RPM, Volume 13, Number 52, December 25 to December 31, 2011

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

After finishing up our somewhat "seasonal" look at chapter 15 of Corinthians - which began on Easter Sunday - we are returning to our previous stopping point in this letter, chapter 11, vs2, and working through to verse 16 of that same chapter. Now, before we began our Easter survey of 1 Corinthians, we had just finished up an 8 week tour of the first few chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews which means, then, that it has been about 4 months since we looked at this earlier section of Corinthians. So, that being the case, let me just very quickly remind you of what's going on in this letter.

1st Corinthians is Paul's letter to a church which was founded by him, but which, in his absence, has begun to wander away from some of the things that Paul taught them. And not only were they wandering from what he had taught them, they were starting to wonder about Paul himself. Now how has Paul discovered all this? In two different ways....

First, he has "heard things". The grapevine was as active in his day as it is in ours. And so reports had filtered in from various sources, painting a picture that was more than a little bit worrisome at points. That's one source. Paul's other source of information has been from the Corinthians themselves. They have written a letter to him, asking what he thinks about a number of things. The nature of their questions tells its own story about the current state of mind within the congregation.

And so, in this letter Paul responds to both the things he has heard about (chapters 1-6) and the things that they have asked him directly (chapters 7 and following). Obviously we are now well into the second part of the letter, having already looked at two areas of concern for the Corinthians:

1) relational questions about singleness, marriage, divorce and re-marriage....

2) questions about eating food offered to idols, attendance at idol temples, etc....

Chapter 7:1 through to chapter 11:1 has been concerned with answering those questions and responding to those issues. Now Paul turns from thinking about what was going on in and around pagan temples to addressing three issues related to what was going on in their own Christian meetings:
1) 11:2-16 - Addresses the actions of some of the women as they were gathered together in public assembly

2) 11:17-34 - Addresses problems surrounding the observance of the Lord's Supper

3) 12:1-14:40 - Addresses issues related to the use of spiritual gifts in the public assembly, primarily speaking in tongues.

We will cover the first two issues fairly quickly, which will then take us up to the beginning of the third issue, in chapter 12. From that point we will be moving more slowly as there are a number of things that we need to think very carefully about in those verses. That's where we're heading, Lord willing. Let's pray before we continue....
Father in Heaven, we stand on the threshold of some very searching passages of Scripture. As all Your Word does, these passages reveal You and Your character and heart. But they also reveal us, and our characters and our hearts in relation to You. Lord I ask that as we work our way through what we admit from the outset will be an inadequate study, will You please guide us to good places that will feed and strengthen us as your people. Please give us humility and make us teachable. In Jesus name, Amen.

(Read 1 Cor 11:2-16)

The three things I want us to focus on as we look at this text are: 1) What was going on in Corinth, 2) Why the things that were happening were a problem and what Paul wants them to do about it and 3) What difference any of this makes for the church in our own day.

First, let's spend a few minutes thinking about what was happening in Corinth. And, in order to understand that, we actually need to think about some aspects of life in Corinth before Paul arrived. Specifically, it is important to know two things that were part of normal, everyday Corinthian culture. One thing has to do with hair length. In Corinth, it was standard, accepted practice in that day for men to wear their hair short, and women to wear their hair long. There are hundreds and hundreds of sculptures, frescoes, pieces of pottery, etc. that illustrate this fact.

The other thing to know was that while men wore their hair short and women wore their hair long, they did not, however, wear it long in public. In the privacy of their homes they might do so, but if they were going out anywhere, it was always worn "up" - piled up and held in that position by any number of different methods, some of which involved weaving expensive jewelry throughout, etc. But the point is, they wore their hair "up" and it was, in fact, considered disgraceful to wear it loose, flowing down the back. "Loose" hair was the sign of a "loose" woman. It's not that sort of sign today, but it was back then. Now, of course, there were lots of other things that could be said about the Corinth of Paul's day, but those two things are the most relevant to our discussion at the moment, and will contribute to our understanding later on.

At any rate, this was the state of affairs in the city when Paul arrived, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And, as we know, people responded to Paul's preaching and within 18 months, a church was established in that busy, commercial center. A real work of God had taken place, and was still taking place. Now the biggest sign, of course, that something special was going on in Corinth was the miracle of conversion as person after person responded to the good news of Jesus Christ. That was the greatest sign of all.

However, in addition to the sign of conversion, there were other signs that were present in Corinth in great abundance - manifestations of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues and prophecy and those sorts of things were taking place. Now, we're going to look at those things in more detail when we get to chapters 12-14, but for now what I want you to take note of is simply the fact that these spiritual realities, combined with the conversions that were taking place, and the growth of the church - all of these things made for a pretty charged-up atmosphere. These were heady times for the Corinthian church.

