Heads, Hats and Hair

Studies in First Corinthians

by Bob Burridge ©2017

Lesson #25: 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 (ESV)

Heads, Hats and Hair

Some teachings of the Bible are completely at odds
with what’s commonly accepted in our world.

The domestic roles God assigned to men and women are targets to be attacked. At one extreme male headship is perverted into dictatorship, and female subjection into slavery. At the other extreme the idea of male headship in the home is rejected altogether.

The entire biblical family structure faces challenges that threaten our homes and loved ones. The killing of our unborn children has been the law in our country for decades. Open sexual practices empty marriage of its once valued intimacy. Unmarried couples are led to believe that it’s normal and healthy to break God’s moral law. Some in same-gender relationships want to call their committed relationships “marriage”. They aren’t content with being tolerated. They want to force everybody else to accept their views and to reject what the Bible says about marriage, and what Biology has to say about gender.

In warfare one of the basic goals is to disrupt the enemy’s command structure. If nobody is effectively in charge, there can be no coordinated attacks or defenses. The unified principles that direct an army are abandoned. Individuals begin to look out for themselves and forget the larger reasons the rules are there. It makes sense that the spiritual enemies of God would attack the organization of God’s Kingdom. The family structure is so basic that it becomes a natural target. The husband-wife roles are the foundation of the family. So it’s no surprise that the duties God assigns to men and women would be attacked.

There’s a full-court press going on to make godliness appear to be a blight on society. Those who believe what the Bible says about men, women, and marriage are portrayed as bigots and enemies of our culture.

These aren’t entirely new attacks. God’s ways have been the target of evil as far back as what took place in Eden. In the ancient city of Corinth a pagan culture was clashing with Christian principles.

In Corinth there was some confusion about how the new believers should adjust their lives to deal with how they lived before they believed, and with things being done around them by unbelievers. In this First letter to the Corinthians Paul explained God’s principles. But he didn’t just teach detached ideas and theories. It showed in his life.

Chapter 11 begins with these words:

1. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

Paul set an example by his desire to honor and obey the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Some put this verse as the conclusion to chapter 10. It’s actually a nice transition between chapters. Paul’s point is that he tried to be an example of the principles he taught.

Chapter 11 doesn’t introduce a totally different idea. In chapter 10 he warned that believers should consider how others perceive their actions. He said there isn’t anything morally wrong with eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idol worship is evil. In situations where others consider the meat to be made sacred to idols we shouldn’t eat it. They might get the impression that we are honoring their idols. In chapter 11 he shows how this fundamental principle applies in another situation.

But first, he reminds them how much
he appreciates their allegiance.

2. Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.

Paul was pleased that they continued to follow the traditions he taught them.

The Bible mentions both good and bad traditions. A tradition is some accepted practice that’s passed on to preserve some idea or principle. Good traditions help us stay within God’s boundaries, and remember God’s truths. Bad traditions create misleading boundaries, and encourage us to believe false ideas.

There was also a clash of traditions having to do with
the basic principle of headship in the home.

3. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

God organized the family to model his nature and about the church he would redeem. In the Trinity, all three persons are perfectly equal in power and glory, yet there’s an orderliness in the Trinity.
– The Father sent the Son to redeem his people.
– The Son accomplished the redeeming work of the Father.
– Both the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to apply the redemptive work to individuals.

There is subordination that is totally without inferiority or superiority. The Three are equals who carry out different work as sent by another person of the Trinity.

God established a similar relationship for the family. He made the male to be head of the wife and of the home. He created the female to help the man in that hard responsibility of headship. Genesis 2:18, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ ”

Paul gives more detail about the organization of the home in Ephesians 5:22-33. In that chapter it’s clear that male headship is not to be self-serving.
22. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.
23. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
24. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

Male headship in the home is to represent Christ’s headship of the church. Therefore he’s not to abuse his wife, or demand to get his own way, or to be dictatorial. His role is to lead in a way that lovingly gives himself for his wife’s benefit and enrichment. His headship is to reflect Christ’s care of his church.

