Today’s passage is a difficult one to interpret. If you read the Bible commentaries, you’ll see how the Bible scholars write about how this is one of the most difficult passages in 1 Corinthians to interpret; and it’s full of complexities which are hard to sort out. Nearly everything Paul says here is debated by the commentators with one commentator saying Paul means one thing and another commentator saying that he means something else. It’s a complex passage.
What is clear, however, is that Paul is beginning a new section in his letter. For the last three chapters he was dealing with the issue of food sacrificed to idols and whether Christians may eat such food or not. Now he’s dealing with the subject of worship and how Christians are to conduct themselves when they meet together for worship. So, in today’s passage, he’s writing about the subject of head-coverings and what Christians should wear when they meet for worship. Then, in the next section, he’s writing about the Lord’s Supper; and if you glance at verse 17 of chapter 11, you’ll see that Paul has some strong things to say to the Corinthians about how they conducted themselves whenever they met together to receive the Lord’s Supper. ‘In the following directives I have no praise for you’, he says in verse 17, ‘for your meetings do more harm than good.’ So, he gives them some instructions about how they’re to conduct themselves when they meet together for the Lord’s Supper.
Then, in chapter 12, he writes about spiritual gifts and how the Lord has given different gifts to different people in the church; but he’s given them all for the common good. And that leads to chapter 13 and that famous chapter about love. And the reason we have chapter 13 is because the Corinthians were failing to love one another the way they should. Then, having reminded them of the importance of love, Paul goes back in chapter 14 to writing about spiritual gifts and especially the gifts of prophecy and tongues. And this whole section of 1 Corinthians ends in verse 40 of chapter 14 where Paul instructs us that everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. Everything in our worship should be done in a fitting and orderly way, because God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. And so, when the Lord’s people meet together for worship, we should worship him in a fitting and orderly way.
So, today’s passage is part of a larger section of Paul’s letter which is to do with how we worship the Lord. More specifically, today’s passage is about head-coverings. Now, as we turn to this difficult passage, we need to remember something very important about the Apostle Paul. You see, whenever I’m at home and I say anything about fashion and clothes and hair and that kind of thing, there’s normally a chorus of voices reminding me that I’m out of touch and know nothing about fashion. Whatever I say on these subjects, I’m told that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Now, there may be some truth to that; and there may be men in the congregation who feel out of their depth when it comes to talking about fashion; and there may be men in the congregation who — like me — have been told that we don’t know what we’re talking about when we talk about clothes and what people wear. However, we cannot say that about the Apostle Paul. We cannot say that about what he says on the subject of head-coverings. We can’t disregard what he says simply because he was a man, or because he was a man writing so long ago. We can’t say that about him. Why not? Because we believe that he wrote this letter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As an Apostle of Jesus Christ, he wrote his New Testament letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that what he wrote is actually God’s word to us.
If we’re quoting one of the verses of this letter, we can introduce the quotation by saying: Listen to what Paul said. However, since he wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we could also say: Listen to what the Holy Spirit said. Or: Listen to what God said. All Scripture — including what we read here in 1 Corinthians 11 — is God-breathed, breathed out by God, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. This is God’s word to us; and so, we mustn’t disregard what Paul wrote because he was only a man, living in the first century AD; and what does he know? No, this is God’s word to us which we are to receive and to believe and to obey because it is the word of God.
Having said that, let’s turn to the text.
Verses 2 and 3
And Paul begins by commending his readers in Corinth and by praising them for remembering him and for holding on to the teaching — or to the traditions — which Paul had passed on to them. So, when Paul went to Corinth and preached the gospel to them, and a little church was planted, he spent time teaching them the things that believers ought to believe and the things they ought to do. And they have remembered those things and they’ve held on to those traditions. And that’s all good.
But now here’s something else which he wants them to know. Here’s something which they need to know. Perhaps Paul had already taught them this and they had forgotten it. Or perhaps this is the first time he’s taught them this truth. In any case, he’s writing now to teach them this important truth which they all need to know. And it’s this:
the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Now, remember: this was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so we can’t disregard this as sexist nonsense, spoken by a first-century man who didn’t know any better. This is God’s word to us; and God is the one who made all things and who has determined the way things are in the world. And from what we read here, it’s clear to us that God — who made the world — has established a certain order in the world. The head of the woman is man; the head of every man is Christ; the head of Christ is God. That’s the order.
