Teaching series from 1 Corinthians

Cultural Norms and Marriage Roles

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Teaching t05409


Beginning in chapter 11 and through chapter 14, Paul addresses problems with the Corinthian Christians' meetings: GETTING DRUNK AT COMMUNION; TONGUES CHAOS; SELFISH USE OF GIFTS—and something else. Read vs 2-6. Some of the women were attending their meetings without veils.

Actually, Paul is addressing two different issues in his comments about women's' veils. One is a time-bound cultural norm and the other is a timeless theological truth. Let's look at each of them in turn . . . 


It is clear from the language of vs 5,6 that it was considered disgraceful in that culture for women to be unveiled in public. In fact, Paul says this practice will disgrace her husband ("head" vs 5) by communicating that she is like those women who go around in public with shorn or shaven heads. What is Paul talking about? What is the cultural significance of these things?

In Oriental cultures (even today), women are veiled in public as a sign of chastity and submission to their husbands. [1] From the information available to us, we cannot be certain about the shorn hair and shaven heads. But 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.

From Paul, these Christian women had learned of their high status in Christ (essential equality before God; equally accepted). From Paul, they had also been liberated to minister in ways unthinkable in other religions (v. 5: "praying or prophesying"). It is ironic to realize that passages like this one, on the basis of which Paul has been branded a repressive chauvinist, are in fact evidence of his liberation of women. It would never have been necessary to correct their abuse of new freedoms if he hadn't extended these freedoms in the first place! Those who brand Paul as a repressive chauvinist ignore this fact.

But, as is often the case, they were abusing this new-found freedom (21 YR.-OLDS DRINKING; 16 YR.-OLDS DRIVING). By refusing to be veiled in their public meetings, they were causing serious problems.

They were disgracing their husbands (v. 5). They were enjoying their freedom, but it was costing their husbands their reputations in the community. This should bother them.

They were communicating to Corinthian onlookers that they were immoral women. Paul assumes this will bother them, and speaks very directly to it (v .6). If they're unwilling to wear veils, they might as well cut their hair because others are going to view them as sexually loose. If they don't want to be known as prostitutes, they shouldn't dress like them.

More seriously, they were disgracing Christ by misrepresenting him to the non-Christian Corinthians. Imagine yourself as a visitor to one of their meetings. You've also visited the cult of Aphrodite. Here are women who appear to be sexually loose, people speaking in tongues chaotically, people getting drunk. What would you conclude? Jesus is merely the head of one more mystery/fertility cult instead of the Son of God who has come to forgive us and empower us to live according to God's moral design.

This is the main reason why Paul argues that they should wear veils. They should voluntarily limit their freedom by observing this custom so that others will not be hindered from coming to Christ. This is the contextual principle in which his comments are grounded (read 10:32-11:1). Paul has been stressing this principle ever since chapter 6. Even though in Christ we are free, we should be willing out of love to limit our freedom so others can benefit spiritually (FOODS; APOSTOLIC SUPPORT; CULTURAL IDENTIFICATION).

Should Christian women wear head-coverings in church meetings in America today? Many Christian groups insist on this, but the correct answer is an emphatic "NO." The principle is: Don't needlessly flout cultural custom. The first-century application of this principle was: Do wear veils in public. In twentieth century American culture, women do not wear veils. So the correct application is: Don't wear veils in public. Those who do, no matter well-intentioned, are ironically guilty of violating the principle of the passage by obeying its first-century application! By wearing head-coverings, they are needlessly flouting cultural custom, and people are needlessly turned off to Christianity. While we should love such Christians and relate to them with respect, we should also realize they are weak in faith and try to inform them when possible, so Christianity won't be needlessly viewed as culturally weird. (On the other hand, our female missionaries in SE Asia may need to observe this custom in some settings . . .)

THE UNIVERSAL NORM: Male Headship In Marriage

But there was another problem with their refusal to be veiled. Since veils also communicated subjection to their husbands, not wearing them implied a rejection of their husband's headship. While veils are a time-bound cultural practice, Paul argues that male headship in marriage is a universal norm—true and important for all time and in all cultures. Notice how he does this:

Vs 3 states this as a universal truth and links it to Jesus' relationship with the Father. "The man is the head of a woman" means that the husband is the head (leader) over his wife in their marriage relationship. In the same way that Jesus, although he was equal to the Father in deity (Jn. 10:30), submitted himself to the Father's leadership (Jn. 12:49), so wives, although they are equal to their husband in their humanity, should submit themselves to their husband's leadership.

Since the veil communicated acknowledgment of this truth in their culture, Paul defends the legitimacy of this custom on theological grounds in vs 7-10 (read). As in other passages, Paul explains why God has made the husband the head in the marriage relationship.

