1 Corinthians 11:11-16
October 14, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:05 in the audio file.
Or, The Glory of Heads, Hoods, and Hairdos
It’s time to finish working through this long paragraph, answer some remaining questions, and deal with a few implications for our relational worship.
I’ve said a couple times that this is a difficult passage. It is also an important and relevant passage, and it is a subject that Paul wanted us to understand. He commended the Corinthians for following the apostolic tradition he delivered to them, and in verse 3 he wrote, “I want you to understand….” It’s true that some of what he goes on to say is more mysterious to us than it probably was to the Corinthians because they had his previous in-person teaching, but it’s also true that these things were written for our understanding (and glory!) as well.
When we began to go through this section on head coverings I listed some sixteen questions that really needed answering. We’ve done some of that already in verses 2-10, but there are a few more crucial things in verses 11-16 and then some final thoughts on whether or not head coverings are for today.
Verses 11 and 12 qualify verses 9-10. Paul recounted both the historical fact that woman came after and from man and the divine intention that the woman was created for the man, not visa versa. These are creational realities that could have been different, but are true in fact because they are true by God’s design.
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman. Stated positively, woman and man are mutually dependent. Both halves of the statement are true by logical equivalence. A woman, true of a wife but true of all women, needs a man for her to come into existence, and likewise a man needs a woman for him to come into existence. Neither comes to live without the other. This is true in the Lord, and so verses 8 and 9 can’t be used by (Christian) men to claim their superiority over women.
To make it clearer, for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. In the first case, God made Eve from Adam’s side. After that, every man has been born with a mother. Even Eve’s name is related to her being “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). As I said a moment ago, both a man and a woman are necessary to make more little men and little women.
And of course, All things are from God. The process originates with Him. It’s all His idea, His arrangement, His doing. God is the head of Christ who is the head of man who is the head of woman. This truth reminds us of reasons both to be thankful for what comes from God and to be submissive to God who determines what comes. The diversity comes from Him, the equality comes from Him, the interdependence comes from Him, the boundaries and blending and blessings of it all come from Him.
These verses provide further evidence of the principle distinction in creation between men and women.
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? He asks the question, and even urges them to make the decision. But this is a rhetorical device and question. He just spent eleven verses making his case that of course she should pray (and prophesy, verse 5) in a way that shows submission to her head. Paul isn’t offering them liberty of interpretation here any more than when he said in in the previous chapter, “judge for yourselves” whether the communion cup is a participation in the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:15-16). The answer is unmistakable.
Another rhetorical question demonstrates how obvious the answer is. Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
We are people who love the Bible. That is good; sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the ultimate authority. But note what the Bible says: nature teaches with authority so much so that disgrace or glory depends on submitting to nature’s lessons. We know Psalm 19 that the heavens declare the glory of God so that all men should see His handiwork. We know Romans 1 that creation reveals the existence and power of God so that all men should honor God and thank Him. And here in 1 Corinthians 11 we read that nature makes it so that all men know how long to cut their hair.
We could call this natural law. It is the way that God made the world to work, not merely a scene of nature that we see, but a sense of what is fitting. All things are from God, including man and woman, including what grows out of their heads, and on their faces. Take one example. Epictetus, a Cynic-Stoic philosopher in Paul’s day, said “Woman is born smooth and dainty by nature (φύσις)…If [a man] removes his hair…he is a man who wishes to be a woman.” (quoted by Thiselton) Male and female, where hair grows and how long, is not a social construct. Of course not everyone pays attention to these creational laws; not every pays attention to biblical laws, but that does not make them less of a given by God. And of course there are exceptions, but exceptions argue for the norm not against it. Throughout history there are examples of some men with long hair (i.e., Samson), even some people groups with long hair, but how many of them claimed to be doing it for Jesus? Likewise there are examples of some women with short or even shaved hair. But nature teaches, through conscience and through observation, that long hair is glory for a woman. And ever since Paul wrote this letter there is also explicit Scripture, For her hair is given to her for a covering.
If her hair was the head covering, as some interpret the passage, we might have a little easier application. But not only would the previous arguments not make sense (as in verse 6, “If a wife will not [have long hair], then she should cut her hair short”?), Paul uses a different word in verse 15 for “covering” (περιβολαίου) rather than all the previous verses for “covering” (κατακαλύπτω). Plus, Paul only required the use of the symbol when praying and prophesying, not all the time. That would require a certain style when Paul is talking about a certain length.
Nature has not given us measurements in the metric or imperial systems. “Long” and “short” are vague words, meaning that their extent is unclear. Paul does not provide rulers or a rule; he doesn’t have to, because we already know. Is it in the gut? I don’t know where the sense of what fits with nature is located, but there are more masculine haircuts (lengths and styles) for men and also more feminine haircuts (lengths and styles) for women. The ideas we have in mind for men and women are not merely socially constructed (though they do have cultural details), let alone constructed by the patriarchy for sake of oppressing others. The disgrace and glory are built in by nature by God.
