Headship and Its Symbols
October 4, 2009

Headship and Its Symbols

Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Service Type:

Headship and Its Symbols

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

by William Klock

We’re looking at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 this morning and because there’s a lot to cover in this short passage, I want to jump right into the text with just this as an introduction: We’re starting here with a new section of the book that runs through chapter 14, where St. Paul’s focus is on our life together as the Body of Christ and especially how we live out that life when we come to worship together. Paul starts this section out with one of the few pieces of praise he has for the Corinthians.  Look at verse 2:

Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.

His praise seems a little out of place considering that he rips into them within just a few verses, but as he did in Chapter 1, Paul praises them where he sees them trying to do the right thing.  He had been with them for a year-and-a-half or more and taught them the Gospel and the apostolic teachings.  They hadn’t forgotten them and they were following them, at least to some extent.  The point in these next chapters is Paul’s correction where they aren’t following these traditions properly or fully.

Before going further, one thing that needs to be clarified is that word “tradition”.  There are two words used in the Greek New Testament for “tradition”.  One of them refers specifically to manmade traditions.  Our English Bibles usually translate it “traditions of men” and the gist of the word is to refer to legalistic traditions that burden us.  It’s usually used where the New Testament writers are talking about the teachings of the Pharisees or of false teachers in the Church.  The second word, though, is what Paul uses here.  It was a technical word in Judaism at that time and it refers specifically to teachings handed down by God – things of divine origin and, because they come from God, things that are binding on believers in all times and in all places.  In the New Testament that technical term for God’s own divine traditions is used when we hear about the teaching of the apostles, who were all men divinely appointed by Jesus to proclaim his truth to us and who wrote the New Testament Scriptures, both the Gospels and the Epistles, under the direct inspiration of his Holy Spirit.  So what Paul tells us here falls specifically into that category.

Paul gets into the specific issue here in verse 3.

But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Head refers to “authority” and that’s the principle that underlies everything Paul’s going to say in these verses: Christ has authority over man, man has authority over woman; and God the Father has authority over Christ.  Paul’s point is that our male/female role relationships were designed by God to be a reflection of the relationship that exists within the Holy Trinity.  God created men and women so that the way we interact with each other teaches us something about who he is – about how the Father relates to the Son and the Son to the Father.  Because of the Fall and sin entering into our race it’s no longer natural for us to model God in our relationships, and yet as redeemed men and women, the Spirit now enables us to pick up our biblical roles again.  We may not be able to expect a non-Christian culture to follow God’s pattern, but as the Church – as people renewed by the Spirit – one of our first priorities should be to model this pattern so that the world around us will see God through us.

It’s interesting how Paul orders these three relationships in verse 3: Christ has authority over man; man has authority over woman; and finally, lest we think that being under authority is in any way suggestive of inferiority, he tells us that the Father has authority over Christ.  Anyone who thinks that this is about inequality or inferiority needs to remember the model of Jesus.  He submitted himself to the will of the Father.  Did that make him inferior? No.  Did it make him less equal?  No.  Each person of the Trinity is equal with the others.  The issue is not equality, but distinction in their roles.  A woman’s submission to her husband is in no way a sign of her inequality or inferiority, but a sign of her distinction from him.  That’s the underlying theme throughout these verses: the relationship that Christ has to his Church and the relationship he has with God the Father in the work of redemption, is what we need to model in our male/female role relationships.

Remember: God wants the people of this world to see him.  That’s why he doesn’t just redeem us and take us out of this world.  He leaves us here, but he changes our lives and tunes our hearts and minds toward him and toward his will that we might reveal him to the world around us by how we live as followers of Jesus.  If we reject God on this issue, we’re choosing to model the world’s own falsehood.  If we do that, where is our witness and where is our love for a lost world so desperately in need of God’s truth?

Now, assuming our desire is to model God’s truth, how do we do it?  It’s a given that Christians practice biblical male headship in our lives, and especially in the Church, but what we find from the example of the Corinthians is that there’s also a visible and outward sign we put on – something that signifies that we’re in agreement with and committed to God’s design for men and women.  Chances are that if we’re willing to bear the outward sign, we’re also committed to the principle behind it.  That’s the issue Paul addresses here.  Look at verses 4 to 6:

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.  But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved.  For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.

