Friday, June 24, 2016

Israel and the Promised Land

The land promised to Israel and the patriarchs is described in the Old Testament as God’s gift to his covenant people (Gen. 12:1, 7; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 17:1-8; Deut. 1:5-8; Ps. 44:1-3). The land of Palestine was, in fact, God’s gracious gift to Abraham and his descendants, and carries with it a salvific significance.[1]

Holwerda notes that “the promises of salvation have an unbreakable tie to the land. From the call of Abraham (Genesis 12) to his conflict with Lot (Genesis 13), from Abraham’s concern about an heir (Genesis 15) to the promise of the birth of Isaac (Genesis 17), God promises again and again to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. . . . The land was promised and this promise was confirmed by an oath sworn by God.”[2]

Despite the land being God’s gift to Israel, it never belongs to Israel. The Promised Land belongs to God. In reality, the land is never at Israel’s disposal. It cannot be permanently bought, sold, or given to others. Leviticus 25:23 states clearly that, “The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” The Israelites are never owners, but sojourners of the land in Palestine.

The land belongs to the God of the covenant, and the Israelites are only tenants in His land. Psalm 78:54 reminds us that the land is “His holy border” (NKJV) and “his holy land” (NIV). Holwerda writes:

“The land is first of all and always the Lord’s, not Israel’s. Amazingly, the people Israel are called “aliens and tenants” in the Lord’s land since they have no permanent title to it and possess it with no absolute legal right to it (Leviticus 25:23). Thus the land never ceases being a gift, even when Israel possesses it.”[3]

Furthermore, Israel’s occupation of the land in Palestine is dependent on their faith in Yahweh, and the resultant obedience which flows out from this faith. During the wilderness wanderings, God warned the Israelites:

“Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you: (For all these abominations have the men of the land done, which were before you, and the land is defiled;) That the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you (Lev. 18:24-28).”

When Israel turned from the law and commandments of God, Jeremiah wrote, “And I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination” (Jer. 2:7).

The Lord God Jehovah, through the prophet Hosea, pronounced an impending judgment upon the wayward, apostate Israel, “They shall not dwell in the LORD’S land; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean things in Assyria (Hosea 9:3).” With Israel’s continual unfaithfulness to Yahweh, the Lord of the covenant eventually removed the land from Israel’s possession (Jer. 17:1-4; 15:13-14). With the culminating rejection of the Messiah in the Gospels, apostate Israel ceased to be heirs of the earthly Jerusalem.

Israel cannot claim possession of the Promised Land apart from faith in the Messiah. Rejection of Christ Jesus would only mean the rejection of Israel by Yahweh. Holwerda observes:

“If Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the one who represents and takes the place of chosen Israel, what is the status of Old Testament Israel? If the promises given to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus and if in Jesus the kingdom of God has appeared, the eternal kingdom promised to David by which God rules his people Israel, what happens to those who do not accept the testimony of Jesus? If Jesus is Emmanuel, the prophesied presence of God with his people, what happens to those “heirs of the kingdom” who do not acknowledge that presence? . . . Continued possession of promises cannot be maintained apart from the faith that God gives to his people.”[4]

The Land of Palestine as an Everlasting Possession

Dispensationalists (and Bible Presbyterians, if I may add) reason that the land of Palestine, specified by its geographical borders, was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8).” But they fail to understand that God has intended a better possession for the elect. The saints and patriarchs “desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city (Heb. 11:16).” That “city” is not an earthly Jerusalem or a piece of land in the Middle East; it is a heavenly city, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). In the New Testament, God has expanded the Abrahamic land promise to include both Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant, and the inheritance to include the new heavens and the new earth.

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).” The meek shall inherit the earth, not just the land of Palestine. It is significant that our Lord did not reiterate the geographical boundaries of the Promised Land. The discerning reader will also notice that “the boundaries of the promised land were never defined with geographic precision. Various descriptions were given at various times and under varying historical circumstances.”[5]

As we shall see in this series of blog posts on the land promises, the Promised Land is a typological representation of a physical reality presented in the New Testament; it points towards the inheritance of the elect, namely, the renewed creation and the heavenly city of Jerusalem.

The Abrahamic land promise was unconditional in the sense that, “while enjoyment of the promised land was denied to those who lacked faith and were disobedient, the behaviour of that one generation did not result in the nullification of the promise. Rather, ‘the promise continued even though possession of the land was deferred.’”[6]

On the other hand, we must not ignore the conditional nature of God’s land promise to Israel, which is reiterated in the Bible.[7] Only the faithful and obedient Israelites would inherit the land. Immediately after the rebellion of the Jews on hearing the reports of the twelve spies, God pronounced His verdict upon the disobedient nation:

“Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me, Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised. But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness (Numbers 14:29-32).”

It is obvious that God’s covenant is not unconditional in the sense that an apostate nation will continue to claim the right of inheritance to God’s promise. Disobedient Israelites will not inherit the Promised Land.

After the Israelites were delivered from the land of Egypt, Moses proclaimed, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will shew to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever (Exod. 14:13).” But only forty years later, when Moses addressed the children of Israel, he warned the Jews of the consequences of disobedience, “And the LORD shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you (Deut. 28:68).” Therefore, after pronouncing that the Israelites will apparently see the Egyptians “no more for ever (Exod. 14:13),” Moses assured them that they would be brought “into Egypt again with ships (Deut. 28:68)” if they failed to keep God’s covenant requirements.

The prophet Jeremiah, likewise, reiterated the conditional nature of God’s promise to Israel:

“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them (Jeremiah 18:6-10).”

In the same manner, the apparently unconditional promise of blessings to the house of Eli was forfeited through disobedience (1 Sam. 2:30-32). Therefore, “curses of exile and destruction like that which fell on Sodom and Gomorrah will fall on Israel if it violates the commandments and forsakes the covenant of the Lord; blessings of prosperity and continuous possession of the land will fall on Israel if it keeps the commandments and walks in the Lord’s ways (Deuteronomy 27-29).”[8]

Without further reference to other parts of Scripture, the prosaic meaning of the phrase “everlasting possession (Gen. 17:8),” which refers to the land in Palestine promised to Abraham, appears to point toward an unconditional possession. But a perusal of similar, seemingly unconditional, promises mentioned in the Bible will show otherwise. The word “forever” must not be interpreted apart from the other statements made in connection to the land promise to Israel. It is apparent that no promise will be fulfilled to a defiant and rebellious people.

