1CORINTHIANS 11:2-16 – HONOUR AND DISHONOUR IN CHURCH MEETINGS

© Rosemary Bardsley 2015

Paul now moves from the question of food offered to idols and begins to address a range of issues and questions about appropriate worship. It would appear that some of these were raised by the Corinthians and some are raised by Paul. Before he begins he praises the Corinthians that they have remembered 'everything' – all of the 'traditions' [translated 'teachings' in 1984 NIV] that he had 'passed on' to them [verse 2]. These were the common practices for church meetings accepted by the Christian churches. Now it seems that there are additional accepted practices that he had not previously passed on to them, or, if he had, he has to tell them again.

The first of these church customs relates to appropriate dress in church meetings. Note verse 16 where Paul defends his position on this by saying that neither he and his associates nor 'the churches of God' have any other practice than what he has stated – that, when praying and prophesying, men should have their heads uncovered and women should cover their heads. It seems from the strength with which Paul defends this custom, and from his reference in verse 16 to the possibility of some people wanting to be 'contentious' about it, that it was not a broadly accepted custom in the Corinthian church, and that this departure from the common practice of the Christian churches was a cause of concern for Paul and his associates.

Paul looks at this custom from a number of different perspectives, all of which come back to one clear issue – that the question of dress in church meetings is a matter of honour.

Read 1Corinthians 11:2-16. Answer these questions:
What church customs are discussed in these verses?

 


What reasons for this custom come from the Bible?

What reason comes from culture?

What reason comes from nature?

What does Paul say about glory and honour?

 

 

Before we look further into the meaning and relevance of these verses, note that both the man and the woman are engaged in the same activities: prayer and proclamation. The word translated 'pray' also means 'worship'. The word 'prophesy' refers to speaking forth the word of God.

A. THE BIG PICTURE – A THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE [verse 3]

In the big scheme of things there is a God-given order. This order encompasses not only the created universe - man and woman - but also exists within the very nature of the triune God. I have chosen to start with Paul's third statement about this, because this statement helps us to understand the first two. It is a benchmark that sets both meaning and boundary.

A.1 The head of Christ is God
There is order within the Trinity. This order does not undo or negate the equality and identity of essence between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each is equally and essentially God. This is very clear from the testimony of Jesus and is affirmed by the apostles.

Study these verses affirming this equality and oneness:
About the Father and the Son:
John 10:30
John 12:44,45
John 14:6-9
Romans 9:5
Colossians 1:19; 2:9
1John 5:20

About the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
John 14:16 [where 'another' means 'another of the same kind']
John 14:18,23 [where the coming of the Spirit is the coming of the Father and the Son]

This divine order, therefore, does not in any way diminish the divine equality.

The complete submission of the Son to the Father is reported by the New Testament writers:

Hebrews 10:7: 'I have come to do your will, O God ...'

John 5:19: 'the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.'

John 8:28,19: 'I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me … I always do what pleases him.'

Living under the authority of another does not mean inferiority of person, role or action. The quotes from John clearly state that the words and actions of the Son are identical to those of the Father. This equality of person, word and action is further expressed in John 5, where we read that the Father has given to the Son the authority of life and death and the authority of all judgment [verses 21-26], and requires that everyone should 'honour the Son just as they honour the Father' [verse 23]. Jesus then added 'He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.' [This reference to honour puts us in touch with the key issue in 1Corinthians 11:1-16, which Paul begins to address in verse 4.] The 'head' is honoured when the one submissive to the 'head' is honoured. If the one who is under authority is not honoured, then the 'head' is not honoured.

Jesus summed up his life in his prayer to his Father when he said: 'I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do' [John 17:4]. In glorifying the Father he also glorified himself, as later verses in this prayer make clear. The Father's glory is the Son's glory. When the Father is honoured, the Son is honoured. When the Son is honoured the Father is honoured.

