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Head to Head about 1 Corinthians 11:3–16

On the 31st March, 2002 the Queen Mother died peacefully in her sleep at the grand age of 101. She had seen the beginnings of two centuries and all the changes in-between. Seven months earlier, on 11th September 2001 almost three thousand people died in coordinated terrorist suicide attacks carried out by extremist Muslims across the USA.

Except for the loss of life, the two events couldn’t have seemed further apart. But strangely, they both brought a similar issue to talkback radio, the front pages of newspapers, and the TV news: whether women should or should not cover their heads.

At the time, Muslim headcoverings became a familiar sight and topic in the media. We heard disturbing stories of veiled women in Sydney being abused in the street because they were recognisably Muslim. Politicians and school principals talked about banning the hijab. And young Australian Muslim women (some recent converts), gave interviews and wrote letters to newspapers about why they choose to veil or not to veil.

But it was not just that Islamic practice that made the news at that time. There was also a “Christian” one.

The Queen Mother’s funeral also raised a fashion and cultural dilemma. An official announcement from the palace had to be issued stating that, although women had always worn hats in Royal church services in the past, this time they did not have to. Women could choose to hat or not to hat. Some did, some did not.

Inyucho Corinth Cc

The World of Paul

Chapter 11 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians similarly deals with what women wear on their heads. And to most of us, the issues he raises seem as foreign to us as hats at royal funerals and the experience of young Muslim women. Culturally, it is a world away.

So what do we make of 1 Corinthians 11 in this day and age? Is there anything in it for us as modern Christian women and men? It says:

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 dishonours his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head—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. (1 Corinthians 11:2-16, ESV)

1. At First Glance

1.1. Comparison With 1 Timothy 2

This passage is one of six in the New Testament that deal with the responsibilities of men and women in the family and the church. The others are 1 Timothy 2, 1 Corinthians 14, Ephesians 5, 1 Peter 3, Colossians 3, and Titus 2. They are passages that can strike us as particularly confronting, controversial and counter-cultural. But I believe that, although we may have to work hard to understand and apply them, they are still relevant today and so it’s important we know what they say.

Now since 1 Timothy 2 has probably been the most discussed passage in regard to these issues, it is worth making a comparison between it and 1 Corinthians 11. What do we find?

1.1.1. More Difficult

The first thing to notice is that this passage is more difficult to understand. It’s more than twice the length of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and that means there’s more to grapple with and, what is more, the argument is more complex.

The other difficulty is that cultural factors in 1 Corinthians 11 are more evident. It’s a very different culture to ours separated by almost twenty centuries. Things like prophecy and head coverings are not our usual experience and that makes it harder to understand.

1.1.2. Similarities

But having said that, there are similarities between this text and 1 Timothy 2:

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, Paul wrote them both.
  2. Both are concerned with what women wear and with their hair.
  3. Both refer to childbirth and procreation.
  4. There is a concern in both for decency and propriety as opposed to disgrace.
  5. Both expect women to be present and participating in the church gathering.
  6. Both teach that a person’s participation and contribution in church is determined in part by their gender.
  7. Both passages refer to Adam and Eve and the creation accounts of Genesis and the fact that Adam or the man was made first and the woman second.
1.1.3. Differences

But despite the considerable overlap there is one significant difference: the command to quietness in 1 Timothy 2 compared with the expectation in 1 Corinthians 11 that women will speak in church as they pray and prophesy. Silent in one, not silent in the other.

But, if we look closer at the Timothy passage there’s nothing to stop women praying and prophesying in church. It only says they are not to teach or have authority over men. The command for silence is only for a specific context. 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 aren’t contradicting each other; they’re just addressing different situations.

2. Tantalising Questions

Now when we come to 1 Corinthians 11 I think as modern readers there is so much that is puzzling, there is a temptation to get distracted. There are things like prophecy, and head coverings, and angels, and long hair and shaved hair and so the list goes on.