Concerning the words “forever” and “everlasting”, Loraine Boettner elucidates, “But the same thing [that is, the words “forever” and “everlasting”] is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex.31:17) and David’s throne (2 Samuel 7:13, 16, 24). But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away.”[9] For example, the high priest of the Church is not of the order of Aaron, but of the order of Melchisedec. He is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:11). Clearly, the “everlasting” in Exodus 40:15 does not mean until “eternity future.” The normal, prosaic reading of a sentence does not always convey the divine, authorial intent. Scripture must always be studied in the light of the other portions of Scripture. This is the Reformed, hermeneutical principle of the analogy of faith.

In his polemic against Christian Zionism, Stephen Sizer raises similar criticisms against the dispensational understanding of the Abrahamic land promise. He writes:

“The statement God made to Abraham that the land would be “an everlasting possession” is not necessarily understood in literal terms. Insisting on literal fulfillment is a double-edged sword. In 1 Chronicles 15:2, for example, David insists that the Levites would carry the ark of the Lord and minister before Him forever. Was this fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 1 Chronicles 23:13 God similarly promises that the Aaronic priesthood would continue “forever”. The same question may be asked, is this being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ? In 2 Chronicles 33:7 God says that he has put his name in the temple in Jerusalem forever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? In 1 Chronicles 23:25, God promises that He has come to dwell in Jerusalem forever. Is that being fulfilled literally now on earth or figuratively in Christ and the Church? Likewise in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promises that a descendent of David will sit on his throne forever. Is that being fulfilled literally on earth or figuratively in Christ?”[10]

The answers to Sizer’s rhetorical questions are obvious to any Reformed theologian. As Willem VanGemeren has aptly answered, “the Messiah is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and as such his work encompasses the realization of all of God’s promises.”[11] We shall continue to refute the dispensational understanding of the land promises in the next post.


[1] As the theology of the land is too vast in scope to discuss in any detail in blog posts, the reader is advised to refer to the following books for more in-depth treatment of this subject: David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995); O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000); Philip Johnston and Peter Walker, eds., The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000); Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).
[2] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 88-89.
[3] Ibid., 92-93.
[4] Ibid., 53-54, emphasis mine.
[5] Ibid., 89. Also cf. Genesis 15:17ff.; Exodus 23:31ff.; Numbers 34:1-10; Deuteronomy 11:24; Joshua 1:2-4.
[6] Paul R. Williamson, “Promise and Fulfilment: The Territorial Inheritance,” in The Land of Promise (Leicester, England: Apollos, 2000), 23-24, quoting Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 89. Passages that seem to emphasize the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic land promise are Genesis 12:7; 13:15, 17; 15:7, 18-21; 28:13, 15; 35:12; Exodus 3:8, 17; 6:8.
[7] Cf. Exodus 20:12; 23:23-33; 34:24; Lev. 18:3, 24-27; Deuteronomy 4:1-5, 40; 5:33; 6:18; 8:1; 11:8ff.; 16:20; 18:9-14; 19:8-9; 21:23; 24:4; 25:15; 30:16; 32:47.
[8] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 92.
[9] Loraine Boettner, “A Postmillennial Response,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 98.
[10] Sizer, An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land.
[11] Willem VanGemeren,Israel as the Hermeneutical Crux in the Interpretation of Prophecy II,” Westminster Theological Journal 46, no. 2 (1984): 295.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Paul’s Ecclesiology in Galatians (Part 2)

In Galatians 4:22-26, Paul teaches: 

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (KJV)

According to Young, this passage of Scripture is noted to be “the sharpest polemic against Jerusalem and Judaism in the New Testament.”[1] Paul begins by referring to two of the sons of the patriarch Abraham: Isaac whose mother was Sarah, and Ishmael whose mother was the bond-slave Hagar. Although he acknowledges the historicity of the events surrounding the patriarch, his wife, and the bondwoman, Paul understands that Hagar and Sarah allegorically represent two covenants: the covenant of law, and “the covenant of grace sealed in the blood of Christ, the only foundation for real freedom and release from sin and death.”[2] As Ridderbos has commented, “For it is said of Hagar and Sarah that they represent two covenants, the first that of the law and the bondage resulting from it, the second that of the Spirit and the liberty given by him (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6).”[3]

Commenting on this passage in Galatians chapter 4, Ronald Fung writes:

“The two women stand for . . . two covenants. On the one hand, Hagar stands for the covenant derived from Mount Sinai and producing children for bondage: just as the children of a slave-wife (unless acknowledge as true children by the husband and master) were destined to be slaves themselves, so the covenant of law given at Sinai committed all who embraced it to its binding power. Over against Hagar and the covenant of law which she represents . . . stands the free woman (v. 22b), with the other covenant represented by her. The unnamed free woman is obviously Sarah while the other covenant, similarly unnamed, is obviously the covenant of faith referred to in [Galatians] 3:17 in contrast with the law (though the latter is not there specifically called a covenant). Paul takes it as self-evident that a straight line runs through Sarah and Isaac, the covenant of faith (because it depends on promise), the Jerusalem above (v. 26), and Christians – these being held together and interrelated by the fact that freedom can be postulated of all of them, although it is explicitly postulated of the third member only.”[4]

Paul is therefore linking together the bond-slave Hagar, Ishmael, the Sinaitic covenant of law, the present city of Jerusalem, and all who adhere to the Mosaic law as the means of salvation and justification. This is contrasted with the “Jerusalem which is above,” “which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).

History tells us that Paul’s religious education was not completed within a seminary in America or Singapore. Being a former disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), he was well-versed in Pharisaism and Jewish traditions. Taking into account his religious influence and background, together with the prevalence of Judaism in Paul’s era, is it not surprising that Paul sees Hagar as representing Sinai and the Jerusalem of his time, which is in slavery with her children? Remarkably, the apostle’s understanding of the spiritual significance of Jerusalem contradicts that of the Jewish leaders.

