When Women Worship
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:2–11:16
At first glance, things aren’t always what they appear to be. Take for example those optical illusion pictures that were all the rage a few years ago. When you first looked at them, they seemed to be little more than a colorful pattern of lines, shapes, and dots. But when stared at with full concentration for several seconds, a three-dimensional image took shape that was completely unnoticed when you first looked.
Or take those photographs or drawings which to appear to be one thing to one person, but something quite different to someone else. One of the most well-known is a picture which when viewed from a distance is of Marilyn Monroe, but when approached begins to morph into a likeness of Albert Einstein. Like so many things we encounter in life, what we see is a matter of perspective.
The Bible often seems to be that way...which is why we must read it carefully, study it, meditate on it, and commit it to memory if we are to gain a correct understanding of what the Lord has revealed to us. A case in point is the text found in 1 Corinthians 11, a passage that is generally identified with the subject of “women’s head coverings.” Unless you happen to have been raised in a church where the women in that church wore “head coverings,” then this is no doubt a very strange text to understand and interpret. For those of us who were not brought up in that setting, we may if this passage has any relevance for us today?
Because God has told us that “All Scripture is...profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16), we know that there is something important for us to glean from the unusual text before us today. Therefore, I invite you to join me in exploring 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 2 through 16. While following along in your copy of the Scriptures, please listen as I read these words:
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 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. 4 Every man who prays or prophecies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 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. 6 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. 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. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
It is clear that Paul has moved on from his discussion of “Christian liberty” and is beginning to address a new topic in these verses. Beginning here in chapter 11 and extending through chapter 14, he directs his focus toward disorders within the local church and will offer apostolic correction regarding a number of issues where the Corinthian believers were either in error or moving precariously close to error.
There are some preliminary thoughts that we need to keep in mind as we study this passage together. The first is attempting to rightly understand the logic of Paul’s reasoning. In other words, how does what he tells us in this paragraph fit into the overall argument of the epistle?
In addition, there is the need to clarify how Paul employs certain terms. For example, the word “head” (“κεφαλη”) appears fourteen times in the text we just read. Sometimes it is used literally of a physical head, while at other times it is used metaphorically of someone holding “a position of authority” over another. Our ability to distinguish which is meant where will affect how we interpret the meaning of the passage.
What’s more, we must admit that our knowledge of the prevailing customs of that day—both culturally and ecclesiastically—is far from complete. Indeed, most people—whether they are Christian or not—bristle when they first read or hear this text. One of the problems we face in understanding this passage is approaching it from the perspective of our own cultural context. We hamstring ourselves when we do that because there is a cultural distance between us and the members of the 1st-century Corinthian church. Nevertheless, there is some significant overlap, particularly in terms of the principle behind Paul’s words. The application of biblical principles can take various forms in different cultures and eras of church history, but the principles themselves remain constant and unchanging.
There is something else that needs to be mentioned by way of introduction. While women appear to be the subject of this passage—particularly with regard to the manner in which they worship—it is not solely addressed to them. This text deals with conduct and decorum within the public worship service whenever God’s people gather. Therefore, much of the misunderstanding surrounding this passage stems from the failure to see that both genders are being addressed. Therefore, its application is for the entire church.
The specific issue being addressed in these verses is the matter of “authority.” Specifically, Paul is putting forth the argument that God has ordained a structure of authority within the church that best honors His name. Although the word “authority” (“εξουσια”) appears only in verse 10, it is symbolically represented through Paul’s repeated use of the word “head.” As the writer will make clear later in this letter, “God is not a God of confusion” and “all things (within the church) should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:33 and 40). For that to happen, there must be order, and order necessitates rank and authority. Apart from an authority structure, chaos is certain to reign.
Before proceeding, we should explain that this passage is not merely advocating “authority” for “authority’s sake.” This section is in our Bibles to teach us that God has not only ordained a level of authority within the church, but that His ordained level of authority exists for the purpose of honoring Him and worshiping Him in a way that does not bring Him disrepute.
In these verses, Paul builds his case for a level of authority within the church on three fronts: culture, creation, and custom. In each instance, we must not forget the overriding purpose—stated in chapter 10 and verse 31—to “do all top the glory of God.”
The apostle begins in verses 2 through 6 with an...
Argument from culture (verses 2-6).
