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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Headship, submission and cultural context

2 I praise you because you remember me in everything and, as I passed on to you, you hold-fast the traditions. 3 But I want you to know that the head of every man is the Christ, (the) head of a woman (is) the man, and (the) head of the Christ (is) God.

4 Every man praying or prophesying having (something) on the head dishonours his head. 5 But every woman praying or prophesying with the head unveiled dishonours her head; for it is one and the same as one having been shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover herself, let her also have herself shorn; but if (it is) shameful for a woman to have had herself shorn or have been shaved, let her cover herself. 7 For indeed a man ought not to cover the head, being the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of a man.

8 For man is not from woman but woman from man; 9 for in fact man was not created for the sake of the woman but woman for the sake of the man. 10 Because of this the woman ought to have authority over the head because of the angels.

11 Nevertheless, neither woman without man, nor man without woman in (the) Lord; 12 for as the woman from the man, so also the man through the woman; and all things from God.

13 Judge for yourselves. Is it fitting for a woman to pray to God unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has-long-hair, it is for him a disgrace, but if a woman has-long-hair, it is for her a glory, 15 because the long-hair has been given to her in place of a cloak. 16 And if anyone thinks to be argumentative, we do not have such a custom, nor (do) the churches of God.

1. Paul’s argument in 1 Cor. 11:2-16 has nothing to do with submission - that is simply not what he is talking about. The word exousian occurs in verse 10 but what he says here is that a woman ‘ought to have authority over (exousian echein epi) her head’, which I take to mean that in his view it is ultimately for the woman to decide whether or not she covers her head. The argument I put forward in Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul is that the problem Paul is dealing with is not that women were agitating for greater freedom of expression but that men in the community were putting pressure on women to uncover their heads in worship as a sign of their new freedom in Christ. Paul defends the right of the woman to remain covered in the interests of modesty and the honour of her husband. It is an excellent example of how to resolve a clash between culture and theology.

2. My argument about the metaphorical use of ‘head’ (kephalē) relies a lot on the weight of lexicological evidence from both biblical and non-biblical sources which cannot be reproduced here. But a simple example: in Jeremiah 38:7 LXX (=31:7 in English versions) the remnant of Israel returning from exile is described as ‘head of the nations’ (kephalēn ethnōn). Under the circumstances this can hardly mean that Israel ‘had authority over’ the nations. It means rather that Israel was pre-eminent, foremost, most excellent because it was God’s chosen, favoured, redeemed people.

3. I agree that the essence of Paul’s argument in Ephesians 5:22-24 is that wives should be submissive to their husbands because the husband is head of the wife. But I disagree that we must infer from this that ‘headship’ means ‘a position of authority over’.

I would suggest that there is a significant distinction in Paul’s language between Christ being exalted to the right hand of the Father and Christ being given authority or lordship. I think Paul uses the headship metaphor to signify the former and not the latter - but this of course needs to be demonstrated exegetically.

If the headship metaphor if widely used in Hellenistic and Biblical Greek to signify prominence rather than authority, there is a strong case for saying that this meaning should be the presumption here rather than thinking that the context forces a different nuance on the metaphor. In any case, it is certainly not good exegesis to import dubious contextual nuances from one passage into another that deals with quite a different topic.

It would make good sense to suppose, particularly given a patriarchal context, that Paul encourages wives to be submissive to their husbands because of the man’s social status. But the overall argument in these verses suggests a slightly different approach. Christ’s ‘headship’ in relation to the church is overtly interpreted in terms not of his authority over the church but of self-giving love. This is the sense in which Christ is foremost, pre-eminent - ‘head of the church’: he set the supreme example of sacrificial love for others; he goes before us in this respect as the head of an animal goes before the body; he stands above others as the head of a person is elevated above the body.

    4. What I think Paul is doing here is teaching both men and women how to work out the implications of their equality in Christ within a cultural framework that was unavoidably patriarchal. Our culture runs right through us: we cannot simply step outside of it, live apart from it. So we have to learn to be authentically Christian towards each other within it. This entails different compromises under different cultural conditions. The conditions of first-century family life in the Mediterranean world are not the same as the conditions of twenty-first century family life in a western democracy. We face different opportunities and different constraints.

    5. The justification for attaching ‘social’ to ‘prominence’ in relation to 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is that glory, honour and shame are public values. They suggest very strongly that in this passage Paul is highly conscious of how a person’s behaviour is perceived by others.