First, let me say, that Paul puts this in the context of public worship.  If he only mentioned prayer, we might think that he was talking about any time of worship, public or private, but he says pray and prophesy.  The gift of prophecy is for public consumption, not something to keep to yourself for your own edification. For that reason we know Paul’s talking about times when we gather together for corporate worship.  He’s not talking about private or family worship and he’s not talking about other times when we’re out and about our daily business.

So when we come together, Paul says, men are to worship with their heads uncovered – that men are not to wear a hat or a veil or shawl or anything like that – and that the opposite is true for women.  When men come to worship and cover their heads, they dishonour Christ and when women worship with their heads uncovered, they dishonour the men and especially their husbands.

For women, what does that head-covering look like?  Scripture never gets that specific, but we can be assured from the witness of the Church going all the way back to the apostolic age, we’re not talking Islamic burkas or anything like that.  From what we see in illustrations of Christian worship throughout the centuries, the most common headcovering was as simple as a scarf.  The form or style of the covering itself isn’t important – and has always been culturally determined.  What is important is that a woman’s head be covered during our worship and a man’s head be uncovered, both as signs of submission to God’s design for our roles.

The form of the covering might be culturally determined, but the lack of covering for men and the covering for women has often been very counter-cultural.  This is a place where the Corinthians were apparently letting their culture dictate what they did.  Men in the Greco-Roman world did just the opposite of the Christian custom.  When the men of Corinth went into the temples to pray, they covered their heads with a scarf or the well-to-do would pulled their toga up over their heads.  It was considered shameful to have your head uncovered in worship.  Women were often known to do the opposite and in fact the little evidence we have points to one of the identifying signs of the Corinthian temple prostitutes being an uncovered head.  The culture’s norms were opposed to God’s, but that’s what we should expect.  Since the Fall, the world has consistently drifted away from God’s design – confusing the God-given roles for men and women.   But even though we can expect this as the result of sin, it’s no small thing.  And for that reason, one of God’s priorities has always been to call his people back to clarity on his plans for us.

When God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, they were a people who barely knew him.  Their customs were more or less the same as the pagan Egyptians.  At Sinai God straightened them out and called them to follow him and gave them the Law.  And there’s a lot in that Law that pointed the people back to his designs for marriage and for male/female relationships.  He didn’t want his people confused on these things.  Homosexuality – probably the most extreme instance of sex role confusion – was condemned and assigned the death penalty.  But in Deuteronomy 22:5 he also said, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.”  He makes it clear: men are to act like men and women are to act like women.  That’s especially true in the Church.  Christian men and women need to model for the world the roles God has created for us.  The world may confuse those roles to it’s own downfall, but the Church needs to model them anyway.  When we come to worship our dress should be an outward sign of our acceptance of the God-given distinction between the sexes and our role relationships as men and women.  Clothes may not be a big deal, but they serve as an outward sign of our submission to God’s design and here in 1 Corinthians we see that when it comes to worship there’s a specific sign involving head coverings.

Paul has strong words for us if we don’t follow the biblical pattern: we shame our head.  We bring shame on our own head, literally, but we shame the one who is head over us.  He uses vivid imagery with the women: not covering the head is like having your head shaved.  That only happened for two reason: slave women were shaved when they changed hands and adulteresses were shaved as a sign of their disgrace.  To be shaved was a disgrace for the woman and for her husband.  And while Paul may single out the women here, consider that the disgrace factor is worse for the man who covers his head.  He disgraces himself too, but he also disgraces Jesus Christ. Even more importantly, consider that if the disgrace is that great for not bearing the outward signs of headship, how great is the disgrace for not living out that headship in life?

Brothers and sisters, understand, I’m not meaning to suggest that the women here who don’t wear a hat or scarf to church are deliberately rejecting God’s design for male headship – in fact, I know many of you serve as excellent models of God’s design for men and women and for marriages and families.  The problem today is that this practice of bearing the outward sign of obedience to God’s design has slipped away so quietly, that it hasn’t even been an issue in most Western churches.  And yet, there are many of you here – say those over fifty or sixty – who have seen this shift in practise take place in your own lifetime.  When some of you were children every woman wore a hat to church and yet today it’s extremely rare.  But not everywhere.  The practice has mainly followed wherever the feminist agenda has been pushed and has won out in the culture.  That means primarily in the West and the North.  And it’s those same cultures, like our own, where we’re now seeing so much confusion regarding the roles of men and women.  The end result is broken marriage and families and a proliferation of sins both hetero- and homosexual.

