Different, but the Same (1 Corinthians 11:2–16)

My wife is an excellent sermon critic. She cuts through rhetorical folderol, long-winded illustrations, and abstract theologizing like a hot knife through butter. And she does it with a simple question: What do you want me to do?

I think of her question when I read 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. Commentators disagree on the details of this passage[i]. For example:

  • Paul uses the word head—Greek, kephale—metaphorically in verse 3, where he writes: “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” Does kephale denote “authority over” or “source of”?
  • Paul uses the word head literally and metaphorically in verse 4, where he writes: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his [literal] head covered dishonors his [metaphorical] head,” that is, Christ. The phrase, “with…head covered” translates the Greek phrase kata kephales, which literally means “down from the head.” Does Paul have in mind a veil of some sort, long hair, something else?

These disagreements are not irrelevant.

The debate about kephale affects the Christian understanding of male-female relationships. If kephale connotes “authority over,” then Paul is teaching a functional hierarchy between men and women. Scholars who interpret kephale this way find confirmation in Paul’s statement that women should have a “sign of authority”— Greek, exousia—on their heads (verse 10). If kephale connotes “source of,” however, then Paul is teaching the ontological interrelatedness and equality of men and women by reference to the creation story in Genesis 2:18–22 (Eve comes from Adam’s rib) and the facts of biology (all men have biological mothers). These scholars find confirmation for their interpretation in verses 8, 11, and 12.

The debate over kata kephales also shapes what men and women wear in church services. Have you ever wondered why etiquette dictates that men can’t wear hats in church but women can? Look no further than this passage.

I hear my wife’s voice asking, “What do you want me to do?” So let me cut through these debates like a hot butter knife and tell you.

First, Paul wants men to look like men and women to look like women. Looking like members of the same sex is honorable, but looking like members of the opposite sex is shameful. The debates over kephale and kata kephales are theoretical, not practical. Both sides agree that men should look like men and women like women. They disagree why they should do so. But in terms of practice, there is no debate.

Second, Paul wants men and women to pray and prophesy in church. Most of us grew up in churches where only pastors talked during the service, and the vast majority of those pastors were men. Paul assumed that spiritually gifted people—not just pastors, and not just men—would talk in the worship service, whether to God through public prayer or to the congregation through public prophecy.

Men and women are different, but their spiritual giftedness is the same.

[i] If you’re interested in reading more about the debate, read Gordon D. Fee, “Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 11:2–16)” (scroll down to chapter 8). Fee advocates an egalitarian reading of the passage. Then read Thomas R. Schreiner’s reply; he advocates a complementarian (or hierarchical) reading of the passage.

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