1 Corinthians 11:4-5ff
In the previous two studies on 1-2 Thessalonians, we saw how prayer played an important role in Paul’s letters, with the references in the introduction (exordium) and exhortation (exhortatio) sections framing the body of the letter. The focus was on Paul’s relationship to the Thessalonian congregations, with an emphasis on mutual prayer—that the Thessalonians would continue to remain faithful to the Gospel message, and that Paul’s missionary work in proclaiming the Gospel would continue to have success.
Prayer is given decidedly less emphasis in the letters that involve deliberative rhetoric (including forceful polemic) by which Paul addresses controversial issues. There is scarcely any reference to prayer in Galatians, for example, and it is also less prominent in 1 Corinthians. In particular, the framing sections of 1 Corinthians—a long and complex letter with an elaborate rhetorical structure—make very little mention of prayer. The thanksgiving in 1:4-9 resembles that of Thessalonians, but the positive aspect of mutual relationship (and the specific mention of prayer) is noticeably absent. This is not coincidental, as the idea of divisions (and divisiveness) within the congregations immediately takes center stage in the introduction (1:10-17). There has been a disruption in the relationship, and, indeed, throughout the letter Paul works hard urging the Corinthian believers to resolve the divisiveness and to strive for unity.
The primary references to prayer relate specifically to public prayer in the setting of congregational worship. This worship setting is one area where divisions within the congregations were manifest. And, since public prayer was an important component of the congregational worship, it is not surprising that Paul addresses it as part of his instruction to the Corinthians.
1 Cor 11:2-16 deals with the subject of the relationship between the sexes (between men and women) for those who have an active role participating in the public worship. This context is vital for a proper understanding of the passage—it deals specifically with women who function in a ministry role within a public worship setting. The charismatic nature of congregational life in Corinth meant that believers—both men and women—who where uniquely gifted (by the Spirit) in different areas were encouraged to exercise those gifts. It is clear from Paul’s discussion in chapters 11 and 14 that women were participating as prophets in the congregational worship setting. Paul does not deny the validity of this, whatever his personal preference might have been; he accepts women serving in this role, but would require of the Corinthians that they take steps to maintain a clear distinction regarding the relationship between men and women in these roles.
The issue, for Paul, clearly centers on those who speak, in the Spirit (in a ministry role), during the congregational worship. In verses 4-5 he refers to both men and women who are “speaking out toward (God) or foretelling [i.e. prophesying]”. The verb used is the common verb for prayer, proseu/xomai (“speak out toward [God]”). The verb profhteu/w is translated literally as “foretell”, but this can be misleading, since the prefixed element pro– (“before”) can be understood in a temporal sense (“beforehand”), but also in a positional/relational sense (i.e., standing “before” someone). The latter is often the specific meaning in the New Testament, matching the denotation of the root abn in Hebrew, where a ayb!n`, usually translated “prophet”, refers more properly to someone who functions as a spokesperson for God, communicating His word and will to the people. Similarly, Christian prophets—those gifted/inspired by the Spirit—communicated the word and will of God within the congregation.
Gifted women are allowed to speak in the congregation—both praying (in the Spirit) and prophesying—as long as they did so with their head covered. The purpose and significance of this specific detail has been much discussed by commentators. I have addressed it at length in the earlier series “Women in the Church”, and will not repeat that discussion here. The symbolism of the head/hair covering was clearly important for Paul, though modern readers may not find all of his arguments entirely convincing. It would seem that charismatic tendencies within the congregation led many believers in Corinth to consider the gender distinction (of the older order of Creation) to have been replaced by the egalitarianism of the new order. And, indeed, Paul’s own declaration in Gal 3:28 (cp. 1 Cor 12:13), along with the general logic of his teaching regarding the spiritual unity of believers in Christ, points in that very direction.
However, in 11:2-16, Paul’s line of argument indicates that, while the old order of Creation has been transformed, it has not been entirely abolished. He draws upon the Genesis Creation account (vv. 8-9ff) as a primary argument for preserving the (hierarchical) distinction between men and women in that public ministry role—especially if the relationship of husband and wife was involved. Men should pray and prophesy with head uncovered, and women with head covered. This does not refer to private prayer, nor to prayer within the family unit—i.e., between husband and wife, which Paul mentions in passing in 7:5. He is addressing the specific context of the public, congregational worship—where men and woman function in roles as Spirit-gifted ministers.
However one interprets and responds to the detail of Paul’s instruction in 11:2-16, it is most important to keep in mind that his primary concern is to maintain a sense of order and unity within the congregation. The same is true regarding his instruction in chapter 14, where again the place of prayer within the congregational worship is addressed. We will be discussing this passage (esp. verses 13-15) in the next study.