Sunday Sermon: Head Coverings and the Glory of God (1 Corinthians 11)

(Preached on June 15, 2014 at Cornerstone Church of Savannah)

Mark Lowry will always be remembered best for the new Christmas classic, “Mary, Did You Know?” as well as his time with the Gathers. Back in the nineties, he also toured with his comedy routine, which included his recollections of certain fundamentalist preachers’ obsession with 1 Corinthians 10:13, that it is a shame for a man to have long hair. Lowry’s response was along the lines of, “It says it’s a shame, not a sin. A lot of things are a shame. It’s a shame that it’s too hot in here… makes you glad that you’re not going to Hell!

Every Christian faces the temptation to major on the marginal, to ignore the forest for a few verses, to build and refine teachings from scant biblical support. Driving off the road into the other temptation would be ignoring what the Bible does say because we think it’s not a big deal. Being biblical is not just believing what the Bible has to say, but balancing ourselves according to the emphases of the Scripture. 

Consider this. Christianity lifted the low status of women in the world. Previously, even some Jewish men prayed to thank God that they were not slaves, Gentiles, or women. Gentiles were worse; women of high society were little more than commodities, marriages bought and sold (preferable to the treatment some slaves received). Courts did not seek female testimony, and men could divorce women at any time. 

However, Scripture exalts women. Three women first testify to the empty tomb. Women receive adoption along with men into the family of God as well as gifts of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Galatians 3:28 states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Bible’s view of women was (and still is) socially radical.

More could be said on that, and it is clear that any portion of Christianity that denigrates women is not biblical. However, not all calling itself feminine is biblical. Just like today, feminists using worldly wisdom also fought to improve the plight of women. And just like today, Christian women synchronized those earthly philosophies with sound theology, emphasizing their position in Christ by adopting worldly expressions of freedom, abusing it. That’s why, Paul wished and earnest desired to write to them (v. 3)—he needed to correct their beliefs and practice.

Keep in mind that this passage follows up the thought of glorifying God above all else in the church. In chapter 8, Paul writes that caring more for your weaker brother than your own freedom glorifies God. In chapter 9, he writes that reducing unintentional messages as we practice our freedom glorifies God. He also calls readers to glorify God by caring about what offends a local culture, as well as keeping oneself from idolatry and sexual immorality and abstaining from anything that might bring oneself or others under bondage.
He needed them to understand that the true emphasis of every member of the local church is the glory of God. He sees a church of messy saints gathering for purposes other than exalting Christ, and in this chapter, he continues to addresses how women behave, how the Lord’s table is mistreated, how spiritual gifts are used and abused, and the general lack of love within the congregation. Therefore, the discussion of head coverings, hair length, and restrictions and freedom of women within the body of Christ all falls under the purview of why the church gathers.

We’re going to look at Paul’s argument for understanding God’s chain of authority so we can glorify Christ in our worship services. For pneumonic purposes, let’s divide it into four parts with C-words. We can glorify Christ when we understand authority in the cosmos, in the culture, in the creation, and in the church.

First, we can glorify Christ when we understand authority in the cosmos (vv. 2-3). 
Paul starts with words of commendation. “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and just as I delivered them to you, you hold fast to the traditions.” Not all traditions are bad, and we call the Corinthians, messy as they were, saints because they knew and even strived to do what the apostles taught.  Holding to godly tradition is pursuing what the apostles taught in God’s Word, for Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians in 2 Thess. 2:15, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

One can have his theology zipped tight and stowed properly, and yet have problems remaining.  In the Corinthians’ case, worldliness and vainglory made some forget the chain of authority God created in the cosmos, meaning they weren’t glorifying God.

What is that order? First, that every man’s head is the Christ. Second, man is the head of a wife. Third, God the Father is the head of God the Son. Let’s look at each of these briefly.

First, it is man’s responsibility to follow Christ and His example. In Ephesians 5:25, we read, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Here’s the issue: if a man wants to be a leader in the home, a man who his wife follows, then he needs to be a man worthy of her following, a man who pursues Christ as his head.

