Please Explain I Corinthians 11:1-16

In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Paul gives some ordinances, customs, or signs of authority to women concerning their hair. Would you please explain this passage?

There is perhaps no more difficult passage within the New Testament as this one discussed. In large part this is a difficult passage because in order to understand it, one needs to understand some of the customs that surrounded the church in the city of Corinth. This is indicated in verse sixteen, “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Paul writes this particular passage of scripture to a group of people who are already “in the know” as to the particular situation in which the Corinthian Christians were as far as custom was concerned. On the other hand, Paul makes it clear that there are some clear principles that are involved which are inviolate in regard to the Christian being pleasing to the will of God. This is indicated in strongly in verse two, “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” One must practice the customs as dictated by the principles. The principles are eternal. The customs are transitory. What are the principles set forth in this passage? What are the customs set forth in this passage? Herein lies the basis for our ability to properly understand.

First, there are some very definite principles that are set forth in these verses (2, 3). These principles are contained in verses two and three. These principles are inviolate and Paul expects the Corinthian Christians to respect them. They are that God the Father is the head of Christ; Christ is the head of men; and men are the head of the women. This is not talking about equality, but structure of authority. Christ is equal to the Father, but is subject to Him as pertains to His mission. Women are equal to men, but in the matter of authority, they are to be subject to the decisions of men. This is God’s structure of authority and it must be respected under all circumstances.

Second, there were some practices that were common to the first century which reflected this authority structure (vs. 4-6). Failure to observe these practices brought dishonor upon both Christian men and women. However, these practices were part of the culture of the day and in no way reflect any abiding principles. The only principle that we can observe from these practices is that if in our culture we have some practices that reflect God’s authority structure, we too must humbly accept those practices as well to reflect our deep and abiding respect for God’s will. The practices that were involved at Corinth were the practices of 1) The man having his head covered. 2) The man having his head uncovered. 3) The woman having her head covered, and 4) The woman having her head uncovered. Paul tells us in light of these practices what either dishonored one’s authority or honored one’s authority. These are verses four through seven. Note the following: 1) A man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his authority. 2) Every women who prays or prophesies having her head unveiled dishonors her authority. Why are these things the case? They are the case because 1) when a woman goes about unveiled, it brings shame to her and 2) when a man goes about with a cover on his head this indicates that he does not respect the fact that he is made in the image of God. Why is it specifically the case that a woman who does not wear a veil brings shame upon herself? Why specifically is it the case that when a man wears a cover he indicates that he is not made in the image of God? The answers to these two questions lie in the customs of the culture in which the Corinthian Christians were.

Corinth is located in Greece and thus would be subject to the culture of Greece inasmuch as that culture reflected and respected God’s authority structure. Inasmuch as the culture did NOT respect and reflect God’s authority structure, then the Corinthian Christians were NOT to follow those examples. What was it about the culture that reflected God’s authority structure? First, it was the common practice of the Greek men of that day to wear a cover on their head if they were slaves, but to not wear a cover on their head if they were free. Christians of that day were made up of both slaves and freemen. We have already seen from the letter to the Corinthians that the church had a problem with divisions. One of the divisions that they had and which also affected the way they partook of the Lord’s supper in the later part of the chapter was in association to who was a slave and who was free. When in the body of Christ, however, there are no distinctions between slave and free (1 Corinthians 7:22). All are one in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) and free. It would, therefore, be disrespectful to Christ as head to indicate such a distinction while in His body. In other words, if a man wore a head covering in the assembly, that would indicate that he was a slave to another man instead of free in Christ. The man who owned him would be honored, but Christ would be dishonored. Hence, all men were to have their heads uncovered so as not to bring dishonor upon their authority, Christ.

As respecting women, their authority is man. There was a custom throughout the ancient world regarding women as well. The International Bible Encyclopedia says, “In NT times, however, among both Greeks and Romans, reputable women wore a veil in public (Plutarch Quaest. Rom. xiv) and to appear without it was an act of bravado (or worse).” In essence the implication is that to appear without the veil would bring shame upon the woman’s authority–man. To appear with this veil would bring honor to her authority as well as to the authority structure of God. Hence, it was appropriate for her to wear this veil in respect of God’s authority structure. Additionally, there is some evidence that prostitutes of that day flaunted this custom in order to be more appealing to their clientele. The discarding of the veil might lead some men to conclude that she was trying to identify with women of a baser sort. This also would bring disrespect upon God’s authority structure in that she would not be showing the proper relationship between men and women in dealing with sexuality, that of husband and wife exclusively. Paul’s comments regarding a woman not being covered being the same as if she were shorn, are not to be taken literally. Rather, they indicate the degree to which the woman should go if she were not to respect the authority structure. If she is not going to wear the veil, then why not go ahead and shave the whole head and take all covering off.

Paul next turns to the application of the principles to the practice in Corinth (vs.7-10). In the context of the culture of Corinth, Paul states the principles of God’s authority structure as applied to the customs of the day. A man is created in the image of God. Therefore, he needs to reflect that image in the church in showing his subjection to God — not to other men (as might be the case of a slave). To do this, he must ensure that his head is uncovered. On the other hand, the woman is the glory of the man–she was created out of his bones and to provide help and companionship to him. Therefore, she ought to show this in her behavior as a Christian woman and due to the presence of angels in the worship assembly. (To indicate to one of God’s angels in the worship assembly that a woman does not respect God’s authority structure is to indicate the same to God.) She shows the proper respect for God’s authority structure in this culture by wearing a veil.

From this discussion, however, Paul does not want the Corinthians to get the impression that men are to have an attitude of domination over women so he gives additional admonition in verses 11, 12. Both men and women are of God (vs. 12), so men ought not to think that men can be pleasing to God by rejecting women altogether out of the common worship assembly. And that as far as their relationship to the Lord is concerned, they are equal.

Paul next turns toward some self evident judgments that indicate God’s authority structure as applied in Corinth (vs.13-15). He asks them, based upon their experience and judgment in living in the city of Corinth as citizens what appears appropriate and what does not. The rhetorical question indicates that it was not appropriate for women to pray without a veil. In fact, their own experience in being citizens of Corinth taught them that it is a shameful thing for a man to have long hair, but it is a glory for a woman to have long hair as a covering. The word “nature” here does not necessarily mean that one is born with the specific knowledge that long hair is good for men and bad for women. It merely indicates something that has been habitually observed by the culture for a long period of time. This same phrase is used in Ephesians 2:3 where it is indicated that they were by nature children of wrath. Just as no one is born committing the sin of anger, so also no one is born knowing the difference between long and short hair. It is something that must be taught.

Finally, Paul addresses the possibility that someone might object to these thoughts regarding the application of the principle (vs. 16). As far as the practice of the church is concerned, there is no such custom. The wearing of the veil should not be considered something that is binding upon all churches in all circumstances. If a visiting woman were to pass through the church at Corinth and worship with them, they should not consider it obligatory to bind upon her the same customs that they bind upon themselves.

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