The following questions come from the passage 1 Corinthians 11:3-16.
In 1 Cor 11 verse 3, it talks about how the ‘head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God’, and in the NIV they use the term ‘woman’ and ‘man’ instead of ‘wife’ and ‘husband’. Both men and women ultimately are under God’s authority, so why does it seem like this passage speaks of submission to husband/man’s authority rather than direct submission to God’s authority. Continuing on from that, is Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians concerning head coverings for men and women in verse 4-7 based on historical context and thus not literally applicable to us now? Does verse 7 imply that women are not really true image bearers of God, but are on a lower level compared to men? What does it mean for women to be the ‘glory of man’, and does the fact that women were made for men that is presented in verse 9 point towards a lesser value of women in creation (I know that verse 11-12 highlight a codependency between men and women, and how ultimately everything comes from God, but I’m curious about how it all fits in with Paul’s directives for worship)? What is Paul talking about in verse 10 when he talks about angels and the ‘sign of authority’ in regards to women? Is verse 15 grounded in cultural context, or should all the women at church grow their hair out long?
One of our ACG members has asked a series of excellent questions from one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the Bible. I must confess that even after multiple readings of this passage, I am still quite perplexed at its complexity and do not have all the necessary tools to answer all of these questions with the required depth. Nevertheless, I make it my endeavor to answer some of the questions to the best of my ability, through the Spirit’s insight and by the collective works of other faithful Bible commentators. For now, let’s paste the passage here and carefully read what it says:
3 But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.1 Corinthians 11:3-16
1. Why does it seem like this passage speaks of submission to husband/man’s authority rather than direct submission to God’s authority?
I presume that verse 3 is the verse in view when you asked this particular question. Let’s have a read:
“But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”1 Corinthians 11:3
Is this verse suggesting that all men (and not women) are called to only submit to the authority of Christ? Is it suggesting that all women are called to only submit to the authority of man (and not the authority of Christ)?
Well firstly, let’s establish the meaning of the word “head” in this text. As you have rightly assumed based on the framing of your question, the word “head” is undisputedly used to connote the idea of “authority” in a number of passages in the New Testament (see Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:10; 2:19). In summary, this means that Paul is talking about the order and authority in each of these relationships. This is important to establish because this single verse provides the context for the rest of this passage.
Okay, so now that we know that this verse is about headship and submission, does this passage seem to imply that all women should submit to all men only (and not to the Lord)? From the overall teaching of Scripture, all Christians are called to submit to the Lord as a given fact (see Jas. 4:7). In His death and resurrection, Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth and commands the apostles to go and fulfill the Great Commission by making more disciples who will submit to His reign and authority (Matt. 28:18-20). Needless to say, when the apostles were teaching and preaching the gospel and added multitudes of people to the church, the numbers would have included not only men but women also (Acts 5:14). Women are therefore called to be disciples who will obey his commands and submit to Christ’s reign and authority.
When the apostle Paul says that “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Eph. 5:24), it is implicitly assumed that the makeup of Christ’s church would include both men and women. These women are called to submit to Christ’s leadership by virtue of their union with the body of Christ, the church. To summarise then, we shouldn’t get the impression that this text seems to suggest that women are not called to submit to the Lord.
So then what are we to make of this? What the text is saying is that there is a definite order in the relationship between men and women that is analogous to the relationship between God and Christ. The man was created first, and the woman was created out of man (see 1 Cor. 11:8). So with respect to the order of creation, man is made to be head of woman.
But does verse 3 tell us about what it means for the man to be the head of woman? Based on this verse alone, the Bible doesn’t say very much and so it is difficult to determine direct implications and applications for what headship will look like in general situations. At the very least, it is implausible for us to suggest that all women should submit to all men. However at the same time, there certainly needs to be a recognition that in specific situations (such as within the contexts of marriage and church leadership), headship and submission is to be exercised in a way that is reflective of our adherence to God’s designated roles for men and women.
2. Continuing on from that, is Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians concerning head coverings for men and women in verse 4-7 based on historical context and thus not literally applicable to us now?
It is good to keep in mind that when we are reading the New Testament, there are certain customs within the culture of the early church that we wouldn’t necessarily prescribe as a custom we must do today. However, that does not mean that these cultural customs hold no contemporary relevance for God’s people living in this modern age. Rather, these customs can often communicate valuable biblical principles that are applicable to God’s people, regardless of the age or culture that they are living in.