Paul introduces the passage with a word of commendation for his hearers. Throughout the early chapters of this letter, he has at times been harsh. Their questions to the apostle have required firm answers. But never should his sternness be mistaken for lack of compassion. His loving concern for these young believers had been apparent since his first visit to that city a few years earlier, and his affection for them had not wavered in the least. Like every good teacher, he knew when and how to blend words of positive reinforcement in among his exhortations of rebuke. Here in verse 2 he cites their remembrance of him, and he commends them for not abandoning the practice of gathering together and for their faithfulness in retaining the apostolic instruction that he had passed on to them.
Paul’s teaching on the matter of “authority” actually begins in verse 3 and is introduced by a mild adversative (“δε”). He starts with a theological premise and moves from there into an argument from culture. The theological premise is found in verse 3, where he writes, “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.” Were we to begin at the end of that verse and work backward, we would see the authority-structure established by God and by which He governs His world, and especially His Church...namely,
is the head of as is the head of
Think theologically with me for a moment. In His being or essence, Jesus Christ is co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. He is no less Deity than they. The distinction within the Trinity is a functional one based on the roles that each plays as members of the Godhead. Jesus the Son has willingly submitted to the will of the Father, a position most clearly demonstrated when He became a man in order to take on human flesh, live sinlessly among us, and die on a cross for our sins. As Paul expressed it elsewhere, “Though he was in the form of God, (He) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
In a similar way—that is, just as Jesus is equal to and in no way inferior to the Father and yet is submissive to Him in His role—so wives are to be to their husbands (cf. Ephesians 5:22). It is not a matter of equality, but rather one of function within the authority structure that God has ordained. This difference does not in any way imply inferiority, just as Christ’s subjection to the Father does not imply His inferiority. That point is often missed by today’s evangelical feminists who feel unfairly passed over for positions of leadership within the church. This order of submission predates the creation of man and woman and finds its source in the relationship that has eternally existed between the members of the Godhead.
The male-leadership structure is intuitively found in nearly every culture and society. Rather by being sexist or misogynistic—or seen as “a chain of command”—it seems to have been a part of God’s original creative design. Admittedly, this order of authority has far too frequently been abused by men, and such abuses are never encouraged by Scripture. But a sad history of abuse does not eradicate or eliminate the principle. The distinction, remember, is not in value, but in the role that the Lord has assigned each gender to fulfill. It should not, therefore be surprising that we find that structure as foundational in the establishment and governing of the local church. And this is what Paul argues in verses 4 through 6, where again we read, “Every man who prays or prophecies 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.”
It should be initially noted from these verses that women are not forbidden from “praying” and “prophesying” in a church service. In fact, it is implied that they will...but not without having their “head” covered. Verse 10 refers to the woman’s “head covering” as “a symbol of authority,” suggesting that when she “prays or prophesies” in a public gathering of the saints it is under the “authority” of God-appointed male leadership. Throughout this passage, therefore, we find a sustained argument for male “headship” and female submission. Nevertheless, the full participation of women within the worship context is assumed.
Paul is not arguing for “head coverings,” per se, but rather for “headship.” Just as many “outward signs” exist for the purpose of depicting “inward realities,” the “head covering” was intended to serve as a demonstration of “authority” within the local assembly whenever the church gathered for worship. That being said, verse 4 then teaches that man has been designated by God as the “spiritual authority” and the one who represents himself and his wife before the Lord. Verses 5 and 6 add that the woman who refuses to submit to that authority dishonors (or shames) her husband...and, by implication, dishonors the Lord as well.
Clearly there are cultural elements contained within this passage that are unfamiliar to us today. But the principle holds true. In fact, the church always does well to ask whenever cultural elements are brought into the church which ones serve to enhance our worship of the Lord, and which ones distract or detract from the honor that He alone deserves. In Paul’s day, the cultural issue was “head coverings,” but in our day we have our own elements. Whether it is our manner of dress, the music we sing to, or any other thing that we adapt from contemporary culture, the ultimate purpose for doing what we do is that our God is honored and praised. It cannot be “every man for himself in the church,” and for that reason God has established a structure of authority that best honors Him.
I am aware that what we have said so far may be provoking “pushback” from some, but likely no more than Paul himself would have received from those within the Corinthian church. Perhaps realizing that his argument from culture would actually appear to be “counter-cultural,” he offers a second line of reasoning in verses 7 through 12. It is his...
