Bonhoeffer, Culture & 1 Corinthians 11

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is frequently praised within Christendom for standing up against the prevailing culture of Nazi Germany in support of biblical principles. I recently witnessed a celebration of Carl Spain, whose chapel speech in 1960 at an all white college condemned racism among Christian colleges.

The question invariably comes to mind, why were there not many others, who profess Christ, standing with Bonhoeffer or Spain? Seriously?

Many powerful forces, including fear and the perceived security of solidarity, stand in the way of doing the right thing. Let’s not overlook the power of culture to influence our perceptions and challenge our allegiances. Rationalization, or as I call it the hermeneutic of desire, can lead us to justify “what is” as well as “how we want it to be.”

It is easy to look back and see how others mishandled scripture to suit their purposes. What about us? Since our culture values identical gender roles everywhere, will we allow this to shape our interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11?

A common narrative regarding this text is as easy to understand as it is prevalent in presentation. In fact, a highly educated person recently expressed it along these lines.

Since Paul contradicted himself in 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, we should conclude that the early churches were more fluid in their worship practices regarding the role of women than 1 Corinthians 14:34 would suggest.

My focus is an exegetical and historical one. I am not exploring an application for today.

At the outset, let’s observe that the aforementioned way in reading 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 depends upon Paul prescribing how women should prophesy or audibly pray within the assembly. For us to know that Paul contradicted himself we must know his head covering guidelines were intended to regulate women speaking within the assembly.

If, however, this text merely prescribes behavior for whenever and wherever someone might pray or prophecy, then he might have intended it to guide women when they spoke in the assembly or he might have intended women to remain silent within corporate worship. Accordingly, given such ambiguity we could not conclude Paul contradicted himself.

To ensure we grasp the possibility of how 1 Corinthians 14 can be fully compatible with 1 Corinthians 11, consider the following scenarios. A man leads prayer within the assembly, while women follow along with their heads covered. Male prophets speak both within the assembly and without, while prophetesses teach only outside of corporate worship ensuring their heads are covered. In such scenarios, Paul would not have contradicted himself. But is this what happened?

If we could know this text only provided directions for the assembly, we would know Paul expected women to prophesy within the assembly. Did people in the early church pray or prophesy/teach outside of congregational meetings? Yes (Acts 18:26; 8:31,35; 21:10,11)!

If the apostle’s instructions were directed toward multiple situations, then it is at least plausible that Paul did not intend for women to speak within the assembly. Yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What can we conclude from 1 Corinthians?

Let’s work from the broadest literary context of the letter toward the most specific.

• Since various parts of I Corinthians are rooted in either the setting of corporate activity or the broader horizon of Christian life (1 Corinthians 7:1; 8:1; 10:27; 11:17; 14:34), each pericope or section must determine which context it is addressing.

• Paul claimed that Christians should universally (“As in all the churches”) practice women remaining silent in the assembly and this was the Lord’s command (1 Corinthians 14:33,34,37).  He also observed that the head covering principles were being universally practiced (1 Corinthians 11:16).

• 1 Corinthians 11 seems to be built upon the literary structure of “I praise you” and “I do not praise you” (1 Corinthians 11:2,17). As such, Paul seems to be communicating his message along the well established Greco-Roman concerns for praise and shame that regulated their society. Accordingly, given this contrasting context of praising what is good (11:3-16) versus denouncing what is deficient (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), each section must determine whether its content applies specifically to the assembly or to broader situations.

• Within this praise and blame context, Paul introduces a new setting in 1 Corinthians 11:17, the worship assembly.

• Paul does not identify that his instructions for head coverings are limited to the assembly. They at least appear to have a universal application for wherever and whenever men and women might pray or prophesy.

Does not the evidence lean more toward these instructions being for whenever and wherever rather than limited to the assembly? If so, we can not confidently affirm Paul contradicted himself, because we are left in ambiguity as to whether he provided instructions for women to speak in the assembly.

Is this the end of the matter? No.

Using Occum’s Razor that the simplest explanation is most likely the true one, which is more likely? Is it more likely that Paul prescribed silence upon women within corporate worship as the universal norm while at the same time praising them for praying and prophesying in the assembly with covered heads or that Paul’s teachings in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14 are compatible?

Did Paul contradict himself? I think the answer is quite clear. What do you think? What do you want to believe?

So, when it comes to whether Paul contradicted himself, where will you stand? Might you be alone? Sometimes standing alone places you in good company.

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Barry Newton

Married to his wonderful wife Sofia and a former missionary in Brazil, Barry enjoys trying to express old truths in fresh ways. They are the parents of two young men.

One thought on “Bonhoeffer, Culture & 1 Corinthians 11

  1. In trying to reconstruct history, is it possible to conclude that Paul contradicted himself without begging the question? In other words, since other scenarios are plausible, is it possible to conclude that Paul intended for women to prophesy within the assembly, without first assuming that he expected his instructions regarding women prophesying to be needed within corporate worship? It could be he only expected them to prophesy outside of the assembly. I’m still looking for that evidence.

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