While Praying or Prophesying
In verses 4 and 5 Paul uses the phrase, “while praying or prophesying.” In verse 13 he uses just the word “pray”. The instructions concerning the head covering are given to men and women “while praying or prophesying.”
Until very recent times those who called themselves Christians understood 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 to mean that women are to cover their heads when they assemble to worship. If you check the commentaries written before 1900, you will find that almost without exception they agree that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 means that a woman must cover her head with a veil or other covering when she worships God. This is the natural conclusion which people come to when reading this passage. Some years ago a fellow-preacher told me, “I have been impressed that when a woman who has had no teaching about the head covering reads this passage, she always comes to the conclusion that she should cover her head in worship.”
Frank Rester wrote in God’s Truth On The Covering:
“At the very beginning it is imperative that we understand that these instructions are dealing with proper decorum not in just any public or social gathering or in the concourse of everyday activities but in the assembly of the church, while one is engaged in ‘praying or prophesying’ (verse 4, 5, 13). To say that Paul was instructing Christian men and women as to their head-dress in social concourse of everyday life is simply speaking from ignorance. I readily concede that any Christian woman or man is to dress decently, modestly and in harmony with good taste in all social activities. This is clearly emphasized in such places as Deut. 22:5; 1 Tim. 2:8-15; 1 Pet. 3:1-6; Mt. 5:27-28; etc. Yet Paul was not writing on this subject in 1 Cor. 11. He was speaking of proper head-dress while one is engaged in ‘praying or prophesying.’ How an individual appears elsewhere or otherwise does not concern him here. He was speaking of worship. Nothing more. This cannot be overemphasized. For it is at this point that many stumble in endeavoring to understand and teach this passage.” (p. 13)
We can trace this understanding right back to apostolic times. Tertullian, who wrote about A.D. 200, said, “How severe a chastisement will they likewise deserve who during the psalms and at any mention of God remain uncovered. Even when about to spend time in prayer itself, with the utmost readiness, they place a fringe, tuft, or any thread whatever on the crowns of their heads, and suppose themselves to be covered.” Tertullian lived in North Africa. In arguing that virgins and not only married women must be covered in worship, he tells his readers to go to Greece and Rome, even to Corinth, where the churches all required young unmarried women to wear a veil in worship. (For these quotes and references to where they can be found, read the chapter, “What the Early Christians Believed About the Head Covering”.) This was in the year 200, just 100 years after the death of the last apostle. The unvarying practice was for churches to require women to cover their heads in worship because of the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, with some churches allowing young unmarried women to worship without a covering. According to Tertullian, all the churches had the same requirement (which helps us understand Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:16).
Instructions apply only to inspired people?
In the last 50 years or so a new teaching has been promoted. The teaching asserts that, because the head covering command is addressed to men and women “while praying or prophesying”, only inspired Christians are addressed. The consequence of the argument is that since there are no inspired people today, 1 Corinthians 11 does not apply to women and men today, and never applied to worshipers who were not prophesying or leading inspired prayer. The teaching denies that people who pray silently while a man leads the prayer were ever required to observe the head covering requirements of 1 Corinthians 11.
A brother wrote: “Certain men and certain women in the early churches were ‘praying or prophesying’, and the instructions pertained to them. The instructions did not apply to all men and women in the churches then, and apply to none now, for we have no such men or women in the churches.”
We have seen that this was not the understanding of Tertullian in A.D. 200. The universal practice of churches of that time is strong testimony that women were covering their heads in worship from the time of Paul and the other apostles. All women were expected to cover their heads, not just women who were inspired. Of course, by the time of Tertullian there were no inspired people in the church. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 teaches that when the New Testament was completed (when “the perfect” was come), all the spiritual gifts ceased. Yet long after the gifts had ceased the practice of all the churches was to require women to cover their heads in worship.
But though the testimony of Tertullian and Clement and other early Christians is important, we do not need their testimony to establish the fact that women must cover their heads when praying and men must not—even when the person is not leading the prayer.
All of worship
First of all, the words of Paul are “while praying or prophesying”. The word “or” separates the two actions. It means whether the woman is praying or prophesying—either one—she must be covered. Nor does Paul say, “While an inspired woman is praying.” Nothing in Paul’s words requires the woman to be inspired. She is a woman who is praying. Verse 13 uses the word “pray” only—“Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with head uncovered?”
