Abstract:God’s good design for man and woman is to be practiced in all of life, especially in the worship of the church. Apparently, the behavior of some women in the Corinthian church was dishonoring both to God and their husbands. Whatever the exact nature of the problem, it had now become a gospel matter in public worship. Therefore, Paul seeks to apply the gospel—especially the idea of giving glory and honor to God, as Christ did—directly to the issue at hand. The purpose of the article is to show how the gospel itself is the interpretive key to this particular section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (10:31–11:16).
It is widely acknowledged that the gospel was preeminent in Paul’s thought and practice.1 Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians brings the gospel to bear on the many problems that were disrupting the God-given unity and sanctity of the church: divisions (1:10), pride (1:29–31; 5:2), sexual immorality (5:1), a shameful case of litigation (6:1–11), a disparagement of human sexuality (7:1–40), abuses of Christian freedoms (8:1–13), idolatry (10:1–30), and improprieties in corporate worship (11:2–14:40).
Paul signals his intent to apply the gospel to each of these matters early in the letter when he states concerning the emerging factions in the Corinthian church, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). The core message of the gospel—“the word of the cross”—is foolishness to unbelievers but has power to transform those who believe (1:18). As Gordon Fee observes, “This paragraph (1:18–25) is crucial not only to the present argument … but to the entire letter as well. Indeed, it is one of the truly great moments in the apostle Paul.”2
Paul confirms the importance of the gospel for the entire letter in his programmatic statement toward the end of the epistle: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:1–4). Beginning and ending the epistle with the gospel is not merely a literary device. Paul intends to set forth the gospel as the solution to every problem in the church. At times the gospel solution is direct and explicit. At other times, it is less direct but transformative nonetheless.
In keeping with the preeminence of the gospel in Paul’s writings in general, and in 1 Corinthians in particular, our interest in this present essay is to revisit the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16 with the gospel as the interpretive key to Paul’s argument. As will become evident, seeing the explicit manner in which Paul appeals to the gospel in this passage serves to strengthen the standard evangelical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 while putting it in its larger gospel context.3 Here is how the gospel can be shown to provide the integrative glue for Paul’s argument:
- The gospel itself is the interpretive key to this entire section of the letter (10:31–11:2). In fact, it is Paul’s primary concern for the believers in Corinth.
- Jesus Christ, and his willing submission to God, is at the heart of the gospel and Paul’s present instruction (11:3). Among the appeals made in this passage, the appeal to Christ and his relationship with God carries the most weight.
- The behavior of some Corinthian women was dishonoring and disgraceful, both to God and their husbands. Whatever the exact nature of the problem was, it has now become a gospel matter in public worship (11:4–6).
- Paul’s solution—what we may call a “gospel recovery” of God’s design for glory and honor among man and woman—assumes that no one ever keeps glory for oneself (11:7–12).
- The passage finds gospel resolution in Paul’s appeal to wisdom and humility. Both wise judgment and humility are practical expressions of what it looks like when the gospel prevails in the life of believers (11:13–16).
1. The Gospel as Interpretive Key (10:31–11:2)
Paul’s main purpose in 10:31–11:16 is to bring the gospel to bear on the behavior of the Corinthian women in public worship.4 Apparently, many of the women in the Corinthian church were praying and prophesying in a way that hindered the gospel. It is never good for us, or the gathered church, when we draw attention to ourselves. Nor is it ever good for us, or the gathered church, when we pray, sing, preach, or give testimony in ways that undermine the gospel. Every aspect of our lives ought to bring glory to God. Here Paul seems to be most interested in the humble disposition of the worshipper. Whether you eat or drink, pray or prophesy, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (10:31). Seek not your own advantage but in humility imitate Christ: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (11:1).
Exactly what did Paul learn from Christ? What is he trying to model for the Corinthian church to imitate? In a word, he wants them to embody the humility of Christ in every aspect of life—including worship. Worship is our humble and grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ. Therefore, our worship habits ought to reflect a gospel-formed humility. Paul is calling the church to compare their present worship habits to Jesus Christ himself—to the humble embodiment of the gospel par excellence.
