Who has the Exousia (Authority) in 1 Cor 11:10? The Man or the Woman?
In 1 Cor 11:10 Paul says that “the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head”. The Greek word behind “authority” is “exousia” and it’s used 103 times in the New Testament. There are two differing views on how to understand “authority” in this passage. The traditional interpretation sees “authority” as belonging to the woman’s husband, which she submits to. The head covering then is a symbol of her place in creation as being subject to man. The modern interpretation sees “authority” as belonging to the woman. The head covering therefore is a symbol of her right to pray & prophesy in the assembly. It is the purpose of this article to help familiarize yourself with both positions, by giving a strong positive case for each view. We will then conclude by sharing which position we hold to.
Exousia as the woman’s authority
The argument for seeing exousia as the woman’s authority is how this word is used in the New Testament (and other early Greek literature). Before we begin it’s important that we see for ourselves a sampling of how this word is used. Here are 5 examples from the New Testament:
- Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority (exousia) over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness (Matt 10:1)
- But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right (exousia) to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12)
- While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control (exousia)? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God (Acts 5:4)
- Do we not have a right (exousia) to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? (1 Cor 9:5)
- For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority (exousia), which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame (2 Cor 10:8)
In each of these examples the authority (or right) always belongs to the subject of the sentence. The 12 disciples were given “authority”, those who received Christ were given the “right” to become children of God, Ananias & Sapphira had a “right” over their property, the apostles had a “right” to marry and also an “authority” that the Lord gave them. The subject always possesses the right or authority rather than it being in reference to someone else having it. This poses a problem for the traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 11:10 since there’s only one subject and it’s the woman. Gordon Fee says “…there is no known evidence….that the idiom “to have authority over: ever refers to an external authority different from the subject of the sentence.” 1) Gordon Fee – The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987) Pg 519 He then says, “It is not so once in its 103 occurrences in the NT, nor in the LXX, Philo or Josephus.” 2) Gordon Fee – The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987) Pg 519 Footnote #23 W.M Ramsey says “[That her authority] is the authority to which she is subject [is] a preposterous idea which a Greek scholar would laugh at anywhere except in the New Testament, where (as they seem to think) Greek words may mean anything that commentators choose.” 3) W.M. Ramsay (The Cities of St. Paul, 1908) pg. 203
Ben Witherington III (Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary) explaining this view says:
“The wearing of a head-coving by the woman has a dual function: (1) it preserves the proper order in worship (only God’s glory is revealed there); and (2) it authorizes women to pray and prophesy without denying the creation order distinctions. Paul considers it important to recognize and symbolize the creation order distinctions in Christian worship. New creation for Paul does not obliterate the original creation order distinctions. What the new creation does accomplish, however, is to grant women new freedom, roles, and responsibilities in the community of faith. Paul endorses the new freedom of women but still maintains the old creation order distinctions in a transferred and transformed sense.” 4) Ben Witherington – Women in the Earliest Churches (Cambridge University Press, 1988) Pg. 89
F.F. Bruce (Former Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis, University of Manchester) adds:
In the synagogue service a woman could play no significant part: her presence would not even suffice to make up the requisite quorum of ten (all ten must be males). In Christ she received equality of status with man: she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church, and her veil was a sign of this new authority. Its ordinary social status was thus transcended. As man in public worship manifests his authority by leaving his head unveiled, so woman manifests hers by wearing a veil. Her status in Christ does not mean that the creation ordinances are already things of the past: she should keep her head covered. 5) F.F. Bruce – The New Century Bible Commentary – I and II Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1971) Pg. 106
So if this interpretation is accepted, a harmonization with the complementarian 6) Complementarianism is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are created to complement each other via different roles and responsibilities. From www.theopedia.com/Complementarianism view of gender roles could be:
Since man is the head (authority) of woman and because she is his glory and was made for him, she is to wear a symbol to show that she has the right to pray & prophesy in the assembly. This shows the gathered church and angels that she affirms God’s creation order (and submits to it) even while she’s doing something that is usually characteristic of those who lead (publicly praying/prophesying).
