There’s a lot in this passage and I won’t be able to answer every question. Some of it is confusing, but there is one clear principle being taught here. That is…
THE PRINCIPLE OF AUTHORITY AND SUBMISSION
We might groan when we hear those words, but the principle of authority and submission is a crucial one in God’s universe.
Without submission to the governing authorities, there is anarchy. Without submission of employees to the authority of the employer, nothing much gets done at work. Without submission and authority in the family, the family breaks apart. Without submission and authority in the church, there’s chaos, complaining, and conflict.
God did not just invent this principle out of thin air. It’s part of who God is. It’s a part of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Paul states the principle and it’s foundation in 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. (1 Corinthians 11:3)
What is meant by the word “head”? Here it is being used figuratively to refer to authority. The head of a ship is a captain. The head of a business is the CEO. The head of a nation is the president. God has placed levels of authority for us to obey.
These reflect the levels of authority found in the Trinity. For instance, Christ obeys his Father. Jesus said,
38 For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. (John 6:38)
Keep in mind that, if Christ had not submitted to the Father’s will, we would not have salvation. Furthermore, if people do not submit to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation, they will be lost forever. Authority and submission are key to God’s plan.
I like classical music and I love watching orchestras perform. To see dozens of people and several types of instruments come together in wonderful music is amazing to me.
So I was interested when I found that, back in the 1980’s, a couple psychologists did a study on the personalities and interactions of musicians in orchestras. Part of what these guys, Jack Lipton and Scott Bullione found was that…
Responses had a strong tinge of general negativity, even in the musicians’ description of their own sections….The brass section was described as loud, macho, aggressive…while the percussionists were described as unintelligent, fun, wild and crazy, and deaf. Woodwind players were described as quiet, meticulous, finicky, and intelligent, while the strings were described as frustrated, stuffy, prima donna wimps.
Now, with those kind of slandering-like attitudes going on in an orchestra, how could they ever make great music together? The answer: they all submit to a higher authority—the conductor.
Because of our nature, we all struggle with submission to authority at various points and times in our lives. No matter what sort of submission that we might be struggling with, we ought to remember that it is a principle that is grounded in the nature of God himself.
Christ submits to the authority of the Father, so we ought to submit to the authorities he’s placed in our lives. And by our submission to them, we show our submission to him.
THE USE OF HEAD COVERINGS TO SHOW SUBMISSION
Paul goes on to provide some corrective instruction for the Corinthian church. For some of us, it’s maybe confusing talk about head coverings, but if you keep the principle of authority and submission in mind, it all makes sense.
Every man praying or prophesying,
having his head covered,
dishonoureth his head. (1 Corinthians 11:4)
But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth
with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head:
for that is even all one as if she were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:5)
For if the woman be not covered,
let her also be shorn:
but if [since] it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven,
let her be covered. (1 Corinthians 11:6)
Head Coverings Were Symbolic Of Submission
A man was to keep his head uncovered during worship to display the “image and glory of God” (verse 7). This is a custom that has carried on today. Men will remove their hats out of respect for the flag, or out of respect for God in church, or when a pastor prays at a graveside.
For women, especially wives, they were to keep their heads covered in worship as a symbol of their submission. It was a way of respecting her husband. It would have been like a woman wearing a wedding ring or taking her husband’s last name as her own. For a wife not to wear her head covering would “dishonoureth her head [that is, her husband].”
In our culture, if a woman does not take her husband’s name or doesn’t wear her wedding ring, for many folks, that is dishonoring to her husband (Of course, this is becoming less so as the culture moves rapidly away from the biblical understanding of headship in marriage).
If a married woman in that culture did not use a head covering, Paul says, it would be like her head was “shorn.” That means either that, she would look like a harlot, or that she would look like a woman convicted of adultery (they had their heads shaved). So, rather than looking like a “shorn” woman, a Christian wife should cover her head.
This teaches us that appearances are important. Any Christian, male or female, should hold to principles of modest dress that does not make us look like someone who is immoral. Christian wives (and husbands also) should not dress in a way that makes them appear “available” to others.
Head coverings were a way of showing submission in that culture, but not so much in our culture today. If someone wants to use head coverings to show their submission now, that’s fine. If someone doesn’t want to, well, that’s fine also.