The Jews apparently still believed that Israel was God’s covenant nation. But the earthly Jerusalem, even in Paul’s day, is no longer the promised city of God’s grace and presence. It has evidently lost all its significance as the city of salvation. Instead of referring to Jerusalem as the city of God, Paul amazingly describes another Jerusalem, “which is above” and heavenly (Gal. 4:26). The promises of salvation and the covenant of grace are now associated with this heavenly Jerusalem, “which is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26).”

Paul, in fact, associates the entire Judaistic system of worship with the Sinaitic covenant of law, the present city of Jerusalem, and Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, Hagar.[5] Instead of pandering to the Jewish notion that the nation of Israel possesses any spiritual privilege apart from the gospel of Christ, Paul turns the argument around and alleges that the Judaizers are, in effect, putting people under the bondage of the law and reversing the course of redemptive history. As Morris has noted, “the Judaizers would have argued that they were the descendants of Isaac, the ancestor of God’s free people, whereas the Gentiles were outside the covenant as the slave woman’s son was. But Paul turns this interpretation on its head. The spiritual descendants of the slave woman are those who are in bondage to the law, whereas the spiritual descendants of the free woman are those who live in the freedom of the gospel.”[6] It is clear that the physical descendants of Abraham will have no spiritual blessings outside the covenant of grace and the Church of Christ.

We have noted that in his epistle to the Galatians, and culminating in chapter 4, Paul explains his doctrine of ecclesiology. In his commentary on Romans 11, Alexander aptly summarizes Paul’s ecclesiology in Galatians 4:21-31:

“Paul is pursuing an allegory, as he did also when writing to the Galatians (Gal. 4:22-31). He is treating Ishmael as the representative of all Israel after the flesh, though in fact no Jew was descended from Hagar’s son. Isaac is put forward as the representative of all Israel after the spirit, though these include a stupendous majority of gentiles who in fact were never descended from Isaac. . . . The one (Ishmael) represents Israel after the flesh, to whom no promises are made and who are not considered as the Seed of Abraham at all. The other (Isaac) represents Israel after the spirit or the true Church of the Redeemed, and of the Firstborn, who are written in heaven, and these – Jews and gentile together – are the true Seed of Abraham to whom the promises were made.”[7]

Therefore, in Paul’s language and understanding, the Church is the true Israel, or rather, the “Israel after the spirit.” The heir of the Abrahamic promise is Abraham’s seed; this does not include all the physical descendants of Abraham, but only the believing Jews who have been incorporated into the true Israel of God, the Church (Gal. 3:29).

Paul’s Understanding of Isaiah’s Prophecy

In Isaiah 54:1-3, the prophet sees the city of Zion as barren. She is likened to a barren woman, because her children have been exiled to Babylon. However, Jehovah God reveals to the prophet that though Zion is now barren, the post-exilic Zion will have more children than before the exile. This prophecy, therefore, seems to refer to Jerusalem during the days of her exile. But in Galatians 4:27, Paul quotes Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 54:1) of Israel’s restoration and return from exile in Babylon, and applies it to the New Testament Church. Bruce comments:

“So by Paul the promises of Is. 54 are understood as addressed to the church of the new age, Jerusalem above. But for Paul the contemporary church was a predominantly Gentile community. Formerly the Gentiles were spiritually sterile, producing no fruit for God, but now their response to the gospel has made them more fruitful than the synagogue: the new Jerusalem has more children than ever the old Jerusalem had.”[8]

Paul thus sees the new Jerusalem as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – a prophecy which seems to proclaim that the future, post-exilic Jerusalem will have more children than the pre-exilic Jerusalem, “for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband (Gal. 4:27).”[9] This fulfillment is aptly stated by Paul, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise (Gal. 4:28).” In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul is adamant that all who believe in Christ by faith are the children of this free woman, irrespective of ethnicity, genealogy or nationality. They are Abraham’s seed and heirs of the Abrahamic covenant.

Therefore, according to Paul’s understanding, the prophecy in Isaiah 54:1-3 is closely related to the Abrahamic covenant. Hendricksen explains further,

“The promise given to Sarah, who also was barren, will be fulfilled (Gen. 17:16). God’s church will be extended among the Gentiles. Large multitudes will thus be added to the company of the saved. Zion, the Jerusalem (that is) above, will have an abundant posterity on earth. Hence, she will have to make her tent more spacious by lengthening its cords. At the same time she will have to see to it that the stakes are strengthened, that is, that the tent-pins are fixed into the ground more firmly, because the dwelling-place of the church as God sees it will never be broken up (Isa. 54:2, 3; Rev. 3:12; 7:9; cf. John 6:37, 39; 10:28).”[10]

The Church, consisting of Jews and Gentiles saved by faith in Christ, are heirs of the promises to Abraham’s seed. In Galatians 4:28, Paul reiterates the fact that believers are the children of promise, who are typologically represented by Isaac. As such, believers are not under the bondage of law.

Fung highlights Paul’s continuing argument that, “underlying, and corresponding to, the contrast between slavery (characterizing Hagar and Ishmael, the Sinaitic covenant of law, and the earthly Jerusalem of Judaism and the Judaizers) and freedom (characterizing Sarah and Isaac, the new covenant of promise, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Christian believers) is the contrast between righteousness by law and righteousness by faith.”[11] As Bruce has aptly commented, “Legal bondage and spiritual freedom cannot coexist.”[12]

Paul ends his polemic against the Judaizers in Galatians chapter 4 with this forceful statement: both Ishmael and the nation of Israel, which is under the bondage of legalism, have been completely disinherited. The apostle exclaims, “Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free (Gal. 4:30-31).”

In his commentary on Galatians 4:31, Bruce writes:

“Paul’s later, non-allegorical (but still in intention typological) reference to Abraham’s sons in Rom. 9:7-9 comes to mind. There, emphasizing the sovereignty of the divine election, he insists that it is spiritual, not natural, descent that matters: ‘Not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named” [Gn. 21:12]. This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants’ – the ‘word of promise’ being that spoken by God to Sarah in Gn. 17:21, confirming that she would give birth to a son.”[13]

As in the epistle to the Galatians, Paul emphasizes in Romans that, “They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed (Rom. 9:8).” The true heirs of the promise are not physical Israelites, but the spiritual Israelites, the true seed of Abraham.

