This morning, we continue in our study of I Corinthians, and it’s a relief to be out of those difficult sections, where Paul was talking about things like church discipline and sex and lawsuits and divorce and remarriage and meat offered to idols, and now we can finally get into something much less controversial like women’s role in the church….which is where we find ourselves this morning as we get into chapter 11.
It’s important for us to understand that this a subject which is very complex, which is why it is being so hotly debated in so many churches today. And, as I prepared this lesson, I was reminded that this is a topic where not all of us here in this room fully agree with one another. But we continue to study and learn and grow. And we extend grace to one another as we are learning and growing. So, I hope that you will extend that same grace toward me as I try to guide us through this section.
Paul’s intent in this letter is not to say everything there is say on this subject of women’s roles. Paul is dealing with a very specific situation in Corinth which will give us some insight, but to fully understand the topic of women’s roles, it’s important to see what the Bible has to say from Genesis to Revelation.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time to do that in the course of a 30-minute sermon. So, this morning, I’m going to be focusing on the one issue that Paul is dealing with here in this chapter and make some application for us today. When we get to chapter 14, Paul will have something more to say about women’s role in the church and when we get there, we’ll spend a little more time with it.
But, for now, let’s jump into chapter 11. Paul begins in verse 1 by saying, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1)
This verse actually seems to fit better with the previous section. In other words, when they divided up the chapters, it would have been better if they had put this verse at the end of chapter 10 instead of the beginning of chapter 11.
Paul spent three chapters talking about our liberty in Christ, our freedom, our rights. But he said that those of us who are Christians should be willing to give up those rights for the sake of the gospel, and once again, Paul tells us that he set that example for us. There were many times that Paul was willing to give up his rights if it would help bring someone to Christ. And the reason Paul was willing to give up his rights was because he was following the example of Jesus, who gave up his rights for our sake.
Verse 2, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” (I Corinthians 11:2)
Paul says, “I appreciate the fact that all of you are following the teachings that I shared with you while I was in Corinth.” But you can probably sense what the next word is going to be. “I appreciate the fact that you are all are following what I told you. But…..”
Allow me to read between the lines a bit. It is very likely that while Paul was in Corinth, he helped them to understand the great value of women in the kingdom of God. Paul was a champion for women in the first century. And it’s very likely that that’s what Paul is talking about when he says, “You have listened to what I said and you’ve taken it to heart.”
But, as has been the problem throughout this letter, the Corinthians took that liberty and ran with it. They developed this attitude of “We’re under grace now, so anything goes!” We’ve seen that attitude for the past three chapters, and now it appears to be more of the same here in chapter 11. The Corinthians have taken their freedom in regard to women’s roles a bit too far and it’s caused some problems and Paul has to reel them back in and remind them of some things.
Verse 3, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (I Corinthians 11:3).
There are a couple of things here that we need to notice. The first has to do with the Greek words for man and woman, husband and wife. Many of us grew up with the King James Version which says, “the head of the woman is the man.” And we built our doctrine in the church around this idea that all men are the head over all women.
Now, if we were pressed, we would have denied it. If you were to ask any woman in the church, “Do you believe that every man in this church has authority over you and you have to submit to each and every one of them?”, they would have said, “Absolutely not!” But, despite that fact, we have continued to fall back on this idea that all men have authority over all women. But that’s not what Paul is saying here.
The Greek words that are used here are almost always translated throughout the rest of the New Testament as husband and wife. And I think the English Standard Version along with many other translations, translates it correctly when it says that “the head of a wife is her husband.” And while there are many people in this world who would disagree with this, we believe that husbands are the head of the family, and that wives have a responsibility to be in submission to them. Not in submission to all men, but in submission to their husband.
In fact, Paul shows us in Ephesians chapter 5 how the relationship between husbands and wives demonstrates the relationship between Jesus and the church. Jesus is the head and the church is to be in submission to him, just as the husband is the head and the wife is to be in submission to him.
The second thing that we need to pay attention to here is the word “head”. Whenever I talk with couples who are about to get married, we always talk about what it means for the husband to be the head of the wife, and there are a couple of obstacles that we always need to work through. One of them is that some people have this idea that if the husband is the head of the wife, that means he gets to be the boss and tell her what to do and she has to do everything exactly the way he tells her to do it.
But Paul makes it clear in Ephesians 5 that husbands are to follow the example of Jesus Christ who, as the head of the church, “loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25). Being the head carries with it authority, but it also means being responsible, taking care of the wife, loving her and sacrificing whatever is needed for her well-being.
