Correcting disrespectful behavior at Corinth
In July 2015 Bernard Tomic was axed from Australia’s Davis Cup team after a scathing attack on Tennis Australia officials. TA said “Bernard’s disparaging and disrespectful post-match comments to the media at Wimbledon effectively ruled him out of contention. His behaviour was unacceptable. The allegations are misinformed and untrue and he publicly derided some outstanding people”. Soon after Tomic was arrested in Miami after refusing to turn down loud music while partying in the early hours of the morning.
Let’s look at God’s commands for respectful behaviour for Christians involved in spiritual activities like praying and prophesying at Corinth. In particular, what is the good behavior given in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and how does this relate to us today? This article is based on an assessment of the text and context of this passage.
In 55 AD Paul (who was in Ephesus) wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to the church in Corinth. Paul established a church at Corinth in 52 AD during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-17) and he stayed there for about 18 months (Acts 18:11).
At that time Corinth was the chief city in Greece. It was in southern Greece on the trade route between western Europe and places further east such as Asia Minor, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Its people worshipped at pagan temples and there was a Jewish synagogue.
The church at Corinth was plagued by factions and spiritual immaturity. When he was in Ephesus, Paul received a letter from Corinth informing him of their difficulties and asking questions about Christian behavior. So Paul wrote this letter to address the problems in the church and to answer their questions. It addresses topics such as factions, sexual immorality, marital difficulties, lawsuits, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and misuse of spiritual gifts.
The passage is preceded by a discussion on whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols (8:1 – 11:1) and followed by correcting abuse at the Lord’s Super (11:17-34).
The subheading of this passage is “On covering the heads in worship” (NIV). But there is no reference to a church meeting until v.17, which is outside the passage! Therefore, this instruction may not be limited to church meetings. So a more general subheading such as “Head coverings” (ESV) or “Instructions about head coverings” (HCSB) is preferable.
The passage implies that when they prayed and prophesised in Corinth, men weren’t respecting God, wives weren’t respecting their husbands, and daughters weren’t respecting their fathers. They brought shame on themselves and their relational heads. This respect was to be shown by whether they wore head coverings or not. Paul writes to correct their behaviour.
Before we look at the passage it is instructive to summarise the practices with regard to head coverings when it was written.
First century culture
In the first century when in public Jewish women bound their long hair and covered it with a veil. Uncovered hair in public was viewed as equivalent to adultery and could be punished by having her hair shorn or shaven. Since the congregation at Corinth met next door to the synagogue and was composed of both Jewish and Gentile women, universal veiling of women would cause the least offense.
Jewish priests wore turbans on their heads when they served in the temple (Ex. 39:28). It is an ancient practice for male Jews to cover their heads during prayer as a symbol of being ashamed and unworthy before God. This probably derives from the fact that in Eastern cultures, it is a sign of respect to cover the head, which is opposite to the custom in Western cultures.
Female slaves were recognized by their short hair or shaved heads; they weren’t allowed to have long hair. Therefore women in the church at Corinth who were slaves would have had short hair.
In the Roman Empire women generally had their heads covered in public while men’s heads were uncovered. This was the normal culture of that time. All respectable married women wore a veil outside their home. If a woman’s head was shorn or shaven it usually denoted slavery, mourning the dead, or adultery.
The Gentile Christians at Corinth had converted from pagan religions and needed instruction on meat that had been offered to idols (8:1-11:1) and sacrificial meals at pagan temples (10:18-2). It seems as though they also needed instruction on appropriate attire and hairstyle for men and women. This may be because these conventions weren’t followed by some pagan worshippers. For example images of female worshippers of Dionysus show uncovered heads and unbound hair, which has been interpreted as rebellion against the oppression of women.
Introduction (1 Cor. 11:2)
Paul begins by commending them for obeying the instructions he had passed onto them. These weren’t human ideas but teachings that Paul had received from God – as expressed by the NLT, “I am so glad that you always keep me in your thoughts, and that you are following the teachings I passed on to you”.
He then states a biblical principle.
Headship (1 Cor. 11:3NIV)
“But 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”.
The Greek noun translated “man” (aner Strongs #435) means a male human being or a husband, with the preference being indicated by the context. It occurs 14 times in our passage. In 1 Corinthians 7, aner is translated “husband”.
The Greek noun translated woman (gune #1135) means a female human being or a wife, with the preference being indicated by the context. It occurs 16 times in our passage. In 1 Corinthians, gune is translated “wife” 17 times and “woman” 4 times.