In fact, there are so many tantalising questions and distractions in this passage it’s easy to miss the wood for the trees and get so caught up in those issues that we miss the main one. But we’re going to put them aside to start with and look at the main issue.

3. Key Verse

To put chapter 11 in context in 1 Corinthians 11-14, the apostle Paul deals with what the Corinthians were meant to do when they got together for church.

In our passage, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 he looks at the difference between men and women when they pray and prophesy; from verse 17 he looks at how people behave at the Lord’s Supper; and then in chapters 12-14 he looks at participation and order in worship. Chapter 11:3 is Paul’s starting point. If we get this verse, we’re some way to cracking the passage.

But it’s a very tricky verse, and, since the rise of feminism, you could fill a room with the books written on it as people try to work out what it is saying. At issue in particular is the meaning of the word “head” and whether the English should read “man” and “woman” or “husband” and “wife”. Work out the meaning of these three words and we’re much closer to understanding the passage. But that requires some hard work.

3.1. Two Primary Questions

3.1.1. Question 1: Meaning of “Head”

First what does the word “head” mean? In recent years, those arguing for identical roles for men and women in the family and the church have claimed that the meaning of this word “head” is “source”, as opposed to “authority over.” These people say that, as we might talk about the source of a river being the head of the river, when this word “head” is used it means “source” or “origin”. Understood like this, the two passages that use “head” for men (here and Ephesians 5) become passages about origins rather than authority.

They say these passages are only repeating the point made in Genesis 2, which says woman was made from the man’s rib, which is saying nothing more significant than “I came from my mother’s tummy”. They say these passages are about where we came from, not who we are or what we are to do.

And if that’s the case, their argument goes, then there is no order of relationships between men and women in any context, and any New Testament passage that gives men and women different roles simply reflects first century culture and is not relevant today.

However I believe that’s wrong and that it is unavoidable that the word “head” has the notion of “authority over” and especially so in 1 Corinthians 11:3. I have two reasons for thinking so:

Firstly, an extensive study of this word “head” in ancient Greek literature shows that when it is used as a metaphor for human relationships it is associated with the concept of authority not with “source” or origins. In fact, recent studies cast doubt on whether it ever had the meaning ‘source’.[1]

Secondly, when Paul uses the word elsewhere in relation to Christ, it always has the sense of “authority over” (Eph 5:23; 1:22; 4:15; Col 1:18; 2:10; 2:19).

More recently, the suggestion has been made that the Greek word in question means ‘pre-eminence’ rather than ‘authority’, in the sense that one’s head is prominent. But once again, there is no indication in the ancient literature that readers in the first century would have recognised such a meaning.[2]

In sum, Paul is using the word “head” to talk about order and authority in relationships.

3.1.2. Implication for the Godhead

In this light verse 3 tells us something about the relationships of the Trinity: there’s order within the Godhead, and that the persons of the Trinity relate in ordered relationships.[3] Whilst the Father, Son and Spirit are each fully God, this sameness of nature doesn’t prevent differentiation and order in the relationships of the Trinity. There is a difference between the Father “of [or from] whom” are all things, and the Lord Jesus Christ “by whom” are all things (1Cor 8:6)

One of the fallacies of modern feminist ideology is it believes for two people to be equal they must do the same thing. It doesn’t see that you can have differentiation and authority in relationships without having inferiority and superiority of dignity or value. But you can, and this is Paul’s premise here. All three persons of the Godhead share in the divine nature and yet there is an asymmetry in their relationships. There is equality with order and authority. This is consistent with other parts of Scripture (cf. 1 Cor 15:28, Jn 3:16, Phil 2:11).

For God to be Christ’s ‘head’ doesn’t mean that Jesus is any less God. It doesn’t mean inferior status. It simply means that in his love for us and his love and obedience to the Father, Jesus submits himself to the headship of the Father, and seeks to bring him glory in all he does. And it also means that whatever God’s word has to say to us here about authority and order in relationships originates in the life of God.

