Sermon notes: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

1 Corinthians Pt. 16

Reid A Ferguson


It has fallen to me to try and tackle what is considered one of the most difficult passages to unpack not just in Paul’s writings, but in all of Scripture. 1 Cor. 11:2-16

On just vs. 3 alone, one commentator wrote: “The translation of this verse has caused more personal agony and difficulty than any other in the epistle.” Anthony Thiselton – NIGTC

And the difficulty in working through the whole passage is owing to several things:

1 – If you have a Bible with section headings, more than likely yours reads like one of these: That this portion is all about “head coverings” – and mainly aimed at women.

2 – The endless debates about the roles of women in the Church period. Especially in our day of equal rights and women’s rights.

What is called “egalitarianism” – where equality is confused with absolute sameness.

These and other factors have made working through this passage not only confusing for many, but contentious as well.

These 15 verses not only get wrested out of the immediate context of the letter itself – remember, in the original there were not only no little section headers, there were no chapter breaks either – but more, they get wrested out of the larger context of the whole of Scripture and the overall redemptive work of Christ in the world.

I hope to show you how that works this morning first by simply making some observations on the passage just as it stands – as if we had no other outside material to help us understand it – and then going back to fill in more given the massive amount of archeological and historical work which over the centuries help bring even more depth, richness and clarity to the passage.

With that then – let me tell you now where I propose to end up:

The question isn’t “what do I get to do or not do as either a man or a woman in the gathered assembly?”, but rather: “As men and women together, how do we best make God known in His triune nature to one another and to the angelic host?” How do we do all to the glory of God?

Doing all to the glory of God you will remember, was the key concept Ben presented so well for us last week.

In fact, doing all to the glory of God remains the controlling concept throughout this entire letter:

1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV / So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

But when we say something like: “do all to the glory of God” – we have to ask ourselves, what does it even mean to “glorify God?”

How do we do that?

And without taking too much time this morning let me remind you of something we’ve mentioned over and over through the years: To glorify God is nothing other than to make Him known in His person and works.

To reveal Him for who and what He is.

This is a powerful and necessary thread to see throughout the Scripture.

Jesus Himself explains how this works when He explains the ministry of the Holy Spirit in John 16:14–15 ESV / He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

So Jesus can pray in John 17:4 ESV / I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.

He glorified the Father by accomplishing – demonstrating the Father’s will. Declaring it and doing it.

And so we can it see in Hebrews 1:3 ESV / He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

The Son, shows the radiance of the glory of God – glorifies God – by bearing the exact imprint of God’s nature, demonstrating the Father’s power – and the Father’s purpose in redemption.

He makes God known – and thus He glorifies Him. John 1:18 ESV / No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

This is how Paul imitated Christ, (vs. 1) and what he calls us to imitate in him.

And this is how we glorify Him too!

We make Him known.

We do this first, in declaring the truth about Him as it is contained in His Word. BUT – that must always be coupled together with: Showing the imprint of His nature in US by manifesting His character and doing His will in the Church!

But before we go too far down that road, let’s come back and look at the text itself and make our observations.

1 Corinthians 11:2 ESV / Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.

The first thing the original readers would have picked up on is – the Church had been given some “traditions” to follow.

In other words, some things had been communicated to them previously about how Christians ought to “be” in the culture around them. Things which marked them out uniquely as Christians, as opposed to the rest of the world.

These aren’t secret things. In 2 Thess. 2:15 Paul notes these things were communicated orally but also in written form. We get them from the Bible.

We’ll see this mentioned again.

In our day and age, traditions are almost completely written off as old-fashioned and archaic or important only for themselves. But there are some things which uniquely belong to the Church and to Christians which are to be preserved throughout the ages. They mark us out as having our ties to Christians in every place and in every generation.

We for instance draw your attention every week to the historic creeds of the Church. Why? Is it just BARE tradition?

No. We do it because there are these things which are common to the Believers in every generation which must be retained. It is not up to us to reinvent the Church in each generation, but to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude 3.

With that in mind, Paul then lays out the key to understanding the rest of what he’s about to say in this section: 1 Corinthians 11:3 ESV / But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.

