The church in Corinth had a problem with authority.
In 1 Cor 11-14, Paul begins a new section in his letter that will focus on his authority and how they should respond to some issues in their church fellowship. In these four chapters, Paul’s concern is how God’s people conduct themselves in a church worship setting. Paul will discuss three primary issues: gender distinction (11:2-16), the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), and spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40). In Paul’s first section, 1 Cor 11:2-16, we will consider the roles of men and women in the church. In this passage, Paul will say, “Honor your head.” Paul shares three principles in these verses that will guide us in understanding a woman’s role in the church. The first principle is…
- Honor your head for the sake of biblical teaching(11:2-6). In these five verses, Paul is going to discuss the importance of honoring your spiritual head. Paul begins this passage with a very surprising verse. He writes, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (11:2). It is tempting to think that Paul is being sarcastic with the Corinthians (cf. 4:8). After all, how could his praise really be sincere? The church has been disobedient to many of Paul’s “traditions” or “teachings.” In fact, in 11:17, 22 Paul adamantly states that he will not praise them! Therefore, it is likely that Paul begins on an encouraging note to placate his readers so that they will be receptive to critical advice (cf. 1:4-9). Obviously, there is wisdom in this approach. Speaking some positive words to a person that you are in conflict with before addressing your concerns is always wise. It may result in the person(s) hearing what you have to say.
In 11:3-6, Paul introduces the principle of headship and the appropriate response. In 11:3 Paul writes, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Paul introduces the basic premise that everyone has a “head.” The word “head” is difficult to interpret because it can have three possible meanings: (1) prominence, (2) authority, or (3) source. The same ambiguity is true in English when we talk about the head/top of a mountain, the head/leader of a company, or the head/source of a river. In most cases where “head” does not mean a particular body part, the word carries the nuance of prominence. Thus, Paul seems to mean that just as Christ as the Son acknowledges the preeminence of the Father and men acknowledge the preeminence of Christ over them, so women acknowledge the preeminence of men in the male-female relationship (or at least the husband-wife relationship). But prominence in a relationship does not imply superiority or inferiority; certainly it does not carry that meaning in the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it should not mean that between men and women in the church.
While Jesus was on earth, He modeled sacrificial servant leadership (see Mark 10:42-45). He always put His father first and did His will. Even though He was fully God and equal to the Father, He chose of His own accord to grant the Father prominence. Likewise, men are called to submit to Christ and put Him first in every area. This means living sacrificially for the good of others. In a similar vein, the head of a woman is man.
Evidently, Paul refers to any woman who is in a dependent relationship to a man, such as a wife to a husband or a daughter to a father. Paul probably did not mean every woman universally since he said the male is the head of woman, or a woman, but not the woman. He was evidently not talking about every relationship involving men and women, for example the relationship between men and women in the workplace. Paul is saying that as a wife, daughter, or church member, ladies ought to honor their spiritual head: husband (Eph 5:22-33), father (Eph 6:1-3), or elders (1 Tim 2:9-3:7).
Paul now applies the spiritual principle of headship in 11:4-6 in the context of praying and prophesying in public worship. Paul writes, “Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.” Paul says in the first-century Corinthian setting that men should not have their heads covered, and women should have their heads covered. The reason that men should not have their heads covered was in the world of Corinth this was often associated with idolatry. Men who did not cover their heads in this culture honored Christ as preeminent. In Corinth, women were called to cover their heads with a scarf or shawl. This was not a stylish hat or inconspicuous doily, but a shawl that covered her entire head and concealed her hair. This demonstrated their respect for their husbands and to church leadership.
To refuse to wear such a shawl was “disgraceful.” For a woman to have her head uncovered in mixed company could catch the eyes of men; as it were, she was offering innuendoes of attraction, which in a worship setting could easily distract some from true worship. Can that happen today? Most certainly, for just as in the ancient world, so today women can dress provocatively. But worship is not the time to dwell on male-female attractiveness; worship is the time to focus on God and His Word. Thus, women have a responsibility before both God and men to dress modestly and not attract unnecessary attention to themselves.
Practically speaking, this responsibility is to be shared in the family unit. A husband needs to inform his wife if her attire is immodest. A wife needs to seek her husband’s opinion. Any father worth his salt should be able to tell his daughter to go back in and change her clothes. A godly daughter should want to dress in such a way that her father is pleased. (I know I’m being idealistic.) Older women in the church should help younger women dress with modesty and discretion (Titus 2:3-5). Women need to be reminded to dress with respect at all times, but especially when they come to worship the Lord.
Now, men, I can’t let you off the hook either. We are responsible to vigilantly guard our minds during worship and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:5). We all attend church to worship God not to eyeball the opposite sex. Therefore, we all need to do our part and seek to honor one another.
