A Roman Catholic priest told this story in Readers Digest a few years ago. He was serving at the cathedral at Notre Dame and at the end of his day was making his way out to his car, apparently through a rather dark alley. From the shadows, a man approached, sticking a gun in the priest’s ribs and demanding that the priest hand over his wallet. As the priest reached into his coat pocket, the robber saw his clothing and realized he was a clergyman. Shaken, the once confident robber asked incredulously, “Are you a priest?” “Yes, yes I am,” replied the priest. “I don’t rob priests!” the man quickly assured him. “Well, thanks, thanks a lot!” the priest responded with relief. His hand still in his pocket where he had reached for his wallet, the priest said, “Here, have a cigar,” offering a cigar to the robber. “Oh no, I couldn’t do that,” the penitent thief replied, “you see, I’m a Catholic too, and I’ve given them up for lent.”
In the words of our Lord, this thief was “straining gnats and swallowing camels”:
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. 27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:23-28).
The thief who would not consider robbing a priest would readily rob anyone else. He might even have been taking drugs, but he would not think of having a smoke, at least for a little while. Here we find a classic example of “straining gnats and swallowing camels.” The scribes and Pharisees did the same thing. They were meticulous in attending to the details of the Law, but they missed the main point of it all. This is why the prophets were sent, one after the other, to keep pointing out the essence of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23; see Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).
All of us tend to get into a rut, doing the same old things and hardly remembering why we do them. I believe this is what had happened to the Corinthian saints. They were still doing the things they had first done—conducting baptisms, meeting weekly as a gathered assembly, observing communion, and the women were still covering their heads. But already these saints were beginning to lose sight of the big picture. In our text, Paul sets down one of the guiding principles for the traditions he had established during his time with them, and perhaps in the letter he had previously written to them (1 Corinthians 5:9).
The verses we are about to consider are among the most troublesome in this epistle. For everyone who is honest, this is a difficult text to interpret. I can well remember when one of my most respected professors (the head of the Old Testament department) published an article on this chapter, which some hoped would be the definitive work. As it turned out, there was not only a strong resistance to his position, but even he renounced his work. Lest you think I am poking fun at this godly scholar, let me also confess I have taught this passage several times over the past 20 years, and I usually come to a different conclusion each time I teach it!
For many today, this text is the cornerstone in their theology of the role of women in ministry in the church. This should be a foundational text, but those who are most inclined to turn here for a validation of their theology turn to the wrong place, for the wrong reasons, and with the wrong conclusions. Because this text is a battleground for evangelicals, we need to spend a little time laying the groundwork for our study in this exposition and in those texts which follow. Several introductory comments will help the reader to understand where I am coming from.
(1) Chapters 11-14 flow easily from what Paul has already written in chapters 1-10. There is no abrupt shifting of gears when moving from chapter 10 to chapter 11. At chapter 11, Paul makes his transition from the subject of participating in illicit idol worship to the conduct of the church at worship in chapters 11-14. If chapters 8-10 had to do with suppers where idol-meats were eaten, chapters 11-14 deal with the meeting of the church and its celebration of the Lord’s Table.
One could probably sum up the problems of the Corinthian Christians with one word: self. Seeking status for themselves, the Corinthians had divided into factions, each of which prided themselves on the status of their leader and the sophistication of his style. The Corinthians were into self-satisfaction so that all kinds of evils were practiced and tolerated. These included what appears to be incest in chapter 5 and immorality with prostitutes in chapter 6. These self-serving Corinthians were so into fulfilling their own desires that they fought for their rights in secular law courts, before unbelieving judges, and before the unbelieving world which looked on with wonder. Those who sought to correct the problem of rampant immorality did so by teaching the opposite extreme. They advocated the avoidance of marriage and of sex within marriage. These saints were so caught up in self-indulgence they did not have the discipline to say no to their fleshly lusts. They would eat idol-meats and even participate in their heathen idol worship ceremonies. They would insist on going to idol temples, even though this caused other Christians to stumble.
By and large, the self-indulgence Paul has exposed in chapters 1-10 has been outside the church. Now, at chapter 11, Paul turns to the evidences of self-seeking when the saints gathered as a church for worship and edification. Much of this self-seeking had some kind of spiritual label, which gave a semblance of spirituality. But it does not take a biblical scholar to conclude from Paul’s words in chapters 11-14 that it was mere selfism with a very thin spiritual veneer. The saints who gathered to observe the Lord’s Table did not wait for those who could only come late nor did they share their food with those in need. They indulged themselves so that they became drunk, and the celebration of the Lord’s Table was shamefully observed. When it came time for teaching and singing and edification, it seems as though every Corinthian, man or woman, was determined to speak or to perform, and much of their participation seems to be grandstanding. The sins formerly exposed outside the church meeting earlier in this first epistle of Paul’s to the Corinthians are now exposed in the context of the church meeting in chapters 11-14.
