Say What?!

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. – 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 ESV

What in the world is Paul talking about in this passage? There is little debate that this is one of the most hotly debated sections in the Bible. There are those who write it off as just another example of Paul’s male chauvinism. Others believe that we are obligated to adhere to Paul’s teaching regarding hair length and head coverings in the church today. Some simply state that what Paul is dealing with in these verses is a cultural issue unique to Corinth, and that it has no bearing on the modern church today. But if all Scripture “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV), then it would seem that we need to discover just exactly what Paul is trying to tell us in these verses. There is little doubt that some of what Paul is addressing is cultural and contextual. It has to do with believers living in the Greek city of Corinth who were having to operate within an environment that was markedly different than the one in which we live. But there are timeless truths taught within these verses that apply to us as well. The key for us is to discover the non-negotiable principles intended for the church in every age, and to not allow ourselves to become distracted or deterred by the seemingly incongruous and archaic arguments of Paul.

I believe verse 3 is essential to understanding what Paul is trying to say in the passage: “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.” The real point of this passage is authority – God-ordained authority. As you can imagine, in the cultural context of Corinth in which Paul was trying to preach and teach, there were some strong objections to much of what he had to say. And the topic of authority or headship was one of the more controversial. So he lays out the God-ordained order of things:

The head (or authority over) of Christ is God

The head (or authority over) of man is Christ

The head (or authority over) of the wife is her husband

Paul states that man, who was created by God, is “the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7a ESV). Then he says that “woman is the glory of man” (1 Corinthians 11:7b) because she was made from man. The creation account tells us that Eve was created by God from one of Adam’s ribs. So, Paul concludes, “man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (1 Corinthians 11:8 ESV). And while Paul does not directly state it, he infers that Jesus came from God. Not in the sense that He was created by God, because Jesus is eternal. But His birth and incarnation were the work of God. Mary conceived because of the Spirit of God. All of this is to say that God has ordained an irrevocable order to things. And ever since the fall, mankind has been trying to turn that order on its head. It is interesting to note that one of the curses God pronounced on Eve and all women was “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16 NLT). One of the things that caused the fall to happen in the first place was Adam foregoing his God-ordained headship and allowing Eve to disobey the expressed will of God. It was to Adam that God had given His command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Adam gave Eve the lead. He allowed her to make the decision and “she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too” (Genesis 3:6 NLT).

The issue of head coverings and hair length seems to be cultural in context. The real point is headship and the proper expression of it. A woman wearing a veil or head covering as a sign of submission to her husband’s authority, while culturally acceptable, did not necessarily mean that she was truly submissive. A man wearing his hair short as a sign of submission to the authority of God did not necessarily mean he actually lived under that authority. The outward evidences of submission are nothing if the inward expression of submission is missing. The bottom line about authority, headship and submission is that each of us ultimately submits to God. Paul states, “But among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women. For although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12 NLT). There is a God-ordained inter-dependency at work here. Eve was made from Adam, but every male since Adam has come from a woman. It is not that men are more important than women or of more value to God. It is about divinely orchestrated authority and responsibility. 

If we are not careful, we will spend all our time arguing and debating about head coverings and hair length and miss out on Paul’s primary point of headship. There comes a point at which we have to be okay with God’s will, even when it seems to contradict the world’s patterns and our own preferences. Jesus submitted to the will of God, even though it meant His death. Paul submitted to the will of Christ, taking the gospel to the Gentiles, even though it meant he would face rejection and persecution for his efforts. Men were to submit to Christ, acknowledging Him as their head, even though it would mean they had to give up their rights and learn to love sacrificially and selflessly. Wives were to submit to their husbands and daughters to their fathers, as to the Lord, even though they might be wiser and know better. As Paul told the Ephesians, each of us is to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NLT). And Peter would remind us, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor” (1 Peter 5:6 NLT). We may not understand all that Paul is saying here. We may not even like what we do understand. But we must trust that God’s will regarding headship and submission is best. We must submit to His will and trust His wisdom.

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