Second, the man is the head of his wife. By the way, I agree with the ESV’s translation of “wife” here (the Greek word can be translated either woman or wife).  Based on this context, we are referring to familial relationships. For instance, I am the head of my wife, but not any other man in the church (although we all have to submit to one another).  Before we say anything more here, note the third relationship.

The Son willingly submits to the Father. Theology is vital at this point. The Father is fully God, but the Son is also fully God. While there’s no difference in equality, Christ submits Himself to the will of the Father.

Working backwards, the idea is not that man and woman are unequal qualitatively or spiritually in Christ (vv. 11-12; see also Gn 1:26-27; Gal 3:28).  Man is simply functionally authoritative in the marriage relationship (vv. 8-9, see Eph 5:22-33). Therefore, just as the man follows Christ's example by loving his wife, the wife also following Christ’s example and submitting herself to her husband, even though she is of equal worth to her husband. In this way, the wife glorifies Christ by following the created order.

Second, we can glorify Christ when we understand authority in the culture (vv. 4-6).
Jewish men began heavy use of the tallith or shawl for prayer during the fourth century, though it is possible that some practiced it during Paul’s writing.  The Corinthian men did not cover their head during prayer, however: the female Corinthians did that.  To the culture of the day, a lack of a covering signified masculine leadership, just as a covering was a sign of feminine submission. As such, a man wearing a covering, even during prayers and prophesies, would be the social equivalent of a man wearing a dress to a church service today.

We should also note that both the Jews and Greeks shaved the heads of women who were either caught in some immorality or who were owned as slaves. Feminists also wore their hair short, presumably to highlight the inequities of their society.  As such, for a woman to wear a veil and long hair not only signified submission, they signified status.

Why might women take veils off during their public prayers and prophecies?  In short, they claimed authority over those listening… and why not?  If they speak the Words of God while prophesying, why would they not announce their authority?  This is the reason Paul spends the next few chapters addressing disorderly conduct within the church, for men and women desire showy gifts in attempts to exalt themselves in the congregation.  Paul simply addresses their behavior first, and then he will move on to the bigger question of miraculous gifts in the following chapters.

Paul's teaching has implications outside church walls.  Since it remained taboo according to cultural norms, Paul does not want women in the marketplace to pray and prophesy without a covering. For instance, if she prayed for a friend, or prophesied to an unbelieving man on the street, she should remain covered as a sign that she does so under authority. Paul drives home the fact that how the Corinthians carry themselves within the context of culture is as important to glorifying God as their message.

Moreover, since Paul also stated that the husband is her head, she also disgraces him with her behavior.  Just as when a child transgresses some societal taboo, the parents feel shame, if the wife zips up her pants and speaks down to all the men and women in the church, she claims to have what he lacks: a backbone.  She takes leadership away from her husband, and he allows it: a disgrace. As in adultery, the wife transgresses her vows with her husband by assuming leadership in the church or at home.

With that, Paul exposes these women’s inconsistency in v. 6.  Those who pray and prophesy without a head covering should go all the way and cut her own hair short.  If they really wanted to send a message, they would rid themselves of long hair.  But, he knows they will not do this because the culture saw such women as lewd, demonstrating that they care about how others see them. When dealing with the question of Christian liberty, consistency is an appropriate test, for it exposes the truth by stripping away surface reasoning.

Underneath their behavior, pride has fractured their worldview, leading to this uneven structuring of beliefs. Their pride causes them to care how people in the marketplace see them, so they won’t shave their hair.  However, their pride also causes them to seek attention and authority in worship services.  Note again that Paul went from his subject in Chapter 10 to this one here in Chapter 11: The focus of the Corinthian women, whether in the worship services or among unbelievers, was to receive glory unto themselves.

In their heart of hearts, these women were on the throne, not Christ.  If they would exchange their glory-seeking for glorifying Christ, they will exchange their status of messy saints for that of mature saints. The sign of this would be that they cover up all the way and not try to hold onto two worlds. She should wear her sign of submission as even the pagans did, so that there was no inconsistent message.

