3But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. 4Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. 5But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. 6For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. 7For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. 8For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. 9Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. 1 Corinthians 11:3-9
- Faith Fits us into a Framework
- Equal Rights ≠ Equal Responsibilities
- Freedom of Expression ≠ Expedience of Expression
This passage of Scripture has been a stumbling block for many Believers (and, by extension, for many Churches) in recent times. The marginalization of this passage, and similar ones, likely arose with advent of feminism and the heresies it brought to the Church; especially, concerning the role of women in marriage and the Body of Christ (the fellowship of Believers: The Church).
However, before examining this Scripture passage, it is worth noting that The Bible is the first and only significant religious text to give men and women equal value and equal standing before God (Genesis 1:27; Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 3:28).
Nevertheless, Scripture also makes it clear that men and women have different purposes/functions/roles (Man: Genesis 1:15, 19-20; Woman: Genesis 1:18) and different responsibilities (Women: Ephesians 5:22-24; Men: Ephesians 5:25-29) because of how God made them (1 Peter 3:7).
Now let us examine our text. This passage of scripture makes two intimately related arguments. First, it presents the relationship between husband and wife as part of an organizational structure designed by God.
Second, it uses that structure to conclude that no subordinate member of that organizational structure can operate as a free agent. This second argument is specifically developed in the case of women to deal with a serious problem the Corinthian church was facing, but it has broader application to all Believers. We explore these two themes below.
Happily Harmonizing Heterogeneity without Extinguishing Equality
The passage begins (v. 3) by establishing what could equally be called a chain-of-command or a chain-of-blessing or a chain-of-responsibility. First, it shows that Christ submits to The Father, man submits to Christ and then woman (wife) submits to man (husband)—the implication here is wife submitting to husband as head of the household; the context also presupposes all involved are Believers since the message was addressed to the Corinthian church.
From this organizational structure we see that it is God’s intent to reach man through Christ and to reach woman through a man that is converted (i.e., a man through whom Christ is working, Galatians 2:20). Why God chose this design is an interesting question. But of more importance, is that this is the design He has given to us through His Word. Consequently, this is the design we must adhere to wherever and whenever possible. Expressly, it is not God’s plan to reach men through women.
Sometimes, because there are no Godly men available, God works through a woman to reach men (e.g., Deborah: Judges 4-5). But that is because of the disobedience of men, and not because that is the best arrangement.
Crucially, within the chain-of-command/blessing/responsibility established in v.3 there are two subsets: God and Christ constitute one; man and woman constitute the other. As Scripture tells us, Christ the Son is the equal of The Father (John 10:30; John 17:11; 1 John 5:7): there is no difference in standing, but they have specific roles: e.g., God The Father is The Judge while God the Son (Jesus Christ) is the Saviour, the Advocate. And, as The Judge, God the Father has authority over God the Son the Saviour, the Advocate. This difference in roles and the related difference in authority does not threaten the unity (Philippians 2:5-11) between God the Father and God the Son; rather, it harmonizes God’s relationship to mankind.
Similarly, in the second subset, man and woman have equal standing, but God has given each a different role. God has a work for each man to accomplish and (for most men) God appoints a woman (a wife) suitable to HELP the man complete his tasks successfully. Accordingly, it is God’s plan to work through each husband, as the head of his household, to reach his wife.
Having established the structure in which God desires to operate (v. 3), the application/consequence is added in verse vv. 4-5. To accomplish this task, the concept of covering is invoked. To show His love for The Father, Christ the Son was covered in flesh (Philippians 2:5-8, 1 John 4:1-3); To show his love for Christ, a man must be covered in the Blood of Christ; to show her love for her husband a woman was to cover her head.
Notice that Christ was not diminished by his covering; rather The Father exalts Him because of His humility. Likewise, a woman is not diminished by her covering; she will instead be exalted by a godly husband.
When a woman covered her head in that society, it meant she was not a ‘free agent’; it meant she was in the care of her husband. Accordingly, women who did not cover their heads demonstrated their independence from men AND from God. Therefore, v. 5 is also telling us that any woman that wants to do the work of God (praying and prophesying) must submit herself to the plan of God.
That is why Deborah tried (in vain) to get Barak to lead Israel into battle instead of herself. She only agreed to lead, because Barak lacked the faith: Barak refused to be the man God intended him to be (Judges 4:6-9).
Constrained Expression, for Godliness, is not Repression
Head covering (absent or present) has lost its meaning in most modern societies. However, Holy Scripture remains relevant for all eras (1 Timothy 3:16, Matthew 24:35). Therefore, to apply this Scripture to today’s setting let us look more carefully at what the passage is saying.
First, let us consider whether Paul, the writer of the letters to the Corinthians, was instituting a law for women. The answer is straightforward: NO. Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, devoted much of His writing arguing against legalism (e.g., Romans 2-10 and the entire Book of Galatians) and even confronted Peter when he slipped into its influence (Galatians 2:11-16).
