Friday 11 March 2011

Headship and hairstyles (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 11:3

Once a month, all three congregations at the Chinese Church – the Mandarin, Cantonese and English groups – meet as one in the main hall. It was our turn last Sunday to chair the meeting and lead songs. So I thought: Why not get the whole music team up on stage? – The keyboardist, drummer, bassist and backup singers – get everyone together up front, instead of it just being me and the interpreter on stage.

So there was our reliable AV guy – one of the teenagers – hooking up the projector, when I pulled up a chair for him to sit on. He was helping me work the slides during the meeting. But when he saw me take one of the chairs from the stage, he was quite shocked. “Isn’t this just for the priests?” he asked me.

To which I pointed to our drummer (in T-shirt and jeans) who had already made himself comfortable on one of these ornate wooden chairs, happily pounding away at the electric drums propped up on yet another one of these antiques!

Now depending on what kind of church background you come from, you could hear this story and think it is either very funny or it is very, very disrespectful.

You might think it is silly that a piece of furniture should be thought of as holy or reserved for certain holy men (It is even funnier if you know who our drummer is). But then again, you wouldn’t stroll into your boss’ office and use his PC to download the latest Wong Fu video. Or you wouldn’t take a nap in the teachers’ lounge whenever you felt like it. Shouldn’t a church gathering be respectful to its leaders? Shouldn’t worship before a holy God be reverent?

Or perhaps for you, modern church culture is just flippant. These disrespectful youth – who turn up in church without their bibles, in their Batman t-shirts and torn jeans, always yapping about the latest Korean drama serial and passing Haribo sweets down the aisles during the sermon. Yet they sing their hearts out to Jesus, pay attention to the message and use their IPods to follow the bible passage; even comparing the different translations and taking notes. Shouldn’t an encounter with the living God be active and engaging? Isn’t it wonderful to see Christians eager to catch up with one another and generously share their lives – even their Haribo?


Tradition and culture are not simply rules and regulations. They carry meaning and value. And the practice of a tradition is the expression of that meaning and a display of its value. Yet it is when tradition is practiced without meaning that misunderstanding and conflict arises.

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings (or traditions), just as I passed them on to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2

Today’s passage is about church tradition. It is a specific tradition that was practiced 2000 years ago when Paul wrote this letter – so it’s very, very old. And yet the principle behind this tradition is very, very relevant today. The practice is old but the principle is timeless.

And Paul begins by praising this church in Corinth for holding to the teachings, just as he passed them on to the church (Verse 2). And if you look at the footnotes in your bibles, the word for “teachings” could also be translated “traditions”.

So he is saying: When you guys meet up on Sundays, and you keep these traditions, which have been handed down to you, from me – that’s a very good thing. So, tradition isn’t all bad. In fact, Paul seems to be saying, keeping certain traditional practices in the church is good, and is in fact, praiseworthy. I praise you for holding on to these traditions.

And yet, Paul is going to talk about one tradition that is very, very important – but none of us keep here in the Chinese Church. In fact, I don’t think churches like StAG or Eden keep this tradition either. But Paul says: this is a pretty serious tradition. He says in verse 16: If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God. What tradition is this? The tradition of head coverings:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.
1 Corinthians 11:4-5

The context is a church meeting. Every man who “prays or prophesies”; Every woman who “prays or prophecies”. This is when men and women come together as the people of God to worship around God’s word – both praying and prophesying involve speaking God’s word. So, Paul is talking about Sundays when we gather as the Chinese Church. But he is also referring to any Christian gathering. You may remember that whenever the word “church” occurs in the New Testament, it is talking about a “gathering” (Greek: ekklesia); a coming together of God’s people in response to God’s call to be in fellowship with Jesus, God’s Son (1 Corinthians 1:2). So, this applies to all our gatherings – to Rock Fellowship, to Timothy and Joshua Fellowships as well.

And Paul is saying: in your gatherings as Christians, there needs to be a distinction. There needs to be a difference between the men and the women. He says in verse 4: the men should not cover their heads. Then he says to the women in verse 5: you girls should cover your heads.

Whoa, that’s bonkers! What kind of an archaic, irrelevant, masochistic, moronic church would enforce such a rule? Seriously!