A quick example is Paul’s general encouragement to all the first-century churches to greet each other with a holy kiss (see Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). We don’t (and shouldn’t) get the immediate sense that Christians today must literally greet each other with a kiss every time we see each other (and I wouldn’t like to imagine the unsettling tension kissing would cause between the two opposite sexes!). Paul is not prescribing Christians at that time to adhere to the custom of holy kissing itself, but to adhere to the principle of displaying endearing affection for others. This found its natural expression in giving holy kisses within the specific culture these Christians were living in.
Determining the original meaning of the passage enables us to determine the biblical principles that undergird the customs that we see being practiced here in the historical and cultural context of 1 Corinthians 11.
So firstly, what is the meaning about the head-covering? The head-covering (whether it is a veil, shawl, or cloak) had two particular functions: (1) it symbolised her husband’s authority within a marriage (which can be seen as the 1st century equivalent of a wedding ring), and perhaps more significantly (2) it was a definitive symbol of femininity that gave clarity and transparency to the order of gender relationships within that specific culture.
If a woman living in first-century Greco-Roman culture did not wear her head-covering in public, it would have been the equivalent of appearing in public with her head shaven (see 1 Cor. 11:5). This would have brought shame upon her because she would then look like a man. Not to mention that if a man wears a head-covering over his head in public, naturally he would have also been seen as a woman and therefore bring shame upon himself. This is what Paul means when he says that, “ Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.” (1 Cor. 11:4). To every man that Paul would see on the streets who wore a head-covering, he would have said, “Why are you folks dressed up looking like women? You are men, for goodness’ sake! Get rid of that accessory and start looking like a man!”
It would be right to conclude, then, that Paul desired for both men and women to abide by the cultural symbols of masculinity and femininity while praying and prophesying in the church; men ought not to cover their heads, and women ought to adorn culturally appropriate headwear. To do otherwise would bring disorder in their corporate worship among the members of that community who gathered to meet with God. But I believe this portion of the passage teaches something even deeper about the intricate ways that God has made human beings, as the crown of His creation. As we will see later on in verse 14, God wants men to be men, and women to be women – both of these genders are different and distinct from each other. God calls on His people to carefully examine the cultural perceptions of masculinity and femininity, adopt those gender distinctives, and be transparent with the way they express their gender in their environment! And perhaps for some cultures, that might not necessarily mean that you must wear a veil!
3. Does verse 7 imply that women are not really true image-bearers of God, but are on a lower level compared to men?
Verse 7 does not imply in any way that women do not bear the image of God. There are two reasons for such. Firstly, Paul made a reference to the beginning of creation in verses 8-9 to defend the truth that the man was created first and the woman was made from the man (see Gen. 2:18-22). So he must have known his Scriptures well enough to know that Genesis also taught that both men and women are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) – therefore this interpretation is out of the question. But also secondly, Paul’s focus here is about “glory” (which I will explain more in the next question!)
4. What does it mean for women to be the ‘glory of man’, and does the fact that women were made for men that is presented in verse 9 point towards a lesser value of women in creation (I know that verse 11-12 highlight a codependency between men and women, and how ultimately everything comes from God, but I’m curious about how it all fits in with Paul’s directives for worship)?
Why does Paul say that man “is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man”? (1 Cor. 11:7). Well firstly, we see in the subsequent verses that women are the glory of men… because “man did not come from woman, but woman from man; [and] neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (11:8). Paul traces back to Genesis to show that woman was meant to be the man’s glory, because she was taken out of him and because she was made for him. Both the origin and the purpose of woman is tailored around the man.
Thomas R. Schreiner says that, “Woman was created to accompany man (Genesis 2:18) and in order to be a helper for him (2:20)” . The man was not made for the woman, but the woman was made for the man. And as one well-known pastor often says, “The reason why God made women for men… is because men need help!” She was made to assist the man with his responsibilities that God gave him, and so it follows that the woman ought to honour the man. This is what it means for the woman to be the ‘glory of man.’
When the woman submits to her God-given role to help the man in the shared responsibility to fill and subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28), she honours the man (and by implication she ultimately honours God as well). But by no means is this a license for men to use and abuse women to satisfy their own selfish ambitions. Men must be especially careful not to inflate their own egos by this very teaching and see women as inferior to them in any way, and Paul was cautious to remind them that men are no better than women because in reality they actually need each other (1 Cor. 11:11-12). As you correctly mentioned in your question, there is certainly a co-dependency between men and women, “for as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman” (1 Cor. 11:12). Man might be the source of woman, but ever since the first man Adam came into the world, all men have come into the world through women. So let us not either brag or belittle ourselves based on our assigned genders, because ultimately everything comes from God. He has made each of us – man and woman – to work and serve together for His sake!
