In our society sexual bias is a crime. Sexual harassment is an offense that can quickly cause a person to lose their job. We continue to work hard as a society to develop an equal footing for all people. That’s not a bad thing. However, because of what is happening in our own day, passages like 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 provoke a great deal of controversy. On first reading the text sounds sexist. Some (many even in the church) have concluded that Paul was a misogynist; or a woman-hater.
I hope you will see this morning that Paul was not diminishing women at all. In fact, Paul (following the example of Jesus) sought to raise the status of women. Paul advocated equality in the church and that was a radical departure from the way things had always been done in the past.
I admit that this is a difficult text. I can think of hundreds of texts I’d rather preach on than this one. However, we must remind ourselves that “ALL Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Our task is to take a hard look at this text and see what God is trying to teach us.
WHY THIS IS A DIFFICULT TEXT
This text is difficult for several reasons. First, there is debate on how to understand the words “head” and “head-covering” and “sign of authority” (v.10). The debate on how to understand these words is exhausting. There is no consensus even among the strongest scholars.
Second, it is difficult to know whether or not this text is meant to give us an eternal principle (i.e. one that applies for all time) or whether it is contextual (meant for a situation unique to Corinth.) In other words, was Paul calling on the church to respect a custom (wearing veils) or was he laying down a rule of God that applies in all generations?
Suppose you went to visit a client at their home. Before you leave your boss says, “Always be sure to take off your shoes at the door of the house”. Does your boss mean that you should take off your shoes in this particular home or is your boss expressing his belief that you should take off your shoes at the front door of every home that you enter?
This is similar to what we face here. Is Paul advocating that the Corinthians show respect for a local custom, or is he laying down a principle for all time?
Third, there is a question of context. There is more error circulated, more friendships strained, and more churches split because of words being taken out of their proper context, than for any other reason. For example two friends might be talking and one of the friends says to the other, “I hate you.” The context of those words will determine how they are understood. Is one friend sharing a great opportunity and the other person is commending their good fortune with the playful words, “I hate you”? Or are the two people fighting and the one friend is truly furious at the other wanting to sever the friendship? Context changes everything.
In this particular text the question is: Is Paul continuing his previous discussion on restricting our “rights” for the sake of others and the glory of God or has he moved on to a new subject entirely? How you answer these three questions will determine your understanding of what Paul is saying.
Well-meaning Christians may disagree on the interpretation of the text. We are NEVER free to ignore a text because we find it uncomfortable or try to change its meaning to fit our preferences. We must always try to listen to God’s Word objectively. However, just as in politics, well-meaning people can look at the same data and draw very different conclusions. We enter our study with humility.
THE FIRST ISSUE: HEADSHIP
There are two different issues raised in the text. One relates to the issue of headship or authority. The other relates to head-coverings during prayer. We want to look at both issues. In verse 3 Paul appears to give us a “chain-of-command”: The Father, the Son, Man, Woman.
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (v.3)
Before you react to this with a sense of superiority or with anger, notice a few things.
First, Christ submits to God. In order to understand what this concept of “headship” means, we have to look at the whole chain. Headship is not about a person’s value, worth, or significance. We are told not only that the man is the head of the woman but also that the head of Christ is God.
If you are familiar with the teaching of the Bible you know that the Bible teaches several things about Christ: he is fully God and fully man; he is eternal; he was involved in creation; and He is one with the Father. Therefore this notion of “headship” has nothing to do with superiority or value.
The Son submitted to the authority of the Father in terms of his incarnation, or His coming to earth. When Jesus became a man, He submitted Himself to the Father in order to fulfill the demands of the law. He did what the Father had commanded so He could become the Savior that we needed. The Father was the head of Christ in terms of their function in redemption.
Christ is the Head of Every Man
Men have a tendency to hear the message that they are to be head over a woman and miss their own responsibility.
Maybe you can think of it this way, think about a foreman in a factory. He is over a group of people. However, he is not the owner of the company. He does not have the freedom to do whatever he pleases. He is not free to pursue his own agenda. The foreman’s job is to implement the wishes of the owner or management of the company. If he forgets this, he will (and should) lose his job. The man’s role is to serve as the foreman (if you will) in the home. It is his job to lead as God directs.
Men, understand what this means practically. We are not to be led by our career goals; we are to be led by the Lord. We are not to be driven by our own whims and pleasures; we are to lead our lives and our families in the way of the Lord. Our job is not to be the boss of others; our job is to be the humble servant of the Lord. As “head” we have a responsibility to our wives. Our job is to support them, protect them, and provide for them. Our job is to be God’s representative in the home.
Here’s the question for men: are you paying attention to what God has told you to do? Are you even listening? Are you a student of God’s Word? Do you devote time to prayer? Are you trying to lead your family in the way that God would have you go? Rather than become arrogant about your “authority” it is better to focus on your responsibility.
Man is the Head of the Woman
Paul argues from creation. He goes back to Genesis 1 and 2 and reminds us that man was created by God from the ground. Woman was made from man. Paul argues in verse 8 that “man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” Eve was created in order to be a helper to Adam. She was created to be his partner so that man would not be alone. Paul argues that this therefore is the creative intention and design of God.
Let me draw an analogy that might help us get this. On a baseball team the catcher is often considered to be the captain on the field. The catcher is not superior to any of the other players. The catcher may actually be less talented than some of the other ball players. However, someone needs to have authority on the field. That job is given to the catcher because he can see the entire field from his position. All the players are equal members of the team but someone has to take charge on the field or there will be problems. Man has been designated as the “on-field captain”.
