Does 1 Corinthians 11:5 teach that women can lead prayer in church? In this article on the role of women in the church, the author shows that when the church comes together to worship, women should not lead in prayer.

Source: Diakonia, 1991. 4 pages.

The Role of Women in the Church: Women and the Prayer Meeting

Even in quite orthodox circles women are now actively encouraged to participate in prayer meetings by engaging in public prayer. Many who strongly condemn women preachers are quite happy to have women leading in prayer. The verse which is usually quoted in favour of this practice is 1 Cor. 11:5,

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head.

Here, it is asserted, Paul allows women to pray or proph­esy as long as they have their head covered. How­ever, even a feminist like Virginia Mollenkott notices a problem:

1 Corinthians 11 stipulated that women are to cover their head when they pray aloud or prophesy; 1 Corinthians 14 says, on the contrary, that women are not to pray aloud in the services at all; while 1 Timothy 2 goes even further and flatly forbids women to teach or tell men what to do.Virginia R. Mollenkott, "Church Women, Theologians and the Burden of Proof," Reformed Journal, July-August 1975, pp. 18-19

How can Paul's tolerance here in 1 Corinthians 11:5 be reconciled with his very strong statement just a few verses later in 1 Corinthians 14:34, "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak?" Paul will not allow them even to ask questions let alone pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:35).

Some assert that Paul's injunction in 1 Corinthians 14 is addressed to a specific problem of the day and no longer relevant today. In the synagogues men and women were separated by a partition. Only the men took part in the service. The women, probably out of boredom, tended to engage in chattering. The noise from the gallery, where the women sat, dis­turbed the order of the service. They consider the situation to be similar in the early Church and Paul, like the rabbi, was calling out "Let the women keep silence in the churches." Sometimes the Greek verb used, Laleo, is translated by them as chattering or babbling (See Report 39, Acts of Synod1973, Christian Reformed Church in America p. 429). This, however, is quite misleading. Laleo is one of the commonest words in the New Testament and is usually tran­slated by the verb "speak." But even if this was the situation which Paul was addressing it would not solve for us the problem of the praying and pro­phesying. In the Jewish synagogues the women were allowed only to listen. Further, it seems strange that Paul should feel it necessary to muster up argu­ments from the Law (the Old Testament) and the universal practice of the churches in order to merely keep down the chattering in church. Surely common sense would have been enough of a reason. It seems clear from both the actual words and the context, that Paul is dealing here with the speaking/leading functions in the worship of God.

Turning to 1 Corinthians 11:5 we find that sev­eral interpretations of the words have been pre­sented as well as the one already stated. Some would argue that "praying and prophesying" summarizes the whole act of public worship, and would thus refer merely to their being present when such activi­ties were going on. (See D. Macleod, "The Place of Women in the Church," The Banner of Truth, June 1970 pp. 38-39). Another possibility is that "praying and prophesying" refer to charismatic activities, and so the individuals concerned, being supernaturally inspired by the Holy Spirit, were not subject to the regulations normally governing female participa­tion in the services. Barnes in his commentary argues in this way. But Paul asserts that, "The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32). The New Testament prophets were basically teachers and Paul says. "I suffer not a woman to teach." Female prophets were to exercise their gifts in a more private capacity.

An interesting treatment of the passage, is to be found in an article by Noel Weeks in the Westminster Theological Journal (Noel Weeks, "Of Silence and Head Covering," Westminster Theological Jour­nal, XXXV (1972-73), pp. 21-27). 1 Corinthians 11 teaches the relationship of authority and submission which should exist within creation and is patterned on the relationship which exists between Creator and creature and between God and Christ. When a man acts, as in public prayer or prophesying, in a role which shows his authority, it would be wrong for him to hide or obscure that headship. He should not cover his head, as he would then be denying and bringing dishonour upon his head. It would be foolish to rule and yet hide the symbol of rule. The case of the woman is different. She cannot rule. It is usually conceded that prayer is a prayer of the whole congregation because they say "Amen" to what the one, who is speaking audibly, has voiced for them. Generally it is suggested that the wearing of a veil removes the problem of a woman exercising author­ity over the man. This explanation is, however, read into the passage by force of habitual interpretation. It nowhere defines this to be the purpose of the covering. Indeed the passage is more concerned with the consequences of removing the covering than it is with the purpose of wearing it.

