In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, I believe Paul is addressing a specific issue in the ancient Corinthian church. Women were coming to worship gatherings without their head coverings, which, in that society, were the culturally understood symbols of respectability and chastity. Women who went into public without head coverings were associated with sexual immorality – even prostitution. It’s possible that the Christian women thought that in Christ they were free from such cultural restrictions. It’s also possible that because many of these worship gatherings took place in homes, women operated as though they were not in public. Either way, Paul strongly admonishes them to wear their head coverings because doing so honors their husbands.
This plays into his larger point in this whole section of the letter: we must consider others when it comes to corporate worship, not only ourselves.
Think about others’ consciences, not just your own rights (chapters 8-10).
Think about others when you dress for worship, not just yourself (addressed in today’s passage).
Think about others’ hunger and thirst when you approach the Lord’s Supper, not just your own (11:17-34).
Think about how to love one another with your spiritual gifts, not just how great your spiritual gifts are (chapters 12-13).
Now that we have a handle on what might be the big idea of this passage, we’ll dive into some of its troubling aspects. Specifically, does Paul mean to indicate that men are better, more valuable, or more reflective of God’s image than women?
Let’s consider some other clues as to how to understand these verses:
Proverbs 12:4: Excellent wives are like crowns for their husbands, but shameful wives are like rottenness to his bones. Wives bring either shame or honor to their husbands, depending on their character.
1 Corinthians 3:21-23:“So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [important church leaders] or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” The Corinthians were breaking into factions based on which leaders they followed. Here Paul reminds them that the church leaders belong to the church, the church belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Authority and submission is an important aspect of how God relates to His people, and how His people relate to one another.
1 Corinthians 4:8: Paul jabs the Corinthians for boasting about their independence from the apostles, using the same word found in 1 Corinthians 11:11 about how men and women are not independent from one another. One of the main messages of the letter is humble interdependence (see chapter 12 especially).
1 Corinthians 11:22: The Corinthians are charged with humiliating (same word translated dishonors in vv. 4, 5) those who had nothing when they came to the Lord’s Supper. There may have been a culture of shaming, dishonoring, and humiliating one another which showed itself both in how the women carried themselves in worship gatherings and how they all approached the Lord’s Supper.
1 Corinthians 12:21-26: Even though church members will have different roles and places in the church body, each is to serve others in humility.
1 Corinthians 14:26-40: The Corinthians had issues with overly vocal, disruptive women derailing worship gatherings. There may have been a pattern of women behaving in a disorderly and distracting manner which included both their clothing and their actions. Paul writes that it is shameful for a woman to speak in church, using the same word translated disgrace in 1 Corinthians 11:14. Yet in 1 Corinthians 11:5, he seems to assume that women will pray and prophecy in church. There must be a way of speaking that is shameful and a way that is honorable.
Ephesians 1:22-23: God gave Jesus as head over all things to the church, which is His body.
Ephesians 5:21-32: There are submissive roles within the church relating to Jesus as the head of the church. There is mutual submission among the church members. Wives are to submit to their husbands in a specific way that mirrors the church’s submission to Christ, as husbands sacrifice themselves for their wives in ways that mirror Christ’s sacrifice for the church. Here again, headship language is used to describe husbands and Christ.
Colossians 1:18: Christ is the head of the church, emphasizing His preeminence.
Colossians 2:19: Christ is the head of the church, emphasizing that He is the source of nourishment and unity.
1 Timothy 2:8-15: Here again Paul encourages women to dress in respectable and modest clothing, to adorn themselves with good works, to learn quietly and submissively based on the order of creation (Adam was created first, then Eve).
1 Peter 3:1-7: Peter encourages wives to focus on the inner adorning of character rather than the outer adorning of an extravagant wardrobe. He also encourages quiet submissiveness.
Bringing It All Together
Based on this survey, we can conclude that there are distinctions between men and women which show themselves especially in marriage.
Paul’s main point in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is that wives’ apparel either honors or dishonors their husbands; and so he focuses on this aspect of the distinction between husbands and wives. Perhaps he would have offered a more thorough teaching on men and women and how they are made in God’s image if that were his main objective.
We can also conclude that the way we dress is important. Paul does not dismiss the cultural understanding of head coverings as unnecessary restrictions – as you might expect after reading his open-handed treatment of food offered to idols. Rather, he insists that women maintain a respectable appearance according to their culture’s practices.
The application of this passage then is not that Dulin’s Grove Church women need to wear head coverings, but that we need to consider how our choices (including seemingly small things like our wardrobe) affect others – especially our spouses. Otherishness is our guide in front of the closet on Sunday mornings.