1 Corinthians 11 and Paul

1 Corinthians 11 and Paul

1 Corinthians 11 has been a difficult passage because of several elements that have been hard to interpret.  Some of the disputed elements are the meaning of “head” in verse 3, whether head coverings are necessary in verse 5, the woman being the glory of the man in verse 7, the reference to angels in verse 10 and long hair for a man being an issue of shame in verse 14.

In this new series of posts, we will be discussing the meanings of the difficult verses and how to understand Paul.

The best way that I know how to explain Paul’s method of teaching doctrine is to reference Paul’s own words in Philippians 3:1

Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.

Paul had a habit of repeating himself so that when we see a word or concept that seems difficult in a verse, we need to look back in the book to see where Paul either originally explained his meaning, or we need to look forward in the book to see where Paul explains what he means. If we keep this in mind, Paul is much easier to understand.

Take for example the reference to the angels in verse 10 of 1 Corinthians 11. Now there has been much speculation regarding what Paul meant by saying “because of the angels” however we don’t need to speculate because Paul has already told us what he means. When Paul says “because of the angels” we can know that he is repeating what he has already said. Paul said that repetition is for our safety. A phrase thrown out without a reference point is not safe.  Paul is the original “Safety Man” so let’s get started to see how Paul keeps us safe.  Let’s go back into 1 Corinthians to find out the original reference to angels.

When I was first studying 1 Corinthians 11, I decided to work my way back through Paul’s epistle to find out what he meant by referring to the angels.  There was no other reference to angels in chapter 11 so I went back further. There was nothing in chapter 10 or 9 or 8. One thing that we have to remember is that when Paul originally wrote the book of 1 Corinthians it did not have chapters and verses. Paul was writing a letter to the congregation in Corinth and his entire letter was meant to be read at one time. Reading the book this way, it becomes much clearer what Paul meant by the reference to the angels.  If you keep going back and back you will eventually go back to chapter 6.  Here Paul said:

1 Corinthians 6:3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life?

Paul had been discussing the problem within the congregation where Christians were taking matters that should have been dealt with among the Christian body and were bringing them into the worldly courts. Paul chides the Christians by telling them that the Christian church should be able to judge matters within their own Christian community. Paul asks if there isn’t one who had some wisdom to make a judgment. Paul then asks them if they are aware that in the next life, they will have the responsibility of judging angels. If they are going to judge angels, Paul says, surely they should be able to judge the matters of this life.

So Paul’s original reference to the angels is about maturity, responsibility and our duty in the next life regarding judging the angels. Now let’s take that original reference and go ahead to where Paul repeats himself in 1 Corinthians 11:10. The International Standard Version renders it this way:

1 Cor. 11:10 This is why a woman should have authority over her own head: because of the angels.

The International Standard version along with the KJV, Literal Translation of the Bible, Modern King James Version, Messianic Renewed Covenant Bible, World English Bible, Webster’s Bible, Darby Bible and Douay-Rheims Bible all translate this verse without the additional words “symbol of” that is not found in the original text.  Let’s follow this verse from the original text without the addition of uninspired words.

Next let’s look at the Greek word for “authority”.  The original word is exousia and means “Permission, authority, right, liberty, power to do something”.  The WordStudy Dictionary says regarding this word,

“As (exousia) denies the presence of a hindrance, it may be used either of the capability or the right to do a certain action.”

The word exousia never means that the person themselves is under someone else’s authority. Instead it always means that the person has the right, permission or capability to make the decision or do the action.

So Paul is saying in verse 10 that the woman should have “the capablility or the right or the liberty” over her own head (regarding whether she wears a veil or doesn’t wear a veil, whether she cuts her hair or she doesn’t cut her hair); because in the next life she will also be judging the angels. Paul is repeating what he has already said in 1 Corinthians 6:3. He is saying that in this life we need to learn to make our own mature decisions. After all, Paul said, we will be making some very important decisions in the next life because we will be judging angels. Since women will also be judging the angels, she should have the right in this life to make the decision about what she does or doesn’t wear on her head.

Unfortunately when translations add words that are not in the text, they can distort what the scripture actually says. Verse 10 does not say that the woman is under someone else’s authority, neither does it say that she must wear a veil. It does say that the decision is hers regarding her head. It says that the decision over her own head is in her own authority and her own right to act and her own liberty because she too will be judging the angels. Does this make sense?

Next time we will be discussing the meaning of “Head”. Once again Paul is repeating himself so that we don’t need to guess what he means. Paul tells us in the passage. Stay tuned for the next blog entry.

12 thoughts on “1 Corinthians 11 and Paul

  1. Its so interesting to learn more about the wonderful Word of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Keep up the good work 🙂

    In Him,
    Martin Willemoes Hansen

  2. Cheryl, what about 1 Corinthians 11:9?

    Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (ESV)

    It seems to be saying that woman was created FOR man. YOu may have touched on this but I missed it.


  3. I agree that what you wrote is one possibility, it is a refence back to earlier in the letter.

    There is another possibility. The Greek angelos means messenger. A ref. to angelos might be to one of God’s messengers, typically called angels in English, or to a human messenger. Since the context is so limited, I think it is possible that a human messenger is meant. The people at Corinth would have known, as they simply knew more than we do about their immediate context. But for us it is slightly ambiguous.

    If it DID mean human messenger, then there is a context that fits very well and that is where the government sent out people to check up on meetings, as any meeting could be the prelude to a conspiracy to attack the government. So to nip things in the bud, they send out people who were called messengers. Such would be a unfamiliar face in the home church.