Exousia as the man’s authority
The argument for seeing exousia as the man’s authority comes from the context. 1 Cor 11:10 begins with the word “therefore”. Therefore means the reason for the “symbol of authority” will be found in the previous verses. Here’s what it says:
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Cor 11:7-10)
Paul says that woman is the glory of man, that she originates from man and was created for his sake. He then says therefore (meaning, for this reason) she is to wear a symbol of authority on her head. The context tells us that it’s the man’s authority that woman is under so although it’s an uncommon use of “authority” we must go with it because that’s what the context dictates.
Mary Kassian (Professor of Women’s Studies, SBTS) explaining this view says:
“…men and women are to respect and adhere to the created hierarchical order. The head covering is a symbol of this order. Thus, the woman who wore a head covering visually showed that she recognized herself to be under authority. For the man to wear a symbol of authority on his head in worship would imply that he had abdicated the sovereignty and dignity given him by the Creator. For the woman to neglect to do so would be to deny her relationship to man and God as ordained in creation.” 7) Mary A. Kassian – Women, Creation and the Fall (Crossway Books, 1990) Pg. 97
Dr. Thomas Schreiner (Professor of New Testament Interpretation, SBTS) adds:
Even though many scholars argue that the expression cannot have a passive meaning, such a meaning is clearly the most natural in context. It explains well the qualification that immediately follows in vv. 11–12, for such a qualification which emphasizes the equality between men and women would be strange if Paul were already asserting such in v. 10 8) Thomas R. Schreiner – Head Coverings, Prophecies and the Trinity 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – Accessible at https://bible.org/seriespage/head-coverings-prophecies-and-trinity-1-corinthians-112-16
With respect to the modern view, it’s not true that “authority” always means that the subject possesses it. It is true that it’s the dominant way the word is used (99% of the time) but there is an important exception in the Gospels which we’ll look at now.
In this example a centurion (from Capernaum) is speaking to Jesus. Let’s listen to what he says:
“For I also am a man under authority (exousia), with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” (Matthew 8:9)
Jesus had just told the centurion that he would go to his home to heal his son who “is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.” (Matt 8:6) The centurion asked Jesus to just declare that his son be healed instead of coming to his home, since he was not worthy to have Jesus under his roof. Aside from his faith, the centurion also showed that his understanding and experience with authority was the reason why he just wanted the word to go forth. This verse is important to the interpretation of 1 Cor 11:10 since in this example “authority” is NOT referring to the subject of the sentence (which is the centurion) but is referring to an external authority which he submits to. So Gordon Fee’s claim that “…there is no known evidence….that the idiom “to have authority over: ever refers to an external authority different from the subject of the sentence” 9) Gordon Fee – The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987) Pg 519 is simply not true. This is an example which legitimises us interpreting the head covering as a symbol of subjection.
What is our view?
While we are more persuaded by the traditional view 10) Exousia as the man’s authority , this is a conviction we hold loosely. We see the merits of both positions and realize it’s an area we could be wrong on. Much like how we see angels in this same verse (1 Cor 11:10), we don’t feel confident to declare either view as the clear-cut, only way to see it. Neither interpretation contradicts the fact that we practice head covering because of the hierarchical created order (1 Cor 11:3,7-9) and that it’s a apostolic tradition (1 Cor 11:2) to be practiced in all churches (1 Cor 11:16). That we are much more confident in.
- The Greek word behind “authority” is “exousia” and in 101 of the 102 instances instances in the NT (other than 1 Cor 11:10), it always refers to the subjects own authority or right.
- Matthew 8:9 is the lone exception to the above rule where the “authority” belongs to someone else who is not mentioned in the sentence.
- The argument for “exousia” referring to woman being under a man’s authority comes from the context. Because 1 Cor 11:10 starts off with the word “therefore” we look back to 1 Cor 11:7-9 to get Paul to define whose authority he’s speaking of.
- Neither interpretation contradicts a complementarian understanding of gender roles (though the modern view 11) Exousia as the woman’s authority is most often held by those who do).