So v.3 says that:
• God is head over Christ.
• Christ is head over a man/husband
• Man/husband is head over a woman/wife. The ESV states “the head of a wife is her husband”.
The Greek noun translated “head” (kephale #2776) means either the physical head of a person or animal or metaphorically anything supreme, chief, prominent (master or lord). Here it is used metaphorically. Paul uses this word elsewhere to describe these relationships:
• Christ over the church (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Col. 1:18; 2:19)
• Christ over the angels (Col. 2:10)
• A husband over his wife (Eph. 5:23)
Some say that kephale means “source”. In this verse, the Greek noun theos (#2316) is translated “God”. In this letter Paul often uses the title theos for God the Father in a passage that also mentions Jesus Christ (1:1; 1:9; 6:14; 8:6; 9:21). As this is also the case in 11:3, in this verse the word “God” means God the Father. But how is God the Father the source of Jesus Christ when they are both eternal? Such a meaning doesn’t make sense. A better interpretation is that Christ submitted Himself to the Father’s leadership. This was demonstrated when He prayed and when He said “not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). It’s a functional authority and leadership that Christ willingly submitted to (Jn. 4:34; 5:19; 7:16; 1 Cor. 15:24-28).
In what sense is God is head over Christ? Christ was sent to earth by God the Father and Christ was obedient to God the Father. So although they have equality within the godhead, God is seen as the initiator and Christ the responder. God has authority and Christ is subordinate. Together they fulfilled the plans of the Godhead.
In what sense is Christ head over a man/husband? As Creator and Redeemer, Christ is head over all humanity. As a man/husband is part of humanity, Christ is head over a man/husband. In this case they share a divine nature, but not divinity (This is why Jesus is called “Lord”). Together they can fulfil God’s plans for humanity.
In what sense was a man/husband head over a woman/wife in the first century? As a husband over his wife (Eph. 5:23). As a father over his daughter. As the leader of a household over the women in the household. Together they can fulfil God’s plans for marriage and the family. By the way, in first century Corinth, most unmarried women probably lived in a household where their father or another male was the leader.
He then gives an example of how this biblical principle was practiced by men at that time.
Male dishonor (1 Cor. 11:4)
“Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head”
“Every man who prays or prophesies with something on his head dishonors his head” (HCSB)
The Greek preposition translated “covered” (kata #2596) means “down from” like a veil.
The second “head” in v.4 and v.5 is metaphorical. It’s a play on words indicating that they were bringing dishonour on themselves and their relational heads (Christ in v.4 and husbands etc. in v.5).
Prayer is speaking to God and prophecy is speaking for God. They are examples of spiritual activities. Paul is saying that when they pray or prophesy, men should honor Christ (their metaphorical head) and not dishonor (disrespect or disgrace or shame or irreverence) Him. He says that a male shows honor (or respect) to Christ when they pray or prophesy by not having their head covered. Conversely a covered head implies dishonor (or disrespect). Paul doesn’t explain this custom, as he assumes the readers understand it.
This is similar to the cultural practice in the Roman Empire. It was a way of showing proper respect at the time. In the era when men usually wore hats when outdoors, they removed their hats when being introduced to someone. But this symbolism is not common in the western world today.
This is followed by an example of how women practiced this biblical principle at that time.
Female dishonor (1 Cor. 11:5-6)
“But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved” (v.5). The ESV uses “wife” in verse 5-6.
The Greek adjective translated “uncovered” (akatakaluptos #177) means “unveiled” or “uncovered”. It also occurs in v.13.
Prayer is speaking to God and prophecy is speaking for God. They are examples of spiritual activities. Paul is saying that when they pray or prophesy, women should honor their man (their metaphorical head, such as husband or father or head of the household) and not dishonor (disrespect or disgrace) him. He says that a female shows honor (or respect) to their man (husband or father or head of the household) when they pray or prophesy by having their head covered. It indicated that she was acting under authority. Conversely an uncovered head implies dishonor. As mentioned above, at that time it was a disgrace for a woman to have her head shaved. Once again, Paul doesn’t explain this custom, as he assumes the readers understand it.
Showing respect to a male via a head covering may be similar to Middle Eastern practices, but it is foreign to western culture. Likewise, a shaved head would be unusual, but not disgraceful in western culture today. So this symbolism is foreign to the western world.
“For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head” (v.6).
The Greek verb translated “cover” (katakalupto #2619), which occurs twice in v.6 and once in v.7, means to veil or cover oneself.
