We live in a time when gender roles and gender distinction is being challenged. It is amazing to see not only the disintegration of the physical and spiritual roles God created for man and woman, but also the disintegration of the concept that there is such a thing as a man and a woman. The concept of equality has been taken such an extreme that our society thinks that even identifying as a man or a woman means there is inequality. I did a handful of lessons two years ago called Different By Design which dealt with this topic from the book of Genesis. I would encourage you to go back and look at those lessons if you would like a fuller study of the problem today with gender roles and gender distinction.
Since this is the air we breathe in this culture, there is not a better time for us to look at another passage in the scriptures where we see people who were trying to erase gender roles and gender distinction. The passage is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Unfortunately this passage has been relegated to the topic of the head covering and answering the question whether women need to wear a head covering today. We will address that question as we move through the lesson. But as we study this lesson I want to us observe that this is not main point of this passage. So often we will come to a debated or difficult passage and one thing we are tempted to bypass the context. Often we will zero in on one or two verses causing us to miss the message of the author. Further, we cannot make proper application to ourselves regarding any passage of scripture unless we first understand the meaning of the passage to the original audience.
Verse 2 is the thesis for this chapter where Paul will talk about gender distinction and the Lord’s Supper. Paul praises the Corinthians for remembering the instructions he had delivered to them. You maintain the teachings that I left for you when I came there. But there are two situations that do need correction that he needs to write to them about. There are two situations that they are making mistakes so Paul has written this so that they will correct these errors. The Lord’s Supper issue is dealt with in verses 17-34 and gender roles is dealt with here in verses 2-16.
Before we dive into the details of this study of gender roles and gender distinction, it is important to notice a thread that is found in this paragraph. Notice where Paul begins which is in verse 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. (1 Corinthians 11:3 ESV)
Now notice verses 8-9: 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 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-9) Then notice verses 11-12: Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. (1 Corinthians 11:11–12 ESV)
What is the main point of this paragraph? The main point is that all people have a role and have an order. Verse 3 sets that forward: woman, man, Christ, and God. This is an order that is ordained by God that we must accept. Let us not leave this point too quickly because this is the principle Paul is reminding these Corinthians about. God ordained roles and order in the creation. This is why Paul starts with the creation order in verse 3 and returns to the creation order in verses 8-9 and 11-12. It is this truth that our culture is fighting against and rebelling against. We are rebelling against God when we resist the order God has made. Whatever explanation we give to this paragraph, we must use this repeated principle as the basis for the explanation. The issue of gender roles and created order given by God is what this whole discussion centers on. Now Paul deals with what the problem is in Corinth that is violating this principle.
Head Covering Issue (11:4-5)
So what is the problem in Corinth? Paul says that every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. Now before we leave this text be sure to read this command carefully. What situation is Paul talking about? Paul is talking about when then Christians were praying and prophesying. These are the only two situations Paul is talking about. Paul is not talking about any other circumstance.
I want us to consider something else. Prophesying is clearly a miraculous spiritual gift. When a man used his miraculous spiritual gift of prophecy, he was to keep his head uncovered. When a woman used her miraculous spiritual gift of prophecy, she was to keep her head covered. In case we have concerns about this, we know in Acts 21:9 that women did have the gift of prophecy. This was not an instruction about listening to prophecy, but prophesying.
In the same way, prayer can refer to miraculous spiritual gifts or may just refer to prayer like we do today. Lest we have concern about this, in 1 Corinthians 14:14-16 that these Corinthians had the miraculous spiritual gift of prayer and was a function of speaking in tongues. I believe this is the likely reference point Paul is making. It seems strange to point out one act that is clearly a miraculous gift given to some of the Corinthian Christians and point out another act that is not a miraculous gift. So I believe Paul is referring to Christians who were using their miraculous gifts of prophecy and prayer. Even if you do not see this as referring to the miraculous gift of prayer, it will not change the outcome of our study today. Again, we need to point out that Paul is speaking about Christians who are leading prayer, just as he is speaking about Christians who were uttering prophecy. This direction is not about listening to prophecy and prayer. Paul’s concern is for those who are offering those prayers and prophecies.
Now, a big mistake is often made at this point. Many read this passage as teaching how the church should use prayer and prophecy in the assembly, when the church is gathered. But I want us to recognize that this absolutely cannot be so. In 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 Paul teaches these very Corinthian Christians for the women who have miraculous spiritual gifts that they must not use their gifts in the assembly. The women who possess these gifts (context of 1 Corinthians 14) “should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says” (1 Corinthians 14:33-34 ESV). Paul specifically declares that women cannot use their gift in the assembly. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 11 CANNOT be referring to using these spiritual gifts in the assembly, during the worship, when the church is gathered. The situation must be that these Christian men and women are praying and prophesying in public, outside the gathering of the church.
Gender Distinction (11:6-16)
This leaves us with an important question. What is the concern that Paul has regarding men praying and prophesying with their heads covered in public and women praying and prophesying with their heads uncovered in public that violates the created order God gave? You will notice that all of Paul’s arguments are from nature and culture in dealing with these Corinthians.
Paul observes that it is dishonorable for a man to have a his head covered (11:4). In fact, Paul says that it is just as disgraceful as if he was to have long hair (11:14). How do we know Paul is proving his point with cultural arguments? Think about how many men in the scriptures had long hair and it was not dishonorable. Samson is a classic example. Absalom is another man whose long hair was glorious. Every Israelite in the scriptures who kept the Nazarite vow had long hair. Paul himself even had long hair when he kept the Nazarite vow. So the argument cannot be that God made a universal rule for all time that men have long hair was a sin. Paul is arguing from their culture. If men covered their heads they now would be like the women in that culture which is disgraceful and dishonoring. Further, having the head covered is not a universal law of God because we read God commanded Aaron the high priest to wear a turban on his head for the various priestly acts of worship and service to God.
