Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

About Answering Error Covenant Life Language & Interpretation

Prayer and prophecy are not just supernatural gifts in 1 Corinthians 11

By on

6 minutes to read Prayer and prophecy in scripture can be supernatural gifts. But they can often be exercises of our natural faculties too. Paul’s use of these terms is broad, and certainly encompasses what women do in worship today.

There are some objections to using head coverings today which are popular in circles adjacent to mine. Enough people have asked me about them privately that I’m going to make some public posts to point to in future.

The first objection says that 1 Corinthians 11 only teaches that women must be veiled when performing supernatural gifts. Since these gifts no longer continue, the need for veiling no longer continues.

This position makes much of Paul’s use of the same prayer/prophecy language in 1 Corinthians 14, where it specifically means praying in tongues, and giving revelation:

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful… But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. For ye all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be exhorted. (1 Co 14:15, 30–31)

The problem with this interpretation is, if you track Paul’s discussion through 1 Corinthians 14, three things become quite obvious:

Firstly, the nature of prophecy seems to also be set in some kind of opposition to a supernatural gift in his mind:

Follow after love; yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth; but in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men edification, and exhortation, and consolation. (1 Co 14:1–3)

I am not suggesting that prophecy is not a spiritual gift here, but rather that the language is ambiguous in contrasting “obvious” spiritual gifts—things naturally impossible to us, like speaking in tongues—with “mundane” spiritual gifts—natural abilities that have no special wow factor, but which the Holy Spirit nonetheless works through. Prophecy, Paul says, involves edification, exhortation and consolation. None of these requires supernatural ability. They may be supernaturally prompted or inspired, yet this too may be subtle; think, for instance, of Jesus’ promise to his disciples that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you” (Jn 14:26).

Clearly the working of the Holy Spirit is often inconspicuous and even indiscernible. This tracks with Paul’s continual emphasis in 1 Co 14, which is not on figuring out whether you’re doing something “supernatural,” but on whether you’re doing something edifying (think edifice; from the Latin aedificāre, to build). The Holy Spirit works in our gifts to build his church, without need for impressive displays of power—which should give us considerable pause in asserting that the gift of prophecy no longer continues in any sense.

Secondly, there is some kind of connection in Paul’s mind between music and prophecy. In arguing for the superiority of prophecy over tongues, he says:

But now, brothers, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching? Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? (1 Co 14:6–9)

And then in verse 15:

What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Co 14:15)

Given that the prayer in v. 15 refers to tongues, the contrast demands that singing refers to prophecy, since the whole point of chapter 14 is the contrast between tongues and prophecy.

This tracks with his fourfold distinction in verse 6 between revelation (something revealed directly by God), knowledge (information conveyed for the sake of others), teaching (the application of wisdom to some situation), and prophecy. What is prophecy if it is distinct from all three of these other things? We tend to assume that prophecy just means revelation, but clearly to Paul that is not always the case, or otherwise, revelation in this context has a much looser connection to plenary verbal inspiration than we like to imagine. I think very possibly he is intending to put all of these ideas in parallel, but even then, they are not all identical, so this would essentially define prophecy as broadly involving conveying God’s wisdom. This tracks with what he has already said, which is that prophecy involves edification, consolation, and exhortation. But it also tracks with the usage of the Old Testament, where we see people prophesying who are not “first-order” prophets (i.e., commissioned members of the divine council; cf. Je 23:22):

…thou shalt meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they will be prophesying… (1 Sa 10:5)

In the same, way, Ex 15:20–21:

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to Jehovah, for he hath triumphed gloriously; The horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.

The fact that prophecy here clearly refers to singing and music-making (and apparently dancing) is certainly notable, given Paul’s comments about music and singing in 1 Co 14.

Now, it is fair to ask: does the Holy Spirit still work in his church to exhort, edify, and console, through the gift of women singing?

To ask the question is to answer it. Obviously he does. But in that case, the women ought to have their heads covered, for Paul says plainly that “every woman…prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven” (1 Co 11:5).

