Why does the Church not practice the baptism for the dead, as mentioned in 1 Cor 15:29? Mormons do, of course, but why don’t Christians? It is, after all, right there in the Bible, so perhaps this is something that has gotten lost in the course of history, and needs to be recovered? No, of course not. I am obviously trying to make a rhetorical point: That the Church has always relied on the reception-history of the Scripture as the central lens through which the Scripture should be read, as it pertains to the life of the Church. We don’t baptize for the dead now, because the Church has never baptized for the dead, outside of this isolated mention by St. Paul. In like manner, when we read in 1 Cor 11:5 that women/wives are to cover their heads when they pray or prophesy, according to the same principles used when it comes to baptism for the dead, we cannot take this isolated instance in Scripture and — rejecting all of the Church’s reception-history — claim from this instance that this is a practice that the Church has “lost” and needs to be “recovered”, and further use this argument to buttress support for the ordination of women to the priesthood.
But this is precisely the interpretive approach that proponents of Women’s Ordination (WO) take when interpreting 1 Corinthians, as instanced by Fr. Esau McCaulley. I maintained in a recent essay that the lynch-pin for interpreting the biblical teaching on women in ministry is the word authentein in 1 Tim 2:12, but there is a second line of argument that proponents of WO take based on 1 Corinthians 11:5, that, if held, can appear to undermine the definitive traditional teaching of 1 Tim 2.
1 Cor 11:5 simply states “Every wife/woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head.” It is argued (or assumed) by scholars like Fr. McCaulley that the mention in this verse of women prophesying forces us to understand prohibitions on women speaking authoritatively in Church (such as in 1 Cor 14:34, as well as 1 Tim 2:12) in a way other than their plain sense suggests. If it were the case that 1 Cor 11:5 is a reference to what we would today recognize as a female preacher, then we would be forced into such a hermeneutical puzzle, but, as I shall seek to demonstrate in this essay 1 Cor 11:5 is in fact in perfect harmony with the traditional interpretation of the New Testament’s prohibition of women as authoritative preachers. Subsequently, if we submit to this harmony, then it follows as a matter of course that the Great Tradition of the catholic Church which has omitted women as candidates for the priesthood has been right all along, just as it has been right to omit baptizing for the dead.
The positive content of 1 Cor 11:5 fails to support women’s ordination when two careful distinctions in the Biblical text are recognized: (1) The distinction between various forms of prophecy and (2) The distinction of implied setting between 1 Cor 11 and 1 Cor 14.
OF VARIOUS FORMS OF PROPHECY
It is a standard fallacy (that all training in hermeneutics warns against) to assume that where the same word (lexeme) is used, the same meaning is intended in each instance. As long ago as Origen (d. 253), scholars have noted this,
“instances of equivocal scriptural terms, such as confuse readers who suppose that because the word is the same the meaning must be the same wherever it is found….The reader of the Divine Scripture must therefore carefully observe that the Scriptures do not invariably use the same words to denote the same things; and they make the change sometimes on account of the equivocal sense of a word, sometimes for the sake of the figurative meaning, and sometimes because the context requires a different nuance in some places from that which the word has in others.” (The Philokalia of Origen, IX)
For instance, when we see the word ‘tongue’ (Glossa) in the New Testament, it can variously mean:
- The literal muscle inside the mouth (e.g. Mark 7:33)
- The words someone is saying (by metonymy, e.g. Rom 14:11)
- A language, naturally acquired by the speaker (e.g. Rev 5:9)
- The ability to communicate in a foreign-language, super-naturally acquired (e.g. Acts 2:4)
- Glossolalia in the form of what linguists call “free vocalization” and which our pentecostal brothers call “speaking in tongues” (e.g. 1 Cor 14:2)
St. Paul can refer to both (4) and (5) when he refers to the various kinds of tongues that can be given as a Spiritual gift. There remain one or two ambiguous cases (such as Acts 10:46: Was Cornelius speaking a foreign-language, or worshiping God with free-vocalization?), but in most instances, we can distinguish the specific different meaning that is intended by the same word (lexeme).
Since ‘tongues’ and ‘prophecy’ function as a sort of dyad in 1 Corinthians (e.g. in 1 Cor 14), it is unsurprising that we have a similar situation when it comes to the word ‘prophesy’ (Greek προφητεύω: Propheteuo) and its cognates (prophet, prophecy). It is used in different senses, but all usages have this in common: A verbal utterance that is thought to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. These utterances could be:
- Fore-telling the future (like Agabus in Acts 21:11)
- The writings of the Prophets that came before Christ (e.g. Romans 1:2)
- For the edification of the gathered local Church (e.g. 1 Cor 14:3)
And they could be spoken by:
- People who were given ‘prophet’ as sort of epithet (e.g. Agabus, or as in Eph 2:20)
- Anyone who occasionally does so, such as the four daughters of Philip, who are recorded as sometimes prophesying, but are not given the epithet of ‘prophet’ (Acts 21:9)
- Pagan sages who happened to be accurate (e.g. Titus 1:12)
I am sure additional and finer categories could be introduced, but this suffices to show some of the diversity in the usage of the self-same word prophet.
