1 Corinthians 11:2-3
September 23, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:00 in the audio file.
Or, The Glory of Heads, Hoods, and Hairdos
Here is the most agonizing yet applicable passage yet in 1 Corinthians. There are formidable challenges trying to figure out what Paul said and what that means before getting to what we’re supposed to do. No paragraph so far in the letter provokes so many questions that affect so many consequences.
Reasonable people may disagree on how to interpret issues in these verses. The bigger problem is that we don’t seem to be living in reasonable times. Confusion, under the costume of sophistication, reigns both outside and inside the church. Confusion affects what we know about God, which affects what we know about ourselves, which affects how we worship and how we relate to one another. It affects how we relate to one another in worship, and that affects our witness in the world.
Until this past week I have never really tried to understand the first half of 1 Corinthians 11. Having begun that process, I then began to wonder if/how it would be relevant for us. Head coverings are a big part of the passage, so will I need to exhort the ladies to start wearing bonnets or doilies? If that’s what God wants, are we ready for it? And then there is the part about long hair and short hair; do you remember how enjoyable the discussions were the last time I talked about hair cuts?
And yet doesn’t every thumb’s width matter? Doesn’t our hair matter, and what we wear to worship God together matter, including our “church clothes”? Isn’t it important to submit to God in all things, and doesn’t that include the relationships He’s called us to? The answer to all of those questions is Yes.
How we present ourselves says something about who we’re with and about who we worship. We live in a day when we almost only ask, How does this make me look? Even if we give the benefit of the doubt and assume that that question is for sake of modesty (rather than for vanity), it is often only a question asked by the individual about the individual. We ought to be asking, How does this (hairstyle, outfit, etc.) reflect on my authority? And by “authority” I don’t mean how does it reflect on your personal persona, but how does it reflect on the person you answer to? Can you imagine how commercials could even sell that mindset?
We’re accustomed to personal choices (which the last three chapters in 1 Corinthians have also addressed); right and wrong is important for me. And it is, but it’s more than that. We’re accustomed, even in corporate worship, to think about how what we’re doing reflects on ourselves rather than to think about how what we’re doing reflects on our head.
Now I’m (meddling and) past the point where I should acknowledge the (multiple) problems in trying to understand the point of this passage. Obviously we don’t know what Paul doesn’t write down; we don’t share knowledge with the Corinthians about what Paul previously taught them or what it was like living in Corinth in the first century. Here are some of the major questions, not just as tools for meditating, but to show that there are serious issues and to help us know what we’re looking for:
This long paragraph is about shame and glory, about gender and relationships, about creation, culture, worship, hoods, and hairdos. It’s about appearance and identity. Yeah, there’s stuff in here that really matters. I’ll be trying to answer the questions as we go.
Paul definitely transitions to a new topic in verse 2. The previous three chapters relate to loving others by being willing to give up our lawful preferences, in particular, that nothing we eat would keep others from Christ. Paul was an example of one who used this decision making grid, a pattern he learned from Christ, and so it functioned as a model for the Corinthians (11:1). They did not always do as he did.
That said, sometimes they did, and Paul praised them for it. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. The discussion will turn to shame/disgrace and honor/glory in a couple verses. At least in this area the Corinthians are to be credited for keeping Paul in mind. Nothing indicates that the Corinthian men or women were “defying this custom” (Garland).
For whatever competition there was about their favorite preacher (think chapters 1-2), overall they remembered the one who planted and laid the foundation for the church (see 3:6, 10) and maintained or kept the traditions…as…delivered. What sorts of traditions? I didn’t even include this in the list of questions. We’re conditioned as Protestants to be suspicious of traditions at best, and probably to oppose traditions out of the box. As Bible people, we’re like, if there isn’t a Bible verse, we have no obligation. And that is kinda true. But it’s also true that not everything without a Bible verse is merely a matter of personal preference.
Traditions might be less obnoxious to us if we either 1) had more appreciation for generations or authority in general, or 2) just used a different word such as “core practices.” The traditions Paul refers to here, that he commends them for keeping, relate to public and distinctive-by-gender head treatments.
As it happens with this new subject, which the Corinthians were actually already doing (mostly) right, Paul still wanted to make sure that they knew the reasons. But I want you to understand. Even how he said this is different then how he’s brought up knowing before. Multiple times Paul asked, “Do you not know?” (3:16; 5:6; 6:2, 9, 15; 9:13) which meant they should have known but weren’t acting on it. Here, after acknowledging that they were acting on his pattern, he wants to make sure they understand why they are doing it.
It’s not just going through the motions and following the dress code. It isn’t just abiding the standard, it is embodying the standard for the purpose of glory. To help them understand, Paul leads with a three-headed doctrine: the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
This verse has been used as an argument for why people are Angry and Arians, or angry Arians I suppose. Some women get mad that they are not the “head,” whatever they think that means, or equal to the head. And some theologians have become heretics believing that Paul teaches that Jesus isn’t equal to God.