3.1.3. Question 2: “Man and Woman” or “Husband and Wife”

This brings us to the second word puzzle in verse 3. If you’ve ever studied this passage in a Bible study group, you probably struck this problem pretty quickly. Let me show you what I mean. Most translations have the first phrase something like this: “I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ”. But then it gets tricky because different translations have different things for the second phrase. The NIV or NASB have something like, “and the head of the woman is man” whereas the NRSV and ESV have “the head of the wife is the husband”. Confusing isn’t it? How are we meant to work it out if the Bible translators can’t agree?

The problem for the translators is that New Testament Greek uses the same word for “man” and “husband” and the same word for “woman” and “wife”. And the problem for us is that it makes a big difference to the meaning of the passage. How do we know if it’s talking about married couples or men and women generally?

Now if my 12 year old said to you “I have a really cool jumper” the context of the sentence helps you know that what he means is not that he has a jumper that keeps him really cool, but that he has a jumper his friends think is pretty cool.

In English we cope with the fact that the word “cool” has different meanings by using the context to help us work out which meaning is intended. In the same way the context here seems to indicate that Paul is talking about manhood and womanhood itself—not just about husbands and wives.    

 Firstly, it would be strange for Paul to suddenly (and without explanation) use the word to mean “man” in the first phrase of verse 3, then switch the meaning to “husband” in the second phrase, and then switch back to “man” generally in verse 4. The same goes for “woman” in verses 3 and 5.  In the absence of any indications to the contrary within the text, it makes sense to translate the same word the same way throughout this tightly knit verse, especially since the repetition of words and ideas seems key to its meaning.

Secondly, what Paul goes on to say in verses 7-9 about human beginnings, and verses 11-12 about future generations, only make sense if they apply to man and woman in general. Even though the application might apply differently to married and unmarried women (see below), we still need to see that Paul’s reasons for those instructions come from a general understanding of the sexes.

3.1.4. Implication for Male/Female Relationships

So verse 3 says that the head of the woman is the man. What does it mean for us today?

First, it’s important to notice what it does not say. It does not say that all women are to submit to all men. It is coming at the relationship from the other end. It is about “headship” rather than submission. Also it does not say that women are second-class citizens with less dignity, intelligence, worth and purpose than men. Just as Jesus Christ is not diminished in divinity and glory because his head is God, neither are we diminished because our head is man.

But at the same time it does not say that there is no difference in relationship between men and women. The assumption of this verse is that there is an order in the relationship between men and women that is analogous to that of Christ and God.

Verse 3 doesn’t give us any details of what it means that the head of the woman is the man. Rather, it is a summary statement of principle, that informs the rest of the passage. It leaves the question of details hanging.

But which relationships does this apply to?

It’s one thing to read Ephesians 5 and say that Rob (my husband) is my head and quite another to come to this passage and see that “the head of woman is the man” and then try to apply it across the board.

Does it mean men should open doors for us? Does it mean men should pay when they take us on dates? Does it mean if the boat is sinking, it’s women and children first in the lifeboats? Does it mean only men can be CEOs of companies or join the armed forces? Not necessarily.

What the New Testament does say on this matter is very limited. If the man is the head of woman, Scripture gives us only a handful of examples of what that actually looks like, and only in particular situations and relationships. In the church meeting in 1 Corinthians 11 it means that when women and men come together to pray and prophesy they’ll do different things with their heads. In 1 Corinthians 14, it means that women weren’t to evaluate prophecies in the public church meeting. In 1 Timothy 2 it means women weren’t to teach or have authority over men generally in the church (not just their husbands). And in marriage, it means that wives are to submit themselves to their husbands and husbands are self-sacrificially to love their wives.[4]

Does it mean more than that? Well the truth is it doesn’t say and we can only work with what the Bible says. It’s as if the headship Paul is talking about here is potential headship that becomes actual headship in specific situations and relationships, that is in the eldership and leadership of the church community and the marriage relationship. And beyond that? It could be that there are implications beyond this for men and women generally, but if there are the New Testament does not address them. You’d have to tread very carefully.

