Were the prayers in I Corinthians 11 referring to praying in an unknown tongue?


Good day,

Regarding I Corinthians 11:3-16, where women commanded to cover their heads while praying and prophesying. Some argue that the prayer mentioned in that verse was a miraculous activity connected with prophecy. God talked to man through the Spirit. In I Corinthians 14:14, Paul mentioned praying with an unknown tongue. "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, ..." This was the prayer referred to in I Corinthians 11 where women were commanded to cover their heads. So they conclude that since miraculous gifts have ceased, women should not cover their heads today.

I am hoping for your response. Thank you.


In I Corinthians 14, Paul is comparing the gift of speaking in other languages (tongues) with the gift of prophecy. While the gift of tongues was showier, the gift of prophecy was more important. "But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" (I Corinthians 14:6). Speaking in other languages was useless if a message from God was not being communicated. "There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me" (I Corinthians 14:10-11).

"Unknown" doesn't actually appear in the text. The King James translators added the word to clarify that Paul was discussing speaking in a language that was not known to those listening. "So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified" (I Corinthians 14:12-17). Prayer in a language that no one knows doesn't benefit the church. I know what I'm intending to say, but my words produce no fruit among those hearing my prayer.

Therefore, it is not the prayer that is miraculous, just as speaking and singing are not miracles. It was the ability to speak God's message directly (prophecy) and the ability to speak in another language that were miracles. The prayers were, in a sense, incidental to the point Paul was making.

There is insufficient evidence in I Corinthians 11 to conclude that the prayers Paul was speaking about were limited to only those spoken in another language by miraculous means. Paul lays down two rules for demonstrating submission:

  1. A man must pray or prophesy with his head uncovered to give honor to Christ.
  2. A woman must pray or prophesy with her head covered to give honor to men.

The argument against applying these rules today is that since prophecy is mentioned, then it only applies to the era when miraculous gifts were present among Christians. Following that line of thinking, then these rules would have only been for those who had the gifts of the Holy Spirit because not all Christians had the gifts (Acts 8:14-16; I Corinthians 12:28-30). But the arguments made by Paul are for all men and all women. Nothing indicates that Paul is only addressing a subset of all Christians.

Paul also listed two independent actions -- prayer and prophecy. Prayer is a Christian communicating with God. Prophecy is God communicating with men. The rules given by Paul apply to Christians when they pray, and prayer does not require a miraculous gift to be accomplished (I Timothy 2:1-3, 8; Acts 16:13). The rules also apply to Christians when they prophesy, and prophecy does require a miraculous gift.

Therefore, there is no reason to conclude that prayer in I Corinthians 11 must involve a miraculous gift just because it is listed with prophecy. And consider this: If there was such a thing as "inspired prayer," why would God give a person words to talk to Himself?

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