(2) Paul’s teaching here is consistent with his teaching elsewhere, with that of the Old Testament, the apostle Peter, and with the practice of our Lord. Too many professing Christians look down upon Paul and his teaching concerning women as though he were a hillbilly from the Ozarks, a narrow-minded chauvinist who sought to pass off his prejudices as apostolic instruction. Paul claims that his teaching and practice are consistent with the Old Testament “law” (14:34), and with his teaching and practice elsewhere (1:2; 4:14-17; 11:16; 14:34). Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:1-6 mirror what Paul has written here and elsewhere.
There is little new or unique about Paul’s teaching on the roles of men and women except for one thing–the possibility that women might be able to pray or prophesy publicly in the church meeting. Nowhere else is this possibility mentioned, and so we must seek to explain Paul’s words in verse 4 in light of his teaching to the contrary everywhere else the subject of the woman’s role in ministry and worship is discussed. The wonder to me is how so many professing Christians can think of Paul’s words concerning women praying or prophesying in verse 4 as the rule, rather than as the exception.
(3) Paul’s words here concerning women and worship are not merely his own opinion but are his apostolic instruction, concluding in instructions from Paul which he calls the “Lord’s commandment” (14:37). It is amazing how many wish to be “Pauline” in their theology when it comes to justification by faith or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but who suddenly look down upon Paul as a narrow-minded chauvinist when it comes to the role of women. We cannot pick and choose from Paul’s teaching. It is true that Paul does give his opinions elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, which are not binding on us (see 7:6-7, 25, 40). He clearly informs us when this is the case. But when Paul comes to the role of men and women and the principle of headship in our text, it is not opinion which he offers, but principles which culminate in clear-cut imperatives. If one is inclined to take Paul lightly here, let him remember Paul’s concluding words in chapter 14:
34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:34-40).
(4) Paul’s teaching in this passage is not just restricted to the Corinthians living in that place and time; it is for all Christians. Those who cannot deny the clear teaching of the apostle, but who do not wish to abide by that teaching, find an escape by restricting Paul’s teaching on sexual roles to that time and place, and not our own. Paul is writing to the Corinthians, but in his introductory words in chapter 1, verse 2, Paul indicates he is writing to all the saints, to those “who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul repeatedly emphasizes the global nature of his instruction and its universal implications (see 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:34). Paul’s principles and precepts are therefore as much for our benefit as they were for the Corinthian saints so long ago.
Many of the errors made in interpreting this passage (and others) are the result of two problems: (1) preconceived notions as to what Paul can and cannot teach on the roles of men and women in the church; and (2) the use of an improper method of interpreting the Scriptures.125 The first error is the result of presuppositions (“My mind is already made up, so don’t confuse me with the facts.”), and the second has to do with hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is a fancy, five-dollar word for the science of interpretation. The text we are expounding is one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Unbelievers reject Paul’s teaching here immediately. But believers too are very reluctant to take Paul’s words at face value. Some parts of this passage are simply hard to understand even though we desire to do so; others are hard to understand because we can see where Paul’s teaching is leading, and we do not really wish to go there. As we begin our study of chapter 11, I want you to know the guiding principles of interpretation I will seek to follow in this exposition.
(1) We must always interpret the “unclear” texts of Scripture in light of those which are “clear.” I must stress here that this principle of interpretation is held by virtually all conservative evangelical Christians, as well as others. The real question is: “Which texts are clear and which are unclear?” Too often our presuppositions prevail here, and we decide the “unclear” texts are those that teach something with which we disagree. The clear texts are those which appear to be proof texts for our own preferences. If we are honest, I think we would have to acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is one of those passages which is unclear in some of its particulars. This is precisely why so many scholars have differed over its interpretation, even in those days when there was not strong cultural pressure to reject much of Paul’s teaching in this text.
