Body and Theology

Body and Theology June 1, 2015

Lucy Peppiatt WTCMales and females, a body for each. Male and female hair, a style for each. Male and female clothing, a style for each.

Transgress the body, the hair or the clothing and shame results; maintain the body, the hair and the clothing, and honor results.

The history of the church reveals a correlation with the above observations and what is seen as standard, traditional or appropriate for women and for men, but especially for women. Their bodies, their hair, and their clothing have become a mirror of theology and how faithful or Christian the woman is. As a teen in the 60s the length of hair for males became an issue — for sports teams and for churches and for work ethic. But that passed. While what women wear is less an issue today than it has been (very very few expect women to attend churches with a top to cover the head) but some still expect women to have a body shaped by a theology that lines up with that tradition.

We could stop right here for a conversation about expectations for women when it comes to body image, to clothing and to hair, but we are pressing on from this into an important new book.

Such are the issues, at least for some, when reading 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The bigger issue is that “at least for some” is not the issue for “others.” This is why Lucy Peppiatt’s thorough discussion of options in her book Women and Worship at Corinth helps us all. She sorts it all out, and then shows that each sort has significant problems, and problems enough to drive us to cry out for something more compelling. Today then I want to sketch in brief form four readings of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (NRSV at bottom of post for your convenience).

After quoting CFD Moule and GB Caird, two worthies of the previous generation, Peppiatt records this observation from Craig Blomberg:

‘[t]his passage is probably the most complex, controversial, and opaque of any text of comparable length in the New Testament. A survey of the history of interpretation reveals how many different exegetical options there are for a myriad of questions and should inspire a fair measure of tentativeness on the part of the interpreter” (Peppiatt, 22).

When I see some use 1 Cor 11:3 as a sure foundation for constructing complementarianism and then connect it to the Trinity I want to say, Well, let’s move a little slower for this is tricky terrain. So here from Gordon Fee:

Fee notes that there is considerable “uncertainty” about “some absolutely crucial terms,” and notes in particular the exegetical difficulties surrounding the terms: “head,” “having down the head,” “uncovered,” “glory,” “authority over her head,” “because of the angels,” “in the place of a shawl,” and “such a custom.” These, it turns out, are in fact nearly all the crucial terms in the passage (Peppiatt, 22).

Some passages in the Bible, then, are not as transparent as we’d like or as we’d like to think. The wise interpreter knows this; the wise interpreter, in fact, wisely avoids building theology upon such passages.

So what are the options? She gathers them into four based on whether the “head unveiled” (11:5) and the “symbol” (v. 10) and the “hair” (v. 15) is (1) a head covering or (2) a hairstyle. Some think a veil was to be worn; others think it’s about hair length or hair style. Some note that part of the passage seems to be about a veil while later it means hair, and one wonders if the hair of v. 15 might not eliminate the veil of v. 5 — and perhaps the later verses are more Pauline than the earlier verses, making appeal to a verse like v. 3 suspect?!?!

Then she sorts interpretations out on whether or not Paul is presenting a hiearchicalist/subordinationist theology or not. Hence, these options:

1. Head covering/hierarchical.

2. Head covering/non-hierarchical.

3. Hairstyle/hierarchical.

4. Hairstyle/non-hierarchical.

By non-hierarchical Peppiatt intends to say that Paul expects both males and females to act in such a manner that shame is not brought on the community. (She also says that if this is what Paul is doing, he’s not fair to females. The threat against them in vv. 5-6 is more severe. What she’s saying, then, is that the shame-honor paradigm explains some things but ends up being hierarchical.)

Let us assume that Paul wrote all of 1 Cor 11:2-16. Then what? There are a bundle of problems, something of them quite significant. Here they are, and these are found in Peppiatt’s book and especially on pp. 62-64 (much of which is quoted in what follows):

#1: Almost no one today expects women to wear a head covering (not just in church, unless you can show this text says that0 or not cut their hair. Hence, Peppiatt presses the question: Why? Or, Were those customs merely culturally normative, could be suspended in a different context, but not surrendering the creation order/shame/honor themes? What does nearly total disregard say about our view of this part of the Bible?

#2: What was the issue with women and head coverings or hair? We face the difficulty of making a decision between “head covering’ and “hair length.” This centres on the Greek kata kephale, in verse 4 meaning “having down on the head” or “having down from the head. Scholars are divided as to which it is. Furthermore, many think long hair for a male would indicate he is on display as gay while if a woman cut her hair short she is on display as a lesbian. Was this common? Universal? Worthy of a custom/code for all churches of all time? (What about Nazirites or Paul taking a vow not to cut his hair for 18 months while in Corinth?)

Do  you think Paul expected Jewish males to worship with heads uncovered? (If head coverings is the custom he is using.)

#3: What is really going on with the shame and women’s attire? We are unsure what exactly is the reason for the shame. Despite an insistence by many scholars that Paul is drawing his concepts of shame and honor in relation to head coverings or hairstyles from the culture around him, this is decisively undermined by those who admit that we cannot, in fact, make any assertions as to what exactly was shameful or honoring in terms of attire.

#4: What about the source of this shame and “head”: one’s own head and one’s “spiritual” head? There is a clear link in Paul’s mind between the shame, the physical head, and the metaphysical spiritual head. We are unable to establish precisely what that link is but we do know they are shaming their metaphorical head and not their own head. Furthermore, if this shame/head issue is about “glory,” it is very difficult to avoid the reading that men are not to be shamed either by obscuring their own glory (the image of God/Christ) or by being demeaned by the women’s behavior, and that women are not to be shamed either by acting above their station, rejecting an outward sign of authority, or by demonstrating that they are prostitutes. There is a fundamental inequality between the two “sources” of shame.

#5: What about Paul’s creation theology in verses 7-9? A careful reading here leads us to think vv. 7-9 are incompatible with the accounts in Genesis and with his own “in the Lord” theology, which he later refers to.

#6: Backing up just a bit, What kind of man and what kind of woman is Paul talking about here? We do not know whether Paul is referring to all men and all women or husbands and their wives and wives and their husbands.

#7: How much weight should we give to our hypothetical and far-from-clear reconstructions of the context? A context that is then used to explain nearly everything in the passage. We are dependent on historical reconstructions of the situation in Corinth that are highly speculative.

#8: Why in the world does Paul bring in the angels? It is, after all, very surprising and far from clear. We do not know what the problem with the angels is.

#9: Do you see the tension between the two sections of this passage? We have to explain the relationship of verses 2-10 to verses 11-16, which together seem to generate contradictions or inconsistencies. Vv 3-9 seem to be hierarchical while vv. 11-16 seem to be egalitarian. No?

#10: What does Paul actually mean in v. 16? We do not know why Paul is so adamant that these practices should be implemented in all his churches. (Or is this at all what he means?)

Is this not enough to wonder if the nuanced approaches, for that is what they are, are not sitting at the wrong table to begin with? Is there another way? Is it not at least clear that we should consider what is now called the “rhetorical” approach, one in which Paul is both debating and citing his opponents and that therefore not all the lines are Paul’s own theology?

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

1Cor. 11:2   I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.  3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.  4 Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head,  5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.  6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.  7 For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.  8 Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  9 Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.  10 For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.  11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.  12 For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.  13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled?  14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,  15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.  16 But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

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