Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Authentic Christian Community (Part 1)

1 Corinthians 11:1-16

Teaching t21893


We’ve been studying 1 Corinthians—a letter written by Paul (a key leader in the early Christian movement) to a church in the city of Corinth (in southern Greece).  The main purpose of his letter was to reprove their self-centered spirituality (which leads to fashioning gods that justify this – EXAMPLES), and to advocate other-centered, self-giving spirituality (which is rooted in the God of the Bible - GOSPEL). 

Beginning in chapter 11, Paul spends four chapters applying this to how Christian communitu should interact with one another—what our mindset should be when we come together in meetings like this one or HG, how we should view and use the spiritual gifts God has given us, and what kind of relationships we should build with one another. 

We’re going to spend a number of weeks in this section, but don’t miss the forest for the trees!  The fact that Paul spends so much time on this shows how important real community is in biblical Christianity (contra the individualistic consumer American mentality that also characterizes most churches.  Get ready to be challenged!

The main point: “Women, wear head-coverings at meetings!”

Read 11:2-16.  There is a lot in this passage, including some things that I still don’t understand after studying this passage for over 40 years (e.g., 11:10?).  But the main point is clear: Paul is calling on the Christian women to wear head-coverings when they come to meetings.  He says this is the practice of all the churches he planted, and they should not be an exception (11:2?,16). 

So here we are in a dilemma if we regard the Bible as God’s Word.  What do we do with this? 

Should we have head-coverings at the door and require women to put them on?  What do you think?  How many think we should do this?

If we don’t do this, think about the implications.  Does this means that we are we free disregard biblical passages just because we don’t like what they’re asking us to do?  For example, are we free to disregard 6:19?  How many think we should do this?

How do we know when the main point of a passage is binding, and when it isn’t?  How do we avoid rigid legalism on the one hand, and total subjectivity on the other hand?

This passage demonstrates the importance of having sound rules of biblical interpretation and application.  These rules are rooted in common sense, and are basically the same rules that govern the interpretation and application of any document.  Let’s consider two of these rules as we look again at this passage.

Interpret in light of its historical background

One rule is that we must interpret a passage in light of its historical setting.  Every original audience has a specific historical situation.  In order to properly understand and apply the passage, I need to first understand how the original audience would “hear” it.  This involves learning the historical and cultural aspect of their situation.

For example, when Jesus teaches about forgiving others because God has forgiven us, He tells a parable about a man who was forgiven by one person a debt of 10,000 talents, but is condemned because he refused to forgive another person who owed him 100 denarii.  In order to understand Jesus’ point, we must know what monetary value these two amounts had to the original audience.

If a talent was worth a penny, and if a denarius was worth $1000, the point of the parable would be: “Even though you don’t need to be forgiven very much by God, you need to forgive others who commit great sins against you.”  This makes no sense, which is why people who don’t think they’ve sinned greatly against God usually don’t forgive people who sin against them.

But we know through historical research that a talent was worth 15 years of a laborer’s wage, while a denarius was worth only 1 day’s laborer’s wage.  This totally changes the meaning of the passage: “Since God is willing to forgive you of the huge, unpayable debt of your sins against Him, you should forgive those who sin against you because their sins against you are never nearly as grievous as your sins against God.”  This is logical, and explains why Christians have the motivation to forgive even those who persecute them.

So as we interpret and apply this passage, one thing we need to know is how 1st-century Greek culture viewed women who were unveiled in public.

We get a clue from the text itself (re-read 11:5,6).  Something about unveiled women was disgraceful.  Somehow, it put them into the same category as women whose hair was cut off and/or shaved—and this sounds like a bad thing, too.

Historical research explains this.  In ancient Oriental cultures, women were veiled in public as a sign of chastity.   Most likely, the women with short hair referred to the priestess prostitutes who walked about in public both unveiled and with short hair to advertise themselves to men.  Women with shaven heads may refer to convicted adulteresses.

Do you see how this affects our understanding and application of Paul’s main point?  Since unveiled women in public does not signal a prostitute in our culture, it is inappropriate to apply Paul’s specific command to women attending Christian meetings.