(2) Paul’s teaching in this passage must be interpreted in light of Scripture and not in light of the culture of that day. A number of the commentaries assume we must understand, interpret, and apply Paul’s words in our text in light of the culture of his day. The simple fact is no one really knows the culture of that day that well. Furthermore, any number of cultures were represented in that cosmopolitan city, not just one. If the student of Scripture can only understand what he reads in light of the culture of that day and time, derived from some source other than Scripture, we are of all men most to be pitied. Historical background and cultural insight gained outside the Bible may be helpful and illustrative, but it is not crucial to interpreting and applying the Scriptures. If so, those jungle peoples who are given a copy of the Bible translated by Wycliffe missionaries cannot be expected to rely upon their Bibles alone, because they must have other facts to understand the message of any text.
I believe the Scriptures give us all the information we need to be able to read, understand, interpret, and apply any passage in the Bible. I am not advocating we ban or burn our Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias or that we cease archaeological excavations. I am simply saying that if all we have in our hands is a Bible, that is enough. A concordance can be of help, too. Enlightened by other texts and illuminated by the Holy Spirit, we can interpret and apply the Bible to ourselves and to our times.
(3) Chapters 11-14 are a unit, and every passage in this segment must be interpreted and applied as a part of this unit. Paul is a very logical thinker and writer. Paul is developing an argument for the entire book as each chapter unfolds. Each of the sub-sections (like chapters 8-10 and 11-14) also has an argument that is progressively developed. If we are to understand Paul’s teaching, we must do so by interpreting each portion in the light of the larger argument. Beyond this, if Paul’s epistles are the inspired Word of God, then what Paul teaches on the roles of men and women in ministry must be consistent with what he has written elsewhere in other epistles.
(4) We should interpret Paul’s words in chapter 11 (and elsewhere) in the light of Paul’s style of developing his argument. In the most general terms, the first 16 verses of 1 Corinthians 11 are Paul’s “introduction,” and the final verses of chapter 14 are the “conclusion” to his teaching on the conduct of men and women in the church meeting. One would hardly do justice to Paul’s argument by drawing too many conclusions from Paul’s introduction, and yet this is precisely what happens. Let Paul merely mention the possibility of a woman praying or prophesying in church, and many are willing to conclude that this is acceptable, even though Paul prohibits women to speak in the church meeting (even to ask a question) in chapter 14. Let introductions be introductions, and let Paul’s conclusions be our conclusions.
Having made these introductory comments, we need to understand the unique way in which Paul deals with the Corinthian problems. We need to understand the way Paul develops his arguments so we can interpret his teaching clearly. I am suggesting we now apply what we should have already learned about the way Paul develops his argument in 1 Corinthians 1-10, so that we can rightly discern his argument in chapters 11-14.
Paul does not deal with the Corinthian errors head-on as he does the heresy he confronts in his Epistle to the Galatians. In chapter 7, Paul begins with a statement that would have been on the lips of some of the ascetics in the church: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (verse 1). It would seem, on the face of it, that Paul is agreeing with the ascetics by referring to the celibate lifestyle as ideal. But as he develops his argument, we can see that marital sex is, for some, a preventative for immorality, and abstinence (in marriage) a cause of immorality. While the ascetics seem to have prohibited sex and marriage altogether (see 1 Timothy 4:1-3), Paul does not prohibit marriage and sexual intimacy in marriage. He does, however, encourage those who are single to consider the single and celibate lifestyle in order to serve the Lord without distraction (7:25-35).
In chapter 8, Paul appears to accept the position and practice of some Corinthians, who not only ate meats offered to idols but did so in a pagan idol worship ceremony (8:10). These idol-meat eaters not only indulged themselves in this meal, they did so knowing they would be a stumbling block to weaker brothers in so doing. And all the while these idol-meat eaters thought they were “strong” and more “spiritual” than those who refrained from such meats. By the time we reach the end of chapter 10, Paul has brought the whole matter to its conclusion, forbidding any believer to act in a way that hindered another, that became a sharer in demonic things, and which was contrary to the glory of God and the proclamation of the gospel. The appearance of chapter 8 (that idol-meat eating is permissible, and even preferable, for the Christian) is blown away by the reality of chapter 10. No one would think of casting aside the apostolic command not to eat idol-meats (Acts 15:28-29; 1 Corinthians 10:14-22) by claiming that Paul’s words in chapter 8 contradicted this command. And, likewise, no one should dare to cast aside clear apostolic commands to women based upon the fact that Paul speaks of the hypothetical possibility that a woman might pray or prophesy with her head uncovered. Paul’s conclusions on such matters are clearly recorded in his conclusion of chapter 14.
