Many small groups have stumbled on 1 Corinthians 11:2-10 and what Paul meant when he mentions women’s praying with their head covered. This entire passage is filled with comments and commands that are difficult to understand in large part because we weren’t there. Imagine if Paul was writing a letter to EUM and talked about things like MDO, SHOUT, Third floor activities, kids being dismissed at the 11am service but not the 9:45am service, etc. Someone reading that letter two thousand years later would be scratching his or her head, trying to figure out what was happening in this church called EUM. So all we are left with are clues and we do our best with the clues we are given.
Clue # 1: This entire passage (from 1 Corinthians 11) is about public worship. So what where he goes from here is filtered through the lens of a public place where Christians are gathering to worship together.
Clue # 2: This is an early church that is trying to figure out how to live out the gospel. What do I mean by that? As Paul traveled around the Mediterranean he is taking the Gospel and starting churches where he feel the spirit is leading. These churches are taking the powerful story of Christ’s life, his teachings, death and resurrection and trying to figure out how to adopt this way of life in light of their current culture. Paul’s letter then, is an attempt to recalculate the churches understanding and application of the Gospel.
Clue # 3: Current culture of this early church included a Patriarchal understanding of roles. The men are the “head”. Men with short hair and going uncovered (there is some debate on the exact meaning of the word) because to do otherwise (grow out hair) sends ambiguous signals about their sexuality or religious commitment. For women the concern was the ambiguous signals sent with short hard and a head uncovered in worship.
So when Paul talks about head covering as well as other issues such as women speaking in public he is suggesting a “yes, but” way of thinking. Yes the gospel provides freedom from oppressive systems and new opportunities that were previous unavailable to Christians, especially women “BUT” cautions Christians (especially women) from going to far to fast. This was specifically a concern of Paul’s in the public space of worship. Reading between the lines one gets the sense that Paul is protecting the early church from becoming to “radical” (sending the wrong message, especially when it came to gender roles and sexuality) within its existing culture so that it wouldn’t unnecessarily be dismissed.
My favorite line from Paul though is verse 11…. “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” Paul concludes this section on headship and hierarchical roles between genders with a beautiful statement about interdependence that leave us with God as the ultimate source.