Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (28)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (28)

1 Corinthians 11:4-16

Broadcast: August 30, 1998; Message Number 1487

Proper Decorum During Worship Services

In I Corinthians 11 the apostle Paul deals with the difficult subject of male headship and female submission. Just as the head of every man is Christ, he states, and the head of Christ is God, so man is the head of the woman. He has stated the principle of male headship in verses 1 to 3, and now goes on to apply this principle in verses 4 to 6, "Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head. But every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered."

Two things in this passage are very important. First of all, Paul is concerned about proper behaviour of both men and women during the worship service. The second thing is that part of that decorum is that women should wear a head covering and that men should not.

The reason why men ought not to have their heads covered has to do with the principle of headship which the apostle has just established. For a man to wear something on his head during the worship service disgraces his head, Paul says. Whose head is Paul referring to, his own or Christ's, Who according to verse 3, is the Head of every man? Probably Paul has both in mind here. In other words, a man who prays with his head covered dishonours both Christ and himself.

Another question is, what exactly is the head covering referred to here? The Greek literally says: something hanging down from the head. Whatever this covering is, it is the same or similar to what women should be wearing. Most scholars believe Paul is referring to some kind of cape or hood which could be pulled up from the shoulders and drawn over the head. Men should not wear such a covering, the apostle says, but women should. Why? Because if she doesn't she disgraces her head. Again, the reference is to her own head as well as to her husband and other male worshipper present.

Why was Paul so concerned about this? Because by not wearing such a covering a women sent a message, not only to the church community, but to society at large. The custom for women in those days was to cover their heads in public. All decent women adhered to this rule. It showed that they recognized the distinction between male and female. But not only that; by wearing a head covering they indicated that they accepted the authority of their husbands and men generally. All wore their hair long and covered their heads with this hood or cape. The only women who did not follow this custom were the temple prostitutes and other women who considered themselves emancipated or liberated.

Speaking of emancipation, the Gospel is basically a message of liberation through Christ. The problem in the Corinthian church, however, was that some of the female converts took their newfound freedom too far. They flaunted this freedom, not only by appearing in public without the customary head covering, but also by refusing to wear their veils during the worship service. Paul was upset about this because in doing so these Christian ladies offended not just their fellow believers, but even their pagan neighbours. They were actually putting themselves on the same level with prostitutes who wore their hair short and did not bother covering their heads.

By their hairstyle and lack of head covering they announced to others what kind of women they were and what they were offering. Therefore, says Paul to his liberated sisters in verse 6, if you are going to abandon the head-covering why not go all the way and cut your hair off as well? It's all the same. According to Jewish law, a woman caught in adultery had her hair cut off (Num.5:11-31). That's the meaning of shorn or shaven. Paul assumes of course that no Christian lady would want to be dishonoured like this, but she should realize that this is the implication if she does not change her ways.

Paul next deals with the question of when and where Christian women should cover their heads. The answer is: while praying or prophesying during the worship services. The latter is not stated specifically, but may be assumed. Notice that Paul speaks of women praying and prophesying in church. He seems to take their participation in these activities for granted. That is all the more remarkable in light of chapter 14:34, where he exhorts women to be silent in church.

How do we reconcile these statements? The key here is to determine first what the apostle means by "prophesying." In New Testament times there were certain people, both men and women, who had the gift of prophecy. This means they received messages from God directly by the Spirit of God which they would then share with the rest of the congregation for the edification of all. We should realize that in those early years of Christianity the New Testament Scriptures were still in the process of being written and collected, so new revelations were still being added to the canon of Scripture. That's where these prophets come in. Some of them were women and they were allowed to exercise this gift as well as pray in public.

There was one restriction, however. They could not teach in the sense of judging and evaluating the contents of their own messages and those of other prophets. That was the prerogative of the men. While women might utter the revelations God had given them, the men alone could interpret their meaning. That is how we should understand Paul's prohibition in chapter 14. To indicate that these women prophets were willing to submit to the leadership of the male members they had to cover their heads.

We see that the issue of head covering is not quite so simple as some people think. It is mentioned only once in the New Testament, which makes it very dubious as a foundation on which to build a doctrine. Head covering is discussed here in connection with the practice of women praying and prophesying in the worship service!

We no longer have this practice because these special gifts were meant only for the formative period of the church while the New Testament Scriptures were still incomplete. One can legitimately ask therefore whether the apostolic command regarding women's head covering was meant for all time or only for the New Testament period. This is a debatable question. What is not debatable, however, is the principle of male headship. That this was not just a local custom Paul affirms by illustrating it from God's creation order. This he does in verses 7 to 10. A man ought not to have his head covered, he says, because he is the image and glory of God.

What does the apostle mean by these words? If we look up Genesis 1:26 we find that man was created in the image and likeness of God and the next verse shows that both terms refer to the woman as well as the man. So the woman is also made in God's image. But Paul uses the word glory to describe the woman's relationship to the man. The word image in verse 7 denotes a reflection. Man reflects the glory of his Creator in a way that the woman does not. She reflects that glory via the man. As Paul puts it; the woman is the glory of man. That's why she must cover her head, but not the man. For the man to do so would obscure the direct reflection of God's glory. Woman was made to reflect man's authority as man was made to reflect the authority of God.

To support this truth the apostle points out that man does not originate from woman, but woman from man. Adam was created first and given dominion over the earth before the woman was created from man. She was given the very name woman because she was surgically taken out of Man (Gen. 2:9-23).

