On Servitude, Hierarchy, and the Trinity vs Modernity

My wife was studying in 1st Corinthians and was puzzled by the following. What follows is not so much as exegesis, but ponderings on how this connects with what I’ve been reading of late. Here is the passage (vv 1-10):

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife< is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

What can a modern citizen of today’s western world make of this passage. Well, here’s how I see it.Recently, as I’ve been reading a lot in Metropolitan John Zizioulas book, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church. In this book, Zizioulas writes that the Trinity is at the same time heirarchical (Father holds monarchia over the Son and Spirit) but at the same time, within the Trinity there is (perfect) freedom and equality existing at the same time as there is heirarchy. That means for Christians in our daily life we hold therefore find that heirarchy and equality are not in oppostion. This notion is very much in opposition to both the thrust of modern political thought as well as modern rights rhetoric, e.g., sexual politics contra patriarchy. But can we make sense of a notion of heirarchy divorced from equality, that is having heirarchy but not do violence to our notion of equality.

Heirarchy actually comes fairly natural to men and our notions of how the world is put together especially when it is divorced from notions that differences in heirarchy imply differences in our worth (equality). We freely admit (if honest) that at just about any walks of life, be they intellectual, artistic, athletic or spiritual insight that many others of renown as well of our aquaintance are our masters or betters. And those masters, even if they top the world in one field, will (likely unless megalomania touches them) that in the rest of their life, they have masters in the rest of what they touch. It is the notion of our age that authority over us not be lightly given if given at all. This, I might venture, does violence to our nature. We yearn at times to sit at the feet (though made of clay like us) of the master and learn from those wiser and more learned then we. To submit to their teaching and instruction. Equality can in fact be separated from heirarchy. If one’s personhood is intact and one’s worth not derived from his place, status, or talents but instead by virtue of his being (think image of God perhaps?). Then equality is not threatened by acknowledging another freely as having authority over yourself. You can willingly submit to another’s authority, especially if that person holds the same ontological opinion about authority and personhood (and Trinity?). Can this in part, by why M Zizioulas holds that a correct ontology of Trinity combined with communion is required for solving the problem of difference and division in man’s community?

For further reading on the verses above, see John Chrysostom (quoted here from homily 26):

“But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Here the heretics ush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. But they stumble against themselves. For if “the man be the head of the woman,” and the head be of the same substance with the body, and “the head of Christ is God,” the Son is of the same substance with the Father. “Nay,” say they, “it is not His being of another substance which we intend to show from hence, but that He is under subjection.” What then are we to say to this? In the first place, when any thing lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression. However, tell me how thou intendest to prove this from the passage? “Why, as the man governs the wife, saith he, “so also the Father, Christ.” Therefore also as Christ governs the man, so likewise the Father, the Son. “For the head of every man,” we read, “is Christ.” And who could ever admit this? For if the superiority of the Son compared with us, be the measure of the Father’s compared with the Son, consider to what meanness thou wilt bring Him. So that we must not try all things by like measure in respect of ourselves and of God, though the language used concerning them be similar; but we must assign to God a certain appropriate excellency, and so great as belongs to God. For should they not grant this, many absurdities will follow. As thus; “the head of Christ is God:” and, “Christ is the head of the man, and he of the woman.” Therefore if we choose to take the term, “head,” in the like sense in all the clauses, the Son will be as far removed from the Father as we are from Him. Nay, and the woman will be as far removed from us as we are from the Word of God. And what the Son is to the Father, this both we are to the Son and the woman again to the an. And who will endure this?

