Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 11:6
11 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 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. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 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.
This section transitions from chapter 10, discussion of meat offered to idols, into the topic of head coverings. It gets a little weird (which is something I enjoy.)
We’ll start in verse 1 with The Pulpit Commentaries, in the verse that bridges chapter 10 into chapter 11:
Followers of me; rather, imitators of me; follow herein my example, as I follow Christ’s. What Christ’s example was, in that he too “pleased not himself,” he sets forth in Romans 15:1-3; and the general principle of self abnegation for the sake of others in Philippians 2:4-8. This verse ought to be included in ch. 10. It sums up the whole argument, and explains the long digression of ch. 9. As I also am of Christ. This limits the reference to his own example. I only ask you to imitate me in points in which I imitate Christ.
Verse 2 thus begins the change of direction to a new topic. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(2) Now I praise you.—A new subject is here introduced, and occupies to 1 Corinthians 11:16. The exhortation of the previous verse probably recalled to the Apostle’s mind that to a certain extent the Corinthians did follow his teaching and example; and had possibly in their letter, to which he was now replying, boasted of their obedience. The rebuke which he is about to administer is, with characteristic courtesy, introduced with words of commendation. While there is a likeness in form in the original in the words “imitators” and “remember,” the latter is weaker in its significance. He exhorts them to be “imitators.” He praises them only for bearing him in mind in all things to the extent of obeying certain practical directions which he had given them. The word “ordinances,” or traditions, here refers to matters of Christian discipline (as in Acts 16:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).
After a couple chapters of criticism, here Paul commends the Church in Corinth. He tells them that they’ve done a good job maintaining the traditions he delivered to them. The note lets us know though that a rebuke will be following these words of commendation.
Verse 3 begins a “headship” conversation that has been fraught with controversy during the 20th Century and beyond. Paul is making an argument for why women should wear head coverings, but he also makes statements regarding the relationship between a husband and wife in the course of doing so. We’ll start with Ellicott:
(3) But I would have you know.—After the general commendation in the previous verse, the reproof for neglecting, or desiring to neglect, his precepts in one particular case, is thus introduced. The subject treated of, viz., the uncovering of their heads by women in assemblies for worship, was of ephemeral moment, and as we all now would regard it, of trivial importance. Every circumstance, however, which could in the least degree cause the principles of Christianity to be perverted or misunderstood by the heathen world was of vital importance in those early days of the Church, and hence we find the Apostle, who most fearlessly taught the principles of Christian liberty, condemning most earnestly every application of those principles which might be detrimental to the best interests of the Christian faith. To feel bound to assert your liberty in every detail of social and political life is to cease to be free—the very liberty becomes a bondage.
The head of every man is Christ.—The Apostle does not merely treat of the outward practice on which his advice has been sought, but proceeds to lay down the principles which are opposed to the principle of that absolute and essential equality, which, found its expression and assertion in the practice of women uncovering their heads in public assemblies.
The allusion here is not to Christ as the Head of the whole human race and of all things (as in Ephesians 1:22; Colossians 1:16; Colossians 2:10), but as the Head of “the Body,” the Christian Church: and this thought introduces the general argument regarding the practical subordination of woman, by reminding the Corinthians that though there is in the Church a perfect spiritual equality (as taught in Galatians 3:28), yet that it is an equality which is of order and not of disorder—that it is an equality which can only be preserved by remembering that each is not an isolated irresponsible atom, but a part of an organic whole. There is a Head to the Church, therefore it is not a machine composed of various parts, but a body consisting of various members. As there is a subordination of the whole body to Christ, so there is in that body a subordination of woman to man. The last clause, “the Head of Christ is God,” gives (as is St. Paul’s custom, see 1 Corinthians 3:23; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Corinthians 15:25) completeness to the thought. As the Head of the Church—i.e., as the man Christ Jesus—Christ is subordinate to the Father, and, indeed, perhaps the idea is carried farther into the mystery of the divine nature itself, as consisting of three Persons co-eternal and co-equal, yet being designated with an unvarying sequence as “first,” and “second,” and “third.”
