For centuries, the teachings of the Apostle Paul have been at the epicenter of theological debates within the church, and in recent years, particularly surrounding the interpretation of his views on gender roles. One such debate that keeps rearing its ugly head pertains to Paul’s instruction to women in 1 Corinthians 11, where he discusses the cultural practice of women wearing head coverings during worship. At the heart of the issue is whether Paul’s words should be seen as a timeless command for all Christian women or as a culturally specific instruction applicable only to the church in Corinth.
This question of interpretation is not a new quandary. It has its roots in the early church and has been revisited throughout the centuries, stretching from the era of Church Fathers, through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and into the present day. Various theological perspectives, such as complementarianism, have emerged with their distinctive interpretations, contributing to this ongoing conversation. Today, Egalitarians, feminists, and progressives often point to this passage to try to paint conservative, complementarians as inconsistent and hypocritical in their theological perspective on gender roles.
Complementarians, affirming the biblical revelation of equal worth yet distinct roles for men and women, do however adhere strictly to Paul’s teachings. This brings forth a compelling query: Why do complementarians, who maintain the enduring relevance of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 14:34 for women remain silent and in submission in church, not extend the same literal interpretation to Paul’s discussion on head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? The journey to unpack this question invites us into a deeper exploration of Scripture, encouraging a closer look at the nuances of language, culture, and context in biblical interpretation.
Paul’s directive in 1 Corinthians 14:34, according to the English Standard Version (ESV), declares, “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” Complementarians understand this verse as a universal command, which lays down a timeless principle for the roles of men and women within the church. It’s not seen as a restrictive command but as one that embraces and highlights the unique roles assigned by God to each gender.
However, when approaching 1 Corinthians 11, complementarians interpret the text differently. Here, Paul discusses a cultural practice of his day: women covering their heads during worship. This, though, is not seen by complementarians as a universal command that extends to all cultures and times. But why is that?
Throughout history, the church has recognized that Scripture is composed of both prescriptive and descriptive passages. The nuance in this distinction is critical for sound biblical interpretation. Prescriptive passages—passages that prescribe— entail clear commands intended for universal adherence by all believers, regardless of their temporal or cultural circumstances. Such passages, both in the original Greek and English translations, are typically characterized by the use of imperative verbs, signaling a binding instruction.
Descriptive passages, on the other hand, are distinct. They primarily serve to recount—or describe—specific situations, events, or customs within a given historical and cultural context. These passages do not necessarily set forth rules or commands for believers to follow universally. The language used here often lacks the strong imperative verbs seen in prescriptive passages. Instead, it uses indicative or subjunctive verb forms, providing descriptions, illustrations, or hypothetical scenarios.
With this understanding, let’s turn our attention to the cultural practice in Corinth during Paul’s time, where a woman’s head covering symbolized submission and respect—a clear societal norm. This custom forms the backdrop of 1 Corinthians 11:4-6 (ESV), wherein Paul writes, “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… For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short.”
In this passage, there’s an evident absence of imperatives, both in the original Greek and in the English translation. Therefore, Paul isn’t issuing a direct command; he is stating a cultural fact. He’s saying, “this is what happens,” not “this is what should happen.” His language here is indicative, describing the prevailing practice of his day, not prescriptive, dictating what must be done in all societies and eras.
What Paul accomplishes here is a masterful blend of cultural description with a universal theological principle. He uses the culturally-specific practice of head coverings as an illustration to bring to light a timeless truth: the unique and equally significant roles of men and women within the body of Christ. This demonstrates how Scripture can use historical and cultural descriptions as a vehicle for communicating eternal principles. It’s not the cultural norm itself that carries forward through time, but the underlying truth it is used to express.
Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 (ESV), Paul uses nature itself to support his argument, “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.” Thus, the assertion that Paul’s reference to head coverings is descriptive, not prescriptive, stands strong. It serves as a testament to the meticulous, context-aware approach complementarians employ in their interpretation and application of Scripture.
In stark contrast to the culturally descriptive nature of the head coverings discussion in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s discourse just a few chapters away in 1 Corinthians 14:34 adopts a different tone and linguistic approach. Here, the apostle issues a clear directive, establishing a universal principle for orderly worship in the church. The English Standard Version (ESV) reads, “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.”
Unlike the indicative, or descriptive, language used to describe the practice of head coverings, this verse uses imperative language, indicative of a prescriptive passage. The Greek verb translated as “should keep silent” (σιγάτωσαν) is in the imperative mood, representing a command or an instruction. Similarly, the phrase “they are not permitted to speak” (οὐκ ἐπιτρέπεται) carries a prohibitive tone. This transition from indicative to imperative language signifies a shift from description to prescription, from cultural illustration to a divine injunction.
Moreover, Paul’s reference to “the Law” suggests an appeal to a higher, timeless authority, one that transcends cultural norms and practices. His language invokes the divine law as given in the Old Testament, further substantiating the prescriptive nature of his instruction.
This passage’s language and context strongly suggest that Paul’s instruction for women to keep silent in the churches is not a mere description of Corinthian culture or a response to a specific circumstance. Rather, it is a directive, a command intended for the wider Christian community, transcending cultural and temporal boundaries.
This juxtaposition between the descriptive nature of the head coverings passage and the prescriptive instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:34 reinforces the fact that we should be committed to a careful, nuanced interpretation of Scripture. It illustrates how we navigate the complex interplay of cultural context, linguistic analysis, and theological principles to faithfully apply God’s Word in their congregations.
Additional support to the universality of this command is given in the previous verse. In 1 Corinthians 14, the phrase “as in all the churches of the saints” appears at the end of verse 33. But in Greek, it’s common for a sentence to continue into the next verse. Many Bible scholars believe this phrase makes more sense if it’s seen as introducing verse 34’s command about women in the church. This way, it shows that the command is intended for all Christian churches, not just the one in Corinth.
Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 14:34, advocating for silence and submission from women in the churches, finds a parallel in his first letter to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul states, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” This similar directive, appearing in a separate letter to a different community, further reinforces the universality of Paul’s instruction.
The bottom line, a proper understanding of these passages will reveal that the command in 1 Corinthians 14:34 is a universal prescription for the church. At the same time, the mention of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 is a cultural norm used descriptively to underline the eternal principle of gender distinction. It’s not inconsistency or selectiveness in interpretation. Rather, it demonstrates an unwavering commitment to understanding and applying Scripture accurately and faithfully. In doing so, complementarians celebrate the God-ordained distinction between male and female roles within the church, recognizing their unique and equally important contributions to the body of Christ.