But don’t throw out the principle of authority and submission with the head covering. That’s like saying because we don’t wear sandals like the original disciples did, we don’t have to follow Jesus!
Paul goes on to show…
THE CONNECTION OF SUBMISSION WITH CREATION
For a man indeed ought not to cover his head,
forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God:
but the woman is the glory of the man. (1 Corinthians 11:7)
For the man is not of the woman;
but the woman of the man. (1 Corinthians 11:8)
Neither was the man created for the woman;
but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11:9)
What is Paul doing here? He’s taking us back to Genesis to show us that the principle of authority and submission is grounded in Creation and is not just a cultural thing. Turn to Genesis 2—
7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)
20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. 21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; 22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. 23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. (Genesis 2:20–23)
There’s a lot of effort today among some Christians to avoid a literal reading of Genesis and to find a way to work evolution and an old earth into the Bible. But when you do so, you shake the foundations of everything else in the Bible. If Adam and Eve evolved from apes, then what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11, doesn’t make any sense.
But, if you understand that God created man first, then the woman, to be his helpmate, then Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 come together just like a puzzle. When he says that “woman is the glory of the man,” it’s not a statement of superiority or value, but simply a description of what actually happened on the sixth day of Creation, man was created first and woman was made from his rib.
Men and women are both equals made in the image of God—“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). Paul says in 1 Corinthians:
Nevertheless neither is the man without [independent from] the woman,
neither the woman without [independent from] the man,
in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:11)
For as the woman is of the man,
even so is the man also by the woman;
but all things of God. (1 Corinthians 11:12)
What Paul is saying is that male chauvinism is no more biblical than feminism. Satan uses both to pervert God’s plan. We are both dependent on one another.
But the man and the woman were not made the same way, nor were they made for the same roles and responsibilities. The sentence in verse 9, “Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man,” refers to the different roles and responsibilities that God gave the man and the woman.
In light of this creation background, Paul then says:
For this cause ought the woman to
have power on her head
[meaning, a symbol of authority on her head]
because of the angels. (1 Corinthians 11:10)
What do “the angels” have to do with the woman having a head covering? Did you know that, right now as we worship, there are angels watching us?
14 Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation? (Hebrews 1:14, cf. Ephesians 3:10)
The angels live in service and perfect submission to God. So we ought to also live in the same sort of submission so as not to offend them.
APPEALS TO THEIR COMMON SENSE
Judge in yourselves:
is it comely that a woman
pray unto God uncovered? (1 Corinthians 11:13)
Doth not even nature itself teach you,
that, if a man have long hair,
it is a shame unto him? (1 Corinthians 11:14)
But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her:
for her hair is given her for a covering. (1 Corinthians 11:15)
When it comes to hair, men and women are by “nature,” different. Women rarely go bald. It’s a crown of glory for her, and a symbol of her submission.
But if any man seem to be contentious,
we have no such custom,
neither the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16)
There were some in the Corinthian church who were being “contentious” about this issue and saying that women should be free to go without coverings on their heads. Paul’s response is simple: “we have no such custom” of women going without coverings.
Can or should women wear head coverings today? Not necessarily. If a woman desires to do so and understands the teaching that the head covering is symbolizing, by all means they can do so. Furthermore, no other Christian should violate their conscience by being “contentious” and trying to make them stop.
But the main point of this passage isn’t about head coverings, it’s about submission and authority. How we apply that teaching in our culture is different, but what is important is that we don’t throw out the teaching along with the symbolism of that teaching.
The Bible says that all of us are to be submissive to someone.
To one another:
First, there’s a sense in which we must be submission to one another: “Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21). We are to be willing to serve one another and look out for one another’s well-being.
Wives: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)
1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. 2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) 3 That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. (Ephesians 6:1–3)
5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; 6 Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; 7 With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: (Ephesians 6:5–7)
17 Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)
13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. (1 Peter 2:13–14)
Most importantly, we are to be submissive to God.
7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. 9 Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. (James 4:7–10)
You can’t just say that you are submissive to God and no one else. God placed those authorities in your life, your submission to them is how you show your submission to the Lord.
Submission to the Lord begins by submitting to Jesus as the only way of salvation. Have you submitted to God’s judgment on you as being a sinner? Have you submissively received Christ as God’s provision for salvation from sin?