The note here makes a point, which we will see expounded upon further in this letter, for the idea of “order.” To avoid chaos, there must be a chain of command regarding decision-making. Paul makes the case that Christ is subordinate to God the Father, than the Church is subordinate to Christ, that men are subordinate to Christ, and that wives are subordinate to their husbands. With respect to the last relationship, we find our modern day controversies. Men and women are equal under Christ, yet men are given “headship.”
What does this mean? What follows is an excerpt from biblicalfoundations.org:
Today, the husband’s headship is challenged by some who claim that the New Testament teaches the husband’s and the wife’s “mutual submission” with reference to Eph. 5:21. However, in context it is only the wife that is called to submit (Eph. 5:22; cf. Col. 3:18) while the husband is called to love his wife sacrificially (Eph. 5:25–27).
Both 1 Cor. 11:3 and the Christ-husband analogy in Eph. 5:23 strongly suggest the husband’s headship in the home, and passages such as 1 Tim. 2:12 and 3:2 indicate that men are assigned ultimate responsibility and authority in the church. This congruity between God’s order for the home and the church flows from the fact that the church is “God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The note here refers to some other writings from Paul. Let’s look those up:
Ephesians 5:21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.
Verse 21 is not a specific command to either husbands or wives. It is a general statements for Christians within the Church. The verses that follow give instructions inside the household. You’ll note that wives are called to “submit” and husbands are called to “love.”
Colossians 3: 18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.
submit = ἴδιος ídios, id’-ee-os; of uncertain affinity; pertaining to self, i.e. one’s own; by implication, private or separate:—X his acquaintance, when they were alone, apart, aside, due, his (own, proper, several), home, (her, our, thine, your) own (business), private(-ly), proper, severally, their (own).
There is no specific command for husbands to submit to their wives. There is a command for Christians to submit to one another. The end result here is I think relatively straight-forward. Submission should be done at all times when it glorifies God. However, within the context of the orderly running of a household, husbands are to be the heads of their wives. That’s where the metaphor of the body comes into play. You can’t have two heads making the authoritative decisions for one body. Is the head more important than the lungs or the liver? No, but the body would not work well if the lungs, liver, and brain argued all the time. The other parts of the body influence the head/brain, but also ultimately submit to the brain. In turn, the head has the enormous responsibility of taking good care of the rest of the body, both for its own sake and for the body’s sake, as they are one. That likely rankles many women, but the text says what it says. I’m not a proponent of trying to twist the text to make it say what I want. I would add, though, that the task of loving a wife as Christ loves the Church, if we take it seriously, is an enormous task.
It might be the case that many women resist the idea of Biblical “headship” because their marital head looks nothing like Jesus. It might also be the case that many women submit to their husband in a far less than exemplary way. Neither of these are easy jobs. Love and forbearance should guide both parties in the relationship.
Returning to 1 Corinthians 11, verse 4 takes us onto unfamiliar turf as modern Western readers. We begin to discuss head coverings. Men should not wear them, but women should. Why? Let’s look at The Pulpit Commentaries:
Prophesying; that is, preaching. Having his head covered. This was a Jewish custom. The Jewish worshipper in praying always covers his head with his tallith. The Jew (like Orientals generally) uncovered his feet because the place on which he stood was holy ground; but he covered his head by way of humility, even as the angels veil their faces with their wings. AEneas is said by Servius to have introduced this custom into Italy. On the other hand, the Greek custom was to pray with the head uncovered. St. Paul—as some discrepancy of custom seems to have arisen—decided in favour of the Greek custom, on the high ground that Christ, by his incarnation, became man, and therefore the Christian, who is” in Christ,” may stand with unveiled head in the presence of his Father. Dishonoureth his head. He dishonoureth his own head, which is as it were a sharer in the glory of Christ, who is Head of the whole Church. “We pray,” says Tertullian, “with bare beads because we blush not.” The Christian, being no longer a slave, but a son (Galatians 4:7), may claim his part in the glory of the eternal Son. The head was covered in mourning (2 Samuel 15:30; Jeremiah 14:13), and the worship of the Christian is joyous.