Our automatic human thought that 'headship' indicates superiority of being and superiority of action cannot be sustained when we look at what it means that 'the head of Christ is God'. Some might argue, and they have indeed done so, that this phrase refers to the human Jesus – that God is head of the human Jesus, not the divine Son. But the verses quoted above rule out such a limitation of meaning; Jesus specifically speaks of the relationship between himself as 'the Son' and God as 'the Father'.

Before we move on from this headship of God over Christ, it is necessary to note that the submission of the Son to the headship of the Father is both willing and natural. It is part of the very nature of the Son to act in perfect alignment with the Father. It is not forced. It is intrinsic. Their essential unity and equality excludes the possibility of any independent or rebellious action on the part of the Son. The difference between them exists only in terms of relationship, role and responsibility.  

A.2 The head of every man is Christ
Paul is not here speaking of 'man' with the meaning 'human' or 'person'; he is speaking of 'man' as distinct from 'woman'. [There are two Greek words translated 'man' – anthropos refers to 'man' as a human person; aner refers to man in distinction from woman. It is aner that Paul uses throughout this section of his letter.] Paul is, therefore, specifically stating that Christ is head of the male person.

There are two concepts that need to be excluded here.

[1] Paul is not by this inferring that Christ is not also head of every woman. That Christ is head over every woman is very evident in the Bible, where Christ is presented as Lord of all, head over all things, and head of the church.

Suggested reading:
Romans 9:5
Romans 10:9-13
1Corinthians 8:6
Philippians 2:9-11
Colossians 1:15-18.

His purpose is not to differentiate between man and woman in terms of their position under the headship of Christ, but to point out that the man lives under the headship of another. Paul's statement that 'the head of the woman is man' comes after he has stated the truth that the man, the male, is himself a person under the authority of Christ.

[2] Nor is Paul inferring that the man lives under the headship of Christ perfectly or spontaneously, like Christ lives under the headship of God. He is specifying the role and responsibility of the man in terms of the relationship between the man and Christ.

The man is neither autonomous nor independent. Although he can rebel and do as he pleases, he ought not. He is under the headship of Christ.

From the example of God as head of Christ, we can conclude that for Christ to be 'head of every man' means that when the man honours Christ the man himself is honoured. Paul will pick this up in verse 4.

A.3 The head of every woman is man
In the authority structure of which Paul is speaking the head of the woman is man.  Just as Christ is under the authority of the Father, and the man is under the authority of Christ, so the woman is under the authority of the man. This is the God-appointed order of things. Paul is most likely here thinking of what is called 'the order of creation'. He takes this point up in verses 8 and 9.

The inclusion of the submission of Christ to the Father immediately sanctifies and glorifies the whole concept of living under a 'head'. It is not something that should threaten a woman. The woman ought not to feel inferior to the man because of this relationship to the man in terms of his role and responsibility as 'head' and her role and responsibility of living under that headship. Headship and submission are both exemplified in Christ. Nor is it something that should cause arrogance in a man. Christ who is head over the man made himself nothing, gave himself up, in order to gain the eternal well-being of both the man and the woman [see Ephesians 5:22-33]. This sets a very demanding example of what headship means for the man, as Paul points out very strongly in the Ephesians 5 passage.

Continuing the concept of honour demonstrated in 'the head of Christ is God' – when a woman honours the man she herself is honoured. Paul will take this up in the following verses.

B. A QUESTION OF HONOUR [verses 4-15]

As we read through the following verses we realize that Paul's purpose in verse 3 is not to tell women to submit to their husbands. He does that very clearly in other letters [Ephesians 5:22ff; Colossians 3:18] as part of his teaching that submission to the Spirit and to the word of God will be expressed in Christians submitting to each other – seeking the well-being of each other. Similarly, his purpose is not to tell men that they should submit to Christ. The whole of the Scripture commands that. His purpose here in this Corinthians letter is to address a question of honour that arose because of the way some people were dressing. They were dressing in a way that dishonoured themselves. The women were dressing in a way that also dishonoured the men. And the men were dressing in a way that dishonoured Christ.