And yet many churches do. Out of reverence to God’s will and in obedience to this very passage in God’s word. Today, (according to good old Wikipedia) Eastern Orthodox Churches in Greece and Finland still require women to cover their heads. Traditional Catholics observe this practice, but also evangelical churches like the Plymouth Brethren. I am told that even some churches in China currently practice head covering in their corporate meetings.

And instead of criticizing these churches for following this tradition, now that we find it here in 1 Corinthians 11, the question really should be: why aren’t we? What good reason do we have for not passing on this tradition? Is it because we don’t like it? Do we obey only the bits of God’s word we like? Or maybe because we think it is irrelevant? If so, how can you tell?

The teaching behind the tradition

Our problem is we have looked at the practice but missed the principle. Unless we understand the teaching, we will either misapply or misunderstand the tradition.

And the principle behind this practice is verse 3.

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 11:3

The issue is headship. Every man is under the headship of Christ. Even man is under the authority of Christ. No problems there. The big problem is the next statement Paul makes: the head of the woman is man.

Girls: Please don’t be offended. In fact, you shouldn’t be (but I fully understand if you are). This is a startling claim – That men, by virtue of their gender, are placed by God in a position of authority over women.

This does not denigrate the value of women. Women are equal in worth and value to men. But women were created different from men. And you might say, “Of course you would say that! You’re a guy!”

No, I say that because of the next statement Paul makes. Because at the end of verse 3, Paul says The head of Christ is God. Christ is equal to God. God the Son is fully God. But Jesus is fully submissive to his Father in obedience and in love. The head of Christ is God.

I want you to notice: Paul is talking to the girls as he says this. You can tell, because of the unusual order of the statements. If all he wanted to do was establish a hierarchy – an order of authority, if you like – of who is in charge; who is more important; he would have started with “The head of Christ is God, the head of man is Christ, and the head of woman is man.” But no. He says, “The head of the woman is man” and then he says, “But look, in the same way, Christ submits himself to authority. The head of Christ is God”.

This is not new. Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives submit to your husbands.” 1 Peter 3:1: “Wives in the same way be submissive to your husbands.” The controversy with 1 Corinthians 11 is this: is Paul talking just to wives or women? The Greek word gune could refer to either. In the other letters (Ephesians and 1 Peter) there is the qualifying word “your” – Submit to your husbands; meaning it is clear at least in the two other contexts, that the bible is speaking to married women. But here in 1 Corinthians, is Paul addressing all women in general?

I think he is talking to all women, for two reasons.

The first reason is the context of the church. Paul isn’t addressing individual families but the church family as a whole – Men and women as they come together in worship before God. It is as they “pray and prophecy” (verses 2 and 3), and specifically as the woman “prays to God” (verse 13) that this practice is deemed “proper”.

The second reason is creation. Notice again in verse 3 that while Paul begins by saying the head of every man is Christ, he goes on to say the head of the woman is man – and not as you would expect – the head of every woman. “The woman” here refers to Eve, the first woman created from Adam, the first man. Paul is appealing to the biblical account of the creation of man in Genesis. Hence verse 7 picks up on this theme.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.
1 Corinthians 11:7-9

Genesis 1:27 reminds us that God created man “in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” The created of humanity was, at the same time, the creation of two separate and distinct genders – male and female.

Genesis Chapter 2 is the account of the first man Adam, created to serve God in the garden and given authority over all living things. But God sees that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and decides to make a “helper suitable for him.”

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
Genesis 2:21-22

So in verses 8 onwards Paul says:

For man did not come from woman, but woman from (out of) man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
1 Corinthians 11:8-9

There is a big debate among scholars surrounding verses 8 and 9. Because Paul says that the woman came “from man” or “out of man”, some will say that the whole issue in 1 Corinthians 11 is not about authority but that of source. That is, Paul is not describing the headship of men over women, as their authority over women. Instead, “headship” is just Paul’s terminology to denote the source or origin of women. At first glance, there is merit to this view, especially when you consider verses 11 to 12.