5. What is Paul talking about in verse 10 when he talks about angels and the ‘sign of authority’ in regards to women?
Theologians all throughout church history have scratched their heads over this one ridiculously difficult verse. Paul says,
“It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.”1 Corinthians 11:10
Let’s tackle the question about the ‘sign of authority’ first before we talk about angels. What is he actually talking about here? Perhaps we need to come back to understanding the theological significance of head-coverings in that time, which is the fact that this adornment signified both (1) the gender distinctives of a woman in that culture but also (2) that they were submissive to male headship. The head-covering was the conventional symbol of a man’s authority over a woman. And this shouldn’t be too hard to imagine, since we know that head adornments can become a sign of something. A king who adorns a crown on his head, symbolises his authority and power that is vested in him. In Revelation 19:11-12, it speaks of Jesus as the rider of the white horse who has “many crowns,” symbolising his kingly authority.
Hence, when it says that the “woman ought to have authority over her own head,” what it essentially means is that the head covering represents the man’s authority, and in particular her husband’s authority over her. To defy this custom would in fact mean that the woman is trying to make a statement of non-compliance against the one whom she is supposed to submit to.
But John, what about the angels bit in the passage? We can start off by saying that Paul makes this reference to angels to substantiate his argument in favour of women wearing head coverings. And if you were to traverse through the Scriptures to formulate a compact theology on the angels, one of the things you might observe is that angels understood authority and submission very well (see Ps. 103:20; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:14). Angels are ministering spirits under the authority of God, and are always ready to do His bidding. By God’s authority, they are tasked to observe the created order and watch over the affairs of the church (see Ps. 91:11; Luke 15:10; 1 Tim. 5:21).
Now no one knows for sure what this verse really means. But if we were to continue along this line of logic that (1) angels are beings who understand the authority of God, and (2) that angels are given the responsibility to oversee the affairs of the church, we can give it a stab, as to say that the angels would be pleased to see godly women who lived in godly submission to the Lord through her modest dressing, especially in corporate worship. But if I were you, I would take this interpretation with a grain of salt.
6. Is verse 15 grounded in cultural context, or should all the women at church grow their hair out long?
Verse 15 of the passage says this:
“…but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.”1 Corinthians 11:15
Is Paul’s admonition for women to grow long hair a cultural custom or a principle? This is where it is helpful once again to read the preceding verses in order to derive its intended meaning. Before this admonition, Paul makes an appeal to the readers’ intuitive understanding of nature to make his point in verse 14, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him…” (1 Cor 11:14). What does Paul mean by this? We see him use the word “nature” in other passages elsewhere (see Rom. 1:26-27; 2:14) to refer to our instinctual God-given sense of morality; our innate sense of what right and wrong are. He persuades women to appeal to their natural instincts and psychological perceptions of masculinity and femininity manifested within that particular culture , and to stay away from doing anything that might give the impression to their neighbouring culture that they are masculine. It is to a woman’s shame if she fixed and displayed her hair in a way that others are not able to easily identify her true gender. And vice versa, men are encouraged to listen to their conscience and to feel repulsed at the very idea of doing anything that may potentially veil their true gender to society. To do so violates the clear gender distinctions God has made between men and women.
Now is this outrageously controversial to what our culture is preaching to us right now? Absolutely. And it was just as controversial in Paul’s time when he boldly instructed his readers this contentious teaching (see 1 Cor. 11:16). Our individualistic society calls on all people to cultivate the attitude of defiance to authority, which consequently leads to the defiance of all good things that God has designed as beautiful. It is not uncommon to see grown men in drag clothing strolling with their high heels down George Street, and it brings no end to the sort of ambiguity we face as our culture rebels against its conscience and waters down God’s view on sexuality and gender.
But folks, this is the practice that Paul instructs all churches of God (and not just to the churches in Corinth) to do – that the men ought to look like men and to act like men, and that the women ought to look like women and to act like women. And as men and women of God who are called to manifest His glory on the earth, it is their duty to assess the culturally acceptable norms of dress for their own gender and to represent their genders honestly within the society they are living in.
ACG, this shouldn’t be a foreign idea to us, for God has imprinted these foundations of the created order into us. So let’s retain the beauty of these distinctions that God has made in both men and women. Am I calling all of our guys here to immediately chop their hair off? Maybe. Should all the girls commit to a 10-year fast away from their closest hairdresser salon? Perhaps. What hairstyle constitutes as being masculine or feminine often varies depending on the culture you are living in. But the biblical principle of this passage is this:
Women in ACG, wear your women badge proudly and be as womanly as you can be! And lastly to our ACG men, be as manly as God has called you to be!
 – Piper, J. and Grudem, W. (1991). Recovering biblical manhood and womanhood. Crossway, p.133.
 – Ibid, p.137.