A preacher in the pulpit saw a man in the back pew wearing a hat. The preacher summoned one of the elders, who went to see the man and ask him if he realized that his hat was still on. The man in the back pew shouted so that everyone could hear him and said, “I thought that would do it. I have attended this church for six months, and you are the first person who has spoken to me.”
Today’s post discusses 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (you may want to pause and read that text before continuing) and centers around whether or not to cover our heads.1 Corinthians 11:2-16 puzzles many, and I’ll be the first to admit that it once troubled me greatly. Growing up, I’d read this text and wonder if my mother was going to hell for not wearing a hat to church. I’d be told that this text was “cultural” and it simply didn’t apply anymore. That troubled me even more on some levels. Yes, I understand that Scripture was written in a real cultural context, but how do we determine what is cultural and what is binding?
You need to understand that this text is NOT talking about women wearing a hat in church, because this text is NOT talking about the assembly. Why would I say that? One: Paul begins his discussion of the assembly in the next paragraph. “Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17). Thus, Paul doesn’t begin discussing the Christian assembly until verse 17. Two: Paul declares that women need covering as a symbol of authority. “For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:10). Why would women need a symbol of authority in the assembly? Women are not permitted to have authority in the assembly: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim 2:11-12). Women have no need to have anything on their heads to demonstrate submission in the assembly, for the men lead the worship. So, outside the assembly these women needed some way to demonstrate that they were not in authority–I don’t know exactly what the scenario might have been, but in some way, these women needed to show submission as they prayed and prophesied. Three: Even more definitive in showing that this was an activity outside the assembly is that Paul discusses the way women are to prophesy. “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Cor 11:5). These women are prophesying which requires them to speak aloud. However, Paul forbids women from prophesying in the assembly (1 Cor 14:33-35). If you keep 1 Cor 14:33-35 in context, Paul is not talking about women singing or speaking in Bible class or anything of the sort. If you go to 1 Cor 14:26-32, “speaking” means to stand in front of the assembly and leading it through praying, prophesying, signing, or some other similar activity. The point is that women are forbidden to prophesy in the assembly, yet here Paul provides instructions for how women are to prophesy.
The text is highly bound up in the culture of the first century. We often come to this text and simply say, “It’s cultural and it doesn’t apply to us” without thinking about why it’s cultural. If we do that, we’re not being honest with the text. As we go through the text, I believe it’s important to think about precisely why we believe this text is not binding on us today.
While this passage is especially applicable to the Corinthians Christians to whom Paul writes, there is much we need to learn from this text.
The Order of the Sexes, vv 3-10
“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels” (1 Cor 11:3-10).
Paul begins talking about headship in this passage. The question is often raised about what exactly “head” means in this text. It can mean “source.” Paul uses “head” to mean “source” in Eph 4:15-16 in a context of Jesus as the source of the church. The main problem with seeing “head” as “source” in this passage is that Paul declares that the head of Christ is God–Surely we aren’t intended to see the Father’s giving birth to Jesus, for Jesus is eternal. The most logical understanding is that “head” here means “authority.”
The head of every man is Christ. That is an extremely important statement about male spiritual leadership. Many times when we talk about male spiritual leadership–whether in the home or in the church–people get the idea that we’re talking about women just doing whatever we guys say. However, notice that here Paul declares–at the very beginning of the discussion–that the head of man is Christ. Man does not have absolute authority over the woman–he is to lead the woman according to the authority of Christ.
Man also, because Christ is his head, needs to model his leadership after that of Christ. Christ, while He has great authority over the church, never demonstrated that authority in an overbearing or dictatorial manner. Rather, Jesus demonstrated His authority in a loving, sacrificial manner (Eph 5:25-27).
The head of a wife is her husband. The English Standard Version is one of the few translations to place “wife” here rather than woman. The difficulty in translating this is that the Greek word can mean either “wife” or “woman,” depending on the context. Actually the Greek term is gyné, from which we get the English “gynecology.” However we should understand the word in this context–as “wife” or “woman”–it is obvious that God intends women to submit to men both in the home and in the church. Home: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph 5:22-23). Church: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence” (1 Tim 2:12).