Friends, this is exactly why the church needs to be counter-cultural.  If we don’t model godly marriage and families, who will?  Wearing or not wearing hats in church isn’t going to fix the problem, but following the biblical principles on head coverings is an outward sign not only to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but to non-Christians too that we are committed to God’s design and to modelling it to the world.

So that’s the design, but where does it come from?  The Corinthians weren’t much interested in listening to Paul, so he shows them that it’s not just his idea – it goes all the way back to the Creation.  Look at verses 7 to 10:

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.  For man is not from woman, but woman from man.  Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.  For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

God set this up from the get-go.  Biblical role relationships between men and women were established in our creation.  Man doesn’t cover his head in worship because he’s the image and glory of God and woman is called on to cover her head because she is the image and glory of man.  Now Paul’s point isn’t that man bears God’s image and woman doesn’t.  He makes it clear elsewhere (and the Old Testament is clear on this too) that both man and woman were created in God’s image.  What does it mean that man is called the glory of God and woman the glory of man?  Paul’s Spirit-inspired reasoning is that woman was created from man, not the other way around.  Woman is the glory of man in the sense that she was created out of him and for his sake.

Man wasn’t created for woman’s sake, but woman was created for man’s.  She was created from him and for him to be his companion, and so one of the manifestations of her fulfilling the function for which she was created is respecting and honouring him.  And the outward symbol God ordained to show that respect and honour during worship is the head covering.

Let me say: it’s very common today to argue that what Paul has to say about head coverings was strictly cultural and applies only to the situation of the Corinthian church – that Paul’s concern was that he didn’t want them to offend the cultural sensibilities and proprieties of the pagan Corinthians.  Some people argue that because the Corinthian prostitutes were known to go around unveiled, that Paul didn’t want the Christian women being confused with them.  That’s the argument, but it’s hogwash.  First, Paul’s talking about the context of worship.  He’s not concerned with their being veiled in the street. On top of that, the historical evidence we have for the dress of the Corinthian prostitutes is pretty sketchy.  But second, Paul’s command that the men not cover their heads was immensely scandalous to the Greco-Roman culture.  If he was concerned about offending Corinthian sensibilities, why would he tell these men to do something their culture considered scandalous?  A second argument is that while we shouldshow some outward sign, that sign if culturally dictated and that covering the head was only appropriate in Corinth or in the Greco-Roman culture.  That ignores the fact that head coverings have been (and in much of the church continue to be) the universal sign used by Christians everywhere.  The argument begs the question: What sign are we using in the modern Western Church?  Some argue wedding rings fit, but they don’t – not if they’re worn by men too — and they leave out unmarried women.  But the most important reason why the “cultural argument” falls here is that Paul tells us his reasons for this.  He roots it first in the Creation, as we’ve seen, and then he says, “because of the angels.”  What that means is anybody’s guess.  Different commentaries will give you different answers and even the Church Fathers disagree on what it means.  I’m inclined to go with the most common understanding that takes the angels as watchers over the congregation.  We have other New Testament evidence to support that angels are with us when we worship, watching over us, and I’m inclined to think that Paul was warning both the Corinthians and us against the kind of blatant disobedience for the commands of God and disregard for his ways that would be an offence to those heavenly watchers.  But however the issue of head coverings might relate to the angels, the fact that Paul’s concern is with those angels, means his concern was not with the culture.

Now lest any woman take offence here, assuming this means that she’s inferior or that men can run roughshod over her, Paul gives a qualifier in verses 11 to 12:

Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord.  For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God.

I cannot say this emphatically enough: nowhere can Scripture’s teaching on male headship be used to justify inequality of the sexes.  If Paul left off at verse 10 some people might be inclined to think that men are more important than women or that women are somehow created with less of God’s image. God may have created woman from man, but in doing so God also created woman with the capacity to give birth to man. Without her there would be no more men beyond Adam.  The fact that God made us distinct in our roles does not mean inequality between the sexes, nor does it mean that we don’t need each other or that we’re not mutually dependent on each other.  We need each other.  That’s the whole point of Genesis 2.  Paul here undercuts anyone who would use these teachings to undervalue women or to think women are less important than men.

Paul’s final appeal is to the natural order of things.  Look at verses 13-15:

Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?  Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?  But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.

