1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – The Distinctiveness of women from men

1 Corinthians 11v2-16

The Distinctiveness of  women from men.

[And the behaviour of women in public worship]



This passage that we come to today is a relative mine-field when it come to interpretation. It has been used by anti-feminist to support their position. It has been used to insist that women should wear hats to church. Also that men should have short hair and women should have long hair. There are probably others issues as well. To used this passage to uphold ones traditional position has been a common practice.


Let recognise that this is an extremely difficult passage of scripture to interpret simply because there are some phrases and words that are unclear and we simply do not know that original meaning. BUT there is enough for us to be able to draw out some principles.


This passage of scripture has nothing whatever to do with hats!


Paul is dealing here with the distinctiveness of male and female, and the headship or leadership of the male, and with the behaviour of women in public worship. This is not to say the he is not concerned with how men behave in public worship!


BUT REMEMBER he is writing in response to a letter which he had received from the Corinthian Church. SO he is replying to a specific difficulty within the Corinthian context AND what he says here, as with the rest of the letter,  must be understood against the background of the Corinthian situation. When we take it out of its historical setting we can end up with distorted beliefs and practices or even with heresy.


We must distinguish between the cultural practices  of the time and the cardinal principles that emerges from that.  Cultural practices are local and not binding WHILE cardinal principles are universal and are binding.




Paul begins his argument by declaring a principle “Now I want you to realise that the HEAD of every man is Christ, and the HEAD of every women is man, and the HEAD of Christ is GOD”


Now clearly Paul is not using the word HEAD literally but metaphorically!


BUT what is the metaphorical meaning?

Whether on a divine scale or a human scale, subordination and authority are indispensable elements  of God’s order and plan.


CHRIST THE HEAD OF EVERY MAN – Most of the human race do not acknowledge that Christ is in authority over them BUT that does not change the fact that all authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to him [Matt.29v19]. In a unique way he has authority over the Church. He is the Saviour and Lord of the Church; He has redeemed us and bought us as his own.

Unbelievers who are on rebellion against God ignore him – God in his patient forbearance allows them to continue but one day they will acknowledge him as Lord. He is in ultimate control of all men, now and forever.



The principle of man being the head of woman is the basic order of creation. This is the way God planned and created mankind to be. Now I know that this doesn’t sit too well with feminists!

And feminists appeal to passage like Gal.3v28 “there is neither male nor female” and 1 Peter3v7 “And grant her honour as a fellow heir of the grace of life” to support their case – and they accuse Paul of being a male chauvinist.

BUT Paul makes no distinction between men and women i.t.o. their self-worth, intellect abilities or spirituality.


ILLUST: Their are many women who are stronger than me, more mature, more intelligent, have greater ability and are more spiritual.


God has established male headship for the purpose of order and not because of some innate male superiority.


ILLUST: An employee might be more capable than her boss, but a company cannot run without proper authority, even if the employee is more intelligent and capable than her boss.


Elders are chosen from amongst the spiritual men of the congregation and there may be others in the Church who are more spiritual BUT because the ARE more spiritual those NOT in POSITIONS of leadership will submit to those who are!!


A wife may be better educated than her husband, she may know the scriptures better, she may be more competent in many areas, She may be more spiritual but because she is , she will willingly submit to her husband as the head of the family.


Paul now ties this submission – equality principle to the Godhead.


THE HEAD OF CHRIST IS GOD – Jesus made it quite clear from his teaching that he was equal to the Father – “I and my Father are one” “What even the Father does, I do” In no way is Jesus inferior to God the Father. YET he willingly submitted himself to the Father to fulfill the divine purpose.


The 3 aspects of this principle are inseparably tied together. If you reject the one then you reject the other. E.G.- IF you reject the principle of women’s submission to man then you must also reject the principle of Christ’s submission to the Father and the believers submission to Christ.


LOVE – The authority and submission in each of these cases in based on love, not tyranny!!

The Father sent the son out of love.

Christ submitted to the Father out of love. He rule the church in love.

In response the Church submits to him in love.

Likewise men, Husbands in particular, are to exercise their authority in love, NOT lording it over.

Men do not have authority because of greater worth or ability BUT simply because of God’s wise plan. It is not a matter of worth or dignity but of task and responsibility.


2. THE PRINCIPLE APPLIED [to Corinthian culture] [v4-6]


READ v4-6


Background before we can understand these verses.

First century Greek dress was very similar except for the women’s head-covering. [Which only covered her hair and not her whole face as the Muslim veil] This was the normal everyday dress of the women of Corinth.

Some women did not cover their heads – the high class mistresses of the influential men of Corinth; And possibly the high class women of the Temple to the goddess Aphrodite. Also, slaves often had their head shaved and so did convicted adulteresses.


The Christians did not get specially dressed to go to Church meetings, which were not in Church building, they when along in their everyday clothes. It would seem that some of the women, with their new found freedom in Christ would throw back their head-coverings allowing their hair to fall loose.

This was no doubt a distraction to those around her esp. the men – the only women they normally saw with uncovered heads were immoral or slaves.


Thus Paul argues that for a women to have her head uncovered while praying or prophesying in public worship is shameful and dishonouring to her head – to herself, to her husband {and fellow male believers} and to Christ who is Head of the Christ.

The Christian women of Corinth were to keep their heads covered otherwise there was no freedom to worship, but much distraction. They shared equally in the ministry of prayer and prophecy.