The head of Christ is God. Jesus received His authority from the Father. “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18).
A man should not pray or prophesy with a covered head, but a woman should pray and prophesy with a covered head. It was extremely common in antiquity for both men and women to cover their heads when they offered sacrifices to the gods. There is a statue found just outside Rome of the Emperor Augustus offering a sacrifice, and his head is covered. There is another image from a vase dating from about 490 BC of a woman pouring out a sacrifice, and she has a garland on her head.
Yet, in antiquity both men and women covered their head to worship. Why then did Paul tell the women to cover their heads in this text? Jewish women were typically required to cover their heads in the ancient world. According to the Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Law of Moses, women were typically required to cover their hair. The Talmud says: “What is the Jewish law? Let not a woman go with head uncovered. This is founded in the Law, for it is said ‘the priest shall uncover her head’ Numbers 5:18.” Numbers 5:18 is dealing with how priests were to handle a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery. In fact, if a Jewish woman appeared in public without her had covered, her husband, according to Jewish tradition, had grounds for divorce.
A woman’s hair was a common object of lust in the ancient world, and refusing to cover the head was quite similar to a woman’s wearing a skimpy bikini in the modern world. The likely reason that hair was part of a man’s lust in the ancient world was that hair was considered part of a woman’s reproductive system. The idea–an idea advocated by Hippocrates, the father of medicine–is that if a man had long hair, he would be sterile, but if a woman had long hair she was quite fertile. Therefore, women kept their hair long, while men kept theirs short. In fact, Tertullian, a leader in the early church born about a century after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, wrote that prior to puberty girls did not need to cover their heads, but they had to do so once they entered puberty.Therefore, Paul is writing in a culture where the covering of a woman’s head indicated her role as a wife and mother.
Therefore, what we need to grasp for the modern world from this “strange” text is that there are different roles for men and women among God’s people. While husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church and while women are not at all inferior to men, women have a role of submission. Scripture clearly teaches this role of submission (1 Tim 2:8-15; Eph 5:24).
The Interdependence of the Sexes, vv 11-12
“Neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (1 Cor 11:11-12).
It is “in the Lord” that women and men are interdependent. While Paul is going to use an illustration from the natural order, he first speaks about this interdependence in the Lord. How are men and women interdependent in the Lord? Our being in Christ changes the relationship between man and woman. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Yes, there are different roles for men and women, but that has nothing to say about the equality of the sexes.
Women, throughout the history of the church, have played a role in bringing men to Christ. Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26). Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2); Phoebe served the church at Cenchreae and she was Paul’s patron, likely giving him money.
Paul has been discussing the principle in the church that women and men are interdependent, and how he turns his attention to nature. The woman was made from man. We understand that teaching from the Old Testament (Gen 2:21-22). Were it not for man, woman would not exist. Man was alone in the Garden, and God saw that man’s loneliness was not a good thing. Over and over in the first chapter of Genesis, we read that what God had made was good, but for the first time we find something is not good–man’s being alone. Therefore, God made the woman from Adam’s side as a helper fit for him.
Man is now born of woman. As much as male spiritual leadership is taught throughout the Scriptures, we cannot ignore the fact that we men came from a woman. Were it not for our mothers, we would not be in this world, just as if it were not for Adam women would not be in the world.
What is the point of this? We need to understand the dependence of the woman on the man, and the dependence of the man on the woman. Paul declares that there is such interdependence both in the church and in the nature. Think about such interdependence for a moment: Guys, where would we be without the women in your lives? Ladies, where would you be without the men in your lives? Where would we be as a church without godly women fulfilling their roles and godly men fulfilling their roles? This goes a long way in demonstrating that while there are different roles for man and women in the church and in the home, women are not inferior to men, but are in every way our equal.