There are seven passage in the New Testament which teach clearly and openly about the roles of men and women in the church and in the family. This is one of them. There is a great deal to explore in this passage. Too much for a single, ½ hour sermon. So I will break this up over two weeks. Please understand, if you only read this message, you are missing out on half of the message, and your understanding of what I am saying will be incomplete. Please do not quote me or assume you know what I am saying until you have heard or read both messages.
There are typically two responses to passages like this one. The first is to simply accept it without any real study. This usually results in rules that say women should wear hats or head-coverings, and women should “keep in their place” (meaning they have very little real input in church or family). I call this approach Traditionalism. I don’t think it does justice to what the bible really says.
The second reaction is to recognize how different this teaching is from our culture today, and find some way to interpret it that ends up either being meaningless, or even meaning the opposite of what it actually says. I call this approach Evangelical Feminism, and I think this also ends up failing to really appreciate what the Bible says. In fact, I think Evangelical Feminism lays the foundation that ends up in plain old heresy.
I am not saying that my parents taught me this, but I grew up basically thinking along Evangelical Feminist lines. In my teen years I heard some ways to dismiss the teaching of this passage and others like it. Basically, I accepted the argument that this passage is specifically and only for the culture of Corinth in the 1st Century, and it really doesn’t apply to us anymore. I categorically rejected any notion that there were some roles that should be held only by men or some that should be held only by women.
I was in college before I heard anyone seriously argue that these passages actually mean something in today’s world. I didn’t like the person who made the argument, and I dismissed it out of hand. A few years later, some people that I truly respected told me that they believed there was something to this, and the six other passages which teach about gender-roles. I began to be a bit more open, but I still maintained Evangelical Feminism.
Finally in seminary I looked into it for myself, and I was humbled to find out that I had been careless in my approach to the Bible about this subject.
The fact is, I think most Christians end up at either extreme. Traditionalists use passages like this to repress and even oppress women. Evangelical Feminists do theological gymnastics to make the same passages meaningless, and end up re-writing the Bible to say whatever suits them. But there is a middle road, the way of Truth.
It is true, part of this passage is just cultural application. But part of it is the teaching of important eternal truths. And we should bear in mind that this is just one of seven passages, all of which teach the same eternal truths about men and women.
The cultural aspects have to do with hairstyle. Paul says:
If it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
The question is, what if it is not a disgrace for a woman to have short hair? The fact is, Paul seems to be basing his application instructions upon the hairstyles of his time. Again he writes:
14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?
The question arises again – is long hair a disgrace to men? That appears to be a fairly superficial thing that changes with the times.
However, we make a grave mistake if we say that this entire passage is merely a discussion of how Christians should wear their hair in 1st Century Corinth. In fact, if we dismiss the whole passage as cultural, we have greatly weakened the biblical case for two vital ministry roles that are open to women.
Paul’s teaching here is quite clear: women can and should pray in public, and women can and should prophesy in public. This is the only New Testament passage that explicitly endorses women in these ministries. So if we say the whole thing is cultural, then the idea of women prophesying and praying is also only a cultural accommodation to the 1st Century.
The fact is, we have two things going on this passage:
First, there is the teaching of a universal truth about men and women
Second, there is an application of that truth to 1st Century Corinth.
The specific application (in this case, hairstyles during worship) may or may not be relevant today, but we still need to seek to apply the universal truth to our situation.
The universal truths expressed here are basically this:
The male gender is the spiritual head of the female gender, just as Christ is the spiritual head of the church and the Father is the spiritual head of Christ (v. 3).
This is a result of how we are created (Genesis 1:27). It is demonstrated in Genesis 2, by the fact that Eve was created to be a helper-companion to Adam, to fulfill him and to join with him in caring for the world (v. 8-10).
Even so, men and women are not independent of each other – they need to work as a team (v. 11).
In worship and in the conduct women’s ministries, these truths should be reflected in some appropriate way (v. 10).
This is exactly the same basic message that we find in the other six New Testament teaching passages which deal explicitly with gender roles. For example, Ephesians 5:22-23:
Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body.
This idea of “headship” is troubling to us in the Western World in the 21st century. But it is an often repeated idea in the Bible. Here, Paul connects the idea both to the nature of God (v.3) and also to how we were created(v.8). If we look at these two things, we might gain a better understanding of what exactly this relationship means.
The bible describes God as a Trinity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is one God. There are not three Gods, but only one. The bible also teaches that he exists as three persons at the same time. So the Father is God, but he is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God, but he is not the Father or the Spirit. The Spirit is God, but he is not the Son or the Father.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal to each other. We worship all three persons as one God. We pray to all three. There is not one that is “better” than another one – they have the same God-nature.
