Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Issue of Headship

Seeking to understand (to take seriously) all of Scripture can be daunting. As I say in the sermon, this is not an easy passage, yet there are applications even apart from full understanding. I wrote this (#26 from 1 Corinthians) years ago in a different context, but I hope my readers find it helpful.

Corinthians 11:2-16


This passage is recognized by all scholars as a difficult one. An historical study of its interpretation reveals gross abuses –– a liberty, even, with the translation that is flatly wrong (such as the use of the word "veil" or even "symbol" in v10). The word "head" is used both literally and metaphorically. In order to work from what I hope is a fair translation, I offer the following:

(HEAD=metaphor; head=literal; []=supplied)

2)Now I praise you because you have remembered me in all things, and you hold fast the teachings as I passed them on to you. 3)But, I want you to know that Christ is the HEAD of every man, the HEAD of a woman is the man, and the HEAD of Christ is God.

4)Every man praying or prophesying having anything upon his head shames his HEAD/ head. 5)But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered shames her HEAD (head), for it is one and the same thing for her to be one who is shaved. 6) For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn; but if it is disgraceful for her to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered.

7)For a man ought not to have the head covered, being the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8)For man is not from woman, but woman from man. 9)For indeed man was not created because of the woman, but woman because of the man. 10)Because of this the woman ought to have authority over her head because of the angels.

11)Nevertheless, in the Lord neither [is] woman [anything] apart from man, nor man apart from woman. 12)For just as the woman [is] from the man, so also is the man through the woman. But all things are from God.

13)Judge among yourselves: Is it fitting for a woman to pray to God uncovered? 14)Does not even nature herself teach you that if, indeed, a man wears long hair it is a dishonor to him, 15)but if a woman wears long hair, it is a glory to her? Because the hair is given to her instead of a wrap/cloak.

16)But if anyone seems to be contentious –– we do not have such custom, nor do the churches of God.


Perhaps you have in your house –– or you've noticed in someone else's –– a set of matruska dolls. If you don't know what that is (and I had to call several people to get the name), it's those round figurines of Russian origin that get smaller and smaller and fit inside each other (“nesting” dolls”).

Matruska dolls help me understand this passage both in content and approach. In terms of content, they are a good model of headship, which is a crucial part of these verses. In terms of approach, it might help you to know where I am going if you can visualize taking one layer of interpretation and application at a time.

One thing about this passage is the way it so readily lends itself to what is tangible and measurable. Those who tend toward simple literalism in the interpretation of Scripture have here what seems to be a straightforward command for women, and it is one where obedience can be easily observed. Some Christians like to have commands like that –– a way to see if one is serious with commitment.

This has been an important passage to some ecclesial traditions, especially those who tend toward interpreting the Bible with straightforward literalism. Jesus said not to resist evil, so the Brethren in Christ (among others, especially in the Anabaptist tradition) have been nonresistant. Jesus said to wash one another's feet, so the BIC have practiced feetwashing. Paul said that women were to have a covering, so to this day the BIC statement of doctrine and practice has a section called "the scriptural head covering."

I received my early Christian nurture in a setting that also took this passage very seriously, but in a different way. It was our understanding that the covering was a woman's long hair, and that was taken very literally. A good Christian woman did not cut her hair. My wife did not trim her hair until a couple of years after we were married. Until then, she could sit on it if it were "down," but the "right" way was to wear it up. I did not date in high school, partly because I was so shy, but also because there were no "holiness" girls with uncut hair in my school of around 2000 students. According to my, at the time, rigid standards, it was quite easy to determine who was a true Christian girl and who wasn't: just look at her head.

Sometimes I wish righteousness were so simple –– just measure up to a few external observances to be God's holy person. It is so much easier to focus on a few tangible rules. But there was one good thing that came from that preoccupation with external appearances: it forced a person to deal with true commitment. A half-hearted person would not stick it out. Being so different from everyone else was hard (and being a true Christian makes us different in many ways that are not so easily measured).

It is at this point I want to make an implied application from this passage. Before I get to the actual meaning here, let's be hypothetical and say that either the traditional Brethren in Christ interpretation of a literal covering or my old "holiness" understanding of uncut hair on women is the true teaching. Do you have a spirit of obedience that would say "yes, Lord... whatever you say," –– is that descriptive of your heart?

I ask that because, until we have a spirit of obedience, we will not be able to understand the teaching. This is not just a knowledge game; the Holy Spirit makes his way plain to those whose heart is committed to Jesus. Jesus himself said, Whoever has my commands and obeys them, that is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love and reveal myself to such a one (Jn 14:21). Apart from a heart of obedience, studying what the Bible says is of little value. So I ask again, in this day of of egalitarianism and feminism and individualism, if the Bible indeed calls us to such an obedience, do we have the commitment to Jesus that says YES?

