How 1 Corinthians 11 is actually a statement about female equality

    1 Corinthians 11 is one of the most interesting statements about female equality in the scriptures. Certainly, it's not the most clear. Nor is it the most profound - and yet, because it exposes the fault lines of Paul's thinking, it really is one of the most indicative.

    If you're not familiar with 1 Corinthians 11, it's the weird uncle of scripture passages, the basis of many strange ideas, the one set of verses that even the extreme preachers often skip over. It deals with the subject of head-coverings or veils, the New Testament's version of the burka. If you don't know any of this, please take a glance at the passage. Got it? Okay, here we go.

    Paul had started his message to the gentile world by talking about how God is spirit, a being not affected or influenced by the kinds of things that human beings use to divide up their world. As such, he had no need of temples, and as such, he did not discriminate between people on the basis of external ethnic or other markers (Acts 17:24-31). This is a direct continuation of Jesus' line of thought in John 4, where he broke all social convention by sitting down at a well, as a Jewish man in the middle of Samaria, talking privately to a disreputable Samaritan woman, and expressed to her the core of his message: that God is spirit, and so God does not care about the location of one's worship.

    This theme had been picked up by Peter, when, as he was declaring the christian message to the Jewish nation, he quoted Joel 2:

    In the last days, God says,
       I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
       your young men will see visions,
       your old men will dream dreams.
    Even on my servants, both men and women,
       I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
       and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)

    ...indicating that a primary feature of the New Covenant would be the presence of God's spirit among all people, including men and women, and the resultant elevation of even female servants.

    But back to Paul. Paul made this connection explicit in his letter to the Galatians, tying together the presence of God's spirit with the idea that:

    There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female (Galatians 3:28)

    So when we get to 1 Corinthians, we need to understand that Paul had been already been spreading his message of equality among humans far and wide. The Corinthians had received his message, and had gone about applying it to often extreme degrees. The first letter to the Corinthians is not his first message to them - on the contrary, it's a response to their response to his message.

    Paul spends most of his letter correcting the over-zealous and abusive applications of things he had told them. So when we get to chapter 11 we need to keep in mind that what Paul is correcting are his own ideas - taken too far. In fact, that's how he starts his discourse - praising them for trying to follow his teachings and example, before he sets out to suggest that they've taken it in the wrong direction.

    The Corinthian women had apparently taken to the idea of their equality to heart. Not only were they praying and prophesying, participating openly in public, they had removed their veils, the symbol that they were married.

    It made sense. They were equal, right? Why should they continue to wear something that might indicate someone else's influence over them? Male and female didn't matter, why should they continue to wear a symbol of their femininity?

    But this was incredibly offensive. It was like simultaneously throwing away your wedding ring, and burning your bra in public.

    So Paul makes a very delicate argument, trying to give them a rationale for not ticking off everyone around them, while still holding on to their sense of equality. He makes an argument about source.

    Now, the text says "head", and it is conventional to take this as some kind of a statement about authority structures and dominance, but that's not what "head" means. In Greek usage, the word head indicated either your literal head, or metaphorically, the source of something, like a stream or a river. *

    So Paul brings in the Genesis 2 creation story to try to talk about how some things come from other things, and how it is appropriate to show some kind of respect towards that. This is kind of like arguing that you should respect your grandmother. No one would argue that your grandmother is more important than you, or should have authority over you, and yet most of us would think it's tasteful to show some kind of deference to the fact that she helped bring you into existence.

    I don't know about you, but when I spend time with my grandmother, I try not to embarrass her in public. If we're in a store, or walking somewhere, I don't feel the need to constantly point out that I'm a grown man and can do whatever I want. I don't wear clothes that she'll find terribly offensive, or do some of the ridiculous things that I might feel comfortable with, but would make her nervous.

    Paul is making a similar argument here. Why embarrass your husband? Why get him mocked by the rest of the community? Maybe even more importantly, why give other people a reason to think you might be engaged in some kind of orgy?

    What's fascinating is the response Paul expects. He anticipates an argument that as christians, they don't care at all about cultural or external physical markers. He accepts that as legitimate, but tries to prove that in fact, they do care, and are being inconsistent. He suggests that if they really don't care, they should just shave their heads, traipse around looking like prostitutes, and be done with it.

    Why is he so concerned? Because this isn't being done in dark rooms with closed doors. People are watching. The reference to "angels" in verse 10 is not talking about spirit beings (who would have no concern for head-coverings!), it's talking about "messengers", people who are gossiping about what they see, spreading it to the whole town. *

    These early christian get-togethers had to be the subject of great curiosity. They are letting women speak! They are having slaves sit at the table! People were paying attention to every move, and Paul is concerned about sending the wrong message. You can almost hear him whisper it: someone's at the window!

    In all of this, as in all other places, Paul walks a thin line. He wants christians to be acting out of a new conception of society, where men and women, Jew and Greek, slaves and slave-holders, all have to live together in real relationship. Nothing can compromise that scandalous message, because it is core to what they are doing. And yet, Paul does not want to stir up trouble for themselves on other issues. Just because it's okay to break local customs and desecrate sacred cows, doesn't mean that's the best choice. Better to pick their fights, so that the core message is clear, and there is nothing else to criticize them for.

    Nowhere in this does Paul suggest that the women should stop displaying their equality. They are to continue speaking and participating (verse 5), they are to understand that they are all interdependent and that no one is over another (verse 11), and most tellingly, they are ultimately to make up their own minds - because it is the woman's own choice (verse 10), and no one should argue about the decision they make (verse 16).

    Paul cares a lot. He makes a strong argument. But when it comes down to it, his ultimate statement is that each individual is free to make their own decision. Unlike every other structure on earth, the kingdom of God is the place where all are equal and free, and where no one can dominate another. Not even an apostle.

    1. A short defense of this meaning of "head" is here in section three. Read the definition here.

    2. The Greek word for "angel" is literally "messenger", and can variously reference spiritual entities who act as messengers, or human beings who act as messengers.