I first contemplated preaching a series on I Corinthians about eight months ago. I was excited about opening up this letter and discussing its implications together with you. I think we live in an era where Christians look far too much like the rest of the world and I think I Corinthians reminds us that to be a child of God means that you become completely transformed! For this reason, I couldn’t wait to begin studying this book with you! But along with this excitement was a bit of “fear and trembling,” because I knew what would eventually happen in this study. I knew that we would eventually come to chapters 11 and 14. I knew that these two chapters have caused great disagreement—and even division—within the church in recent years. So, I began praying that very moment for this very moment. And my prayer was simply this: God, give me the strength to be completely honest and God, give them the ability to receive my honesty like family.
I praise you because you remember all my instructions, and you hold on to the traditions exactly as I handed them on to you. Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered shames his head.
Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head. It is the same thing as having her head shaved. If a woman doesn’t cover her head, then she should have her hair cut off. If it is disgraceful for a woman to have short hair or to be shaved, then she should keep her head covered. A man shouldn’t have his head covered, because he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is man’s glory. Man didn’t have his origin from woman, but woman from man; and man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but the woman for the sake of the man. Because of this a woman should have authority over her head, because of the angels. However, woman isn’t independent from man, and man isn’t independent from woman in the Lord. As woman came from man so also man comes from woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it appropriate for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him; but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? This is because her long hair is given to her for a covering. But if someone wants to argue about this, we don’t have such a custom, nor do God’s churches. (I Corinthians 11:2–16, CEB)I Corinthians 11:2–16 is a difficult and confusing passage! Some people have come to this text and found absolute proof of the God-ordained inferiority of women. Others have come to this same text and found absolute proof that God is a Feminist. Don’t you just love it when that happens?! I think, if we are honest about this text, we must declare that neither of these polarities finds support here. I think, if we are honest about this text, we must admit that, in the end, Paul offends both Feminists and Chauvinists! And finally, and most importantly, if we are honest about this text, we must admit that it is difficult to understand, there are so many unknowns. In this section of I Corinthians we are reminded, perhaps more than any other place, that we are reading someone else’s mail and we have before us only half of a conversation.
In spite of all the ambiguity, however, there are some important things we need to know about Paul’s words here.
First, Paul is discussing here public worship. In chapter 11, Paul begins a lengthy discussion about public worship, a discussion that will run through the end of chapter 14. It seems obvious to me that Paul is discussing public worship here in chapter 11. I feel like I need to call our attention to that reality, because of the way some people have chosen to interpret this text. Some have argued that Paul is discussing what is done in private. However, I don’t think that option works here. This passage is set in a much larger context in which Paul discusses the Lord’s Supper, prophecy, speaking in tongues, all very public events! Also, one is hard pressed to find a scenario when a woman or man might prophesy in private. The fact that Paul spends so much time talking about the public assembly should teach us something. Public assembly is a special time, God is here in a special way, we encounter God in a special way during our corporate worship, and what happens in worship matters.
Another point to be made about this text has to do with who it is that Paul is actually talking about. Is Paul discussing men and women here, or, is he discussing husbands and wives? Well, I guess the short answer is: it depends on which translation you are using. The NIV translates "men" and "women." The RSV and NRSV translate "husband" and "wife," but only part of the time. The English Standard Version actually changes in the middle of a sentence! The complication is this: the word for woman and wife and husband and man is the same in Greek. So, translators have to make a decision based on the context as to which word is more likely. Here, it seems obvious that Paul is talking about men and women, not husbands and wives. To read it otherwise, simply does not make sense. Is Christ the head of man, or just husbands? Do only husbands dishonor Christ by wearing head coverings? So, Paul is here talking about all men and women, not specifically husbands and wives.
A third issue I want to highlight has to do with the word “head” in this text. It becomes a bit confusing because Paul uses this term both literally and metaphorically in the same passage! On the one hand, he is talking about women and men covering their heads (literally). On the other hand, he says that by either covering or not covering their literal heads, they dishonor their “head” (metaphorical). And Paul tells us plainly who these metaphorical heads are in verse three: “Christ is the head of every man.” “Man is the head of woman” and “God is the head of Christ.” Most of us have no issue whatsoever with number one and number three of Paul’s system, but we at the very least raise our eyebrows at number two! How is man the head of woman? The obvious reading, and the one favored most throughout Christian history, is that Paul is implying some sort of hierarchy here. In recent years, some biblical scholars have searched for a way around this interpretation. They’ve argued that this word “head” in ancient Greek culture never implied “authority,” but rather “source.” So, man is the “source” of woman. Adam was the “source” of Eve. Without going into much detail at all, I will simply say, there are some significant problems with that interpretation. First and foremost, there are numerous examples of “head” meaning “authority” in the ancient world.