So much so, that their theology started to get a little bit ahead of them. Now, this is something which we have talked about before in this letter, but the problem that seemed to have taken hold of much of the Corinthian congregation was this mistaken belief that they had "arrived" spiritually. This was, again, probably spurred on by the presence of all these extraordinary gifts, but the result was that many of the Corinthians felt that the end of the ages had come upon them. And so, in their mind they were already living in the last days, they had the fullness of the Spirit already, and they had begun to live the life of the age to come - at least as they understood it - in this age.

This was the problem, for example, in chapter 7, as you may remember, when Paul was dealing with the Corinthians who were abandoning their marriages. They were doing this because "their clocks were all wrong" as Lucas says, and they had taken to heart things which Jesus said in places like Luke 20 about marriage being different in the age to come - they took those things and had begun to act as if they were already true now.

Well, it would seem that this same sort of thinking was at least partially what lay behind the behavior of some of the women in the Corinthian congregation who perhaps felt that because, according to Jesus, marriage would be different in the age to come, so too would other things be different - like gender distinctions. Whether they were right about this is immaterial - the fact remains that this is what they seemed to have believed and, because they thought the end times were upon them, then they had begun acting on these beliefs.

One expression of this was the situation Paul is dealing with here - women who were no longer wearing head coverings - and so were abandoning that which was supposed to distinguish them from the men in the worship service of their day. That, it would seem, is the situation being addressed in these verses.

Paul sees this as a problem. And, while there might be many other things that he could commend the Corinthians for - as he indicates in vs2 - this is not one of them. Why the behavior of these women is a problem becomes clearer when you look at verses 3-10.

The problem with the Corinthian women not wearing any sort of head covering when they prayed or prophesied was not the covering itself. Right? It's not as if Paul has this fixation about people putting pieces of cloth on their heads, just for the sake of doing so. What concerned Paul was what the doing or not doing of these things was an expression of. Paul saw, rightly, that their rejection of head coverings was a rejection of a culturally appropriate symbol of femininity and, as a result, would only serve to blur distinctions between men and women. Paul believed and taught - authoritatively I might add - that there were/are definite patterns of relating, definite roles and relationships that are still intact - between men and women, within families and within the church itself. And so, when Paul saw what was going on in Corinth, he saw beyond the blurring of gender distinctions in worship to where it would, inevitably, lead - to the obliteration of role distinctions between men and women in every area.

Let's look a little more closely at some of these verses and we'll see how this comes through in what Paul is saying. (Read vs3-6 again). As a starting place, Paul sets out here by describing three sets of relationships - man to Christ, wife to husband (or woman to man), and Christ to God. In each of these sets, the pattern is the same. And the key word in use to describe this pattern is "head" and carries as its primary sense, the idea of authority.

Now, as we have already seen, Paul's main concern in these verses centers on distinctions between men and women in worship. However, he wants what he says about these things to be heard in the context of some other truths - so that what he says will not be misused or misunderstood. And so, before he says that the head of a wife is her husband - which is the main relation he is talking about - but before he affirms that truth, he first says that the head of every man is Christ. That is, men are not independent agents but are themselves people under authority - the authority of Christ.

Then - after making that point - he then he goes on to say that the "head" of a wife is her husband, meaning by that the same sort of thing that was meant in the previous statement - that she is not an independent agent but is also under authority - the authority of her husband. And so, before he says anything about the wife's relation to her husband, he reminds the men of their submission to the Lord Jesus Christ and thus reminds them that everything they do is carried out in the light of that - including how they relate to their wives in particular, and women in general.

He then states a further illustration — the relationship between Christ and God - which is a crucial inclusion in what he is saying. Because, you see, right after saying that the head of a wife is her husband - he then directs his readers' gaze at the Trinity - why? Because there they will see that even within the Trinity itself, we have an illustration of two persons of equal power and divinity and substance - God the Father and God the Son - who nevertheless have different roles in relation to one another. Thus the "head" of Christ is God, indicating that there is a certain ordering of things. It is not an ordering of power, or divinity, or substance, or worth - but it is an ordering of relationship.

Nowhere is the reality of this more clear than when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was agonizing over the suffering and death he was about to undergo and he says to God his Father, and I'm para-phrasing here, "if there is some other way to do this, I'm all for it, but if not, then I want to do what you want me to do."

Now some commentators, uncomfortable with how these sorts of ideas of authority and submission will be received in our modern context, have allowed their discomfort and anxiety to skew their treatment of these passages so that they engage in these amazing feats of interpretive gymnastics to try and show that this passage is not saying what it appears to be saying - about men and women in particular.