Paul, seems to know that he could be misinterpreted so in verse 11 he says,
In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.
Paul reminds us that in terms of salvation, men and women are equal. A woman is not dependent on a man for her salvation! Paul also acknowledges that women and men are mutually dependent. Though the first woman came from Adam’s rib, since that time, men have always been born of a woman. Men and women are interdependent.
In Galatians it was this same Paul who wrote,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)
Paul never diminished the role of women! Paul understood that men and women were both created in the image of God and through Christ women were to be co-heirs with men of the great salvation that had come into the world.
Though there is equality in relationships, someone needs to be the “captain” of the team. The general rule is that it should be the man. I think God has wired man for this role. The woman is a vital part of the team. Hers is not a lesser role . . . it is just a different role.
THE SECOND ISSUE: HEAD-COVERINGS
The second issue is that of head-coverings. Paul said men should pray with their head uncovered and women should pray with their head covered. Paul says a woman dishonors her head (and verse 10 says somehow such action also offends the angels) if she prays with her head uncovered. He even says that it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off.
There was a time when women naturally wore hats to church in obedience to this command. Today many women keep their hair up or wear something over their head as a sign of respect to the Lord and as a way to honor their husbands. We commend this desire to obey this passage.
In Corinth (as in most of the Mideast…even today) a woman’s hair was seen as an expression of her beauty. It was not to be seen or enjoyed by anyone but the woman’s husband. At this time the only women with short hair or a shaved head were immoral women. Temple prostitutes had short hair. In Numbers 5 we are told that Jewish law said that a woman who was proved guilty of adultery was to have her hair cut off. It was an act of public humiliation. When a woman appeared in the Corinthian worship gatherings with her head uncovered it was like she was advertising for a man. This dishonored her husband and was offensive to God.
I believe Paul is continuing the thought that he has been sharing about restraining our freedom for the glory of God. In other words, women were to keep their heads covered because to not do so would dishonor their husbands, detract and disrupt worship, and would tend to negate anything the woman might say or pray in the public gathering. One commentator gives a contemporary illustration.
A modern example might be a Christian woman living in an Eastern culture. While that Christian is certainly “free” to wear shorts and a T-shirt (and would not have any problem doing so in the United States), she should set aside that freedom out of respect for the culture in which she lives. She should dress modestly and cover what should be covered. She will have far more acceptance by doing that than by flaunting her freedom to dress in a certain way that would be acceptable elsewhere.
In our society it is seen as disrespectful for men to keep their hats on as the flag passes by or as the National Anthem is played or sung. In the same way it is seen as disrespectful for a man to wear his hat during worship or during a prayer. Paul would say that we should show respect to God and others by observing these practices.
There was a time when it was seen as fitting for women to wear a hat to church. Our culture has changed. I believe the application now would seem to be directed to a woman’s attire. A woman who dresses in a suggestive way for worship; one who is concerned to draw attention to herself; is dishonoring her husband (by inviting others to lust), is undermining the family, and is offending God!
Let me make a few final comments. A difficult passage like this reminds us of how carefully we must interpret Scripture. It is wrong to make ourselves the authority and declare, “Paul probably didn’t even write this” simply because we don’t like what it seems to be saying. Beware of those who are quick to dismiss passages of Scripture under the guise of scholarship because they don’t like what is being taught. Such actions quickly result in denying the inspiration and authority of Scripture, dismissal of anything supernatural, a diminishing of the work and character of Christ, and a way of salvation that is focused on man’s “worthiness” rather than Christ’s sacrifice.
In approaching any passage we should abide by some simple rules,
- We should submit to the Word of God rather than trying to get it to submit to us.
- We must determine the context of the passage.
- We should interpret the Bible as a whole. We need to compare Scripture with Scripture. The Bible will always be internally consistent. A passage that is clear should always inform an unclear passage.
- We must evaluate those who teach the Bible by the text itself rather than evaluating the text by the teacher. In other words, we should always evaluate teaching by asking, “Is this actually what the text says?
- We should be suspicious of any “new understanding”.
Second, William Barclay gives us a second application,
It must always be remembered that this situation arose in Corinth, probably the most licentious city in the world. Paul’s point of view was that in such a situation it was far better to err on the side of being too modest and too strict rather than to do anything which might either given the heathen a chance to criticize the Christians as being too lax or be a cause of temptation to the Christians themselves.
It is a good principle. It is always better to err on the side of being too careful.
Third, we should focus on fulfilling our role instead of complaining about it. Men are to work hard at submitting to the Lord. They should be students of the Scriptures and work hard to honor the Lord in every aspect of their lives. Men are called to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (in a self-sacrificing way). If we truly love our wives as Christ loved the church we will seek to eliminate sexism and despise sexual harassment of any kind. Our job is to treasure and protect our wives and family.
Wives are to likewise be woman of faith and character. In 1 Peter we read,
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4 Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. [1 Peter 3:1-4]
Wives are to support, encourage, and respect their husband. Ladies, deep down inside, men want more than anything else, to feel the support and admiration of their wives. They want to be your “hero”. Likewise, I believe most women long for a man who will love them and lead them as Christ does the Church. We will both have what we desire as we work together to follow the Bible’s instruction.
Paul was not a sexist or a woman-hater. Paul was a faithful servant of God who wanted God’s people to embrace God’s design, honor God in their actions, and make whatever sacrifices necessary to present the truth effectively to a lost and dying world.