The message of this verse is similar to that of v.5, but it adds having “her hair cut off”. The other occurrences of the Greek word for having one’s hair cut off (#2751) are:
• Acts 8:32. To shear a sheep (a quotation of Isaiah 53:7). In this case, the shearer removes as much of the wool as possible without cutting the skin of the sheep. It’s like a crew cut!
• Acts 18:18 Having one’s hair cut short in association with a Jewish vow.
In this instance, a short hair cut (a crew cut) would have a similar appearance to being shaved. As mentioned above, at that time it was a disgrace before society for a woman to have a short hair cut. However, a woman with a short haircut (a crew cut) would be unusual, but not disgraceful in western culture today. So this symbolism is foreign to the western world.
In this article I assume that general principle behind this passage is to maintain a distinction in authority between males and females (v.3). Other options are to maintain a distinction in appearance between males and females or to use culturally appropriate expressions of gender (instead of being disgraceful).
He then gives seven reasons for this practice by Christians at that time.
Glory (1 Cor. 11:7)
“A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (v.7).
This states that the man/husband is the image and glory of God and the woman/wife is the glory of the man/husband. Unfortunately, we don’t understand Paul’s reasoning here.
The Greek noun translated “glory” (doxa #1391) means something that has inherent, intrinsic worth. It often means the unique majesty and worthiness of God. The word is used 12 times in the book of 1 Corinthians. Glory is an attribute of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:8). As co-heirs with Christ, believers will share His future glory (1 Cor. 2:7; Rom. 8:17). Their resurrected bodies will be glorious (1 Cor. 15:43). Everything we do should bring glory to God (1 Cor. 10:31). Long hair is a woman’s glory (v.15). And glory (or brightness) is an attribute of the sun moon and stars. It is also used 19 times in the book of 2 Corinthians as an attribute of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Christians and the radiant face of Moses after seeing God’s goodness at the giving of the law at Mount Sinai.
The verb form of this word (#1392) occurs twice in 1 Corinthians to describe how we can honor God (1 Cor. 6:20) and when a Christian is honored (1 Cor. 12:26). It also occurs three times in 2 Corinthians to describe the glory of the old covenant (2 Cor. 3:10) and the praises given to God for people’s generosity in times of need (2 Cor. 9:13).
Mankind is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). As this verse applied to both Adam and Eve, both male and female were made in the image of God. However, in 1 Corinthians 11:7 it is only applied to the man. Maybe Paul is alluding to how the original man and woman were created. God made Adam from the dust of the ground and He made Eve from Adam’s rib. Adam brings glory and honor to his creator (God) and Eve brings glory and honor to the one she came from (Adam). This is explained by the order and purpose of their creation (v.8-9).
Why is the glory of God and of a man/husband linked to whether one’s head is covered or not? Is the head a symbol of the person (by synecdoche – a figure of speech in which a part is put for the whole)? Does it relate to whether the glory is public (for all to see) or private (hidden from sight)? If this is so, then the uncovered head symbolises that the man/husband is visible so everyone can see the glory of God. As God is the focus of prayer and prophecy, it would be good to be reminded of His glory when engaged in these activities. On the other hand, the covered head symbolises that the woman/wife is hidden so people can’t see the glory of the man/husband. As God is the focus of prayer and prophecy, it’s not appropriate to be reminded of a man’s/husband’s glory when engaged in these activities.
Order of creation (1 Cor. 11:8)
“For man did not come from woman, but woman from man”
This verse describes the order and method God used to create the first couple, Adam and Eve. Adam was made first and Eve second. Adam wasn’t made from Eve, but Eve was made from Adam.
Why is the order of creation linked to whether one’s head is covered or not? As Eve came from Adam, she would have respected him as the source of her life (Paul balances this in v.11-12 where he states that mothers are the source or life for all other men). Paul implies that women should show the same respect to men when they pray or prophesy. And at that time such respect was shown by having their head covered in public.
Purpose created (1 Cor. 11:9)
“neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”
This verse describes the reason why God created Eve. Before Eve was created, Adam was given instructions to care for the Garden of Eden, to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and to name the animals and birds (Gen. 2:15-20). Adam would have observed that all the animals and birds were either males or females and each had a mate, but he was alone. And God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). So Eve was made for Adam. She was his companion and helper (#5828 noun). Moses used this word elsewhere in the Pentateuch to describe how God helped to protect him from Pharaoh’s sword (Ex. 18:4); in a prayer for God to help Judah against his enemies (Dt. 33:7); and in referring to God’s help for Israel against their enemies (Dt. 33:26, 29). So Eve provided Adam with aid, assistance and support.