4 Things are helpful to note here. Whatever else is going on we can get these key ideas:

  1. Paul is using the word “head” here 2 different ways. That will be pretty obvious. The same way we might use the same word differently – even in the same sentence, Paul does too.

If I were to say that I was invited to a ball, and we had a ball there throwing a ball around. You’d immediately know I was using “ball” 3 different ways. So here.

Paul uses head to mean our physical head, but also in the sense of someone being at the head or as head over something.

  1. In pointing out that the head of Christ is God, he is showing that in the Godhead, there is a certain order among equals. We know from Scripture that Jesus the Son is just as much God as is the Father – or the Spirit. There is no lack of absolute equality among them. And yet they fulfill different roles.

And in this, he is showing how there are differing roles between men and women, but those differences are among absolute equals – just as with the Father and the Son.

Men are not spiritually superior to women in any way, nor vice versa – but there ARE distinctions. Distinctions meant to mirror those in the Trinity itself.

  1. While there is no hierarchy WITHIN the Trinity, there is one when it comes to God and mankind. He is the Creator and we the creature. So Christ’s “headship” over humankind, is different than the Father’s headship over Christ, and different then from a man’s headship over the wife who is his equal. We’ll come back to that.
  2. The idea of “headship” here isn’t as much about authority as it is “preeminence.” Jesus and the Father have equal authority, but the Son submits to the Father in their relationship. Scripture says all authority in Heaven and earth belongs to Jesus. (Matt. 28:18) So we know something else is going on here.

Who or what is given preeminence is key.

As we saw above in how it is Christ came to glorify the Father – He gives preeminence to Him. He wants the world to see and know His Father above everything. It is why the prayer He teaches us starts out that very way: The highest thing in all the universe to Jesus is that the rightful honor and sacredness of His Father’s name be restored. “Hallowed be YOUR name.”

So as Jesus could say in John 5:30 that He did not come to do His own will, but the will of the One who sent Him.

And in salvation, He restores us to seeking to do the Father’s will above our own. He restores us to right relationship to the Father, and to our created – PURPOSE.

In the Fall, in the Garden, although we were created to bear His image, we sought our own preeminence. We would be like gods! In salvation, this aspect of the Fall is being reversed.

So his basic point here is:

Christ seeks always to make the Father preeminent.

Humankind was created to make Christ preeminent by reflecting His image.

Men and women together in right order carry this out, one assisting the other in their common call.

That is why then: 1 Corinthians 11:4 ESV / Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head,

Since man was created in the image of God – to make Him known, ESPECIALLY in the gathered assembly of the Church, it is the special responsibility of men to see to it Christ is glorified or revealed – and not their own talents, abilities, personalities, etc.

Our “head” Christ – must not be obscured or “covered” in any way. We must not bring attention to ourselves, but to Him. Why having something on our physical heads might factor into this we’ll come back to.

And, that is why: 1 Corinthians 11:5–6 ESV / but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.

3 quick things here:

  1. Women are to participate in the gathered assembly as well, but to do so as to assist men in their role in making Christ preeminent.
  2. This means gender distinctions and roles are important to God, and are to be clearly maintained in and by the Church.
  3. If one will not yield to God’s intended order, with some hyperbole Paul says – let them declare themselves openly as rebellious. Which a shaved head or unfeminine look would signify, and I’ll come back to that too.

Now what is the “why” behind all of this?

1 Corinthians 11:7–12 ESV / For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

Why this is so goes back to God’s original plan before the Fall, whereas created in God’s image, the man was formed first and given the responsibility to make God known, and the woman formed second was commissioned to assist him in this divine task. “A help meet for him”.

So it is incumbent upon us men and women together, to recover the original order among the genders and pursue a common goal of glorifying or revealing the Trinity’s order among equals and their differing roles – displayed in us as men and women.

And yet! Bear in mind that while there is a distinction in roles, there is perfect equality before God, and an interdependence in carrying out God’s program of self-revelation through His image in mankind.

