1 Corinthians 11:1-16: Keeping the Gospel Central in Practice
April 16, 2023
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Judges 9, Psalm 86, Mark 6:30-44, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16
The first verse of this chapter more properly refers back to what Paul has been saying in the previous chapter. Remember that, as useful as the chapter divisions in our Bible sometimes are, they are not divine writ and were inserted later only as one possible guide to the structure of the text. In this case, Paul is saying that the Corinthians should follow his example as he follows the example of Christ particularly with relation to what he has just been teaching. Namely, that in secondary or tertiary instances of relatively insignificant doctrinal matters, do all you can to please each other for the sake of the continued progress of the gospel.
But then the rest of this chapter introduces a topic that has been controversial perhaps ever since it was first written—but certainly in more recent times. What is Paul saying? And is what he is saying of only cultural relevance and historical application—and if so, why are other matters of Paul’s teaching (particularly regarding gender) not also of only cultural and historical application?
What Paul is saying is that in Christian gathered worship, it is important that men and women behave in ways, and dress in ways, that affirm the creation norms as instituted by their Creator. In particular, Paul makes the case that in Corinth this meant a woman should pray with her head covered. The question is whether this still applies today. Clearly, most churches in the West do not think it does. But are they right to think so, and if they are, what makes this different from other times when Paul talks about gender roles (for instance 1 Timothy chapter 2)? There is evidence from Paul’s time that for a woman to let her hair down—for it not to be tied up and covered—was a sign of sexual and moral looseness. The only person who would see a woman’s hair uncovered or loosened like that was her own husband. And therefore, to uncover your head in public was to send a signal of sexual availability and was probably the kind of attire that prostitutes would use to indicate their availability for sexual purchase.
Clearly, dressing in public worship in the way that a prostitute dresses—whatever that way would be in a particular culture—would at any time be viewed as inappropriate. In our day and age when dress codes are far laxer than they were in the ancient world, it is difficult to make a direct like-for-like equivalent. But if a person—man or woman, for of course there can be male prostitutes too—dressed in public worship in the same way that a prostitute dresses in the red light district, or like a scene from a porn movie, we would all know that something was seriously wrong. The reason is that we want everyone’s attention focused on God, and we do not want anyone to be distracted by dress that is a form of overt sexual display and invitation. This is probably the key to the opaque phrase in this text: “because of the angels.” Whether Paul is referring literally to angels as in spiritual beings, or to angels (as the word can also mean in other contexts) as human messengers of God, makes in one sense little difference. The point is that the message that was given by angels (to Moses) and announced by angels (to the shepherds) and proclaimed by preachers of the Bible every Sunday, must not suffer distraction from dress codes that catch the eye and make the heart race and mind wander into sexual fantasy. Clearly, not wearing a hat is unlikely to do that in most Western churches. But in some parts of the Eastern world, uncovered hair still sends the ancient message, and in those instances, it is wise to avoid causing offense or sending the wrong message.
But is such an interpretation truly legitimate to this text—and why is it different from 1 Timothy 2? I think the key is in how Paul concludes:
“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:13-16).
This is very different from the way that Paul teaches about there being only qualified males as elders or pastors in 1 Timothy 2 and 3. In that case, he does not in any way say, “judge for yourselves.” But here he is appealing to them—having established the principle as outlined above—to use their sanctified common sense to apply what he is saying in their own context, and by extension for us to apply it in our different context too. Paul then says that this particular practice is common in the churches of God at that time; its principle (I would interpret) must be applied still in the churches of God, albeit its practice is now culturally different as we do indeed in this case “judge for ourselves.”
The application of all this then is simply twofold:
1) Follow the example of Christ by avoiding quibbling over doctrinal non-essentials, but instead do all you can to focus on the gospel.
2) Dress appropriately in public worship so that all the attention of everyone present can be on the gospel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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