In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
1 Corinthians 11:11-12

However, once you start to consider the rest of the passage, this “source” view starts to run into serious problems. Firstly, you have to do some impressive theological acrobatics to explain the “sign of authority” on the woman’s head, in verse 10. Secondly, we have seen that Paul is quoting from Genesis 1 and 2, where God created Eve not only from Adam, but for Adam, as his helper – and that the whole chapter accounts the mediation of authority from God to Adam to creation. But finally, if headship denotes “source”, then you will run into a serious problem explaining the principle of verse 3: the head of Christ is God. Unless you are a Mormon and you believe that Christ was a created being, interpreting head as “source” in verse 3 is tantamount to heresy!

Submission is hard

I suspect what lies behind the source/headship interpretation is a sincere and right motivation to affirm women in churches, especially their role in public worship. I understand if people fear that men will undermine women in their worth and contribution in the body of Christ.

Furthermore, submission is hard. Both men and women want to dominate – It is the result of the fall (Genesis 3:16). Yet in Christ, we are called to submit to Christ and submit to one another. Our rebellion against submission is rooted in our rebellion against God.

And we must not miss how Paul describes this submission as not simply good but glorious.

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
1 Corinthians 11:7-10

Again, notice that Paul seems to be addressing the women in particular. Perhaps the issue lay somewhat with women in the church who were rebelling against this very teaching (as I wonder, some of you possibly are). Or because, he wants to encourage them to see how God’s will in creation is not designed to oppress them, but to display their true worth and dignity.

So in verse 7, Paul now replaces the analogy of “headship” with “glory”. He says the woman is the glory of man. By this, he is saying: there is something glorious, almost beautiful and compelling, in a woman’s submission. But maybe even more than that: There is something very powerful in that submission.

What do I mean by powerful?

Well, verse 10 is a strange verse that seems to sum up the argument – Paul says, “For this reason” – This is the motivation for your submission. “For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” What on earth does that mean – because of the angels?

One view is that the angels are offended. Job 38:7 says that the angels were present at creation; and passages like Revelation 2 to 4 describe angels present in church gatherings; also Hebrews 12:22 describes how we participate with the heavenly “church” – with the angels in joyful assembly. So these heavenly beings would be offended if they saw men and women participating in worship of God in the church, yet ignoring God’s order in creation.

The second view says that this “sign of authority” is not that of men over women; but is in fact the authority that men and women will have over angels in the coming age. Back in Chapter 6 we read Paul’s statement in verse 3, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

This brings us back to the nature of authority of God and the nature of authority of his church. It is a mediated authority. It is an authority or power that is passed down. It is received in submission and obedience; and in recognition of the highest authority, namely God. Because God has given all authority to the Son, so in Christ, we receive authority and power over the earth (that is, through the gospel to bring men and women into the kingdom). It was true in creation. It will be so in the new creation.

What is the principle? It is verse 3: The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Jesus Christ submitted himself to his Father’s will and received all authority in heaven and on earth. That is why he is able to save. Through Christ’s submission to his Father’s will.

The problem of the practice

But then, what is the practice? Does this mean from next week onwards, our elders will have to stand at the door handing our scarves to all the girls as they enter the church building? And how big does the scarf have to be – should it cover the entire head or will a small tea towel do?

In this entire passage, the word for scarf or veil (peribolaiou) only occurs once in verse 15 where Paul writes, “For long hair is given to her as a covering (peribolaiou).” But there, Paul isn’t talking about scarves or veils. He is saying that her long hair is given her as her veil.

So then, is Paul just talking about hair? Makes some sense, I guess, if you look at verses 5 and 6, where he says it would be disgraceful for the women to have “her hair cut or shaved off”. But even if Paul was talking about hair there is the problem of how much hair? Is he then advising men to go bald and shave off all their hair in verse 4 – since having “his head covered dishonours his head”? So in some churches that do take this view – that Paul is talking about hair – you will see the women tying up their hair up like a bun (or a tower like Marge Simpson).

Again, the problem lies is applying the practice without the principle and establishing a tradition without proper teaching. The principle is simply this: there must be a distinction. That men and women, created equal by God, were created distinct under God. Men are men, and ought to look and be discernable as men. Women are women, and ought to look and be discernable as women.

I find it interesting that Paul appeals repeatedly to the believers’ sense of propriety and shame.