So, says Paul, if that is how you behave outside the church. your head covered there is no reason to change that practice inside the Church.


The men MUST NOT cover their heads otherwise they bring dishonour to Christ their head.


Why was it a disgrace for a women to have her hair cut off [short] or shaved? It was a symbol of an immoral woman. Women who were lesbians would have short hair to look like men [remember they wore similar clothing] There must be no blurring of the sexes. God made men and God made women and he wants each to keep their distinctiveness.


In our society where the roles of men and women are increasingly blurred we need to hear this.

Transvestism is becoming increasingly popular. Men who get sexual pleasure from wearing the clothes of women and women from wearing men’s clothes. Homosexual and Lesbian couples who consider it normal. They might think it normal BUT God does not.


ILLUST: Radio Sussex and Surrey this week – a woman from an adoption agency arguing for Lesbian couples and homosexual couples to be able to adopt children so they can have a normal upbringing.


When we reversed our God-given role we are on the slippery slope to disaster. Both individually and as a community.

The devil is always active in trying to turn God’s order of things upside down That what was happening in Corinth and so Paul tells the women to keep their head-coverings on – because that was the accepted practice of the prevailing culture. If she did not have her head covered then she may as well shaved all her hair off because the conveyed message was the same – immoral!


3. THE PRINCIPLE EXPLAINED [i.t.o. the creation order] [v7-10]


READ v 7-10


Paul has given the cultural reasons why the Corinthian women should cover their heads in public worship. Now he give a reason from Creation.


The man was created first and was created in the image of God and for his glory He  was the crowning glory of God’s creation. Adam was created for God alone. for His pleasure, His joy and His glory. In a similar way woman was created to be the glory of man. Deriving her being from man – she was created from Adam’s rib – and finding her fulfilment in being his helper.

In this sense then the woman is the “Better half” being man’s glory


Let us make man in our image …

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them [Gen.1v26-27]


Male and female are to compliment each other. Paul concern is that God is glorified in the worship of the Church and that only happens when men and women jointly fulfill their God-given roles and responsibilities.


Paul must have been reflecting on the creation account when he wrote this.  Man by himself is not complete, he is alone and needs a companion. The animals were not good enough – he needed someone who was like him but different – who is uniquely for his own glory.

She is man’s “glory” because she “came from him” and was created “for him” NOT be to subordinate to him, BUT because she is necessary for him. She was the only one suitable for him so that he might be complete and together they could form humanity.


So men and women have a unique relationship to each other and stand equally before God, made in his image so that he might be glorified.


N.B. Don’t miss what freedom women received when the gospel came. Women had been subservient to men – their chattels and playthings – the gospel had brought women a before unimagined freedom. Paul is simply warning that this new freedom is not abused or taken beyond the bounds that God set.


Through this maze that is difficult to interpret  – [because of the angels – it is almost impossible to know what this means] – one thing is clear – Paul wants the Corinthians Christians to know that God wants worship to be orderly and descent with no hint of immorality or the blurring of sexual distinctiveness.


[REMEMBER Temple worship to the gods involved cult prostitution and gross immorality – What would an unbeliever have thought if they had come into a worship service to see women with uncovered head when in the culture of the day that symbolized an immoral woman]


In our culture women’s head coverings have no moral significance and therefore the practice is not an issue but the principle of maintain her femininity is. A woman must be feminine and a man must be masculine. And in the Church those roles must be treated with honour and love with no hint of immorality between fellow believers.




READ v 11-12


Just so that the men do not get the wrong idea about what he has been saying he qualifies it in these verses!

The key phrases in these verses are “in the Lord” and  “all things from God”  While it is true that the woman is man’s glory having been created for his sake that DOES NOT mean that she was created for his purposes into some kind of subordinate position for his aims and desires.


God has arranged things so that “In the Lord” the one cannot exist without the other. Woman was created from man BUT every man since then is born from woman. There is an interdependence that makes in impossible for one to consider him/herself superior to the other.


There is no room for male chauvinism or for feminism. Both are perversions of God’s order.

In order for the Church to be strong we need each other and we need to relate to each other in the way God has set out.


“All things originate from God” – Men and woman have different role BUT NOT different importance. They are equal to each other in the world, in the Church and before God




READ v13-16


In the Nature of things men have short hair and women long hair!


Paul now argues from the logic of How things are! How this is culturally universal is difficult to answer!!

ILLUST: African women can’t have long hair


BUT Paul’s major point is undeniable – God has made men and women different! You may have noticed!!!


Different cultures and societies express the masculine and feminine roles in different ways – the kind of jobs they do and the kind of clothes they wear. But God intends that men and women have different but complimentary functions.


Men must be truly masculine and women truly feminine – allowing the Bible to define those terms and not cultural stereotypes. In a society where the “unisex” theme is high on the agenda, Christians need to express themselves according to God’s pattern.  God has created us and redeemed us and our worship needs to glorify him as we fulfill our God-given roles within the church as we meet together and in society as we relate to believers and to unbelievers.


Paul is not laying down in these verses [2-16] universal practices – He is applying the principle that we look at last week “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is constructive.


And so the principle for Christians at worship [and for life in general] are that modes of dress are to be appropriate – not conveying an immoral message [sexually suggestive or flirty]. That things need to be orderly –

AND the distinctiveness between the sexes must be maintained. So that as we fulfill the roles God has given male and female we can compliment each other and help each other to glorify God.

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