(1 Cor. 11:10) What does it mean that a woman has “authority” (exousia) on her head?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head” (1 Cor. 11:10). Does this mean that women should be under a man’s authority? Or something else?

RESPONSE: The NIV, NLT, and ESV take this term “authority” (exousia) in a passive sense. That is, women should be under authority.

However, the passive sense is indefensible. Instead, the active sense should be taken from these words:

PASSIVE: “A woman should be under authority.”

ACTIVE: “A woman has authority.”

Greek scholars favor the active sense. Garland writes, “‘To have authority’ means that one has the right to do something, not that one submits to authority (LSJ 599; BDAG 353). In every other occurrence in the NT, the phrase ἔχειν ἐξουσίαν ἐπί means ‘to have authority over’ (cf. Mark 2:10/ Luke 5:24; Rev. 11:6; 14: 18; 16:9; 20:6; see also Luke 19:17).”[1] Fee writes, “The difficulty with this view is that there is no known evidence either that exousia is ever taken in this passive sense or that the idiom ‘to have authority over’ ever refers to an external authority different from the subject of the sentence.”[2] Johnson concurs, “Authority over (exousia epi) occurs a number of times in the New Testament, never with the passive sense, always active; it is best translated ‘authority over [or control over] her head’ (see Lk 9:1; Rev 2:26; 6:8; 13:7; 14:18; 16:9).”[3] William Ramsay said that the passive view of authority in 1 Corinthians 11:10 is “a preposterous idea which a Greek scholar would laugh at anywhere except in the N.T.”[4]

Since the word exousia is used for “freedom” elsewhere in this letter (1 Cor. 6:12; 8:9), Paul is telling the Corinthian women to exercise their freedom by being covered—not to abuse their freedom, while praying and prophesying (v.4). This would fit with verse 13, where Paul writes, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” Paul is challenging these women to consider the use or abuse of their freedom, as he does in chapters 8-10.

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

[2] Fee, G. D. (1987). The First Epistle to the Corinthians (p. 519). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[3] Johnson, A. F. (2004). 1 Corinthians (Vol. 7, p. 195). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Cited in Morris, L. (1985). 1 Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, pp. 151–152). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.