This article was taken from the internet version of my paper titled, "A Verse-by-Verse Study of 1 Corinthians Chapters 10-14; Philippians Chapter 3; and James 3:1-4:10, which was published in March, 2000. In the original paper and in the internet version of this paper that in on my internet site (Google to Karl Kemp Teaching) I was able to use bold, italics, underlining, and footnotes. I always use the New American Standard Bible, 1995 edition, unless otherwise noted. Sometimes I use double brackets [[ ]] and (( )) in this article to make them more obvious.
In the first half of 1 Corinthians chapter 11, the apostle Paul dealt with the need for women to have their heads covered (as a symbol of submission) when they were praying or prophesying in church. We will discuss the relevance of this instruction for our day. The second half of the chapter contains some very important teaching regarding the Lord's Supper. Paul wrote these words to address a serious abuse of the Lord's Supper by some of the Christians in the church at Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, Paul dealt with the need for Christian women to cover their heads when praying or prophesying in church. The primary point that Paul made in these verses was that God's divine order requires the submission (not inferiority or inequality) of women. Covering the head was a symbol of submission to God's order at that time, but in our day this particular symbol is not recognized by many, whether Christians or non-Christians (at least not in our country).
In the second half of this chapter (11:17-34), Paul dealt with the sinful manner in which the Lord's Supper was being conducted by some of the Christians at Corinth. The primary problem that Paul dealt with in these verses was that at the common meal, which was part of (or at least closely associated with) the Lord's Supper, some of the Christians who had plenty were not sharing their food and drink with their brethren that had little or nothing. The apostle made it clear that this behavior was totally inappropriate, even sinful. At the Lord's Supper the saints are called to remember with thanksgiving the new covenant established on the blood of Christ, the new covenant that was given to save them from sin, the new covenant that made all believers one in the body of Christ. These verses contain some very important information regarding the Lord's Supper.
"Be imitators of me [cf. 1 Cor. 4:16; Phil. 3:17], just as I also am of Christ. [There is widespread agreement that this significant verse goes with chapter 10 and that the chapter division (which was added later) is unfortunate here. To say words like these, the apostle Paul had to be walking close to Christ in truth, righteousness, and holiness (by the grace/Spirit of God through faith). This certainly is a good testimony - to the glory of God!] (2) Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. [Compare 1 Cor. 4:17; 11:17, 22; 2 Thess. 2:15; and 3:6. The contents of this epistle show that Paul was being rather generous with the words of this verse. He could have been responding to something the Corinthians had said to him in a letter.] (3) But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman [The NIV has, "the head of the woman is man." Compare Gen. 3:16; Eph. 5:22-24. In Col. 1:18 Paul said that Christ is the "head of the body, the church." In Eph. 1:20-22 he spoke of Christ being the head over all things (including His having authority over Satan and his hosts).], and God is the head of Christ. [[In 1 Cor. 3:23 Paul said "and you [all true Christians] belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God." As we discuss these controversial verses in 1 Corinthians chapter 11, we must humble our hearts before God and seek Him for the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches. That is what we want, is it not? His will must be done in our lives and in the church! In some ways, according to God's prescribed order for this present age (based on what the Bible teaches), the man (in his role assigned by God) has authority over (is head of) the woman, both in the home and in the church. (Apparently there won't be any differences in the roles for men and women in the eternal age to come, cf., e.g., Luke 20:27-38.) This does not mean that women are inferior, or that they have a demeaning role. The Lord Jesus Christ is not inferior to God the Father, and He does not have a demeaning role. It is true, however, that even though the Son of God is fully deity with God the Father (and the Holy Spirit), He does, in some ways, (willingly and happily) have a role subordinate to that of God the Father, and not only for this age, but also for the age to come (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 15:27, 28); but lest we go too far and miss the balance, also see Rev. 21:22, 23; 22:1, 3, for example. See my paper, "Who Do We Pray To?"