The point of dress in question was head covering. It appears that the 'tradition' established by the early Christian churches was [1] that men should not cover their heads in church meetings, and [2] that women should cover their heads in church meetings. Just why this tradition was set up is not clear. In the historical/cultural context there were conflicting perspectives, so Paul was not making a simple cross-over from the culture of the day.

Jewish men covered their heads in worship. This is still practised today by conservative Jews.

The Old Testament required priests and Levites to wear head-covering when engaged in their required service [Exodus 29:6,8]. The Old Testament also required Nazarites to never shave their heads or faces [Numbers 6:5], and speaks against priests shaving their heads and trimming the edges of their beards [Leviticus 21:5]. [Both of these are the direct opposite of the standard Paul requires of men in 1Corinthians 11.]

Head covering for women is more easily explained. Jewish culture required married women to wear a veil in public. Both Jewish and some Greek and Roman women covered their heads when praying. On the other hand, some Greek women prayed with uncovered heads. The surrounding culture was very diverse in its attitudes and practices. Apart from the Jewish customs, there was no common standard about female head covering.

About this issue of covered and uncovered heads Paul is quite serious in his teaching. He looks at the question from a range of perspectives and gives a number of reasons why the Corinthian Church should not depart from the traditions established by the churches.

B.1 The honour of the man – another perspective of biblical truth [verse 4]
In direct contrast to the Jewish custom Paul outlaws the wearing of head covering by a man who is praying or prophesying. To do so, he says, 'dishonours his head'. Commentators are divided on this: does Paul mean the man's physical 'head' is dishonoured'? Or, does he mean that Christ, who is 'the head of man' is dishonoured? We have seen above that when Christ is honoured God is honoured, and when God is honoured Christ is honoured. It would seem logical to understand that Paul means when the man is honoured, Christ is honoured, and when Christ is honoured the man is honoured. That is a biblical truth.

But the question is, 'What has this to do with the man not covering his head?' How is Christ, 'the head', dishonoured by a man covering his head?

Perhaps a key to understanding Paul's meaning is found in 2Corinthians 3:7-18. There he refers to Moses who had seen the glory of the Lord, and whose face shone with the reflected glory of the Lord [a reference to Exodus 33:12-23; 34:4-7, 29-35]. When Moses spoke to the Lord his face was uncovered; when he told the people what God had said to him, his face was uncovered. When he had finished he put the veil back over his face. Note: when he talked with God and when he spoke God's message – that is, when he prayed and prophesied – his face was uncovered. He was not veiled.

Paul's point in 2Corinthians 3 is that because we all behold the Lord Jesus the veil is taken away, and with unveiled faces 'we all reflect the Lord's glory' and are being transformed by the indwelling Spirit into ever-increasing glory.

If there is indeed a connection with this passage, Paul's point in 1Corinthians 11:4 is that now that we all see God in seeing Jesus the continued wearing of a 'veil' [head-covering] actually dishonours Christ. It infers that God is still inaccessible, unknowable, unapproachable. Man, by worshipping with open face, demonstrates the glorious truth that all who believe in Christ have permanent, unimpeded access to God. All who believe in Christ, the 'head', now know God. Man, by worshipping with uncovered head, is demonstrating this glorious liberty of the children of God.

By this the man is honoured. By this Christ, 'the head', is honoured, for it is he who has achieved this freedom and this access for us.

[This raises the question: 'But are not women, through Christ, also blessed with this freedom of access and total acceptance in the presence of God?' And the answer is 'Yes.' Paul deals with this in verse 11.]