Whatever the case, there is no sense that all women are to submit to all men or that women may not exercise God-honouring authority in the workplace, the military, politics, and other walks of life. Women are also gifted and encouraged to exercise public ministry within the church, as we see in 1 Corinthians 11 – simply, in a way that is sensitive to and consistent with the distinctions between men and women that God has ordained.

4. Application of Key Verse

I know we’ve spent a lot of time on this one verse. But as I said once we’ve cracked this verse, then the rest of the passage has a context. This verse forms the framework for Paul’s instructions about prophecy and prayer and what men and women wear or don’t wear on their heads.

But before we get to that, what was prophecy and what were the head coverings?

4.1. Question: Meaning of Prophecy and Prayer Then and Now

The confusion about prophecy these days is almost as hot as the debate about the word “head”. And to make it more complicated even in the first century they couldn’t agree on what prophecy was. Because of this I think it’s best to define New Testament prophecy in broad terms:

  1. First of all, there’s a difference in authority between most Old Testament and New Testament prophecy, both in the words spoken and the person who spoke them.
  2. It was clearly public and verbal.
  3. If it was genuine it was encouraging and pointed to the truth of the gospel (1 Cor 14:24)
  4. Both men and women could prophesy in the church gathering—unlike teaching, which women and men who were not gifted as teachers were not to do (1 Tim 2-3).
  5. The gift was under the control of the speaker. It was not involuntary or ecstatic.

In the Old Testament disobedience to the word of a prophet was equal to disobeying God, with correspondingly serious consequences, but in the New Testament that isn’t so (e.g., Acts 21:10-14).

In the Old Testament a false prophet was stoned but in the New, prophecies were weighed (1 Cor 14, 1 Thess 5) and even if a prophecy was rejected, the prophet him or herself lived to see another day.

This diminished authority is why I take it, women were allowed to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11 in the public church meeting, but not weigh prophecies in 1 Corinthians 14 or teach and have authority over men in 1 Timothy 2.

Now the question I hear you asking is: do we have it today? I think we do.

A few years ago at our church a woman missionary got up and shared with the congregation what was happening with her work as a missionary doctor in a government-run orphanage in Eastern Europe. She spoke for about 10 minutes.

When she finished I lent over and said to Rob “that was the closest thing to prophecy I’ve ever heard”. It was encouraging. It was public. It was focused on the gospel and what God was doing in her life and through her. It was absolutely inspiring. I think we all learnt things about God’s faithfulness and suffering for the sake of the gospel, but there was no sense in which it replaced the sermon.

Now I don’t know if the Corinthians would have called it prophecy but it fits with the broad description I’ve just given, and I think if we saw more of that sort of thing in our churches today we’d all benefit.

4.2. Question: Meaning of Head Covering Then and Now

And that brings us to the fashion part of the passage. What is Paul talking about when he says men are to have their heads uncovered and women their heads covered?

We could fill another room with the books written on this topic and be no clearer in our minds when we’d finished reading than when we began.

Once again, it’s important to work out what the real issue is here. And as it turns out, the real issue is not so much the identity of the headcovering, as what it meant and why Paul wanted men not to wear it and women to wear it. It’s the meaning of the headcovering rather than the head covering itself that is most important.

But to work out the meaning we must first identify the headcovering. There are three possibilities: a garment (a veil, shawl or cloak); an attitude of mind; or a hairstyle. You will find older books expending a great amount of ink defending one or other of these.

However, in recent years there has been a breakthrough in ancient history that suggests the headcovering in question was most likely a veil worn by married women.[5]  This veil symbolized the husband’s authority within marriage. From 1 Corinthians we can see that it also functioned as an appropriate and meaningful symbol for Christians of the authority and order of gender relationships.