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” ~ Galatians 2:16
Therefore, it would be contradictory for Paul to impose a law regarding the dress code of women.
Since the issue is not a legal one, it means Paul must have been concerned about how the women were using their freedom in Christ. In the preceding chapter, he wrote:
“All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” ~ 1 Corinthians 10:23
(which is a repeat of 1 Corinthians 6:12). In light of this verse, it is clear that the women had the freedom to wear, or not wear, a covering. The question is whether it was expedient for them not to. In other words, was the Body of Christ, the Church benefited by women with covered heads or not.
It is sufficient to stop at this point, because this is the primary issue governing the conduct of men and women. As Paul had written earlier in 1 Corinthians 8, in whatever we do, we must consider whether our actions, our customs, are advancing the cause of The Kingdom of God. Anything that causes our brother/sister to stumble, anything that sullies the name of Christ must be cast aside, because we do not live for ourselves alone.
“Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way… Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another… It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” ~ Romans 14: 13, 19, 21
Nevertheless, the historical context of the Corinthian church is illustrative. At the time the letter to the Corinthians was written, sexual immorality was becoming increasingly rampant and brazen. Men living in the Roman Empire had long been indulging in fornication, adultery and other deviant behavior: sexual immorality was commonplace. Hence, most of Paul’s letters to the early Christian churches/communities devoted some space to warnings to stay away from sexual immorality: it has no place in the Body of Christ: The Church.
Initially, married women were somewhat shielded from the immorality because their head covering indicated that they were in the care of their husbands and, therefore, unavailable for extra- or pre-marital affairs. Conversely, prostitutes wore no head covering as a sign of their availability for whatever the men of Corinth had in mind. However, as more women decided to compete for men’s attention it started to become fashionable to go without head covering: now the men would notice them.
When churchwomen started to adopt this fashion, the Corinthian church “had a problem”. Mixed messages were (inadvertently or not) being sent to both believing and non-believing men: Would she…? Or, wouldn’t she…? Clearly, in the context of the Corinth, a woman without a head covering was not (spiritually) edifying. Accordingly, Paul was quite alarmed.
In Roman law you were what you wore. This legal principle became highly significant because, beginning in the first century A.D., a “new” kind of woman emerged across the Roman empire — a woman whose provocative dress and sometimes promiscuous lifestyle contrasted starkly with the decorum of the traditional married woman. What a woman chose to wear came to identify her as either “new” or “modest.”
…the presence of the “new” woman was also felt in the early church, where Christian wives and widows were exhorted to emulate neither her dress code nor her conduct. ~ Excerpt from Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities by Bruce W. Winter (For additional information, also see Bryn Mawr Classical Rev. 2004.06.09; by E. G. Millender, Reed College)
This brings us to the application of the text to our modern circumstances. Christian men and women must comport themselves in a way that honours God and neither distracts nor detracts from the Cross of Christ.
Head covering is no longer the signal women use to attract men’s attention. In the present day, that signal is immodest attire. In the public square women unabashedly use clothing (or the lack thereof) to “catch the eye” to make themselves alluring. And they revel in the attention received. But this is normal and to be expected.
The trouble, as in Corinth, comes when this is carried into the church. When Christian women are indistinguishable in their attire/dress from worldly women, “we have a problem”. It could be argued that Paul would be far more shocked by churchwomen today, than those he reprimanded in Corinth.
This issue is further exacerbated, because far too many men are complacent about it; rather than willing to stand against it. Just as Christ is yields to the instruction of The Father (John 5:19, 30; John 8:28), and men must yield to the instruction of Christ (John 8:31), so too must women yield to the instructions of their husbands (Genesis 3:16; Ephesians 5:23, 33; 1 Peter 3:7): to the Glory of God! (Women without husbands must receive instruction from the words of Christ.) But, if any husband fails to teach/guide/instruct the women in his care, then he bears (partial) responsibility for the results.
We note here that there are godly women married to ungodly men, this is often a difficult circumstance for such wives. However, it is somewhat beyond the scope of the present discussion and will hopefully be addressed in a future article. Nevertheless, The Bible speaks clearly on this matter in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.
God the Father has provided a structure for how husbands relate to their wives. Moreover, He models this structure through His own relationship with Christ the Son. The structured relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son did not diminish Christ; rather, through it Christ gained mankind’s salvation and was exalted. Similarly, the structured relationship between husband and wife does not diminish the wife. Rather, in it she is her most productive, and by it she glorifies God, and is herself exalted.
“Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies… Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Proverbs 31:10, 28
Problems arise in the Body of Christ when either husbands or wives stray from their responsibilities in the framework that God has provided. A man not submitted to Christ cannot provide the spiritual leadership that is his responsibility. Likewise, a woman not submitted to her husband cannot bring honour to God.
When men are unyielded to Christ, they go their own way, expressing their independence from Jesus by their deeds. Similarly, when women haven’t submitted to their husbands it also shows in the decisions they make. In particular, rebellious men and women are both susceptible to the corrupt and deceptive values promoted by the world around them.