Claiming certainty about the meaning of such ambiguous and difficult texts would be frankly irresponsible. This fact alone should mitigate against basing weighty ecclesiastical policies for all churches in all places at all times on one or two verses from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence.
These statements come from the conclusion of Mark Mattison’s incisive book, “Because of the Angels”; the “ambiguous and difficult texts” he refers to are 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34,35. It’s hard to believe that anyone would still use these unclear verses to bar women from leadership in the church. But the two largest Christian denominations in the US, Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, as well as other denominations, still use these passages in their stance against the ordination of women, and some denominations that ordain women continue to exclude women from the pastorate. So there is still a great need for Mark’s book that makes a powerful case that these passages teach the equality of women in the church.
As I read “Because of the Angels,” I recalled Dorothy Patterson’s using these Corinthian passages against me in a debate at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Historical Society in 1988. Dorothy argues that they prescribe “male headship and female submission” for all time in all places, and I, like Mark in this book, point out that the grammatical construction of 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 strongly suggests that Paul was quoting from a letter he received from the authoritarian men at Corinth. Then Paul, who was constantly trying to free the churches from legalism, rebuked the men, saying, “Did the word of God originate with you, or are you [men] the only ones it has reached?” (vs. 36) Biblical scholarship, written by men and women, supporting this egalitarian interpretation has been out for decades, but Dorothy Patterson continues to use these Corinthian passages to teach subordination of women in her women’s studies classes at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and many denominations continue to use them to exclude women from church leadership.
The unique gift of Mark Mattison’s book is that it summarizes in just twenty-eight pages a large amount of Corinthian scholarship in a clear, undogmatic style accessible to laypeople and clergy. Beginning with a reconstruction of the Corinthian correspondence, Mark moves on to interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, and then focuses on that puzzling phrase “because of the angels.”
Mark provides helpful background on the nature of the Corinthian correspondence. He demonstrates that 1 and 2 Corinthians are only two of at least four letters to the Corinthians, citing Paul’s references within these two letters in the Bible to letters not included in the Bible. Also, Mark shows that the Corinthians wrote at least one letter to Paul that’s not in the Bible; Paul refers to this letter in 1 Corinthians 7:1. Thus Mark concludes, “it’s clear that in 1 and 2 Corinthians we have only fragments of the many communications between the apostle and the Corinthians.” This is important for us to know because “it’s much like trying to piece together a conversation by listening to only one side of that conversation, and only bits and pieces of the conversation at that.”
In this succinct book, Mark then examines two of the most controversial biblical passages about the role of women in the church: 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 and 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Mark elucidates various interpretations of these passages.
One interpretation holds that verses 34 and 35 of 1 Corinthians 14 were not originally part of 1 Corinthians, but that after Paul’s death some scribe inserted these verses “to reflect the misogynistic attitudes of the later church.” Mark points out that this interpretation is strengthened by the fact that these verses do not appear in their current position in all Greek manuscripts of 1 Corinthians. Another valid interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34,35 is that Paul wrote these verses to address a specific, localized situation and “did not intend his instructions to be carved in stone for all churches at all times in all places.” Another convincing interpretation is that these verses are quotations from the authoritarian men at Corinth who wanted to restrict the roles of women in the church, but then Paul rebukes them: “Did the word of God originate with you, or are you [men] the only ones it has reached?” (vs. 36) Mark shows the strength of this interpretation by contrasting these verses forbidding women’s speaking in the church to preceding and following verses that encourage all members of the church, including women, to prophesy in church services. Making this interpretation even more compelling is Mark’s chapter citing twelve different quotations from the Corinthians in just the first ten chapters of 1 Corinthians.
Mark shows the validity of these same three approaches when interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: (1) not written by Paul but inserted by a later scribe who tried to make it look like Paul wrote something he never really intended; (2) written by Paul for a specific cultural context; (3) Paul quoting from the Corinthians and then refuting their arguments. Mark reveals this third approach to be most convincing because verses 11 and 12 refute verses 8 and 9: “Verses 8 and 9 argue that women are inferior to men since the ‘woman’ came from the ‘man,’ but verses 11 and 12 counter that ‘man’ comes from ‘woman’ too, so women and men are actually interdependent.”
Most illuminating for me is Mark’s chapter on the key transitional role of 1 Corinthians 11:10: “For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Before I read Mark’s book, I hadn’t noticed that the footnotes in my Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version of the Bible state that the Greek language of this verse lacks the words “a symbol of.” Why is this important? Because as another footnote in the New Revised Standard Version states, this verse can mean that a woman should “have freedom of choice regarding her head” and, as Mark also reveals through careful examination of the Greek words, the verse can mean that “women have the authority (or liberty) to determine what to do with their own heads.” An accurate translation of this verse then proves wrong those interpreters who argue that women should cover their heads as a symbol of the authority of men over them. Instead, this verse actually liberates women in the church. Mark also shows the invalidity of traditional interpretations of the phrase “because of the angels.” One interpreter even states that Paul instructed women to cover their heads to keep the angels from lusting after them. Mark counters: “This is just another form of the pernicious but persistent suggestion that women are somehow responsible for the sexual harassment and abuse they receive at the hands of men who can’t seem to control themselves.” By connecting the references to angels in 1 Corinthians 6:3 and in 1 Corinthians 11:10, Mark shows that the verse can mean that “if women are destined to judge angels in the age to come, aren’t they able to judge for themselves what to do with their own heads?” This strange phrase, “because of the angels,” that has stumped so many interpreters, makes sense through Mark’s egalitarian interpretation.
Mark Mattison’s “Because of the Angels” is a much-needed guide for laypeople and clergy. As co-chair of the national ecumenical, multicultural Equity for Women in the Church Community, I am delighted to have this valuable resource to use in working toward one of our goals: to overcome perceived biblical barriers so that women have increased opportunities to serve in clergy positions.
Mark’s book leaves no excuse for using these passages to exclude women from any leadership position in the church, including the pastorate. Rather Mark convincingly demonstrates that two of the main biblical passages that have been used against women’s equality actually support the equality of women as church leaders. This is a must-read book for all who value the Bible and who believe that it contains good news for everyone.
“Because of the Angels” is available in paperback and on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Because-Angels-Coverings-Women-Corinthians/dp/1478369604/ref=tmm_pap_title_0; www.amazon.com/Because-Angels-Coverings-Corinthians-ebook/dp/B008U0MUA0/; https://www.createspace.com/3950164
Mark Mattison is a writer, independent scholar, and aspiring mystic. His passions in biblical theology include the third quest for the historical Jesus, the new perspective on Paul, and feminist, liberationist, and postcolonial readings of Scripture. He is co-General Editor of the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament and a mainline Protestant who resides in West Michigan with his wife, son, and cat.
To read more about Mark and his prophetic work, see my earlier blogpost: https://jannaldredgeclanton.com/blog/?p=188