There is a fundie movement of sorts that, based on 1 Corinthians 11, wants to insist that all women in the church of God cover their heads in worship. (You can find it here, if you’re interested: www.headcoveringmovement.com ). I must admit that this is a passage that I find particularly challenging to understand. But I think the clue comes when we recognise that the first half of 1 Corinthians 11 is thematically linked to the second half. Paul is dealing with the question of what is appropriate and right when the church comes together to worship God. The second half of the chapter sees Paul challenging the Corinthians to be united when they share the Lord’s Supper. They were divided; the rich eating like kings and getting drunk, the poor having very little. The first half of the chapter sees Paul challenging the Corinthians to honour God as he made them when they worship.
Part of why the first half of the chapter is difficult has to do with translating exactly what Paul means in verses 1-3. What does Paul mean by “head”? And is the head of woman “man” or “her husband”? (Personally, I think it means husband.) Why does a man dishonour his head – Christ – if he prays or prophesies with his head covered? Why does a woman dishonour her head – her husband – if she does exactly the same thing with her head uncovered?
Says Paul, it’s because a man reflects the glory of God. But the first woman was made for man and came from man, and is thus under the authority of man; covering her head shows that she is under authority. Under authority??? What about Galatians 3:28 – There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Is Paul contradicting himself?
In Corinth, as today, one’s gender is marked by both hair and clothing styles. Women were styled this way, men that way. Is it possible that the Corinthian women – so taken by their freedom in Christ – had decided that they could cast aside the social norms of the day – that they could dress as they pleased? Possibly. The problem is that in Corinth at the time, the only women who went around in public without their heads covered were prostitutes! What would a critical world say when they saw that the church was full of people who seemed to be acting unholy (according to society) rather than with all propriety.
Possibly Paul is simply urging the Corinthians (and us today) to act/dress in such a way as to not diminish the gospel in the sight of those we are trying to reach.
I think there’s a lot of truth in that. But I think Paul’s on to something deeper. He spends a lot of his explanations (!) considering the creation story. Consider even that “head” can refer to source, origin: the origin of man is Christ, the origin of woman is man, the origin of Christ is God. I think that what Paul is trying to emphasise is that when men and women worship God, they should do so as men and women. When we worship, we should be honouring God by being what we really are, how God created us. One day, us Christians will be placed in authority over the whole world – including angels… just as God always intended. We will be in authority as men and women. That is what we will be. That is how we were made.
So when we worship God, we shouldn’t be trying to lose the distinctiveness with which God has made us. We should be honouring how God intended for us to be: men and women. Does that mean that women today should have either long hair or a head covering? I don’t think so. But men should be men. And women should be women. In Corinth, that looked like men having uncovered heads and women having covered heads. What does it look like for us here in Australia today? I’m not sure. But I think it means women shouldn’t act butch; and men shouldn’t act all feminine.
One final point – which is easily overlooked: both men and women pray and prophesy! There is no difference in what they can and can’t do in worship; men and women are truly one in Christ. Paul isn’t trying to stop a woman doing anything, just trying to tell both men and women to be, well, men and women.
Lord, thank you for making us the way you have. Thank you that you didn’t make us homogenous beings. Please – help me to understand what all this means in practice. Help me to act in such a way that the gospel is well-received. And help me to act in keeping with how you intended me to be. And help me to act in keeping with your new creation. Lord, I know that man reflects your glory, and woman reflects man’s glory. But doesn’t that mean that we both reflect your glory? You made both male and female “in the image of God”. Teach me to honour your creation and redemption intention for me. Please – help me understand.