(5) The commands of Scripture always take precedence over our inferences drawn from the Scriptures (see Matthew 28:20; 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 10:5). In Matthew 23, Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of “straining gnats and swallowing camels”; that is, they were knit pickers on little trivial details while they missed the main point of it all. The number one “camel” for me is a command from God. After all, the whole law was first summed up by Ten Commandments and then by just two. When Jesus commands me to love my enemy, my task is not to try to reason my way out of it, but to do it. No matter how many “justifications” I find in the Bible for not taking this command seriously, the command stands, and I obey or disobey. The first command which was given to Adam and Eve did not make sense to Eve, and both she and her husband disobeyed. No set of reasons was an adequate excuse. I am not saying there is never any exception to any command, but I am saying I must take commands most seriously of all. Paul put it this way:
4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. 5 We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, 6 and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).
To somewhat paraphrase what I understand Paul to be saying, we are in a spiritual conflict, and one of our chief weapons is the Word of God (the sword of the Spirit). While we can reason our way to nearly any conclusion (sprinkling that conclusion with an ample portion of biblical references), we are to take every thought, every doctrine, every theory, and subject it to Christ, specifically to obeying Christ’s commands. Jesus’ great final command is about obedience to His commands:
18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
If my reasoning and exegesis bring me to the point where I must choose to follow my reasoning (and thus disobey Christ’s command), or to obey Christ’s command, I should have little doubt as to which prevails.
Notice then that there are no commands in verses 1-6. The commands will be found later in chapters 11-14, with Paul’s final words in chapter 14 packed with them. Commands are the bottom line of Scripture, and Paul will not get to the bottom line in this introductory text in 11:1-16, but in chapters 13 and 14.
As we shall soon seek to demonstrate, those efforts to interpret our text in light of the culture of Corinth are destined to fail. Not one of Paul’s arguments is based upon the culture of his day, but upon the principles and traditions laid down by the holy prophets, including Paul.
1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
Paul has already given the Corinthians much to imitate. In the immediately preceding context, Paul calls on everyone to willingly surrender any right or liberty which does not edify (10:23), and specifically he claims that he seeks to please all men in all things, refraining from seeking his own profit in order to pursue that which is profitable to others (10:33). Here is something worth imitating, but there is yet more to come. In chapter 11, Paul will praise the Corinthians for remembering him in everything. They are to imitate and to obey Paul by following those things he teaches and practices in regard to the church (see also 4:14-17).
2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
We must admit that praise is not something we expect from Paul when writing to the Corinthians. After all, they are doing so many things wrong! Yet, in spite of this, Paul starts off in a very positive manner, commending the Corinthians for remembering him in everything and by holding firmly to the traditions which he taught them. Just what are these traditions? Some commentators believe we cannot know what they were. I think the Bible gives us a pretty clear idea as to what some of these were. Consider the following texts in which these same terms, “tradition” or “traditions,”126 are employed:
15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
The verb form of this word is frequently found in the New Testament, and it is informative as well:
4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees, which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe (Acts 16:4).
2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you (1 Corinthians 11:2).
23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread (1 Corinthians 11:23).
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).
21 For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them (2 Peter 2:21).
What are the “traditions” Paul delivered to these Corinthians which they remember and persistently observe? They are the inspired, apostolic instructions, which were handed down to the churches regarding doctrine and practice. The traditions are the gospel message and the commandments which accompany it. In the context of chapter 11, the “traditions” are the head covering of women, the observance of communion, and the regular meeting of the church, all of which are discussed in chapters 11-14.
3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.
The “but” of verse 3 is significant. Paul did sincerely praise the Corinthians for remembering him in all things by keeping the traditions he had given them. They were going through the right rituals and practices, and this was commendable. But they were not doing so in the right spirit; they did not keep the traditions with an understanding mind, with a firm grasp of why they were doing what they were so faithfully doing. And so Paul sets out to remind them of a principle which gives meaning to the traditions they were so faithfully observing. That principle is the principle of headship. In verse 3, Paul applies the principle of headship to three relationships: (1) God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Son; (2) Jesus Christ and all mankind; and, (3) the man as the head of a woman.
Before we look at these three examples of headship, let us first pause to reflect upon what headship means. I will restrict the meanings of the term “head” to those which can be found in the Scriptures. To begin, let me summarize the scope of the meaning of this term “head”:
(1) To be the “head” is to be the source. We speak of the “headwaters” of a river, and we mean the place where the river begins, its source.
(2) To be the “head” is to be the one with ultimate authority. The head man is the man in charge, the man with final authority. The head waiter or the head of the household is the one in charge.