Why is the purpose of Adam and Eve’s creation linked to whether one’s head is covered or not? As Eve was made for Adam, she would have respected him as the senior partner in their marriage. Paul implies that women should show the same respect to men when they pray or prophesy. And at that time such respect was shown by having their head covered in public.
Symbol of authority (1 Cor. 11:10a)
“It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head”
Why is the word “authority” linked to whether one’s head is covered or not? In this context the word “authority” probably stands, by metonymy, for “a sign of authority”. So the NIV gives an alternative translation, “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have a sign of authority on her own head”. Also, the ESV uses the word “wife” instead of “woman”.
So the head covering is a symbol of authority. At that time it showed that the wife is under the authority of her husband, and the daughter is under the authority of her father, and the unmarried woman is under the authority of the head of her household.
The angels are watching (1 Cor. 11:10b)
“because of the angels”.
Why are the angels linked to whether one’s head is covered or not? The angels watch the activities of humanity and the church (1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10). They saw how Eve made the decision that Adam should have made when sin entered humanity. She took the leadership role and acted as the head over Adam. God wants wives to respect their husbands, and daughters to respect their fathers, and unmarried women to respect the heads of their households. At that time, this respect was shown by the head covering during prayer and prophesy. That’s what He wants the angels to see.
Human reason (1 Cor. 11:13-15)
“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”
Note that, the ESV uses “wife” instead of “woman” in v.13.
The Greek adjective translated “uncovered” (akatakaluptos #177) means “unveiled” or “uncovered”. It also occurs in v.5.
The Greek noun translated “covering” (peribolaion #4018) means a covering that is thrown around, a mantle or a veil. Note that it is different to that in v.6-7 (#2619).
At that time it was respectful for a Corinthian woman to have her head covered in public and disrespectful to have it uncovered. So the instruction for women/wives about head coverings in this passage corresponded to the current cultural practice.
Why is “long hair” linked to whether one’s head is covered or not? As he then discusses hair length, some think that the women’s covering is her long hair. But the covering in v.15 (#4018) is a different word to that in v.6-7 (#2619). If the covering was long hair, then v.6a wouldn’t make sense, “For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off”. If her long hair was already cut, it can’t be cut off again! Also the only time a women’s head was to be covered and a man’s head uncovered was when praying and prophesying. So the covering was temporary not permanent, but long hair isn’t something that can be put back on after it is taken off! Furthermore, Paul used the word “nature” when describing hair (v.14) and “custom” or “practice” when describing the head covering (v.16).
When Paul says “For long hair is given to her as a covering” (v.15b), he is drawing a parallel between long hair (a natural covering) and a veil (a fabric covering). Long hair is a natural covering paralleling the veil. Previously he said, “Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” (v.14). This means that long hair and a head covering are appropriate for women, but not for men. So the instruction for women/wives and men/husbands about hair length in this passage corresponded to the current cultural practice.
Uniformity (1 Cor. 11:16)
“If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God”
Paul’s final reason for this practice by the Christians at Corinth is that this was the practice in other churches in the Roman Empire. He wanted uniformity amongst the churches at that time in how males and females showed respect when they prayed and prophesied.
So we have seen what this passage meant to those it was written to at Corinth in the first century. But what does it mean to us today?
How does it apply today?
The main difference between now and then is that we live in a different culture. And cultures differ across the world. Women and men often wear head coverings in some cultures and not in others. And the accepted hair length for men and women varies in different cultures. Also, there are differences in how respect is shown between people. In some places women show respect by a head covering, while in others a head covering has nothing to do with respect.
Generally the principles given to the church in the New Testament are written in a way that enables them to be practiced in different ways in different cultures. This is because the church is comprised of people from all nations and not primarily one as was the case in the Old Testament.
If a culture with respect to head covering and hair length matched that of Corinth in the first century then the application of this passage will probably be the same. But what if the local culture is different?
Obviously the principle in v.3 is universal. God is head over Christ, Christ is head over a man/husband, and a man/husband is head over a woman/wife. If a woman lives in a household without a husband or father, then it may be difficult to identify the males she is to respect. Maybe they are relatives or church leaders.
There are two main views on how the practices in v.4-6 apply today. One is to say that the application is universal because some of the reasons are universal (v.7-9) and it was to apply universally across the Roman Empire (v.16). In this case the application today is the same as at Corinth in the first century. This would mean that Christian attire may have to differ from what is culturally acceptable.
