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Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Corinthians 11:1-16

11 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

Head Coverings

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[a] is her husband,[b] and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife[c] 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. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.[d] 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

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My last instalment in this series discussed Paul’s exhortation at the end of 1 Corinthians 10 to do everything for the glory of God whilst taking care to not offend Jews, pagans or Christians.

Today’s reading is a contentious one, and even John MacArthur admitted he was reluctant to preach on it back in 1976 (emphases mine below):

First Corinthians chapter 11. And I tried to delay it as long as I could but finally I just really ran against the wall, and I couldn’t think of anything else to get out of it, so here we are. And it has to do with the subordination and equality of women.

The following week, he asked the congregation for their patience:

This chapter is very interesting, and I want all of you to please remain until I’m finished this morning and not duck your head or be inclined to leave until I’m finished. This is a very interesting passage, and you’re going to find some very interesting truth, I’m sure, applied perhaps in a way you’ve never really understood it before.

This was a time when women were entering the job market en masse in the United States. Some were married, some were divorced and the end result was that the demographic of work — and the family — would change irreversibly. How many women are single or divorced heads of households today?

Our reality of the 21st century makes this a particularly difficult passage.

However, MacArthur says something highly interesting that puts these verses into perspective:

this isn’t a universal principle; this is a custom. Paul never said anything to the – to the Jews or the Romans about hats or not hats or covered or uncovered. It was an issue in Corinth. And in fact, Paul, as a Jew, was uttering language here entirely antagonistic to the Jewish custom of rabbinical teaching. The Jew always wore a tallit, a covering. And Paul is saying, “Don’t wear a covering.”

We say, “Paul, you know the Jews always wear a covering.”

Yeah, but these aren’t Jews, and if they do, it’ll be wrong for their society. It’s cultural. Paul isn’t laying down an absolute rule to be observed by all Christians. And I just – I read something this week that said that this proves that women should never come to church without a hat. It doesn’t prove that at all. That used to be the feeling of many people, and then the hats got so bad, no one could see, and the thing kind of died down a little …

But that isn’t the point. It’s fine to wear a hat. That’s wonderful. But that isn’t what he’s saying. He’s simply saying, “Accommodate yourselves to the custom of the Corinthians. If for a Corinthian woman to appear submissive and modest she wears a veil, then women, you wear a veil. And men the opposite.” Don’t violate customs that have significance in your society. The man and the woman are – to be sure they acquiesce to those.

I can back this up with an essay on hermeneutics that Dr Craig S Keener wrote several years ago. Hermeneutics involves studying historical and cultural context when interpreting Scripture. My post which included this example from 1 Corinthians 11 is here, and Dr Keener’s essay, which I cited, is here.

In citing Ephesians 5, Keener discusses the order of authority in the family unit in Greek and Roman societies:

from Aristotle onward Greeks and Romans often emphasized that the male head of the household must rule his wife, children and slaves. But Paul, while taking over the topic, modifies the instructions: he tells a husband not how to rule his wife, but how to love her (Eph 5:25). The wife must submit, but as a form of Christian submission that all Christians must learn to practice (Eph 5:21-22). If we read this passage as if Paul were saying exactly the same thing as Aristotle, we would miss his point

As for head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11, Keener says:

… knowing why women wore head coverings in Paul’s day helps us understand why he gives the instructions he does. Most women in the eastern Mediterranean world covered their hair in public as a sign of sexual modesty; thus the lower class women in the churches were concerned when some upper class women refused to wear them.

But would Paul solve matters of sexual modesty or class division in the same way in every culture as he did in Corinth? Would the head covering provide a solution to such issues in every culture? Could head coverings in some cultures become signs of ostentation, showing off wealth? Could they in some cultures actually become tools of seduction the way jewels and costly array sometimes were in Paul’s culture? What of a culture where only well-to-do people could afford to wear head coverings, thus introducing class division into the church? Is it possible that in churches in some parts of the world, wearing a head covering (as opposed to not wearing one) might draw attention to the wearer?

