The passage is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, which I quote below:
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 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 or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory! For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God.
The traditional view of this passage is that women ought to show submission to men in church gatherings. Many commentators who hold to the traditional view have speculated that the backstory behind this passage is that there were “wild women” running around the Corinthian church, disturbing the community through their loose morals and lack of self-control, and that Paul is here attempting to bring them into line.
But think about this: If the traditional view of this passage is right, then doesn’t that fly in the face of what Paul says in other passages and other letters? Doesn’t that fly in the face of his overall message that in Christ a new creation has come and all the social/cultural distinctions of this world are irrelevant, including the distinction between man and woman? Not to say that men and women are interchangeable, but that the differences between men and women are not such as to warrant women being accorded second-class status in our churches and communities.
The issues in the Corinthian church, which Paul speaks to in his letters, can be traced back to the overarching theme of dominance: Those who have social cache were lording it over those who didn’t have quite so much of it. Influential teachers had arisen and fractured the unity of the community as different believers flocked toward the influence of their teacher of choice. Cultural values of the wealthy were being imported into the Corinthian church; this led to unequal treatment of those with lesser wealth and status at the Lord’s table and the possibility of lawsuits. There was an abundance of hubris with respect to spiritual gifts. There were disagreements on sexual conduct inside and outside of marriage, and on eschatology, especially the resurrection and reigning in glory.
In light of this, judge for yourselves which is a more likely backstory for the passage in question: The “wild women” theory mentioned above, or this: Some articulate, eloquent males had risen to prominence in the Corinthian church, and sought to implement some oppressive and misogynistic practices that were contrary to the gospel freedom which Paul espoused. Specifically, they wanted women to have their heads covered during worship gatherings. Why? Because they wanted to display their glory, honor, and supremacy on their heads, and in that culture short hair, bald heads, etc. were perceived as indicators of these things. And they wanted the women of the Corinthian church to reflect their glory, honor, and supremacy back to them by what they wore on their heads, namely by keeping their heads covered as a sign of submission to them. In other words, these males were importing the Roman culture of honor and shame into the Corinthian church, and they wanted it to shape what worship looked like.
Back to the passage in question: Much of the trouble results from thinking that the entire passage is expressing the same theology, and that it is all Paul’s theology. A more likely view is that the first half of the passage (2-10) and the second half (11-16) represent different theological viewpoints. Probably the first half represents the views of the male-dominant crowd at Corinth, as reported to him by some from Chloe’s household. The second half, then, would be Paul’s response. We see this in verse 8-9 (“For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”), and in verse 11-12, which is Paul’s response to that argument: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
In other words, some prominent males were requiring that women have their heads covered in worship gatherings. They operated from views of authority and honor/shame that were prevalent in the Roman world, and they wanted to import that into the Corinthian church. Paul’s response was basically this: “Woman comes from man, as you say, but man is born of woman, so this is really a chicken-and-egg scenario. And both man and woman come from God. So if you want to talk to me about head coverings for women, well, they already have long hair and that does the job just fine, thank you very much.”
The Corinthian culture which Paul was speaking into is a distant mirror of today’s evangelicalism. The idea that women ought to show submission to men in the church is very much alive and well. We see it whenever the issue of women in ministry comes up, and we especially see it in the current discussions on marriage and gay marriage. The Neo-Calvinist movement, which has gained a great deal of traction in present-day evangelicalism, subscribes to an ideology which says that women do not count for anything before God or in the church unless they are under the covering of and in submission to male authority. (As an aside, it bemuses and fascinates me to no end to see Beth Moore, who is way more influential than any other Baptist leader except possibly Al Mohler, and all the intellectual and theological gymnastics that Baptists go through to assure themselves and the rest of the world that their complementarian principles are not violated here.)
Men and women are not interchangeable, as the more liberal elements of our society would like us to believe. Male and female represent two completely and totally different ways of being human and experiences of being human, and it takes a great deal of empathetic imagination for one to understand the other. But the differences between men and women are not sufficient to warrant treating women as second-class. That is a denial of the Gospel message which says that Christ has come into the world and all of the world’s ways of looking at things are finished. It takes a great deal of creative imagination to make a case that, in this one passage, Paul was advocating for something which flies in the face of what his Gospel message is all about.