Study Notes for I Corinthians 11:2-16
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Paul has some praise for the Corinthians in this passage of his letter. Although he has had many concerns about their practices and behavior, he does compliment them for remembering him and for "holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you." They have remembered the basic teachings of the faith that he taught them on his missionary journey to them. Now, however, he wants to address proper behavior in public worship.
First Paul reminds them of their submission to Christ. In discussing their relationships to Christ, however, he also underscores their dignity in Jesus. Christianity gave people individual dignity that no other religion had (or has) ever granted. In Christ men and women as well as all nationalities are equally important to God. Each individual stands alone before God with Christ as his/her Savior and mediator.
Paganism did not give dignity to either men or women. All were slaves to the gods; all had to "sell their souls" in futile attempts to receive favor from their deities. Women were chattel; they belonged to their men. They were the tools of the gods as well as men in roles as temple prostitutes, and the men debased themselves in their worship at the temples. Greek society is also remembered for widely practiced homosexuality.
In contrast to Greek culture, Judaism was highly moral. Jews believed they were created in the image of God, and they believed they reflected God's glory. Judaism did not allow homosexuality or promiscuity. But Judaism was patriarchal. Even in Jewish culture, women were inferior to men. Jewish women belonged to their men, and even though God had made provisions for daughters to receive an inheritance if there were no sons in a family (Numbers 27:1-11), still women took second place to men.
Paul does not negate different roles for men and women. But he introduces some practical suggestions as to how men and women, as equally loved and blessed in the Lord, can worship together without compromising their unique strengths as males and females. He begins by reminding them that "the head of every man is Christ."
In a new covenant understanding of grace, acknowledging Jesus as head of every man-indeed, head of the church-is not an admission of fear and serfdom. Jesus is not a feudal lord. Jesus is the head of the church because he loved it more than he loved his own life. His headship is one of care taking. It's one of redemption and freedom and tenderness, but it's also one of authority. As the head of the church Jesus defends it against attack. He conquered evil in order to establish the church, and he intercedes with God on its behalf. He also empowers the church with his own Spirit in order to give his authority to each person who accepts and follows him.
For Paul to say, "the head of every man is Christ," he means something completely different from the pagan concept of man being subject to the gods, or even from Jewish men being subject to God. Acknowledging Christ as head means claiming one's own redemption and victory. It means claiming the power and freedom of Christ to live in peace and victory instead of in turmoil and failure.
As our head Jesus also understands authority. "The head of Christ is God," Paul states. This statement does not negate Christ's deity. Jesus was fully God. This statement does indicate, however, a difference in role between God the Father and Jesus the Son. Jesus as head of the church looks to God the Father as his own head.
An illustration of the unselfish nature of headship in Christ is Jesus' prayer in John 17. Jesus said, "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your nameso that they may be one as we are one." (John 17:11) And again, "I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you know in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them." (John 17:26)
Jesus and his Father are one; Jesus is in us. We are one.
The Curse and the Blessing
Paul also says, "the head of the woman is man." He repeats this concept in Ephesians 5:22-23. The idea of men being "head of" women has been greatly misused and resented.
When Adam and Eve sinned, part of Eve's curse was, "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." (Genesis 3:16) Throughout the history of humanity, this curse has played out profoundly. Ever since Adam and Eve, humans have been born with dead souls. Instead of being naturally connected to God the Creator, they're born self-centered and demanding.
Women in their "natural human" state tend to crave a Prince Charming who will sweep them away, adore them forever, and provide every comfort and need. They will even manipulate and exert emotional control to try to exact these impossible dreams from their men.
Men in their "natural human" state want a beautiful woman who will make them look good, but they tend to want autonomy and power at the same time. They will use emotional distance and even force to keep they woman's suffocating demands at arm's length from them.
When Jesus died and mended the gulf of sin that separated humanity from God, he offered men and women healing in their relationships. When men and women are born from above and receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, they no longer have to be slaves to their "natural human" ways of living.