The second obstacle we need to get past is this idea that somehow role relates to value. We think if the husband is head of the wife, that means we’re saying that he is more valuable than the wife, and she is less valuable than he is. But, when Paul says that “the head of a wife is her husband”, he’s not talking about superiority or inferiority. He’s simply talking about authority.
The truth is, in all realms of society, there is headship – there is authority and there is submission. It’s in government. There’s police officers. There’s authority in the military. There are bosses who hire people to work for them. Virtually everything we deal with in society involves some sort of an authority structure. And God has ordained that there is an authority structure within the family.
But being the head doesn’t make you more important or more valuable. And you all understand this out in the world. Many of you have bosses. You work for people who hired you to do a job. But that doesn’t mean your boss is better than you are. You may be smarter than your boss. You may be more talented than your boss. But your boss still has authority over you.
We see this even in the example of Jesus. “The head of Christ is God.” Jesus submitted to the authority of God the Father. We see it in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”
Which was just one example of what Jesus said in John 5, “I carry out the will of the one who sent me, not my own will.” (John 5:30, NLT). Jesus submitted to the Father. Why? Because “the head of Christ is God.”
But that doesn’t mean that Jesus was less valuable than the Father or that he was somehow second-class. Jesus was God. As John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1). In terms of value, Jesus the Son and God the Father are both equal in value, equal in essence. But in terms of their role, “the head of Christ is God.”
So, Paul says here, “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Now, any time there is a situation where there is a head, someone who has authority over someone else, there are two possible responses to that. You can either rebel and refuse to submit to that authority, refuse to recognize that head, or you can willingly choose to submit, as Jesus willingly submitted to his Father.
And that’s what Paul tells wives they need to do in Ephesians 5, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:20). You and I both know that is not something that wives typically want to hear. I heard about a marriage ceremony where the preacher asked the bride, “Do you promise to love, honor and obey your husband?” To which she responded, “Do you think I’m crazy?” About that time, the husband said, “I do.” And things really went downhill from there.
But, in all seriousness, anyone who is not a Christian is going to be resistant to this idea that the husband is the head and the wife is to submit. It’s viewed as outdated and archaic, something out of the Stone Ages. Sometimes even Christians have trouble accepting it. Which was the problem with some of the women in the Corinthian church.
Verse 4, “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.” (I Corinthians 11:4-6).
Our first reaction to this is to ask, “What in the world is this all about?” Just like with the meat which had offered to idols, we’re dealing here with a situation that was rather unique to the first century. This is not a situation that we find ourselves in today. But if we can learn what the principle behind all of this is, then we can make some application into our own lives. And at the heart of what Paul is talking about here is the subject of authority and submission.
The key to this passage is verse 5, “Every wife who prays or prophesies with her head [her physical head] uncovered dishonors her head [her husband].” (I Corinthians 11:5). Paul is saying that every Christian wife needed to wear some sort of a head covering to show respect to her husband.
In that day, it was customary among the Greeks and Romans, but especially among the Jews that a woman had to cover her hair after she was married. This requirement applied when she was in the presence of any men other than her husband, her son, or her father.
There were a several reasons for this. One is that married women were expected to behave with a higher level of modesty than single women, due to the commitment they made to their husbands, and covering their potentially alluring hair was one aspect of this.
A second reason is that a head covering was a sign of a woman’s married status, which (among other things) would indicate to men that she was unavailable to them. You might think of it as being similar to a wedding ring. If a married man or woman goes out in public without their wedding ring on, it sends a message. And Paul says to these women, this is not a message that you want to be sending.
Now, there’s something that we need to notice here that may not be obvious right away, but it’s significant. Paul is rebuking these women for praying and prophesying with their hair uncovered. That means that these women were praying and prophesying in the presence of men other than their husband.
If they were praying or prophesying in private, they would not have needed the hair covering. If they were praying or prophesying only in the presence of other women, they would not have needed the head covering. They only needed the hair covering if they were in the presence of any men other than their husband, their son, or their father.
And that’s significant because Paul does not rebuke them for praying and prophesying in the presence of men. The problem was they were doing it with their heads uncovered; in other words, they were doing it with a rebellious spirit. They were doing it without recognizing the leadership that God had established in their home.
It would appear that, that in the Corinthian church, there were some women who decided that since we are all one in Jesus Christ, since males and females are now on an equal standing before God, then they did need not demonstrate with a head covering that they were under anyone’s authority.
And, in essence, Paul says to these women: “If you’re going to give up your head covering, then just go all the way and shave your head, and identify yourself with the women of this world, in all their shame.” Because people in this world may not recognize what God has established, but it is important that those of us who are Christians do.
So, does this mean that women need to cover their heads when they worship God in the church today? The answer is no, because the problem was not the head covering. The problem was that these women were not willing to show their submission to their husbands in public. And wearing a head covering today doesn’t have anything to do with showing submission.