This is why it is so important for us to take into account cultural background and read Scripture consistently in light of it

Jesus claimed that what mattered most was justice, mercy and faith (Matt 23:23)–the heart of God’s word. Paul in the same way disagreed with his contemporaries on what was fundamental, arguing that it is God’s own power that saves us, not secondary issues like circumcision or food laws. This method of interpretation requires us to keep central what matters most (the gospel and obedience to God’s will), rather than becoming legalistic on secondary matters that could distract us from the heart of the gospel

You can read excerpts and find source links to all of Craig Keener’s essays on biblical hermeneutics here. They help to explain much in the Bible.

Now on to today’s reading.

Recall that Paul is responding by letter to questions that the Corinthians have been sending him. He begins by exhorting them to follow his example in all things, because he is ‘of Christ’ (verse 1). In other words, when the Corinthians are in doubt, they should do what he does.

1 Corinthians addresses difficult topics, so, in prefacing his remarks, Paul compliments the congregation for remembering his teachings and maintaining the traditions as he taught — delivered — them (verse 2).

MacArthur explains that this was Paul’s way of saying that they understood the Gospel message and Christian doctrine:

… I think what he’s saying there, and I’m not going to give you all the background, except to say if you check the word there “ordinances,” it’s the word “tradition.” And as it’s used in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, it is used to speak of doctrine. And whenever the word “delivered” is used, it is used in connection with teaching content.

And so, what he’s saying there is, “I’m glad that you at least asked me questions, and you have maintained the doctrine that I gave you.” You see, as you read the whole of 1 Corinthians, he doesn’t straighten them out on doctrine. He doesn’t have to tell them about the deity of Christ, or the truth of God, or the ministry of the Spirit – the Holy Spirit, he doesn’t have to discuss the believer’s life pattern as it operates in the yieldedness to the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t go into those doctrinal issues. Because apparently, they were really hanging in on those. Apparently there weren’t doctrinal impurities. Chapter 15 may indicate some misunderstanding about resurrection, but for the most part, they didn’t have questions about the deity of Christ or his saving work. He doesn’t have a grace vs. works section in here.

Doctrinally, they had heard and received and maintained, and they were at least consulting him about things, and he says, “For that I just want to praise you. I just want to…” And it’s a very strong assertion of praise; a very, very strong term is used there.

The problem with the Corinthians was their personal conduct as Christians who were young in the faith. Corinth was a highly decadent city where all manner of sin was committed.

Paul began his explanation of head coverings by laying out the authority in the family unit which was common in Greek and Roman societies at that time, as explained above, but in a Christian context. Christ rules over every man, every husband is his wife’s superior and Christ submits to God the Father (verse 3).

MacArthur explains the theology behind that verse:

Think of it this way: if Christ does not submit to the Father, then redemption is not accomplished. Man is lost; he is doomed; and God is at war with Himself if the Son does not submit.

If man, on the other hand, does not submit to Christ, then man is lost. His destiny is denied, and judgment falls on him. If woman does not submit to man in the family, the family is shattered, and society is wrecked. So, God is saying, “These are the principles, everybody. There is a submission principle between man and man, between man and God, between God and God. It pervades everything.

Paul then goes into prevailing social customs whereby a man looks like a man and a woman a woman. For Gentile men — i.e. the bulk of the Corinthian congregation — that meant having one’s head uncovered in worship or prophecy (verse 4). For a woman, it meant wearing a veil for prayer or prophecy, as would be the custom outside of worship (verses 5, 6).

According to some Bible scholars, there was a social movement with women who were discarding their femininity in order to look like men. Furthermore, only prostitutes went around without veils:

In that society, when the veil was on, a woman was taking the place of submission; she was honoring the sanctity of a woman’s virtue, and of marriage. We would even go further in to say it was the custom in the Corinthian society for prostitutes to be unveiled because their business was to make sure they got seen. How could they drum up business if they had a veil on? And so, they would throw their veil aside.