Because they are connected to God, women can learn to respect and honor the qualities in their men that make them men. Instead of manipulating and fighting for domestic and personal satisfaction, they can learn to honor their husbands as God's creations and God's gifts to them. They can learn to receive healing and wholeness from Jesus, their Savior and Creator who eternally loves them, instead of demanding that their husbands meet those deepest needs that only God can meet. They can learn to give respect and support to their husbands without fearing their husbands will take their identities away, because no man can take away what God gives.
Because they are connected to God, men can learn to love and cherish their wives and to honor the qualities that make them women. Instead of fighting for autonomy and personal freedom, they can begin to find the freedom they long for in loving Jesus. In Christ they will discover respect and authority. And as they discover that Jesus gives them freedom and the power of his Spirit, they can learn not to fear their wives' needs. They can begin to give their wives the love, care, and protection that Jesus has given them.
Salvation has redeemed more than individual souls. Jesus has also redeemed relationships. With the indwelling Holy Spirit, men no longer need to dominate or be distant, and women no longer need to manipulate or cling.
When we give ourselves to Jesus, he redeems us and gives us back ourselves. Part of what he restores to us is our true masculinity and femininity. Without Christ our masculinity and femininity are perverted. Men tend to be either aggressive, or distant and passive. Women tend to be either manipulative, or bossy and demanding.
In Christ, men are free to be men. They are freed act with authority and to be protective. They are freed to be responsible for the welfare of the people God puts in their lives. They are freed to nurture and care for those in their lives with the authority and selfless love and confidence of Jesus. Jesus becomes their model for mediating freedom, integrity, and nurture to their families and to those for whom they have responsibility.
In Christ, women are free to be women. They are freed to be supportive and respectful. Because they have their own secure identity in Christ, they are free not to be manipulative or whiny. They are free to speak with insight and integrity. They are free to receive their husbands' love without fear being controlled. Because they have experienced Jesus' love, they are free to respond to their husbands' care without fear of being used.
Masculinity and femininity are gifts. In Christ each has unique power and authority. When women try to be men in a man's world, they lose respect and authority. When men are indecisive and weak, they lose respect and authority. When the Holy Spirit brings us to life, he makes us truly what we are created to be. When a woman speaks as a woman, with the authority of the Spirit and without the overlay of trying to be "as good as a man," her words are compelling. When a man embraces his masculinity with the power of the Holy Spirit, his words are compelling.
Paul's statements about men praying with uncovered heads and women praying with covered heads needs some context. In Paul's day women appeared in public covered from head to toe with only a tiny opening through which to see. This veil was a sign of the woman's submission. If a woman appeared without a veil and showed her hair in public, that exposure was a sign of promiscuity. People treated such a brazen woman with no respect, even hurling insults at her.
Paul says if a woman prays or prophecies with her head uncovered, she might as well shave her head. A shaved head on a woman indicated either that she was being publicly disgraced for some shameful act or that she was rebelling against her husband or flaunting her independence.
Women were part of men's estates; they were assets which the men owned. For a woman to rebel and uncover or shave her head would not help her gain respect or social standing. No one would sympathize with her. She would be an object of scorn and insults, and no one would take her words seriously.
On the other hand the veil was a woman's protection. In it she could go anywhere she wanted to go in public, and she would be safe. No one would ogle her, taunt her, or bother her. She was isolated from her surroundings, and she was safe. In a real sense the veil gave her freedom and protection. In a society where women had no autonomy or authority, the veil gave them a means of free movement and travel. People respected a veiled woman; it indicated she belonged to someone, and she was left alone to go where she wished.
Jewish men, on the other hand, believed it was sacreligious to pray with their heads covered. They were created in God's image, they believed, and thus they reflected God's glory. It would be an insult to God, they believed, to cover His glory by covering their heads.