Now, what does Paul mean by ‘head’. Well, that’s one of the words which is debated. Some say the word ‘head’ here means ‘source’. People sometimes use the expression ‘the head of a river’ to refer to the source of the river, or where it starts. And so, Christ is the head of every man because we owe our existence to Christ, through whom God made all things. And since Eve was taken from Adam in the beginning, Paul can say that the head or source of the woman is man. That’s one option. However, another option is that ‘head’ here means ‘authority’. So, when Paul says that the head of Christ is God he means that God the Father has authority over Christ; and when Paul says that the head of every man is Christ, he means that Christ has authority over men; and when Paul says that the head of the woman is man, he means that the man has authority over the woman. And that view is the better one, because down in verse 10, Paul uses the word ‘authority’. He’s talking here about authority.
But you’re perhaps wondering what does Paul mean when he says that God the Father has authority over Christ? Surely God the Father and God the Son are equal in glory and honour and power and authority? That, of course, is true. However, for the purpose of our salvation, God the Son humbled himself and submitted himself to his Father’s will. In John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus talks about coming to do his Father’s will and doing all that he was sent to do. As the Eternal Son of God he is equal to the Father in glory and honour and power and authority; but as the Christ, the only Saviour of the world, he was under the authority of the Father who sent him to do the Father’s will.
So, there’s this structure which God has established: the head of Christ is God; the head of every man is Christ; the head of the woman is man. Does this mean women are inferior to men? Of course not. The Lord Jesus Christ is not inferior to God the Father and both deserve our praise. And both men and women are made in the image of God. Women are not inferior to men. However, according to what the Holy Spirit has revealed to us in verse 3, God has established this structure of authority. And so, in Ephesians 5, wives are commanded to submit to their husbands, because this structure exists in the home. And in 1 Timothy 2:12 the Holy Spirit makes clear that woman are not to teach or to have authority over men in the church, because this structure exists in the church as well as the home. Of course, I should add that husbands are commanded, not to rule over their wives, but to love their wives. In fact, they’re commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, which means that husbands should be prepared to lay down their lives for their wives. Husbands are responsible for loving their wives. Nevertheless, in the home and in the church, women are to remember that the head of the woman is man.
Well now, bearing in mind what we read in verse 3 about this authority structure, we learn that this passage is not really about head coverings; it’s about authority in the church. It’s about this authority structure which God has established. That’s the truth which Paul wanted to teach to the believers in Corinth. It’s what he wants to teach us as well. He wants us to realise that this structure exists; and he wants us to honour and to uphold this structure when we meet for worship.
Verses 4 to 6
So, let’s move on now to verses 4 to 6 where Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — says that every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head; and every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head.
The commentators point out a number of difficulties with these verses. Let me mention just two of them. First of all, what kind of covering is Paul referring to? Literally, what Paul says is that a man who prays and prophesies ‘having down from the head’ dishonours his head. What does ‘having down from the head’ mean? Some says the pagans would pull their togas over their heads when worshipping. Others suggest he’s referring to having long hair. However, the traditional interpretation seems best: Paul is referring to some kind of veil. And so, he tells us that when a man prays or prophesies with a covered head, he dishonours his metaphorical head: Jesus Christ. And when a woman prays or prophesies with an uncovered head, she dishonours her metaphorical head: her husband. So, men are to have no covering, whereas women are to have a covering.
The second problem I’ll mention is that later in 1 Corinthians Paul will say to his readers that in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. Now, we’ll get to that passage eventually, but if that’s the case — if Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, forbade women from speaking in church — how come he seems to permit them to pray and prophesy in this passage? Well, the Bible scholars try to reconcile those two statements. For instance, B.B. Warfield — a very famous and influential theologian who died in 1921 — argued that Paul is not referring in chapter 11 to praying and prophesying in public. He suggested that women were permitted to pray and prophesy in private; and whenever they do, they should cover their heads. So, Paul is not talking about public worship, but private worship.
However, the problem with Warfield’s position is that the purpose of prophecy in the Bible is to instruct other people. It’s not a private practice, but a public ministry for the common good. It seems therefore that Paul’s statement about women remaining silent in church is generally true. It’s generally true, but it does not apply when it comes to praying and prophesying.
