Creation, Culture, and Corinthian Prophetesses

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John Piper, “Creation, Culture and Corinthian Prophetesses,” The Standard (March 1984): 30, 32. Alvera and Berekely Micklesen responded with, “Did Paul Teach Male Authority/Female Submission? Response from the Mickelsens,” The Standard (March 1984): 35–36.

Trying to follow the logical connections, I would summarize the teachings of 1 Corinthians 11:2–6 like this:

Verse 3 gives the basic premise—Christ is man’s head, man is woman’s head, God is Christ’s head. From this Paul infers in verses 4–6a that to cover a man’s head while he is praying or prophesying is shameful, but to leave a woman’s head uncovered while she prays or prophesies is shameful. On the basis of this inference, Paul issues a command in verse 6b: “Let her wear a veil [be covered].”

Then in verses 7–10 he supports this imperative by saying that a man ought not to cover his head (v. 7a) but a woman ought to have a veil (a sign of authority) on her head (v. 10). This oughtness is derived in verses 7b–9 from three facts in Genesis 1 and 2: 1) man is the image and glory of God and woman is the glory of man (v. 7b); 2) man (was not created) from woman but woman for the sake of man (v. 9).

Then verses 11–12 warn against a misunderstanding. Men should not be arrogant nor women disconsolate, for both are indispensible and interdependent and sustained by God. As woman was (created) from man, so man (is born) through woman. The headship of man (v. 3) expressed by the headcovering of woman (vs. 6b, 10) does not justify male self-sufficiency or female insignificance.

This warning shows that Paul is laboring against both effects of the fall: arrogant maleness as well as insubordinate femaleness. Then verses 13–15 are an additional argument from nature that it is not “proper” for a woman to pray without a head covering (v. 13). Nature teaches that if a man wears long hair it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman wears long hair it is her glory (vs. 14–15). Finally, in verse 16 Paul enforces his instruction by saying it is not just for Corinth. It is his custom in all the churches.

Rooted In Creation

Let’s try to understand this passage by moving backward. How does nature teach what length hair is “proper”? If nature takes its course, man’s hair gets as long as woman’s. That women wore long hair in those days and men relatively short hair was due to cultural custom, not any absolute natural law.

What nature prescribed was that in general men feel ashamed when they are effeminate and women incline naturally to being feminine. The cultural symbols of femininity and masculinity change. (In America Paul could say, “Doesn’t nature teach you that a man should not wear a dress?”) But the teaching of nature, rooted in creation, does not change (except where perversions are so widespread they are defended as natural, e.g., homosexuality).

So nature is a teacher for Paul in that it generally inclines man and woman to feel shame when they abandon the basic cultural symbols of masculinity and femininity. So verses 13–15 confirm the apostle’s earlier point that women should avail themselves of the current custom (of headcoverings) which in their day signified an essential truth about the difference between man and woman, namely, the man’s headship and the woman’s submission to it.

It becomes clear then that the issue of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 is secondarily headcoverings but primarily the preservation of God-given distinctions between man and woman in the way they relate to each other. The head covering is culturally relative. What is signified for Paul is not. It is rooted in nature, or, as we can see in verses 7–9, in creation.

Authority Acknowledged

The meaning of the headcovering is seen in verse 10. It is simply called “authority” (NAS): “The woman ought to have… authority on her head.” This is the opposite of verse 7a: “A man ought not to have his head covered.” A woman’s headcovering, therefore, signified her acknowledgement of man’s authority in the church.

The headcovering did not signify a divine authorization of the woman’s right to prophesy for several reasons:

  1. Her right to prophesy is never in question here, only her demeanor while prophesying, and what it signifies about her relation to man.

  2. Man needs a divine authorization to prophesy as much as woman, but he is forbidden to cover his head.

  3. In the culture of Paul’s day, a headcovering could not communicate a liberated authorization to prophesy, because it was already firmly established as a symbol of feminine submission.

  4. The argument from nature in verses 13-15 would make no sense if the meaning of the headcovering were a divine authorization to prophesy. That is not taught by nature but by revelation at Pentecost (Acts 2:17).

  5. The immediate basis given for a woman’s having authority on her head in verses 8-9 is an argument from God’s action in creation. The woman was made from man’s body and for man’s help (Gen. 2:20-23). “That is why a woman ought to have a veil [authority] on her head.” God intends (and thus nature teaches) a leadership role for man which woman should honor by acknowledging his authority.

The outworking of male authority differs significantly in various male-female relationships (husband, brother, son, pastor, colleague, friend). And the form of female acknowledgment is largely shaped by culture.

Not a Chain of Command

Verse 7 tells why a man should not have a sign of authority on his head: “He is the image and glory of God’ but woman is the glory of man.” This is parallel to verse 3 (NAS): “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman.”

These verses do not necessarily imply that Christ is not woman’s head nor that she is not the image and glory of God. Paul’s point is that man was created by God through Christ and woman was created by God through Christ through man. The point is not to lessen the intimacy of her relation to Christ (she is receiving prophetic revelation!), but to clarify and establish her relation to man.

Man is God’s glory in that he came from God through Christ without coming through woman, and so is to reflect Christ’s true nature as his divine head. Woman is man’s glory in that she came from God through Christ through man, and so is to reflect man’s true nature as her human head.

This is not a chain of command, because the prophetess has direct access to and instructions from Christ her divine head (v. 5). Rather, the woman’s acknowledgment of the man’s subordinate human headship is an expression of her prior and controlling submission to Christ, who in creation appointed unique roles for man and woman.

It would not be wrong to say that headship in verse 3 carries the idea of origin or source. But it would be wrong to insist that it does not also carry the idea of leadership or authority. Man’s headship (v. 3) is given as the basis for the woman’s headcovering (vs. 4-6). According to verse 10 this headcovering is a sign of her submission to “authority.” Therefore, in this context, headship necessarily implies authority.

In summary, the issue is not whether women can prophesy. Paul did not object to this. Rather, it is: How do women and men relate to each other as they minister? The answer given is that women should employ appropriate cultural means of expressing their acknowledgment of man’s headship, which is rooted in creation and taught by nature.