Argument from creation (verses 7-12).
In this section, the apostle takes us back to the original creation account found in the opening of Genesis. Both here and in the preceding verses, it is clear that God created and ordained gender distinctions. Jesus Himself affirmed this when He said in Mark 10:6 that “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” So-called “gender-dysphoria,” or the confusion of sex roles, which has become a major social issue in our day, finds no support within Scripture. In fact, it is argued against when we read 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.”
Just to be clear, we know from Genesis 1:27 that both man and woman were created in the “image...of God.” So Paul is not arguing that the man alone has that distinction. What he is saying is that just as man was originally created to be the praise and glory of God, so woman was created for man as his “helper” (cf. Genesis 2:18) and to be his praise and glory. Such a role in no way diminishes the value of the woman. It is helpful to remember that the the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead is also called “the Helper (cf. John 14:26, et al).
Paul’s statement in verse 10, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels,” has created much discussion. There is a sense, so it would seem, in which the “angels”—both holy and unholy, I believe—observe what goes on whenever the church gathers. In other words, as you and I come together in worship, we are “on display” before the “angels” who are watching us. That may be taking place at this very moment! In Ephesians 3:10, we read that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” And in 1 Peter 1:12, we are told that there are “things into which angels long to look” related to our salvation. I see a parallel between those passages and the one here in 1 Corinthians 11. By submitting to the authority of their husbands, wives are actually bearing a testimony to the “angels” related to the inscrutable wisdom of God.
Verses 11 and 12 lend perspective to Paul’s words, lest we be tempted to read into them more than is warranted. There is an interdependent relationship inasmuch as both man and woman are accountable to God. The apostle states it this way: “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.” As Creator, God has placed equal value on the man and the woman, but He has assigned different roles for each to fulfill. And as His people, we have been called to submit to His creative design.
Verse 11 shows us that we need one another. Particularly do we see this in the marriage relationship where “Woman is not independent of man nor man of woman.” Of course, cultures—including our own—try to overturn this all the time. But Paul takes us back to the blueprint that God drew from the beginning, namely that husbands are to be the “spiritual leaders” in the home and their wives are to be their “gifted helpers.” We are called to align our cultural forms, namely our expressions of masculinity and femininity, with God’s good and created norm. We are not granted permission to reverse the order, and thereby usurp God’s authority. Therefore, within “the household of God,” that is, within the local church, we are called to honor God by reflecting this structure.
Throughout history and in different societies that will take different forms, to be sure, but the principle of “authority” within the church must not be allowed to be turned on its head or abandoned. God’s creative structure argues for authority that is representative of that which is found within the Godhead. Therefore, the structures that are in place in our gatherings as a church body should be such that honor God and obey His Word.
Thus far the apostle has argued for God-ordained authority within the church from culture as well as from creation. There remains yet one final line of reasoning, and it is found in verses 13 through 16. It is the...
Argument from custom (verse 13-16).
“Custom” speaks to what is generally acceptable by a given people living within a given context. So in verse 13, Paul calls upon his readers to “Judge for yourselves.” In other words, think logically and exercise discerning wisdom with regard to what he has been saying. The two phrases, “Is it proper” in verse 13 and “Does not nature itself” in verse 14 are both appeals to logic. By “nature” is meant whatever is customarily correct. One writer has defined it as “the inner sense of your outer distinction.” Had Paul been more direct, he might have said, “Men need to be men, and women need to be women.” The blending—and some would say, “obliteration”—of gender roles today is surely a violation of what is “logical,” “proper,” and according to “nature.”
I believe it misses the point to think that Paul is laying down “hard and fast” rules for men’s and women’s hairstyles (or even clothing styles) in verses 14 and 15. Some might argue that. I would say that while matters of style and fashion are both cultural and personal, never should they be allowed to obscure our gender identities or God’s divinely-ordered roles of authority. By way of application then—and this hearkens back to chapter 10 of this same epistle—we should be willing to set aside our personal preferences in these matters in order that God, and not ourselves, be the ones to whom attention is drawn.