B.2 The question of the honour or disgrace of the woman [verses 5-6]
A cultural perspective: It appears that the custom of the churches requiring a woman to cover her head had a cultural reason. While, as Paul points out in verse 11, 'in the Lord' there is no difference, there was a strong cultural reason for women to cover their heads. The diverse surrounding culture was non-definitive in its views on head-covering for women; there was broad range of acceptable practices and dress codes, issuing from years of cultural change and assimilation. Jewish women covered their heads in public. The 'normal' Greek society of the time included temple prostitutes, courtesans and strictly secluded wives, all with their expected roles and behaviours. There appears to have been a stigma of immorality/shame associated with women uncovering their heads in public. [An ancient Middle-eastern code required daughters and married women to be veiled, and required prostitutes not to be veiled. In fact, a veiled prostitute incurred punishment (Code of Assura, 1075BC)].

It may be that Paul had the reputation (honour) of the Christian women in his mind.

A biblical perspective: But it may be that Paul's thinking included much more than simple cultural appropriateness. There are a number of biblical perspectives about shaving the head that shed some light on its significance. Paul mentions shaving the head three times in verses 5 and 6. His logic is simple: not covering the head is just as shameful as shaving the head; a woman who does not cover her head might just as well have shaved her head; if shaving her head is a disgrace (an inference of bad reputation) then she ought to cover her head. This raises the question: on what basis is Paul so adamant that shaving the head dishonours the woman? Is it purely the cultural perspective noted above, or is there a deeper biblical reason?

The Bible has a number of things to say about shaving the head [not specifically about women shaving their heads, but head-shaving in general]:

It was part of a cleansing ritual for a person healed of an infectious skin disease [Leviticus 14:1-9].

It was part of a cleansing ritual for a Nazarite when rendered 'unclean' by the presence of a deceased person [Numbers 6:9-21].

In Deuteronomy 21:10-14 there are instructions for a man who wants to take a captive woman as his wife. Part of her cleansing is that her head must be shaved [verse 12]. The context includes two additional elements: that of mourning and dishonour.

In Micah 1:16 shaving the head is expressed as a sign of deep mourning because of the judgement of God.

These biblical references give us two symbolic meanings of a shaved head: (1) the need for cleansing/forgiveness (symbolised by the ritual cleansing) and (2) mourning because of judgement. For the Christian, cleansed by the blood of Christ and beyond the judgement, the shaving of the head is redundant; indeed it is an insult [a dishonour] to Christ.

So in this seemingly unequal application of the head-covering rule in Christian churches, there is a deep equality: that together they demonstrate the reality of the salvation we all, man and woman, possess and enjoy in Christ: that, depicted by the man with uncovered head, we both, in Christ, stand in the presence of God and reflect his glory; and that, depicted by the woman with the covered head, we both stand in the presence of God covered: protected by our position under Christ our Head - protected by the blood of the Lamb from our sin and guilt and from God's judgement.

If this perspective was in Paul's mind, and in the mind of the early Church when they formulated their stance on head-covering, it runs parallel to the analogy Paul gives in Ephesians 5:22ff. There the husband's love for his wife is analogous to Christ's self-denying love for the Church, and the wife's submission to her husband is analogous to the Church's submission to Christ. Certainly Paul has referred to Christ as the 'head' of the man as an analogy of man as 'head' of the woman [1Corinthians 11:3]. It is possible, as indicated above, that the uncovered head of the man reflects the fact that Christ is in the presence of God; and that the covered head of the woman reflects the fact that the Church is, in Christ its Head, brought into the presence of God totally accepted, totally secure. Together, with covered and uncovered heads, the man and the woman proclaim/image God in his great eternal plan of salvation, established and implemented in Jesus Christ his Son.

B.3 The order of creation [verses 7-9]
Paul brings up yet another biblical perspective in support of the different customs in the church regarding head covering for men and women. He calls on two separate truths from the creation narratives in Genesis.

[1] Paul appears to ignore the fact that Genesis 1:26,27 teaches that both male and female were created in the image of God. His argument seems to derive its force from the second narrative [Genesis 2:4-25] which clearly states that the man was created first. From this prior creation Paul deduces that 'a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God'. This expansion of 'image' to 'image and glory' is validated by Isaiah 43:7 which states that God created people for his glory. It is also supported by the 2Corinthians 3 passage mentioned above, where it is clear that as we behold the Lord we increasingly reflect his glory. Thus, Paul's first point is that the man, by virtue of being created first, is the image and glory of God. This 'image and glory of God' factor is a further reason that a man should not cover his head [verse 7].

