Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

This is part seven on the dissertation ‘Women in Ministry.’
For part six, click here:  Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7

Augustine Rodin's 'Eve' 1881

Augustine Rodin’s ‘Eve’ 1881


1 Corinthians: Intro & Context
Paul had a rather tumultuous relationship with the Christians at Corinth. He encountered them first during his second missionary journey, and, as he described it, came to them with weakness, fear, and trembling (1 Cor. 2:3). He returned later and ministered there with Priscilla and Aquila for a year and a half. We know from the various correspondences that he wrote at least four letters, made three visits, and even sent Timothy as an envoy.

1 Corinthians was written primarily to deal with the gross conduct that came to Paul’s attention, and to answer some of the questions that the church had asked him. In chapter seven, verse one, Paul writes, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.”[1] The purpose of the next few chapters, including chapter eleven and fourteen, is to respond to their inquiries.

1 Corinthians: Translation of 11:2-16

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.[2]

1 Corinthians: Exegesis of 11:2-16
1 Corinthians represents a prime example of a Biblical correspondence that is so obscured by the massive cultural gap that one can hardly determine what Paul is saying. Nonetheless, given what we do know about 1st Century Greco-Roman life, it is clear that chapter eleven is about order in the public meetings. This is an obvious concern because how the church conducts itself publically shapes its relationship to the local culture. What Paul is saying here is that Christians must conduct (or dress) themselves in way that is neither distracting nor brings shame upon family, the church, or God. His point is simple, but his approach is complex.

In verse two he praises them for keeping the traditions he delivered to them, but then immediately moves into his first statement: “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.”[3] There is much here that obscures the debate. For instance, it is doubtful that first century ecclesiology regularly allowed the shaming punishment of shearing a woman’s hair if she refused to cover her head (1 Cor 11:6). It is likely that Paul is being hyperbolic similar to Galatians 5:12-13:

Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves![4]

Furthermore, he says that a woman is to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels? A contemporary reader must wonder why the strong emphasis on various ways to deal with one’s head? The Greek is even more confusing when one considers that kata kephale exon can mean, as the ESV renders it ‘head uncovered’ or, more literally, ‘having down from the head’[5] Is Paul referring to head coverings or hair styles? When trying to uncover the cultural context of the church at Corinth, Gordon Fee argues that “Everything is…speculative. There is almost no evidence (paintings, reliefs, statuary, etc.) that men in any of the cultures (Greek, Roman, Jew) covered their heads.”[6] In contrast to Fee’s admission that everything here is speculation, David Garland suggests that it was a disgrace for a woman to go out in public with her head uncovered, and that an unveiled woman even forfeited the protection of Roman law in the case of some kind of sexual harassment. An unveiled woman gave non-verbal hints that she was available for some sort of immodest behavior.[7]

Bruce Winter in Roman Wives, Roman Widows has even more to say about the significance of Roman dress. First, his research shows that in first century Rome a new expression of femininity appeared on the scene, which he calls ‘new wives’ or ‘new women.’ Winter cites Augustus’ social engineering, reactionary laws, public seating by class, and a dress code to establish a Roman truisim: you were what you wore.[8] The ‘new wives’ were characterized by a lifestyle that “differed considerably from that of the traditional image of the modest wife.”[9] They broke from tradition, cast off restraint, and began dressing in a way that they might consider liberating, but also gave them the appearance of lows morals.

Second, he believes this appearance of ‘new’ women has direct implications to Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11:5-11. He says, “Wives praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered in the Christian gathering were replicating the attitude and actions of ‘new’ wives.”[10] In today’s vernacular, Beyoncé or Lady Gaga were doing it, so they wanted to do it too.

In response to these cultural changes that had crept into the church, Paul is instructing the church at Corinth that public services must be beyond reproach and what is done should be done with all propriety. In order to make his point, he establishes that everyone has a metaphorical head covering so that he can say something about physical head coverings. He is commanding the men at Corinth to keep their heads uncovered so that they do not break some sort of cultural moray. This would bring shame to their head, Christ. Likewise, he says to the women that they should keep her head covered so they also do not look like the ‘new women’—meaning, appearing immoral. This would bring shame to her head, her husband or family. The principle is that in public services, one should conduct himself or herself (or dress) in such a way that is neither distracting nor brings shame upon one’s family or God. In the midst of Paul’s attempt to keep the church’s conduct in order, he makes several statements about the nature of each gender.

