The Message of 1 Corinthians 11
Ethan R. Longhenry
This week I would like to examine a passage that has caused many divisions and great strife in many churches of Christ. Many have simply disregarded this passage and do not wish to find any way in which to apply it to their own lives because of the controversy that it generates. We must remember, however, that as Christians, we are responsible for the whole message of God, as is explained in Acts 20:27, 2 Timothy 2:15 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God.
Give diligence to present thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, handling aright the word of truth.
Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.
Let us now examine this passage: Paul's discussion of authority in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16:
Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you. But I would have you 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 praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven. For if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled. For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God. Judge ye in yourselves: is it seemly that a woman pray unto God unveiled? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
The controversy over the "head covering" has divided many churches over the years, and for this and other reasons many do not wish to even discuss this passage. Even so, let us look at this passage and see what the message is that Paul is attempting to relate to us.
Paul begins in the first two verses by exhorting the Corinthians to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ, which is a commandment given in other places (1 Corinthians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 1:6), and that the Corinthians ought also to hold fast to those traditions that were given to them, which is a commandment that is also seen in 2 Thessalonians 3:6. Therefore, Paul is giving no new commandments here to the Corinthians when he speaks of imitating Christ and holding fast to the traditions given to them by the Apostles.
Paul then begins in verse three with a discussion of authority and the symbols thereof. The line of authority Paul speaks of is very distinct: the head of man is Christ and the head of the wife is her husband and the head of Christ is God (1 Corinthians 11:3). He then says the following in verses 4 and 5:
Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.
We see here two statements of fact given by Paul: a man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but the woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. There are many here who desire to see the "unveiled" in verse 5 to refer to "having short hair," yet where do we see this in verse 5? Paul says that if her head is "unveiled," it is "as if she were shaven," a statement of equivalence. Why would Paul say that the woman who prays with an uncovered head is "as if shaven" if the covering is hair? This is even clearer in verse 6:
For if a woman is not veiled, let her also be shorn: but if it is a shame to a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be veiled.
The ESV is even more clear concerning this passage:
For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.
The message is difficult to undermine: the "covering" Paul speaks of in verse 5 cannot be "long hair" since the wife ought to have "short hair" if she does not wear the "covering!" Therefore, one can very easily conclude from this passage that a woman should wear a covering if praying or prophesying.
Paul speaks further in verses 7-12 concerning why this is so:
For a man indeed ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man: for neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man: for this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, so is the man also by the woman; but all things are of God.
Paul speaks plainly: he anticipates the question, "why must a woman wear the covering?," by saying that (1) the glory of man is woman; (2) the woman is of the man, not vice versa; (3) therefore, a woman should have a sign of authority over her head, "because of the angels." He then affirms, however, lest any man become conceited about his role, that man is not independent of woman and neither is the woman independent of man, and his example is that while woman was made from man, man is now born of woman, yet all things come from God.
Paul concludes this discussion in verses 13 through 16:
Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seemeth to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.
Many attempt to use this part of the passage to "contradict" the beginning portion, and declare that the chapter states that the "covering" is "long hair" in verse 15. There is no evidence in this text, however, that the "covering" in verse 15 is the same type of covering under discussion in verse 5 except for an inference based loosely on context. Paul begins by appealing to nature, that long hair is a disgrace to a man, reminiscent of the language of verse 4. Yet then Paul says that "long hair" is a "glory" to a woman, and therefore it is her "covering;" yet did we not read in verse 7 that a woman should cover her head because she is the "glory of man?" Is this not the reason that she requires a symbol of authority upon her head? How, then, is the glory itself to be the symbol of authority when it is for the exact reason of the glory that the symbol of authority is necessary? There are many difficulties that arise in this text if we attempt to force verse 15 to be the same as verses 5 and 6.
Paul then speaks that if there is one who inclines to be "contentious," the "churches of God" have "no such practice." Many here assert that if there is contention about the covering, Paul asserts that the church "has no such practice." Are we to believe that Paul will exhort the Corinthians to recognize the value of authority and the symbols thereof and then in the last verse deny everything stated because of one who is contentious? Who is Paul speaking of when he speaks of one who is contentious, one who wants to use the covering or one who wishes to violate the system of authority Paul has spoken of in this chapter? Obviously the latter-- it is not contentious to pursue the truth, is it not? Paul is confirming here in the last verse what he said before: the churches of God do not practice men having long hair nor having women with heads uncovered. Any other form of interpretation of this verse causes the text to contradict itself and makes Paul out to be unsettled in this doctrine.
This is my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 based on the text itself. I am sure that there are many who disagree with me on this interpretation, and I do not want any to believe me to be overly contentious or argumentative. These are my conclusions based on the reading of the text; I do not "bind" this interpretation upon everyone I come in contact with, and I believe that all need to study this passage and come to their own conclusions and live with their consciences clean in the sight of God.
It does distress me, however, how brethren have "agreed to disagree" so significantly about this passage in 1 Corinthians 11 that we fail to recognize the truths that cannot be disputed in this passage. One could leave this passage with the understanding that a woman should wear a covering and/or have long hair: where in this passage do we see that a woman should have short hair? Paul gives no room for compromise in verse 4:
But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.
Too often I have seen many God-fearing women who have decided to follow the latest trends of hairstyle and neglect all patterns of this passage: they worship at church and pray with short hair and heads uncovered! One may wrangle with the definition of "short hair" versus "long hair," but all too often many women will be seen with hair styles that make it difficult to distinguish them from men!
It is well-known that the church has been fighting the worldly influences of feminism, especially in the arena of the responsibilities of men and women in the home and in the church. Are we fighting so strongly in these arenas that we have neglected the message of 1 Corinthians 11? The message of 1 Corinthians 11 is difficult to bear in these times: it is yet another passage that demonstrates that there is a hierarchy of authority and that the husband is above the wife in this hierarchy. This message is not popular, but it must be heard. We may consider the length of hair to be a mere trifle, but God must have some opinion about it in order to dedicate half of a chapter in the book of 1 Corinthians to the topic. Brethren, regardless of our stands on the nature of the covering itself, I must urge us to reconsider our neglection of 1 Corinthians 11 and that we ought to study and apply the truths that Paul has laid out for us to our lives and to continue to fight the good fight!