Even so, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have different roles. It was Jesus Christ, the Son who took on human flesh and walked physically in this world. It was he who died for us, not the Father or the Spirit. It is the Spirit who lives in our hearts and imparts the power and life of God to us, not the Father or the Son. It was the Father, who sent the Son, not the Son who sent himself. It was the Father who said “this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
The fact that the Son has the role of the Son does not make him less important than the Father. The Spirit’s role does not make him more important than the Son. They are equal, but different.
So when Paul says, “and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God,” it does not mean inequality. What it means is that men and women have different roles. Like the Trinity, Men and women are equal. Like the Trinity, men and women are different. Men and women were made for different roles.
Paul makes reference to Genesis in 1 Cor 11:8. There are two passages from the first part of Genesis that I want to briefly consider. The first is Genesis 1:27
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (emphasis mine).
We were made in the image of God. We have just seen that God exists equally and the same in nature, but different in personality and role. It seems clear that Paul is referencing this exact idea. The fact that “God is the head of Christ” has nothing to do with equality – it is about role. In the same way “man is the head of woman” is not about equality. It is about role.
In addition, we see that the different roles of the Trinity give the Father, Son and Spirit opportunities to give each other honor and glory. The Son gives honor and glory to the uniqueness of the Father. The Father lifts up the Son above all things. The Spirit gives glory to both. This giving of honor and glory to the each other does not erase the distinctions between the three Persons. Even though the Father glorifies the Son, and they are equal, they are still different, and live out of their different roles. In fact, they could not honor each other in this way unless they really did have different roles. Their different roles provide an opportunity for them to honor, bless and love one another. The Father does not relinquish his Fatherhood, or change the Son into the Father. He gives him glory as the Son. The Son does not glorify the Father for coming to earth, but for being the Father. All three Persons, acting out their different roles, complete the Trinity, and they work together as a team for a common purpose.
In the same way, because men and women are different, and have different roles, we have the opportunity to honor and love one another in special ways. When we erase those differences and those roles, we also erase the opportunity for men to honor women as women and for women to honor men as men. There is unique glory and honor in being female. There is unique glory and honor in being male. But if we say that men and women must be not only equal, but also the same, we are eliminating those honors.
Paul also references Genesis chapter 2, which describes Adam being created first, and getting lonely, and being unfulfilled, even in sinless paradise. Eve is then created, to fulfill Adam, and to assist him in the mission of humanity, which at that time was to manage God’s creation. The Bible uses the term “helper-companion” to describe Eve’s role.
If Eve had nothing unique to bring, why was Adam lonely? If Eve had nothing unique to bring, then why did God make her? It wasn’t just about reproduction. God certainly could have designed that differently. So woman was created to fulfill a unique role, one that man could not fulfill, the role of helper-companion. In the same way, woman was not created to fulfill man’s role. That would imply that either man or woman is redundant. But woman is not a redundancy, nor is man.
We have a situation today where there is great confusion about this. In many places, Eve, instead of seeking her unique created purpose, is trying to do Adam’s job. Meanwhile, Adam, for the most part, is happy to let Eve do it, because he is too cowardly to risk a fight, and he is prone to be passive anyway. I believe that is the reason that New Testament teaches explicitly about this subject no less than seven times.
The other thing we have done is to separate the genders. We act as if we have a whole bunch of independent missions in life which are not necessarily connected. A man has his ministry, and a woman has her ministry. But Paul disagrees. He writes:
11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.
The teaching of 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is a correction to the independence we try to have from each other. Here is a summary of what we have learned so far:
Men and women are created in the image of God to be equal
Men and women are created in the image of God to be different and have different roles. The spiritual role of men is “head” and the spiritual role of woman is “helper companion.” (*We have not yet considered how to apply this).
Men and women are created to function as a team.
A few months ago, as I was praying about this whole topic, I felt like the Holy Spirit gave a me word. The word was “dance.” After that, I watched “Dancing with the Stars” a few times, to try and understand what He might be getting at. I think “Dance” describes very well the Lord’s plan for relationships and roles between men and women.
First, a couple’s dance is usually more appealing and attractive than just one person dancing by himself or herself. This goes along with Paul’s insistence that men and women are not independent from each other. Both are necessary in this spiritual dance.
Second, them and women have different steps in a dance. If the woman did the same steps as the man (or vice versa) the dance would not be beautiful. It would chaotic. In the same way, this reflects that fact that men and women have different roles. The steps each one takes, complements the actions of the other.
The man leads the dance. And yet, one of his primary goals in leading is to show off the beauty and grace his partner, the woman. His leadership does not make him better, or even necessarily draw attention to himself. We found this same principle at work in the Trinity. The Father does not glorify himself, but glorifies the Son. The Son glorifies the Father. So in the gender-dance, leadership is a role, but it does not mean that the leader is better or more valuable.
Please check back next week for the second part of our study of this passage.