It was a piece of clothing but it was a piece of clothing with meaning. And that is not such a difficult concept to grasp.

At the risk of sounding very old, when I was doing my nursing training, many years ago, we all wore something on our heads. The student nurses wore white starched caps. The first years had one red stripe centre-front, the second years two and the third years three stripes and lace around the edge. Then when you became a sister, you got to wear these flying nun-type veils which were a real nuisance, but which showed you were at the top of the ladder.

What nurses wore on their heads said something about their authority and who they were in relation to others in terms of their authority. And it was like that in Corinth. The veil in question was a piece of clothing with a well-recognised meaning – and that meaning had something to do with authority.

But why did Paul want women to wear this piece of clothing and men not?

5. Reasons for Application

5.1. God's Order

The most fundamental reason was that this garment represented the ordered relationships between men and women that reflected the relationship of Christ and God. Paul wanted men and women to look different, because in looking different they would align themselves with the order built into creation—and even the life of God.

When men covered their heads while they were praying and prophesying – possibly motivated by misguided spiritual one-upmanship – they were in effect denying their responsibilities as men by dressing like women. When they did that (11:4) they dishonoured their heads, both their physical head and their metaphorical relational head, Christ.

When married women did not cover their heads, however – perhaps because they were mistakenly taking their newfound freedom in Christ too far – they brought shame on their literal head and on their metaphorical relational head, their husband, because they were in effect denying their relational responsibilities as wives. They might as well have turned up dressed like an adulteress or prostitute (11:5–6)!

Paul wants men and women to dress and behave like men and women, in a way that is consistent with their roles and responsibilities within marriage, and those who are content within the order of relationships God ordained.

5.2. Creation

The next reasons Paul gives are found in verses 7-9, and for our post-feminist culture these verses represent a minefield of political incorrectness. Let’s look at some of the difficulties.

First, in verse 7 does Paul mean that woman is not made in the image of God? NO! If that had been Paul’s meaning, he would have said “man is the image and glory of God, woman is the image and glory of man”. But he didn’t say that and by leaving out the “image” statement in the second phrase, it is clear his point is about “glory” not whose image woman is made in, because Paul assumed the obvious answer to that was God’s.

Second, how does Paul say woman is the glory of man? She is his glory because she was taken out of him and because she was made for him. Both in her origins (v. 8) and in her purpose (v. 9) the woman corresponds to the man. He was firstborn with all the responsibilities that entailed and she was made from bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

And, Paul goes on, she was made for him, not he for her. This doesn’t mean women were made as playthings for men or as domestic slaves or simply as mothers for their children. It means that she was made for his sake. Her purpose was to help him in the shared task of filling and subduing the earth (Gen. 1:28).

Of course, Paul is drawing here on Genesis 1 and 2 and the very beginnings of the relationships between the sexes, before the sin and frustration of those relationships that happened in the Fall of Genesis 3. For the equality and difference of women and men, and the pattern of our relationships are part of the way God made us. They are not a result of the Fall, and so this is not, therefore, a first century cultural oddity that we don’t have to worry about.

In short what Paul is saying is that the order in relationships both in creation and in the Godhead counts. It affects how men and women relate and it should also be clearly visible. And when that happens, man brings glory to his head and woman brings glory to hers.

But just in case the men in Corinth (and today) read verses 6-9 and got a rush of blood to the head, and inflated view of themselves, Paul brings them back down to earth with an equally important reality in verses 11-12.

You see, there is no sense that men are better than women because in truth neither is independent of the other. They need each other. Women may come from man but man must be born of woman. And woman may have been created for man’s sake, but without her he cannot fill the earth or subdue it. Both man and woman need each other. They are both a gift from God to the other (v. 12).