We are not saying that women do not have the same full salvation and the same full access to God the Father through Jesus Christ and in/by the Holy Spirit that men have (cf., e.g., Gal. 3:28). Nor would I say that women can never, in any way, exercise authority over men in the church. I believe we must leave room for God to be God (cf., e.g., Jud. 4:1-5:31; Acts 18:26). It is clear that women can pray and prophesy in church (1 Cor. 11:4; Acts 2:17; and 21:9), and it is clear that God has important roles for all Christians (including all women) to fulfill (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 12:12-31; Eph. 4:7, 16; and Rom. 12:3-8). I wouldn't say that a ministry like Kathryn Kuhlman's, for example, was out of order; it seems to me that her ministry was (for the most part at least) effective by the enablement of God and glorified Him. I wouldn't tell God that He cannot call a woman into a ministry where she will exercise authority over men.
We must acknowledge, however, that the apostle Paul (at least as a general rule) did "not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim. 2:12). Sometimes, as we will discuss further below, we need to take into consideration that some things, like the "practice" of women having their heads covered while praying or prophesying (1 Cor. 11:16), are culturally conditioned and not necessarily always applicable (or, fully applicable) for other/subsequent cultures. A practice/custom appropriate for one culture or generation could be totally misunderstood and counterproductive in another culture or generation.
In Paul's day for women to even be involved in the theological discussions at church (even asking questions) was considered out of order. (See 1 Cor. 14:34, 35.) In our day this is commonly done, and I assume quite appropriately. Such activity today need not be viewed as a manifestation of an improper, unsubmissive attitude. I definitely want to see every woman be, and do, everything they possibly can, as long as it is done in the will of God. We must guard against trying to bend God's Word and His will to suit our fleshly desires and/or to fit the viewpoint of the world in our day. Our primary goal as men and women of God must be to please Him, to get our lives in divine order and keep them there. This will always work for good, but it may well go against some of our desires, and it will often go against the viewpoint of the world.
Men must not think of their authority from God as something to boast about in the flesh, but as a responsibility before God to be faithful and to humbly fulfill their obligations. (This applies to women too, in the areas where they have authority.) Men must be concerned lest they abuse their authority. If husbands, for example, put the emphasis on pleasing God in all things (instead of demanding their rights), including loving their wives as Christ loved/loves the church (cf. Eph. 5:25), it will always work for good, and no godly wife will be complaining. God's ways are always right, and they always work for good, including our good. I am confident that God will lead us to the balanced truth and to His will (divine order) for each of us and for the church as we humble ourselves before Him and His Word.
I'll quote a paragraph from what John MacArthur said under 1 Cor. 11:11, 12 ("1 Corinthians" [Moody Bible Institute, 1984], page 260). "Far from oppressing women, the [Christian] church has been their greatest liberator. In Greek and Roman societies most women were little more than slaves, the possessions of their husbands, who often virtually bought and traded their wives at will. It was largely because of this inhumane treatment of women that feminism became so popular in the Roman empire. In many Jewish communities the woman's situation was not much better. Divorce had become easy and commonplace, but it was almost entirely the prerogative of the man. Some Jewish men held women in such low esteem that they developed a popular prayer in which they thanked God that they were not born a slave, a Gentile, or a woman."
I'll also quote some similar words from Simon J. Kistemaker ("1 Corinthians" [Baker, 1993], page 379). "Christianity has been and remains a force that liberates women from oppression and servitude. In many other religions, women are owned from birth by their fathers and on marriage by their husbands. They lack freedom, are in bondage, and never acquire equality. Even in ancient Israel, a female was secondary to any male. ... Women were not considered worthy of studying the Scriptures and were denied an education."]] (4) Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. [[The practice of Jewish men wearing head coverings seems to have begun, at least for the most part, at a later date. Many believe that the words "his head" at the end of this verse refer to the man's literal head. So too for the second use of the words "her head" in the next verse. The fact that Paul continues in verses 5, 6 with the words "for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head" supports this viewpoint, and I assume this was Paul's viewpoint.
