An exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16: The Head Covering

Now, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 one verse at a time. (By the way, most commentators agree that 1 Corinthians 11:1 is the ending sentence of chapter 10. Nevertheless, it is certainly not irrelevant to what follows.)

Verse 2: Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.

The Greek word translated “ordinances” here is paradosis. Elsewhere in the Bible, it is translated “traditions.” In 2 Thessalonians 2:15, for example, Paul writes, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions (paradosis) which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” The ordinances or traditions Paul has in mind are important. We are to hold them and keep them as Paul delivered them.

This reminds me of Jeremiah 6:16: “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.” Will we, like the people of Jeremiah’s time, respond to a command to walk in the old paths, to keep the biblical, New Testament ordinances or traditions delivered to us, by saying, “We will not walk therein”?

Many, if not most, churches are now of the opinion that Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 a social custom limited to a certain time and place. They say it was a common social custom among the people Paul was addressing for women to cover their heads and men to uncover their heads during religious services. They also say that the Corinthian church, exercising its liberty in Christ, dropped the custom. According to this theory, when church members stopped following the head covering custom, their unconverted neighbors (and, possibly, weak brethren) became offended, and Paul wrote these verses to tell them to begin following the custom again. Therefore, according to this theory, Paul was merely addressing a local custom of the times, and his instructions do not apply to men and women in the western world today, although the principle of wives being in submission to their husbands may still be valid. We hear proponents of this view say such things as, “Wearing a head covering no longer speaks to our culture.” But is it the culture that the head covering is supposed to speak to, or someone else? (Hint: see verse 10.)

Also, the question must be asked, How do baptism and the Lord’s Supper speak to our culture? If our twenty-first-century setting sees these practices as culturally irrelevant, are we to give them up also? Or is the church to keep the meaning of its symbols and the reasons for its practices alive through education?

I must point out that the Bible never tells Christians to pattern their lives after the world―NEVER. The Bible never says, Make sure you do as the world does, try to blend in as much as possible, do only what is culturally relevant. Instead, we are told to “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17). We are ordered: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2). The ordinances we have received transcend time and place. They are of the kingdom of God, not the kingdoms of this world.

I must also ask, Why would the Holy Spirit move Paul to say and record in Scripture for all time that we are to follow the traditions as he has delivered them to us, if what he is about to address in the following verses is merely a temporary custom? I can only conclude that this verse deals a fatal blow to the idea that Paul is about to address something that applied only to that time and place. Paul is about to tell, not only the first-century Corinthians, but the church of God in all times and places, something he wants us to hold and keep.

It is also important to notice in 1 Corinthians 1:2 that Paul addresses this epistle not just to “the church of God which is at Corinth” but also “to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ.” So, Paul, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, is writing not just to the Corinthian church of his day, but also to all saints everywhere. That includes you, if you are a saint, and me today.

I would be negligent if I did not point out the verses that follow those we are examining. While Paul chides the Corinthian church for its carelessness regarding the Lord’s Supper, his instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper are applicable to all churches (see 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Why, then, should we see his instructions concerning the head covering as any different? The Corinthians had become careless about it, and Paul gives them, and us, positive instruction about it.

Verse 3: But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Again, if Paul is about to give instructions about a local and passing social custom, he is starting out in a very odd way. Here, in verse 3, the Holy Spirit leads Paul to reveal eternal truths concerning the relationship between God, Christ, men, and women.

God is the head of Christ. This is not teaching an essential subordination of Christ. After all, Christ is also God. But He voluntarily humiliated Himself in His incarnation by adding a human nature to His God nature (Philippians 2:5-8). In voluntary submission, Jesus came to do the Father’s will (John 6:38; 8:28). In John 14:28, He states, “My Father is greater than I.” Yet, we must remember that He is of the same essence as the Father and is God (John 1:1; 10:30).

The man is the head of the woman. Nevertheless, as Christ is God, so woman is man; that is, Eve was taken directly from Adam and shares his nature (see 1 Corinthians 11:8). Yet precisely because she was second in the creation order and made for man, and because the Bible teaches her to do so (Ephesians 5:22), woman is to voluntarily submit to man, using Christ’s voluntary submission to the Father as an example. So, the woman is not essentially inferior to the man. As far as salvation, there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28), and they are “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7).

The relationship between a man and woman pictures the relationship between Christ and the church. The church is to voluntarily submit to Jesus Christ as Lord (Ephesians 5:23-24).

I want to make a point of stating that such profound truths are hardly an appropriate preface to a mere social custom. Paul is not addressing a social custom. He is teaching a symbolism that speaks important truth, much as do baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The place where Paul says something similar is Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body.” It is followed in verse 24, not by a temporary custom, but by an instruction that is as abiding as the institution of marriage: “Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” We should, therefore, expect 1 Corinthians 11:3 to be followed by a similar abiding truth. We will not be disappointed.

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