Therefore, Paul continues, the woman ought to have power on her head because of the angels. What Paul means is this: since woman is the glory of man she ought to wear a symbol of authority on her head. In other words, the covered head is the woman's authority or right to pray and prophesy in the presence of men because it demonstrates her submission. The word symbol is not in the original, but it is implied because of the reference to the head covering mentioned in verses 4 to 7.

But what about the angels? What do they have to do with women's head coverings?

Angels are God's messengers who serve Him with total dedication and unqualified obedience. They know their place in the created order and expect all other creatures to do the same, especially man. According to Job 38:7 they were present at the creation and thus know about God's unique design for man and woman. They are apparently present whenever God's people meet for worship and they are keenly interested in how divine worship is conducted. They would be greatly offended therefore, if the divine order were to be violated. In other words, the angels don't want to see the distinction between men and women blurred or wiped out.

Admittedly, all this sounds very strange to modern ears. Feminists especially have no appreciation whatsoever for what Paul is saying here. They do not hesitate to call him a woman hater or at least a male chauvinist. As if anticipating this kind of reaction Paul wants his readers to know that he is not trying to put the woman down or considers her as some sort of inferior creature. In verses 11 and 12 he reminds both men and women of their essential equality and mutual dependence. Man's authority over women is a delegated and derived authority, given by God to be used for His purposes and in His way. Man has no right to use his authority in a tyrannical or selfish manner. Male chauvinism is just as wrong as feminism. Both are perversions of God's design for men and women.

But their essential equality does not negate some important differences. Judge for yourselves, Paul says, is it comely or proper that a woman pray to God uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man have long hair it is a shame to him? But if a woman have long hair it is a glory to her; for her hair is given her for a covering (vv.13,14).

What Paul means is this: the principle of authority and submission is not only a matter of divine revelation in Scripture, but is self-evident from the creation itself. The practice of a woman covering her head as a symbol of submission to man reflects the natural order. Men and women have distinctive physiology in many ways. One of them has to do with hair growth. I think most people would agree with the apostle that long hair looks better on a woman than on a man. It is a fact that nature has endowed women with more hair than men. A woman's hair is her glory, Paul says. Why? Not to attract men, although it is true that most men admire women with beautiful hair. But the primary reason is that by her long hair she shows that she recognizes the headship of the male. That's why her hair has been given her for a covering.

Notice what Paul is saying here. After everything he has said about the necessity of an external head covering for women, he now suggests that God gave her hair for a covering, literally, instead of a covering. Here is the beauty of the Scriptures. This was not written just for Corinth or even for the first century, but for all ages. In a culture where the wearing of veils is required, Christian women should observe that custom and not give the appearance of being rebellious. In societies where hats or some other type of covering is not or no longer a custom, a woman's long hair (longer than her husband's), is an adequate expression of the principle of headship.

Surely, this will help us today when the wearing of veils has lost its original significance, at least in western societies. It is simply not true that women who appear in public today without a head covering are frowned upon. They certainly are not suspected of being immoral. That used to be the case, not all that long ago. It was apparently so in New Testament times. In the Greek-Roman world the wearing of veils was a deeply entrenched custom. That is why Paul asked Christian women to conform to that custom in order not to bring discredit to the church. He concludes the passage therefore with these words: "If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God."

It was such a widespread custom in New Testament times that Paul could expect everyone to agree with him, except some ladies who were taking their Christian liberty too far. Had Paul lived in today's world, I doubt whether he would have made such a sweeping statement. He certainly could not have said that all the churches have this custom because that simply is not true. The reason for that is that the times have changed and so have fashions and ideas as to what is proper decorum in public and in church. What has not changed, however, is the principle of male headship.

We must learn to distinguish between a Biblical principle and its application. The principle is unchangeable because it is rooted in the inerrant Word of God. But applications are subject to change and modification, depending partly on culture and customs. In our modern culture where the wearing of a hat or veil or whatever, does not symbolize submission to male authority, that practice should not be required of Christians. It may be encouraged or recommended, but not insisted upon. Instead, I believe it would be in Paul's line of thinking if today we emphasized more the idea of long hair for women as a symbol of her willingness to accept male authority at home and in church. Women's hair and women's dress should be distinctively feminine so as to demonstrate both her womanly loveliness and her loving submission.

If some of you still feel that the proper way for you to worship God is to wear some kind of head covering, by all means do so. It is one way of symbolizing your submission to male headship. But then be sure that you wear it for that reason and not merely for tradition's sake. By the same token those of you who prefer not to wear a head covering, make sure that your hairstyle qualifies as feminine. Needless to say, I shall not tell you how long your hair should be. But a good rule of thumb is always: let it be longer than men's. Also, wear clothes that clearly distinguish you from men. Let there not be any confusion of the sexes among Christians. Whatever the culture or fashion may be at any given time, the principle remains the same: It is always shameful for the man to look like a woman or for the woman to look like a man.

1 Corinthians 11 is a difficult passage and I'm sure that I have not said the last word on it. I do hope I have demonstrated that the main issue here is not head coverings, but the divinely ordained principle of headship. It is that principle that is being attacked today as never before. What we are witnessing in these last days is open rebellion against God's rules of order for marriage and the family and therefore for the church, the state and society in general.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1205155432
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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