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Cultural Commands, Part 2

Q: Why is it that there are parts in the new testament like, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, that have direct commands but really don't seem to need to be followed by today's culture - is it as simple as that was just the culture back then?

A: For the introduction to this answer, please read Part 1.

Now, we’ll turn to the text:

1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. 2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. 4 Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. 5 But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. 6 For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; 9 for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. 10 Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:1-16, NASB)

This is a great question and passage because of the interaction between culture and timeless principle. On initial reading, it may seem as though this passage is imploring women to pray with a head-covering. While this thought is expressed in the text, it is not the main issue.

To understand this passage, we must first understand the context. A passage can never mean what it never meant. (This is not to deny that some passages can mean more than was originally understood – e.g. prophetic passages – but the meaning was implicit in the text even if it wasn’t understood. Understanding doesn’t necessarily correspond to meaning. I can have a conversation with a theoretical physicist who explains to me some nuance of quantum theory without understanding a single thing that [s]he says … this doesn’t mean that their explanation was without meaning!). We must understand the occasion of Paul’s letter so we can then understand the meaning and purpose of this section of his letter.

The book 1 Corinthians is a letter addressed to the church at Corinth and is in response to particular problems that these believers are experiencing. Paul states early in his letter the importance of unity in Christ (1:1-17), the centrality of the gospel message (1:18-31), and the power of God at work in believers through the Person of the Holy Spirit (2:1-16). Because of these important things, the lives of believers should be marked by certain “Christian” characteristics built upon the foundation of God’s word as opposed to the wisdom of the world (3:1-23).

Based on this contrast (living as Christians in a godless world and culture), Paul implores the believers in Corinth to find their identity in Christ (as opposed to their gender, nationality, social status, or whatever else) and to live as servants of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit (4:1-21).

After these introductory admonitions and exhortations, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for their immorality – specifically targeting the fact that they are tolerating sexual immorality in the church (5:1-13)! Paul can barely believe that some of the believers, who have been called out of darkness and into the light of God’s kingdom, are still resorting to lawsuits amongst the brethren and seeking the judgments of the pagans (6:1-11).

All of these particular issues then lead Paul to teach on some basic Christian doctrines and their implications for the faithful believers: each Christian has been purchased by Christ and belongs to the Lord, therefore we are to glorify God in our bodies (6:12-20); the purpose, benefits, and also the downside of marriage (7:1-40); and freedom in Christ (8:1-13).

Paul dwells on this theme of “freedom in Christ” (particularly how it relates to living as servants of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit) and uses himself (9:1-27) and the nation of Israel (10:1-33) as examples of what to do and what not to do as God’s people.

You may be wondering why all this outlining and recap is necessary, but it is always dangerous to remove any passage from its surrounding context!

The passage we are looking at begins, Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ (11:1). Paul is making a transition statement, and linking our passage with what came before it. His command and instruction to the believers in Corinth is to follow his example (as he exemplifies Christ) and not to make the same mistake that Israel made. Paul expressed how he used his own “freedom in Christ” – not to do as he (Paul) pleases but to do as He (the Lord) pleases! Paul is free to do all things, yet he uses his freedom – not to gratify his own desires and ambitions – but to glorify God in all things. In fact, he says just this to end chapter 10:

 31 Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved.

The church today often uses the phrase “freedom in Christ” to explain how they can do whatever they want, but Paul is teaching that our freedom should be to live in all things (even trivial matters such as what we eat and drink) in a way that is glorifying to God and brings others closer to Him. So, the call to live “free in Christ” is not a call to anarchy, but a call to order! Living, not however we please, but however He pleases!

When we were separated from God we lived how we desired… now that we are Christians, we are free to please Him in everything we do.

In chapter 11, Paul is expressing the reality that Christians are not being called to live “free” from God’s design for life and authority (whether in the church, the home or the world), but to live free within the confines of God’s design.

If you re-read the passage in 1 Corinthians, you’ll notice that Paul makes the appeal to authority in the created order of men and women at the beginning (11:3) and again in the middle (11:7-9). The issue being discussed is not as simple as head-coverings for women – Paul is addressing the created structure of authority in the church and using head-coverings as an example. To make this passage about head-coverings is to miss the whole point.

Notice in 11:2 that Paul directs our attention to the “traditions” that have been handed down. Often in the Scriptures “traditions” are viewed negatively, but here Paul is listing this as a good thing, saying that the Lord has delivered certain practices and traditions that are valuable and should be held firmly in the church. While we may be “free” of other cultural traditions and norms, the traditions of the Lord which have been handed down from Him should not be discarded in the name of “freedom.”

The tradition that Paul is referring to is male headship in the church and home (11:3). This is a common theme in Paul’s teaching (see also Ephesians 5 and Colossians 2), and is really unpopular in our current culture. While there are many who would use this type of teaching to claim that the Bible is anti-woman, this is not the case. God’s order is meant to be a blessing to both male and female, and calls for great love and sacrifice on behalf of males towards females as opposed to being oppressive and heavy-handed (Ephesians 5:25-30; 1 Peter 3:7).

Since Paul is addressing male authority in the church, he then uses the example of visible submission to this authority in the use of head-coverings (which were a culturally valid and normal expression of submission). Notice how Paul speaks of male authority (11:3), gives an example of what is inappropriate (11:4-6), explains why this is the case based on the created order of God (11:7-9), and sums up the point saying:

Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. (11:10)

The reference to angels is a bit odd, but I believe this represents Paul’s understanding that even in gatherings of believers, authority should be honored as the angels are witnesses of our worship to the Lord. Paul is then careful to explain that this submission to authority through a visible sign of authority on the women’s heads does not imply inferiority of women to men (11:11-12). This is a very important point as our culture tries to (wrongly) assert that submission equals inferiority. This is not the case, as Christ submitted fully to the Father even though He was equally God. Submission is a godly characteristic and everyone (males and females alike) are called to submission in their lives.

Paul then summarizes by asking them to judge for themselves whether it is right for them to use their “freedom” to go against the traditions that have been handed down of male headship and female submission to this authority. Paul ends this section by appealing once again to unity (how he began in chapter 1) by saying:

16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

At the heart of this passage is male authority in the church and female submission to this authority. The contextual issue arises based on the fact that the culturally acceptable and recognized means of female submission was based on long-hair and head-coverings for women.

Based on the desire to bridge the gap from 1st century Corinth to 21st century North America, I do not believe the issue is long hair on women, short hair on men, or the issue of whether or not head-coverings are important for today. The timeless principle is male headship, and Paul was calling for submission to this principle and unity in Christ in a culturally acceptable way.

Today, we should seek to live in accordance with the timeless principle of male headship in the church and home as well, and should also seek to do this in a culturally acceptable way. It is true for all people, in all places, and at all times, that God has created order in His creation and that males are given a place of authority over females in their roles in the church and in the Christian home. It is not true for all people, at all times, and in all places, that God has called women to wear head-coverings.

We’ve travelled a long way to get here, but the short answer to this question is that God’s timeless principles in His word are not based on the culture, but they will always find expression in the culture. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is definitely for us today, even if it wasn’t written to us (as we don’t live in Corinth!). Since it is for us, we ought to seek to live in accordance with the principle without making the mistake of thinking that God has ordained a particular cultural expression to be required.

We need to remember that God chose the nation of Israel and made them a light to the nations. When God tore down the dividing wall between the Jews and the Gentiles, He did not require everyone to become “culturally Jewish” (Acts 15:6-11). God’s principles transcend cultures and “traditions” and apply across all contexts and times.


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