Even as it says in Romans 1:20 ESV / For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

God’s image in man and woman together displays equality and yet differing roles in the Godhead itself even to the angelic host as we had read in Ephesians 3:10 ESV / so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

Even as some of the angels did not keep their created order and rebelled – So God has ordained that in the Church, this right order be both portrayed and carried out, as a testimony of God both to the World in general, and even to the angelic host.

Right order in the Church isn’t about men’s rights versus women’s rights verses abilities or gifts or anything else but seeing to it that the truth about God is proclaimed and even lived out in a living pageant in our gathered worship.

Church is important! Cosmically important!

And this is in part why the neglect of gathered worship or the unthinking reconstruction of gathered worship is not just some personal preference. It has to do with God’s appointed purposes in the World and the cosmos!

This is so obvious to Paul, he can then say: 1 Corinthians 11:13–15 ESV / Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

The very way we were created indicates these necessary distinctions. Necessary to the display of the triune attributes of God.

And so, if anyone wants to argue about this – 1 Corinthians 11:16 ESV / If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

IN ALL the Churches, not just Corinth, this is the way we do it. We have no such practice as a man praying or prophesying with his head covered, or a woman with hers uncovered.

Which brings us right back to where we started: The question isn’t “what do I get to do or not do as either a man or a woman in the gathered assembly?”, but rather: “As men and women together, how do we best make God known in His triune nature to one another and to the angelic host?” How do we do all to the glory of God?

Now with all that said, let me try to color in some of the outlines we’ve drawn here. After all – what are we to do with all of this “symbol of authority on her head” stuff, and the interplay between the uses of the word “head” all the way through?

And the bottom line as I understand it is: That in the redemptive work of Christ in creating and saving a unique people-group for Himself through the sacrifice and blood of Jesus Christ – a new culture is emerging. One which already has its inception into the world, and will continue to thrive until Christ returns – existing in and counter to, every other culture on earth!

Where do we get this from? Out of the many places in Scripture let me cite 2.

Ephesians 2:11–16 ESV / Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

God’s plan is to take believing Jews – with all of their cultural distinctives, and believing Gentiles with all of their various cultural distinctives, and make them into one new thing. As the text says here, “one new man in place of the two.” With a new singular culture.

Or even more pointedly – 1 Peter 2:9–10 ESV / But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Christians are intended to be an entirely new people group. And as such, we are to bear certain signs or markers of being that unique people – which transcend race, ethnicity and background. And part of that new identity is to be lived out and displayed in the World in what we do in worship of the one True and Living God. Proclaiming HIS excellencies. Making Him known as He desires to be known.

And this will look different than what we might think.

Look for a minute at this quote from the Epistle of Diognetus which was written circa 150 AD

History of the Christian Church § 2. General Character of Ante-nicene Christianity

“The Christians,” he says, “are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; they follow the usage of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they present a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon the earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives.

So Christian – whether you’re in Jewish society, or 1st century Roman Corinthian society, or 21st Century North American society:  in the Church, and especially in public worship – the order God instituted at Creation of men and women bearing their clear gender distinctions, and as spiritually equal before God but with differing roles assigned by Him and in right relationship to one another – is to be displayed and carried out.

Now in the Church at Corinth, this meant they needed to be aware of how certain cultural norms might impact this witness, and how necessary it was to guard those God puts in place.

The reality is, we give off all kinds of signals to people in all sorts of ways.

If you were to see someone wearing anyone of these hats, you would automatically make some assumptions about them. They might be more or less accurate assumptions – but those who wear them are sending signals.

(The visual here showed a MAGE hat, a “Feel the Bern” hat, one with a Cannabis leaf and one with the NRA insignia.

Same with the 4 in this slide. Each is wearing markers that say something about who they are. (A Doctor, Mormon missionaries, a tattooed gang member and a Priest)

Or take this one of our own Jim Luckey when he had dreadlocks for a while.

He told me that when he looked like this, it was the only time in his life anyone offered him drugs.

Why? Because he was wearing a cultural hat of sorts. A badge.

