Reflection on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: Paul, Culture, and Kephale (“Head”)
WCIU Journal: Women in International Development Topic
April 9, 2019
by Susan Higgins
Paul is at once so clear and yet so confusing to my 21st century, post-enlightenment, post-modern mind. The title given for this passage in my NIV translation is “Propriety in Worship.” I certainly agree that our gatherings of worship should demonstrate propriety—however since the time of this composition to the church in Corinth, what constitutes “propriety” ranges the entire spectrum from one extreme to the other involving hair, dress, music, silence, length of gathering, time of day, setting, and many other elements. Consider the quiet individualism of a Quaker meeting in comparison with the loud exuberant dancing, singing, slaying in the Spirit of a gathering of African Pentecostals! One person’s understanding of “propriety” can be off the charts compared to another person’s tradition. The emphasis in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church focuses upon hair and head-coverings. In light of allowing for the cultural context of any instruction, I believe we are now in the position of being able to discern which instructions are to be considered universal and which are contextual. It is my conviction that hair and head-coverings are a contextual issue, and not a universal issue, or an issue of salvation.
However, when we dig deeper into the text itself we begin to touch upon issues that are indeed much more controversial within the understanding of gender and equality from Paul’s vantage point. Let me attempt to explain my understanding of the issues based upon my reading of from Philip Payne’s book, Man and Woman, One in Christ. When Paul makes mention of it being “dishonorable” for a man to pray or prophecy with his head “covered,” what he is actually referring to is a man who has “covered” his head with long effeminate hair which would have been considered disgraceful in the Corinthian context (Payne 2009, 110). Paul’s mention of the importance of women having their “heads covered” is actually referring to the cultural practice of respectable women wearing their long hair done up upon the head (Payne 2009, 110). In both cases, wearing hair in the opposite manner of what was considered culturally respectable was a sign of blatant sexual immorality. “Recognizing these two cultural backgrounds is the key to understanding the various puzzling expressions in the passage” (Payne 2009, 110).
In the course of his reasoning, Paul states, “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). And here is where the controversy lights up the screens and all sorts of bells and whistles go off!! What does Paul mean when he uses the word “head”? What does the word “head” actually mean in the original Greek? Is “head” the best way to translate the original Greek word “kephale” ? Much ink has been devoted to this issue. Many heated debates and arguments have been made. Honestly, as I have read this passage in the course of my life as a Jesus follower, I have hardly even paid attention to this reference of “head.” Have I been in a state of denial—denial to face the fact that any man is my “head”? Or in common verbiage, that as a woman, I must accept that men are to be my natural head or authority if I am going to live as a devoted follower of Jesus? According to this translation trajectory, this is the conclusion I am left with of this passage of Paul.
In my current edition of Webster’s Dictionary, there are 21 different definitions for the word ”head”, #5 of which states “the source,” #6 of which states, “director, leader, authority.” As I have read through all the assigned readings, it seems to me that the basic bottom-line controversy is between these two different meanings in English of the Greek word kephale. Not being a Greek scholar, I am indebted to those who have devoted their scholarship to the examination of this very word and the resulting issues of accurately understanding Paul’s meaning. In addition to the piece by Philip Payne, I am thankful for Catherine Clark Kroeger’s article in the Priscilla Papers entitled, “Toward an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head’.” Kroeger provides an extensive bibliography supporting that a common usage of kephale in ancient Greek refers to the “source” of the object. “A term must be defined not by the assigned value in a lexicon but by its actual usage in various contexts” (Kroeger 2006, 5). Because the Paul’s verse also involves the relationship between God and Christ, Kroeger eventually concludes, “As applied to the Trinity, Chrysostom said, kephale must imply ‘perfect oneness and primal cause and source’.” (Kroeger2006, 7). Hence, a modified version of the verse in question could be rendered, “Now I want you to realize that the source of every man is Christ, the source of the woman is man, and the source of Christ is God” (italics mine). Given that in Genesis 2:22, woman is made from the rib that was taken out of the man (i.e. man is the “source” of woman), I can live with this!! I realize that there are others who do not ascribe to this translation of kephale and do hold a hard line that man does have authority over woman. To those people I will have to say that I respectfully disagree, especially when one looks at the entire breadth of the biblical story and specifically of the life of Jesus and the high honor he demonstrated towards women. I have to leave it at this for this discussion.
Back to the concept of propriety in worship. In all ways, our worship is to be offered to give God glory and honor and praise. What this looks like on the outside will be very much dictated and defined by the cultural context in which it takes place. In the course of my many and varied experiences, I have participated in a great variety of worship activities. Some of these were more meaningful to me than others. But it’s not “my” experience that matters. Even when I did not “feel” that I was “edified” by a particular type of worship activity or style, I was seeking to join in with the demonstration of devotion being given by the believers I was with. The context matters. By grace, I have been very adaptable in accepting the many cultural contexts I have been in over the years and miles of my life!
In all of this discussion about head and source and authority, it’s too easy to overlook a wonderfully important statement that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 11:5, “And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head______” (italics and underlining added for emphasis). This really sounds to me as though Paul is definitely expecting and assuming that women will be praying and prophesying within the context of corporate worship gatherings! Amen! Paul is an egalitarian!! He is simply asking that everyone exercise their spiritual gifts in culturally appropriate and respectful ways that build up the entire fellowship of believers. This is what I believe he means when talking about “propriety” in worship. When I am in Pakistan with followers of Jesus, I am definitely going to excuse myself from the men and go to another room to be with the women—it’s the cultural thing to do. I would never even think of demanding to remain with the men just to satisfy my need for “equality” with the male believers. I know in my heart that I am equal with them. And it will be up to the Pakistani believers to wrestle with the part of their culture that dictates that men and women remain separate for most all activities. I imagine that many of my more “feminist” believing sisters from Western cultures might think this is a crucial issue that should be addressed immediately and proactively! However, I imagine that Jesus is much more interested in deeper heart issues within the believers in Pakistan than whether or not men and women interact in the same room.
In the final analysis, propriety in worship has to do with avoiding any behavior that would cause any of the other believers to stumble or be somehow distracted from their attention being devoted to the Lord God himself. This covers issues ranging from behavior to dress to eating or drinking. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Amen.
Kroeger, Catherine Clark. 2006. Towards an Understanding of Ancient Conceptions of ‘Head’. Priscilla Papers 20, no. 3 (Summer). https://www.cbeinternational.org/sites/default/files/v20n3p1.pdf.
Payne, Philip. 2009. Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.