1 Corinthians 11:2-16

The Principle and Sign of Headship
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Disorder with respect to headship. Apparently, in Corinth there were both men and women that had gotten out of their place with respect to headship. Men were retiring from their place of headship, and women were taking a place of headship not given to them by God in creation. Paul includes this section in his epistle to correct this disorder, which stemmed partially from an ignorance of God’s mind, and partially from a “contentious” attitude among some of them (v.16). This may seem like a relatively small issue, but it is actually the root of many difficulties in Christianity today. In 1 Timothy 2:12-14 Paul brings out these same principles with regard to women teaching and usurping authority over men. He states that “Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” By the very order of their creation, God’s mind is clear that man is in the place of headship, and the woman under that headship. Eve’s failure was in not consulting her head. She acted independently from her God-given head, and made herself vulnerable to a deception she could not handle. 

The Principle of Headship (11:2-3)

 2 Now I praise you, that in all things ye are mindful of me; and that as I have directed you, ye keep the directions. v.2 Before the teaching and exhortation on headship, the Apostle Paul commends the Corinthians for keeping the inspired directions he had left them. It was always his way to praise wherever possible. While the Corinthians had gone off track in many areas in which he had not heretofore instructed them, they had kept his explicit instructions.

The word "traditions" is used several times in the New Testament, not only for the added sayings of men (Matt. 15:1-7), but for what the apostles exhorted the saints by inspiration, first orally, then in writing while the canon was in building and not yet complete (Rom. 6:17; 2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2).The word could also be translated "directions" or "instructions". In either case, these "instructions" were commandments from the Lord; "if any man thinketh himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge the things that I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord" (1 Cor. 14:37). We have those same "instructions" with us today, in the completed canon of scripture. The idea that there is a separate set of "traditions" (man's word) that are to be valued equally or superior to God's Word is very dangerous.

Read more… The point is, the Corinthians in general bowed to the authority of the Apostle even in “small” practical matters, even though there were some among them who doubted his authority.
3 But I wish you to know that the Christ is the head of every man, but woman’s head is the man, and the Christ’s head God. v.3 It was good that the Corinthians had kept Paul’s directions, but he did not want them to carry on in those things without understanding why. This is a great practical point. For those who are young in the faith, discernment is needed to see where there is a godly obedience without understanding, and seek to bring these ones into the true reasons why God has commanded us to do certain things. There is a danger that, left uninstructed, these outward things could turn into legal forms. It is also important to be able to explain the reasons for headcoverings, etc. to others who are “contentious” (v.16) about their use. Therefore, Paul explains the principle of headship. The idea of headship is that of supplying leadership and direction (Eph. 1:22; 5:23). Those who are under another’s headship are subject to that person. It is not the idea of superiority. Superiority is connected with lordship rather than headship. This can be easily proven from this verse! In no sense is Christ inferior to God the Father; such would be a denial of the Trinity. Rather, Christ – as a man – takes His guidance from the Father as His God. This was not true prior to the incarnation, but now, it will remain true for all eternity (Ex. 21:1-6)! Neither does this verse teach that women are inferior to men; it has nothing to do with objective worth, but a relative order in nature. Headship is something that God set up in creation, and was in place long before Christianity. The basic order is this: a woman looks to a man as her head, a man looks to Christ as his head, and Christ looks to God as His head! If we follow the trends of modern thought, we will not come to this conclusion. We must submit to the Word of God regarding His order in creation.

The Sign of Headship (11:4-10)