In my opinion, this authority structure within marriage became necessary only after the fall (see Gen. 3:16b). Prior to the fall, there was no need for delegated authority because both parties were in perfect communion with God. But in a fallen world, roles of authority are necessary in order to preserve order and prevent anarchy (WORK PLACE; CIVIL GOVERNMENT). Thus, God instituted the man as head in the marriage relationship. What was the basis for this choice? As Genesis 2 narrates, Adam was created first, and God made Eve from Adam and for him (to be his unique counterpart unlike the animals).

Paul's obscure reference to the angels (vs 10b) probably means that angels, who are present at Christian meetings, are acutely conscious of delegated authority in God's universe. They exist as his servants and show respect for his authority structure. We should imitate this attitude instead of rebelling against it.

Of course, this truth is very unpopular in our culture. There are two very different reasons for this.

MALE CHAUVINISM: One reason is the undeniable historical abuse of male headship in human society and in the church. Christians should acknowledge this, condemn it, and distinguish biblical headship from its abuse. Consider the following important biblical qualifications, which also help to define biblical male headship:

Difference in role does not mean superiority or inferiority as people (vs 11-12). The fact that you submit to a POLICEMAN does not mean you are intrinsically inferior to him; it means that you acknowledge he plays a legitimate role of authority. By the same token, male headship does not imply intrinsic female inferiority in any way. Paul evidently adds vs 11-12 to prevent us from concluding that role equals essence. Both men and women were created in God's image and therefore have equal value in God's eyes. Woman's origination from man in creation is tempered by men's subsequent origination from women. In Gal. 3:28, Paul states that both are equally heirs of salvation through Christ. Obviously, as Christians we should communicate this same attitude toward all people regardless of gender. How different this is from Roman and Greek moral philosophers, who described women as "worthless," "silly," and "innately inferior to men" who should "serve as slaves" to their husbands. [2]

Husbands should be subject to Christ's authority (vs 3). Paul's point in v. 3 ("the head of a man is Christ") is that husbands are not a law unto themselves; they are under Christ's authority. Husbands should lead the way in their marriages in obeying Christ, not act like little Hitler's. This has two important implications.

Husbands should be submissive to Christ's authority not only when it is expressed directly through the Bible, but also when it is expressed indirectly through other Christians—including their wives. This is the importance of Eph. 5:21. No Christian husband has a basis for saying "It's not your place to correct me." If needed, his wife should correct him with biblical absolutes and he should submit to this correction.

Any Christian man who uses his authority to rebel against God's moral will is wrong and should not be obeyed. In cases where he calls on his wife to disobey Christ, he should be respectfully disobeyed (SPOUSE-SWAPPING; NO FELLOWSHIP), as with all delegated authorities.

Male headship is limited to certain relationships (Eph. 5:22). The wife is to be subject to "her own husband," not to all men in general. Any teaching that men are automatically in authority over women (e.g., work-place) is a caricature of the biblical position.

The husband should use their authority in love and to serve their wives (Eph. 5:25-29). Jesus is very authoritative, and he sometimes calls on us to do what is costly and painful, but he always leads us out of love and for our good. The proof of this is the cross. Christian husbands should not use their God-given authority to selfishly take from their wives (KING IN CASTLE); they should use it to help their wives grow spiritually (as good parents use it for their children's good). They should be modeling Christ-like character, initiating sacrificial love, and creatively fostering their wives' spiritual development. For the wife who wants to mature in Christ, this is a wonderful provision, even though it may still be scary or difficult at times.


MODERN SELFISM: The other reason is the view that defines submission to another person is an admission of inferiority and therefore a betrayal of one's personhood. This is the predominant secular view, which undergirds so much of feminist thinking. It rejects all authority as abusive (including God's) and makes the assertion of my rights and will the number one priority in life. This view has deeply influenced many of us, and is taught as dogma to our youth. We should reject this view because:

Biblical submission is an affirmation of true personhood because we are created by God to follow his wise & loving leadership. God's authority is legitimate because he created you and knows better than you do how you should live. Submission to his authority is the essence of what it means to be a human being—not a negation of it. Insistence on your will is rebellion against God, which is the essence of sin >> GOSPEL HERE.

It promotes the same relationally destructive error that it properly condemns in male chauvinism—demanding personal rights & power at the other person’s expense. Unless there is the willingness of both people to submit to God, and to sacrifice many of our desires for the good of the other person, and to respect God's authority structure for the home, we are left with marriage as a battle ground and the children as casualties!! We are witnessing the foul fruit of this view (DIVORCE EFFECTS ON SPOUSES & CHILDREN), and it is every bit as ugly as male chauvinism!!



[1] 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 misjudges." (T. W. Davies, cited in Leon Morris, The Letters to the Corinthians[Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977], p. 97).

[2] Richard Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics, pp. 71-73..