Now would you please take a Bible in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 11; 1 Corinthians 11, verses 2 through 16. If you have one of our church Bibles in hand, you’ll find that on page 958; 958. 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Paul is beginning a new section of his letter that will take us all the way through chapter 14 concerned primarily with an entire array of issues connected with public worship in the Corinthian churches. He will speak to us some more about the Lord’s Supper in the second half of this chapter. He will talk about Christian unity in the public assemblies. He will talk about the use of spiritual gifts. He will talk about order in public worship. And here at the beginning of this new section, in verses 2 to 16, Paul seeks to bring about reformation in the worship culture of the Corinthian congregations starting with the question of the way women and men are to relate to one another.
And before we go any further, I feel conscience-bound to tell you that, from my perspective at least, with one or two possible competitors, this may well be the most difficult passage in the New Testament to interpret well and to preach. Before the early service, someone mentioned to me that chapter 11 has something to do with bankruptcy, and that's how I feel standing up here to preach to you this morning! Paul's argument is complicated; there are several expressions, the precise meaning of which are highly disputed even by the best of scholars. And that's not to mention the culturally, really very challenging teaching the passage has to communicate to us. Once we’ve dealt with all the intricacies of the text, the message itself is really quite challenging.
The Plain Things are the Main Things
And so what you’ll hear this morning reflects my best attempts to grapple prayerfully with the passage, to try and weigh the various interpretive options, and to bring some clarity as we sit together under the Word of God. But I’m not ashamed to acknowledge right away that on some of the details here, at least, I may be quite wrong. All of which affords me the opportunity to rehearse for you an old rhyme. It’s one I’m sure you will know. I think it was originally a Victorian elocution tool. You’ve probably heard it. It’s an old rhyme that I use to help keep a vital principle of Bible interpretation in mind when the passage is difficult. So here it is. It’s not very exciting. It helps me; it might help you. What do you do when the passage is hard? Well, you remember that “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”. Strain has finally lost his marbles! What in the world does that have to do with reading the Bible? Well, let me show you! I don’t know if it’s true about Spain, but I do know it’s true for hard passages in the Bible. “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” We have to ask, “Where does the rain mainly fall in this passage?” It falls mainly on the plain. The plain things are the main things. And so we do need to do our best to deal with the difficulties and the challenges before us. That’s quite right. But we really need to make sure we see the main things and the plain things. “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” It helps me. Okay? So don’t worry about it! Let’s move forward! Remember that the main things are the plain things. That's what we've got to see. I don't want us to get sidetracked because there are a number of places that we could really get snarled up with what Paul is saying.
We’re going to try and come at the passage under four headings. So if you’re taking notes, these might be helpful to jot down at this point. Four headings. We’re going to look at the problem Paul is addressing here at Corinth, the praise with which he begins – he offers them a word of commendation. The problem. The praise. The principle he articulates as he begins to respond to the problem. And then the proofs that he offers. There are actually four proofs, so this is really an eight-point sermon, so don’t tell anybody! I promise to go quickly! The problem, the praise, the principle, and the proofs.
Before we read the passage, I think you’ll recognize as we do read it, that we really need God’s help, so let’s bow our heads as we pray.
Our Father, we know that all Scripture is breathed out by God and useful, but we also know that not all Scripture is equally plain. Before us this morning is one of those places in Your holy Word where we struggle to understand. And so we cry out to You as hungry children, longing to be fed, that You would wield, You would work by, even this portion of Scripture to nourish our hearts and to strengthen our faith in the Lord Jesus and to direct our gaze to Him. For we ask it in His name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 11 at the second verse. This is the authoritative Word of Almighty God:
“Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
Amen, and we thank God for His holy Word.
