Thoughts: "The Head of the Woman is the Man" and 1st Corinthians 11

Monday, September 26, 2011

Since church yesterday, something has been on my mind. I'm struggling to describe exactly how it's been on my mind, because it hasn't been infuriating me or inspiring me or depressing me or anything so straightforward as that. The closest description I can think of is this: it has been bothering me. My family cat, Simba (who died a few months ago), used to have this habit of kneading a surface with her front two paws before settling in to take a nap on it. She would sometimes knead the surface for several minutes. That action reminds me a little of what this thing has been doing, kneading my brain/heart over and over because it can't find a suitable place to settle in.

Here's what the thing is: our Sunday School lesson covered, among other scriptures, the eleventh chapter of 1st Corinthians. The verse we focused on was verse three, "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." The instructor drew a diagram on the whiteboard in order to illustrate things more clearly, where the word "God" was at the top, followed by a down arrow to the word "Christ," followed by a down arrow to the word "Man," followed by a down arrow to the word "Woman." I'm not sure how to show that in a vertical format (the way she drew it), but here's what it would have looked like in horizontal form:

God --------> Christ ------------> Man -----------> Woman

Once she drew the diagram and started moving on with what this meant for us today, etc., my husband leaned over to me and said something along the lines of, "It will be interesting to see how she handles this. I hope the comments don't get too awkward and weird." I appreciate that he said this, because he was acknowledging that the verse we were covering, the discussion we were starting, and the diagram on the whiteboard were problematic. But, to me, the verse itself and the very sensible diagram it inspired ... they were already awkward. Things were already weird. In fact, things were already painful and, in my opinion, very harmful. I was already being reminded of what led to the time in my life when I very seriously thought that being female put me at a disadvantage for earning God's love, gave me a late start in the race for exaltation, and meant that I was less important than my husband, my brothers, and all the other men in my life.

How do we interpret 1st Corinthians 11:3? How do we interpret a verse that says Man is higher up on the chain of whatever than Woman is? How do we interpret Woman being one extra step removed from God and from Christ -- because she is female? How does this make any sort of spiritual sense?

Here are some other passages to note from 1st Corinthians 11.

vv. 8-9: "For the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man." (I'm thinking this refers to the creation story of Adam and Eve, from which Paul is extrapolating the proscribed relationship between men and women. That's my first thought.)

vv. 11-12: "Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God." (This seems to oppose the earlier statements about men being prioritized over women. Is that what's going on? Is Paul saying that, ultimately, we all need each other and we can realize equality through Christ? I'd like to interpret it that way, but it just doesn't fit with the other verses, so I'm at a loss.)

Chapter 11 has a lot of talk about "heads" -- God being the head of Christ, Christ being the head of Man, Man being the head of Woman, who should and should not cover their heads while praying, etc. I'm really confused about what "head" means in these passages. I'm confused about a lot of it. None of the interpretations I've turned over in my mind have really fit. In a breath: I don't know what to make of this.

I can't reject this teaching without understanding it more fully (getting a handle on the context in which it was written would be a good starting point), so I won't throw it out just yet, but I also won't embrace it or act like I'm sure there's some good explanation for it. I'm not going to play that game. My strongest inclination is to overlook verse three in favor of the gender equality that I know is divine, righteous, and needful.

(Speaking of overlooking a particular scripture or teaching, I'll point out that just a few chapters over, in 1st Corinthians 14:34-35, we read this: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law." I'm saddened to read this, but I am thrilled that we don't give this counsel the time of day in today's Mormon church meetings. We overlook it. We ignore it completely. If anyone brings up the idea, we respond that this verse was a reflection of the time in which it was written, not meant for modern churches. Point being, if a smaller doctrinal point does not square with the reality of the gospel or the reality of what we believe to be true, it's okay to say, "Ehh, forget that." Pluck out the thing that offends, right?)

This post is obviously in ramble format. I'm not writing an essay or manifesto here. But this thing, as I said in the first place, has been on my mind, and I felt like getting it out in words might help. I think it has. To add a touch of elegance to the post, though, I'll quote Galatians 3:28 and follow it up with a quote from Eugene England.

Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." (Note that this teaching, too, was preached by Paul.)

"... it seems to me we must not accept any interpretation of scripture, or any statement by a church leader or teaching in a church meeting or church school class, that denies or diminishes the clear, central doctrine that all are alike unto God, black and white, male and female ... Racism and sexism are clear and destructive evils, inconsistent with our preparation for Christ's coming and, most seriously, effective denials of the impartial love of our Heavenly Parents and of the power of the Atonement of their son. People who feel that they -- or anyone else -- because of their skin color or sex do not have the same standing or privileges before God cannot exercise faith in him unto salvation. It is time to stop such beliefs. I suggest that we each find a way, first to expunge them from ourselves, but also to refuse to allow them to continue to be taught unchallenged."
- Eugene England, Sunstone, April 1990, pgs. 24-5

1 comment:

  1. Hey Sara,
    I can't believe NO ONE has commented on this post because I have been thinking about it A LOT. I know you have read The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, so I wonder if you remember that this exact diagram was drawn by a Sunday School teacher in Sue's Baptist church. That part of the book disturbed me immensely and I thought, as I read it, that I was grateful my church no longer taught that. So I'm kinda upset to read about this story of this happening in your ward. It makes me sad. But I love the quotes you shared about equality. It helps to remind me that there will always be "purists" or "fundamentalists" who will support these old bible passages to the letter, but there is always evolution and advancement of the human mind and moral condition. One thing I think you'd find interesting: A passage from my favorite book, Half the Sky, discusses why Muslim women are treated so differently than Christian, Jewish, etc. women. Ultimately, the author concludes that the Islamic faith has an extremely difficult time 'discarding' scripture the way Christians and Jews do. In a way, Christian faith has, exactly as you said, "ignored" some scriptures entirely because common opinion is that they no longer fit to modern morals. Islamic fundamentalists refuse to go against their scripture and choose women, other races, infidels, etc. how the Koran instructs. So, anyways... random fact. I'm a jumble of thoughts and would like to discuss a lot more on this, but maybe I need to mull over it some more.


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