There’s no superiority implied in male headship. The wife’s subjection is not inferiority. Christ is equal with God the Father in substance and glory. Yet he was sent to carry out the painful work of redeeming his Father’s children. So also men and woman are equal in substance and worth. Yet the male is responsible for guiding the family, providing for it, and protecting it. He’s to help his wife and family grow in Christ so they enjoy God’s blessing to the fullest.

But there was a danger that threatened this relationship in the Corinthian worship.

Male headship was represented in Corinth
by head coverings for the women.

4. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head,
5. but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.
6. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.
7. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

The situation here has to do with what goes on in the public worship of the church. This will become more clear later when Paul explains what it is to pray and to prophesy.

Evidently, there was a tradition in the Corinthian culture about head coverings in worship. At that time and place they had come to represent submission to some human authority. If men covered their heads while praying or prophesying in worship, they disgraced their headship by implying that they were in subjection to their wives. They were to worship with their wives as those representing Christ’s relationship to the church.

When women covered their heads it showed their respect for the God given authority of their husbands. If she prayed or prophesied with her head uncovered she disgraced her husband’s appointed headship. It was as if she was rejecting God’s order. This was an acceptable tradition because there it was intended to represent a biblical truth.

In that culture the woman may as well shave her head if she worships with her head uncovered. Chrysostom, a first-century writer, said that a woman caught committing adultery had her head shaved to mark her as a prostitute for rejecting her husband’s headship.

The Bible doesn’t mention this custom in any other place than here in this letter to Corinth. John Calvin warned that we shouldn’t be “so hide-bound” that people would condemn the Pastors in his time who wore skull caps when preaching. But he agreed that the principle it represented in Corinth is a good one for that time and place. It should be respected when it’s understood to represent a wife’s subjection to her husband while in worship.

But the principle in this context is like eating meat that was once sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:26-31). God didn’t command this as a universal moral tradition. But – in situations where our practices would generally communicate an unbiblical attitude, we should avoid offense and follow customs allowable, as long as they keep within biblical boundaries.

Paul’s reasoning in verse 7 is a little hard to follow because of the technical terms he uses.

7. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.

Mankind in general was made in the Image of God, both male and female. They both are to make good use of their abilities and resources. Together they produce families and make up the church of God on earth.

But by “image” in this context Paul’s not referring directly to our nature. The Greek term here has a broader set of meanings. The Greek word for “image” here is “eikon” (εἰκών) from which we get our word “Icon”. It’s something that represents something else. He’s saying that the male was created to be a reflection of God’s authority and glory in caring for us. The female was made to honor the authority God gave to her husband.

This basic principle of headship was established at creation.

8. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.
9. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
10. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
11. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman;
12. for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

When God made the animals, he made them male and female at the same time. But with humans he made only the man first, then he made the woman from him to be his helper.

Unlike the animals, humans were made to specially represent God in the world. From the beginning the differences in male and female wouldn’t only be for producing children. They were to reveal God’s grace and show his love for those he would redeem.

Before he made Eve, God let Adam come to realize that he was incomplete by himself. So his wife was made to be a fit helper for him in carrying out his responsibilities in the garden.

There was no inequality or inferiority. They complemented one another. They were needed by one another, and were mutually important to one another. But clearly they would have different roles in reflecting God’s glory and in fulfilling his plan.

Verse 10 mentions angels observing the women.

10. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.

literally it says: “On account of this, the woman ought to have authority on the head on account of the angels.” [διὰ τοῦτο ὀφείλει ἡ γυνὴ ἐξουσίαν ἔχειν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους.]

The head covering to the Corinthians represented submission to her husband’s God-given authority over her.

The part about the angels is more difficult to understand. God hasn’t given us much information here. And this particular issue never comes up in any other place in the Bible.

The word the Bible uses for “angels” (ἄγγελος) is the word that was commonly used for “messengers”. Some think this means that uncovered female heads were somehow offensive to church Pastors. The Pastors were sent as messengers of God to represent him to the church. But that doesn’t seem to fit with the context or main point of this passage very well.