There is another interesting historical note that we find in studying the Corinthian situation, Eerdman points this out; and that is that there were women in the Corinthian society, and in much of Roman society, who were making statements against the sacredness of marriage. There was a feminist movement, even on a broader base, in the Roman Empire, and women frequently would take their veils off and cut their hair. And the cutting of their hair to look like a man, and the throwing away of the veil was a protest against the inequality of men and women, and it was a statement of their antagonism toward the sacredness of marriage.

So, you see, what we’re seeing today isn’t anything new. It’s nothing new at all. You can read it in history. And so, in the Corinthian situation, the church was right in the midst of a society that was struggling with this very issue. And the word that Paul gives to the church, simply stated, is this, “Look, whatever standard your society sets up as the way in which you manifest a submissive spirit, you abide by that standard so that society knows you are following the God-ordained pattern. If it’s a veil, wear it; don’t throw it away. Last of all, don’t throw it away in the name of Christian liberty.”

Paul supports his points for the natural order of the family by referring to the creation story in Genesis. He purports that a man should not cover his head because God created him (verse 7). God created Adam.

Furthermore, woman found her creation from the man (verses 8, 11, 12). God created Eve from Adam’s rib.

Still following the creation story, Paul says that man was not created for woman, rather woman was created for man (verse 9) as a help meet to him. He explains that this is why a woman wears a veil, or a ‘symbol of authority’ on her head, because of the angels (verse 10).

To us, this sounds strange and harsh, but MacArthur says that Paul was attempting to put the order of society into a new, Christian context.

MacArthur explains why some women in ancient societies rose up and became feminists:

In the Roman and the Greek world, it takes very little study at all to determine that women were thought of purely as slaves, purely as animals and nothing more, not allowed to make any contribution beyond that of servitude.

So, when Christianity came along and announced equality of women spiritually, equality of women in personhood, equality of women in capacity and so forth, this was liberating. This was not confining. But when it maintained the distinction in role, it was also not confining women, but it was helping women and men to see their God-ordained design and therefore be able to fulfill it with a commitment

In the Roman society, for example, women were definitely abused. And out of the abuses, there grew a feminist movement. And in some senses, we would agree that it was justifiable. But when Christianity came along and truly liberated women, that feminist attitude should never have carried into the church, but it did. In fact, if you study the feminist movement of ancient Rome, you will find that they had all of the characteristics of the feminist movements of all the times in history, most all of them, and of today.

For example, women were stating their independence, in those days, by leaving home; … by refusing to have children, or if they had children, refusing to care for them; by demanding jobs always held by men; by wearing men’s clothes and discarding all signs of femininity; by violating their marriage vows; by seeking independence in general, etcetera, etcetera. All of the things that were characteristic of that time in feminist movements are pretty much what’s going on today.

And so it was that culture had brought abuses to womanhood. And womanhood was reacting to the cultural abuses. Christianity came in and truly set women free to be what God designed them to be, recognizing their equality in every dimension except in the assignment of a role within society’s framework.

Why did Paul bring angels into his reasoning? MacArthur explains:

There’s one principle angels really recognize very well. There’s one principle angels understand completely. There’s one principle they never have to ask questions about. You know what that principle is? Authority and submission. You read Hebrews chapter 1 and find how many times it tells us in there that angels are under the authority of God. It calls them ministering spirits, serving spirits. It says, “The Son is here, and the angels are here. To which of the angels has He ever said, ‘Sit here on My throne and rule?’” It says that Christ, in verse 4 of Hebrews 1 is a better name than angels. So, they understand the authority of God and the submissiveness of their own service.

Paul says that all things are from God (verse 12), a reference to the natural order of mankind and society. Matthew Henry offers this brief analysis of checks and balances:

The authority and subjection should be no greater than are suitable to two in such near relation and close union to each other. Note, As it is the will of God that the woman know her place, so it is his will also that the man abuse not his power.