[2] His second point is taken directly from the Genesis 2 narrative: that the woman was created from the man, and for the man. See Genesis 2:18-23. Paul understands both of these to indicate that 'the woman is the glory of man' [verses 7-9]. Just as the man, created by God and for God is the 'image and glory of God', so the woman, created from the man and for the man, is 'the glory of man'. In the Genesis 2 narrative we can clearly see the joy of the man when he first saw the woman. In the woman he sees one equal to himself, a reflection of himself: 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh' [Genesis 2:23]. He did not find this counterpart, this complementarity, this feeling of oneness, with any other creature made by God. But he feels this joy, he sees his own reflected glory, in the woman. Just as he images God, so the woman images him. Obviously, in doing so, the woman is also imaging God.

In terms of the question of 'honour' or 'dishonour/disgrace': if man dishonours himself by covering his head, God is also dishonoured; if woman dishonours/shames herself by uncovering her head, man is also dishonoured. Just as God is dishonoured when we, his image, sin.

B.4 Because of the angels [verse 10].
Along with the creation reason, Paul states yet another reason for the church custom that a woman should cover her head. Here he calls the head covering 'a sign of authority'. The word translated 'authority' is exousia. It is commonly used to refer to power as the right of authority, in contrast to power as physical power [where the word is dunamis]. But it also refers to 'freedom', 'privilege', 'influence'. Commentators disagree about Paul's meaning here. Does he mean the head covering indicated subjection? [that she is under the authority of the man?] Or does he mean the head covering actually endows the woman with the power of freedom, privilege and influence because by the covering she is identified as being a woman of good reputation, under the protection and responsibility of her husband or her father or other male relative? The head covering bestows her with dignity, and therefore with power.

But Paul adds this other reason for the head covering custom: 'because of the angels'. There are two things about angels that were possibly in Paul's mind: [1] that angels are the servants of those who believe in Jesus Christ [Hebrews 1:14]; [2] that angels are involved in the final judgement [Matthew 13:41,42; and multiple references in Revelation]. Both of these give added significance to any Christian behaviour.

There is yet another truth that may be involved: in Ephesians 3:10 Paul teaches that it was God's intention that 'through the church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms'. The church is the vehicle by which God's wisdom in the gospel is clearly demonstrated to all spiritual beings. For this reason the personal conduct of those who comprise the church, including their conduct in prayer and proclamation, is intensely important. Not only is the whole earth looking on, but also the entire heavens. Those same angels who heralded the birth of Jesus [Luke 2]; those same angels who would have come in an instant to set Christ free from the hands of godless men [Matthew 26:53]; those same angels who surround the throne and praise God and the Lamb [Revelation 5:11,12; 7:11,12]; those same angels who ride with the King of kings and Lord of lords when he comes to judge the earth [Revelation 19:14]; those same angels observe the lives of those who claim to belong to Jesus Christ, those who bear his name, those redeemed by his blood. Do they see the church intent on the glory of the Lamb? Or do they see the church exposing themselves to dishonour by their own actions, and thereby bringing dishonour on each other and also on the Lamb?

B.5 A necessary clarification [verse 11-12]
Before concluding his remarks Paul makes a necessary clarification in case anyone misinterprets what he has said to mean an unbiblical inequality of the sexes. The prior creation of the man and the creation of the woman for the man do not infer that the man is better or more important than the woman. Paul intends no such perception of inequality and division.

To rule out such thinking he says:

[1] 'In the Lord, however …' . Because all believers, male and female, are 'in the Lord', no such distinction can be made.  Paul does not expand this here as he does elsewhere. In Galatians 3:26-28, Paul explains that because they have clothed themselves with Christ there is 'neither … male nor female'. They are 'all one in Christ Jesus'. The distinctions Paul is making in 1Corinthians 11 are not a matter of essence, nor a matter of blessedness, nor a matter of significance to God. They are simply a matter of God-ordained order.

