The Corinthian Ekklesia – Head Coverings

In our last post from our on-going series examining the nature of Christian gatherings from the Book of Acts, we saw an opportunity to address the congregation given to prophets, who were also gifted to speak, alongside teachers and we might also include apostles, as specifically mentioned in Acts 11:27 and 13:1 (You can get caught up on the whole series here, under the heading “When You Come Together”). In our survey, we have noted that Acts serves as a central hub of sorts describing the developments that took place in the early church after the ascension of Christ, whereas the epistles often function like spokes from the hub offering doctrinal expansion. In this case, as a tangential expansion on the passages highlighting prophets, teachers, apostles, etc., we noted that 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 deals with how this happens decently and in order within the gathering of believers. In this post, we’ll expand out from this passage in 1 Corinthians 14 to the larger context from the letter and begin to unpack the grand aspect of so-called corporate worship, or what happens when believers gather together.

While the emphasis on the gatherings of believers has been clearly recognized as occurring in 1 Corinthians 11-14, in reality we could just as easily conclude that the entire letter deals with the gatherings of believers, or ecclesiology. For background and context, responding to reports from Chloe’s people in chapters 1-4, the primary theme is brotherly unity over and against the schism of partiality for particular men of influence (Paul, Peter, Apollos, Christ). Then chapters 5-6 follows the discussion on the relationship of apostles to the Corinthians from chapter 4 in order to calm down the partisanship. Here Paul instructs the believers on how to administer discipline among their body by purging the leaven (an obvious allusion to the Old Testament, specifically Exodus/Passover). This leads him to address the fallacy of suing fellow believers, instead addressing the issues in and amongst the assembly of believers, a much neglected – even ignored – practice today. This section is concluded with an exhortation against sexual immorality, the very sin the Corinthians had tolerated. Having dealt with the issues reported to him, in chapter 7 Paul begins to address the issues that the Corinthians wrote to him about, reminding us once again that the entirety of the letter is concerned with the community of believers (Note 1 Corinthians 7:17). The first issue involves marriage followed by the eating of food offered to idols (chapter 8-11), which includes a discourse on believer’s rights, but more importantly their right not to exercise their rights (chapter 9) along with the relationship of meat offered to idols with the Lord’s Supper (chapter 10). All of this leads us directly into a section on what happens (or should happen) when believers get together.

The transition into this section, as with some of those mentioned above, happens via the little English word now (Greek – de). This serves as a clue that there is a slight change in the discussion that follows, which in this case concerns the observance of traditions (ordinances in the KJV); not man-made traditions which leads to traditionalism, rather the divinely given traditions handed down by the apostles for believers to observe. The introductory verse is below:
Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.

1 Corinthians 11:2 KJV
This section begins with a statement exhorting the Corinthians to maintain and observe the traditions that Paul had delivered. Said negatively, there were things handed down to all of the believers everywhere that were expected to be regularly observed and maintained in perpetuity which the Corinthians were either ignoring, incorrectly doing, or being contentious about (1 Corinthians 11:16).

Head Coverings

The first tradition or ordinance which Paul mentions, head coverings, is one that has gone largely unnoticed or has been quickly dismissed in our day as an antiquated cultural practice. It is a complicated and debated passage, so we’ll enter into it graciously and with patience for the differing views. While it has been used as a passage in the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate, regardless of one’s interpretation of the passage, it is crystal clear that it highlights the differences between man and woman (no head covering/head covering). Allow me to state that point again clearly. If there was strict across the board egalitarianism – meaning no differences in person or function between men and women, then this entire passage could be ripped from Scripture as unnecessary, but it can’t. For this discussion, we will be referencing the King James Version and will explain the reason for this below.

In examining the passage, there are four main points or questions that need to be answered in order to arrive at our interpretive conclusion. In a sense, they will serve as our road map for navigating the difficulties of this passage. They are listed below:
  • What is the meaning of head?
  • Is the focus of this passage on man and woman or husband and wife?
  • What is the primary argument?
  • What is the application?
The section begins with a doctrinal assertion, which as we’ve seen is the starting point for all application.
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. 1 Corinthians 11:3
Here we have the establishment of what is often referred to as ‘headship’, though admittedly it has come to have a wide range of meaning and negative connotation. This statement sets the foundation for the entire passage and, as has been observed, the difficulty and disagreements hinge on the meaning of head. How one interprets this verse determines the direction of the whole passage. As it unfolds, it is clear that head can simply mean head, like the physical top of the body that rests above everything else, except of course hair. Of debate however, is whether head in its metaphorical use means source or authority. As may be obvious, within the debate those who hold that the meaning is source are labeled as egalitarian while those who hold to the meaning as authority are labeled as complementarian. The former is concerned with equality and the latter with distinction or complimentary roles. Said simply, egalitarianism sees no distinction between males and females, in person and in role, while complementarianism sees equality in person – made in the image of God, but distinction in roles including the subordination of women (or perhaps wives) to men.