The question that begs to be answered is: Must a Christian woman cover her head in church meetings today? I do not believe this is how Paul would have us understand this passage. What is normative and what is cultural? Well, when women go out in public today in our town without wearing a head covering, is that a sign of rebellion against their husbands? Hardly, except for the strictest Muslims. I suggest that the head covering is merely cultural, while honor and submission is the normative principle. To be obedient to Paul’s words Christian women should not dress in a way that blurs the distinction between male and female. After all, the situation is quite different, at least in the West. For a woman to wear a head covering would seem to be a distinctively humiliating experience. Many women—even biblically submissive wives—resist the notion precisely because they feel awkward and self-conscious. But the head covering in Paul’s day was intended only to display the woman’s subordination, not her humiliation.
Today, ironically, to require a head covering for women in the worship service would be tantamount to asking them to shave their heads! The effect, therefore, would be just the opposite of what Paul intended. Thus, in attempting to fulfill the spirit of the apostle’s instruction, not just his words, and some suitable substitute symbol needs to be found. Furthermore, pastoral experience has revealed that the presence of head coverings results in confusion for visitors and those unfamiliar with the meaning of the symbol. This violates the principle that the church should not do things seemingly strange to unbelievers who may be present in the worship service (14:23).
One important point I want to make from the three verses is that men and women were equally free to pray and prophesy when the church gathered. The meaning of the term “prophecy” is debated. Yet, as we’re going to see in chapter 14, “prophesy” is for the edification of the church (14:4, 5, 23-24) and is very close to what we would call teaching or preaching today. It is reflecting or illuminating the Word of God. It could take the form of a word of instruction, refutation, reproof, admonition, or comfort for others (13:9; 14:1, 3-5, 24, 31, 39). Women in the early church who had the gift of prophecy were free to exercise it. They were also permitted to pray in public meetings. Paul gives ladies great freedom, but he does not permit women to be elders who exercise authoritative teaching gifts during the corporate worship service (1 Tim 2:9-3:7). Moreover, they were to honor their head. Paul is not trying to repress women and to restrain their expression of spiritual gifts, but to impress upon them the need for project modesty and virtue in their dress.[Ladies must honor their head for the sake of biblical teaching. Now Paul provides a second argument…]
- Honor your head for the sake of creation(11:7-12). Paul explains further why he wants women to wear head coverings and why the men should not wear them. In 11:7-9, Paul briefly summarizes God’s creativity at work in His purposes for men and women: “For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.” Spiritual headship has been true since God created the world. And the Genesis creation narratives show that both man and woman equally bear the image and the glory of God (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1-2). But in Genesis 2 when God created Eve, He took her from Adam’s rib. So Paul says woman was created from the man and for the man. In other words, woman completes man. As the help and strength man needs, woman helps him be all that God desires. Husbands, I’m sure you can agree with these words. (I certainly know wives can.) Thus, woman reflects the glory of man when she submits to God’s order.
But what does “glory” mean here? To begin with, as many scholars are recognizing today, ancient culture was an “honor–shame” culture. That is, people normally protected the honor of their family and the family name and would not knowingly bring dishonor and shame to it. That this concept may lie in the background here is clear from the references to “dishonor” or “disgrace” in 11:4-6. By going unveiled, a woman was bringing shame on herself and her reputation, as well as on that of her family. By contrast, Paul seems to imply in 11:7 that a woman should be bringing honor and glory to herself and her family, and especially to her husband and any other men in her life (e.g., her father, her sons). Ladies, is this your goal? God’s Word for you today is: Honor your head.
In 11:10, Paul comes to one of the most mysterious verses in the entire Bible: “Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” This verse is considered one of the most difficult verses in the entire Bible. So I propose my understanding with great humility. First, Paul is summing up his argument with the use of the word “therefore.” Second, the words “a symbol of” are in italics in the NASB. This means that these words are not in the Greek text. The NASB is suggesting that the head covering is what women ought to wear on their heads. However, my understanding of the “authority on her head” is to allow the term “authority” to have its usual meaning of “having the freedom or right to choose.” The meaning in this case would be that the woman has authority over her head (man) to do as she pleases. She can choose to submit or not. If the ladies continue to disregard Paul’s words to cover their heads, they will suffer the consequences. It is also possible that Paul meant that women have freedom to decide how they will pray and prophesy within the constraint that Paul had imposed, namely, with heads covered.
The final phrase, “because of the angels” is a mystery to all interpreters. Yet, it would seem that Paul is referring to good angels who observe worship services. Perhaps Paul is encouraging women to worship with that same submissive humility as those angelic ministers. Since angels are the guardians of God’s created order it would seem disgraceful for them to observe women behaving badly. The bottom line is again: Honor your head.