Sadly, without repentance and faith in the Messiah, the nation of Israel remains in bondage to legalism and Judaism. What, then, is the hope for Israel after the flesh? Robertson laments that,

Jerusalem today remains as it was in Paul’s day. It is still in bondage to legalism and rejects the gracious gift of salvation that has come through the Messiah. It must not be assumed that those who live in Jerusalem today without faith in Jesus have been chosen by God for salvation. Apart from repentance and faith, the inhabitants of Jerusalem continue to be in bondage and are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). To suggest anything else is to slight Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross, while at the same time imperiling the souls of many by encouraging false assumption.”[14]

The entire thrust of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians contradicts the Dispensationalist’s understanding of national Israel and the Abrahamic promise. Paul’s ecclesiology is obviously not dispensational ecclesiology. He sees the Church as fulfilling the position and role of spiritual, heavenly Israel. God does not have two separate “programs” or “covenants”: one with Israel and another with the Church. The Church, consisting of both believing Jew and Gentile, is the heir of the Abrahamic covenant, not apostate, unbelieving national Israel.

Thus, it is apparent that the apostle Paul categorically rejects the false notion that ethnic Israel has a continuing claim to any covenant promise apart from faith in the Messiah.

[1] J. C. Young, Jerusalem in the New Testament (Kampen: Kok, 1960), 106.
[2] Timothy George, Galatians: The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1994), 340.
[3] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 217.
[4] Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians: New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1988), 206-207.
[5] Paul’s teachings in Galatians 4:21-31 “would have been very disturbing to any patriotic Jew just as it must have been to the Judaizers of Galatia. Everyone knew that the Jews were the sons of Isaac and the Gentiles were the descendants of Ishmael. Paul, however, had correlated the covenant of Sinai and the present religious system centered at Jerusalem with the offspring of the slave woman. They were those who sought to be justified before God “according to the flesh,” that is, by observing the works of the law. Conversely, the children of the free woman were those who had embraced the promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone. They were the children of the covenant of grace. For Paul, it was completely irrelevant to their identification as the offspring of Sarah whether or not people were circumcised, of Jewish birth or Gentile background. No doubt much of the opposition that was mounted by the Judaizers related to the fact that the renewed people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, which began on the Day of Pentecost as an exclusively Jewish enclave, was coming increasingly to include a preponderance of Gentiles, many of them won to Christ through the efforts of Paul and his coworkers. Although the Judaizers may not have seen it in this light, efforts to make circumcision and observance of the law an entrance rite into the Christian faith were nothing less than a futile attempt to reverse the divinely ordained course of redemptive history.” See George, Galatians, 342.
[6] Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 146.
[7] Charles D. Alexander, “Romans Eleven and the Two Israels: An Exposition of Romans 9-11” (Unpublished lecture notes, n.d.), 2-3.
[8] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 222.
[9] Likewise, Fung concurs, “In proof of the existence of a new Jerusalem composed of God’s redeemed people, Paul quotes the Septuagint of Isa. 54:1, where a greater prosperity is prophesied for restored Jerusalem as compared with the old. . . . The prophet [Isaiah] says that Jerusalem as she would be after the exiles had returned would have more children than she did before the Exile robbed her of her children.” See Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, 210-211.
[10] William Hendricksen, Exposition of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1968, 2004), 185.
[11] Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, 212.
[12] Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, 225.
[13] Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, 225-226.
[14] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000), 29-30.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Head Coverings and Women in 1 Corinthians 11

Text of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.3 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (ESV)

The issue of head covering taught in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 has been fodder for perennial debates amongst the Reformed churches. In this article, I would like to propose a solution by comparing the teachings of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 with his specific prohibitions for women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
There are three popular, evangelical interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. The first regard the head covering as a cultural element in the Corinthian church, a practice relegated to the first century expectations of primitive Christians in the apostolic period. This view basically says that the 15 verses of Scripture in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 do not apply to us today, and by implication, irrelevant to Christians now. But to say that Paul is trying to impose a Jewish or Greek sartorial custom onto the Corinthian church is very unlikely. Conzelmann explains, “Is Paul here simply demanding the observance of a Greek custom or is he seeking to introduce into Corinth a new custom, namely, the Jewish one? The ancient material leads to no certain answer. The Jewish custom, to be sure, can be unequivocally ascertained, and corresponds to Paul’s regulation: a Jewess may appear in public only with her head covered. On the other hand, the Greek practice in regard to headgear and hairstyle cannot be unequivocally stated for the simple reason that the fashion varies. So the question remains: Is Paul binding the Christians to a Jewish custom (so Kümmel) or to a universal one? ... The wording rather tends to suggest that Paul is pressing for the observance of a universal custom, (cf. v 16).”[1]

The second interpretation is what I call the “hairstyle” view, which explains that the head covering is the long hair that women ought to adorn themselves with. This view perceives Paul as expanding half of chapter 11 upon acceptable and unacceptable hairstyles for both men and women. Again, this is an awkward understanding which contradicts the traditional view that Paul was referring to a physical head covering. Bruce Waltke, who believes that the covering was a veil, similarly concludes that, “a woman who prays or prophesies in an assembly of believers should cover her head as a symbol of her submission to the absolute will of God who has ordered His universe according to His own good pleasure.”[2]
The third popular option sees the head covering as a physical veil, hat, or other forms of head dress that women must wear to church on the Lord’s Day. So according to this view, the women wear a hat or veil whenever she is praying silently, participating in corporate prayer, partaking the Lord’s Supper, singing of hymns, or listening to the sermon. I am persuaded that none of the aforementioned interpretations consider Paul’s injunctions in its entirety, vis-à-vis 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36, and 1 Timothy 2:11-15.