Thirdly, in the same way, the connection between prayer and tongues is indisputable, but that does not mean that when Paul refers to prayer in 1 Co 11 he just means speaking in tongues. If he had intended to restrict his meaning to speaking in tongues there, why did he instead consistently refer to prayer and prophecy instead—obviously broader concepts which, unlike speaking in tongues and prophetically teaching, are not off-limits to women in the first place (1 Cor 14:34)? No, the logical explanation is that there is a kind of prayer and a kind of prophecy that women are allowed to perform in worship—as we well know and everyone allows—and this is the very reason he devotes an extended section to their proper order in doing so.

Just on the face of it, that such a long section of teaching is preserved for the church, if it has no true relevance to us throughout time, is extremely implausible. If all Paul is teaching us in 1 Co 11 is that women should cover their heads when performing supernatural gifts in the church, and supernatural gifts have ceased, then what abiding principles can we infer that weren’t already easily discerned in other parts of the New Testament?

On the other hand, if prayer and prophecy is a catch-all term that encompasses everything from the simplest corporate prayer and singing, to speaking in tongues and ecstatic utterances, then women ought to continue to cover their heads in worship, and “prayer and prophecy” may well be thought of as a synecdoche for worship itself.



Some people have tried to reconcile this passage with the prohibitions of women speaking in 1 Corinthians 14 by suggesting that 1 Corinthians 11 is another passage on the women’s silence in the church. The argument goes that if a woman were to prophesy then she it would require her to take her head covering off which results in her doing two forbidden things, speaking and being uncovered. I’m wondering what your thoughts on this interpretation are. It seems to me that a natural reading of the text does not suggest this view and leaves us with a very vague idea of when women are supposed to be covered (in church, in public, or at all times?).

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Parker, I know this view has a lot of historical support, but I find it difficult at best. Women obviously are to be silent in church as per 1 Co 14, but 1 Co 11 seems to surely be speaking to the exceptions on that rule. I don’t think anyone in the modern day, who holds the historical reading here (a la Calvin et al), believes women are to be so silent that they may not sing, join in congregational prayer, or speak with the congregation (e.g., “lift up your hearts” » “we lift them up to the Lord”). So that seems quite inconsistent, whereas my take solves this entirely.


Also some people try to argue that Paul is saying taking off the headcovering in general is like having her head shaved. I know a lot of the church fathers took this view and that one even made a commentary that stated it. The argument goes that if being shaved is always a disgrace, them a woman should always have a headcovering on. Is this a plausible explanation? It seems to me that Paul is just saying that it is like being shaved when she is praying and prophesying without one.

And one more questions. It it possible the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 is not talking about the assembly but in everyday life when we pray?

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

It seems to me that Paul is just saying that it is like being shaved when she is praying and prophesying without one.

Indeed; he is explicit on that point. He does not generalize to all of life. Although it is appropriate to ask how that pattern might apply to the rest of life, I don’t see that you can create a strict requirement for women to cover at all times. Perhaps I am wrong, but I’d want to see that argument.

Is it possible the first part of 1 Corinthians 11 is not talking about the assembly but in everyday life when we pray?

Yes. I think it is wise to err on the side of caution.


“Paul would only have men cover their head while praying and prophesying, but he commands the women to always wear them. For if it is always a disgrace to be shaven then she should always have a head covering on”. This is a paraphrase on John Crysostom’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 11. His argument is that by Paul’s statement “for it is one and the same as if she were shaven” indicates that it is like she is shaven if she takes off her head covering in general. I think it is a big stretch to interpret the passage that way though.


Honestly, I appreciate your efforts.
But at this point in time, is women veil covering really the foremost dilemma?


I was exploring the idea of prophecy as a catch all in 1 Cor. 11, and came across your post. Still digesting your thoughts. What you are explaining seems also to be consistent with general head-covering.. seeing the general public context of chapters 8 through 10.. and then in this letter Paul gives really clear cues it seems, for being specific about the gathered church..