While we’re on the subject of honesty, let’s be honest, this is not a popular thing to say in 21st century America. But Paul does seem to support some sort of gender hierarchy. The problem is this: He does not go into detail about what this means, other than men should not cover their heads and women should! As I mentioned at the beginning, this is a very difficult text to understand. I’ve only mentioned three serious questions about this text. I could have spent all day talking about many others: What does Paul mean that a woman should have a sign of authority on her head? Why does Paul bring the angels into this discussion? How can a woman be the glory of man, or, man the glory of God? Why does Paul say that men are created in the image of God when Genesis 1 clearly states that both men and women were created in the image of God? What kind of head covering is Paul talking about? If you were to go to any biblical commentary on I Corinthians, you would see that scholars have written extensively on each of these issues. Page after page after page of options, and I will tell you what I have often told my students: When you come to an issue in the text and scholars offer numerous options for interpretation, we must finally be honest with ourselves and admit: We do not have all the answers.
For all the questions surrounding this text, I think Paul’s main point is clear. In 1st century Corinthian culture, it was improper for a woman to go without a head covering; likewise, it was improper for a man to cover his head. In this entire discussion, Paul is obviously referring to his culture. I know that most of you agree on this much. I don’t see many head coverings on our women this morning. Paul’s concern about this issue was very much like his concern regarding meat offered to idols. Can’t you just hear Paul saying to the Corinthians, “Brothers and sisters, do not let anything stand in the way of the gospel!” For a woman to pray or prophesy in the assembly without a head covering would be in such stark contrast to the social norms of Paul’s day, it is likely that some would be unable to hear the gospel. Richard Hays uses a possible contemporary analogy:
To pose analogous taboos for our culture, it would be as though Paul had written, ‘Men shouldn’t come to church wearing dresses, and women shouldn’t come to church topless.’ Whatever one may think about the ultimate theological validity of such judgments, this is at least understandable pastoral advice. (Hays)We may not have the same cultural sensitivities as did the first century Corinthians, but that fact alone does not stand in the way of this text’s challenge for us. From this text, we learn at least one important thing: Paul endorses the freedom of women to pray and prophesy in the assembly. The only question is what sort of headdress is appropriate for them while exercising their Christian freedom. The word for “prophesy” is also used to describe “preaching” in the New Testament. So, it is possible that in the Corinthian community, women were preaching and praying in the public assembly, and Paul does not tell them to stop. In fact, he assumes it will continue, because he tells them to make sure their heads are covered when they do it.
Now, let’s just stop there and catch our breath. I am not oblivious to the implications of that statement. I suppose most of you have recognized that we do not have women praying or prophesying (or preaching) this morning. To my knowledge, Glenwood has never had women praying or prophesying from this pulpit. Let me quickly say this. I do not stand before you arrogantly saying, “I have all of this figured out.” To be honest, I don’t. There are certain passages of scripture that I have spent years wrestling with, like this one and I Corinthians 14, which we will look at next week. I know godly, Christian people who disagree with me on this. I’m not questioning their sincerity. I’m not questioning their intelligence. I believe they have come to their conclusions much like I have, through intense study and prayer. I know, even in this room, there are folks who are on edge right now. Some of you have waited years for the church to move on this issue, allowing women wider roles in public worship. Others have been scared that Glenwood would begin allowing wider roles for women in public worship. This has been a volatile issue in recent years. There are people all over the map. And many of those people are in this room! So, is it possible to even have this conversation without a fight breaking out?
When I was in Nashville, our congregation, like so many others, took a significant amount of time to study this issue. The best part of that entire study, I thought, was a Wednesday night panel. All of the ministers of our congregation came to the stage and were asked questions by a moderator about this issue. The reason I loved that time is because none of us agreed 100% with each other. And those differences of opinion were modeled before the church. If that evening accomplished nothing else, it said to the people there, it’s OK to disagree. And that is what I want you to hear this morning. It’s OK to disagree. I know some of our elders and ministers agree with me; I know others don’t, and I still love them, and they still love me. But for some reason that doesn’t always work in the church. Our track record indicates that when we disagree, we divide. So, many brothers and sisters in Christ have become fearful of having serious religious conversations. Instead, we dishonestly act as if these issues do not exist. You know, Church, what I crave more than anything these days is honesty. And in the family of faith, we need to be able to be honest with each other and have discussions on difficult issues without fear of someone walking away.
One of Paul’s primary concerns throughout his letter to the Corinthians was the community. Paul was concerned about the health, integrity, and witness of this church. Two things that destroy community very quickly are dishonesty and fear. I don’t want to be scared to talk to you freely. I want to be able to speak with you honestly, from my heart. At the end of the day, whether we agree or disagree, I want us to remember that we are still family, and we need to be honest with one another about this text (the Bible). It’s not always easy to understand. I know that flies in the face of many things we were taught about the Bible in our past. I was always taught the Bible is so easy to read everyone can understand it! The message of Scripture is so clear and easy to understand that it is impossible for two intelligent people to come out of the text with differing interpretations. Church, that is simply not true. We will not always agree on our interpretations of Scripture and we need to extend the same grace to one another that God extends to us.
There are really serious questions facing our culture today:
Questions involving stem cell research
Questions involving homosexuality
Questions involving immigration
Questions involving war
My prayer is that we, as a community transformed by the cross of Jesus Christ, will be able to address those issues as a family, as a community of God’s people, without fear and with all honesty.