A Christian sister asks, “Please explain the passage which says, a woman should have ‘authority on her head because of the angels'” (1 Cor. 11:9).
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This passage in 1 Corinthians 11 has always held a special fascination for me because I grew up among churches whose women wore hats or veils of some sort whenever they “went to church,” based on this text. What is Paul saying here? Numerous interpretations have been offered, but the following one makes the most sense to me.
1. Paul writes to a largely messianic-Jewish audience which assumes that women are subordinate to men (at least each wife to her own husband), in a place and time where men (but not women) spoke during public meetings. He is concerned to maintain proper order and decorum so as not to cause scandal or offense (1 Cor. 14:27-33).
2. His audience also knew a rabbinical tradition which said that certain angels once left their proper station and became insubordinate, leading to their “fall.”
3. Paul believes that the Holy Spirit now gifts men and women alike with spiritual grace-gifts (charismata). Among these are the occasional gifts of speaking a word directly given by God (prophecy) and the gift of praying in a spiritual language (which he later says in 14:12-16 should be interpreted if done in public assembly).
4. When Christian women at Corinth are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak out during public assemblies (“pray or prophesy”), Paul expects them to do so and not to quench the Spirit. However, when they do speak out in first-century Corinth, they will appear to be out of place if observers do not know what they are doing.
5. To avoid this embarrassment and confusion, Paul tells the Corinthian women to wear a “veil” as a badge of their authority when they exercise their spiritual gifts in public assembly. It is similar to someone knocking on your door in the middle of the night and saying, “Open the door!” You crack the door a bit, safety chain still securely fastened, and ask, “Who is there?” The person on the other side holds up an FBI badge as a “symbol of authority” for doing what one ordinarily has no right to do — demanding entrance to your house in the middle of the night.
6. The woman speaking out during church in the exercise of her spiritual gifts is doing what she has authority to do — but she wears a “badge” to indicate that special authority (see also Ezek. 13:17-21 for such a “uniform” among false prophetesses). In short, she is careful to wear a sign of “authority” on her head when she speaks out authoritatively in church, “because of” the example of “the angels” who left their realm of authority with dire results.
This said, one is now ready to consider the larger question of what part of Paul’s teaching here is limited by the specific historical circumstances which he addresses, and the extent to which it encapsulates permanent Christian truth of universal application.