So, what about today’s culture?  Except for select few churches, wearing a head covering signifies nothing to current society but one’s sense of style (or lack thereof). The Western pagan walking by a married couple on the sidewalk would not scoff at a woman’s lack of veil. Moreover, it’s more common for men to wear hats today than women.  Even then, a covering signifies nothing on the Western male than perhaps his shame in his receding hairline.

Glorifying Christ means that we must consider what culture considers. For instance, women entering Muslim areas send a message if they do not cover their shoulders, not just their heads, and Paul’s teaching might apply to a Christian woman giving up her right to bare shoulders so that she might share the gospel with that community.  Similarly, men entering Jewish areas may need to wear yarmulke in order to send the same message an uncovered male head sent in ancient Corinth. 

While Western culture today lacks the sign of headcovering, other markers indicate submissive womanhood, such as modest attire. By contrast, women who wear low-cut, tight, and otherwise revealing clothing are still typically universally viewed as inappropriate and advertising. Since Paul elsewhere addresses the need to wear modest clothing, he would be sure to speak of the need to cover up as a Western cultural sign of submission. Moreover, since our church structure has the pulpit in the front, a woman standing behind it to speak might be the equivalent of a woman of that day taking off her veil to speak and prophesy.

In 1 Pt 3:3, we read, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear.” Just like today, there were women who gave a great deal of attention to their appearance. Christian women might commitment the equal and opposite error – wearing social awkward clothing such as denim jumpers to announce their spirituality – and they should note that no adorning should be simply external. The question of true devotion to God does involve what we wear, but that is one of many fruits born of godly spirits.

Paul helps us tie this up in his letter to Timothy, 1 Timothy 2:8-10. “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel,” – respectable, not shabby or gaudy – “with modesty and self-control,” – not low riders – “not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire,” – lose the bling – “but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” There’s the point: focused on serving others and honoring Christ. Your internal submission in conjunction with cultural norms is what ties you back to 1 Cor 10:31-33 and this passage.

Third, we can glorify Christ when we understand the creation (vv. 7-12). 
The construction in v. 7 is not definite: every male bears some image and glory of God. We could say that all men bear the mark of God. However, due to God’s multifaceted grace, some reflect Him more than others. Man reflects God in both morality and sovereignty. That is why one can never be a real man until he comes to know the Creator and lives in His ways. As you do that, you will reflect more of God’s morality and be able to lead your house as Christ wants.

Similarly, a woman bears the mark of man’s glory. That is not to say that Eve wasn’t also created in God’s image; this text doesn’t deny that and Genesis 1 is clear. However, some women are better help-meets to their husbands than others.  As she grows in God’s grace, she will be able to fulfill God’s role better. Indeed, Paul writes in terms of what the wife “owes,” her moral obligation to Christ and to her husband, and this balances her freedom in Christ.

Paul also writes that this should also be done “because of the angels,” a cause for speculation.  It probably simply refers to the holy angels. Angels monitor the activities of the saints, such as back in 4:9, Mt 18:10, Eph 3:9-10, and 1 Pt 1:12.  They sang the glories of God at the creation of the world (Job 38:4, 7). They would be interested to know whether Christian women obey the Lord, and whether Christian men lovingly assert their leadership in the home and in the church. In other words, the holy angels are fascinated to know whether Christians submit to the Lordship of Christ as they do.

Before we get too off course, note that Paul does not leave creation in verse 11. “However, neither is the wife separate from man nor man from his wife in the Lord. For as the wife is from the man, so also the man comes through the woman.”  No one can claim that women are somehow lesser than he, nor can wives claim superiority over their husbands.  Paul does speak within the context of those in Christ; no one live as fully male or fully female unless they know and follow Christ. There is therefore no genuine unity or companionship unless the couple knows the God who exists in perfect tri-unity.

Moreover, through the birthing process, women get a chance to become intimately involved with the creation of men. This is more than Adam got to do, who was asleep when God formed the woman came his rib! Neither male nor female could exist without the other.

Paul’s final words in this verse are that “all things come from God.” This is not simply an afterthought, Paul’s obligatory mention of God to keep his social ethics discussion properly theological. He again reminds us that God, as Creator, has a created order for the universe. God made both male and female in His image, and He has plans for each. That Paul is invoking God’s name to argue a point is evident in the next verse.