5.3. Angels

You’ll have noticed so far I’ve skipped over verse 10. It’s a notoriously difficult verse. Let me briefly outline how I understand it:

  1. Although the word “sign” or “symbol” isn’t in the original passage, the head covering did function as a sign of authority on the woman’s head. So verse 10 is probably talking about the head covering.
  2. The authority the garment represented was the man’s, as verses 6-9 have been saying.
  3. But the reference to angels is a new idea and another reason for the woman to have authority on her head.
  4. Because it’s a new idea and because Paul goes on to the reciprocal elements in the relationship of woman and man in verses 11-12, I take it her authority is also demonstrated by this covering.

In chapter 6 Paul told the Corinthians not to take their grievances before non-Christian courts because one day they were going to judge the angels. And then in chapter 4 Paul indicates angels are witnesses of what happens on earth.

The conclusion I draw from this, is that by accepting and demonstrating her place within God’s order of gender relationships by covering her head, the woman also demonstrated her place in the greater order of creation as someone made in the image of God who, one day along with man, would judge the angels.

In this way, the head covering is both a sign of the man’s authority and of the woman’s dignity and authority. And on this understanding verse 10 then forms a bridge between verses 7-9 which deal with the order in the relationship of women and men, and verses 11-12, which go on to deal with their interdependence and reciprocity.

5.4. Nature

Paul gives three further reasons we’ll look at quickly. The first is in verse 14, where Paul appeals to the very nature of things as teaching men and women to have different hairstyles. What does this mean? Is Paul simply saying this is the way things are done around here so don’t rock the boat, or is he saying something more significant?

In other passages where Paul uses this word “nature” (like Rom 1:26; 2:14) he is not talking about social customs but an innate God-given sense of right and wrong. His point seems to be that intuitively people know men and women are different and should look different and that those differences have their foundation in the created order. That’s not such a strange idea; it makes sense that in God’s providential internal wiring of us, our sense of right and wrong corresponds with his intentions for us.

5.5. Tradition

Paul’s next reason is found right back at the beginning in verse 2 where he praises the Corinthians for sticking to the “teachings” or more accurately “the traditions” he passed on to them. Is Paul equating what follows with what we mean when we talk about traditions? Is it on a par with traditions we have like Easter eggs and Mother’s Day?

Not at all. In the New Testament, the term “traditions” is almost a technical term that refers to the body of teaching that was/is the Christian faith. It was these “traditions” the apostles passed on to the churches and that defined genuine Christianity. They were commands to be obeyed—not ad hoc etiquette.

5.6. Universal Practice

Paul’s final reason is in verse 16 where he insists what he’s saying is not up for contention because it is common practice in all the churches and there’s no other way of doing things. This is an argument from uniformity.

Paul is not asking the Corinthians to do something that no one else is doing. He is insisting they remain in fellowship with “all the other churches of God” by maintaining the God-given distinctions between men and women. They are not free to do their own thing. That’s how important what he was writing was.

It’s with these pretty uncompromising words that Paul brings this discussion to a close.

6. Participate and Differentiate

So what do we make of all this?

I’ve only once been to a church that did anything like what Paul is talking about here. Many years ago I visited a church that met in a local school in the south of England.

As soon as I got to the meeting hall I realized all the women had scarves but I didn’t have one so I started walking away, because I didn’t want to offend anyone. But they came after me and asked me back to join them (it was more important to them that I was welcomed than that I covered my head). It was one of my most memorable and enjoyable church experiences.

So were these women right in veiling their heads? Is that what this text requires of us? Well, clearly there are some women and churches that believe it does. And I would say if your understanding of 1 Corinthians and your conscience leads you to that conclusion, then you should cover your head. You’re certainly not disobeying the Word of God if you do and you won’t be sinning against your conscience, for the sake of fitting in.

The reason I don’t personally come to that conclusion is that it’s difficult to apply the text word for word because we don’t know for certain what the original head covering was. And what’s more the things we do wear on our heads today mean something else other than an acceptance of God’s order of relationships.