I don’t believe that the wearing or not wearing of “head coverings” is the modern application of this passage, although I certainly do not believe that practice to be unbiblical. Terry and I frequently get away to Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where we see many Mennonite and Amish women wearing “head coverings.” Such a practice, though it may seem odd to us, actually stands out against our prevailing culture which has created—and even promoted—great confusion among the genders in terms of their distinctive roles. Perhaps we all should be asking whether the manner in which we are conforming to the world is negatively affecting how others see Christ in us.
Having reached the end of his discussion on the matter, Paul concludes in verse 16 by offering some practical advice. Given what he has said up to this point, his final statement may seem a bit mysterious. He writes, “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” This is the only time that the word “contentious” (“φιλονεικοs”) appears in the New Testament. It’s an unusual word that means “quarrelsome” or “fond of strife.” It implies “having a strong difference of opinion.”
But let’s be clear in noting that what Paul is not advocating in matters of personal preference or opinion is the principle of “authority.” That issue is firmly settled. Instead he is asking us to consider specifically which cultural symbols are appropriate or inappropriate whenever the church gathers for public worship. “Before God, I’ll let you decide,” he seems to tell them. “There is no universal prescription or consistent practice among the churches.” Therefore, let us not be “quarrelsome” or “contentious” in this regard. What is of primary importance is for us to distinguish which specific styles or practices of worship best reflect God’s character and bring Him glory, and which may misrepresent, distort, or even deny the Gospel. As we have noted in previous messages, there is freedom in worship as long as it is honoring to Christ and edifying to others in the church. This is something that Paul—and we, for that matter—cannot stress strongly enough.
Such a broad final word leads us to the conclusion that the principle that underlies this passage cannot simply be dismissed as cultural. It has application for the church in every age and in every setting, including today. We must, therefore, maintain that this principle of “authority” remains relevant for the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul has argued throughout this frequently-avoided paragraph that God has ordained a structure of authority within the church that best honors His name. That is because the manner in which we adhere to this structure reflects upon the character of our God and His Gospel. Throughout every era of Church history, God’s people have been called to employ contemporary cultural forms to express His creative norms in a manner that brings Him the most glory. Due to our differences and preferences, this is not always easy. And that is why, when we gather to worship our Lord Jesus Christ, we do so not as individuals but as His collective body.
I propose to you, then, that Paul is not advocating a “theology of head coverings” Instead, he has a more important principle in mind. In stating it, he has employed what had apparently become a matter of controversy in the Corinthian church. He wanted them to see that when we step out from under the protective banner of God-ordained “authority” we misrepresent God and how He has intended His people to live.
I have not met a single pastor who has been eager to preach this passage. Nevertheless, if we are to be faithful to “the whole counsel of God” (cf. Acts 20:27), it must be preached. I hope we have done it justice and have not misrepresented what the Spirit would say to the church today. As has been noted, there is a much deeper meaning to be mined than what appears on the surface. So in closing, let me leave us with four brief but significant “takeaways” to consider as we reflect upon this text later today or throughout the coming week:
- First, Christian men and women should live in light of the perfect unity and interrelatedness of the Trinity. Through He is fully God, Jesus Christ the Son submitted Himself to the Father in order to bear the weight of men’s sins on the cross and grant salvation to anyone who would repent and trust in His finished work.
- Second, Christian men and women need to remember the order of creation and recognize it as the basis for the principle of “authority” among God’s people. As within the Godhead, the structure of authority within the church as established by creative design does not imply inequality or inferiority, but rather distinction in role.
- Third, Christian men and women need to understand that their roles are complementary. Therefore, both need to fulfill their roles as the Lord has prescribed them. The failure to do so mischaracterizes God and misrepresents Him to the world, as well as to the “angels” who observe with curiosity and amazement.
- Fourth and most directly, when we find ourselves reluctant to receive God’s structure of authority, we should step back and examine why. Is it because we are more attuned with and yielded to the prevailing culture of our day than to the revealed Word of God? Christian men and women need to recognize that God is a God of order, and that it is He who has ordained the order best represents who He is. That means that we are to worship Him is His prescribed manner, and not according to our personal preferences. How each of us individually approaches the worship experience leaves a lasting impression of the Lord with those who gather with us.
As with all that we do within the church or beyond these four walls, we need to bear in mind that the reputation of our Lord is always at stake in us. Therefore, by His grace, may we submit to Him and to one another, and together may we worship Him for His eternal glory.