I wonder if you know the name, Germaine Greer. Is that a name you know? She is a well-known feminist intellectual. She’s been one of the more significant voices in advocacy of a feminist agenda over the last hundred years. She’s from Australia originally; works largely in the United Kingdom. She was recently invited to speak at Cardiff University in Wales until she became the butt of a student revolt. They gathered about 2,000 signatures calling for the cancellation of the event. And the reason was because, as a feminist, Germaine Greer believes that post-operative transgendered men are not in fact women; that surgery can’t make women into men or men into women at all. From her point of view, as a committed feminist, an advocate for the unique experience and challenges of being a woman in contemporary society, transgenderism is a massive threat. And she said so. And for saying so, she was no-platformed. That’s a neologism. That’s a new verb to me. Apparently, that can happen to you now. You say the wrong thing, you can be no-platform! The platform is removed from you. She had to cancel the event because of the outcry against her.
I bring that up simply to point out the extraordinary place we’ve come to in Western culture. Germaine Greer is one of the architects of the sexual revolution. Her aggressive feminism takes no prisoners. It has forced society to rethink and reevaluate categories about gender identity and the role of sexuality. And yet here she is, dissenting from the latest iteration of the very sexual revolution she herself helped to initiate. It’s gone too far, even for so radical a voice as hers. But of course, Greer is only echoing what the Bible has been saying all along, although I’m sure she would be quite distressed to discover it. Men and women, it turns out, are actually fundamentally different. Who knew? Right? Necessarily, essentially different, by God’s good design. And when we fail to understand that and live that out, all sorts of chaos ensues.
If you’ll take a look with me at the passage we read a moment ago and let me direct your gaze to verses 4 through 6, you will see the problem at Corinth to which Paul is responding. The problem at Corinth in verses 4 through 6 – "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.” Now here’s what’s going on. Clearly, there were culturally appropriate ways in Paul’s day and location to express gendered difference, known both to Paul and the Corinthians. And there were some of the believing women in the congregation who were rejecting those normal ways of expressing the differences in gender. Perhaps they were part of that same group of libertines that Paul was engaging with in chapter 10. Some of the women have begun to throw off distinctions between the sexes and have begun, therefore, to refuse the normal cultural expressions in those days of those gendered differences.
The custom then was that men did not cover their heads in public worship, whereas women did. Uncovered, loose hair was considered lude and inappropriate. The high society courtesans, the mistresses of Corinthian elite society, for example, were among the few women who normally wore their hair down with no kind of covering on their head. So long, loose hair without a covering was considered quite inappropriate, especially in the church. Adulteresses, on the other hand, as part of their punishment, had their heads shaved as a sign of shame. And so Paul is saying here that just as it would be wrong for a man to cover his head when in worship, so it was also equally wrong in those days for a woman to refuse to cover her head. It signaled a rebellious spirit that was open to shameful misunderstanding. Long, loose hair like that was as shameful, Paul is saying, as having one’s head shaved for infidelity.
So you see the problem at Corinth. Don’t get too hung up on head coverings. Was it a hat? Was it a veil? Was it a shawl? Was it their hair? Don’t get stuck on the head coverings that you miss the main thing. “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” The plain things on which the rain mainly falls in our passages is that the women were throwing off normal gender distinctions in a way that was shameful and wrong. Their dress, specifically in this context, some form of head covering, expressed those gender differences according to the culture of the day, and they were rebelliously refusing to wear them.
Now maybe you’re beginning to see why I started where I did with Germaine Greer and transgenderism. We live in a day where the problem that Paul is addressing here is taken to a whole new level. Gender, we are now told, is nothing other than a social construct. It is discerned by each individual for him or herself. It has nothing to do, we are told, with body shape or physiology, and so, therefore, appropriate dress, but more than that, social norms, even the very conventions of everyday language, all have to be abandoned and radically changed because they are needlessly restrictive expressions of bias and heteronormativity. And so now, do you see, what we have in our passage, which may at first have appeared to you obscure and perhaps even irrelevant, speaks with extraordinary relevance at a time when we badly need to get clear what the Bible has to say about gender and human relationships; about what is a man and a woman and how they are to relate and to conduct themselves in the church and in the world. So that’s the first thing I want us to see – the problem at Corinth that Paul is addressing.
But before he goes on to address it, did you notice in verse 2 that he begins with a word of praise? He commends them. Verse 2, “Now I commend you, because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Now let’s just pause for a moment and think about that word “tradition.” We usually use the word “tradition” to mean something like habitual behaviors that we pass on from one generation to the next. So we think about Thanksgiving traditions, Christmas traditions, helpful things, perhaps a part of your family customs, that you pass on from generation to generation. That’s not what Paul means here by “tradition.”