The argument for the women follows the same pattern. To uncover her head was as shameful as having a shaved head. This is also not a universal law of God that says that women having short hair and a shaved head have sinned against God. Rather, Paul is making a point from culture again. Her head being uncovered should be as disgraceful as having her hair cut off or her hair cut short.
So again we must return to the question: What about a Christian woman’s head being uncovered while praying or prophesying in public violated gender roles and God’s created order? The one thing we know is that it was fairly common (but not absolute) for men to not cover their heads in public and for women to cover their heads in public. For Jewish women there is clear evidence that they covered their heads not only for prayer but also any time they were outside their homes. For Roman women they also usually kept their heads covered. This was a distinguishing mark of men and women in that culture. However, for the Greeks there are clear indications that for the pagan religious observances the women took part with their heads uncovered.
Since so much is spent on the women we must assume that women were taking their new found freedom in Christ as a way to cast off the gender roles that God ordained. They were not content to operate within their roles that God gave them and as the culture had set for them in Corinth. Christian women were ignoring what women wore in public because they could pray and prophesy, thus looking like and acting like the men in public. This is why Paul argues that if this is what you are going to do, why not go all the way and have your hair shaved or cut short (11:5)? Paul is challenging their sensibilities because the women would certainly not shave their head. In the same way, they were not to look and act the same (11:6-7). Do not wear what the opposite gender wears as if you are trying to look like that gender (men with covered heads and women with uncovered heads). Maintain the role and authority God gave you as a man or as a woman.
Notice that this is the other argument Paul makes in verse 10. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (1 Corinthians 11:10 ESV) There have been a lot of curious arguments and explanations made from this verse. But what is the one condemnation we find in the New Testament regarding angels? They did not maintain their proper roles and proper place.
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— (Jude 1:6 ESV)
We see in 2 Peter 2 the same condemnation of despising authority. It seems likely Paul is referring to this warning to maintain your proper place within God’s created order even though these Christian women had been given the right by God to use miraculous spiritual gifts. In fact, this is emphasized in verse 10. The head covering was to represent a symbol of authority on her head. It is not a symbol of subjection because that is not what this word means. The Greek word means “power, authority.” She has the right by God to perform these gifts that God has given these Christian women. But that does not mean you have the right to overthrow the created order God has given. The message is that we must operate within our culture in a way that preserves gender distinction and the created order of men and women that God gave us. This is the point of verse 13. Why would it be improper for a woman to pray with the head uncovered? Because in that culture you were setting yourself up to be like a man
We see these kinds of cultural messages in many places in the scriptures. Paul commands the men to lift up holy hands in 1 Timothy 2:8. Does this mean that you cannot pray unless your hands are in the air? No, the action represents a great principle of having holy lives and clean hands that we extend before God. Romans 16:16 commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss. None of you gave me a kiss today as you came through the door. Have you violated the command? No, for this is another cultural reference that we use the application that we must greet each other and not have divisions among ourselves. Jesus commands the disciples to wash each other’s feet in John 13. Why do not not have basins of water out each Sunday? We understand this is a cultural reference and the meaning to us to is to serve one another completely and not put ourselves first. Therefore, we should not be troubled by seeing the cultural reference points Paul is making to teach a principle that we can use as servants of God today.
This is why Paul can conclude this paragraph in verse 16 by declaring that this is the practice in all the other churches. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16 NASB) The ESV, NRSV, and NKJV can be a little confusing but it is saying the same thing. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16 ESV) With this reading Paul means that the practice these Corinthians are engaged in is not practiced among the churches of God. The Corinthians in how they are handling gender distinction is not practiced among God’s people anywhere else. Therefore they are to conform to God’s will and what the rest of the churches practice regarding this principle.
Summing Up Our Study
So let us take all of the information we have learned from this lesson and tie it together to understand what Paul is teaching for us today.
First, the principle Paul reminds these Corinthians of is the created order God gave. This created order of men and women and their distinction is God’s plan. We are not to blur genders. We are not to act like we have the same role before God or with one another. Men and women are equal in Christ, yet have a proper order and role given by God. This principle Paul repeats three times.
Second, where the Corinthians were breaking their gender roles was when they were using their miraculous spiritual gifts in public places. The issue appears to be directed at the Christian women who possessed these gifts and were using them in a way to cast off what distinguished men and women in that culture. We are to display gender roles regardless of the freedom that we have in Christ. Men are not to desire to be women, act like women, dress like women, or function in the role of a woman. Women are not to desire to be men, act like men, dress like men, or function in the role of a man. The problem was a lack of gender distinction. Men and women in Christ are to reflect their proper roles.
Third, the head covering is not for women who are not praying or prophesying. The head covering is not for women in the assembly. If Paul is giving direction regarding the assembly, then he will completely contradict himself in chapter 14.
Fourth, women were to use their gifts given to them by God (1 Corinthians 11:10), but maintain their proper place though given the authority to use their gifts by God. Having a role and having authority does not mean we can cast off our proper place in God’s order. This is the very condemnation God makes against the angels who left their proper place of authority.
Finally, it is important in our culture that is attacking gender roles and gender distinction that we uphold those distinctions and glorify those roles. Men will act like men and women will act like women. Men will hold the roles and responsibilities that God gave them and women will hold the roles and responsibilities that God gave them.