The man and the woman would both be disgracing their literal heads by being out of divine order - the man by wearing a symbol that tended to deny that "he is the image and glory of God" (1 Cor. 11:7) and the woman by not wearing the symbol of submission to God's order for this age. It is possible, however (and many commentators favor this viewpoint), that by the use of the words "disgraces his head" at the end of verse 4, Paul meant to include the disgracing of Christ as the head of the man (see verse 3). If so, then the words "disgraces her head" in verse 5 probably also include the idea that the woman disgraces the man/men (see verse 3).]] (5) But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying [It is clear that the apostle believed that it is proper for women to pray and prophesy in the church. Compare Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9.] disgraces her head [See under 11:4.]; for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. (6) For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. [That is, let her cover her head while praying or prophesying in the church (see 1 Cor. 11:5, 13).] (7) For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. [It is clear, however, that both male and female were created in the image of God. See Gen. 1:26, 27; 5:1, 2; 9:6; and James 3:9.] (8) For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man [See Gen. 2:21 23; 1 Tim. 2:13.]; (9) for indeed man was not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake. [Paul is referring to the fact that the woman was created to be a "helper suitable for [the man]" (Gen. 2:18-23). It is also true that, in God's eternal plans, woman was created for God (not for the man), and every Christian woman (along with every Christian man) will be with Him and reigning with Him forever (cf., e.g., Rev. 3:21; 22:3-5).] (10) Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head [[That is, as 1 Cor. 11:5, 6, and 13 show, when she prays or prophesies where the saints are gathered, she should have a covering on her head, which is "a symbol of [submission to] authority." In Paul's day, the covering symbolized her submission to God's prescribed order "of authority." The covering consisted of some sort of veil. Such coverings in the early church could take several forms, but typically they were a cloth covering; it could consist of a part of the garment (e.g., a kerchief/shawl) that was raised to cover the head when praying or prophesying. The most important thing, of course, was for the woman praying or prophesying to have an attitude of submission, without which the symbol of submission would be an empty, worthless ritual. However, at least at that time, as far as the apostle to the Gentiles was concerned, the symbol was required; it was not optional.]], because of the angels. [The idea is that when the saints gather, some of God's angels are present, which makes it all the more necessary for things to be in divine order.] (11) However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. (12) For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God [cf. Rom. 11:36]. [These two verses bring some balance to the picture, but Paul did not write these two verses to negate what he says in the other verses.] (13) Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? [It is clear that the apostle did not think so, and it clearly was the "practice" (1 Cor. 11:16) in the church at that time for the women to pray (or prophesy) with the head covered.] (14) Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him [Paul does not mean that a man's hair must be short, but his hair would be short relative to the woman's hair. There is some room for differences in what would be considered acceptable in different cultures.], (15) but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. [The apostle does not mean, as some believe, that if/since the woman has long hair, she does not need any other covering while praying or prophesying.] (16) But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. [[In other words, the apostle required the Christian women at Corinth to submit to this church- wide accepted practice of having their heads covered while praying or prophesying. In our day, in our culture, few women wear a covering for their head, including while praying or prophesying. I am not sure exactly what God thinks about this (it is easy to speak for Him, and it is easy to be wrong too), but I am confident that it is a relatively minor issue with Him (if an issue at all) when compared with the major areas where many Christians are out of divine order in our day. I am speaking of things like the widespread need for an adequate understanding of the basics of the gospel, for righteousness and holiness, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23).
I am sure that God is concerned that each Christian (men and women) be humble before Him and in divine order. I have to assume that God's order for men and women (as pictured, for example, in 1 Cor. 11:3) is applicable for this entire age, but, as I mentioned, I believe there is some room for changes in what submission means for women in different cultures. Today for many women to begin to cover their heads while praying or prophesying would probably prove to be more of a curious novelty than a sign of submission.
There are cases in our day where some women (sometimes with persuasion from men) come to the conviction that they should wear a covering. If that is their conviction, they certainly should wear a covering. I believe it is very important, however, that these women (or men) do not try to force their conviction on the other women in their church or in other churches (as it sometimes happens), insisting that for them to not be covered is rebellion against God. I'll close this section with the prayer that His will be done in this area, as in every area.]]
We will finish this verse-by-verse study of 1 Corinthians chapter 11, starting with verse 17, in Part 2.