Well, Paul goes on to say at the end of verse 5 that taking off the veil is virtually the same as having a shaved head. What does he mean? Well, one commentator suggests Paul is using gentle mockery. He’s saying: ‘You don’t want a covering on your head? Well, in that case, you’d better shave off your hair which is also covering your head.’ But a woman wouldn’t want to shave off her hair, because to do so would be regarded as a disgrace. And since it was a disgrace to shave off your hair, it’s likewise a disgrace to pray and to prophesy without a veil to cover your head.
Now what was going on in Corinth? Well, there are lots of theories and Bible scholars have looked into the historical circumstances behind this passage and the customs and practices in Corinth at that time. It’s been suggested that having a shaved head was a sign that you had committed adultery. Having long, loose hair was a sign that you were a prostitute. So, these women with uncovered heads, and loose, long hair, were causing a scandal by appearing in church like prostitutes. However, the evidence for this is mixed. Another suggestion is that the women in Corinth were trying to obliterate the distinction between men and women, because — after all — they’ve become new creatures in Christ; and in Christ there is neither male nor female. In that case, why dress like a women, when those male–female distinctions no longer apply? And there have been others suggestions as well.
However, it’s all just guess work; and the fact is we do not know why some of the women in Corinth were praying and prophesying without a head-covering. What we do know is that Paul — writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit — said that to do so dishonoured their head, their husband.
Verses 7 to 12
In verse 7 Paul said that a man ought not to cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God. The woman, by contrast, is the glory of man. In what way is she the glory of man? Paul tells us in verse 8: she’s the glory of man because she came from man. Paul is referring to the account of creation in Genesis 2 where we read how Adam was created first; and then, after Adam was created, Eve was made out of his rib. So she came from him. Furthermore, the man was not made for the woman, but the woman was made for the man. Again, it’s a reference to Genesis 2 where we read how it wasn’t good for the man to be alone; and therefore God made Eve to be his helper. So, while both men and women are made in God’s image, Adam reflected God’s glory in a way that Eve did not; and in turn, Eve reflected Adam’s glory, because she came from him and was created for him.
And so, for this reason — Paul says in verse 10 — the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. For what reason? For the reason that Adam was formed first and the woman was created to help the man. So, since man was created first, and since the woman was created to help the man, women ought to have a sign of authority on her head. When she prays and prophesies, there needs to be some sign on her to make clear that she is under the authority of the man, an authority which was established by God at creation.
Paul also refers in verse 10 to the angels. This is another puzzling part of this section. Why does Paul refer to the angels? There are lots of suggestions, but perhaps the best one is that Paul is teaching us that the angels in heaven are watching over us when we worship. The apostle Peter, in his first letter, writes about the angels longing to look into the things of the gospel. So, we can picture them, watching what we’re doing, delighting in the things of the gospel. However, since we don’t want to offend them or shock them in any way, then those woman who are praying and prophesying in the church should take care to wear this sign of authority on their heads.
But then Paul reminds his readers in verses 11 and 12 that men and women are dependent on one another. The woman may have come from the man whenever God created Eve out of Adam’s rib, however, man is born of woman. Every man who has ever been born owes his existence to his mother who bore him. Therefore, instead of despising women, instead of disregarding them and treating them as inferior, men ought to honour women, because the men are dependent on the women. Furthermore, everything comes from God. We all — men and women alike — depend on the Lord who made us and who sustains us and who has determined the way things are. And so, we ought to be careful to honour him and to do all that he has commanded us to do. —
Verses 13 to 16
Paul then says:
Judge for yourselves.
Think about it, he’s saying. Think about it. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? He’s expecting them to answer: ‘You’re right, Paul. It’s not proper for a woman to pray like that. A woman ought to cover her head when she prays.’ And then he refers them to nature and to what is natural. He says:
Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?
Well, this too is a debated verse, because some scholars argue that when Paul refers to what is natural, he means what is natural for them, men and women living in first-century Corinth. Given the society they lived in, and the customs of that place, it seemed natural to them that men shouldn’t have long hair, but woman should. In that case, what was natural for them may not be natural for us today.
