Thursday, October 31, 2013

Bible Study - 1 Corinthians Part 12 - Women's Role in Worship

With this session we get into that contentious issue of the Apostle Paul's views on women in the Christian church. I'm going to present one perspective, and while I believe this perspective is correct I recognize that there are a wide variety of views on this subject. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 deals specifically with the question of whether women in Paul's churches should have their heads covered when they take part in worship, but touches on the larger issues of women's roles in worship, as well as the differences and commonalities between men and women.
  • Paul's discussion of head coverings in 11:2-16 is pretty much the most confusing passage in 1 Corinthians. Read Genesis chapters 1-3, and Galatians 3:26-29 to help understand what he’s saying. 
  • Read 1 Cor. 11:2-16. The key word in this passage is ‘head’ which Paul uses both literally and metaphorically. Without making assumptions about what Paul means, think of all of the possible meanings of the word ‘head’. How do these different meanings of ‘head’ affect the meaning of the passage? 
  • Why do you think Paul bothers to talk about head coverings? Is he concerned with clothing or something else? 
  • Does Paul allow women to pray and prophesy in worship?
Having asked some questions I'm going to continue my bad habit of going ahead and answering some of them. I do this because this passage affects the place of women in Christian communities, and also affects the reputation of the Christian faith in contemporary culture. While there are plenty of times and issues where our faith will give offense to the various cultures in which the church finds itself (and it will offend people in different cultures and societies differently), if there's little conflict between what the Bible teaches and our culture I'd rather not create tension where none exists.

I'll answer my last question first. It's quite clear in this passage that Paul assumes that women will pray and prophesy in the public worship of the church. He assumes that women will speak in worship and take a leading role - especially in light of his argument later in chapter 14 that prophecy is a superior spiritual gift and one that is exercised publicly.

But why then does Paul bother to talk about head coverings? Well one possible reason may have been to protect the reputation of Christian communities from unnecessary slander (they'd get enough criticism for the right reasons), since one group of women who wore their hair loose and uncovered in public were prostitutes. Another possibility is that Paul wanted to avoid confusion with other religious groups in which women would wear their hair loose while worshiping.

However the main reason for Paul's concern probably has to do with his radical teaching that men and women in Christ are united and equal, which we find in Galatians 3:26-29. This teaching would have been profoundly liberating for women in Greek and Roman society, but the question it raised was what does this look like in everyday life and in the life of the church? From this passage it would seem that some took Paul to mean that women and men were the same, or equivalent. Paul here seems to argue instead that while women and men are equal, they were created different and distinct from one another (something Paul argues with his references to Genesis 1-3 in this passage) Therefore women and men should maintain their genuine distinctions while celebrating their new equality in Christ (admittedly though, I tend to think that Paul here confuses cultural gender norms around hair with the biological and psychological distinctions between men and women).

What about the way Paul uses the word head in this passage, specifically in 11:3 "But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and a man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ." The most common reading of this verse is that head here means 'one who has authority over' (ie. that 'a man has authority over a woman'). But as I've noted above, the word head can have a wide variety of meanings. In the light of what Paul says about woman coming from man and man coming from woman in verses 8 and 9, it makes more sense 'head' in verse 3 means 'source' (as in 'the head of a river' ie. its source). This gives verse 3 the meaning 'Christ is the source of every man, and a man is the source of a woman, and God is the source of Christ,' which makes perfect sense if Paul is talking about the creation of humankind in light of Genesis 1-3.

Anyway, these are some of my thoughts on the passage. But even if you don't agree (or follow my reasoning, since I'm abbreviating a more detailed argument from my onsite Bible study), I would hope that most would agree that this passage should inspire some careful thought and a humble recognition that we're always going to be a little unclear on some of what Paul meant.

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