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1 Corinthians 11:2-16: Headship, Head Coverings, and Me Print E-mail
1 Corinthians
Sunday, 15 November 2015

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The Bible means what it always meant. Whatever meaning the original authors intended is still the meaning for today. The Holy Spirit inspired men like Peter and John and Paul to write down timeless truths that we need to hear today. The meaning of the text never changes. No matter where or when we live, the Bible still means what it always meant. In other words, culture has no impact on meaning. But it does on application. Loving my neighbor looks different today than it did a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. I am still called to do obey the command, but my obedience in Sikeston might look different than someone’s obedience in Tokyo. Applications will vary, but the meaning never changes.

Yet, what do we do with texts that seem to be written for a particular culture, the one in which the original writers and recipients lived? Do we ignore those texts or explain them away as just cultural issues? How do we make a decision about what is written for them and what is written for us? Or should we take the opposite approach and not recognize any cultural influences? Should we seek to apply every passage in exactly the same way that they would have back then?

These are the questions that make our passage this morning difficult. The text means to us what it meant to Paul and the Corinthians. The meaning has not changed. Yet, due to the cultural background of the passage, does it still apply today? If it does apply, then how? The situation that is behind this passage is that apparently some women in Corinth were refusing to wear head coverings during corporate worship. In order to address this issue, Paul begins by identifying the root problem behind the issue. Look at verses 2-3.

After Paul’s general commendation, he begins to correct them on a few issues regarding their worship (he will continue to do this through chapter 14). Here, he begins with what we could call the headship principle, namely that the husband is the head of the wife. Just as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22, 4:14) and the Father is the head of the Son, so is the husband the head of the wife (Ephesians 5:23). Headship does not mean a difference in importance or equality (otherwise you would have to conclude that the Son is not equal to the Father). Rather, the difference is in roles. The wife, or woman, has a role to play in marriage and in the Church just as the husband has a role to play as well. These roles are different, not in importance or value, but in function. So the headship principle is that the husband is the head of the wife in that he functions as the leader of the home.

Yet, what does this have to do with head coverings? Look at verses 4-5a. Paul is applying the headship principle to the current issue in Corinth of women not covering their heads when they pray and prophesy in worship. Paul wants them to see the connection between their actions and what it communicates, between the headship principle and the practical application of head coverings. He goes on to give five reasons why they need to believe the principle and practice the application. Let’s consider these.

It honors your husband (v. 5b-6)

The first reason they should believe in headship and practice head covering is because it honors the husband, or the men of the Church. He points out the negative in verse 5. Look at that again. For these women to not cover their heads during worship was a dishonor to their husband. Paul compares this to a woman shaving her head in verses 5b-6. Look at those with me. The argument is simple. If a woman is not willing to cover her head then she should shave her head. Yet, a woman shaving her head is disgraceful. Thus, a woman should cover her head in worship. Already we are seeing some cultural ideas being brought out in the argument. In their culture it was disgraceful for a woman to shave her head. Since not wearing a head covering in worship is comparable to that, Paul says that a woman should not dishonor her husband in this way. Rather, she should honor him as her head by wearing the head covering.

It embraces your created role (v. 7-10)

Next Paul turns to creation to defend the headship principle and the application. Look at verses 7-9. Appealing to Genesis 1-2, Paul argues that a man should not cover his head because he is the image and glory of God. Paul does not tell us how these two are related, but rather moves on to the woman. He describes her as the glory of man. Although it is hard to know exactly what he means here, he helps us by going back to creation. Eve was made from Adam’s rib, therefore woman came from the man. Eve was made to be Adam’s helper, therefore woman was made for man. In these ways, a woman is the glory of man. She came from man and her role is to help man. These are the roles that were established in creation. Thus, creation itself reflects the headship principle and encourages the women of Corinth to the practical application, the conclusion that Paul draws in verse 10. Look at that with me. We cannot be sure why Paul mentions angels here. Perhaps it is simply a reminder that we are being observed in our worship or perhaps it should be translated ‘messengers’ as footnoted in the ESV. Either way, for Paul it is simply another reason for the women in Corinth to wear head coverings.

