that is partly responsible for dividing many, many churches and denominations in our current day. Here, I offer to you, my research into this vexing passage…. a passage that most Christians would rather ignore than talk about.
Veracity is different. Here at Veracity, we want to talk about it. We want to dig into the Scriptures. Why? So we can better handle God’s Word.
So stay tuned!!