The first thing to note here is that Paul is addressing a specific dispute between the Jewish and Greek converts, regarding head coverings, as the note above states. Paul sides with the Greeks, as it relates to the men. The reason ties into the idea of headship, which he discussed at the outset of this section. There is more to it, though, which we will get into later. First though, let’s look at the next verses which instruct women to continue wearing head coverings. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:
Or prophesieth. Although St. Paul “thinks of one thing at a time,” and is not here touching on the question whether women ought to teach in public, it appears from this expression that the rule which he lays down in 1 Corinthians 14:34, 1 Corinthians 14:35, and 1 Timothy 2:12 was not meant to be absolute. See the case of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9 and Acts 2:17). With her head uncovered. For a woman to do this in a public assembly was against the national custom of all ancient communities, and might lead to the gravest misconceptions. As a rule, modest women covered their heads with the peplum or with a veil when they worshipped or were in public. Christian women at Corinth must have caught something of the “inflation” which was characteristic of their Church before they could have acted with such reprehensible boldness as to adopt a custom identified with the character of immodest women. Dishonoureth her head. Calvin, with terse good sense, observes, “As the man honours his head by proclaiming his liberty, so the woman by acknowledging her subjection.”
Let her also be shorn. Not a command, but, a sort of scornful inference, or reductio ad absurdum. If it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven. When a woman was tried by “the ordeal of the water of jealousy,” her head was uncovered by the priest (Numbers 5:18). To be shorn or shaven was a sign of mourning (Deuteronomy 21:12), and was a disgrace inflicted on adulteresses.
First, as the note states, Paul in this verse depicts women in Church teaching publicly. Also as the note states, the fact he says this creates some problems for those who want to argue that Paul’s admonition for women to be silent in Church is an absolute statement covering all situations. (There is surrounding context in Corinth that we will address when we get to Chapter 14.)
Secondly, the note tells you that it was the custom of all people at the time that women have their heads covered. This was tied into international notions of modesty. Why is it then that men – in their elevated status – can go about with their heads uncovered while women cannot? Paul’s argument here is built around the idea of headship.
However, there is a subtext to this discussion which would have been well-known to first century audiences which is now largely lost to history. The subtext answers the question of why *everyone* thought head coverings and veils were necessary for modestly. The answer is that human hair was believed to be related to human reproduction by people in antiquity. For a woman to walk around with her hair showing was not too dissimilar from walking around with no clothes on.
For an excellent and entertaining look at that topic, I will direct you to Dr. Michael Heiser’s “Naked Bible Podcast” Episode 86 (<– click there to be directed to the episode.) He goes into the specifics of scientific thought at the time, where that thought came from, and how it relates to Paul’s teaching here. An excerpt from the episode summary is below:
The discussion summarizes the material discussed in a scholarly journal article published in 2004 by Dr. Troy Martin entitled, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Cor. 11:13-15: A Testicle instead of a Head Covering” (Journal of Biblical Literature 123:1 : 75-84). Martin summarizes his approach as follows: “This article interprets Paul’s argument from nature in 1 Cor. 11:13-15 against the background of ancient physiology. The Greek and Roman medical texts provide useful information for interpreting not only Paul’s letters but also other NT texts.” The article (and the author’s subsequent responses to criticism, also published in academic literature) presents a compelling case and is, to Dr. Heiser’s knowledge, the only approach that provides a coherent explanation as to why the head covering warnings are important, in the words of Paul “because of the angels” (1 Cor. 11:10).
The abbreviated explanation for what the ancients believed is that long hair in women, and short hair in men, aided in reproduction. This led to the idea that hair was a reproductive organ. Reproductive organs have always been covered up. A lot of the teaching from the episode is far more “adult” than you might be prepared for without a warning, so let me provide that warning now. It’s genuinely fascinating and goes a long way toward making sense of a confusing set of verses.
Returning to verse 6, then, with all of the above in mind, a woman uncovering her hair is a shame to her because doing so would be an action that would be understood by those around her as extraordinarily immodest. The alternative of cutting her hair short to avoid the immodesty associated with an uncovered head would, in turn, be an action in defiance of her husband’s headship and her role in their marriage – a role which includes reproduction.
This is obviously a complicated and strange topic.
I will revisit the podcast, the commentaries, Genesis 6, and the Book of Enoch when we cover the next few verses in the next post. The goal will be to help put a modern day reader of 1 Corinthians into the mind of the Corinthians at the time of the Letter. How did Paul view the natural order? What should we think about the text if some of Paul’s teaching seems to be rooted in a wrong Greco-Roman understanding of science?