In 1 Corinthians 11:5, the phrase “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” seems to imply that Paul permitted women to pray and prophesy publicly within a worship assembly, while he prohibited them from speaking and to remain silent in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. For those who accept paradox in Scripture, it would suffice for them to say that both are apparently true, and that we should accept both teachings – that is, women should both be prohibited and permitted to speak in corporate worship – as apparent contradictions that can only be reconciled in eternity. But I would beg to differ, and seek to reconcile Paul’s teachings using the analogy of faith. In this manner, I believe, the head covering issue would be resolved as well.
The Context of 1 Corinthians 11 to 14

Chapters 11-14 constitute a well-defined portion of the first epistle to the Corinthians. Paul’s injunctions for a public assembly of believers seem to begin only in 1 Corinthians 11:17 where he used the phrases, “when you come together (v17, 20),” and, “when you come together as a church (v18).” Here Paul instructs the Corinthians with regard to the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. There is no indication that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 refers to a public assembly of believers, that is, formal corporate worship. Ellicott, commenting on 1 Cor 11:5, notes, “There is here some little difficulty, owing to the fact that such praying (if aloud) or prophesying would seem to have been forbidden; see ch. 14:34, and comp. 1 Tim. 2:12. Perhaps at first the usage, which probably would not have been common, and confined to devotional meetings of a limited and informal nature (contrast ch. 14:34), was left unnoticed, until brought into prominence by the utter ἀταξία of an uncovered head. The Apostle is not now concerned with the circumstance of their praying or prophesying, but with the manner and guise in which they did so.”[3]
In his commentary on 1 Cor 11:5, Heinrich Meyer writes, “Prayer and prophetic utterances in meetings on the part of the women are assumed here as allowed. In 14:34, on the contrary, silence is imposed upon them; comp. also 1 Tim. 2:12, where they are forbidden to teach. This seeming contradiction between the passages disappears, however, if we take into account that in chap. 14 it is the public assembly of the congregation, the whole ἐκκλησία, that is spoken of (vv. 4, 5, 12, 16, 19, 23, 26 ff., 33). There is no sign of such being the case in the passage before us. What the apostle therefore has in his eye here, where he does not forbid the προσεύχεσθαι ἢ προφητεύειν of the women, and at the same time cannot mean family worship simply (see on ver. 4), must be smaller meetings for devotion in the congregation, more limited circles assembled for worship, such as fall under the category of a church in the house (16:19; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2). Since the subject here discussed, as we may infer from its peculiar character, must have been brought under the notice of the apostle for his decision by the Corinthians themselves in their letter, his readers would understand both what kind of meetings were meant as those in which women might pray and speak as prophetesses, and also that the instruction now given was not abrogated again by the “taceat mulier in ecclesia [translated as “let women be silent in the church assembly”].” The latter would, however, be the case, and the teaching of this passage would be aimless and groundless, if Paul were here only postponing for a little the prohibition in 14:34, in order, first of all, provisionally to censure and correct a mere external abuse in connection with a thing which was yet to be treated as wholly unallowable (against my own former view). It is perfectly arbitrary to say, with Grotius, that in 14:34 we must understand as an exception to the rule: “nisi speciale Dei mandatum habeant [translated as “unless she has a special commandment from God”].”[4]

Warfield likewise concurs that public worship cannot be referred to in 1 Cor 11:2-16, “Precisely what is meant in I Corinthians 11:5, nobody quite knows. What is said there is that every woman praying or prophesying unveiled dishonors her head. It seems fair to infer that if she prays or prophesies veiled she does not dishonor her head. And it seems fair still further to infer that she may properly pray or prophesy if only she does it veiled. We are piling up a chain of inferences. And they have not carried us very far. We cannot infer that it would be proper for her to pray or prophesy in church if only she were veiled. There is nothing said about church in the passage or in the context. The word "church" does not occur until the 16th verse, and then not as ruling the reference of the passage, but only as supplying support for the injunction of the passage. There is no reason whatever for believing that "praying and prophesying" in church is meant. Neither was an exercise confined to the church. If, as in 1 Corinthians 14:14, the "praying" spoken of was an ecstatic exercise — as its place by "prophesying" may suggest — then there would be the divine inspiration superceding all ordinary laws to be reckoned with. And there has already been occasion to observe that prayer in public is forbidden to women in 1 Timothy 2:8, 9 — unless mere attendance at prayer is meant, in which case this passage is a close parallel of 1 Timothy 2:9.”[5]
More recently, John MacArthur makes the following observations concerning this, “The mention of women's praying and prophesying is sometimes used to prove that Paul acknowledged the right of their teaching, preaching, and leading in church worship. But he makes no mention here of the church at worship or in the time of formal teaching. Perhaps he has in view praying and prophesying in public places, rather than in the worship of the congregation. This would certainly fit with the very clear directives in 1 Corinthians (14:34) and in his first letter to Timothy (2:12) ... Women may have the gift of prophecy, as did Philip's four daughters (Acts 21:9), but they are normally not to prophesy in the meetings of the church where men are present.”[6]

It is hereby emphasized that the location of worship is irrelevant (e.g. house worship, catacombs etc), but rather, the manner of gathering. Paul then discusses about the exercise of the spiritual gifts (χαρίσματα) from 12:1 to 14:33a, culminating in an appeal for orderly worship, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor 14:33a).” He then turns briefly to the place of women within the propriety of public worship, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (1 Cor 14:33b-35).”
Chapters 11-14 therefore relate to:

(1)    head coverings while praying and prophesying, with no indication that this is done in a public assembly of the church;

(2)    the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper;

(3)    the exercise of spiritual gifts; and

(4)    the appropriate propriety for women in public worship

Paul finally concludes his teachings in chapters 11-14 with an appeal, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord (1 Cor 14:37). The restrictions placed upon women are reiterated in 1 Timothy 2:11-12, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
The first thing we notice is that while the “praying and prophesying” in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 by both men and women are not necessarily exercised in public worship assemblies, Paul’s “command” for the Lord’s Supper, the corporate exercise of spiritual gifts, and the place of women in worship clearly refers to public assemblies and formal worship. Holmward observes that, “the words for “prophesy” (προφητεύω) and “pray” (προσεύχομαι) in chapter 14 are the same as those in 11:5, where Paul wrote that women may pursue these activities. This leads to the suggestion that the setting in 11:2–16 differs from that in chapter 14. Since 11:2–16 does not specifically name any setting, one might conclude that the passage refers to women praying or prophesying in any situation except the one forbidden in 14:33–35, namely, congregational worship.”[7]