In Paul’s writings, here in particular, “tradition” has to do with a body of teaching, of truth, communicated to the church and preserved by them – either face to face verbally as Paul has preached to them and taught them, or as he wrote to them in his letters now recorded for us in the New Testament Scripture. So for example, 2 Thessalonians chapter 2 verse 15, Paul urges the Thessalonians to “stand fast, hold to the traditions you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” So tradition, for Paul, the tradition he commends the Corinthians for maintaining is the inspired, authoritative instruction of the apostle himself, and we have access to it now nowhere other than in the Scriptures. So don’t find here a green light for the kind of dead traditionalism that is always looking back to the glory days. You know the type, I’m sure. They can’t really tell you why we do what we do in church, neither do they care particularly. All they’ve got is, “That’s where the piano was located when Mrs. Jones put it there in 1904 and that’s the way it ought always to be! It is written thus in the laws of the Medes and the Persians, world without end, amen and amen!”
And let me say, that usually, though not always, there’s often good wisdom in our traditions. C. S. Lewis, I think it was, famously said, “Before you move a fence, it’s worth asking what it’s keeping out.” Traditions are like fences, very often, and we want to ask ourselves why it’s there and what it’s doing before we start monkeying around with them. But that’s not the kind of tradition Paul’s talking about here at all. The tradition he has in mind, rather, is the body of instruction they have heard and maintained from the apostle himself. And he is commending them for holding fast to it. Now the Corinthian church was a mess, it’s chaos, and yet here he is right in the middle of it all commending them for holding fast to the traditions. When you see that it’s worth asking, “What is Paul up to? What is his design?” Part of what he’s doing by commending them is ensuring that they are being enlisted. He’s recruiting them to continue maintaining apostolic tradition because he’s about to deliver to them some corrective tradition, new teaching that they needed to hear that he knows is going to be difficult for them, and honestly perhaps even difficult for some of us to embrace.
And so here it is. Here’s Paul now responding to the problem. After praising them, he gives them his teaching principle; his fundamental principle in response to the problem in the light of which, he says, everything else that he says in this passage. Verse 3, look in the third place at the principle. “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 we need to take some care over this because it’s really very important. This is Paul’s core principle. I want you to look with me at the last phrase in verse 3, first of all. The last phrase, where Paul says, "the head of Christ is God." What is he teaching us? Well, he doesn't mean that God the Father is superior, more ultimate, more essentially divine, more authoritative than God the Son. As our catechism so wonderfully puts it, as it summarizes the teaching of the Bible on this point, there are three persons in the Godhead – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – and these three are one; "the same in substance, equal in power and glory." And Paul is not denying that at all when he says “the head of Christ is God.”
What he is saying, rather, is that within the fellowship of the blessed Trinity, each of the three persons voluntarily adopt a role and a relationship with respect to one another when it comes to divine interactions between God and His creatures. The Father sends the Son. The Son obeys the Father. The Son is not subordinate to the Father, essentially or eternally, and yet for us and for our salvation, He took flesh, He submitted His human will to the divine will, “learning obedience” – Hebrews 5:8 – “by the things that He suffered.” Let me give you some evidence for that in the New Testament Scriptures. John 5 at verse 30, Jesus said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear I judge and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” Here is the Son obeying the Father. John 8:22, “I do nothing on my own authority, but I speak just as the Father has taught me.” John 12:49-50, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” Or you remember the prayer of the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as He looks into the horror of the coming cross. Matthew 26:39, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
So here is Jesus, in pursuit of the eternal plan and purpose of God to secure salvation to sinners, submitting to the Father, obeying the Father, keeping the Father’s commandments. “The head of Christ is God.” That’s what Paul is saying. That is the pattern at the very heart of the cosmos. At the center of God’s dealings with His creatures in love stands this pattern of Trinitarian headship and submission and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing.