(3) To be the “head” is to be preeminent above others. To be preeminent is to get the glory. To be the head is to be the one who is most prominent, the one who has the preeminence. Anyone knows that in an organization, the underlings dare not upstage the one in charge, the head of the organization.
Christ is the head of the church because He brought it into existence. He is the head of the church because He sustains the church. He is the head because the church serves Him. He is the head in that He is preeminent in the church and in all creation. Paul includes all these elements in his Epistle to the Colossians:
16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything (Colossians 1:16-18).
The man, Paul writes, is the head of a woman. Paul does not say men are the head of women, but he speaks of a one-to-one between a certain man and a woman. In effect, Paul is saying that the husband is the head of his wife (Ephesians 5:23). The expression, “the man” singles out one man, and then states that he is the head of “a woman,” a particular woman, namely, his wife. I believe the reason Paul states the principle in more general terms is because both in the creation of Adam and Eve, and in their fall and the curses, Adam and Eve both represent mankind as a whole; Adam represents both husbands and males, while Eve represents both females and wives. No woman, married or not, is to exercise headship over men. On the other hand, a particular man should be careful about taking headship too far, as though all women were subject to him. You will recall that Paul instructs wives to be subject “to their own husbands,” and not to men in general. In the church meeting, however, I believe that men are to exercise headship in the church (see 1 Timothy 2:8-15).
Finally, God is the head of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Satan tempted our Lord, he sought to persuade Him to act independently of His Father (see Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus repeatedly emphasized that He was not acting independently of the Father, but that He was doing the will of the Father (John 5:19, 30). Everything our Lord claimed as His own was that which He had been granted by His Father (Luke 10:22, 29; John 5:26-27; 6:27; Revelation 2:27). It was the Father’s will that the Son die on the cross of Calvary, and the Son of God submitted to the Father in His incarnation and in His atoning death (see Matthew 26:39; Acts 2:23; Philippians 2:8). In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul indicates that after all of the enemies of our Lord have been defeated (the last being death), then the Lord Jesus will hand over authority and dominion to the Father:
25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 And when all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).
While we have only made our way through the first three verses of chapter 11, we have already come to the “camel” of this chapter. For many, verses 4-6 are the focal point for their study, because it is here that some find a proof text for women exercising leadership in the meeting of the church. But the structure of this chapter should indicate that verse 3 lays the foundational principle (the “camel,” as it were), and verses 4-16 deal with the “gnats.” I do not mean to say these “gnats” are unimportant; I simply mean that verse 3 contains the guiding principle which governs all of the particulars, such as head coverings.
To those who would major on the minors by ignoring verse 3 and rushing on to verses 4-6, I would say you have failed to let Paul’s reasoning guide your own. And to those who throw their hands up in despair, so perplexed by verses 4-16 that they doubt anyone can ever understand them, do not miss what is patently clear here because of what is not clear. The principle of headship is the “camel” of chapter 11. It is clear, and it guides us in dealing with the particulars of verses 4-16. Even though we may not all agree on these later verses as to their meaning and their application, let us all agree on the principle.
The principle of headship is a unifying principle. It explains and encompasses all of the particular instructions Paul and Peter give to men and women regarding their dress, demeanor, and deeds in the church meeting. Let me illustrate. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul implies that women should not pray publicly, and he clearly forbids women to teach or to exercise authority over men in the church gathering. He also instructs women about their dress. They are to dress modestly and to avoid certain elaborate hair styles or jewelry.
The principle of headship makes sense of all these instructions. Paul forbids public teaching and leadership over men because men are to exercise headship, and thus men are to be those who exercise authority over the church. For a woman to teach or to lead the church is to usurp that headship which has been delegated to men. But what does a woman’s dress have to do with headship? Everything. Headship is not just about authority, but about preeminence—glory. A woman does not need to speak to have preeminence. All she needs to do is to dress in a way that is striking, that draws attention to her “assets.” In Paul’s day, it would seem that very little of a woman was exposed other than her head, and thus Paul and Peter warn about fancy hair styles and jewelry because these accentuated the woman’s beauty with reference to her head. In our day, there is much more to be seen by all, and in accentuating these the woman can attract attention to herself and thus gain preeminence. If everyone’s eyes turn to a woman as she enters the room, it is likely she has done something to attract that attention. So it is not just by a woman’s silence, but by her spirit and by her attire that she submits to the headship of her husband, and of her Lord.