The real question then is, when 1 Cor 11:5 assumes women “praying and prophesying”, what is the nature of the activity that is signified by the word in this particular instance?
I affirm with Fr. McCaulley’s that, “1 Corinthians 11–14 demands a contextual application.” And so let’s look at what contextual clues should inform which shade of meaning the word ‘prophecy’ should have in this case.
THE IMPLIED SETTING OF 1 CORINTHIANS 14
Fr. McCaulley gives a sketch-outline of a possible context for the on-the-ground situation that 1 Cor 14 is written into, of wives who are being aggressive and disruptive and are destroying the orderliness of the Corinthian Church, and whom Paul silences in their particular case, for order’s sake. This is a standard take, often supported by footnotes to Witherington’s 1991 Monograph Women in the Earliest Churches, possibly Wire and Fiorenza; corroborated by parallel cases examined by Kroeger & Kroeger and Westfall.
But what gives scholars this idea in the first place?
Note the number of hesitating modifiers in McCaulley’s outline (emphasis mine):
It is possible that there were women who were interrupting the prophetic utterances
As to why Paul would single out women in this context, this could have arisen due to the limited educational opportunities available to women in the first century.
Thus, they might not be aware of the proper mode of interaction
This call to reserve questions for home may have arisen from the fact that wives might have been participating in the evaluations of their own husband’s prophesies
On the one hand, scholarly moderation is a virtue, but on the other hand, how many layers of “mights” and “possibles” can be tolerated before the proposed scenario is rendered altogether the work of creative historical fiction?
Do we have any data immediately pertinent to first-century Mediterranean life that suggests this scenario that has become the stock-in-trade of (most) modern biblical scholarship? The closest thing I can think of would be the data on the “New Woman”, who was certainly a flaunter of gendered mores, but do we have record of them ever aggressively opposing their husbands in the public sphere? We do not. In addition, the taking of social liberties has always been a luxury afforded mostly by the very rich, not the lower classes of society, who we know comprised the bulk of the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:26). The scenario sketched by Fr. McCaulley (and Witherington, etc.) is indeed possible, but is it probable? Does the text itself suggest, let alone demand that the simple word “to speak” (λαλεῖν: lalein) in 1 Cor 14:34 be translated with the highly unusual “interrogate” (so, Witherington) or “sift” (so, Thistleton) or “interrupt” (so, McCaulley)? It does not. However decadent Roman sexual morality was in Corinth, it was not therefore a bedlam of libertines — it only appears libertine to us observing it from our present semi-Christian societal mores. On the contrary, even Corinthians were neck-deep in the honor-shame culture of the first century. We cannot neglect this fact in favor of a sui generis mirror-reading of wives who — per McCaulley et al. — had no shame whatsoever. Such a reading may be possible, but it stretches the imagination beyond the breaking point of what is probable.
It is worth noting that the only textual evidence that prompts anything other than a “plain sense” reading of 1 Cor 14:34 (“The women should keep silent in the Churches, for they are not permitted to speak…”) is the mention of women prophesying in 1 Cor 11:4, from which all the “possibilities” for 1 Cor 14:34 are engendered.
(As an aside, I am glad that Fr. McCaulley did not bring forward the red herring of 1 Cor 14:34 as an inauthentic textual interpolation, which Thistleton, building on the immense work of Wire (1990) and Niccum (1997), laid to rest forever, pace, Gordon Fee’s commentary in NICNT)
THE IMPLIED SETTING OF 1 CORINTHIANS 11
1 Corinthians 7:1—11:16 are written primarily with a household setting in view. 1 Cor 7 is counsel about marriage, which is by definition a domestic matter. 1 Cor 8:1-6 is about food, which is purchased in the temple-adjacent markets (cf. 1 Cor 10:25), with a brief foray into temple-restaurants, which are forbidden. 1 Cor 9 is chiefly about the household finances and the support of apostles’ domestic needs. 1 Cor 10 exhorts against idols generally, and the section summary starting at 10:23 brings it back around to a home setting. E.g. Verse 27: If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.