In this passage Paul is not suggesting that the women should not prophecy or pray in worship services. Rather he is stating the ways men and women were to behave when they prayed or prophesied in public. In their culture for a man to pray with his head covered would have been considered disrespectful to God. For a woman to prophecy with her head uncovered would have been considered disrespectful to her husband. Any man or woman who flaunted these social norms would have received scorn, and no one would have taken anything they said seriously.
Paul isn't in the business here of stating eternal truths about cultural requirements for worship. Rather, he is explaining how the Corinthians can all, men and women, engage in public worship together and respect each other. It is unique to Christianity that the men and women worshiped together. In the synagogues the women sat behind screens, and only the men could actively participate in the services. The pagan rituals used women as fertility symbols.
But Christ-followers are one in Christ, and Paul is simply saying, "Men, observe the social customs of respect before God if you want people to listen to your prophecies. Women, observe the social customs of dress and submission if you want the men to listen to your prophecies and allow you to pray. If you observe these customs, you will earn respect for yourselves, and people will listen to what you say."
Today we could read Paul as saying, "Men, be men; women, be women. Don't stand up in church, men and women, and be divisive about perceived inequalities. The Holy Spirit empowers each of you and gives each of you gifts for the good of the body. The same Spirit that empowers you will also enable you to speak and practice your gifts. He doesn't give gifts for nothing. But don't be disrespectful or arrogant. Be humble before God and respect people's customs. God will empower your message, and people will hear the Spirit speaking through you."
The same Spirit who grants the gifts also provides the venues for their use.
Both Similar to Jesus
Having advised the men and women of Corinth to observe the social male/female customs in their worship services, he also expands his reasons for such observance to include issues of creation. "A man," he said, "ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God but the woman is the glory of man."
God, Paul says, created man, and man bears the image of God and is the glory of God. It doesn't say "man is to glorify God," but man "is the glory of God." As God's handiwork bearing his Creator's image, man reflects the glory of God, and God glories in man his creation.
Woman was also God's creation, but she was the glorious counterpart of man. The verse does not say that woman is to bring glory to man; rather it says she, as coming from man, is his glory.
Man's role, as Paul describes it, is similar to the role of Jesus. (See Ephesians 5) He is to be the head-the responsible, loving, self-sacrificing protector-of his wife and of his family. He is also submissive to his Head-Jesus.
But woman's role is also similar to that of Jesus. She is submissive to her husband in a way similar to that of Jesus to his Father. Jesus has his own identity and authority. In Christ, woman also has her own identity and authority. Jesus is not less than God; he IS God-but his role is different from God the Father's. The Father supported and strengthened Jesus for his work as Savior, and he endorses Jesus' authority as head of the church. Likewise, a husband supports and upholds his wife in the work God calls her to do. She is not less than man; she simply has a different role.
When men take seriously their role as "head of the woman" and use Jesus as their role model, their "headship" is not a domineering, autocratic control over meek, unassertive women. Rather, just as Jesus empowers the church and grants it his authority, so godly men empower their wives and enhance their growth and development. And godly women will experience freedom, joy, and growth as they receive the love of their husbands.
Having pointed out the differences in role between men and women, Paul goes on to say that in the Lord, not only are women dependent on men, but men are dependent on women. Just as woman came from man, he declares, so men come from women. And everything, including men and women, comes from God.
Embrace Your Unique Authority
As members of Christ's body, each of us is accountable to him. He gives spiritual gifts and spiritual fruits to each of us individually. We each have a unique, personal relationship with Jesus.
Jesus calls us, his representatives on earth, to be wise and respectful. He asks us to fully embrace the gifts of our identities which include our masculinity or femininity. When we accept God's physical and spiritual gifts to us, we speak and act with the authority of Jesus himself. When we refuse to embrace those gifts, we lose integrity and weaken our message and mission.
We can trust our Creator, who planned us and shaped us before we were born, to give us the gifts he wants us to have. And with the gifts, he also provides the venues for their use. We don't have to be aggressive or afraid of each other. God has our lives in his hands, and his will for us is to make us whole persons, filled with joy, peace, and love.
God created us, male and female, and he has made us one in him.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised July 7, 2000.