Verse 2 confirms that the gospel is the key to Paul’s argument. Here he commends the Corinthians for receiving the message of the gospel that he personally “delivered” (παραδίδωμι) to them in the past. The traditions (παράδοσις) he has in mind are not early church liturgical traditions.5 Rather, he is talking about the gospel itself—the core of the gospel story rightly interpreted according to the Scriptures. We know this because later in the letter he is explicit about what he “delivered” to the Corinthians. Paul writes,
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered [παρέδωκα] to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:1–4)
If the gospel itself is what Paul has in mind in verse 2, this clears up the question of why he appears to move so quickly from a general commendation (“I commend you …”) to the topics of headship and authority that immediately follow. He is not just saying something positive before he corrects the Corinthians for their dishonoring worship practices. Instead, we read verse 2 as a direct appeal to the gospel which ought to define the worship practices of both men and women in the Corinthian church—especially as Christ modeled for them the value of headship, authority, and humility. A biblical understanding of God’s good design for headship, authority, and submission is always grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is it about Christ that Paul wants these believers to imitate? He wants them to follow Jesus’s example of bringing honor and glory to God. He wants them to apply the concept of gospel-formed humility to the man-woman relationship in the context of the church gathered for worship. He wants them to embrace God’s good design for authority in divinely-ordered relationships. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of how one relates to God-given headship and authority. That is where Paul takes us next.
2. The Triune God and His Gospel (11:3)
Verse 3 is the theological center of Paul’s argument. Jesus Christ, and his submission to God the Father, is the ultimate example behind Paul’s instruction for the Corinthian church. He perfectly embodies love and humility in order to accomplish the will of another. His submission to the will of the Father is the very thing that made our salvation possible (cf. John 5:18–47; cf. Phil 2:5–11). His voluntary submission to the authority of God the Father is precisely what Paul is calling all believers to imitate.6
Paul writes, “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” (11:3). Each of these three couplets—Christ/man; husband/wife; God/Christ—assumes a gospel-oriented submission to the corresponding authority:
- Christ/man: every person, man or woman, submits to Jesus Christ as Lord;
- Husband/wife: a wife’s voluntary submission displays the beauty of the gospel;
- God/Christ: Jesus’s submission to the Father’s will makes the gospel possible.
The act of submission ties each of these three relationships together. And in each case, Paul makes a broad appeal to the assumed goodness of God’s design for these ordered relationships. It is God’s desire that every person in the world submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ: “The head of every man is Christ.” The only way to truly flourish in life is to yield to the authority of the Son of God. In the same way, the only way to truly flourish in the marriage relationship is for both husband and wife to live according to God’s design for each of them. The wife’s voluntary submission to her husband, as her God-given authority, beautifully displays the humility that is characteristic of the kingdom of Christ. And the husband’s call to live a life of sacrifice on his wife’s behalf is only possible if his life is grounded in the crucified Christ (cf. Eph 5:25).
This brings us to the third and most important relationship of verse 3: “The head of Christ is God.” What Paul means by this statement is developed further in 1 Corinthians 15 near the end of the letter. The submission of Christ to the will of the Father not only made our salvation possible but is also tied to the glory and honor of God the Father as the ultimate end of all things. As the final qualifier, Paul states that “all things are from God” (v. 12b), which puts verses 7–9 into proper perspective—both the man and the woman are from God. Paul’s command is not grounded merely in social or cultural norms but is deeply rooted in theology. He wants his readers to see the relationship between men and women as analogous to that of Christ the Son and God the Father.7 As Schreiner argues, “We have an analogy between the Trinity and male-female relationships, but not an exact parallel.”8
If each of these three relationships demonstrate how submission works in the divine order of things, then, suggests Paul, it follows that our worship gatherings should also display the gospel accordingly. When the gospel is not at work in our worship gatherings, it is to our dishonor and shame. Verses 4–6 describe the dishonor and disgrace that come with a departure from God’s good design.
3. The Problem: Authority, Shame, and Dishonor in Worship (11:4–6)
In verses 4–6, Paul applies the gospel directly to the deportment and adornment of these women in gathered worship, especially in prayer and prophecy. Richard Hays writes, “The problem was that some of the Corinthian women were acting in ways that brought shame on the community by blurring the traditional lines of gender distinction and/or by appearing to act in a disgraceful or disorderly manner.”9 Their conduct brought shame on the men of the church by discrediting man’s natural, God-given headship.10 But Christians should never bring shame on God or one another.