Most think this refers to the spirit beings, angels who serve God in various ways. The Bible says that God’s angels are observers of the church on earth. But it’s not clear how this is a reason for women to wear head coverings in Corinth during worship. It wouldn’t be helpful to go over all the strange theories about angels lusting for the women. More likely it means that if God’s messengers saw the woman rejecting this symbol of subjection they would report to God, and carry out his judgment on them.

Whatever it meant, the Corinthians would have understood this expression. Paul’s point is clear: The women members of the Corinthian church should show their respect for the authority God gave to their husbands. They were obligated to make sure their submission was communicated to others. This meant respecting what the traditions of their present culture might communicate to the weak.

Paul then sets out the reasoning behind his warning:

13. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?
14. Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him,
15. but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
16. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Here he repeats the moral issue and asks them to make a judgment based on certain facts.

Paul tells them to consider nature itself which teaches that hair length implies the same thing. The word for nature here [“phusis” (φύσις)] refers to inherent properties that characterize something.

In primitive cultures where the hair is never cut or removed, men tend to have much more hair covering their bodies than do women. Both grow very long hair on their heads.

The average human hair growth rate on the head is 0.44mm per day. That’s a little over 6¼ inches per year. It tends to slow down some as we get older, and most say it’s the same rate for men and women. Those who say there’s a difference with gender agree that it’s very slight. That’s hardly what’s meant here.

The context here and in chapter 10 has to do with traditions, and what was natural in their culture. We know from First Century coins and statues that men cut their hair short in that Greek-Roman culture. The women let their hair grow long showing their distinction as females. We need to be aware of what personal appearance styles imply in each culture.

Before in verse 9 Paul referred to the creation order. In the physical sense, male headship was established because God made Adam first. Here in verse 14 he seems to direct their attention to what is “natural” in their culture. The creation order of male headship was compatible with this Corinthian hair length tradition. In most societies men and women have different hair styles that preserve their distinction. The idea that there should not be any difference between the roles of men and women goes against what even pagan cultures have historically recognized.
There are many who challenge that distinction today.

However society may depict it at the time, we should promote the role of male headship.

Paul adds that if someone wants to argue the point, and be disruptive about this issue, he is out of accord with the practices of the church. Even in cultural matters that are not direct commandments in Scripture, established practices within the boundaries set by the word of God should be respected. Differences of opinion should not become a disruption in the church.

We need to be careful here not to confuse Paul’s applications with the principles themselves. He is not teaching dietary laws for Christians in chapter 10. And he is not teaching dress codes and hair styles for Christians in chapter 11.

The point is still what it was in the previous chapter. There is nothing morally right or wrong about hair length in and of itself. God required men to let their hair grow uncut under certain vows (Numbers 6:5). Crowns on the heads of kings represented their authority, not submission to other men. The Old Testament Priests were required to wear special hats while performing acts of worship. God would not command such things for men if it was inherently immoral or decidedly feminine.

But in Corinth at the time Paul wrote this letter, hats in worship showed submission to human authority. Long hair also represented the feminine role of women among God’s people.

The point here isn’t to command certain outward practices. It’s that we should preserve the principles those styles represent within the boundaries of Scripture, and that we should avoid disruption in the church because of such matters.

The customs may be specific to a particular time and place,
but the biblical principle is universal.

Our lives should reflect and communicate respect for the creation order of things. Our freedom in Christ isn’t only bound by God’s universal and direct commandments, it’s also bound by what appears to go against biblical teachings.

It’s one thing to want to be stylish and contemporary, but we need to be aware of what it says to others. For Corinthian women to worship with their heads uncovered, would have implied a rejection of one of God’s basic principles.

It’s important to maintain and promote biblical principles in our daily lives. We shouldn’t ever appear to reject them. We need to know how some styles and customs communicate the views of a pagan world. While we know to watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. We need to be careful that the sheep don’t go around looking like the wolves.

Our churches, homes, and communities need to maintain
the biblical order God set up at creation.

Men should care for their wives with respect — not to demean them, but to protect and provide for them. Women should respect the responsibilities God gives to the men — not to covet their responsibilities.

When we accept God’s order and our own place in it, and the responsibilities God gives others, the kingdom of Christ, our homes, our communities would be far better places, and God’s truth would be better communicated to a confused and lost world.

(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)

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