Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)
Chapter 8 – Praying and Prophesying in the Assemblies: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. By Gordon D. Fee.
As Gordon Fee notes, many key aspects of this passage are shrouded in mystery. What precisely is the presenting issue? What is the content of Paul’s “head” metaphor? Who are the “angels” referred to in this passage?
Fee does not come to a definitive conclusion about the nature of the presenting issue. Clearly it has something to do with attire/appearance and bringing honor or shame. At the end of the essay he writes:
In a culture where the vast majority of women are dependent on a man for life in the world, a woman who brings shame on her own head by getting rid of one the cultural markers of distinction also brings shame on her metaphorical head, the one on whom the woman is primarily dependent and to whom she is responsible in the Greco-Roman household (which also serves as the nucleus expression of the house church that meets in the household.) (159)
Whatever the nature of the specific actions, Fee believes this to be the central focus of this passage of scripture.
Fee spends considerable time here examining metaphorical use of head (and this will be revisited again in a later essay dealing with Ephesians 5 and 6.) The key passage is verse 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.”
Unlike other places where Paul uses this metaphor in Ephesians or Colossians, there is no mention of a corresponding body. In those passages Fee suggests the metaphor is drawing on the Greek idea of the head as the supporting, life-giving part of the body. Fee notes that in Hebrew the “head” was frequently used as metaphor to denote the leader or clan chieftain, similar to how we might use it today. Greeks had the idea of the head as the body’s most prominent part or the “source” of the body’s working systems but not quite the idea of authority. In footnote 28 Fee writes:
The clearest evidence for the real differences between the Jewish and Greek metaphorical uses is to be found in the Septuagint (LXX). In the hundreds of places where the Hebrew rosh is used for the literal head on a body, the translators invariably used the only word in Greek that means the same thing, kephale. But in the approximately 180 times it appears as a metaphor for the leader or chieftain, they almost always [six exceptions] eliminate the metaphor altogether and translate it arche (“leader”), which is evidence that they were uncomfortable with (unfamiliar with?) the Jewish metaphor and simply translated it out. (150, fn 28)
Concerning Paul’s use of the metaphor in this passage, Fee writes:
The earliest extant consistent interpretation of the metaphor in this passage is to be found in a younger contemporary of Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444?), who explicitly interprets in terms of the Greek metaphor: “Thus we can say that ‘the head of every man is Christ.’ For he was made by [dia] him … as God; ‘but the head of the women is the man,’ because she was taken out of his flesh…. Likewise ‘the head of Christ is God,’ because he is of him [ex autou] by nature” (Ad Arcadiam et MArinam 5.6). That is, as with Chrysostom’s understanding of the two pairs (God-Christ, Christ-man), Cyril is ready to go this way with all three pairs because of what is said in verse 8: that the woman was created from the man. Not only was the idea that the head is the source of supply and support for all the body’s systems a natural metaphor in the Greek world, but in this case it also supported Cyril’s Christological concern (not to have Christ “under” God in a hierarchy), just as it did for Chrysostom.
The question for us, then, is whether Paul was speaking out of his Jewish heritage or whether in speaking into the Corinthians’ Greek setting he used the metaphor that would have been more familiar to them. … For several reasons, it seems most likely that something very much like Cyril’s understanding was in Paul’s mind. (151)
Fee goes forward from here to make three observations.
1. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, nothing that is said following this verse hints at an authority-subordination relationship. (151)
2. In one instance in our passage where Paul might be picking up some dimension of the metaphor (1 Cor 11:8-9, the relationship envisaged is clearly not one of subordination to the man as “leader.” [“women is the glory of man”] … If this is an extension of the metaphor in 1 Corinthians 11:3, then it clearly points to “man” as metaphorical head in the sense Cyril maintains. (151-152)
3. One of the ongoing puzzles for all interpreters is why Paul should included the third member in his opening sentence, since “God as the head of Christ” is not picked up again in any way. Most likely this is because the saying had prior existence and Paul is simply appealing to it. (152)
I think the critical conclusion of Fee’s essay is here.
In the process he [Paul] denominates “tongues speaking” a form of prayer (1 Cor 14:2, 14, 28), while “prophecy” represents all forms of Spirit-inspired intelligible speech, capable of edifying the whole community (1 cor 14:6). Thus “tongues” equals speech that is God-directed (prayer) and “prophecy” equals speech that is community-directed.
In light of this distinction, it seems altogether likely that Paul intends “praying and prophesying” to be not exclusive of other forms of ministry but representative of ministry in general. And since “prophets” precedes “teachers” in the ranking in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and prophesying is grouped with teaching, revelation and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 14:6, one may legitimately assume that women and men together shared in all these expressions of Spirit gifting, including teaching, in the gathered assembly. (149)
At the end of the essay Fee offers some theories about who the angels are in verse 10 and points back to 13:1 where he wrote of speaking in tongues as “speaking the language of angels.” Speaking in tongues gave a new level of status to new believers and Fee examines the ramifications of that might have led to a movement toward androgyny. As this is more speculative and not to the central message of the passage I will not recapitulate his whole discussion here. The key issue is that far from teaching a male to female hierarchy, Fee maintains that this passage likely puts men and women on equal status in the work of the church.
Gordon D. Fee received his M.A. from Seattle Pacific University and Ph.D from the University of Southern California. He is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at Regent College as well as an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God. His publications include How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; How to Read the Bible Book by Book; New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook; God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul; Listening to the Spirit in the Text; and commentaries on 1 Corinthians and Philippians (NICNT) and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC). He and his wife, Maudline, have four married children and twelve grandchildren.
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