The word “prophesy” ordinarily means “to speak by inspiration of the Holy Spirit”, whether to foretell future events or to exhort or rebuke. In some places in the Bible it is used to mean uninspired singing or speaking (1 Chron. 15:1-2), and “the priests of Baal, who prayed and sang hymns to that idol, in the contest with Elijah, are said, 1 Kings xviii. 29 to have ‘prophesied till the time of the evening sacrifice’” (James MacKnight). Thus some believe Paul’s use of the word in 1 Corinthians 11 includes uninspired teaching and singing.
But in Paul’s day, when many of the Corinthians were guided by the Holy Spirit in their teaching, the word “prophesy” would describe the kind of teaching which was done, whether in the public service or in more private situations. “Pray or prophesy” covers what Christians do in worship. It is a way of saying, “When you worship God.”
Prayer can mean “worship”
In defining the Greek word translated “prayer” (proseuchomenos), Strong says: “To pray to God, i.e. supplicate, worship: pray (earnestly, for) make prayer.” Thus the word “pray” can mean “worship”. A worship service is a prayer meeting. Sometimes a mid-week service is referred to as “prayer meeting”, even though all know that we also sing and teach. The word “prayer” simply stands for “worship.” Thus when Paul writes: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” (1 Cor. 11:13), he is using the word “pray” to stand for “worship.”
In Matthew 21:12 Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7 when He said, “It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer.” The temple was a place of worship, which included prayer. To call it a house of prayer was to call it a place of worship.
The place where Lydia and the women worshiped God is called, “a place of prayer,” (Acts 16:13), as is also the place Paul was walking toward when he cast out the demon from the slave girl (Acts 16:16).
It is common, therefore, for the word “pray” or “prayer” to stand for all worship. This is clearly the way it is used in 1 Corinthians 11, and is how it was understood by Tertullian and the early Christians.
If only women speaking publicly are addressed:
Some of the commentators I have checked take the position that in 1 Cor. 11 Paul is rebuking the women for “throwing aside the veil” while getting up publicly to teach or pray. Paul later (1 Cor. 14:34) shows that women are not to speak at all in the public assembly. Thus he rebukes the practice of laying aside the covering before he rebukes the practice of speaking publicly.
Expositor’s Greek New Testament says: “The regulation is not limited to those of either sex who ‘pray or prophesy’, but such activity called attention to the apparel, and doubtless it was among the more demonstrative women that the impropriety occurred, in the excitement of public speaking the shawl might unconsciously be thrown back.” (on 1 Cor. 11:4-5)
Or as Mike Willis puts it, “From what I can gather, the women must have been conducting a small women’s liberation movement in Corinth.” (p. 289)
Henry Alford says, (The Greek Testament, p. 564): “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. iii. 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 overstepped the bounds of the 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. xiv. 34.” (Emphasis mine, pkw)
James Macknight in commenting on the same passage says: “As it is reasonable to think, that this praying and prophesying of the women, was of the same kind with the praying and prophesying of the men who acted as teachers, mentioned ver. 4, we may suppose the Corinthian women affected to perform these offices in the public assemblies, on pretence of being inspired, and though the apostle in this place hath not condemned that practice, it does not follow that he allowed it, or that it was allowed in any church. His design here was not to consider whether that practice was allowable, but to condemn the indecent manner in which it had been performed.”
If these commentators are correct, the only reason Paul rebuked these women was that they appeared in the assembly with uncovered heads. He is teaching incidentally, but nevertheless very clearly, that ALL women are to have their heads covered. If the covering applied ONLY to the ones praying or prophesying, there would be no reason for Paul to go to great length to tell them what to wear while they do it—then tell them in 1 Cor. 14:34 that they cannot do it at all! But they were violating TWO things—the head covering of a woman when worshiping AND the silence a woman is to keep in the assembly.
Therefore I believe this teaching was meant for ALL women, then and now. The women who prayed or prophesied were rebuked because they were the ones violating the “tradition” delivered to them by Paul (1 Cor. 11:2). It is just as wrong for the other women to be uncovered in the assembly as it was for the women praying or prophesying. Read again the commentators quoted and you will see that this is what they are saying.
