Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (27)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (27)

1 Corinthians 11:1-3

Broadcast: August 23, 1998; Message Number 1486

Male Headship and the Role of Women

In our exposition of I Corinthians we now come to chapter 11, where the apostle deals with the controversial issue of male headship and its corollary, female submission. Some people think that the focus of this chapter is on the question whether women should wear hats in church. But anyone who is aware of what is going on in the mainline denominations, including evangelical and Reformed churches, knows that there is a much more important issue at stake. The question today is not so much whether women should be wearing head-coverings in church, but whether they should wear the pants at home and in the church! The struggle for women's rights has become a dominant issue during the last several decades, not only in society but also in the church.

Let us not think that this is a new problem, however. The New Testament church already was challenged by women who asserted their rights as they perceived them. The Corinthian Christians faced a situation similar to the one we are facing today and apparently they also sought Paul's advice on what should be the proper role of women in the church.

The Corinthians were in basic agreement with the teachings they had received from the apostle and for the most part adhered to sound doctrine. This is what Paul acknowledges when with characteristic tactfulness he writes: "Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you." He first commends them for their strengths in order to make them more receptive to what he has to do next, namely correct their views on male-female roles and relationships. They were not at all clear on the Biblical teaching on male headship and authority and therefore needed his apostolic teaching on this subject as many Christians today still do apparently.

Paul begins by stating his main thesis or principle: "the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. The word "head" here refers to that part of our body that contains the brain, and the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, and which, even in the ancient world, was understood to be the control center of the body. It is clear that Paul also uses the word "head" in a metaphorical or figurative sense, meaning priority in function. That is what the head of our body does; it runs the body; it is in charge; it is the direction-setter of the body. Used metaphorically, therefore, the word "head" means primarily leadership, and that's how it is used in this passage. This is clear, I think, from the threefold use of it that the apostle makes here. The first and third statements every orthodox Christian accepts without question; it is the second one, dealing with male headship, that some people have problems with.

Notice how Paul approaches this delicate subject. He brackets it with two other examples of headship so that we might understand from them what the middle one means.

The first one is, "the head of every man is Christ." Here Paul sets forth Christ's right to govern the whole human race. He is the divinely appointed leader of the race, and the time will come when all humanity, without exception, shall bow the knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Whether men know it or not, Christ is their head and they are obliged to follow Him.

That is the true purpose of life for any man who wishes to fulfill his manhood. Of course, that is only seen in practice in the believer and then only to a limited degree, but it is stated very positively here. In the book of Hebrews it says that Christ is "the pioneer of our salvation," the one who goes before; the one who opens the way. This is how we should interpret the metaphorical use of the word "head" in this passage. Christ is the leader of the race, the determiner of every man's destiny, the One to be followed.

Now move down to the third level of headship mentioned here, "the head of Christ is God." As the second person in the trinity, Christ, the Son of God, is equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, when He assumes humanity He submits himself to the leadership of the Father. As He Himself testified again and again: "I do always those things which please my Father." On one occasion He said, "My meat is to do my Father's will, and to please him who sent me." On another occasion He said, "I and my Father are one," that is, we work together in harmony. Elsewhere He says, "My Father is greater than I."

These statements do not challenge the equality of the members of the Godhead, but when Christ became man He voluntarily consented to take a lower position than the Father. It is in that sense he says, "My Father is greater than I."

Those two forms of headship help us to understand the meaning of the central one, "the head of the woman is the man." Some modern translations read, "the head of the woman is her husband," but that is an interpretation. The word used is aner, the male. Although Paul seems to have in mind the married woman and her role in the church, the principle of headship has implications for all of life, though not in the same way or to the same degree.

It should be remembered, however, that in Scripture headship never means domination. It is a voluntary commitment, carried out in practice out of a conviction that God's will is best achieved by this means. It is to be most visible in marriage, where it manifests that role of support which a woman undertakes voluntarily when she marries a man. He is to be leader and she assumes a support role to help him fulfill the objectives of their life together as Christ, his head, makes clear. Now if she does not want to do that she is perfectly free not to undertake that role.

No woman should get married if she does not want to. This is a role that she is perfectly free to forego if she so chooses. If she wants to pursue a career of her own she has every right to do so. But then she ought not to get married, because marriage means that she desires to help advance the objectives and goals of her husband. He becomes, therefore, the leader of the two. That is the principle of headship, and the apostle has stated it as clearly and as objectively as it can be stated.

Some commentators, especially those sympathetic to the feminist movement, insist that the word "head" here means origin rather than authority. While the idea of origin is included, the root meaning of the word "head" is headship or leadership. This is how the term is used for example in Ephesians 5. There we are told that Christ is the head of the church which is his body. In other words, He is the church's leader and gives direction to it and establishes the terms of the relationship.

