SPECIAL TOPIC: HEAD COVERINGS
Paul's discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is not limited to women, but is also addressed to men. As usual, in Corinth, the problem is from two directions. As a sign of their elite social status some men were covering their heads when they led in gathered worship as they had done in paganism. As a sign of their social emancipation women were removing their marriage veils when they led in gathered worship (cf. Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, pp. 121-141). This text uniquely suits Roman Corinth. In Jewish life and Greek life women did not normally wear head coverings.
It seems that this ambiguous context is open to multiple interpretations. These interpretations say more about the interpreter's biases than Paul's intent. A text which has been and can be understood in so many ways by sincere believers must surely not be used in a definitive, dogmatic way to restrict or advocate the place and function of women in the church or the relationship between men and women in all ages and cultures. It amazes me that some believers relegate the 1 Corinthians 11 discussion of head coverings for men and women to a cultural issue (even though Paul appeals to Genesis 1-3), while at the same time, demanding Paul's limits on women in church as a principle for all ages. It is this lack of consistency that causes so much trouble in interpretation. The best brief discussion of this complicated and emotional issue is in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart, pp. 61-77 or Gospel and Spirit, by Gordon Fee.
This continues my notes on this subject from 1 Cor. 11:4. This is a word play on "head." The second use of the word "head" refers to Christ (cf. TEV). Paul is dealing with a Roman culture whose forms and symbols are exactly opposite of Jewish culture (i.e., men cover their heads). The real issue is not who covers whose head, but the symbol of (1) origin or (2) submission, which are both theologically significant.
It has been suggested that the historical situation in Corinth:
1. the social, political, and financial leaders led worship with a head covering to differentiate themselves from the common man
2. that Jews in the synagogue in Corinth required women to wear a veil and believing Jews expected the same in the church
There is a theological tension between this verse, which seems to affirm women in leadership roles in public worship with the socially acceptable covering, compared to 1 Cor. 14:34-35, where women (or at least "wives," v. 35) are forbidden to speak in church.
Some groups prooftext chapter 11, while others use chapter 14. It must be admitted that the key to this passage is the first century cultural setting of Corinth, but which specific aspect is not clear to us today. The first century church knew of women's leadership in the OT and was aware of Paul's use of women in his ministry (cf. Romans 16). They understood the issue in Corinth and the Roman culture as we do not. Dogmatism is inappropriate!
A recent book, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change, by Bruce W. Winter, pp. 121-141, offers some very helpful insights from Roman literature and art. This and other articles (i.e., E. Fantham, "The ‘New Woman': Representation and Reality," in Women in the Classical World, chapter 10, and P. W. J. Gill, "The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head Coverings in I Corinthians 11:2-16," TynB 41.2 (1990): pp. 245-260 and "In Search of the Social Elite in the Corinthian Church," TynB 44.2 (1993): pp. 323-337), shows modern interpreters how first century Corinth was Roman, not Greek, in culture.
With these new documented insights from first century Roman Corinth, it is possible to begin to see the cultural issues Paul faced in this book.
1. Paul is not addressing Jewish culture nor Greek culture at all in this context.
2. Paul is addressing two groups with elite social status.
a. Wealthy, socially elite, male believers were showing off their positions by covering their heads when leading public worship, as was customary for this social class when leading civic Greco-Roman religious worship. They were flaunting themselves.
b. The wealthy, elite wives were removing their culturally expected veil to flaunt their equality, not only in Christ, but also as a social statement, as were other Roman women of the period.
3. The citizens of Roman Corinth, who were curious about the Christian faith and worship practices, would send a "messenger" (i.e., angels of 1 Cor. 11:10 may refer to servants or representatives sent on behalf of masters) to check out the meeting.
This historical/cultural/social information makes good sense of a very difficult and disputed text. It also fits other texts in I Corinthians, which obviously reflects a unique first century, Corinthian setting!
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