(1 Cor. 11:10) Because of the angels?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10). What does this difficult passage mean?

RESPONSE: This might be one of the most difficult passages in the entire Bible. Commentators call it an “enigma”[1] and “very difficult.”[2] We would certainly agree. While the meaning of the passage seems straightforward, the reader can’t help but ask why angels would care about women covering their heads while they are in fellowship.

Option #1. The angels might lust after these uncovered women. Tertullian (AD 200) held that Paul was telling these women to cover up, because the watching angels could be tempted to lust after them, and consequently fall like the angels in Genesis 6:2 (De Virginibus Velandis, 7.2). This view is almost universally rejected by NT commentators today.

Option #2. The angels watch events on Earth, and they are concerned about the quality of Christian fellowship. Since angels are sent to serve humans (Heb. 1:14), they no doubt care about what is happening in Christian community. Jesus tells us that there are angels sent to serve individual churches (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14), as he himself was “seen by angels” while on Earth (1 Tim. 3:16). Paul wrote earlier, “we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men” (1 Cor. 4:9), and “we will judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:3). When he charged Timothy to enact church discipline, he said that this was in the presence of God and “angels” (1 Tim. 5:21). Of course, the worship of angels is forbidden (Col. 2:18), but angels are involved, in some sense, in Christian ministry here on Earth (Lk. 15:10; 1 Pet. 1:12). Most commentators hold this view (such as Garland,[3] Blomberg,[4] Fee,[5] Morris,[6] and Mare[7]).

Option #3. The angels actually refer to human messengers. Remember, the term angelos can refer to angelic or human messengers (e.g. Lk. 7:52; 9:52; Mt. 11:10; Jas. 2:25). Under this view, Paul is telling the Christian women to show restraint in their freedom, so that non-Christian guests do not raise accusations when visiting their meetings (cf. 1 Cor. 14:23). Catherine Kroeger writes, “The angeloi, perhaps messengers or talebearers who would report the proceedings of Christian worship to outsiders, might well misconstrue the situation. Just as Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:23 asks what outsiders might think, so here too he calls for propriety.”[8] Likewise, Winter believes the angeloi could refer to “government informers.”[9]

We hold to this final view. It makes so much sense of this difficult passage that it is hard to understand why more commentators do not adopt this interpretation.

[1] Marion L. Soards, 1 Corinthians, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 225.

[2] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 151.

[3] David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 524.

[4] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 180.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 521-522.

[6] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 7, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 152.

[7] W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 256.

[8] Catherine Clark Kroeger, The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 660.

[9] Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 136-137.