So, you wear a hat either because you’re sun smart or because you’re dressing up for a Melbourne Cup lunch or you’re going to a Royal funeral. Hats are a sign that you’re sensible or fashionable. So hats aren’t it.

But veils also give the wrong message. My understanding from women in Muslim cultures is that their headscarf is more a sign of subservience and inequality than a visual reminder of the equality and difference of the sexes.

I’m not sure in our culture that we have a single piece of clothing that functions as a cultural equivalent to the first century head covering—a garment that indicates: “I am a woman. I’m happy to be a woman and I accept God’s order of relationships between men and women”.

Brides today might wear veils on their wedding day, but that is because they make a pretty picture not because of what they symbolize, and besides the veil is usually history as soon as the photos are taken, and if not then, certainly by the time the happy couple leave the reception!

But there are things people do (both in terms of dress and behaviour) to deliberately blur the differences between women and men and, at heart, that’s what Paul is concerned with here: he wants men to be men, and women to be women.


There are things people do (both in terms of dress and behaviour) to deliberately blur the differences between women and men and, at heart, that’s what Paul is concerned with here: he wants men to be men, and women to be women.

And so we need to ask how it is that our culture expresses these differences? We need to be students of our culture. It may be that our culture is eclectic (which it is), and there is no one way of dressing, no one “look” that says it all, but, in a way that makes sense within our culture, we are to avoid blurring the distinctions between women and men through what we wear or how we act.

Besides, if we think the significance of this text for us hangs on the existence of a similar cultural symbol or simply ticking a box on some item of clothing or hairstyle, we will have missed the point. Paul’s concern was not so much about the abuse of symbols by women and men. The problem was what their conduct said about their identity and their relationships.

When we come together to praise God we’re to accept he made us as women and men and express our acceptance visibly, most especially when we pray and prophesy. We, women, are to express our acceptance through our demeanor and our appearance, just as the men are to express theirs by what they wear and how they relate. This will not come easily to many of us, both because of what’s in our own hearts, and because of the effect of our culture upon us. But God’s word says to us today that these things matter to him. Yes, the twenty-first century is different from the first, but men and women are still men and women and God himself is the same and so this teaching still applies to us.


This is a revised version of an earlier article. Further discussion of 1 Corinthians 11, and detailed discussions of the Bible texts dealing with women and men can be found in God’s Good Design: What the Bible really says about men and women, (Matthias Media, 2012).

Photos: pexels.com (head); inyucho, creative commons () 

[1] http://www.wtsbooks.com/common/pdf_links/9781433532610.pdf Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, (Multnomah, 2004), see p. 207, citing Peter Glare.

[2] Ibid. p. 207, citing Peter Glare.

[3] There have been significant discussions in recent times about the relations within the Trinity and their bearing on the relationship between men and women. My own view is that Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:3 does not allow the theological precision definitively to exclude the essential relations within the Godhead. Moreover, arguments based on the use of ‘Christ’ as opposed to ‘Son’ to argue for a restricted ‘messianic’ or economic reading of 11:3 are strained: Paul speaks of “Christ” as creator in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and describes the end-time submission of “the Son” to the Father in 1 Corinthians 15:28. Besides, whichever view one adopts, it does not change the fact that Paul thinks the relations within the Godhead are relevant for the relationship of men and women, otherwise he wouldn’t have mentioned it. So even if we narrow the referent to the economic Trinity, it does not change Paul’s teaching about men and women, or the relevance of the divine relationship to that.

[4] Because this teaching can be wickedly distorted and misused to justify domestic abuse, I want to say unequivocally that Scripture condemns any violence, threats, or intimidation within the family. Paul explicitly commands husbands to love their wives, and not to be harsh with them (Col. 3:19). I urge anyone affected by domestic abuse, women, men or children, to seek help from those qualified to provide it or speak to their pastor in the first instance.

[5] For example, see Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids. 2003), pp. 77–96.

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