1 Cor 11 begins as a continuation of the setting established at the end of chapter 10 (recalling that the chapter divisions are not original), I.e. a household-type gathering (which, recall, was more than the nuclear family of the 20th century, but included near kin, servants, etc.), possibly at a neighbors’ house (cf. 10:27) or with guests over, and in that setting Paul exhorts:
Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head. (1 Cor 11:5)
Twelve verses later (11:17), Paul will then introduce his next teaching (on the Lord’s supper), and he begins that section by saying:
But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church…
The opening word here is the sequential-contrasting conjunction δέ (de), which, coupled with the prefatory remark that follows (“in the following instructions”) indicates a shift in the setting which Paul wants to bring to mind, in order to speak into. A setting he names very explicitly, “when you come together as a church” (11:18). This strongly suggests that the previous content of 11:1-16 is taking place in a setting other than “when you come together as a church.”
It is surprising that commentators do not pay more attention to this rhetorical shift, as it relates to the big picture of interpreting the message of 1 Corinthians as a whole. Thistleton (NIGTC) dismisses it without argument but merely appeals to C.K. Barrett’s 1968 commentary as a ground, but Barrett himself makes an assertion with no evidence for why a change of setting should not be considered when trying to reconcile the prohibition of 1 Cor 14:34 with the reference to women “prophesying” in 11:5.
But a rhetorical shift there certainly is, and this is the key that unlocks the puzzle of how 1 Cor 11 and 1 Cor 14 are harmonious. Attempts by NT scholars of a more “feminist” persuasion (Fee, Witherington, etc.), despite whatever cautions they lay down in the process, end up forcing 1 Cor 14:34 to sound like it is saying something quite different than the strong, clear, un-caveated injunction that it is. If the “real meaning” of “The women should keep silent in the Churches, for they are not permitted to speak…” is actually “Wives are not allowed to rudely interrogate their husbands”, the question is begged: Why didn’t Paul say that? Why did he give the larger, wider command? And why speak with such a forceful appeal by referring to “all the churches” (v.33b)? Even if the potentially-possible situation reconstructed by Witherington et al. were the case on the ground, it would appear that 14:34 remains nothing less than an instance of the characteristically Pauline move of offering a generalized teaching out of the prompt of a particular circumstance.
Apart from pre-textual feminist commitments, the felt-need to make such exegetical contortions apparently comes from reading the mentioning of women prophesying in 11:5 apart from the two pertinent pieces of data I have brought forward: The way ‘to prophesy’ can mean different things, and the different setting in which it is happening. If 11:5 is thought to be taking place “at church”, then 14:34 can’t mean what it sounds like — for how could they “be silent” if they are permitted to prophesy? But this problem resolves itself when the fact of the shift in implied setting is recognized.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
One species of ‘prophecy’ is authoritative teaching in the gathered assembly (ἐκκλησία). This is the prophecy that is the object of discussion through the entirety of 1 Cor 14. It is known thus by its effect: “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (v. 3) and it is plainly exercised in the gathered assembly: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all.” (v.23-24)
What Paul and the Corinthian church called ‘prophecy’ as the word is used in 1 Cor 14, we would today call ‘preaching’. Indeed, this has been the traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 14 for a long time, to equate ‘prophecy’ (in this context) with ‘preaching’ as near synonyms (vide. St. Thomas Aquinas, “So he [Paul] calls teachers and preachers ‘prophets’…”).
The New Testament states with a single voice that a prophet-preacher in the gathered assembly must be a man (e.g. 1 Cor 14:34, 1 Tim 2:12, Titus 1:5-9). It is very interesting that in the New Testament, while women are mentioned as prophesying (e.g. Acts 11:5, Acts 21:9), no woman is ever called “a prophet”, as a noun. This is suggestive of more than accidental language-use, rather, “prophet” was seen to be both a recipient of the charism of prophecy, and an authorized role in the Church. This conception is corroborated by the appearance of “prophets” in the list in Ephesians 4:11.
However, the ministry of prophecy exercised by an authorized prophet is only one of the forms of the charism of prophecy can take. This brings us back around to the question I posed earlier about 1 Cor 11:5 (and Acts 21:9, etc) — what were the women who prophesied doing? They were uttering Holy Spirit inspired speech, certainly, just not in the midst of the gathered Church. This is much easier to imagine on this side of the pentecostal movement in the 20th century: The Gifts of the Spirit are not confined to be used only in the gathered assembly, they can be used at any time, as the Spirit empowers.
That 11:5 is an instance of this outside-of-church prophetic-speech is given additional support by the fact that the speech-act that is being referenced is referred to eight verses later as simply ‘prayer’ — “…is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (11:13) Prayer, of course, is not confined to the assembly, but just like certain kinds of prophesy, could be exercised “wherever two or three are gathered.”
