Sermons on 1 Corinthians | Sister, Aveil Thyself | 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Woman wearing a veil

Sister, Aveil Thyself (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

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.”

Our text this evening centers around whether or not to cover our heads. This text 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?

Some of our brethren, as you know, make a big deal about whether or not women wear hats in church.

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. I say that for three reasons:

  1. 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” (v 17). Thus, Paul doesn’t begin discussing the Christian assembly until verse 17.
  2. Paul also 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” (v 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). You women this evening have no need to have anything on your heads to demonstrate you’re in submission: men are leading 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.
  3. 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 Corinthians 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 Corinthians14:26-32, “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 culture 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

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 Ephesians 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. The Greek term is gyne, 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./p>

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).

Spencer Tracy was once asked why he always insisted on top billing when he co-starred in films with Katherine Hepburn. “Why not?” asked Tracy. “Well, after all,” came the response, “She’s the lady and you’re the man. Ladies first?” Tracy said, “This is a movie, not a lifeboat.” Brethren, this is the church, not the world. While we need women to serve in the church and while they can do much in the church, they must remain in submission to men.

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.”

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. The elders in this church have a different role in this congregation than the rest of us, but they aren’t any better than the rest of us.
  • 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.

How much work could this church do without the women here? How many of you men have been converted through the influence of your good, godly wives? How many children have good Bible classes because of the effort you sisters put into teaching them?

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 exists. 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.

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 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.

Are you fulfilling your special role in the church?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.

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