1 Corinthians 11.2-16 is the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter to interpret for the modern audience.
There are several reasons why this is so.
(1) We don’t know the problem that Paul is addressing in these verses.
Paul instructs the church but doesn’t give a reason why he felt it necessary to do so.
(2) Paul didn’t explain some of the images he used. The church in Corinth may have understood them, but the modern church does not.
(3) If we attempt to read the twenty-first culture into first-century values, we will fail to appreciate what part of the message we can understand.
With those qualifiers, let’s seek an appreciation of Paul’s message about the role of men and women in worship.
Order in the Church
The Gospel erased distinctions that divided the people of God.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28).
Even though there is great freedom in Christ, male and female distinctions are not erased.
— 1 Corinthians 11.2-3 – I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.
This passage does not give husbands license to lord it over their wives. That would be a complete contradiction of the Gospel message.
On the other hand, the Gospel does not erase the distinctions God has ordained for men and women.
Head Coverings and Worship
The purpose of worship is to glorify God. If a person’s dress draws more attention to them, then correction is in order.
— 1 Corinthians 11.4-6 – Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head,
But any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head — it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved.
For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.
Romans in Corinth used elaborate head coverings to add to their status in public debate or pagan temple worship.
“Unveiled” is not the best translation. Instead, the contrast is between hair piled on top of the head versus hair that remains loose around the shoulders.
In both instances, the physical appearance of people should not detract from the glory of God.
God is the focus of worship, and human fashions should not detract from his glory and honor.
A Glass Ceiling
Do the next verses presume a “glass ceiling” for women?
The section opposes the elimination of distinctions between men and women. However, the Gospel as a whole liberates women in an unusual way.
Women followed Jesus during his ministry and played an important role in his work.
Women stayed by Jesus’ side at his crucifixion and were the first witnesses to the resurrection.
Paul names several women in his letters, who are influential leaders of the early church.
Men and women do have specific roles in God’s created order.
— 1 Corinthians 11.7-12 – For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.
Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.
For this reason a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman.
For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.
Here are some observations about Paul’s counsel to the church.
(1) Paul does not give enough information to explain the role of angels. Where the Bible is silent, the best course is to be silent, too.
(2) Men and women are dependent on each other.
(3) God has assigned different roles to men and women. Different roles can be accepted for the good of all.
An excessive emphasis on this passage has led some people to believe that Paul hated women.
Contrary to that belief, Paul taught that women had the same right to pray and prophesy in the church as men.
He welcomed female partners in the ministry to join him in the work.
Paul never endorsed the subjugation of women to male dominance. This phenomenon in history is the result of improper interpretation of the Bible.
Paul was passionate that God receives all the glory from the church.
How a man or woman was attired was not to become a focus of attention. Rather, God was the focal point of worship.
Rudy Ross and I have produced a YouTube video on this passage. The video is on the Bob Spradling channel.
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