Now having said that, let me admit that from an academic standpoint this is a very difficult passage. As I said at the beginning, scholars give lists of problems in understanding. What is implied by the HEAD metaphors in v3? What is the "covering" (the word "veil" is not really in the passage at all). How are we to understand the word "authority" in v10? There is the question of first century culture; we do not know enough about it to fit this passage into a defined context. The same is true of first century worship. What exactly was it the Corinthians were doing (or not doing)? Those basic questions hinder our understanding and application.

I remind you again of the matruska dolls in the context of approach. What is the first and biggest thing we need to see here? I would say it is a reminder that this is God's Word. This passage isn't in the Scriptures merely to perplex us. Whatever else we might say, God has something here to teach his people. Believing that is a starting point –– that's the outward matruska.

What might the next one be? It could be the observation that all scriptural teaching is not on the same level. Paul begins by affirming the Corinthian Christians that they are doing good in holding on to the teachings he passed on (v2). The Corinthians were basic Christians, but they needed help with practical details in everyday life. What Paul is dealing with here is not on the same level as basic doctrines (note vs13,16: you judge for yourselves and custom). This is not going to be an issue that determines orthodoxy! We might remember that in application, and not make more of it than is here.

The next matruska might point us to the internal context of Paul's letter. These verses certainly should not be read outside of what has preceded them. The previous section dealt with things that were non-essential (in contrast to prior things that were essential). The big concern is that Christians be people who follow Christ (follow me as I follow Christ). There is a concern here for order; the following section will deal with order during the Lord's Supper. A later passage will deal with order in worship events. This passage says something about the "order" of those who participate in worship.

The next matruska might be the "black sheep" of the little figurine family –– one of the basic problems the Corinthian church had. The big name for it is "over-realized eschatology." What that means is that some of the Corinthians wanted to apply the promises of the kingdom beyond what is possible as long as this present world exists. It seems that some of the worst offenders were a group of women.

It was probably the same women who, back in chapter 7, wanted to quit having sexual intercourse with their husbands, saying it was "unspiritual." Their reason for that was what we have termed "over-realized eschatology." Here's how that worked. Jesus had said (Luke 20:34,35) that in heaven men and women would not be married –– that they would be like the angels. Evidently our sexuality will not function after our resurrection as it does now. Some of the Corinthian women may have known Jesus' words and decided that, if they were truly spiritual, they should live without their sexuality even now.

Maybe that is enough to bring us to the heart of what this passage says –– the little matruska that is inside all the others. I see three main concerns in this passage. The first is the principle of headship. The second is the practice of covering. The third is the picture of hair, which gives a broader support for the practice of covering.

I have chosen those "P" words very deliberately (and not just because they alliterate). Not everything in this passage is on the same level of importance. Headship, we shall see, is a principle of God's Word. The covering was a practice (something people did) when this was written to a church in first-century Corinth. It was important only as it related to the principle of headship. The reference to hair is something between a principle and a practice –– it is a picture of something that just "is" in our human design.

The most important thing in this passage is not the observable covering, but the principle of headship, which “covering” helped portray in the Corinthians' particular time and culture. But principles are harder to grasp than practices, so people naturally gravitate toward practices, and make them more important than they should be.

What does this say about headship? Very simply it says that “woman” says something about “man,” who in turn says something about Christ, who in turn says something about God. It is like the matruska dolls; each successive one builds on the other. Without any one there would be a gap to the unity of the whole, yet each is distinctive.

What is the Bible's teaching on headship? I cannot develop that fully here, but I’d like to give enough for a general perspective. First, let's consider a few Scriptures that speak of headship. Along with v3 of this passage we might also look at Colossians where Jesus is the head of the body, the church (1:18); also, he is the head over every power and authority (2:10). In Ephesians that same idea is given along with others: God is going to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ (1:10); in fact, God has begun that already –– it happened when he raised him from the dead and placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything (1:22). Thus, Christians are to grow up into him, who is Head, that is, Christ (4:15).

But that is not the end of the "head" language in Ephesians. It is extended beyond Jesus to human relationships: "For the husband is the head of the wife...." But it does not stop there –– the husband's headship is defined in a way as Christ is the head of the church (5:23).

Some people today, in an effort to soften the teaching on headship, have tried to say "head" means "source" instead of "authority," but while that has a dimension of truth, it certainly is not the primary meaning. If one is honest with the biblical text, the line of authority cannot be dismissed. This is hard to talk about in a culture obsessed, as I said earlier, with egalitarianism, feminism and individualism, but where in the Bible can we get the idea that following Christ and honoring biblical truth is compatible with world thinking?

