A Corinthian Conversation

I am part of an interfaith peer group through Andover Newton and Hebrew College’s CIRCLE program (Center for Inter-Religious and Communal Leadership Education). The group is called “Engaging Sacred Sources of Violence” and we examine scripture, rituals, and stories from the Jewish and Christian traditions that are violent or otherwise not life-affirming for women. Julie, an ANTS student, and Salem, a rabbinical student at HC, are the two intelligent and thoughtful CIRCLE Fellows and co-leaders for this peer group. When we met in February, I was asked to lead the discussion and chose to examine 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, part of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, as recorded in the New Testament. Last month our conversation around this text was so engaging that we could not get to all of the material in just 45 minutes, so we continued our discussion today. The text is as follows:

2 I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husbanda is the head of his wife,b and God is the head of Christ. 4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflectionc of God; but woman is the reflectiond of man. 8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man. 10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol ofe authority on her head,f because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. 12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

a The same Greek work means man or husband
b Or head of the woman
c Or glory
d Or glory
e Greek lacks a symbol of
f Or have freedom of choice regarding her head

Obviously this is a difficult text, especially for women. I mean, verse 7 alone: “For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man”… ouch. I wish I had the space (and your attention span!) to recount everything that I researched and, more importantly, everything that we discussed about this passage over two different sessions. If I was going to share everything…

…We could go in depth about the historical, geographical, and religious context of the Corinthian church to whom this letter was written: what head coverings and hairstyles meant and symbolized for the rituals of Greek and Roman religions, and how physical gender differentiation was important for many writers of that time, not just Paul.

…Furthermore, we might examine the rhetorical devices and language that Paul uses in this text: how he balances and frames his argument (when men pray with their heads uncovered, they pray properly, but when women pray with their heads uncovered, they are not praying properly), how certain Greek words can have various English translations and what those translations imply about the meaning of the passage (biblical scholars have found verse 10 to be an especially tricky verse to translate).

…We could also note how Paul appears to change his mind halfway through this text. He does argue in in verses 8 and 9 that “man was not made from woman but woman from man” and “neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.” These words are troubling to hear, no doubt. But just a few sentences later… “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman but all things come from God.” This is a striking reversal of the statement he just made in verses 8 and 9, implying mutuality or even equality between men and women. So what does Paul really think about relationships between men and women in this passage, let alone his thoughts on head coverings? If you really look, it is challenging to come up with one argument to sum it all up, without any sort of nuance or qualifiers.

Now, I know that an in-depth text study might not be the thing that you are most excited to read about (what can I say… seminarians and rabbinical students tend to like this sort of thing). But what made our discussions around this passage so engaging, and what I hope you’ll find interesting as well, was not so much the text per se, but the individuals and perspectives in the conversation itself. We discussed varying values and authority of scripture, how Jews and Christians look at and understand their sacred texts in different ways, and how we use scripture in worship and in our personal and daily lives.

For example, Salem shared that, in some Jewish communities, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) is read in worship all the way through in a year. This means that (theoretically) all Jews read and hear each part of the Torah at least once a year, including the texts that are encouraging and affirming, and also the texts that are troubling, confusing, or violent. In one way, this can be empowering because even if each specific passage is not preached on, you still hear each passage, and, as Salem put it, “the onus is on all the people,” to hear and acknowledge each part of the Torah. Yet as Salem reminded us, the fact that each year the community is “forced” to listen to certain stories and passages without much choice could also be considered a kind of violence.

In turn, Julie and I thought about the practice of reading scripture in Christian worship, and the variations of doing so. Some churches follow the lectionary, where the texts and scripture lessons are already planned, and any Christian community anywhere in the world who is following that lectionary is hearing and preaching on the same text that day. This has many similarities to the reading of the Torah that Salem described. Other churches (like the Church of the Brethren) do not follow a lectionary, and thus pastors and worship leaders choose which passage and lesson will be the focus of worship each week. Some of the questions we raised were: What does it mean when a faith community can pick and choose which passages to read? Is there freedom or is there censorship in those choices? Life-affirming or not, who gets to decide which texts are preached on and which texts are ignored or never taught?

But really, you’re asking…what does all this have to do with this passage from 1 Corinthians? Well, for one, we were wondering what we might do with a passage like this on a Sunday morning, a passage that clearly gives some mixed messages about gender relations, but also has significant theological implications that have been pervasive throughout church history. Some of the theology of this text (God > Christ > Man > Woman, in verse 3) has been used to justify gendered hierarchy within the church, patriarchy in Christendom and beyond, and oppression and violence toward women because they are not “in the image and reflection of God” as men are, according to verse 7 of this passage. But as Christians we cannot deny that such a troubling passage is still part of our sacred scriptures. Do we say that this theology and this specific passage is sacred? From the pulpit? (What about in a bible study, or during a one-on-one with a women who has experienced domestic violence?) Or do we choose to reject this passage and passages like it as being from a different time and culture than ours and therefore irrelevant and untrue in the 21st century world? Or do we intentionally choose to engage with this text, examine the complexities and nuance in the words and translation, acknowledge and lament the ways in which this text has been used to subjugate and harm women, and work as a community to figure out if or how 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 can be part of our holy and sacred scriptures?

If you couldn’t tell, I am just brushing up against the surface of what is really an iceberg of a discussion. There is so much more that could be said, and I’m choosing a small part to share with you here. Also, I am not claiming in any way to have this figured out, for myself or others. But I’m curious: what do you think? If you are a Christian, has this text (or texts like it) ever been preached on or discussed in your church or bible study? Have you yourself preached on this text? How might this passage be handled in a faith community that also considers other, life-affirming words of Paul (such as Galatians 3:28) to be inspired teaching? If you are committed to a different faith or worldview than Christianity, how does your community approach challenging texts or sacred sources that justify or at least imply subjugation, oppression, or violence?

Thanks for learning with me, and supporting my ongoing lessons about God, faith, and community.


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