Fourth, we can glorify Christ when we understand authority in the church (vv. 13-16). 
Paul will later drive home the point that women are to be silent in churches, meaning that they should not teach or carry an authoritative role (14:34; 1 Tm 2:12).  He does instruct women to teach and care for others, specifically other women and children (cf. 1 Tm 5:16; Titus 2:3, 4).  To pray and prophesy in front of the church is to assume a greater authority, however, as this verse indicates.

He writes, “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a wife with uncovered head to pray to God?” Even the messy saints of Corinth should be able to get this as part of the universal priesthood of believers.  They didn’t need Paul to write to them; they already knew it was unseemly for women to unveil themselves before the congregation (to draw attention to themselves) and lead in prayer. 

Imagine a married woman coming to church and, after the service starts, taking off her shrug to reveal a low-cut black dress befitting the nightclub. To make it worse, she doesn't seem to care about the scandal, the signals she sends about herself and about her relationship with her husband. For her to then to step behind the pulpit to pray and preach would almost be mockery of the local church and the entire body of Christ.  Paul might say to such a one, “You might as well cake on the makeup and stand on the street corner, for it sends the same message.  Judge for yourselves, church, is it proper?”

Look at the next verse for Paul’s compare and contrast. “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a shame to him.”  Paul appeals to the innate understanding that men and women should look different, and hair styles are one way of doing so. The MSB has an interesting note here, “The male hormone, testosterone, speeds up the loss of hair in men. Estrogen causes women’s hair to grow longer and for longer time. Women are rarely bald, no matter how old. This physiology is reflected in most cultures in the custom of longer hair on women. God has given her hair as a covering to show tenderness, softness, and beauty.” Women often have found respect by keeping their hair longer, and by contrast, men typically do not receive cultural respect for long hair.

There’s an old Southern Gospel song that goes a bit too far with this in saying, “If there’s hair on your ears, there’s sin in your heart.”  Paul doesn't means for such a wooden stance on this; men can acceptably have slightly longer hair in our society and not appear feminine. Conversely, there are some shorter hairdos for women that balance femininity with function. The question for the church is, again, the pagan on the street: would he assume gender-bending or some other impropriety when he looks at you? How about a weaker brother in Christ?

There was a story of a pastor who had to mow the lawn at his church. As you might expect, he wore shorts for this chore. However, when several church members with weak consciences found out, they asked him to wear long pants in the future. While the pastor had every right to refuse (he was doing the job of a deacon anyway, but that’s beside the point), he chose to wear pants next week as to not offend.

Bringing realism about heart-motives, Paul writes in v. 16, “And if anyone seems to be fond of strife, we have no such practice, nor the churches of God.” This verse evidences the fact that these women were not simply trying to share something on their hearts to the church through prophecies and prayers. Some wanted scandal. They enjoyed strife. What they were in essence doing was fomenting rebellion against the cosmological, cultural, created, and ecclesiastical order.

Paul says that the church should not carve time for such a one; the rebellion will not be tolerated. If she comes in and uncovers her head after this, that will be cause for the Matthew 18 process. The church should be about the business of glorifying Christ, not stroking egos.

Some closing thoughts: 
This does not seem to be a passage calling for the addition of pomp to our attire or services.  There does not seem to be a universal command from Paul to have coverings or certain hair lengths. However, this comes on the heels of his “all things to all people” section in the ninth chapter, and there are some principles that must be applied from here.

First, women are as much a part of God’s program as men, and just as valuable. Second, women have a unique role to play, and that includes visibly and internally deferring to male leadership in the home and in the church. Third, men and women should seek to fulfill their unique roles by leading others in how biblical sexuality should operate in the world and in the church.

There are only two ways to be the church: to pull as much attention to ourselves as possible or to push all glory to another. Women who take rebellious positions against Christ’s created order demonstrate not the submission of God’s holy angels, but of Satan’s fallen ones. The godly angels submit themselves willing to Christ and look at us with a kind of wonder; Satan jealously looks upon us and demands glory unto himself. Let all of us, men and women, strive to glorify Christ by following His ways.

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