Submission to Christ
And then notice at the other end of verse 3 the very first phrase in verse 3 where Paul says, "the head of every man is Christ." Incidentally, the word he uses for "man" there isn't the word for "male." It's the word often translated as "person" or "people." The head of every person is Christ. All people. Just as Jesus submits to the Father in the economy of God, so in the Christian life the head of every person is Christ and we are to submit to Him. Christ is our Master. King of kings and Lord of lords. And what He says has the force of royal decree. His Word binds our consciences, which means, by the way, we're not free to take some scissors to 1 Corinthians 11, certainly not the middle section of verse 3, though we may be inclined to do that, and cut out the bits of this we don't like. Jesus Christ is speaking by His Word and His Word binds our conscience. We are to submit to King Jesus just as Christ, in pursuit of our redemption, submits to the Father. We who are called to imitate Christ, must, in turn, submit to Christ who submits to God. So far so good, I hope.
Now, look at the middle of verse 3. "And the head of the wife is her husband." What an extraordinarily offensive thing for Paul to say. Right? Culturally, isn't that so? You really want to cause a social media storm, just tweet that out this afternoon! It is, nevertheless, the clear teaching of holy Scripture concerning the relationship of men and women in the family and in the church. Ephesians 5:22, "Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is" – here's the same language – "the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is itself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands." 1 Peter 3 verse 1, "Wives, be subject to your own husbands." In God's design for marriage, and in His design for the Church, men are called to servant leadership. Guys, mark that language carefully. I picked it very purposely. Servant leadership. Not dictatorial dominion. Not misogyny. Not chauvinistic machismo.
Actually, if you look down at verses 11 to 13, verses 11 to 13, you will see that Paul seems to anticipate the possibility at least that some of the men at Corinth would abuse his teaching along precisely those lines. And so he balances what he says very carefully. Do you see that in verses 11 to 13? He reminds us that “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.” The pattern of headship and submission is real, but that does not deny or negate our interdependence, our essential equality and dignity as men and women. Men are to lead, but the leadership they exercise is Christ-like, self-giving, servant leadership. And women, likewise, are called to a role of submission and support.
That is the pattern Paul is teaching us here of Christ-likeness. It is a Gospel pattern. The submission of Christ to the Father was the path by which He secured our salvation. “He became,” Philippians 2:8, “obedient to death, even the death of the cross.” If Christ were to react, as some of us may be tempted to react to this kind of teaching, and considered submission beneath Him, we would be eternally lost. Wouldn’t we? There would be no Gospel; no hope for the world or for any of us. Our salvation is a result of, is built on the submission and the obedience of Christ to the Father. Praise God that Christ submitted to the Father gladly. And we who are the beneficiaries of His redeeming submission, His self-giving love, we, likewise, are to imitate that pattern of self-giving love as well. So the problem, the praise; do you see the principle? Modeled on the way that Christ, in the Gospel, submits to the Father. So also in the home and in the church, men are to lead and women are to submit to their leadership.
And then Paul reinforces his teaching, in the fourth place, with four proofs, four further arguments that elucidate and illustrate and drive home this pattern. Let me just list them for you and then we’re done.
Order of Creation
First, in verses 7 to 10, he speaks about the order of creation. Do you see that in verses 7 to 10? “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.” Paul is talking about the creation story. And as a matter of simple historical and Scriptural record, Adam was created first as God’s image, for God’s glory; woman was created from Adam to be a helper to him and was his glory. His better half, we might say. His glory was not in himself but in her. The glory of man is not to be looked for in the man, but in his compliment in the woman. God, you see, has hardwired role relationships into creation itself. And the head covering that Paul mentions, this sign of authority on her head, that was the culturally normal way back then of acknowledging and embracing that beautiful creation pattern in public worship. To reject it, then, would have been to express a rejection of God’s creation design.