Now, in 11:11-12 there’s a wonderful strong emphasis on the mutuality of men and women in marriage in the church. Paul is still arguing from the creation order, and from the beginning it was clear that there was mutual interdependence. Paul writes, “However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.” The phrase “in the Lord” in 11:11 clearly envisions Christian marriage and life in the body of Christ. And this mutual dependence of man and woman speaks of full equality in personhood (1 Pet 3:7). We can’t get along without each other. We are mutually dependent on each other. We complement one another. Paul is concerned to promote love between the sexes.
Neither man nor woman because of their different positions or advantages should consider themselves better, or treat the other with contempt or condescension. Paul says in 11:12 that this mutual dependence of the man and the woman is grounded in creation. The first woman, Eve, was originally created from the man. But from that point on every single man is birthed by a mother. He says their inter-dependence is also grounded in the Lord himself. All things are from God, which gives us another reason for humility in the relationships between believing men and women.
Up to now, Paul seems to suggest an inferiority of women to men, partly on the basis of the story of the creation of woman from man in Genesis 2. But in these verses he backtracks to remind us that ever since the creation of Eve the order has been reversed (i.e., men are now born from women). Thus, when all is said and done, there is an ontological equality between men and women. Neither of them is independent of the other; both need each other. So Paul is insistent even here that as we stand before our Creator and our Redeemer, “there is neither…male nor female” (Gal 3:28). This, I believe, is part of Paul’s struggle in this section. He does not want anything he writes to be interpreted to mean that “in the Lord” women are inferior to men. We all come from God, and all of us equally belong to God through his Son, Jesus.
[In addition to honoring your head for the sake of creation, Paul’s third argument is…]
- Honor your head for the sake of pattern of nature(11:13-15). In these verses, Paul appeals to what is natural or typical in Corinth. In 11:13 Paul writes, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” This is the key verse in this entire section because here Paul clearly emphasizes the single point of his passage: Women should stop praying with their heads uncovered. The reason that 11:13 bears this out is that Paul has oscillated back and forth between men and women in 11:4-15. In 11:13 he breaks this pattern and focuses solely on women. This is a literary device that biblical writers use to bring home their point. Furthermore, this verse contains the only imperative besides 11:6 where the point is that a woman should cover herself.
Paul’s point is this: In the culture of Corinth, it was not proper for a woman to act as a spokesman for people with God by praying publicly with her head uncovered. To do so would be tantamount to claiming the position of a man in God’s order. The apostle did not think it wise for Christian women to exercise their liberty in a way that would go against socially accepted behavior even though they were personally submissive. Today what is socially accepted is different, but her attitude is still crucial.
Paul continues his argument in 11:14-15: “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” Paul does not mean “nature” in the sense of “the natural world” or “Mother Nature.” Obviously, Paul cannot mean that in the world of animals all males have short hair and all females have long hair. All we need to do is to think of the male lion, a common biblical animal, with a bush mane. There is, moreover, evidence that for first-century men to have long hair was considered a sign of effeminacy and perhaps even homosexuality—something that Paul in Romans 1 considers contrary to nature.
By “nature” Paul evidently meant how his culture felt about what was natural.
Paul again uses “glory” here when he claims that the long hair of a woman “is her glory” (11:15). Is he using the word in the same sense as 11:7? Probably not. In the earlier verse I suggested that “glory” relates to the honor–shame culture of the ancient Near East. Here, by contrast, this word refers to the beauty of women’s long hair. Because long hair can make a woman look so attractive and beautiful, Paul feels comfortable using this fact as a secondary argument for why women need a covering on their heads.
[Paul now moves from his argument from nature to his fourth and final argument…]
- Honor your head for the sake of apostolic authority(11:16). In Paul’s final argument, he again appeals to apostolic authority: “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.” If any of his readers still did not feel inclined to accept Paul’s reasoning, he informed them that the other churches followed what he had just explained. Some women were evidently discarding their head covering in public worship. Interestingly, Paul brings up the idea of “practice” (i.e., custom) again in the last verse of our section (11:16). These two verses (11:2, 16) serve as brackets to frame Paul’s entire discussion. The issue is obedience to what Paul has said from beginning to end. Will the ladies of the church at Corinth obey biblical instruction? Will Christian ladies today be obedient to carry out God’s desire for orderly and honorable worship?
As we conclude this challenging passage I’d like to offer a few closing challenges:
Wife, please consider your relationship with your husband. If you are acting in a way that undermines your husband, then you should rethink what you are doing. He is not necessarily more capable or better than you, but he is the head in your relationship. Most of the world will see your relationship in that light. Thus, you demean yourself if you bring dishonor to him.
Husband, please support your wife in her ministry. My wife has supported me in our ministry since we were first married.
Church, please reevaluate your view of women in ministry. Why do you hold the views that you do? Have you thoroughly studied what the Scriptures say on women in ministry, or are you basing your conclusions on what you have always assumed was correct or are comfortable with? I challenge you to prayerfully think through some of these issues and interact with people over what role women should play in the local church.