Bible Q&A: Please Explain 1 Corinthians 11:10.

1 Corinthians 11:10 says, “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority over her head, because of the angels. What symbol is being talked about here, and why is it because of the angels?

Contextually, this verse is in the midst of a discussion found in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which falls at the end of Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to give up personal freedoms in order to avoid being a stumbling block to others (1 Cor. 8-10).  The culture of Paul’s day required all respectable women to wear a veil over their head in public as a sign of subjection to male authority, a practice still observed in most Middle Eastern cultures today.  During Paul’s day, the only women known to go about with their heads uncovered were prostitutes, who were also known to go so far as to have their heads shaved.

Paul commended the Corinthians for keeping the inspired apostolic traditions he had given them, but they still needed to understand God’s arrangements concerning authority in the home and in the church (1 Cor. 11:2-3).  In the culture of the time, a man who wore a veil in public would appear effeminate, showing disrespect for his gender and its divinely appointed role, and thus showing disrespect to God (vs. 2, 7).  In like manner, a woman in that culture who chose not to wear a veil would disrespect her gender and its divinely appointed role, and thus show disrespect to God (vs. 5-6).

Now we come to the passage in question.  Paul brings out how woman was made from man and was created for the man (vs. 8-9; cf. Gen. 2:18-23).  In that culture, respect for that male authority was shown by women wearing a covering over their head in public.  This veil is the “symbol of authority on her head” (v. 10).  The head covering symbolized in that culture that respect for male authority.

So, who are “the angels” and what do they have to do with this?  “Angels” (angelos) literally means “messengers.”  Most of the time when this term is used in the Bible, it refers to celestial, non-human messengers from God (cf. Lk. 1-2).  However, there are times when the term is used to refer to humans, Christians who proclaim God’s message to the world (cf. Rev. 2-3).  This is likely one of those cases.  The mission of the Corinthian church was to preach the gospel to the lost (Mark 16:15), and to do so without presenting offending anyone in ways that would keep them from being receptive to the gospel (1 Cor. 10:31-33).  It is in that context that Paul tells these Corinthian sisters in Christ who were apparently violating cultural norms by going around in public with their heads uncovered that they should abide by societal norms and wear that symbol of authority on their heads.  They should do this, he says, “because of the angels.”  Literally, “because of the messengers.”  In other words, “Don’t flout cultural norms and offend people, thus making them non-receptive to the message of Christ which our messengers (preachers) are preaching to them.”

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