    As a head covering was done in public to indicate one was married, what do you do in the semi-public house church meeting? If everyone knows you are married, there is no confusion and no impropriety in removing one’s head covering. However, if there was a stranger there, esp. one that seemed to be checking up on things, one would want there to no hint of impropriety. In this case, a woman chould choose to keep her head covered. If someone made her uncomfortable, she could cover up.

    It is cultural in any case, but it does indicate to me that social symbols (e.g., of marriage, like a wedding ring) can be appropriate for believers to weak today (in case someone does a super strict reading of some other verses about jewelry).

  4. I think the easiest and most logical way to interpret Paul is to see what he had already said about the angels. When he said “because of the angels”, he gives us an indication that he is referring back to what he has already said about the angels. The connection with authority and “because of the angels”. What does the woman’s authority have to do with “because of the angels”? It would be natural for Paul to continue the thought that we need to learn to make judgments here in this life because in the next life we will be judges even over the angels. It also makes perfect sense. Since Paul has not mandated the head covering but he allowed it for women because of her husband’s conscience, it fits with the context that her right to decide for herself regarding what she will do with the head covering (to wear it so that her husband will not divorce her) and whether she cuts her hair or not is tied directly into the position that she will have a role of authority and judging in the next life. Someone who has this great responsibility in the next life certainly can make decisions over her own head and hair in this life.

    If we make the reference to be a human messenger, how would we know that would be the interpreation in this context? There is no reference to a human messenger (called an angel) in the immediate context or the entire letter. I have heard a lot of interpretations of the phrase “because of the angels” and there is one thing all of these interpretations have in common. That one thing is that the different interpretations cannot be connected to anything Paul said in his letter. If there is no connection to what Paul has already said, then it would be impossible to really know what Paul meant. Everybody’s guess would be just as valid. I think it is a better practice to first check out what Paul himself says about angels in the letter and if it fits well with Paul’s second reference to angels. That way we are letting Paul define his own terms.

    When I first wanted to understand what Paul meant, all I did was go back and back in the letter until I came to Paul’s own reference – the only other reference he makes to the angels. When I saw what Paul had said about the angels and the context that we are to be mature in making decisions in this life because we will be having a position of authority in the next life, Paul’s meaning of “because of the angels” made total sense to me.

    I believe that the reason complementarians cannot make sense of the passage is because they refuse to give women any kind of authority. If one starts with this mindset that only men can have authority, then one will have to reject Paul’s only other reference to the angels and that leaves one with having to guess at what Paul means. One would also have to reject that women are also going to be judging angels since the mindset says that only men have authority. I have heard complementarians say that women will be ruled over by men in the next life too. That just doesn’t fit with Paul’s revelation about authority and women. When we just take the passage in its most simple form and take Paul’s own words, we must accept that God has given women authority to make decisions because he considers them equal with men and equal in authority in the next life too.

    Does this make sense?

  5. I would agree that the ref. back to earlier in the letter is more likely. One can certainly be a faithful interpreter and believe only that interpretation.

    I only pointed out the human messenger idea as a possibility, one that also fits the context.

    My take is that I like to cover the bases when something is even potentially ambiguous to us.

    That main point is that a woman has authority concerning her physical head. I find it interesting that Paul gives freedom here to a woman that he does NOT give to a man, in 1st century cultural context. Some people read the Bible as limiting women, but here is a case where men are limited. This is perhaps another reason that male-preference hierarchicalists make a hash of these verses.

  6. Yes, I do believe that we can seriously consider other interpretations. We can do this especially when the meaning is not apparent anywhere in the context.

    The biggest example of this is 1 Cor. 14:34, 35. Here Paul refers to a “law” that isn’t found anywhere in scripture. Then in verse 36, Paul contradicts this “law”. Since Paul is contradicting the “law” we need to look outside Paul’s writings to find the “law” in effect in his time that restricted women’s speaking in the assembly. Having to go outside the passage for complete understanding has made this particular passage a very difficult passage for a few thousand years.

    Don, I certainly didn’t want to say that your thoughts had no validity at all. I was just giving more validity to Paul’s reference to angels and authority in the letter. If this reference gives reason for women to have authority, then I tend to rest there and not look for further options.


  7. Any reference to law in the NT may mean
    1. civil law
    2. The Torah of Moses, the Pentateuch
    3. The Tanakh, what we call the OT.
    4. The Oral Law of the Pharisees.

    Some do not know all of these options. Then we need to try to figure out when one is the best fit in context. As we know from the gospels, Jesus had some big problems with some aspects of the Oral law, when it negated the Written law.

    We need to strive to do the same, not all tradition is wrong, but tradition that negates Scripture is wrong.

  8. The subject came up at the Carm forum so I was scrolling around to see your material on this. I like your research and scripture very mudh!
    Exegetist over there had made a comment once that a woman’s hair is like her “esteem”. I just got my hair cut, and I feel like the “real me” has finally showed up! I am ALLOWED by GOD to fix my hair how I want to! Does that sound silly for a grown woman to say? No wonder Christianity is losing in the marketplace of ideas! The world can see the oppression of that- the world calls th control and “power over” emotional abuse- I know, I did my homework on that! Is it any wonder their marriages fail in such high numbers? They are sowing bad doctrine and reaping the whirlwind.

    I’m a grown woman now. I have authority/power over my own head.
    “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” Gal 5:1

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