If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
1 Corinthians 11:3

Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?
1 Corinthians 11:13

Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him.
1 Corinthians 11:14

There was therefore something improper, unnatural and even shameful of the manner in which these men and women presented themselves when they come together as the church. For the men, it had to do with long hair. For the women, it had to do either with the length of their hair, or the covering over their hair.

Together this seems to imply that the Corinthian men and women were presenting themselves in such a way, so as to blur the lines between their gender differences. In particular, the women may be doing so in rebellion against the authority of men. And the manner of their dressing, or hairstyle, or whatever it was they did, was designed to make a statement that they would not submit. Not to the men in the church. Not to the husbands in their families. And Paul is saying to these women, your display of dissatisfaction and displeasure was not simply an act of defiance against a social structure but against the created order instituted by God and mediated through Christ.

I know I shouldn’t just pick on the women, I know. Men today are a mess. They need to hear what Paul is saying in this passage. You are the image and glory of God (verse 7). You live in submission to Christ as your head (verse 3). There is such awesome responsibility in these verses. And yet ours is a generation of unambitious slackers, whiney adolescents and irresponsible brutes. We, men need to take initiative in relationships, display spiritual leadership in the home and exercise compassion and maturity in the church. Christ will call you to account. For your wives and children. For his body, the church. Men, be men.

But submission – it’s a real problem for girls. And it is a huge problem for women. Yes, the irresponsible men don’t make it any easier. But that isn’t ultimately the reason why you ought to submit, is it? God calls you to submission – in creation, in his church, in Christ. And the passage we have read today is ambiguous precisely because you can rebel against that submission in so many ways, even in subtle ways.

You see, I don’t think this passage has anything to do with being inappropriately dressed or being distracting in your looks. Paul does appeal to our sense of shame and disgrace, but it is shame before God (verse 13). And the covering isn’t a dress or a shawl over a woman’s body. It is over the head – as a sign of authority (verse 10).

Is there a distinction in your church meetings? Are the men, men and are the women, women. In their appearance? But also in their roles of authority and in their visible roles of leadership?

An ignored tradition

In 2 Thessalonian 2, Paul writes:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15

It is the same expression used in 1 Corinthians 11:2, where Paul praises the Corinthians for holding to the teachings/traditions. My point is you pass on a tradition by teaching the tradition. You pass on a practice by teaching the principle of the practice. The Thessalonians discern the truth of these traditions – by the apostles’ spoken and written word.

Some traditions we carry on simply for nostalgia sake. Those were the good old days! We’ve always done it that way! Our founding pastor said so! From the type of songs to the arrangement of chairs - Anything can become a tradition given enough time and fuelled by enough nostalgia. But such traditions, as well-meaning they may be, can become symbols of empty pride, or worse, false gospels contrary to the teachings of the bible.

Often we will say: practice what you preach! Here is God’s word asking: Are you preaching what you practice? Do we understand why we meet as the church? What does it mean to worship God? Why did Jesus die for our sins? Why do Christians give of their time and money? What is the purpose of the bread and the cup in communion? Should I get baptised?

For a church like ours, steeped in traditions and customs, we must be very careful. It is so easy to give the illusion we are obeying the bible through our piety and outward respectability. As good Chinese boys and girls, we fool others; we might even fool ourselves. Jesus says, in the Great Commission we should not only obey everything he commanded, but to teach disciples in order to obey. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, we hold on to the teaching in order to hold on to the traditions.

But some traditions we do not hold on to because we do not hold to their teachings. I think today’s passage is one clear example. Head coverings? Why, that’s just irrelevant and archaic. The danger is we will look at this passage on head coverings and say: This portion of the bible is irrelevant and archaic. What we lose is something very precious. It is God’s clear word on the authority of Christ mediated to his church. What we lose is the glory of Jesus displayed in men. What we lose is the beauty of submission displayed in women.

Some churches will not touch a passage like 1 Corinthians 11. Not because it talks about head coverings, but because it clearly teaches on headship. We will preach on the prodigal son four times a year; Jesus will feed the multitude again and again; and Daniel visits the lions so often he has taught them to do circus tricks. But we are afraid to tell men: Be men. Be loving. Be responsible. Be like Christ. And we dare not tell women: be submissive.

The challenge is this: Could the apostle Paul say these words of us and our church?

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
1 Corinthians 11:2

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