Paul asks a question in the social context of the Corinthians (verse 13): is it proper for a Corinthian woman to pray with her head uncovered? The answer would be ‘no’. Today, it would be like asking if a woman should go to church in a swimsuit. Everyone would agree that she should not.

In the next two verses, Paul applies social convention once again. Men in that era did not have long hair. Women did. Paul asks if it would be appropriate for a man to have long hair (verse 14). He asks if a woman should have short hair, since her long hair is ‘her glory’ and ‘a covering’ (verse 15). During the Second World War, the French shaved the heads of women who were helping the Germans and forbade them from wearing a head covering. It was a humiliating, if somewhat justified, punishment for aiding and abetting the enemy.

Paul ends by saying that the Church has no provision for contentiousness (verse 16). He wants the Corinthians to obey social convention and not introduce provocation or controversy.

Henry explains:

Custom is in a great measure the rule of decency. And the common practice of the churches is what would have them govern themselves by. He does not silence the contentious by mere authority, but lets them know that they would appear to the world as very odd and singular in their humour if they would quarrel for a custom to which all the churches of Christ were at that time utter strangers, or against a custom in which they all concurred, and that upon the ground of natural decencyThose must be very contentious indeed who would quarrel with this, or lay it aside.

MacArthur offers a scientific explanation:

Hair grows in a three-phase cycle. Number one in the cycle is the formation and growth of new hair. Secondly is the resting stage. Thirdly is the fall-out stage with which some of you are so well acquainted. Okay? So, you have beginning the formation and growth of new hair, the resting stage, and the fall-out. And then after the fall-out the cycle starts all over again.

Now, the male hormone, testosterone – the male hormone speeds those three phases so that quickly the man gets to phase three, fall out. That’s why you see bald men but never see bald women. Aristotle said, “I have never seen a bald child, eunuch, or woman.” There’s a reason for that. Testosterone , the male hormone, causes the speed up of the steps to get you quickly to step three. And that retards the process of growth in a man. The female hormone, estrogen, in the woman causes the cycle to remain in stage one, the growth stage, longer than it does in a man. That’s why a woman’s hair will grow longer than a man’s over the same period of time.

So, does not nature teach you? Hasn’t God put right into human physiology the truth that short hair belongs to men, and long hair belongs to women. Interesting, isn’t it? It’s interesting. You all look so stunned.

All right, now listen; I’m not through with you. The second term, phusis, the second way it can be translated is by the word “instinct.” Instinct means the instinctive sense of man as he recognizes what he sees in society. So, he’s saying, “It isn’t just physiological, but it’s just plain obvious.” Look around you in society. Isn’t it obvious that men have shorter hair than women? Nature has made it so, and man has agreed to nature, and that’s the way it is. And around the world, and for all history, men have generally had hair shorter than women. You can verify that, and you can cover a lot of ground historically, and you’ll see it verified.

Now, sometimes men’s hair was long enough to be at the shoulder, but the women’s hair was down around the tops of the legs. But always there was the distinction. In ancient Rome, it was considered a mark of effeminacy to have long hair. And it was ridiculed by Roman writers. In later times, early Church councils condemned men with long hair.

He concludes:

You take to heart what the Spirit of God says to you. And please, as I said earlier, don’t go running around, because you have long hair, thinking you’re spiritual. You might be, but that isn’t it. Or because you have short hair you can’t come back to church for the next eight weeks. No, I don’t want you to do that. I want you to think about it; I want you to pray about it. I want you to deal with it as God reveals it to your own heart as He has to mine. And let’s see where the Spirit of God leads in your life. And I’ll leave that up to Him and to you. Let’s pray.

In thinking about couples today in Western countries, one cannot help but wonder if continued role reversals over the past few decades have led to fewer marriages and fewer children. Something to ponder in the week ahead.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 11:17-22

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