Other scholars, however, argue that Paul is not referring to customs which change over time and from place to place, but he’s referring to the very nature of things as created by God. What is natural is determined by God, who made all things in the beginning and who has determined the way things ought to be. And so, by appealing to nature, Paul is appealing to the way God has made the world. And so, God has determined that it’s a disgrace for a man to have long hair; and he’s given long hair to women to be her glory.
It’s not clear how we’re to understand ‘nature’ here. However, since Paul has been referring to creation and to how God set things up in the beginning, I’m more inclined to think he’s referring, not to what seems natural to the Corinthians, but to the way God has created the world. However, in any case, the point he’s making is not so much to do with hair, but with how women should cover their heads when praying and prophesying. Nature — which gives men short hair and women long hair — teaches us that men should not cover their heads, but women should cover their heads.
And Paul concludes this section by reminding his readers that the practice he’s advocating here is the practice of every other church. So, instead of going their own way, the believers in Corinth should fall in line with what the church universal does.
So, God has established a structure of authority in which God is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of every man; and man is the head of the woman. Believers should honour and uphold that structure whenever they pray and prophesy. Men honour and uphold it by praying and prophesying with uncovered heads. Women honour and uphold it by praying and prophesying with covered heads. The very nature of things tells us that this is the way it ought to be.
So, does this mean woman today should wear hats or veils in church? Well, before answering that, let me point out that not every women in Corinth had to wear a head-covering, but only those women who were praying and prophesying. That’s what Paul is writing about here: what women should wear when praying and prophesying.
But what does Paul mean by prayer and prophecy? I’ll say more about prophecy when we get to chapter 14, but for now let me say that prophecy in the Bible is Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people. It’s different from preaching, because the preacher works with a text, whereas the prophet does not. I start with a passage from the Bible and try to explain it to you. We go through it, word by word, or phrase by phrase, or verse by verse. That’s preaching. The prophet doesn’t need a text, because the Holy Spirit inspires the prophet to reveal God’s truth to his people. The prophet reveals God’s word; the preacher explains God’s word.
Now, while different churches hold different views on this matter, reformed churches confess that prophecy has ceased. Prophecy belonged to the era of the Apostles before the New Testament was completed. However, now that we have both Testaments, now that we have the Bible by which God reveals his will to his people, God no longer reveals himself to his people through prophets. As our church’s Confession says:
the Holy Scripture is now essential, for God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people [through, for example, the prophets] have ceased.
So, that’s prophecy. What about prayer? Is Paul referring here to ordinary prayer? Many Bible commentators assume he is. But in chapter 14, Paul speaks about prophecy and speaking in tongues. Again, I’ll say more about speaking in tongues when we reach that chapter, but it too was a form of Spirit-inspired revelation which has also ceased now that the apostolic era has ended and we have God’s written word by which he reveals his will to us. Speaking in tongues has ceased; and in verse 14 of chapter 14 Paul refers to speaking in tongues as ‘praying’ in a tongue; and he refers to ‘praying’ with the Spirit. So, speaking in tongues was a form of Spirit-inspired prayer. And so, when Paul refers to praying and prophesying in chapter 11, it seems likely that he’s referring not only to Spirit-inspired speech, but to Spirit-inspired prayer which is also known as speaking in tongues.
Paul is teaching the believers in Corinth that those women who pray (i.e. speak in tongues) and prophesy — both activities which are inspired by the Spirit — must wear a head-covering as a sign that, though they were enabled by the Spirit to speak in this way, they are still under the authority of the men in the church. Everything in the church must be done in a fitting and orderly way. God has established an order that means women must not ordinarily teach or have authority over men. But in this one case — when women were enabled to speak and pray in a Spirit-inspired way — they must wear a sign on their heads to make clear they’re under authority. But since prophecy and praying in tongues have ceased, there is no need for women today to wear such head-coverings. There’s no need for women to wear hats or veils in church because we no longer pray in tongues or prophesy.
But we should still abide by God’s word which makes clear that this structure of authority exists; and in the church women must not teach or have authority over a man. For this is God’s will for his people; and whereas the unbelieving world will pour scorn on us for believing such things, and will accuse us of all kinds of evils because we uphold this structure of authority, though the unbelieving world will despise us, our duty is to submit to God’s will which he has revealed to us in his word.