However, as pointed out above, this passage speaks directly to the distinctions between male and female, before and apart from any decision on the meaning of head. Therefore, whether we conclude source or authority (or something else) as the primary intention here, it isn’t a hinge for an egalitarian proof text as it is actually chiefly concerned with biological differences and how they are to be recognized among the gathering.

Perhaps a point that has been neglected in the debate is that fundamental basis for headship actually is source: Adam was created first (Gen. 2:7); Eve was created from Adam (Gen. 2:22); as in Adam all die (Romans 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22). Adam is the Federal Head of all humanity, not in an authoritative way, rather in primordial or source way. Before a discussion of headship = authority can even be entertained, it must be understood that first headship = source. Again, and for clarity, Adam is the federal head for humanity not because of an authoritarian position given to him, rather he functions as federal head because he is the source of mankind.

Applying this to the debate, if head means source, man still is in the position of headship. If head means authority, then man is likewise in the position of headship, but we would need to examine the meaning and extent of this authority and likewise in what way God has authority over Christ as in 11:3 (FYI: this leads to a massive debate on eternal functional subordination of the Trinity; ESS/EFS). The water gets deep here very quickly.

Here, we could argue for authority, subjection, etc., as in 1 Corinthians 15:28. As this argument is normally framed, man is subject or subordinate to Christ, woman is subject or subordinate to man, and Christ is subject or subordinate to God. In order to untangle this subordination, particularly among the Godhead, an appeal is either made to Christ’s humanity or to what is called His eternal functional subordination or simply that Christ is subordinate to the Father in his functions or roles, not in essence. This idea is then transferred over to the woman/man subordination and repeated to mean that woman is not inferior in essence, rather she is subordinate to man in her functions or roles. The difficulty with this interpretation is that this is where the parallels stop. If we were to be consistent and apply this to the third couplet, Christ and man, we would have to say that man is not inferior in essence to Christ, rather he is simply subordinate in function or role. I’m not aware of anyone who wants to or has yet to make that argument. The context does not appear to demand these subordinations. Instead, it more closely aligns with the concept that woman came from man (see 1 Corinthians 11:8, 12).

The only real way to determine whether source or authority (or again another option) is meant here is the context and it would appear that based on context, something along the lines of source is intended in order to establish the headship of man. With this view, in what way is Christ the source of man, man the source of woman, and God the source of Christ. Is this even a realistic option?

An inference to this first and third couplet has already been made by Paul in the letter:
And ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s 1 Corinthians 3:23 KJV
Kistemaker’s translation in his commentary makes this point even more apparent as he writes, “And you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.” On this he comments, “Christ has been sent forth by God to accomplish his mediatorial work in this world. Through Christ, God is the ultimate source of life for all his people.” Christ is the source for His people, God is the source of Christ – and here I think it is safe to say both in terms of eternal generation (begotten, not made) and in His incarnation; both are true though the latter may be more in view here.

A second inference to the relationships described in 1 Corinthians 11:3 is also mentioned previously in the letter from chapter 8,
yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. 1 Corinthians 8:6
This passage, perhaps even more explicit than the one from chapter 3, expresses the fact that both God and Christ are, from and through whom, all things find their source and existence and that it is through Christ explicitly that we exist (see also Acts 17:28; Hebrews 2:11).

As previously mentioned, the establishment of the man’s headship over woman is rooted in the primacy given to Adam’s creation first and subsequently Eve’s creation from Adam. It is to this point that our passage will develop further as the argument unfolds and it is for this reason, that I’m referencing and citing the KJV translation of this passage because it avoids the interpretive decision of the ESV to make the distinction here between husband and wife. Instead it appears the KJV translators have more consistently translated the passage as having to do with man and woman (an additional reason why authority is not strictly in view here).

With the doctrinal teaching of headship introduced, in the next post we will move to it’s fuller development related to head coverings, find out whether authority, source, or something else gets flushed out in the context, and see its related application to prayer and prophecy.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

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