Paul anticipates those who might ask the question, “Why is it that the husband gets to be the head and the wife doesn’t? So, he says in verse 7, “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” (I Corinthians 11:7-10)
Paul goes back to Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and you really have to do that to understand this issue. In Genesis 1, we’re told that God created both men and women in the image of God.
But in chapter 2, we find that God creates Adam first. He creates Adam out of the dust of the ground. He’s like a potter working with a piece of clay. It’s a picture of God being intimately involved with the creation of Adam, who is made in His image. But then God says, “Adam’s alone and that’s not good!” Throughout the creation, God has said, “This is good, this is good, this is good.” This is the first time that God has said, “This is not good.”
And so, God creates Eve for Adam. But when God creates Eve, he doesn’t take the dust of the ground and form her like he formed Adam. He reaches in and takes a rib out of Adam and forms Eve out of Adam, which is a completely different process.
It’s as if God says, “I want to create someone in my image” and so God creates Adam. And then he says to Adam, “I’m going to create Eve out of you and she’s going to be created for you just like you were created for me.”
And I think the picture here is very similar to the picture we see in Ephesians 5, except that instead of husband and wife picturing Jesus and the church, we see Adam and Eve picturing God and his people. Their marriage relationship is a picture of how intimate God wants to be with us.
So, when Paul says, “Man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”, it’s not just about Adam and Eve. It’s about God and his people. “God does not originate from people, but people from God; for indeed God was not created for people’s sake, but people for God’s sake.”
That’s the picture; that’s the imagery. God says to Adam and Eve, “Your relationship will demonstrate for all eternity the relationship that I have with my people. I am the creator God. You didn’t create me; I created you! And I created you out of Me, so that you would know me and you would love me and you would serve me.” That’s the theological basis behind the idea of gender roles in marriage.
But again, being the head doesn’t mean being superior. It doesn’t mean that husbands are more important than wives or that husbands are any better than wives. So, to make sure that he gets that point across, Paul says in verse 11,
“Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” (I Corinthians 11:11-12)
At the end of the day, we’ve got to recognize that we all need each other. In any good marriage, we’re partners, we work together. I need Sueanne and she needs me.
And if any husband wants to get caught up in the idea that he is so much better than his wife, Paul says you would do well to remember that while it may be true that the first woman came from a man, it’s also true that, ever since then, every man has come out a woman.
So, the obvious conclusion is that we need each other, and more importantly, we can’t exist apart from understanding that we all need God!
Paul closes out this section with these words:
Verse 13, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 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. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” (I Corinthians 11:13-16)
Paul is simply saying that all you have to do is look at nature and you can see that there is clearly a difference between a man and a woman…and I hope that’s not new information for you! In their culture, a lot of that was symbolized by their hair. In both Jewish and Greek cultures, short hair was common for men. And, in almost every culture, women typically wear their hair longer than men.
But Paul is not saying here that a woman can’t have short hair and a man can’t have long hair. If he is, then who gets to decide how short is too short and how long is too long? Paul is simply saying that there’s a difference between men and women. And the fact that women throughout history have used their long hair as a covering for their head was an indication that they should have been willing to wear a head covering when they prayed.
Verse 16 is an interesting verse. Paul basically says that there are always going to be people who will want to argue about this, people that are contentious. And Paul says in essence, “Hey, here’s the deal; this is the way it is in all the churches and I really don’t want to argue about it; so, I’m sorry if you don’t like it.” And that closes out his discussion of this matter.
Now, as I said, Paul is going to come back in chapter 14 to say more about the role of women, but let’s close this morning by making some application of what Paul has said here in this passage.
Those of us who are husbands and wives need to recognize that our marriage is supposed to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and his church. That means that those of us who are husbands need to properly represent the sacrificing love of Christ in our marriage. I believe my calling, my responsibility, is to represent Christ in my home, to sacrifice myself in order to create an environment where Sueanne and our children can flourish as the people God has made them to be. That’s my assignment.
And the role of the wife is to represent the redeemed people of God, the church, and how we are to submit to the sacrificing love of Christ. And, at the end of the day, it looks like this: As a father, when I tucked my children into bed at night when they were little, I should be able to say, “If you want to know how much Jesus loves you, just watch how much I love your mother.” That’s the picture; that’s the theological picture.
And mothers need to be able to say to their children, “If you want to know how we are supposed to respond to the love of Jesus, just watch how I respond to your father.”
It’s a beautiful theological picture that is played out in the home. It’s not that every man is the head of every woman, but the husband is the head of the wife. And through their relationship, we teach the world something about Jesus and his church, about the relationship that God has with his people.