Does this passage then have any practical application for us?  Indeed it does—but to understand its application, we have to observe another interpretive rule...

Identify the underlying principle & apply it to your contemporary setting

This rule recognizes the reality of differences in human cultures and individual situations.  It asks: “What is the principle undergirding specific instructions?”  Principles are timeless and trans-cultural, while the applications of those principles are time and culture-bound.  So we are to look for the principle underlying the original instruction (preferably in the passage, but also elsewhere in the Bible).  Once we identify it, we should ask: “What does it look like to apply this principle in our setting?”  In this way, we submit to the moral authority of the Bible and apply it appropriately to our lives.

Consider 16:20 – “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  What is the principle undergirding this command?  That Christians should express warm affection when they see one another.  How might we apply this principle in our cultural setting?  Give a warm smile, or hand-shake, or hug (whatever is more appropriate) when you see a brother or sister.

What are the underlying principles connected to Paul’s command that the Corinthian women wear veils when they come to meetings?  He names two principles:

He states the first principle in 10:32-11:1 (read).  Actually, he is repeating a principle he set forth in chapters 8-10—that Christians should be willing to sacrifice their personal preferences if these preferences hinder non-Christians from moving toward Jesus.  Paul says this includes not giving cultural offense by how we dress.

The Christian women in Corinth were free in Christ from being defined by their culture’s customs.  They didn’t have to wear veils in order to be fully accepted by God through Christ.  But Paul says: “Don’t use this freedom selfishly, because you will offend guests who have come to learn about Jesus!”  Imagine being a morally sensitive guest in this Christian meeting.  You see the female members showing up dressed like prostitutes.  You would be offended, and probably conclude that Jesus is a male Aphrodite (a sex goddess), and Christianity is just one more fertility religion.

How should we apply this principle in our culture?  One proper application would be that we (men as well as women) should not dress in ways that are perceived by our culture as weird or offensive.  Ironically, this means that Christian women should not wear veils in public because this is perceived as weird!  It also means that Christians should not dress formally at church meetings because our culture prefers to dress informally whenever possible.  I wish the church I went to as a kid followed this principle!  I may not have been so turned off to Christianity!  How about you? 

Paul states he second principle in 11:3,5 (re-read).  Husbands are the heads in their marriages, and wives should communicate respect for their husbands in public settings.  This does not mean that women are inferior to men, any more than that Jesus is inferior to the Father (11:3).  This does not mean that Christianity authorizes husbands to be tyrants—they are to sacrificially serve their wives as Jesus exercised His headship in this same way (11:3; Eph.5:25).  It means that Christian husbands bear a special leadership responsibility, and that Christian wives should respect this role and communicate this respect in public settings.

In Corinth, obeying this principle involved wearing veils because (as we have seen), being unveiled communicated that they were prostitutes rather than committed to their husbands, which was very disrespectful to their husbands.

How should we apply this principle in our culture?  One application would be that Christian wives shouldn’t wear sexually provocative clothes in public (including Christian meetings).  Of course, this also applies to Christian husbands, and to unmarried Christians for a different reason (EXPLAIN).  Another is that wives should not speak disparaging about their husbands to others.


To summarize, when we gather together at meetings like this (or home group), we should not be focused on our personal freedoms or on what is most comfortable for us.  We should come with an other-centered, self-giving mindset. 

We should be sensitive and hospitable to guests, rather than rude or cold or late (they come on time).

We should come determined to build up a brother or sister, rather than to just get a teaching and split.

In the coming weeks, we will learn lots more about what this involves.

Sir William Ramsay states: "In Oriental lands the veil is the ...dignity of the woman.  With the veil on her head she can go anywhere (in public) in security and respect...But without the veil the woman is a thing of nought, whom anyone may insult...A woman's...dignity vanish(es) along with the all-covering veil that she discards."  (Cited in Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958], p.154).  "No respectable woman in an eastern village or city goes out without it, and, if she does, she is in danger of being misjudged."  (T. W. Davies, cited in Leon Morris, The Letters to the Corinthians [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977], p. 97).