So what does it mean to be the head? As I’ve been studying, here are the three main options.
Those who argue that “head” means “source” have at least three problems in my view. First, there aren’t any Greek dictionaries that include “source” as a possible metaphorical definition for kephale, nor are there any examples in the LXX where translating ”source” makes sense. Second, in the context of the paragraph itself, the argument for covering one’s head or not covering one’s head is about distinction, and the distinction is based on hierarchy (of some kind) rather than equality. There is equality in terms of existence and even interdependence between men and women (see verses 11-12). But the obligations related to head coverings in verses 4-10 aren’t based on origin as much as on office. Third, those who argue for “source” are almost always the same egalitarians who argue against submission.
Those who argue for “foremost” are odd to me, and have trouble with the Trinitarian part of the headship. Since a person’s head sits on the top of his body, it is the most predominant and visible part of him, so the “foremost” group say that men are more obvious than women but do not have authority over women. I don’t understand how saying that someone is preeminent over another makes someone feel better, or, in reference to the Trinity, how God as head is more obvious than Christ.
Nor does it fit with what we think about the Head of State, the Head of the Department, or a Headmaster. These are not merely representative figureheads, they are responsible decision makers. At least as far back as Homer’s Illiad there are examples of κεφαλή as meaning “chief over.” (Thiselton). So “head” means authority, though there are qualifications.
The argument against “head” as “authority” is based on a false deduction about the Trinity. Arius used this verse to argue that Jesus was not a second Person in the Godhead, equal to the Father. Arius assumed that head meant authority, and that if God was the head/authority over Christ that Christ was subordinate, and so inferior in value.
But to make submission itself a sign of inferiority is a category error. Equality of worth does not require equality of function, let alone equality of everything. A hammer and a saw are not equal in what they are made for, but they could be equal in craftsmanship and materials, as well as equal in being valuable for particular contexts.
As the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ willingly and lovingly obeyed His Father. In His essence, Christ is fully God. In His function, Christ fully did His Father’s will. The Father’s headship/authority was not a statement about Christ’s inferiority but about Christ’s particular role of glory.
The other two headships correspond but they do not exactly overlap. The head of every man is Christ means that all men, in all places and at all times, whether they realize it or not, are not free to do whatever they please. They are not autonomous, they are subject to the authority of Christ.
The head of a wife is her husband cannot be exactly the same as the previous two headships because no man can claim absolute authority, because absolute authority is God’s. Man is not absolute, nor is he inerrant. Nevertheless, Paul’s point here is still one of authority and responsibility over someone else.
The ESV interprets, with a footnote, rather than translates. The verse more basically states, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is the man.” In Greek, woman and wife is the same word (gune), it depends on context. The same is true for man and husband (aner).
I believe it is referring to husband and wife, and extends by application to fathers and daughters. All men are responsible to Christ because of creation; a woman is only responsible to a man in the covenant of marriage, or perhaps a family connection. It does not mean women and men, as if all women are under the authority of all men; we do not believe that any given woman must submit to any given man in the pattern of Christ submitting to God. The verse spells out that “every man” does have Christ as head, but “a woman” has “the man” instead, a typical way of referring to her man, usually her husband.
What does this verse establish? That we are necessarily and inescapably related to one another, and that does not change in Christ, even though our station does not keep us from Christ. Salvation enables us to live in our relationships rightly, it does not eliminate or flatten our functions or the order of reflections. These roles also work in love, and are not a reflection of superiority of value.
It also establishes that there are not an almost unlimited number of steps between us and God. The Roman culture in Corinth believed that authority came through the chain of greater to lesser gods down to and through the Emperor to the important to the less important to the lowest classes (Ciampa & Rosner). If you were at the bottom, you wouldn’t expect your glory to come from God.
Everyone has a head. It is not just wives (and daughters). What men do is a reflection of Christ. What women do is a reflection of their man, again, husband but also father.
Arguments against headship are arguments against the image of God which are arguments against God Himself. We have gender confusion ad nauseum in our culture, and in our evangelical culture, even in our corporate worship settings. This is a relevant passage of God’s Word for our day.
What should be on your head? It is a reflection on your head. It is an indication of your understanding of, and standards for, identity.
There is much more to come.
Your marital status may be “single,” but that is not the same as independent. You may be the head of your home, but that doesn’t mean you are on top. Each of you are connected in various ways, to a head, to a family, to a body, to your Maker and Lord. It may be true that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose that God chose You and identifies you for some ways of reflecting glory and not others. May you submit to how great His calling for you is.
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead. (Ephesians 1:17-20a, ESV)