Those Veiled Women of Corinth

[Note: I spent a number of years writing a commentary on 1 Corinthians for a Latin American audience (you can get it free in English HERE). 20 pages contain the full exegesis of the passage; in this blog I will mainly spell out my conclusions].

Part of Bible study is not just understanding what the author was teaching, but what problem the Scripture was intended to solve, and also to apply his teaching in a context today. In this case, we live in a culture that is far removed from first-century Corinth:

 …every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. (1 Cor 11:4-6)

My interpretation of this section is:

Paul taught all his churches that in a worship service both men and women are free to pray aloud and to speak prophetically to the congregation. Men should pray and prophesy with their heads bared; women, who arrive already wearing a veil – like a scarf or small shawl on their head, as dictated the local culture – should continue to wear it throughout the meeting. This rule was given for several reasons: it reflected the created order as described in Genesis; because it was “natural”; because to do otherwise would bring cultural shame. But later on, some Corinthian women wanted to shed the veil. Paul perceives that, while the veil in itself is not a fundamental issue of the faith, the motivations for rejecting the veil were questionable: to declare independence from men/husbands; to reject the relevance of cultural mores for a Christian; to act as if gender differences did not exist. For these reasons he reaffirms that women and men must maintain the status quo that he has established for Christian meetings.

Those women who wish to pray without a veil need to realize that they are obligated to glorify God in part by honoring “the men,” that is their brothers in Christ. Neither man nor woman in Christ is an individual unit; each must come to Christ through serving the other. Thus Paul also reminds the men: if you are tempted to lord it over women, remember that you came from a woman (11:8) and that you too have to answer to a head, that is Christ, and to make very sure that you are reflecting glory to another, not to yourself.

A "respectable" Roman woman with veil
A “respectable” Roman woman with veil

Clothing in some societies conveys strong signals about social position, self-consciousness, and gender. For example, not many generations ago, when a girl reached a certain age and started wearing her hear bound “up,” she was signaling that she was available for marriage. For boys, the purchase of their first pair of long pants was an anxiously-awaited step toward manhood. In Roman society, a respectable married woman or widow went out in public with her hair worn up and covered with a veil or shawl as a sign that she was faithful to her husband and not sexually available to men she encountered. This is not the Muslim purdah, nor is it designed to cover the face – only the top of the head and the hair and back of the neck were covered. A woman without veil and with hair unbound was “loose”.

A near contemporary of Paul, Plutarch, says that “concerning the question of why on the one hand [unmarried] maidens are taken out in public uncovered, but wives covered; ‘Because,’ he said, ‘the maidens on the one hand need to seek a husband, but the wives need to guard what they have.’”

Therefore, according to apostolic custom, a meeting of the church, though in a private home, was considered a public meeting to which people would walk. A woman would arrive with her head covered; she should stay that way. To remove her veil would embarrass all the men, and her husband, if she were married.

Why would a Corinthian woman want to take off her veil? One explanation is that she was flirting with the men. Another better reading is that some women in the church, fully enjoying their new equality in Christ and their right to pray and prophesy, wanted to do away with social custom. Just as some women in 1 Corinthians 7 wanted to refrain from sex or to abandon their husbands in an attempt to improve their spiritual lives, so some women – the same women? – wanted to disassociate themselves from their husbands in the worship service. A modern equivalent might be a woman who removes her wedding ring, because she imagines that the commitment to one’s husband takes away from a full devotion to Christ.

The idea that even in the church women should be women and men should be men may offend some modern people. But let us look positively on what Paul is saying: in the church, women and men remain women and men; husbands and wives remain such. Being in Christ, though guaranteeing equality among believers, does not mean the end of gender nor of marriage, both of which were part of God’s creation before the Fall. One implication is that there is therefore no need for women to assume that being independent or more mannish will in some way make them more Christian. A Christian woman, dressed appropriately, can pray and prophesy aloud, shoulder-to-shoulder with any male in the congregation.

Every human society has social signals, mute messages that help its members to communicate things about themselves. These change radically from culture to culture and over time and place. They can be very useful: they save billions of hours in unnecessary explanation:

  • It used to be normal for widows to wear black. Likewise, men would wear black armbands. By this they showed their respect for the dead. It also signaled to others, I am mourning a loss; don’t interact with me as if things were normal.
  • In some cultures, a wedding ring is a signal to others that we are romantically unavailable. In North America, beginning in the 20th century, men as well as women might wear them. People who remove their rings in order to hide their married state are considered deceitful.
  • As a North American, I had to relearn certain signals when I moved to Costa Rica. For example, I had to be told that it was rude in Latin America to make eye contact with young women on the street. My own birth culture had taught me the opposite, that it is improper not to smile at and greet everyone I see.
  • There are myriad signals that we communicate via tattoos; earrings, and on which ear; hairstyle; T-shirts; our manner of speaking.

I have taught in churches where women had to wear veils during the church service, usually congregations of the Brethren. My own take is that no Christian women today in cultures where veils do not convey the same message – for example, in Muslim lands – is obligated to wear the veil; but all Christians, although citizens of heaven, still live in the world, and we must pay attention to our social signals so that they reinforce the gospel we want to honor. Our Lord himself was famous for breaking some conventional rules, and sometimes we should as well (see Mark 7:2, 5; Luke 15:2; John 4:27; even John 2:10). But he always did so for a purpose: to serve the Father better, not to play the Bad Boy, nor to prove that he was “free” and that society could not rein him in. Like him, let us send a clear message to those around us, whether it is by word, action or mute signal.

“Those Veiled Women of Corinth”, by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

6 thoughts on “Those Veiled Women of Corinth

  1. Thanks for this, Gary. When teaching world religions, during my weeks on Islam I always invited a guest speaker from a local Islamic society where she noted that when in public, a Muslim female, once veiled, should never take off her veil in public, lest she shake out her hair and cause an attraction for men and distraction away from Allah.

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