Crucial, in Weeks' opinion, to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:5 is the grammar, in this instance, the use of a particular case of the dative akatakalupto (uncovered verse 5). Generally it is taken as a dative of accompanying circumstance. Histori­cally this comitative dative, as it is called, is linked with the instrumental dative. There are a number of cases in the New Testament in which both senses of the dative are possibly implied. (Weeks gives some examples, e.g. anakekalummeno proposo in 2 Corinthians 3:18.

He further adds:

There is no need to press the instrumental dative. It may well be a comitative dative. The important point to grasp is the sense in which uncovering the head accompa­nies a woman's praying or prophesying.

So Weeks suggests that we translate verse 5 as, "Every woman praying or prophesying, by means of the unveiling of the head, dishonours her head," thus obtaining a different sense and one in line with Paul's argument. The man cannot cover his head when he engages in an authoritative function.

If the woman prays or prophesies it will place her in the same position as the man and so she is forced to exercise headship and uncover her head. The uncovering of her head accompanies her act of prayer or prophesying. The wrong interpretation has arisen from taking verses 4 and 5 as strictly parallel. Although the language is similar there is a difference in structure because the point of view is different. Verse 4 argues that a man may not pray or prophesy with his head covered whereas verse 5 begins the argument that the woman may not pray or prophesy. The woman by taking the place of the man brings dishonour upon her head.

If this interpretation is accepted, 1 Corinthians 11 makes good sense and there is no conflict between it and 1 Corinthians 14. The setting seems to be, that at first the men led in the church and did the preaching and praying. Paul would also have taught them that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Some Corinthian women, like many modern day femi­nists, thought that this teaching should also be ap­plied to authority relations in the church. They knew that they were just as gifted as the men who were doing the speaking so they felt that they should be allowed to speak. They demonstrated what they believed was a new liberty in Christ by acting like men and uncovering their heads and in doing this they were demanding to be allowed to pray and prophesy. It would seem that this in one of the questions which the Corinthians had addressed to Paul. He replies that every woman praying or proph­esying by means of uncovering her head dishonours her head (verse 5). Both 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 are thus seen as teaching that women should be silent in the church in the sense of not leading any part of the worship.

The attractiveness of Weeks' interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:5 is that it removes the apparent contradiction between Chapter 11 and Chapter 14:33b-35 and 1 Timothy 2:8 (yet to be looked at). However, it has to be admitted that many who have no doubt that the New Testament forbids women to take leadership and authoritative roles in the wor­ship (or government) of the Church, will not be convinced by this treatment of 1 Corinthians 11:5. They, for example, will not readily agree that there has been an over-emphasis on the parallelism of verse 4 and 5, and while admitting that there is a change of structure in verse 5 (obvious in the Greek though not in most English translations) they will recognize other explanations for that change rather than the one put forward by Weeks.

Counting against Weeks' treatment also, is the failure to make any reference to verse 13 of Chapter 11. This verse is a sort of summary statement of the passage as far as it relates to women and prayer. The same adjective is used as in verse 5. There is no dative case to argue about here but only a straightforward statement about the "unfittingness" of an unveiled woman praying to God: no hint about women being forbidden to pray.

Weeks' harmonization of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 is attractive and tidy but perhaps to some minds forced. Is it necessary to attempt the harmonization? 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 (as will be shown below) give clear guidance for practice in public worship. As for 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 it is not abso­lutely certain that there Paul is dealing with public worship. After all, if at verse 5 of Chapter 11 Paul, as Weeks proposes, begins the argument that women may not pray or prophesy (in public), why did he suspend treatment of that topic not taking it up again until Chapter 14:33? It is worth considering what covering is referred to in 1 Corinthians 11. Force of habit makes us conclude that it is a veil covering the woman in public worship. It is important to notice that the only time the "veil" (peribolation) is used is in verse 15 where it refers to the woman's long hair. Earlier in the chapter, though this does not com­monly appear from the translations, Paul simply uses the undefined term "kata kephales echon" (liter­ally "having upon their head") without stating what she had upon her head. Evidently the Corinthians would know immediately what was under consideration because the question must have been re­ferred to Paul.