[2] 'woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman'. Both man and woman depend on each other.

[3] 'For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman'. The first woman was created from the rib of the first man [Genesis 2:22]; but ever since then every man is born of a woman. Paul mentions this to affirm the mutual inter-dependence of the man and the woman.  

[4] 'Everything comes from God.' Both the man and the woman come from God, regardless of the original creation of the woman from man, and the on-going birth of the man from the woman. Neither the man nor the woman is permitted to see themselves any differently, or to put any inequality between them.

B.6 A reason from nature [verses 13-15]
Paul's final argument regarding the church custom that women should have their heads covered comes from nature. Generally speaking, women's hair naturally grows longer than men's, if left to itself.

The woman's long hair is both her 'glory' and a 'covering'.
For a man to have long hair is 'a disgrace to him'.

His use of this argument from nature clearly infers that this was a common perception of the prevailing culture in Corinth. It would have lacked any force if no one in the society viewed things this way. Obviously there have been and still are cultures that view long hair and head coverings differently. But for Paul, and the churches, this justifies the church custom that a man should pray with his head uncovered, and a woman should pray with her head covered.

C. PAUL'S CONCLUSION

Paul appears to expect that some people will 'be contentious about this', but states that neither he and his associates nor 'the churches of God' have any other practice. What he has instructed them is what is practised in the churches.

D. WHAT ABOUT CHRISTIANS TODAY?

The problem for Christians today is to know what we are supposed to do with these instructions. We simply cannot ignore them, because they are part of the Word of God. Nor can we simply say 'It's a matter of culture' and think that it therefore has nothing to say to us.

Even if it were just 'a matter of culture' we would need to ask 'How should we behave today that achieves the same result that, in the Corinthian culture of the time, the not-wearing and wearing of head coverings achieved?' And 'What were Paul, and the early churches' concerns that made them establish their custom of men praying with uncovered heads and women praying with covered heads?'

Our answer to the second question will help us to determine what is the appropriate dress code [or other behaviour].

Paul's concerns were:

That Christ should be honoured.
That man should be honoured and not disgraced.
That woman should be honoured and not disgraced.

Included in this perspective is the concept of mutual honour and mutual dishonour: that if one is honoured the other is honoured. If one is disgraced the other is disgraced.

This honour and disgrace is in the presence of

God.
Oneself.
Each other.
[By inference] the surrounding community.
The angels.

Dress codes vary from culture to culture. How the man's responsibility of headship is demonstrated by both the man and the woman varies from culture to culture. In addition, cultures disintegrate and cultural standards degrade, to the extent where what is accepted as 'normal' is often both immodest and immoral. Cultural standards regarding the place and role of women also vary, many displaying distorted gender roles that are far from biblical at both extremes.

This variation and degradation of culture is probably why Paul's arguments have a broader and deeper base than 'normal' cultural standards.

Discuss and answer these questions:
Define how recognition of male headship is demonstrated in your culture?


What is the significance of head-covering for men and women in your culture?


Can you think of anything in your culture that achieves what head-covering meant for Paul?


Suggest how 'glory' and 'honour' of both the man and the woman could be achieved in your church today?

 

Discuss how the man/woman analogy of Christ and his Church can be demonstrated/reflected in Church practice today.


Read 1Corinthians 8:9-13. How does this principle of not causing anyone to stumble assist us in deciding what is appropriate dress for men and women in church meetings?


Read 1Corinthians 10:31. How does this verse help us to decide what to wear and how to behave in church meetings?


Discuss to what extent sexually suggestive clothing, body language, attitudes and actions should be avoided by both Christian men and women.


How do such clothing, language, attitudes and actions compromise the glory and honour of Christ, man and woman?