Similar to authentein in 1 Timothy 2:12, much hinges upon one’s interpretation of kephale. Payne declares rather triumphantly that “the majority view in recent scholarship has shifted to understand ‘head’…in this passage to mean ‘source’ rather than ‘authority.”[11] He then goes on to offer fifteen key reasons why ‘source’ is the preferred translation. Conversely, Schreiner argues that regardless of all the other research, Pauline usage is best translated as ‘head,’ indicating the presence of some authority. [12]

D.A. Carson describes the translation of kephale as ‘source’ as an exegetical fallacy. He says:

…we should be a trifle suspicious when any piece of exegesis tries to establish the meaning of a word by appealing first of all to its usage in classical Greek rather than it’s usage in Hellenistic Greek. In an article in Christianity Today, for instance, Berkeley and Alvera Mickelson argue that “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 means “source” or “origin”; but their appeal is to the standard classical lexicon…not the standard New Testament and Hellenistic Greek lexicon (Bauer). The latter lists no meaning of “source” or “origin” for kephale.[13]

Carson calls this fallacy Semantic obsolescence. He later refers to the usage of ‘source’ or ‘origin’ as an appeal to an unlikely meaning. In other words, it is true that kephale could be translated in some cases as ‘source’ but it is unlikely.[14]

One would need a lifetime to wade through all of the research of both sides clawing for their own definition of . The strongest argument for translating it as ‘head’ is that it is consistent with context. The whole point of the passage is that men and women must adorn their physical heads in a way that does not bring the church shame.  Why would Paul use ‘source’ as a base to instruct the church on their physical heads? This does not communicate. Rather, he says, everyone has a metaphorical head, and one should not want to bring it shame. Therefore, one should not bring the church shame with one’s physical head. He is comparing metaphorical heads to physical head. ‘Source’ simply does not fit.

A statue of Livia Drusilla, from Paestum, Greece.

A statue of Livia Drusilla, from Paestum, Greece.

Another issue is that if one translates kephale as ‘head,’ does that automatically assume authority? If Paul wanted to say that man is the authority of woman, he would have used exousia. The question is whether any authority is contained within the semantic range of kephale, and if so, how much? In English, when we say the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church or Ned Yost is the head of the Royals, we assume that they are the authority. If an ancient writer used the word kephale, is the assumption of authority appropriate? Stephen Bedale argues that though ‘head’ in English indicates authority (since the head controls the body), the metaphor is quite different in the ancient word. His assertion, then, is that kephale cannot mean authority and Paul’s readers would never have assume that. ‘Source’ is the stronger translation, he argues.[15] Grudem, however, cites weaknesses in Bedale’s arguments: “Bedale cites no evidence—no results of word studies, no lexical authorities—to demonstrate his point; he simply assumes it to be true for the rest of the article.” Furthermore, Grudem argues that there are indeed ancient examples of kephale used to indicate head with some sort of authority.[16]

We will argue that, regardless of how much authority is within the semantic range of kephale, the context of 1 Corinthians 11:3 suggests some type of role difference. See figure 7.

Figure 7: Role Difference in 1 Corinthians 11:3

Christ & Man–Difference in role, essence, and authority
God & Christ–Difference in role and authority (during the incarnation), but not essence

Furthermore, intrinsic within any role is some difference in authority. That authority may not be absolute or even significant, but if there is a role, there is a difference. kephale is used to describe the relationship between Christ and Man. That relationship is one of inequality in role, essence, and authority. Christ is Lord, He is God, and He has absolute power. Paul says he is the head/source of man.

Paul also uses kephale to describe the relationship between God and Christ, which also is a relationship of inequality—certainly not of essence, but of role and authority. Admittedly, the authoritative inequality of the Son only existed during the incarnation. Nonetheless, a role difference still remains.

It would be strange for kephale to describe an inequality of role and authority between Christ and Man, and God and Christ, but not for man and woman. In fact, context demands that the word should be applied in the same way.  Once again, context trumps semantic range. Arguing for definition is fruitless when the context suggests that there is an inequality of role and function. The inequality exists between Christ and man, God and Christ, and therefore it exists between man and woman.

Verse three is the foundation for his argument, but in the next few verses he gives specific instructions to each gender. What is most significant for our topic are his comments on women prophesying. Paul recognizes a women’s right to speak during a service. Some will argue that this was a private meeting in a home, but that does not fit the public context. The service was likely in a home, but it was a public event nonetheless. Schreiner, Bloomberg, and many other complementarians concede their right to public utterances, but Schreiner and Bloomberg add this caveat: they must do so under the authority of their head (a husband or other male leadership).[17] This is not problematic in that every person in the church is under the authority of the leadership, so it should be no different for a woman.

