[This is a continuation of the topic on the Role of Women in the Congregation.]
This article began as a comment in response to Eleasar’s thought-provoking, well-researched comment on the meaning of kephalē in 1 Corinthians 11:3.
“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Co 11:3 BSB)
The reason I decided to convert it into an article was the realization that Eleasar’s conclusions are shared by a number of others. Since this has become more than an academic issue, and now has the potential of dividing our nascent congregation, I felt it would be better to deal with it as an article. Not everyone reads comments, so what is written here might be missed. With that in mind, I would invite all to read Eleasar’s comment before continuing with this article.
The real issue before the congregation is whether or not women should pray aloud in a congregation meeting where men are present. That might seem to be a non-issue since it is very clear from 1 Corinthians 11:4, 5 that Christian women did pray in the congregation in the first century. We can hardly deny them a right that was established in the early congregation without something very specific in Scripture to authorize such a decision.
Therefore, it seems—if I’m reading correctly the various comments, emails and meeting remarks I have seen and heard—that the quandary some feel relates to the issue of authority. They feel that praying in the congregation implies a level of authority over the group. One objection I’ve heard is that it would be wrong for a woman to pray on behalf of men. Those that promote this idea feel that the opening and closing prayers fall into the category of prayers on behalf of the congregation. These individuals seem to differentiate these two prayers from prayers that might be offered for special circumstances—praying for the sick, for instance—within the context of a meeting. Again, I’m putting all this together from various things that have been written and said, though no one has precisely articulated the scriptural reasons for their reticence in allowing women to pray within the congregation meeting arrangement.
For example, referring back to Eleasar’s comment, much is made about the belief that Paul’s use of the Greek word kephalē (head) in 1 Corinthians 11:3 relates to “authority” rather than “source”. However, no connection is made in the comment between that understanding and the fact clearly stated in the next verses (vs. 4 and 5) that women did indeed pray in the congregation. Since we cannot deny the fact they prayed, then the question becomes: Was Paul limiting in some way a woman’s participation in praying (and let’s not forget about prophesying) by his reference to headship? If so, why doesn’t he explicitly state what that limitation is? It would seem unfair were we to limit such an important aspect of worship based solely on inference.
Kephalē: Source or Authority?
From Eleasar’s comment, it seems that the preponderance of Bible scholars view kephalē as referring to “authority” and not “source”. Of course, the fact that a majority believes something is no basis for assuming it is true. We might say that the majority of scientists believe in evolution, and there is little doubt that the majority of Christians believe in the Trinity. However, I’m convinced that neither is true.
On the other hand, I am not suggesting that we should discount something simply because a majority believes it.
There is also the issue of our tendency to accept what someone says who is more learned than we are. Is that not the reason the average “man in the street” accepts evolution as fact?
If you look back at the prophets of ancient Israel together with the fishermen making up the Lord’s apostles, you see that often Jehovah selected the most ignoble, lowly and despised of individuals to bring wise men to shame. (Luke 10:21; 1 Corinthians 1:27)
Given this, we do well to look at Scripture ourselves, do our own research, and let the spirit guide us. After all, this is the only way for us to discern what motivates us, whether male or female.
For instance, almost every scholar engaged in Bible translation has rendered Hebrews 13:17 as “Obey your leaders”, or words to that effect—the NIV being the notable exception. The word in Greek translated in this verse as “obey” is peithó, and is defined as “to persuade, to have confidence, to urge”. So why don’t these Bible scholars render it that way? Why is it ubiquitously translated as “obey”? They do a good job with it elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures, so why not here? Could it be that the bias of a ruling class is at work here, seeking some Scriptural support for the authority they presume to wield over the flock of God?
The trouble with bias is its subtle nature. We are often biased quite unwittingly. Oh, we can see it easily enough in others, but are often blind to it in ourselves.
So, when the majority of scholars reject the meaning of kephalē as “source/origin”, but instead opt for “authority”, is this because that is where the scriptures lead, or because that is where they want them to lead?
It would be unfair to dismiss the research of these men simply as a result of male bias. Likewise, it would be unwise simply to accept their research on the assumption it is free of such bias. Such a bias is real and inbred.
Genesis 3:16 states that a woman’s yearning will be for the man. This disproportionate yearning is a result of the imbalance resulting from sin. As men, we acknowledge this fact. However, do we also acknowledge that in us, the male sex, another imbalance exists causing us to dominate the female? Do we think that just because we call ourselves Christian, we are free of every vestige of this imbalance? That would be a very dangerous assumption to make, for the easiest way to fall prey to a weakness is to believe we have conquered it entirely. (1 Corinthians 10:12)
Playing Devil’s Advocate
I have often found that the best way to test out an argument is to accept its premise and then take it to its logical extreme to see whether it will still hold water, or burst wide open.
Therefore, let us take the position that kephalē (head) in 1 Corinthians 11:3 does indeed refer to the authority each head holds.