Includes the public assembly
The text does not specifically say that Paul is talking about women and men in the public assembly, but the words “pray or prophesy” must include the public assembly. It has been suggested that perhaps the women were not speaking in the public assembly, but were teaching in small groups. But Paul’s words apply wherever Christians are praying or prophesying, that is, when they are worshiping. The action was public enough to be regulated by “all the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).
A parallel to 1 Corinthians 14
Can regulations which were given to regulate the behaviour of inspired people be used for us today when there are no spiritual gifts? If we answer, “Those commands are not for us,” then we are in a problem with the instructions of Paul concerning decent and orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14. The instructions in verses 26-33
concerning the prophets in the assembly are just as applicable today as then.
Notice verses 29-33: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.”
Because preachers are not inspired by the Holy Spirit today, can two or three speak at the same time? We recognize that there must be order, and we quote these verses to prove it. It matters not whether men are inspired or not, the principles apply in exactly the same way.
Note also verse 34, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says.” Paul gave these instructions in the context of assemblies where spiritual gifts were exercised (which, as I have said previously, would probably be typical of all worship assemblies of God’s people at that time). If we cannot apply these instructions to worship assemblies without spiritual gifts, then women can preach! I think that is the inescapable conclusion.
I live and preach among the Zulus in South Africa. We use 1 Cor. 14:13-17 to show that we must have prayers interpreted so that all can understand. We also use these verses to show that it is wrong for everyone to pray different prayers out loud at the same time, since we can’t know what the other is praying and therefore cannot say “Amen” at the end. But these verses deal with the exercise of spiritual gifts. Note what they say: “Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.”
Are we wrong to apply the instructions of these verses to our assemblies today? Will God be pleased if a man leads prayer in a language no one else can understand? Is it permitted for all to pray different prayers at the same time?
The assertion that Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 applied ONLY to inspired men and women and therefore do not say anything to us today will also eliminate his instructions in 1 Corinthians 14. It will mean that women CAN speak in the assembly. It will mean that a man can pray in a language no one else can understand. It will mean that all can pray different prayers out loud at the same time. But if we can see, and we should, that Paul’s instructions, though spoken in the context of assemblies where spiritual gifts were used, are for all of us for all time even in the time of no spiritual gifts, we will be able to apply Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 AND 14 to us today.
The one who denies that women should cover their heads in worship today, either because of custom or because the instructions are addressed to inspired people, will have to allow women to speak in church for the same reasons. (Note, however, that Paul in 1 Cor. 11 addresses men and women “while praying OR prophesying”, so the assumption that Paul is speaking ONLY to inspired men and women is without foundation. But even if that assumption WERE true, Paul’s instructions are still binding today.)
A parallel to Matthew 5:23-24.
Can we apply the teaching of Jesus in these verses today? He said, “If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.”
Jesus spoke these words when the Jews worshiped God by bringing gifts to the altar. We have no physical altar today. Does that mean we can dismiss Jesus’ words and say that they do not apply today?
Of course not. The principle is still true, and we apply it by saying that if you are on your way to worship God and then remember that someone has something against you, it is more important to go to the brother and show your repentance than it is to go to church.
The principles of 1 Cor. 11 and 14 must be applied in the same way, regardless of whether any of the people involved then were inspired or not.