One such approach has been to contend that what Paul means by "head" here is not "authority" but "source". However, and without going into the details, let me just say that this has been shown to be a fairly desperate attempt at avoiding the implications of this passage. One of the lead scholars in this is a guy named Wayne Grudem who has devastatingly dismantled any suggestion that Paul might have some other meaning here.

So, again, while many un-convincing attempts have been made to read these verses some other way, the reality is that when Paul uses the word "head" here, it is because he wants them to see that there is an authority relationship between one thing and another. And, as a result, says Paul in vs4, if a man were to put on his head a covering which was really something which women were supposed to wear and which set them apart from men - if he did that he would be dishonoring his "head" - in two senses. He would be dishonoring his own head - i.e, himself - but he would also be dishonoring the one that verse 3 says is his head - Christ. Likewise, a woman who would refuse to wear the covering appropriate to women while praying or prophesying would dishonor both herself AND her "head/authority" - as defined in vs3 - which is her husband in particular, as well as the other men, by extension.

To underscore this fact, Paul says that for a woman to refuse to wear a head covering as a sign of authority would be the virtual equivalent of having her head shaved. In other words, it's as if Paul is saying: "Look, if you want to disregard male/female distinctions in this area of head coverings - well, then you might as well go the whole way and reject those same distinctions with regard to your hair itself - just shave it all off or cut it short."

Which, of course, brings in the background information that was mentioned earlier - the fact that the pattern for the men in that City, at that time, was that men wore their hair short and women did not. If these Corinthian women wanted to reject gender distinctions - then they ought to be consistent and go the whole way, says Paul. Now he knows that none of the women in his day would dream of doing such a thing - which is part of his point. The thing that they would find embarrassing and shameful to do in public - with regard to their hair style - is the very thing that they seem to have no shame in doing in the assembly of God's people, with regard to the head covering.

Well, moving on from there, in the next section - verses 7-10 - Paul adds some supporting truths to what he has already said. (Read vs7-10 again). In a nutshell, the supplementary argument that Paul provides here is to recall some things from the earliest parts of the Bible - specifically the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1 and 2. So, when Paul talks about "the image of God" and about woman being made from man and for man - when he uses that kind of language he is clearly leaning on the Genesis texts.

And the point that Paul seems to be making here is this: That while both the man and the woman are in the image of God, and indeed both live to the glory of God, there is a unique aspect to the way that the man glorifies God. Likewise, there is a uniqueness to the way that the woman glorifies man. The uniqueness of both is illustrated in verses 8-9.

With regard to the man, his uniqueness is seen in that he was not made from the woman, but preceded the woman, being made directly by God from the dust of the ground. Further, he was the one who was initially given the task of managing God's creation on his behalf. The woman's uniqueness is seen in the fact that she was not made from the dust, but from the man. What's more, her task was to come alongside the man, to assist him in fulfilling the God-given mandates of multiplying God's images and managing the creation.

The man brings glory to God best when he is fulfilling the role for which God made him, humbly assuming and carrying out the responsibilities given to him, as head, within his family. The woman brings glory to man best when she acknowledges by her life and demeanor that she embraces and welcomes the unique role that God has for her within his created realm. By faithfully carrying out that role, she shows humanity in its true and appropriate light.

And so, while there is a great deal of overlap, there is also a uniqueness to both the man and the woman, with respect to what they glorify by their lives - a uniqueness that is rooted in their God-given gender and role differences.

And precisely because these differences are given by God, they ought to be maintained and highlighted - and not discarded - by God's people. And the symbols of those differences - like head coverings - ought not be discarded either.

Now, at the end of all this, in verse 10, Paul adds a further motivation for maintaining the practice of head coverings - "because of the angels". And, I wish I could tell you that I knew what Paul was referring to by this, but I can't. And, in all fairness, it must be said that this verse is one that remains largely a mystery to most NT scholars. Still, what we don't yet understand about this verse does not detract from what we can understand about the rest.

Now with verse 10, Paul finishes up the main part of what he is saying here so that what remains are a few qualifying remarks to supplement things he has already said. Verses 11-12, for example, are provided to counter what he has been saying about women not abandoning gender distinctives - and the cultural symbols of such things - such as head coverings. Having made that point fairly strongly, Paul wants to make sure that the observance of gender and role distinctions does not become the abuse of gender and role distinctions - He does that in vs11-12 by pointing to the interdependence of men and women, and the fact that they TRULY need one another.

Verses 13-15 are a supplement to arguments already made by Paul as to the rightness and even the obviousness of the fact that gender distinctions are important and, indeed, are the natural way that men and women express themselves in cultures. In making this supplementary argument, Paul simply wants the Corinthians to look around at what they are already doing and, indeed, were already doing long before he showed up, in the city of Corinth. "Judge for yourselves", he says. The standards of their own society said that, for men, the wearing of long hair was out of bounds. It was not the normal or accepted thing.