How can I state so unequivocally that the issue here is authority? The Ephesian text is clear: Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything (5:24). Someone has pointed out that v21 says Submit to one another... However, that does not eliminate the analogy that is developed between Christ/ husbands and the church/wives. Christ does not submit to the church (in terms of authority).

I must insert here, though, that "submit" does not mean what a paternalistic or chauvinistic distortion of this verse has historically done. The husband who deserves such honor from his wife is the husband who obeys v25: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Jesus died for the church before he became her Lord. Husbands would do well to remember that, and let their wives take care of obeying the Lord in their part.

I need to give a couple of reasons why the word "head" does not primarily mean "source" apart from a connotation of authority. Here in v3 of our text the metaphor HEAD is used from woman to man to Christ to God. They each must mean the same thing, or all hope of meaning is ridiculous. If HEAD is source (as it could be from woman to man), is Paul saying that Christ was physically created from a piece of God? Does he mean to indicate that Christ did not exist before that time? Does he mean that God was the Creator of Christ? Applying the implications in each situation does not allow "source." Instead, we find a spiritual "ordering" in relationships in this world.

Note that I say "relationships in this world." Vs11,12 make it perfectly clear that in terms of ultimate identity and worth, being male or female makes no difference at all. So what is all this about headship, and what does it have to do with a covering?

Think about a word I used earlier: "order." This is an important word here in 1 Corinthians, and it is an important principle throughout the Scriptures. Here, as we will see in a moment, Paul is contending for a certain order between men and women in worship. In the following section of this chapter he calls for order at the Lord's Table, and later he calls for order as the body does different things in worship.

Order also comes into play in basic identities. There is a certain "order" to the identity of men and women. As much as we hate to hear it today, there are sexual roles inherent in maleness and femaleness. An obvious one that cannot be argued is childbearing. God made it that way.

Also, the order/identity/role goes beyond the physical. It goes beyond what we do in this world. Maleness and femaleness are analogies of spiritual truth. We just looked at a key one –– Christ/husbands and the church/wives. God has made it that way.

Now here is the heart of the concern in this passage: When we come to worship, we are doing far more than we probably realize. Our very actions are to tell things that are true about God, his ways and his people. This was true in Paul's day, and he wants them to know what they are doing, and why.

Men and women in worship both have a vital role to play. Men should look like men and women should look like women. In Corinth, maleness was characterized by an uncovered head and femaleness was characterized by a covered head. The covering was probably something like a long kerchief. It symbolized modesty and chastity as well as femaleness. As the man's uncovered head showed the supremacy of the true Head, Christ (whom the man represents), so it was necessary for the woman as the symbol of the church to acknowledge by her "covered" head the Headship of Christ.

What some of the so-called "spiritual" women were doing was dismissing the covering as something that no longer mattered now that they were free in Christ. More basically, they were saying their femaleness was no issue at all any more. Again, Paul says in v11,12 that maleness and femaleness are not important before God for our worth or for our salvation. Yet nowhere does the New Testament say there is no practical distinctiveness between the sexes in this world; it is just that the distinctives do not matter ultimately. But they do matter in our relational roles in this world, and because of that the woman ought to have authority over her head.

Paul gives a strange reason here: because of the angels. This is an involved argument –– but it is worth the effort. The Corinthian women saw abandoning their covering as a sign that they possessed authority equal to the men. Paul does not dispute that idea! He affirms it in v11,12. But he is not willing to drop the headship principle, either. How can we have it both ways?

When the women rejected the covering, they were rejecting the order that God had created –– a maleness and femaleness that is God ordained for humans in this world. We blur and reject it at our peril. When a woman embraces her femaleness (and when a man embraces his maleness) there is also an embracing of the authority God has given us in his creation. One way we will someday exercise that authority is to judge angels (1Cor. 6:1).

Another reason to consider angels is because they know their place in the order of things. They help keep order in the universe and they stay in their place. If Christian women want their rightful authority, then let them be true women. (And if Christian men want their rightful authority, then let them be true men.) V10 is an affirmation of that thought –– a woman has the authority over her head, not to reject headship (which was practiced in Corinth by the covering), but to affirm her femaleness so she can be all God has intended her to be. The principle is headship; the issue is maleness and femaleness.

So what about the covering? That was one way the distinctives of maleness and femaleness were affirmed in the Corinthian world. It was a practice that then had value because it said something about the principle of headship.

So what about coverings today? I want to say one thing, and project another for a following passage. We need to recognize that an actual covering of any kind had significance then because of a shared cultural understanding. When we put a literal covering on women in our time and culture, we only do it symbolically. There is nothing wrong with that, but we should understand it has no real meaning for our world. We certainly should not demand it; practice should show the principle.

So how do we show the principle? How do we worship as God's men and women in a way that affirms both headship and the freedom of the Spirit? What does it mean to be a true man and a true woman? A clue is in the picture of the hair, but that’s for another time.

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