The Jewish custom in worship was for the man always to wear his tallith, (a kind of cloak), over his head when praying as a sign of reverence. Surely Paul is not condemning this practice as an affront to God (verses 4, 7). The high priest in the Old Testa­ment wore headgear in the temple (Exodus 28:36-­41). Paul often worshipped and preached in the synagogue. This he would not have been allowed to do if he did not wear the tallith. If Paul was against the Jewish custom it seems hardly possible that this problem would have arisen only after Paul left Co­rinth considering that he stayed over a year and a half there. The same problem would have arisen in every city where Jews were converted. Yet there is no mention of it in the other Epistles. In 1 Timothy 2:9 Paul is concerned with women's hairstyles in public worship, but if their hair was covered why should the apostle have been so bothered?

The central point with which Paul is dealing In 1 Corinthians 11 is not headgear in public worship but rather the relationship of men and women to one another and to God. A certain hierarchy has been appointed by God (verse 3). Both men and women should happily accept their sex given to them by God and so their position in the hierarchy. They should dress distinctively. All obliteration of this distinctiveness of the sexes is an abomination to God (Deuteronomy 22:5). One of the central features of this dress is hair length. Women should have longer hair than men. Hair had religious significance in the Old Testament (eg. Numbers 6:5; Ezekiel 44:20), as also among many other cultures (e.g. Sikh). The women of Corinth, no longer content with their God-given role as women, were cutting their hair and trying to be like men. If the woman appears in church with short hair then she may as well shave it all off (1 Corinthians 11:16). This would shame the woman into obedience as shaving was the contemporary punishment for adultery.

If this explanation is accepted it means that the woman should always have her head "covered" as a sign of her subordination to the man and the man should always have his head "uncovered" as a sign of his subordination to Christ. Our whole life is lived before God. The importance of the woman having her head "covered" is emphasized when she comes into God's presence e.g. in private prayer or private prophesying (e.g. Acts 21:4, 9, 11). There is no need to take this chapter to be referring to public worship. Paul is not stating what women can or cannot do in church but rather that she is to accept her position of subordination to the man and dress accordingly. This meant that she should wear long hair, and men should wear short hair.

Another passage which bears on the subject of women and public prayer is 1 Timothy 2. In this epistle Paul is dealing with the running of the Church.

These things write I unto thee hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.1 Timothy 3:14 ,­15

Timothy was Paul's representative in Ephesus and as such an adviser to all the churches in the area. In chapter 2 Paul is exhorting the churches to public prayer, "I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplica­tions, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men" (1 Timothy 2:1). In verse 8 he states: "I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting." The word used for men is andres (males) not anthropoi (mankind). Further, the generic article is used, tous andres, the men. "The men" in verse 8 are set in opposition to the woman in verse 9. Also the "in like manner" (verse 9) shows that a new distinct group is being referred to and given instruction about how to conduct itself in public worship. (See usage in 1 Timothy 3:8). The adorning in verse 9 is thus placed over against (chiastically) to the praying in verse 8. Paul is here asserting that the public prayers in the church prayer-meetings be by men only. In the area of prayer as in the other areas of church worship and government the leadership is placed in the hands of men. Women are often more gifted and more spiritual than men, yet God has laid down this order for His Church. Men are to pray "everywhere." This means not just in Ephesus, where Timothy ministered, but throughout Asia Minor and to the ends of the earth. In every place where the Church met to worship God, the men were the ones who were to give voice to the needs, thanksgiving, confession and adoration of the congregation in public prayer. As regards women the emphasis is laid on the more passive side: adornment, modesty, but also good works (verses 9 and 10). The woman is exhorted to "learn in silence with all subjection" (verse 11).

Thus we see that the three passages 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 are united in asserting that when the Church meets to pray, women should not lead in prayer. This, of course, does not prohibit the holding of ladies' prayer-meetings where they may lead in prayer amongst their own sex.

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