And Paul is addressing the cultural “hats” that were prevalent in Corinthian society, and telling the Church they need to beware of those in favor of the cultural badges or symbols of Christian culture – especially in worship.

So his first comment is about men praying or prophesying with their heads covered. What was that about in Corinth at the time?

As best as we can tell, it had to do with men wearing their hair long and in an effeminate manner, like the male prostitutes who were part of the pagan worship around them. It was, trendy, “the style.” And it hinted at things incompatible with making God known.

The Jewish yarmulke or little skullcap we see observant Jews wear today hadn’t been invented yet. So we know he wasn’t referring to that.

From the best evidence it appears the men were growing long hair and fixing it in ways that blurred gender distinctions – and even had sexual overtones. Thus it obscured God’s created order for men and women as well as drawing attention to themselves. It failed to reveal God’s will and ways since He created male and female to be distinct in bearing His own image.

And for the women, failing to wear a sort of hood signaled to the culture around them that they were sexually available. And given that a historian of that day cited how women were trying to take on more and more masculine roles like in hunting and even public wrestling and competing in physical contests – Paul warns that once again, gender distinctions are being lost and as a result the worship becomes corrupt.

Our gathered worship is to witness to God’s reordering of things which have become disordered through the Fall – and it is to testify to His reordering in salvation both to the culture in which you live, and even to the angelic hosts.

It marks out Believers as those who are now servants and representatives of Jesus Christ. As we mentioned several weeks ago: Christ’s People on Christ’s Mission – not free-wheelers.

Public worship is of cosmic importance.

So contrary to Jewish culture, women are not spiritually inferior and in the Church can participate as equals, yet within their proper roles. What that looks like we’ll take up more when Paul delves into what it means to prophesy in the congregation.

Contrary to Roman culture men are neither to grow effeminate nor surrender their proper roles.

And then we are to look at this very same passage and begin to ask ourselves – what are the signals we send to the world around us in our worship?

And especially, in the most direct confrontation to our present-day culture – are we sure to maintain the clear and necessary gender distinctions which God has created, and are central to the revelation of Himself?

Genesis 1:27 ESV / So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Now there are several important takeaways in all of this. Since we’ve already touched on them some, I’ll just mention them without expansion. And one which stands out above all the rest.

  1. There is no spiritual superiority between the sexes.

Men and women alike stand in the exact same relationship to God in Jesus Christ.

Galatians 3:27–28 (ESV): For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

2. Men and women have divinely differing roles in making the glories of God known.

Absolute equality does not mean absolute sameness in men and women any more than it does in God the Father and God the Son.

3. It is the Church’s responsibility to see that the Divinely appointed gender distinctions are neither removed nor blurred – especially in gathered worship.

I cannot think of a more timely and front-line issue in our day and culture than this one.

When the Church capitulates here, it destroys the very foundation of the right worship of God, and the fundamental purpose of humankind being created in His image to reflect or make His glory known.

4. Male headship or leadership is located in one thing above all others: Making the glories of God known to others by manifesting His character through the Spirit, and submitting to His Word.

This is how we lead – by glorifying God in making Him known. And if that does not find its first expression in manifesting the fruit of the Spirit – everything else is moot.

5. Nothing in all the universe was as important to Jesus the incarnate Son, but that His Father’s name, glory and reputation be restored in the cosmos.

English Standard Version Chapter 17 / 4 I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. 6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.

As I alluded to earlier – when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray – He set the priority here: “Our Father who is in Heaven – hallowed be your name.”

In the Fall, Satan lied to our first parents making God out to be petty, jealous, a liar in promising death for sin, and seeking to hold them back from their right to godhood.

All of sin entered the world through the distortion of the character and nature of God.

And nowhere is man more engaged in joining Christ’s redemptive and restorative work than when we join with Him in fully taking up our created purpose once more – to make Him known as He is – to glorify Him.

And as the Church, it falls to us to preserve that proper created order to that very end. Until He returns.

We don’t just come to Church. We come to bear witness of the true character and nature of God to the cosmos. And thus we must preserve the image of His we were created in.

Genesis 1:27 ESV / So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.


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