The other view says that because the culture is different, the application can be different. The symbol is meaningless in societies where it is not disgraceful for a wife to have her head uncovered in public. Like with the holy kiss and drinking wine for indigestion (1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Tim. 5:23), we need to distinguish between the principle and its cultural expression. Today we use culturally acceptable greetings and medicines, instead of a holy kiss and wine. We translate Biblical practices into their equivalent modern practices. The need for respect and honor remains (v.4-5), but how this is expressed depends on the local culture. For example, if it isn’t shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved, the reasoning in v.5-6 collapses. If it isn’t improper for a woman to pray with her head uncovered, the reason given in v.6 collapses. If long hair isn’t disgraceful for a man, the reason given in v.14 collapses. Also. if long hair isn’t glorious for a woman, the reason given in v.15 collapses. So how can one’s demeanour indicate submission to God’s leadership (for men) or submission to male leadership (for women)?
In Western culture there are few recognized symbols of a husband’s headship. One such symbol is when the wife takes the husband’s family name. And a wedding ring signifies marriage. But, veils are a sign of subservience and inequality (as in the Muslim culture). And hats are worn for shading or fashion.
If you are a man, how do you bring glory and honor to God? How do you respect God and reflect His goodness? Are you serving Christ to fulfil God’s plans for humanity? If you are married, how do you lead your wife and children to help them respect you? Do you welcome her contribution to your marriage and family? Do you need to step up and speak up and take more responsibility?
If you are a woman, how do you bring glory and honor to your father? Do you respect your father? If you are married, how do you bring glory and honor to your husband? Do you respect your husband and reflect God’s goodness evident in a godly husband? Do you support his leadership in the family? What do you contribute to your marriage and family? Do you need to step down and be quieter and take less responsibility?
As 1 Corinthians was probably written about AD 55, it describes the early days of the church. The only earlier books in the New Testament are James, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and events described in the gospels and Acts chapters 1-19. When applying the principles in it to us today we need to consider the changes since then. There is Scriptural evidence that the frequency of speaking in other languages and prophecy changed later in the first century AD.
Speaking in other languages is only mentioned in two books of the Bible (Acts and 1 Corinthians). Also, it isn’t mentioned in any Scripture written after 55 AD (or in the case of Acts, events that occurred after 55AD). Therefore, it appears that this gift was primarily for the early church.
Prophecy is mentioned in the book of Acts up to AD 57 (Acts 21:9-10). Paul mentions prophecy in his books written in AD 55-60 but not his last six books (written AD 60-66). The only biblical record of prophecy after this time is the apostle John (Rev. 1:3; 10:7, 11; 19:10; 22:6, 9, 10, 18-19). He also mentions false prophets (1 Jn. 4:1). Therefore, it seems as though the prevalence of prophecy decreased significantly after AD 60. We now have the record of God’s revelation to the prophets in the early church in the New Testament. These truths are now communicated to us by preachers and teachers who also build up (strengthen), encourage and comfort believers and convict unbelievers. Therefore, I would apply these instructions for prophecy to preaching and teaching.
The church is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today. As Paul links speaking in tongues with prophecy (1 Cor. 14), both of these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
The revelation given to the writers of the New Testament finished in the first century AD (Jude 3, Rev. 22:18-19). Just as the close of the Old Testament canon was followed by a 400 year silence (no prophecies from God), so the close of the NT has been followed by a 1,900 year silence. Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God. The Scriptures are final and complete. According to Scripture, God will speak again with new prophecies, visions and revelations after the rapture, during the tribulation and Christ’s millennial kingdom (Acts 2:16-21; Rev. 11:1-13).
From an assessment of the text and context of 1Corinthians 11:2-16 we have looked at God’s commands for respectful behavior for Christians involved in spiritual activities like praying and prophesying at Corinth in the first century. This respect and honor was to be shown by males having their head uncovered and females having their head covered.
There are two main views on what this means today. First, is that this practice is universal for all cultures. When they are involved in spiritual activities like praying, preaching or teaching, males should have their head uncovered and females having their head covered. Second, is that the principle of respect and honor is essential when people are involved in spiritual activities such as praying, preaching or teaching but because the culture is different, the way this is shown can be different to the first century.
Paul says to “Judge for yourselves” on this topic based on the information he has given (v.13). So how do you think this passage applies today? How would you show respect for authority?
Written, December 2015