And then secondly, the second proof and argument he offers by way of reinforcing his principle, you’ll see in verse 10 where he speaks about the angels. Do you see it in verse 10? “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” Now let me say straight up here that nobody knows what that means! If you think you know, you’re wrong! You don’t know what that means! Nobody knows what Paul is talking about! As a preacher, I find that enormously reassuring that there are even places where the apostle Paul cannot be understood. Those of you who come and tell me, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” – I’m in good company! I don’t know what Paul’s talking about here either! But possibly, possibly he conceives of the angels present with the people of God when we gather like this on the Lord’s Day. There’s a beautiful thought. You can’t see them, but perhaps there are angels all around us, joining us as we adore the Lamb who has redeemed us. For the angels, of course, worship is the joyous submission of their very selves to the lordship of the living God who made them and before whose presence they sing constant praises.
But perhaps what Paul is trying to say here is, here are these angels looking on in wonder at the church who are beneficiaries of blessing. They cannot really know. We are the objects of redeeming love. Christ died for us, not for them. We have every reason for joy and to submit to the lordship of Christ in our lives, as the angels, likewise, submit to the lordship of God. And yet at Corinth, some of the women were not submitting but were rebelling. It was shocking and unseemly and out of place. So he appeals to the order of creation. He appeals to the angels.
He appeals, thirdly, to nature itself. Verses 13 through 15. And by nature he means universally accepted norms and customs. Thirteen through 15, “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.” A woman’s longer hair is a clue, Paul is saying, of basic difference. Men and women are not interchangeable and they ought not to pretend to be or to dress as though they were. Express and embrace and celebrate those differences in a way that honors God and respects the pattern of creation God has given.
Practice of Apostolic Church
And then finally, Paul appeals to the universal practice of the apostolic church. You see it in verse 16. “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.” The point is, the Corinthians were innovating. The apostolic churches, Paul tells us, all adhere to this pattern of headship and submission and they expressed it similarly by use of culturally appropriate dress and decorum in public worship. In our way of thinking, innovation is almost always considered a good thing. But when it comes to Biblical truth or to apostolic patterns of church life, it is decidedly not a good thing. We are to align ourselves with the pattern and practice of the whole church and the whole people of God, Paul says.
Well, where does all of that leave us? Here, I think, is the takeaway, as we close. At a time when the pressure to dissolve gender distinctions is growing and growing, at a time when the suggestion that women ought to submit to the leadership of male elders in the church or that a wife, a Christian wife should submit to her husband in the home, at a time when that is profoundly offensive, at such a time we need reminding that this pattern of headship and submission is a non-negotiable part of Christian discipleship. It mirrors the Gospel pattern of Christ’s submission to the Father, for us and for our salvation. And it is the creation pattern to boot. We are hardwired for differently ordered relationships. We need reminding that there is beauty in God’s design. But when we think we know better, we do not actually improve on God’s design at all. We ruin it, taking what is already beautiful, and making it into an ugly expression of our rebellious hearts instead. But as we submit to God in Christ, as we submit together to the Word of God, as we build Biblically ordered homes and a Biblically ordered church, we are bearing a profound witness to the beauty and the goodness of God’s plan and God’s design in a society where fragmentation and disharmony is increasingly the norm.
Is it easy? Of course not. Is it offensive to our pride? Without a doubt. But it is God’s way, it is our calling, and I dare say that those who seek to live in light of it find that it is also the way of joy and of peace as well. And so may the Lord help us to so see and value and be captivated by what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, our Savior’s submission to the Father, that we gladly submit to His lordship in our lives, including obeying the pattern for a Christian home and a Christian church that we find in His holy Word.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do confess to You that we find some of this really difficult. Some of it we find difficult because we don’t want to obey. We’re proud. We prefer the world’s model to Yours, truth be told. Some of it we find difficult because it’s difficult to understand and our finite minds really wrestle with all that’s being said. So we pray, O Lord, that You would help us. That You would first melt our hearts and make them pliant. Help us to joyfully submit to Your Word and Your rule in our lives. And then would You show us, as we do, that when we walk according to Your plan it is beautiful and it is better than any plan of our own, even when we think that obeying You is counterintuitive. Would You teach us that? Would You show it to us? Would You make it a reality in our marriages, in our families, and in our church? And would You do it so that the world looking on and seeing us living in an entirely alien way with Christ at the center and submission and reverence and servant leadership played out in our relationships, that the world looking on would understand that we are citizens of a different kingdom, living under the reign of another King, and that they need Him desperately. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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