Propriety in Worship
2I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
3Now 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. 4Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. 6If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
11In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.
This next section is admittedly among the most difficult to understand in the entire Bible. It contains language that is at times difficult to determine whether Paul is using it literally or metaphorically. It also is difficult because we do not know the situation in Corinth that induced this discussion, so at best, we can attempt to make educated guesses as to what exactly Paul was addressing and what he was trying to accomplish with this passage. In fact, many biblical scholars tend to throw their hands up at this passage and surrender. Keeping in mind that, at almost every turn, there are different ways to interpret and understand what Paul is saying, we will attempt an approach at interpreting this passage that goes beyond asking a lot of questions only to come to the conclusion that we don’t know what exactly Paul was trying to say. We will not have the time to discuss the various possibilities for this passage, though, and will only present one view.
Paul begins with a brief word of praise before moving on to what he wants to teach them concerning this topic. His primary concern throughout this passage is with authority and propriety in worship. We should also be clear that Genesis 2 is a backdrop for most of this passage. The word that Paul uses for ‘head’ in verse 3 is kephale. He is seemingly using the term in a metaphorical sense, in that he he means ‘head’ in the sense of the one with authority in the example that they set, such as a military leader who charges into battle ahead of troops. This would make sense, considering that Paul has just urged them to imitate him as he imitates Christ. The words translated ‘woman’ and ‘man’ here can also mean ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ and should probably be understood to read, “and the head of the wife is the husband.” Thus, Paul is not offering a complete hierarchy of the creation, rather he is offering several examples of authority that should be imitated. In a sense, then, his point is that the leader, or the one to be imitated, is Christ for the man, the husband for the wife, and God, the Father, for Christ.
It seems that women in Corinth were taking Paul’s teachings, as seen in places like Galatians 3:27, to heart. They believed that there were truly no divisions or distinctions among the body of Christ, but were taking that to an extreme. They were moving beyond the idea that salvation was open to all, moving past the fact that women were clearly allowed to pray and prophesy during official worship (something that needs to be remembered when we get to chapter 14) and even moving past the sometimes radical equality of status that Jesus and his followers gave to women; they were apparently arguing that there should be absolutely no difference in men or women in any way. This is ultimately an issue of authority that was being manifested in many different ways.
Some of the Corinthian women, in their quest for total equality, were going too far. They were throwing all social customs to the wind, which could be a big problem. Among other things, we can assume, they were wearing absolutely no head covering and letting their hair down during worship. Paul uses this as an example for two reasons. The first is that generally only prostitutes in that society went around without their head covered. In exercising their freedom, they were doing more harm to the Christian reputation than good (once again Paul returns to the concept of exercising freedom in the larger context of selfless love). They were not thinking of the delicate conscience and sensibilities of those around them, particularly visitors who might come and be completely turned off by such a display. The second is that having a covering on one’s head was a sign of authority. Thus, a woman needed to have her head covered in that society to demonstrate that she recognized her own role. Verses 7, 8 and 9, then, are not meant to put women in their place. They are a celebration of women. In trying to live out the equality for all humans in Christ, they were actually casting off the very nature of being a woman as though the role of women was inferior. Paul’s point is that women are exactly as God created them and that they shouldn’t try to escape their God-given role.
He then adds one more reason in verse 10. Most commentators don’t quite know what to do with this verse. It is, quite possibly a reference to the fallen angels of Genesis 6, that came and consorted with women, producing the Nephilim. These women and angels had abandoned their God-given domains of role and authority. Because of the spike in demonic activity during the ministry of Jesus and the early church, there was apparently some fear that more fallen angels might attempt the behavior described in Genesis 6 (cf. 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 6,7 and many early church fathers talked about these fallen angels and their offspring). Thus Paul gives them one more reason to remain in their God-given roles and domains: they don’t want to go outside of these roles and cast off the authority that God had provided, opening themselves up to perversions. Paul probably doesn’t really think that it is a possibility for them to consort with more fallen angels, but rather, uses this as an extreme example of what can happen when women cast off the roles that God has given them.
They should realize that roles are important. They don’t exalt one gender over the other, they are just different. The fact is men and women are interdependent, yet we should always keep in mind that everything comes from God. Paul finishes with a return appeal to follow the social custom which demonstrates propriety. In verse 16, he assumes that this might not be taken well, but returns to the idea from chapter 1, that the body of Christ goes far beyond Corinth. All the other centers of the body of Christ understand this concept and so should they.
It really all does come back to his ongoing argument about finding a balance between living the life of God’s future age to come in the present age and the need to still put the interests of others ahead of their own freedom. We do have freedom in Christ, men and women alike, but that freedom needs to be tempered by love and interest for others. It is always a fine line for Christians to determine and discern the line between inappropriately bowing to our culture rather than following the life of Christ and properly limiting ourselves so as not to set up a barrier to someone who might otherwise be drawn to the Gospel or to harm another brother or sister in Christ that have a stricter conscience. Above all, the self-giving love of Christ becoming increasing manifest in our lives should be the determining factor.
For Paul, worship was part of the reconciliation of the creation. It was the time when a small part of the world was truly set to rights. Worship is a window into the ‘age to come’. This is why Paul is adamant about having the proper understanding, attitude, and order in worship. Do you see worship as a time when Christians demonstrate to the world what it looks like to be in perfect harmony with God?