What Paul means therefore when he says that the man is the head of the woman is that the man is to provide leadership in the home and in the church. Paul wants the Corinthians to understand this. The implication is that they were confused about the role of women. Paul wants them to have the right view on this vital question because the health of the church and society depends on it.

The principle of subordination and authority pervades the entire universe. If Christ had not submitted to the will of God, redemption for mankind would have been impossible. If men and women do not submit to Christ as Saviour and Lord, they remain in their lost state because they reject God's gracious provision in His Son.

But--and this follows logically from what Paul says here--if women do not submit to male leadership the church, the family and ultimately society as a whole will be disrupted and eventually destroyed.

Who still believes this today? Not the feminists, for sure; not Christian feminists either. Their favourite text is Galatians 3:28, where Paul states that in Christ there is neither male nor female. This is a key passage for them in the light of which all other statements dealing with male-female relationships must be interpreted. In this way they seek to disprove the idea that husbands are to have authority over their wives and that wives should be submissive to their husbands. Anyone who honestly examines Paul's statements here in 1 Corinthians, as well as other passages, will have to admit that he does not support the feminist agenda. Some do admit this, but in stead of bowing before God's inspired Word they accuse Paul of being a male chauvinist who at times taught his own prejudices instead of the Word of God.

What about Galatians 3:28? Does it not teach the complete equality between men and women in Christ? Indeed it does, but the key words here are "in Christ." Paul means that as far as their spiritual position is concerned there is no distinction to be made between men and women. I can go further and say that as far as personal worth, abilities and intellect are concerned there is no difference either. Some women obviously are even superior to some men in gifts, intelligence, maturity and spirituality.

God established the principle of male authority and female subordination for the purpose of order, not on the basis of any inborn or natural superiority of the male species. An employee may have more smarts than his boss, but a company cannot be run successfully if there is no submission to proper authority. Elders and deacons must be chosen from among the most spiritual men of the congregation, but there may be other men in the church who are even more spiritual who for some reason are overlooked. Yet, precisely because they are spiritual they will submit to those elected to office.

Some women in church are better Bible students, better theologians and better speakers than any of the men, including the pastor. But if they are obedient to God's creation order they will submit to male leadership and will not try to usurp it-simply because that is God's design. A wife may be better educated, have a better grasp of Scripture and be more spiritually mature than her husband. But because she is spiritual, she will willingly submit to him as head of the family. As Paul writes in Ephesians 5:22, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord."

In other words, submission to her husband is part of her devotion and obedience to Christ. It is also significant that in Isaiah 3:12 the prophet pronounced God's judgement on his generation because they had allowed women to rule over them.

Summing up my first point, we see that the apostle in verse 3 takes these three aspects of headship together and puts them on the same level. Just as Christ is submissive to the Father and Christians are to be submissive to Christ, women are to be submissive to men. The conclusion is inescapable: you cannot reject one part without rejecting the others. You cannot reject the principle of woman's submission to man without also rejecting Christ's submission to the Father and the believers' submission to Christ.

I want to stress, however, that the authority and submission in each case is based on love, not tyranny or force. The Father sent Christ into the world to save sinners purely out of love, not under any compulsion. Christ submitted Himself to the Father also solely motivated by love. He loves the church, His bride, so much that He died for her, and He rules His people in love, not by constraint. In response, therefore, the church also submits to Him in love. Similarly, men in general and husbands in particular should exercise their authority in love, not in tyranny. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones is absolutely right when he says that no husband is entitled to say that he is the head of the wife unless he loves his wife. And in Ephesians 5, Paul explains what kind of love he should give his wife. It is to be agape love, that is the kind of love that seeks not its own benefit but that of the beloved. It is a love that is not so much governed by the desire to have as by the desire to give.

God so loved the world. How? He gave His Son because He was totally unselfish. Christ gave Himself the same way, by sacrificing Himself for the Church, His dear Bride. Therefore, husbands love your wives like that, even as Christ loved the church. Where this love is given, wives don't mind acknowledging the headship of their husbands because they will see in them a reflection, be it ever so small and imperfect, of the love of Christ.

Do you have this kind of marriage? If so, be very thankful because it is rare. If not, ask yourself what the problem is in your relationship. There may be many causes for a malfunctioning or--to use the modern buzzword--dysfunctional marriage and family, but ultimately it is a spiritual problem.

If you are not properly related to your wife or husband or children, it is because you are not properly related to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, attend to that first. Repent and believe the Gospel. Ask Christ to come into your heart and life as well as your family. Then everything will fall into place, as you submit to His Word which not only makes us wise unto salvation but also teaches us to discharge our responsibilities as husbands, wives and parents according to God's creation order.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1205155313
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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