Clearly, there was a small informal gathering (How else could Paul have found out about it?) in which prayer and prophecy took place, with a woman who did so without her head covered. Indexed onto the ecclesial landscape of today, it could have been a mere gathering of friends, or perhaps a “small-group”. Either way, it is the presence of other believers that prompts Paul to re-enforce the “properness” (11:13) of head-covering for Christian women when prophesying/praying. Scholars are divided as to whether the head-covering Paul enjoins is long hair that is “down”, or the traditional greco-roman hood-type veil (think of the one Mary is always portrayed as wearing in Icons), but the meaning of abandoning either is very similar, since both acts would convey an air of worldliness. Either an elaborate “up” hair-style such as mentioned also in 1 Tim 2:9 that would communicate decadence or profligacy, or simply un-covered hair that would have been a fashion among the “New Women” of the era, but acted against the mores and sensibilities of ordinary society in which a married woman’s hair was always covered outside of her private chambers.
The issue of a Christian woman having her head covered then, apart from the theological rationale that Paul offers (11:4-16), is simply one of integrity: To not be speaking in the power of God about the world-denying Gospel of Christ, while outwardly presenting in a very worldly way. A rough analogy would be if a Christian woman today were to be talking prophetically about self-denial while wearing huge diamond earrings, or giving an exhortation to friends about purity, while wearing a rather immodest outfit. It is the incongruity that prompts Paul to remind the women of Corinth about the traditions he delivered (1 Cor 11:1), which keep the Church standing apart from the worldliness of the world, either in how worldly women are presenting themselves inappropriately (to the sensitivities of most), or how worldly men covered their heads with a hood when offering sacrifices to pagan roman deities.
It is sometimes pointed out that since a hood-veil was only enjoined culturally upon married women, as it is in chapter 11, and that since the conclusion to the prohibition in 14:34 is v. 35 — “…let them ask their husbands at home” — and of course, an unmarried woman has no husband to ask, therefore the ambiguous greek word in 1 Cor 14:34 γυνή (gune) should be understood here only as ‘wives’ and not ‘women’ generally. The implication of this is that unmarried women may not have fallen under the prohibition of 1 Cor 14:35, and therefore unmarried women may not have been silent when the Church gathered in Corinth. If this were the case, then indeed there would not be a univocal New Testament witness against women preachers in Church, and we would have a mixed set of data from which to discern. However this interpretive swan-song, like the hypothesized “interrogating wives”reconstruction, has no traction on the ground of the first century. As Barrett writes in his commentary on 1 Cor 14:35,
“The verse  contemplates married women, whose husbands are Christians. A fortiori, unmarried women and the wives of unbelievers will not speak in the assembly; if they wish to learn they must presumably persuade married friends to put questions to their husbands.”
Upon closer analysis of the contextual setting of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, it is clear that the kind of prophetic speech offered by women that is referenced in 1 Cor 11:5 is different than the kind that is offered exclusively by men in 1 Cor 14 in the midst of official church gatherings. Put another way, women can prophesy, but this does not mean, according to NT usage, that they are prophets. The difference in kind is strongly suggested by the shift in setting that occurs after Paul has addressed the women prophesying (in 11:5), in 11:17, when the gathered Church is brought into view, and into which the prohibition of 1 Cor 14:34 is given. 1 Cor 11:5 therefore provides no mitigation against the strong prohibition in 1 Cor 14:34, “the women should keep silent in the churches,” which for 1900 years was interpreted as having the same meaning as 1 Tim 2:12: That women cannot be authoritative preachers in the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
Indexed onto our Anglican setting, this means that the Bible prohibits women being ordained to the priesthood, since authoritative preaching is one of the principal functions of that order.
Anthony Thistleton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NIGTC, Eerdmans, 2000, 1148-9, “Niccum’s pages are packed with powerful and succinct argments which prove convincing.” ↑
Thistleton, NIGTC, 1156 ↑
C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, BNTC, A&C Black, 1968, under 14:34-35: “there is nothing to suggest either this, or that the speaking referred to in 11:5 takes place in a private house-gathering, and not in the church assembly.” ↑
Of course, prior to A.D. 313 church “buildings” were few and far between, and most churches gathered in homes. But there still would have been a clear and recognizable difference between when the assembly was gathered (such as on the Lord’s day, Acts 20:7), and when Christian households were informally “hanging out” together. This latter is the setting of 1 Cor 11, and the former of 1 Cor 14. ↑
St. Thomas Aquinas’ sermon on the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul, available in translation online at https://isidore.co/aquinas/english/SermAttendite.htm ↑
See the excellent summary of the scholarship in Thistleton, NIGTC, 823-832 ↑
Barrett, Loc. Cit., 1 Cor 14:35 ↑