Paul continues that a women (or wife) must also have authority or a symbol of authority on her head. The various translations are problematic. The Living Translations goes so far as to say “So a woman should wear a covering on her head as a sign that she is under authority,” while both the HCSB and ESV render it “a symbol of authority on her head.”[18] The RSV further muddies the waters by its own rendering: “a woman ought to have a veil on her head.”[19] Fee adds that “a women ought to have authority over her head.”[20] Is it passive or reflexive? Does exousia mean ‘authority’ or is it an metonym for an actual veil?

Fee suggests that there “is no evidence for a passive sense to this idiom” and that Paul’s use of a metonym is unlikely. He argues she ought to have authority over her own head. [21] Payne agrees and argues that gyne is both the subject and object of the verse and she ought to have the authority over her own head. This interpretation is preferred, but even if one disagrees, the point remains: her covering lets the community at large know that she is neither a prostitute nor a ‘new woman’ but a woman under authority.

Paul adds that this authority should be present because of the angelous. The three most likely explanations are one: ‘the angels’ represent the full view of the spiritual realm looking upon the service, and we ought to do everything with propriety because of that; two: the term ‘angels’ simply refers to messengers from other churches. The Corinthians, then, should set an example for the other churches by their conduct, since they all have one custom (1 Cor 11:16); three, the Corinthian women must not cause the angels to stumble through their improper adornment (1 Enoch 6-19). The first explanation seems the most plausible given that Paul never refers to angelous as messengers, nor does he ever refer to evil angels.[22] This is a cryptic phrase that, undoubtedly, the Corinthians would have understood, but it remains a mystery to us today.

1 Corinthians: Conclusions from 11:2-16

First, based upon Paul’s analogy of the Corinthian’s physical head, ‘head’ is the preferred translation of kephale. Although ‘head’ may not have the same connotation of authority as it does in English, it has some authority intrinsic within its semantic range because of the way Paul uses it. Second, based upon the comparison between God, Christ, man, and woman, there is indeed a role difference between the genders. Even though 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 does not say anything explicit about women elders, overseers, or apostles, but it does help establish that there is indeed some kind of assumed role difference between the genders. Finally, and likely the most significant contributor to the debate, is that 1 Corinthians eleven allows for women to speak in public service.

Women in Ministry: Intro
Women in Ministry: Genesis 3:16
Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 3:1-13
Women in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15
Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2
Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7
Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35
Women in Ministry: Galatians 3:28
Women in Ministry: Current practice & belief of the SBC
Women in Ministry: Personal practice & belief
Women in Ministry: Epilogue

[1] 1 Corinthians 7:1 (ESV).

[2] 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (ESV).

[3] 1 Corinthians 11:3 (ESV).

[4] Galatians 5:12-13 (CSB).

[5] David E. Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 512.

[6] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), 507.

[7] Garland, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Corinthians, 521-522.

[8] Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 5.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, 77.

[11] Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 117.

[12] Piper and Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 127-127.

[13] D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 36.

[14] Ibid., 37.

[15] Stephen Bedale, “The Meaning of κεφαλή in the Pauline Epistles,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 5, (1954): 211-15.

[16] Wayne Grudem, “Does Kefale (“Head”) Mean “Source” Or “Authority Over” in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples,” Trinity Journal ns 6.1 (Spring 1985): 38-59.

[17] Beck, ed., Two Views on Women in Ministry, 127. Piper and Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, 132.

[18] 1 Corinthians 11:10 (Living Bible, HCS, and ESV).

[19] 1 Corinthians 11:10 (RSV).

[20] Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 512.

[21] Ibid., 520-521.

[22] Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, 183.


  1. Hello – I just wanted to say that I believe the 1 Corinthians 11: 3-16 passage consists of three parts. They are as follows:

    Verse 3 – Paul’s model.
    Verses 4-6 – Paul quotes a faction of men from Corinth who wrote him.
    Verses 7-16 – Paul’s rebuttal where he refers back to his model.

    Furthermore, there are two reasons why I believe that verses 4-6 are quoted. The first reason is the rebuttal portion completely contradicts the quoted portion. And the second reason is that Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God. Paul, in verse 7, is referring to a man’s figurative head, Christ, and is using Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled. If you would like to see more on this you can visit my website. Take care and God bless.


  1. […] This is part eight on the dissertation ‘Women in Ministry.’ For part seven, click here: Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 […]

  2. […] in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2 Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7 Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 Women in Ministry: Galatians 3:28 Women in Ministry: […]

  3. […] in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2 Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7 Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 Women in Ministry: Galatians 3:28 Women in Ministry: […]

  4. […] in Ministry: 1 Timothy 2:11-15 Women in Ministry: Romans 16:1-2 Women in Ministry: Romans 16:7 Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Women in Ministry: 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 Women in Ministry: Galatians 3:28 Women in Ministry: […]

Speak Your Mind


website security