Though Paul commended the Corinthians for following what he had told them, that doesn’t mean that everyone in Corinth agreed. Even after hearing this section they might want to argue. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. The key word, contentious is φιλόνεικος, “loving victory,” “i.e., striving to contend, or trying to force an argument for the sake of becoming ‘a winner’ rather than primarily to discover truth” (Thiselton).
This could mean that Paul doesn’t want to fight about it and that churches shouldn’t fight about it. It could be saying that head coverings is not something to argue over.
However, that would defeat his own purpose in the previous fourteen verses and do away with his commendation. For that matter, his arguments for at least the principle of the thing if not the actual symbol are based on Trinitarian, creational, and natural distinctions that can’t be argued with. So instead, when he says that we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God, he means it as if he said that the practice of head coverings is something bigger than Corinth. If some in Corinth want to live in the margin, they won’t have his commendation.
Let’s summarize and then deal with a couple things.
This paragraph teaches that husbands and wives, and by implication men and women, worship in relation to one another and should recognize their relations before God. Those relations are relations of glory in the order God made: God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, man is the head of his wife (and his daughters). This headship is an authority, though man’s authority is not absolute authority like God’s (nor is every man the head of every woman, but only a husband head of his wife). The symbol of submission in worship between a (Christian) man and Christ is an uncovered head because men in Paul’s day typically covered their heads in worship to false gods. The symbol of submission in worship between a wife and her husband is a covered head, an external cloth over her hair. It is more than modesty, it is relational, and is to be worn when she is in a setting of public praying or prophesying, which based on 1 Corinthians 14 (and 1 Timothy 2), would be done with other women or children. This symbol for women was recognized in the Roman culture and Paul affirmed it in the church as apostolic tradition. It has no Old Testament precedence or pattern. Short hair on men relates to wearing no hood, and long hair on women relates to wearing a hood or other covering. Even nature teaches these sorts of distinctions between the genders, and those who want to argue about it have problems.
I have never been in a church that encouraged all the women to wear cloth head coverings in church or women’s ministry activities. I read half a dozen commentaries on this passage, all considered conservative and most complementarian rather than egalitarian, and only John Calvin wrote that women should actually wear head coverings today (meaning his day, about 500 years ago). So I bought and read a book just about head coverings, titled Head Coverings: A Forgotten Christian Practice for Modern Times, written by a man who started the Head Covering Movement. This gives away his conclusion.
Surprising to me, I really enjoyed the book. I appreciated the exegesis he presented, the history he cited, the resources he referenced, and the tone he took. He made a very compelling case, and, if I were to change my position, I could see his point from the passage about it being right for women in every time and place to wear a cloth covering on their heads when involved in praying and prophesying.
In addition to what I had already been studying, his conclusion about verse 10 stood out to me the most.
That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels (1 Corinthians 11:10).
While he gave a few different possibilities for what “because of the angels” could mean, he also pointed out, it doesn’t matter because the cultural symbol of authority, at least in this verse, isn’t about cultural norms but about angelic observation. That doesn’t depend on century or geography.
If you are interested, I do highly recommend the book, especially to read a current, Bible-based, passionate but not the wrong sort of pushy take on why head coverings are right. You may read it and be convinced, and I would understand.
But, I disagreed on a couple key points and on the final conclusion. What strikes me is that an uncovered head for men in worship is not a “people of God” thing first but a way to show the people of God in contrast to idol worshippers. It goes against Paul’s culture on purpose. And a covered head for women in worship goes with Paul’s culture on purpose. There is no biblical precedent or pattern for the symbol, the symbol is cultural.
1 Corinthians 11:2-16 absolutely applies today in principle. The reality of headship is a creational reality, and it is pre-fall, meaning that relational authority is not a result of sin. A husband has authority over his wife, and though both are saved by faith, the husband still has responsibility for her in a way that is appropriately recognized in a corporate worship context, not just in the privacy of their home. The Trinity is not limited to a certain century, and nature is not limited to a certain location. These things do matter for us, and for all believers wherever they may worship.
But symbols change. What symbol(s) do we have for showing a woman’s femininity and submission to her husband? Our culture has worked hard to try to do away with meaning in externals, and Christians are symbol gullible. We are also pride biased. Both, actually, are due to a failure to see ourselves in relation to others. A symbol doesn’t have agreed upon meaning if I am over here defining it how I want to, which also means if I define it for me, you can’t criticize (without offending me) my identification.
If a hood isn’t the symbol today, what is? A wedding ring isn’t the same because both men and women wear it; a ring doesn’t show gender distinction or submission. Neither do dresses versus pants. Hair length, while not Paul’s point, is a cultural battleground. These truths affect our worship, and we ought to be recognizing these relationships in our worship rather than simply wondering how we look.
There are still remaining application questions:
These verses are against competition, against self-advertisement, against glory as grabbed for. But this is not against glory for you, but glory for you as God gives it. Get glory the right way; glory reflected in our rightly ordered relationships. It is glory to give God glory, it is glory not to seek attention for oneself.
We are worshipping before angels. They are watching the church, they long to look at our salvation being worked out in Christ (1 Peter 1:12). Paul told the Ephesians that he was sent “to preach…the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:8–10). Beloved, use your head to honor your Head, because of the angels.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20–21, ESV)