Holmward elucidates further that, “Prayer and prophecy occurred in worship services (chap. 14), but they also took place outside of worship settings in the early church, as incidents in the ministries of Peter and Agabus reveal (Acts 9:40; 21:10). If Peter and Agabus could pray and prophesy in nonchurch settings, then doubtless the daughters of Philip or the Corinthian women could do so also. Since the praying and prophesying of women in 1 Corinthians 11:4–5 could occur in nonchurch environments, a reader would have no particular reason to limit verses 4–16 to a church setting.”[8]
Examining the Meaning of Praying and Prophesying

In 1 Cor 11:2-16, Paul seems to refer only to the activities of praying and prophesying when he discusses the requirements for head coverings. It would be helpful if we can delineate the exact meaning of these activities, especially when it comes to the necessity of head coverings for women.
Prophesy (προφητεύω), a verb in the present active participle in 1 Cor 11:4 (προφητεύων in the nominative singular masculine) and 1 Cor 11:5 (προφητεύουσα in the nominative singular feminine), has the meaning of, “(1) generally, of speaking with the help of divine inspiration proclaim what God wants to make known, preach, expound (Acts 2.17; 1Cor 11.4); (2) as speaking out divinely imparted knowledge of future events foretell, prophesy (Mark 7.6; John 11.51; Rev 10.11); (3) as bringing to light what was concealed and outside the possibility of naturally acquired knowledge prophetically reveal, prophesy (Matt 26.68).”[9] Therefore, in the New Testament, prophecy seems to refer to inspired utterance, be it foretelling or forthtelling.

We recall that in Acts 2:14-21, the Apostle Peter referred to the events at Pentecost as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Quoting Joel the Prophet, Peter affirms that, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)”
When the Holy Spirit is poured out upon believers in the infant New Testament church, it becomes apparent that there were many who had the spiritual gift (χαρίσμα) of prophecy, both men and women, and even male and female servants. For example, Philip the Evangelist had four unmarried daughters who prophesied, all in one household. Consequently, it is reasonable to deduce that there were many prophets and prophetesses, and some of these are found within the congregation at Corinth. With this background in mind, 1 Cor 11:2-16 is likely to be referring to the exercise of the χαρίσμα of prophecy by prophets and prophetesses in some form of informal gathering.

The verb “pray” (προσεύχομαι) is more difficult to specify, but there are clues that might help us to understand what Paul meant. Generally, it refers to “a religious technical term for talking to a deity in order to ask for help, usually in the form of a request, vow, or wish pray, speak to (God), ask (MT 6.6).”[10]
It is unlikely that the praying mentioned here is silent prayer, or simply listening to public prayer by others, and assenting to them silently. Firstly, in all instances where Paul discusses about praying in this First Epistle to the Corinthians, it is always interrelated with the “sign gifts,” such as prophesy. Secondly, within the context of 1 Cor 11:4-5, “praying and prophesying” are closely connected, and likely to be referring to the same “sign gifts” discussed by Paul later in the same epistle (1 Cor 14:1-25). Since prophesy is a form of vocal utterance which edifies the congregation (1 Cor 14:1-4), the prayer that is described in 1 Cor 11:4-5 is likewise likely to be an audible, vocal prayer which is heard by those around.

Thirdly, within the context of 1 Corinthians chapters 11-14, Paul contrasts praying in tongues with prophesying (1 Cor 14:1-25). According to Paul, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church (1 Cor 14:4).” Both are indisputably vocal utterances with specific functions. Paul then lays out the requirements for the orderly use of these gifts in corporate worship in 1 Cor 14:26-40. Fourthly, when Paul addresses the men and women in 1 Cor 11:4-5, he does so in the singular, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” But three chapters later in 1 Cor 14:34, he referred to the women in the plural sense.
It therefore seems that Paul is not addressing the entirety of women within the Corinthian congregation in 1 Cor 11:2-16, but was referring to a particular, separate type of woman, namely, those with the “sign gift” of tongues, and those who prophesy (i.e. prophetesses) within the early church. It becomes apparent that Paul did not contradict himself when he referred to the entirety of women in the fourteenth chapter where he commanded them to be silent in the congregation. The only plausible explanation for the apparent contradiction is that Paul is addressing a special group of women in chapter eleven, which includes prophetesses foretold by Joel who prayed and prophesied vocally within the congregation. The early church father, John Chrysostom, recognized this, “For there were, as I said, both men who prophesied and women who had this gift at that time, as the daughters of Philip, (Acts 21:9) as others before them and after them: concerning whom also the prophet spake of old: “your sons shall prophesy, and your daughters shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28. Acts 2:17).”[11]

But what about women keeping silent during corporate worship? Doesn’t this also apply to women who exercise the sign gifts of tongues and prophesy? We have previously discussed earlier that there is no indication that 1 Cor 11:2-16 refers to public worship or assembly, whereas Paul begin to address issues within the public assembly of believers only from 1 Cor 11:17. Therefore, the apparent contradiction resolves before us with the aforementioned understanding.
Traditional Interpretations from Commentators

We would now peruse the interpretations of various commentators, ranging from the early church fathers to contemporary conservative scholars. It is hoped that this would furnish us with a better understanding of the issues at hand. It is deliberate that I have included only conservative, complementarian scholars as opposed to egalitarian interpreters. For example, Gordon Fee had attempted to dismiss the thrust of Paul’s injunctions by questioning the authenticity of 14:34-35 on textual-critical grounds.[12] For the purpose of the Reformed, evangelical student of Scripture, these liberal interpretations would not be helpful, to say the least.
The Ante-Nicene father, Origen (AD 185-254), observed that women who have prophesied in Scripture need not have done it in a public assembly or corporate worship:

“If the daughters of Philip prophesied, at least they did not speak in the assemblies; for we do not find this fact in evidence in the Acts of the Apostles. Much less in the Old Testament. It is said that Deborah was a prophetess ... There is no evidence that Deborah delivered speeches to the people, as did Jeremiah and Isaiah. Huldah, who was a prophetess, did not speak to the people, but only to a man, who consulted her at home. The gospel itself mentions a prophetess Anna ... but she did not speak publicly. Even if it is granted to a woman to show the sign of prophecy, she is nevertheless not permitted to speak in an assembly. When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading a choir of women ... For [as Paul declares] "I do not permit a woman to teach," and even less "to tell a man what to do.’”[13]
Certain commentators understand that 1 Cor 11:2-16 referred to some form of public assembly of believers, but maintain that Paul later condemns the “praying and prophesying” of women in these gatherings in 1 Corinthians 14. John Calvin takes this view, and he likewise does not see a contradiction between 1 Cor 11 and 14, as there is no explicit indication in 1 Cor 11:2-16 that Paul has permitted women to “pray and prophesy” within congregational assemblies for worship. He writes, “Every woman praying or prophesying. Here we have the second proposition—that women ought to have their heads covered when they pray or prophesy; otherwise they dishonour their head. For as the man honours his head by showing his liberty, so the woman, by showing her subjection. Hence, on the other hand, if the woman uncovers her head, she shakes off subjection—involving contempt of her husband. It may seem, however, to be superfluous for Paul to forbid the woman to prophesy with her head uncovered, while elsewhere he wholly prohibits women from speaking in the Church. (1 Tim. 2:12.) It would not, therefore, be allowable for them to prophesy even with a covering upon their head, and hence it follows that it is to no purpose that he argues here as to a covering. It may be replied, that the Apostle, by here condemning the one, does not commend the other. For when he reproves them for prophesying with their head uncovered, he at the same time does not give them permission to prophesy in some other way, but rather delays his condemnation of that vice to another passage, namely in chapter 14. In this reply there is nothing amiss, though at the same time it might suit sufficiently well to say, that the Apostle requires women to show their modesty—not merely in a place in which the whole Church is assembled, but also in any more dignified assembly, either of matrons or of men, such as are sometimes convened in private houses.”[14]

So, according to Calvin, although Paul mentioned the “praying and prophesying” of women in 1 Cor 11, Paul does not approve of this public exercise, and condemns it in chapter 14. Henry Alford, in his commentary on the Greek testament, concurs with Calvin on this point:
“It appears, that the Christian women at Corinth claimed for their sex an equality with the other, taking occasion by the doctrine of Christian freedom and abolition of sexual distinctions in Christ (Gal. 3:28). The gospel unquestionably did much for the emancipation of women, who in the East and among the Ionian Greeks (not among the Dorians and the Romans) were kept in unworthy dependence. Still this was effected in a quiet and gradual manner; whereas in Corinth they seem to have taken up the cause of female independence somewhat too eagerly. The women over-stepped the bounds of their sex, in coming forward to pray and to prophesy in the assembled church with uncovered heads. Both of these the Apostle disapproved,—as well their coming forward to pray and to prophesy, as their removing the veil: here however he blames the latter practice only, and reserves the former till ch. 14:34. In order to confine the women to their true limits, he reminds them of their subjection to the man, to whom again he assigns his place in the spiritual order of creation, and traces this precedence up to God Himself.”[15]

Frederic Godet agrees that this is a possible way of understanding this passage of Scripture, “It might be supposed that the apostle meant to let the speaking of women in the form of prophesying or praying pass for the moment only, contemplating returning to it afterwards to forbid it altogether, when he should have laid down the principles necessary to justify this complete prohibition. So it was that he proceeded in chap. 6, in regard to lawsuits between Christians, beginning by laying down a simple restriction in ver. 4, to condemn them afterwards altogether in ver. 7. We have also observed the use of a similar method in the discussion regarding the participation of the Corinthians in idolatrous feasts; the passage, 8:10, seemed first to authorize it; then, afterwards, when the time has come, he forbids it absolutely (10:21, 22), because he then judges that the minds of his readers are better prepared to accept such a decision.”[16]
But Godet immediately asserts, “But this solution is unsatisfactory, because it remains true that one does not lay down a condition to the doing of a thing which he intends afterwards to forbid absolutely. … I rather think, therefore, that while rejecting, as a rule, the speaking of women in Churches, Paul yet meant to leave them a certain degree of liberty for the exceptional case in which, in consequence of a sudden revelation (prophesying), or under the influence of a strong inspiration of prayer and thanksgiving (speaking in tongues), the woman should feel herself constrained to give utterance to this extraordinary impulse of the Spirit. Only at the time when she thus went out of her natural position of reserve and dependence, he insisted the more that she should not forget, nor the Church with her, the abnormal character of the action; and this was the end which the veil was intended to serve. Moreover, Paul does not seem to think that such cases could be frequent.”[17]

Thus Godet recognizes that Paul was making special mention of those who were exercising their sign gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying within the context of 1 Cor 11:2-16. This passage, however, does not state that women ought to wear a head covering while going to church, when they are in a worship service, while they are partaking the Lord’s Supper, during the singing of hymns or while praying silently.
It was generally understood that women may not exercise their gifts via public speaking within the congregation. There is no difficulty in reconciling 1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:11-15, and 1 Cor 11:2-16 when we accept the overarching principle stated by Paul – that women should be silent during formal worship – and the fact that Paul was addressing a specific group of women (namely, prophetesses and those who pray in tongues) in 1 Cor 11:2-16 who exercised their sign gifts outside the setting of congregational worship. Charles Hodge concurs with this understanding in his commentary on 1 Cor 14:34:

“If connected with v. 34, this passage is parallel to 11:16, where the custom of the churches in reference to the deportment of women in public is appealed to as authoritative. The sense is thus pertinent and good. ‘As is the case in all other Christian churches, let your women keep silence in the public assemblies.’ The fact that in no Christian church was public speaking permitted to women was itself a strong proof that it was unchristian, i. e. contrary to the spirit of Christianity. Paul, however, adds to the prohibition the weight of apostolic authority, and not of that only but also the authority of reason and of Scripture. It is not permitted to them to speak. The speaking intended is public speaking, and especially in the church. In the Old Testament it had been predicted that “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy;” a prediction which the apostle Peter quotes as verified on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:17; and in Acts 21:9 mention is made of four daughters of Philip who prophesied. The apostle himself seems to take for granted, in 11:5, that women might receive and exercise the gift of prophecy. It is therefore only the public exercise of the gift that is prohibited. The rational ground for this prohibition is that it is contrary to the relation of subordination in which the woman stands to the man that she appear as a public teacher. Both the Jews and Greeks adopted the same rule; and therefore the custom, which the Corinthians seemed disposed to introduce, was contrary to established usage. The scriptural ground is expressed in the words as also saith the law, i. e. the will of God as made known in the Old Testament. There, as well as in the New Testament, the doctrine that women should be in subjection is clearly revealed.”[18]
Finally, allow us to peruse a lengthy quotation from Lenski’s excellent commentary on 1 Cor 11:5:

“Paul first considers the man and then the woman: Every man engaged in praying or prophesying; and in v. 5: and every woman engaged in praying and prophesying. The man and the woman are described in exactly the same terms. The two activities naturally go together in the case of each. It is quite essential to note that no modifier is attached to the participles to denote a place where these activities were exercised. So we on our part should not introduce one, either the same one for both the man and the woman, for instance, “worshipping or prophesying in church,” or different ones, for the man “in church” and for the woman “at home.” By omitting reference to a place Paul says this: “Wherever and whenever it is proper and right for a man or for a woman to pray or to prophesy, the difference of sex should be marked as I indicate.” Whether men are present or absent when a woman prays or prophesies makes no difference; also vice versa. Each remains what he is or what she is apart from the other.
An issue has been made of the point that Paul speaks of a woman as prophesying as though it were a matter of course that she should prophesy just as she also prays, and just as the man, too, prays and prophesies. Paul is said to contradict himself when he forbids the women to prophesy in 14:34–36. The matter becomes clear when we observe that from 11:17 onward until the end of chapter 14 Paul deals with the gatherings of the congregation for public worship and with regulations pertaining to public assemblies. The transition is decidedly marked: “that ye come together,” i.e., for public worship, v. 17; “when ye come together in church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ, no article), v. 18; and again: “when ye assemble together,” i.e., for public worship, v. 20. In these public assemblies Paul forbids the women, not only to prophesy, but to speak at all, 14:34–36 and assigns the reason for this prohibition just as he does in 1 Tim. 2:11, etc.

It is evident, then, that women, too, were granted the gift of prophecy even as some still have this gift, namely the ability to present and properly to apply the Word of God by teaching others. And they are to exercise this valuable gift in the ample opportunities that offer themselves. So Paul writes “praying and prophesying” with reference to the woman just as he does with reference to the man. The public assemblies of the congregation are, however, not among these opportunities—note ἐν ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, “in the assemblies,” 14:34. At other places and at other times women are free to exercise their gift of prophecy. In the present connection Paul has no occasion whatever to specify regarding this point. We may, however, think of Lois and Eunice who instructed Timothy, 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15; of Priscilla, who was more able than her husband, who taught Apollos, Acts 18:24–26; and of other cases. The teaching ability of Christian women today has a wide range of opportunity without in the least intruding itself into the public congregational assemblies.”[19]
Concluding Remarks

It is my understanding that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 does not refer to cultural elements surrounding the early Corinthian church. It is improbable that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to expand 15 verses of Scripture, only for them to be irrelevant for Christians today. This understanding violates the Reformation maxim of Sola Scriptura, which means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the believer. These 15 verses would not be authoritative for Christians today if indeed they were only meant for the infant Corinthian church.  This view also assumes that scholarship and knowledge of the ancient Near Eastern literature is paramount for exegesis. Hence, it runs contrary to the Reformed principle of the “perspicuity of Scripture,” which states that the meanings of the text can be clear to the ordinary reader of all ages, and not just for the elite few from the coterie of Romish scholars.
Some recent interpreters had suggested that Paul was referring to the long hair of women as a covering, while others contend that it is an actual, physical veil or hat which is required for women attending formal worship. As stated in the beginning of this article, these views do not take the context of 1 Cor 11-14 in its entirety, while neglecting the specific injunction of Paul for women to remain silent in both 1 Cor 14:34-35 and 1 Tim 2:11-15.

We have come to comprehend that Paul was referring to the exercising of signs gifts (prophesy and tongues) by a specific group of women, and there was no indication that these vocal utterances by women were sanctioned by Paul within the formal, worship assembly of believers. We have every reason to believe that Paul was referring to informal gatherings, be it in the house, catacombs, or other places. Paul would not contradict himself three chapters later in 1 Cor 14 by first sanctioning women to prophesy and to speak in tongues, and then subsequently prohibiting the same in the later portions of the same epistle.

With our current understanding of 1 Cor 11:2-16, the necessity of a head covering (be it hair, veil, or hat) becomes a moot point. The signs gifts are passé, and consistent with a Reformed understanding of Scripture, both tongues and prophesy have passed away with the crystallizing of the Canon of Scripture. Women (and men) do not prophesy or speak in tongues today. Hence, the regulation of women for the exercising of these sign gifts in an informal assembly becomes inconsequential within the modern Christian community.


[1] Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), pp. 184-186.
[2] Bruce K. Waltke, “1 Corinthians 11:2–16: An Interpretation,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (1978): p. 56. Waltke here argues that Paul was referring to a veil, “Although Paul does not use the word veil, it seems reasonable to suppose that he has this article of apparel in view.” Ibid, p. 50.
[3] Charles J. Ellicott, St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: with a Critical and Grammatical Commentary (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1887), p. 202.
[4]Heinrich A. W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians (Vol. 1, pp. 320–321). Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1879), Vol 1, pp. 320-321.
[5]Benjamin B. Warfield, "Paul on Women Speaking in Church," The Presbyterian, October 30, 1919.
[6]John MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), pp. 256-7.
[7] Harold R. Holmyard III, “Does 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 Refer to Women Praying and Prophesying in Church?” Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (1997): p. 464.
[8] Ibid, p. 472.
[9]Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, & Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000) p. 337).
[10]Ibid, p.333.
[11]John Chrysostom. Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. In P. Schaff (Ed.), H. K. Cornish, J. Medley, & T. B. Chambers (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, Vol. 12 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 152.
[12]See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 699.
[13]Origen, Fragmenta ex commentariis in epistulami ad Corinthios (in catenis), Greek text published in Claude Jenkins, "Documents: Origen on I Corinthians. IV," Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909), p. 41. English translation from Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1976), p. 28.
[14]John Calvin & Pringle, J., Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), pp. 355–356.
[15]Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament: an exegetical and critical commentary, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976), p.564.
[16]Frederic Louis Godet and A. Cusin (Trans.), Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957), Vol 2, p. 116.
[17]Ibid, pp. 116-117.
[18] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), pp. 304-305.
[19]R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963), pp. 436-437.