The Headcovering is worn by Christian women and removed by Christian men when they partake in the spiritual activities of praying or addressing God, and prophesying or speaking the mind of God. God gave women a natural covering (hair), making His mind clear that the covered head is a sign that a woman is under the headship of man, and an uncovered head is a sign that a man is in the place of headship (vv.13-15). In Christianity, God would have this creation order reflected in the use of headcoverings by women when praying or prophesying, which are two of the most intimate spiritual activities a believer can engage in. The fact that God would have man uncover his head does not negate that man is under the headship of Christ. Instead, headcoverings pertain to the relative places of man and woman. It may be that headcoverings were used in the Old Testament (e.g. Num. 5:18). At least two great reasons are given: (1) headcoverings not observed properly is a dishonor as it violates creation order, and (2) the angels are observing us.
4 Every man praying or prophesying, having anything on his head, puts his head to shame. 5 But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered puts her own head to shame; for it is one and the same as a shaved woman. 6 For if a woman be not covered, let her hair also be cut off. But if it be shameful to a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, let her be covered. vv.4-6 When headcoverings should or shouldn’t be worn, and what it does. Headcoverings are not to be worn by men (v.4) and to be worn by women (v.5) when praying or prophesying. Prayer covers all forms of addressing God; praise, worship, thanksgiving, supplication, requests, etc. Prophesying is speaking the Word of God for the time; i.e. acting as the mouthpiece of God toward man. Headcoverings are to be worn (or not worn) relative to these two activities. This is not limited to assembly meetings, because the topic of assembly meetings begins in v.17. Headcoverings have to do with the intersection of the natural realm (creation order) and the spiritual realm. When we are involved in communication through the spiritual realm (praying or prophesying), there ought to be the outward reflection of God’s order in creation. Failure to display this order is a shame to both the man’s head and the woman’s head.1 Short hair speaks of headship; if a woman is going to deny her God-given place in creation by praying or prophesying with her head uncovered, “it is one and the same” as if she was shaved. Paul presses the point home in v.6. So important is this matter of the sign of headship that Paul insists a woman cut her hair short if she be unwilling to wear a headcovering. Naturally, we are prone to care more for what man thinks than what God thinks. If a woman is going to step out of her place in the spiritual realm (refusing a headcovering), let it be manifest to all in the natural realm (have her hair cut).
Creation Order. To define the reasons for headcoverings, the apostle goes back to God’s original order in creation – a great principle when settling questions. In the new creation “there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female”; all natural distinctions are erased. But we are still in the old creation until the rapture, and there are natural distinctions that need to be maintained.
7 For man indeed ought not to have his head covered, being God’s image and glory; but woman is man’s glory. 8 For man is not of woman, but woman of man. 9 For also man was not created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man. 10 Therefore ought the woman to have authority on her head, on account of the angels. vv.7-10 Why headcoverings should or shouldn’t be worn. The apostle brings out from the order of creation that man is God’s image and glory. The thought of image is that of representation (see note on image and likeness). As God is the head of all things, man as God’s representative is in a place of headship. The sign of headship is an uncovered head, and therefore men should not wear headcoverings. Furthermore, man is also the glory of God, because responsibly maintaining authority in the creation brings God glory. For man to fail in this responsibility of headship is to distort the image of God, and to deny the glory of God. Woman, on the other hand, is the glory of man. Eve was not directly created from dust like the man, but rather was made from Adam’s rib, and for the purpose of complementing him (“for his sake”), to be a “help meet” for him (Gen. 2:18). Satan and his world are turning this order upside down, and putting the woman in the place of headship instead of the man. We must take our thoughts from the Word of God; “man was not created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man”. The “therefore” in v.10 gives us the connection between the creation order and the spiritual realm. The great cause that women ought to have the sign of authority on their heads (the headcovering) when praying or prophesying is that the angels are observing the conduct of believers.2 The angels are deeply interested in the wisdom of God in creation order (Job 38:7; 1 Cor. 11:10), and also assembly order (1 Cor. 4:9; Eph. 3:10). What do the angels see? Do they see believers reflecting God’s creation order in the spiritual realm? As far as we know, angels have no reference to the concept of gender (Mark 12:25). God’s purpose is to head up all things in Christ, and for Christ as man to have a bride that, as one with Him, shares all His inheritance though still subject to Him. The angels are learning God’s wisdom in that purpose through observing the assembly!

A Balancing Principle: Mutual Dependence of the Man and Woman (11:11-12)

11 However, neither is woman without man, nor man without woman, in the Lord. 12 For as the woman is of the man, so also is the man by the woman, but all things of God. vv.11-12 To balance the principle of headship, Paul next guards against the idea of independency. Man is in the place of headship, but God intended man and woman for the mutual good of one another. The woman is not inferior to the man… he would be alone without her. They mutually depend on one another in this sense, although the man is still in the place of headship. Eve was made from a rib taken from Adam’s side, not his foot! And yet this mutual dependence is “in the Lord”, meaning that dependence on one another never should take them out of being subject to the Lordship of Christ. In v.12 Paul reasons from God’s order in creation; though woman got her origin from man (Eve from Adam’s rib), henceforward every man is born of a woman (Gen. 3:20). How can man view himself as superior to or independent of woman if a woman gave birth to him! But “all things of God”… neither man nor woman truly has creative power; God alone is the creator and source of life, and ultimately His claims must be acknowledged.

A Closing Word for the Conscience on the Subject of Headship (11:13-16)

The relevance of headcoverings today. Up until the mid-twentieth century, the vast majority of Protestant Christianity held that women should wear headcoverings when praying or prophesying, at least in public church meetings. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, Protestant Christianity began to throw off the notion of headcoverings as a relevant practice, a trend which corresponded to the general rebellion and gender reversals of that era. Today, to find an evangelical church that maintains the use of headcoverings as taught in 1 Corinthians 11 is most difficult. Instead, evangelical pastors and teachers have taught that the literal use of headcoverings ought to be confined to the 1st century Corinthian assembly. The reason given is that headcoverings were a common occurrence in that culture, and a rebellious trend in Greece to refuse headcoverings had been picked up by the women in Corinth. Evangelical teachers today would affirm the principles of headship (although some go so far as to deny them), but they teach that Christian woman do not need to follow the exhortations with regard to practical use of headcoverings. I believe this teaching to be false. First of all, Paul states on numerous occasions that the doctrines contained in this epistle are for the whole Church, at all times; see 1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Cor. 7:17; 1 Cor. 11:16; 1 Cor. 14:36-37; 1 Cor. 16:1. I believe v.16 proves this to be false teaching. The apostles and all the local assemblies were united on this issue. Secondly, Paul does not say “because of the culture” but “because of the angels”. Headcoverings are important because of God’s unchanging order in creation, in spite of the shifting, sliding Western culture. To top it off, in v.16 Paul rebukes anyone who would be contentious about this doctrine of headship and headcoverings. May God give us the grace to simply submit to the plain teaching of His Word, for His glory and our blessing.