Paul addresses the men first. If a man prays or prophesies in the worship assembly with a head covering, he dishonors his “head,” that is, Christ (cf. 11:3). Such head coverings were likely commonly worn by men in pagan worship or as a showy display of social status.11 Against the backdrop of an honor-shame culture, Paul states that such an act dishonors Christ. By way of contrast, Paul then addresses his central concern—women worshipping in the church at Corinth. If a woman prays or prophesies in the worship assembly without a head covering, she dishonors her “head,” that is, her husband.12 In the woman’s case, the head covering most likely refers to a veil of some kind or perhaps a shawl.13 Paul elaborates on the theme of shame by likening a woman engaging in public prayer or prophecy to her shaving her head. Schreiner describes the problem as follows:
If women do not wear head coverings, their failure to be adorned properly would be shameful (11:5) because they would be dressing like men.… A woman’s failure to wear a head covering is analogous to her having her hair cut short or shaved. Every woman in the culture of that day would have been ashamed of appearing in public with her head shaved or her hair cut short, because then she would have looked like a man.14
In the culture of the day, a woman’s failure to wear a head covering sent a clear message as to how she was relating to male leadership, indicating her unwillingness to graciously submit. With this concern in mind, Paul instructs men and women on established practice in worship in order that they might not offend others. As Schreiner sums up,
I understand the major burden of 11:3–6, then, to be as follows: Women can pray and prophesy in public, but they must do so with a demeanor and attitude that supports male headship because in that culture wearing a head covering communicated a submissive demeanor and feminine adornment. Thus, Paul does not forbid women to participate in public worship, yet he does insist that in their participation they should evidence a demeanor that is humble and submissive to male leadership.15
4. A Cascade of Glory and Gospel Recovery (11:7–12)
Paul’s solution for the dishonor and disgrace in the worship life of the church is “the glory of God” (vv. 7, 12b). If we are not careful, we can easily miss that. Whether you consider yourself an egalitarian, complementarian, or perhaps are still sorting things out, evangelicals agree that humanity’s ultimate purpose is to bring glory to God. It is never right to bring glory to ourselves.
So, Paul makes a brilliant gospel move by appealing to the glory of God in the creation of man and woman. He seems to have something like a cascade of glory in mind—from God to man to woman. In this cascade, “glory” means the honor and dignity that one person freely awards to another. God freely bestows his glory on man in creation but man should never keep that glory for himself. He rightly and freely returns all honor and glory to the one from whom it came. Then, that same image-bearing sense of glory cascades from the man to the woman. When Paul says, “[Man] 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” (11:7–8), he describes a beautiful continuity of God’s image spilling forward in the creation order.
Just as a man should never keep glory for himself, a woman should never keep glory for herself. No human being should be possessive of glory. The glory and honor described here are on their way to someone else, and ultimately, on their way back to God—since “all things are from God” (11:12b). This is in keeping with the biblical theme that all glory, honor, and dignity come from God who is transforming us from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3:18). He is remaking us in the image of the Son, until fully and finally all things return to glorify God (1 Cor 15:28).16
Practically speaking, then, Paul is working out the way headship and glory—or authority and honor—ought to function in the husband-wife relationship. Man honors and glorifies God by not covering his head, since submission to another creature, including his wife, would dishonor God’s design for him (11:4). For the man to pray or prophesy with a symbol of authority on his head would undermine the God-given, relational order of creation.17 The woman, however, when praying or prophesying in public with her head covered, not only honors God and brings him glory but also gives honor to the man in that he gives joyful expression to her affirmation of the divinely created order. She honors God, affirming the goodness of God’s design, when she sees herself in relation to her husband as a “helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18, 20). As John Frame writes, “Unlike the man, then, she honors God best by displaying a symbol by which she honors her fellow-creature.”18
God made all of humanity to bear his image, refracting honor and glory onto all of creation. And yet, the way in which the man and the woman reflect God’s glory is also unique: “But woman is the glory of man” (v. 7). By God’s design, the woman’s beautiful and unique purpose is to give honor to her husband, not as an end in itself, but as a way of bringing glory to God. What is more, she does this not because she lacks anything as an image bearer but rather because she wants to freely give honor and dignity to another person rather than directing honor or glory to herself. While it is never right to bring glory to oneself, it is positively Christlike to bring glory to another (1 Cor 11:1).
