Paul is No Friend of Women: Head Coverings

I read a passage in Paul’s 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 the other day that got me scratching my head. In it, Paul argues that in an orderly church, a woman who prophesies must have her head covered, or else get her hair cut off or shaved off. In Paul’s mind, it was a dishonor for women to speak out without their heads being covered, and this reflects Paul’s extremely negative views towards women.

The fact is that Jesus most certainly did not object to women speaking out in church as prophets or otherwise while their hair was uncovered. Perhaps the most dramatic proof of this is the anointing scene attested to in John 12:3 (and also mentioned in Mark 14:1-9 and Matthew 26:6-13). According to these accounts, while Jesus was reclining or laying back in either a chair or perhaps even a sofa beside a table, Mary anointed Jesus by pouring expensive oil on his head . . . but also according to the account in John 12:3, she went even further. She anointed his feet . . . and wiped the nard off his feet with her hair. Explains John:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was served in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of perfume. John 12:1-3.

From the standpoint of answering Paul’s views on women speaking out at church, should this occasion (where Mary anointed Jesus in front of his disciples and family members) be considered a church meeting? Church can simply be defined as the coming together of more than one people to worship God. Any time Jesus met with his disciples, he taught them about God. Jesus was speaking about godly matters during Mary’s famous anointing of him for burial. Therefore, such a meeting should most certainly be considered a church gathering.

Paul said no woman should speak at church, nor should a women prophesize with her head uncovered, or else she should have her head shaved. Jesus obviously disagreed. Jesus considered Mary’s act a beautiful thing. Her anointing was a highly symbolic act, for she was anointing him to prepare him for his death. And the family and apostles present did not object to the way she touched him or the way she acted as a prophet or priestess during the anointing process; instead, Judas objected to the wasting of the expensive nard, which could have been sold and used to feed the poor.

Jesus replied,

Leave her alone . . . She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. Mark 14:6-9.

Two things are very clear from this statement:

By Autore sconosciuto ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Autore sconosciuto ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Jesus approves of a woman acting in a symbolic and highly prophetic manner. After all, the anointing of him by Mary foretold or indicated that Jesus was about to die. Like many symbolic acts by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and Jesus, Mary’s anointing represented a godly sign of what was to come.
  • Jesus honors Mary’s anointing act, and treats Mary as an equal and beloved member of his church.

Moreover, Mary’s head most certainly was not covered, nor was that of the other woman who oiled and then dried the Savior’s feet with her hair during an earlier church meeting involving Jesus. Luke 7:36-50. This woman, who was “a sinful woman,” wept over Jesus and wet his feet with her tears.

Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. Luke 7:38.

When the Pharisee who was hosting Jesus objected, Jesus told a parable about a moneylender who forgave the debts of two people, one of whom owed more. The man who owed more was forgiven more, and thus he would love the lender more; just so, Jesus explained, would the woman love more if she were forgiven more.

Therefore, I tell you, how many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. Luke 7:47.

In other words, Jesus not only refuses to rebuke a woman who kisses his feet and rubs away the tears she has shed on his feet with her hair—he uses the opportunity she gives him to teach yet again about his main commandment, which is to love. Jesus does not care about the rules of the surrounding institutions. He does not respect the orthodoxies of the rabbis or other Jewish authorities.

Unfortunately, Paul does respect these orthodoxies and he does apply the preexisting and prevailing institutional bias to how churches created by him treated (and often still treat) women. Unlike Jesus, Paul is no friend of women:

And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. 1 Corinthians 11:5-6.

By Olympe de Gouges (Originally from [1].) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Olympe de Gouges (Originally from [1].) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Paul contradicts Jesus here. And by contradicting Jesus, Paul departs from the true teachings that Jesus brought with him. And if Paul wrongfully taught that women should not speak in church (or prophesy with their heads uncovered), then Paul could be wrong about other things as well (such as the submissive role a wife must take in marriage). Paul is not equal to the Savior, and his teachings on inequality often reflect this.

Jesus brought a new set of teachings, with new laws, when he brought his new covenant. Paul spoke in derogation of these new laws many times, particularly regarding women. If anything, Paul was enforcing the old Jewish laws that Jesus disregarded. The old laws that Paul is enforcing were in fact abrogated by the Savior’s life and Crucifixion. Hebrews 8:7-8, 13. Paul never walked and talked with Jesus; in fact, he only visited with Jesus a couple of times, and not in physical form (and this, after Paul persecuted the early church, which Paul himself freely admits to doing). Paul himself states that he should not be considered an apostle:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Corinthians 15:9.

Perhaps Paul should be taken at his word.

And yet Paul’s teachings are accepted widely and have been used for thousands of years to repress women. It’s ridiculous that the one Apostle who never walked and talked with Jesus is accepted as readily as the other apostles, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Phillip and Thomas (among others). All of these apostles worked hard to spread the words of the Savior—and they kept true to his word. When Paul strays from the letter and spirit of the Savior (such as on matters of women’s equality in the church), his teachings should be considered moot and obsolete.

Should a woman speak in church? Of course. Mary spoke and acted symbolically in the church that Jesus created, as did Martha and other women, like the Samaritan in John 4. See Luke 10:38-42. If the Savior allowed women to have a role and spoke to them as equals, why should we listen to Paul when he treats women as less?