Bible prophets not always inspired
However, it is interesting that the Bible uses the word “prophet” and “prophesy” to apply to people who were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. The one who affirms that “a person had to be inspired to be a prophet” is affirming too much. Note the following lengthy quote from Alfred Edersheim (Prophecy and History, pp. 121-123)
“Thus viewed, the prophet is the medium of supposed or real Divine communication—from whatever Deity it be—and the ‘weller-forth’ is also ‘the spokesman.’ It is in this sense that, when Moses was sent to bear the Divine communication to Pharaoh, Aaron was promised to him as his Nabhi— his well-forth, spokesman, or medium of communication. This may also help us to understand the meaning of an institution and of a designation in the Old Testament which is of the deepest interest: that of ‘schools of the prophets’ and ‘the sons of the prophets.’ I would suggest that ‘the sons of the prophets’ stood related to the prophets as the prophets themselves to the divine. They were the medium of prophetic communication, as the prophets were the medium of divine communication. And the analogy holds true in every particular. As the prophet must absolutely submit himself to God, and be always ready to act only as the medium of Divine communication, so must the ‘son of the prophet’ be ready to carry out the behests of the prophet and be the medium of his communication, whether by word or deed. As a prophet might be divinely employed temporarily, occasionally, or permanently, so the sons of the prophets by the prophets. God might in a moment raise up and qualify suitable men to be His prophets or means of communication, since only inspiration was required for this. But the prophets could not exercise such influence in regard to the ‘sons’. Accordingly, special institutions, ‘the schools of the prophets,’ were required for their training and preparation. Besides this primary object, these establishments would serve important spiritual and religious purposes in the land, alike as regarded their testimony to Prophetism, their cultivation of the Divine, their moral discipline, readiness of absolute God-consecration and implicit submission to Him, and general religious influence on the people. But the analogy between prophets and sons of the prophets went even farther than we have indicated. For the moral qualifications for the two offices, however fundamentally differing, were in one respect the same. For both offices the one condition needful was absolute obedience; that is, viewed subjectively, passiveness; viewed objectively, faithfulness. Alike the prophet and the son of the prophet must, in the discharge of his commission, have absolutely no will or mind of his own, that so he may be faithful to Him Whose medium of communication he is.”
This explains why there were so many prophets in Elijah’s day. Obadiah told Elijah, “Has it not been told to my master what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, that I hid a hundred prophets of the Lord by fifties in a cave, and provided them with bread and water?” (1 Kings 18:13.) These were probably the young men who were in the “schools of the prophets”.
Adam Clarke in his commentary on 1 Cor. 11 wrote:
Praying or prophesying. Any person who engages in public acts in the worship of God, whether prayer, singing, or exhortation: for we learn, from the apostle himself, that propheteuein (to prophesy) signifies to speak unto men to edification, exhortation, and comfort, chap. 14:3. And this comprehends all that we understand by exhortation, or even preaching.
Having his head covered — with his cap or turban on, dishonoureth his head; because the head being covered was a sign of subjection; and while he was employed in the public ministration of the word, he was to be considered as a representative of Christ, and on this account his being veiled or covered would be improper.
Therefore, since the Bible uses the word “prophet” and “prophesy” to apply to uninspired people and their teaching from God’s word, the one who affirms that 1 Cor. 11 is speaking only to inspired people is on shaky ground. He cannot prove what he says.
Prayer not inspired
Note that Paul gives his instructions to men and women while praying OR prophesying. There is no way a man can prove that all prayers at Corinth were inspired prayers. In fact, a man will have a hard time to prove that the words of any prayer were directly inspired by God. But the person who argues that the instructions of 1 Cor. 11 do not apply to us because they were for inspired persons only, must prove that all the prayers were inspired. Of course he cannot do that.
Must these instructions be followed during private prayer?
Verse 16 tells us that “the assemblies (churches) of God” observed the head covering practices. This is what Tertullian wrote in A.D. 200. It is clear that in public worship, whether in small groups or large, women are to cover their heads.
But what about when the woman is at home by herself, or when thanks is being said to God at the table? May a man who is wearing a hat pray when he is driving his car? Here we have one of the matters on which people may not see alike. Since the head covering is a sign which is designed to say something to other people, it is my judgment that it does not apply in private prayer. But let each person study and follow what he or she believes is right.
Must a woman wear a covering whenever she is in public?
In some places in Bible times a woman wore a veil over her hair when in public. It was a matter of modesty. The Christian woman should always be careful to dress and behave in a way which shows that she is modest. If the practice of the community is to wear a veil in public, then the Christian will do that. Some of the writings of the early Christians talk about this.
However, Paul’s instructions are for another purpose. He does not say, “Follow the custom of the people in order to be modest.” He tells us that a woman is to cover her head when praying or prophesying in order to show that man is her head. The man must not cover his head when praying or prophesying in order to show that Christ is his head. These instructions are for worship, not for walking on the street.
Note: The problem with the idea that the woman must cover her head at all times in public runs into the same problem as the custom argument—What about the man? If the woman must wear a covering in public, the man must not wear a hat!