It recognizes your interdependence (v. 11-12)

Someone might conclude that the differences in roles means that men and women are divided against each other. But that cannot be the case, for we both need each other. Look at verses 11-12. The woman was made from man in creation and now every man is born from a woman. There is no man alive who can claim complete independence from women. And no woman should do the same. Rather, men and women are dependent upon each other. The roles that they are each called to play are interdependent upon the other. Men must be men and women must be women. They are different. The roles that they were created to play are different, which is exactly why they need each other. For the women in Corinth to throw off their head coverings they would have to deny their interdependence with men. Paul encourages them to avoid that.

It reflects the nature of things (v. 13-15)

Paul adds a further argument in verses 13-15. Look at those with me. Paul asks: Does not nature itself teach you…? It is important for us to understand what Paul is talking about when he refers to nature. Many think that he is simply referring to the created order of things, much like someone would claim that we must listen to Mother Nature. Yet, how would the created order teach us that long hair is a disgrace for man, but the glory of a woman? How would that work? Rather, it seems that Paul means by nature ‘the nature of things,’ referring to their own culture. It’s as if Paul is saying: ‘Look around you. On the streets and in the shops, is is not normal and natural for men to have short hair and women to have long hair? If that is the case, then just as her long hair serves as a covering, so should a woman be covered with a head covering in corporate worship.’ Paul very clearly seems to be appealing to cultural norms with these verses. In their culture, in their normal way of things, a woman had long hair as a covering and a man did not where such covering. Thus, a woman in Corinth should apply the headship principle by wearing a head covering in corporate worship.

It unifies you with other believers (v. 16)

Paul identifies one final reason for the headship principle and the practical application in verse 16. Look at that with me. There were those who Paul felt might not agree with his arguments to this point. So, he makes one final argument. He reminds them that this principle and the practical application is normal for the believers in the various churches of that time. Since this was the practice in those churches, it should also be the practice in Corinth. Paul is not picking and choosing or being unfair with the women in Corinth. He is only expecting them to believe and apply the principle in the same way that other Christians were doing. In this way, they would be unified with these other believers.

I probably don’t have to tell you that the headship principle is extremely offensive to people today. Nobody wants to be told that God has given them a role in this life. And no woman wants to be told that her role is to submit to her husband. We live in a day of no limits and no restrictions and no roles. But is this the best? Is this what we really want? Or is this our sinful nature blinding us to what God has graciously revealed in His Word? I believe that men and women are the happiest when they embrace the roles God has given them. He is not trying to hold us down or rob us of joy. Rather, He is revealing who we were made to be. Not a good way, but the good way. Not out of cruelty, but out of love and mercy as our gracious Creator. It all comes down to whether or not we believe that He knows best. I believe that He does.

Thus, the principle still applies today. Men are still called to lead and love their wives, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 5 and women are still called to submit and respect their husbands. Not only is this the good and right way that God has given us, it is also a way to clearly preach the gospel to those around us. The husband loves like Christ, laying down his life for his bride. And the wife respects like the Church, following the lead of her head. It may be offensive and crazy to those around us, but it is a beautiful display of what Christ has done for the Church through His death and resurrection.

So what about head coverings? It seems to me that the application of the principle is not binding to us today. A woman wearing a head covering in our culture does not mean what it did in Corinth. Although the headship principle is still to be applied, the application of it in our culture will be different. Of course we have to be careful with such a conclusion. Some will try to use it as a way to declare the Bible irrelevant. But what we are saying is not that the meaning has changed or that the principle has changed, just simply that the application is different for us, which is something we say about numerous commands in the Bible. The heart of the matter for us is are we willing to live in such a way, as men and women, that is obedient to the roles God has given us and brings glory to the gospel. This is another way that we can show the beauty of Christ crucified for sinners and call people to repentance and faith in Him. Amen.

 ~ William Marshall ~ 

Last Updated ( Friday, 27 November 2015 )

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