And then, having pointed out this fact, Paul makes a further observation that a woman's having long hair - and society's reinforcement of that fact - is for her a thing of glory. But it's not just glorious, it is useful - as a sort of built in means of covering the head, part of the basic equipment that went with being a woman. Again, and as we saw in the introduction to this passage, the Corinthians had only to look around and see that this was, in fact, what was going on. Women in Corinth were quite familiar with the practice of wearing the hair "up" and so were already using it in the very manner that Paul is referring to here.

Finally, in verse 16, Paul makes one last statement to re-inforce all that he has said thus far, pointing out that those who wanted to be contentious and reject what he was saying about gender distinctions, and head coverings and authority, and all that - Paul wants people like that to know that by going against Paul on this issue, they would be going against what was the accepted teaching and practice of every other Christian Church.

In other words, the recognition of gender distinctives and the maintenance of differences in male/female roles and relationships was something that was universally applied - and was not just for the Corinthian congregation.

And so, at the end of the day, what Paul is saying to the Corinthians is this: Yes, there are differences between the sexes - God put them there. And while both men and women are equally God's image bearers there are particular roles and responsibilities that are unique to both, and which are meant to illustrate the order of things as God established them - as we see in a marriage, for example, where the husband is the head of his wife. In the Corinthian culture of that day, one symbol of this distinction between men and women was the wearing of some sort of head covering while praying or prophesying, and which mimicked the "natural" hair covering that women already had. Paul wanted the women to stop blurring the distinctions between themselves and the men and to accept the wearing of the head covering as an appropriate symbol of male/female distinctions. As they did that, they would affirm the on-going validity of God-given role differences between men and women and, in doing this, they would bring honor not only on themselves, but on mankind - and so, ultimately, bring honor to God himself.

That's what Paul is saying here. Let me very quickly then, make a couple comments on what sort of relevance these things have for the Church in our own day....

1) First, it is important to think about what this passage does NOT mean. Taking this passage seriously does NOT mean that we are going to have to start issuing head coverings on Sunday mornings or mandating particular maximum and minimum hair lengths for the men and women of our congregations. It seems fairly clear that what this passage is teaching us is not that we preserve any particular culturally-conditioned symbols which differentiate between men and women - like head coverings - as much as it is arguing that making these sorts of distinctions is a good and right and necessary thing to do.

2) So, these verses are not, for example, requiring that women wear veils or shawls upon their heads. But they are requiring that the manner in which women and men conduct themselves in public worship is such that it does not blur distinctions between men and women. In other words, our goal is not to completely level the playing field so that there is nothing that sets us apart as men and women before God.

3) Further, the manner in which men and women conduct themselves, as they are participating in worship, ought to be such that it does not overthrow appropriate role distinctions and divinely- ordained authority relationships between wives and husbands in particular, and between men and women in the church, and in general. And the working out of these things in the context of the local church means we have to ask ourselves some questions, like, "If head coverings are a meaningless symbol in our own culture, is there something else that does have that same sort of meaning and which, therefore, we ought to value as that which appropriately indicates gender and role distinctions within the context of public worship?

And, of course, the actual application of these things in the details of day to day life is never straight forward and can be quite messy at times. But we should not allow those realities to put us off, or deter us from a commitment to understand and consistently apply the principles that Paul is affirming here, for God's church in every age.

4) Fourth, please note that Paul's instructions about wearing the head covering are in the context of his talking about their participation in the public worship through praying and prophesying. Exactly what this meant - and means today - is something we will look at in a later passage, but I don't want us to miss the significance of this fact. It is not their participation that was a problem, it was the manner of their participation.

5) Finally, and as we work through these things as a community of faith, we need to remember how very counter cultural all of this is. It goes without saying that the momentum of our society is decidedly against the sorts of things Paul is saying. The world wants to mow down any and all distinctions between men and women. The world wants to completely level the playing field and to minimize and eventually obliterate the differences between men and women. And the church, rather than give in to this cultural momentum - which it already has to a large measure - and so has lost ground that it will be extremely difficult to regain - but the Church needs to stop caving into its fear of what the world will think and begin, once again, to act like it believes that God really does know best. In short, the evangelical church, to a large extent, needs to repent of its actions in this regard, and return to a biblical standard and practice.

6) And if we can have the courage to continue believing God on these things, we will discover, in the end, that He was right all along, and we will find that the greatest fulfillment and freedom always comes, not when we liberate ourselves from our Creator, but when we humbly submit to his wise and fatherly counsel. That is what Paul wanted the Corinthians to do on this matter. We should do the same.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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