Paul says, “Look, if you still disagree with me, the most obvious thing to do is to look at how things are.  Look at the way men and women are in the world as they go about their lives.  Look outside the church context for a minute.  Do men cover their heads with their hair?  No, they cut it short.  Male hormones naturally cause men’s hair to thin or disappear altogether, but it’s not a problem.  Women do the opposite.  Women just naturally wear their hair long, they use it to adorn themselves, and even their hormones are designed for that – to let them grow longer hair for a longer period of time.”  Now it’s a given that what qualifies as short or long hair is culturally determined, but history bears this out.  In whatever culture we look at, respectable men almost always have shorter hair than women and growing their hair long is usually a sign of rebellion.  There are few times and places where this isn’t true, our current culture being one of them.  But why is it like that today?  Because we’ve drifted so far from the biblical design for men and women that people have become utterly confused.

Finally Paul says in verse 16:

But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

Paul gives a resounding “No” to the idea that this was just an issue of culture in Corinth. He said in verse 2 that he praised them for holding fast to these “traditions”.  As I said before, when he says “traditions” he’s not talking about manmade traditions or church traditions that have been gathered over time based on custom.  He’s using a technical term that referred specifically to those teachings that come directly from God.

But secondly he warns: “If you want to be contentious about this, remember that what I’m telling you here is the practice in every other church.”  I think we in the modern Western church would do well to take this to heart.  The apostles of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ have dictated this practice, with the guidance of the Spirit, and this is the only practice we have.  It’s not optional if you’re going to call yourselves a Christian church.  This isn’t ad hocand it isn’t just to address a local situation.  This is the practice of the churches of God.  The practice described here is the only biblical option, the only apostolic option, and the only practice of the Church universal.

Now it’s a no-brainer that this is going to rub some people the wrong way and make some people angry, but let me close with this.  Go back to verse 3.  Paul begins there saying that Christ is the head of every man, that man is the head of every woman, and that God the Father is the head of Christ.  We should see beauty in that.  Paul gives Jesus as the example of how men are to relate to women and how women are to relate to men.  Jesus isn’t just the Lord of the Church and just showing how men should relate to women, but he’s also the example of the submission of the church to the Lord as he submits to his heavenly Father.  Do you see how the woman looks to Jesus for her example of how to relate to her husband and to the men in authority in the Church?  And do you see how men are to look to Jesus as their example of how to be self-denying, self-sacrificing, interested in the best interest of their wives, just as Jesus loved the Church?  Men, you need to live your authority with the same love and tenderness with which Jesus exercises his authority over the Church.  And women, you need to submit to that authority in the same beautiful way that Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father.  Both roles are models of Christ.  Neither one is better or more to be envied than the other.

And so if we aren’t willing to model those relationships we become hypocrites and we destroy our witness to the world.  Our culture is beyond confused on all of this and if the Church is unable to model God’s design for manhood and womanhood, who else is going to do it?

But Paul’s emphasis here is the outward sign.  I find it hard to be dogmatic about it because the church has done such a poor job in this area.  While the early feminists publicly uncovered their heads in Church as a sign of protest against God’s design, I doubt that’s the reason why any of you aren’t wearing hats or scarves.  The current trend in the Church began with a malicious attack on the Word a hundred years ago, but because of its success, our problem now is mainly one of ignorance on the issue.  There’s very little teaching on this subject in the church today and a lot of preachers are afraid to even touch it – even to the point of doing a systematic series like this on 1 Corinthians, but skipping this, and only this, passage.

Brothers and sisters, we can’t do that with God’s Word.  It’s not a smorgasbord.  We can’t pick and choose what we want and what we don’t want and expect to ever mature in the faith.  Picking and choosing is a sign of our own pride and our insistence that we come to God on our own terms instead of on his terms.  God will never, never bless that.  And that’s my concern here for the Church.  Men, uncovering your heads while worshipping, and women, covering yours, is such a small thing in the overall scheme of things that it’s hard to be dogmatic about it.  It hardly seems like something to worry over.  And yet, dear friends in Christ, if we wilfully neglect and reject God’s design and his instructions, even the ones that seem so small and insignificant to us, how can we claim to be truly faithful?  How can we claim to have truly and wholly submitted ourselves to him?  Should we not seek to be faithful in these small things, that God will see us fit to entrust us with the greater things of his Kingdom?

Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, as we live in a world that has fallen into sin, that is blind to who you are, and confused on what it means to be a man or to be a woman, we give you thanks for your Word and for the direction you give us here.  Strengthen us to obediently and humbly bear witness to your image by showing to the world the relations of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as we live out the roles you designed for us.  And Father, we ask that we would show harmony in the life of the Church; that we would die to ourselves and live for each other just as Jesus Christ did for us.  We ask these things in his name.  Amen.

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