The husband’s way of bringing glory and honor to his wife is no less difficult than her act of submission to him. In fact, it is perhaps even more challenging. He is called to voluntarily sacrifice himself on behalf of his wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” in order to help her flourish in beauty and holiness (cf. Eph 5:25). He is called to take up his cross and follow Christ by loving his wife more than himself. In this way, just like Jesus, he brings glory and honor to another through the cross. No husband should ever keep glory for himself.
How can the Corinthian women bring an appropriate sense of honor to their husbands? By praying and prophesying with a head covering in gathered worship. This simple act of submission and humility reflects the goodness of God’s design in the creation order and keeps glory moving away from oneself. Again, John Frame is helpful here: “It is often by submitting to others that we display the ethical components of the divine image. How better to demonstrate God’s love, His patience, His gentleness, His self-control, than by submitting to others?”19 And what better place to do this than a worship gathering which has as its ultimate purpose the glory of God?
In the end, Paul’s gospel-centered solution is the glory of God seen in gathered worship. Every single element of Christian worship—baptism, communion, Scripture reading, singing, praying, prophesying, preaching, collecting offerings, blessings and benedictions, etc.—ought to be for the glory of God. Our worship practices are ways to imitate Christ who never kept glory for himself. He was always in the habit of returning glory to the Father. Paul’s solution for the Corinthian church, then, is a gospel recovery of God’s glory as seen in God’s good design for man and woman. Our worship gatherings are to be all about giving glory to God, and him alone! Soli Deo gloria.
5. Gospel Resolution: Wisdom and Humility (11:13–16)
The entire passage finds gospel resolution in Paul’s appeal to two things: wisdom and humility. Both wise judgment and personal humility are practical expressions of what it looks like to imitate Jesus Christ (1 Cor 11:1). On the other hand, rejecting the wise, natural order of God’s design for masculinity and femininity and, in addition to that, being contentious about it in the worship life of the church, was rightly seen by Paul as a departure from the gospel.
First, Paul appeals to wise judgment in vv. 13–15. He calls the church to practice discernment when he says, “Judge for yourselves” (v. 13). Then, in the form of two rhetorical questions, Paul seeks to engage with his readers culturally as to what is fitting for a man and a woman.20 Does not the natural order of things teach us that there are distinctions between men and women (v. 14)? Most people seem to recognize masculinity and femininity when they see it. In this case, when a man wears his hair long, in the manner that women wear it, it is to his shame. A woman’s long hair, on the other hand, is her “glory” (δόξα), which denotes both the image bearing glory she has as an individual and the honor she is intended to bring to the man (v. 7). What is more, a woman’s long hair should be instructive as to what is appropriate in the assembly gathered for worship, namely covering one’s head in prayer. Again, the ultimate point of a wife praying with her head covered is to honor God first and foremost, and to do so by honoring her husband in the process—both of which are beautiful expressions of a life changed by the gospel.
Second, Paul appeals to humility and the natural unity that flows from it (v. 16). When Paul says, “we have no such practice,” he means that none of the other churches in their church-planting network practice worship in a disorderly manner.21 This is the third time out of four that Paul has corrected the Corinthians by appealing to what is commonly taught or practiced in other churches (cf. 4:17; 7:17; 14:33). So, the apostle is telling the Corinthians, if you are inclined to be contentious about this, realize that you are departing from the gospel pattern that was previously handed down to you. Moreover, those who are contentious—most likely a minority in the church—are advocating a divergent practice that is inappropriate by any measure and deviates from the greater universal body to which they belong.
The purpose of this essay was to revisit the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16, keeping the gospel in view as the interpretive key to Paul’s argument. The gospel reminds us that we should never seek our own advantage. Rather, we should imitate Christ in all that we do in order to bring glory to God (10:31–11:2). Jesus’s willing submission to God the Father is at the heart of the gospel and Paul’s present instruction (11:3).
Paul is not simply correcting the behavior of some of the Corinthian women who were dishonoring their husbands in gathered worship (11:4–6). He wants to bring the gospel, and its characteristic dispositions of dignity, humility, and grace to bear on the way in which all Christians worship.
Paul’s solution—what we have called a “gospel recovery” of God’s design for glory and honor among men and women—assumes that no human being ever keeps glory for oneself (11:7–12). Glory is always on its way to someone else, and ultimately, on its way back to God. No human being is truly worthy of glory, except one. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of both the glory of God and the glory of man. That is why he alone can bring many sons and daughters to glory!