The first is Jehovah. He has all authority. His authority is without limit. That is beyond dispute.
Jehovah has given Jesus “all authority in heaven and earth”. His authority, unlike Jehovah’s is limited. He has been given full authority for a limited period of time. It started upon this resurrection, and ends when he fulfills his task. (Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28)
However, Paul does not acknowledge this level of authority in this verse. He doesn’t say that Jesus is the head of all creation, the head of all the angels, the head of the congregation, the head of both men and women. He only says that he is the head of the man. He limits Jesus’ authority in this context to the authority he has over men. Jesus is not spoken of as the head of women, but only men.
It seems that Paul is talking about a special channel of authority or a chain of command, so to speak. The angels are not involved in this, even though Jesus holds authority over them. It would seem that is a different branch of authority. Men don’t have authority over angels and angels don’t have authority over men. Yet, Jesus has authority over both.
What is the nature of this authority?
At John 5:19 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” Now if Jesus does nothing of his own initiative, but only what he beholds the Father doing, it follows that men should not take the authority of headship to mean they rule the roost, as it were. Instead, their job—our job—is like that of Jesus, which is to see that what God wants gets done. The chain of command starts with God and goes through us. It doesn’t start with us.
Now, assuming that Paul is using kephalē to mean authority and not source, how does that impact the question of whether women can pray in the congregation? (Let us not get distracted. This is the only question we are seeking to answer here.) Does praying in the congregation require the one praying to hold a level of authority over the rest? If so, then our equating “head” with “authority” would eliminate women from praying. But here’s the rub: It would also eliminate men from praying.
“Brothers, not one of you is my head, so how could any of you presume to represent me in prayer?”
If praying on behalf of the congregation—something we claim applies when we open and close with prayer—implies authority, then men cannot do it. Only our head can do it, though I haven’t found an occasion in Scripture where Jesus even did that. Be that as it may, there is no indication that first century Christians designated a brother to stand and pray on behalf of the congregation. (Do a search for yourself using this token – pray* – in the Watchtower Library program.)
We have proof that men prayed in the congregation in the first century. We have proof that women prayed in the congregation in the first century. We have no proof that anyone, male or female, prayed on behalf of the congregation in the first century.
It appears that we are concerned about a custom we have inherited from our former religion which, in turn, inherited it from Christendom. Praying on behalf of the congregation implies a level of authority which I do not possess, assuming “head” to mean “authority”. Since I am not the head of any man, how can I presume to represent other men and pray to God in their stead?
If some argue that praying on behalf of the congregation does not imply that the man praying is exercising authority (headship) over the congregation and over other men, then how can they say it does if it is a woman doing the praying? What is sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.
If we accept that Paul is using kephalē (head) to refer to an authority hierarchy and that praying on behalf of the congregation involves headship, then I accept that a woman should not pray to God on behalf of the congregation. I accept that. I realize now that the men who have contended this point are right. However, they have not gone far enough. We have not gone far enough. I now realize that neither should a man pray on behalf of the congregation.
No man is my kephalē (my head). So by what right would any man presume to pray for me?
If God were physically present, and we were all sitting before him as his children, male and female, brother and sister, would anyone presume to speak to Father on our behalf, or would we all want to speak to him directly?
It is only through fire that ore is refined and the precious minerals locked within can come out. This question has been a trial for us, but I think that some great good has come out of it. Our goal, having left behind an extremely controlling, male-dominated religion, has been to wend our way back to the original faith established by our Lord and practiced in the early congregation.
It seems that many spoke up in the Corinthian congregation and Paul doesn’t discourage that. His only counsel was to go about it in an orderly manner. No one’s voice was to be silenced, but all things were to be done for building up of the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 14:20-33)
Instead of following the model of Christendom and asking for a mature, prominent brother to open with prayer or close with prayer, why not start the meeting by asking if anyone would like to pray? And after he or she bears his or her soul in prayer, we could ask if anyone else would like to pray. And after that one prays, we could continue to ask until all who wished to had had their say. Each would not be praying on behalf of the congregation but would be expressing his or her own feelings aloud for all to hear. If we say “amen”, it’s merely to say that we agree with what was said.
In the first century, we are told:
“And they continued devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to associating together, to the taking of meals, and to prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
They ate together, including commemorating the Lord’s supper, they fellowshipped, they learned and they prayed. All this was part of their meetings, the worship.
I know this may seem odd, coming as we have from an extremely formalized way of worship. Long-established customs are hard to break with. But we must remember who established those customs. If they have not originated with God, and worse, if they are getting in the way of the worship that our Lord intended for us, then we must get rid of them.
If someone, after reading this, continues to believe that women should not be allowed to pray in the congregation, then please give us something concrete to go on in Scripture, because to now, we are still left with the fact established in 1 Corinthians 11:5 that women did both pray and prophecy in the first century congregation.
May the peace of God be with us all.