The principle of headship guides us in our application of particular commands. Throughout the Scriptures, pleasing God is not just a matter of “keeping the rules” but of obeying God’s commandments in the light of His principles. Thus, the scribes and Pharisees received a rebuke from our Lord for their meticulous obedience in regard to some commands, but in a way that neglected “the weightier provisions of the law, [the principles of] justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). This is what our Lord was seeking to show in His teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The scribes and Pharisees were into the rules but had lost the reasons, and thus they were willing to obey only the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. When the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath by healing, Jesus pointed out the principle that the Sabbath was for man’s benefit and not man for the Sabbath. Jesus did not violate the spirit of the law by healing on the Sabbath. The psalmist of 119 exemplifies the right spirit, for he diligently seeks to discover the reasons behind the rules. We should do likewise. The principle of headship is the reason behind the rules which Paul and Peter set down regarding the ministry of men and women in the church.
There are few diseases as deadly as the disease of legalism. This disease occurs when we dutifully observe the rules as mere traditions but forget the principles, the reasons, which lie behind them. This obviously happened to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It seems to have been happening to the Corinthian saints of Paul’s day, which necessitated these chapters (11-14) we are studying. And reluctant though I am to admit it, this legalism also is evident in us today. When we “follow the rules” (the “gnats”) but forget the “reasons” (the principles, the “camels”), we have become legalists, and we must repent. The principle of headship should put many of our practices in a whole new light.
The teaching of Paul on headship is most interesting when considered in the light of his previous instruction concerning idolatry in chapters 8-10. Idolatry is man seeking to reshape God into an image with which man is familiar and comfortable and over which man has control. Biblical Christianity is exactly the opposite. Christianity is about God reshaping man into His image:
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).
God is shaping us into conformity with His image, and this is so that we may reflect His glory to both men and angels (1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:8-11). If our duty and privilege is to reflect God as He is to men, then obedience to His commandments and instructions related to His headship is no small matter. To ignore, disregard, or disobey His Word in the matters about which Paul is writing is to distort the image of God; it is another form of idolatry.
Our submission to His headship by understanding and obeying His instructions regarding the proper functions of men and women in the church is vitally important in yet another way. Submission to the headship of our Lord is not just an issue, not even just an important issue; submission to our Lord’s headship is the ultimate issue. It was the issue when Satan rebelled against the headship of God (Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:11-15). It was the issue when Satan orchestrated the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God’s headship. It was also a mechanism of the fall, because Eve rebelled against Adam’s headship. When Satan tempted our Lord, he sought to entice Him to act independently of His Father and thus to rebel against His headship.
The establishment of the kingdom of God is about our Lord’s headship, about our Lord’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (see Matthew 6:10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). It is an inexplicable part of the gospel which the apostles preached (see Acts 2:14-40). Sad to say, it is often excluded from the gospel we preach and apparently from the “gospel” which the Corinthians preached. The gospel is not the message of a weak and powerless God, who needs our cooperation and who desperately pleads for our obedience. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah, the King. It is our duty to fall before Him in humble worship and obedience. When we preach the gospel, it must be as an ambassador who represents the One who is the “head of every man.” This headship of Christ includes all mankind, believers and unbelievers. Those who do not submit to His headship now must ultimately do so when He comes to subdue His enemies:
32 “This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33 Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. 34 For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says:
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
35 Until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.”’
36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
The question is not if you will submit to our Lord’s headship and bow the knee to Him, but when and how. You may submit to His headship now by trusting in Jesus Christ as God’s Messiah, as the King of Israel, who took your sins upon Himself, who suffered and died in your place, and who was raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. You may gratefully and joyfully submit to His headship as a child of God, reborn through faith in His Son. Or, you may reject His headship now, only to reluctantly bow the knee to Him when He returns as your adversary, when He comes to punish His enemies. He is Lord of all, a fact which brings comfort and joy to every believer, and one which will strike terror into His enemies.
May each of us submit to His headship by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation. And may each of us who has trusted in Jesus Christ as our “Head” submit to His headship by practicing the principle of headship through the roles which He has assigned to us.
125 Or it may be improperly using a proper method of interpreting the Scriptures. I would be using the wrong tool if I attempted to tighten the wheel lugs on my car with a pair of pliers. I would be misusing the right tool if I used a torque wrench, but set it at twice the suggested number of foot pounds, thus breaking the wheel stud.
126 The verb form of this term is often used to refer to the betrayal of our Lord. In the Gospels, traditions are the dearly held beliefs of the Jews, which they hold in opposition to the Scriptures. Paul also used this term in the same negative sense (Galatians 1:14).