But dost thou understand the term “head” differently in the case of the man and the woman, from what thou dost in the case of Christ? Therefore in the case of the Father and the Son, must we understand it differently also. “How understand it differently?” saith the objector. According to the occasion. For had Paul meant to speak of rule and subjection, as thou sayest, he would not have brought forward the instance of a wife, but rather of a slave and a master. For what if the wife be under subjection to us? it is as a wife, as free, as equal in honor. And the Son also, though He did become obedient to the Father, it was as the Son of God, it was as God. For as the obedience of the Son to the Father is greater than we find in men towards the authors of their being, so also His liberty is greater. Since it will not of course be said that the circumstances of the Son’s relation to the Father are greater and more intimate than among men, and of the Father’s to the Son, less. For if we admire the Son that He was obedient so as to come even unto death, and the death of the cross, and reckon this the great wonder concerning Him; we ought to admire the Father also, that He begat such a son, not as a slave under command, but as free, yielding obedience and giving counsel. For the counsellor is no slave. But again, when thou hearest of a counsellor, do not understand it as though the Father were in need, but that the Son hath the same honor with Him that begat Him. Do not therefore strain the example of the man and the woman to all particulars.

There are thousands of bloggers out there who write more smoothly, more poetically, and certainly more clearly than I. St. John Chrysostom is a person from whom one might learn rhetoric and of Scripture (even if one must hear his words echo dimly through translation).

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  1. david says:


    This passage in 1Cor has been the source of a lot of discussion over the role of women in the church. But I think that recent studies in the culture of ancient Rome have provided some ideas on how to move beyond the rhetoric of the egalitarian / complimentarian debate. Bruce Winter has provided insight into the ancient culture, with the phrase, “she was what she wore!”

    By deliberately removing her veil while playing a significant role of praying and prophesying in the activities of Christian worship, the Christian wife was knowingly flouting the Roman legal convention that epitomised marriage. It would have been self-evident to the Corinthians that in so doing she was sending a particular signal to those gathered (11 : 13). It is also clear from the comments that, if she wished to appear as an adulterous married woman, she should bear the full consequences of the shame associated with that, i.e., have her hair cropped or shaved off (11 : 6). From the text it appears that she was not only indifferent to looking disreputable by first-century standards but , by deliberately removing the marriage veil, she was being contentious – as were the men in the Christian gathering (11 : 4 , 16). If , according to Roman law, ‘she was what she wore’ or in this case what she removed from her head, then this gesture made a statement in support of the mores of some of her secular sisters, the new wives, who sought to ridicule the much-prized virtue of modesty which epitomised the married woman .

    Bruce W. Winter. Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003). Page 96.

  2. Mark says:

    I’ll not argue the point as I’m not trying to push the complementarian vs egalitarian theme here. For if one takes the view that hierarchy and equality are separate and the model for that is the Trinity then that argument is I think somewhat sidestepped. That is, assignment of domestic authority is very directly addressed in any means.

    Wouldn’t one also have to note how much mid 1st century Corinth was Romanized? Wasn’t Corinth, like Athens, quite the port city. If it had lots of people moving through from other cultures, the veil might not have been such an definite signal as is Mr Winter’s thesis.

  3. […] My wife was pondering 1st Corinthians 11 last night, which stirred up some other things I’d been reading. The results are to be found in a post entitled On Servitude, Hierarchy, and the Trinity vs Modernity. […]

  4. Mark says:

    On further reflection (and sleeping on it), I think that whether or not complementarian vs egalitarian is apt for this issue, the debate in a large part misses the point (or at least the point at which I’m shooting). That is that one should be at the same time egalitarian and complementarian. Hierarchy can be associated with inequality, but that’s just as wrong as rejecting hierarchy entirely. Hierarchy done rightly as modeled after Trinity is the goal, which insists on, assumes, and should be careful to protect equality.

  5. David says:

    I agree with your thesis. My point is that this passage is difficult to interpret, and it has been used as a hammer to insist on an hierachical relationship between wife and husband. But with the work of Mr. Winter and other classical scholars, this passage now can be understood in its cultural environment, and as a result, it’s import for this discussion has shifted.

    The point you brought out from the fathers is important, and needed, in these discussions.

  6. Mark says:

    That’s why Mrs Pseudo-Polymath brought it up to discuss … and I looked up Chrysostom and then thought about it a bit while showing which resulted in this essay. I told her about Mr Winter’s input. Thanks again.