13 Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman should pray to God uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you, that man, if he have long hair, it is a dishonour to him? 15 But woman, if she have long hair, it is glory to her; for the long hair is given to her in lieu of a veil. vv.13-15 Nature itself speaks to the gender roles and use of coverings. To be covered is to take a retiring place. To be uncovered is to take an overt place. This is a common sense deduction from anything God has covered in nature (see 1 Cor. 12:22-23). Nature itself teaches us that long hair is becoming on a woman, and short hair on a man. God gave women a natural covering (hair), making His mind clear that the covered head is a sign that a woman is under the headship of man, and that an uncovered head is a sign that a man is in the place of headship. God does not want women to take the place of boldness which is given to man. Nature teaches that long hair on a man is a shame to him, but long hair on a woman is a glory to her. Why? Because long hair is a “veil”, placing the person in a retiring position. For a man to take an unassertive place speaks to the poorness of his character. For a woman to take an unassuming place speaks to the beauty of her person! Note: Some will argue against Paul here on the basis of short women’s haircuts that are fashionable today. Those haircuts may go against nature, but they don’t change the truth that nature teaches.
16 But if any one think to be contentious, “we” have no such custom, nor the assemblies of God. v.16 No room for the contentious. In conclusion, Paul anticipated that some would “be contentious” about the use of headcoverings, and he holds his ground along with the other apostles, and every other local assembly. This goes against the teaching that headcoverings were for 1st century Corinthians only. If anyone in Corinth (or anywhere) were to force his “custom” (refusing headcoverings), he should know that he was not only going against God’s order in creation, but against the wisdom of all the apostles, and all the assemblies of God. As it were, Paul would say, “Not I, but you, are going out on a limb”. What a dangerous place to be! Note: Many of the church fathers including John Chrysostom3 strangely argued that the “custom” referred to is “that of being contentious” rather than the custom of refusing the headcovering. It does not fit with the context. However, many modern commentators have latched onto this interpretation, and twisted it further as if Paul would say “you have your view, I’ll have mine, only let’s not be contentious”.4
Woman or Wife? Some translations, like the ESV, translate the Greek word ‘gune’ in this portion as “wife” rather than “woman”. This is important because it changes, not only the application of headcoverings, but the underlying significance as well. First, if the translation was really “wife” then only the married women would need to wear a headcovering when praying or prophesying. Second, the sign would be centered around the relationship of husbands and wives, rather than the relative order of men and women in creation. I believe vv.7-9 establish that headcoverings are a sign of the creation-order of man and woman, NOT merely of husband and wife. We get this also in v.3; the head of “every man” is Christ, not just the married men. Likewise, the head of “every woman” is the man. Whether a woman is single, married, divorced, or widowed, she is still in the place of being under the headship of man. Now, we must address the grammatical component of this issue. The Greek word ‘gune’ is general of woman or wife, depending on usage. It is generally “woman”, but can be used as “wife”, similar to the English word “woman”. You might speak of a woman walking on the street, or you might speak of another man’s woman; i.e. his wife. It can be shown from scripture that unmarried women are sometimes called ‘gune’. For example, in Mark 12, “And one woman [‘gune’], a poor widow, coming, cast in two mites” (Mark 12:42). She was certainly not married at the time, but she was called a ‘gune’. Another example is Lydia, who was apparently single, but also called ‘gune’ in Acts 16:14. There is a completely different Greek word for virgin. The context really determines the meaning of the word. Some translations betray the will of the translators at work, such as the ESV on this passage.
  1. When the man “puts his head to shame” or the woman “puts her own head to shame” it isn’t immediately clear to me if the dishonor it to their own literal head, or to their head in the sense of headship; i.e. Christ in the case of man, and man in the case of woman. However, in either case it is a dishonor, and therefore we should not do it.
  2. So also the expression, “authority on the head,” has given rise to endless discussion. To have authority on the head unquestionably means to wear the sign of it in a covering or veil. – Kelly, William. Notes on First Corinthians.
  3. Homily of John Chrysostom on 1 Cor. 11:16, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First SeriesVol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff.
  4. It is a contemptible sort of independence which sets itself up, not only against the spiritual feeling of all the public witness in God’s assemblies, but above those endowed with heavenly wisdom to direct all. It is neither conscience nor spirituality, but a fleshly love of differing from others, and at bottom sheer vanity. The “custom” negatived was the Corinthian innovation, which confounded God’s order in nature, not disputatiousness, as many ancients and moderns strangely conclude. – Kelly, W. The First Epistle to the Corinthians.