Love and Honor – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 11

“Love always involves responsibility, and love always involves sacrifice.” These wise words were spoken many years ago by the Scottish minister William Barclay. And whether it is our love for God or for others, these words certainly ring true. Responsibility and sacrifice are essential qualities of real love.

This is a principle one can certainly find on the pages Scripture, as the Bible has much to say about the sacrifices and responsibilities of love, including that between husbands and wives. One of the places where we see a call to responsibility and sacrifice in the context of marital love is in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. The chapter as a whole is about proper behavior in the church, conducting oneself with respect and love towards others. However, to understand the important principles here, we have to wade through some specific cultural issues and evaluate the differences between our culture of today and the culture of first century Christianity in Corinth. “Wading” being the operative term, and unfortunately, the waters can get a bit murky. In embarking on this voyage of understanding, the first thing we need to realize is that all Scripture was communicated to a specific audience at a specific time and in a specific cultural environment. Thus, we must ask, “What is the timeless principle in Scripture that should be carried out in every place, in every time, in every culture?” We must also ask the corresponding question, “What are the commands that were just for that particular place, time, and culture?” Unfortunately, however, there are no hard and fast rules for determining the answers to these questions.

This issue is one of the things that makes this passage notoriously difficult to understand. The main idea concerns head coverings and/or hairstyles for women in the worship service. But it is full of unanswered questions. Perhaps here of all places, one principle of Bible interpretation should be applied: Where the Bible speaks clearly, you can speak clearly. When the meaning isn’t as clear, you should be cautious about what you conclude and assert. This passage certainly isn’t one from which one should form major doctrine as its meaning is very difficult to discern. Many commentators point out at least four difficulties with this passage: the argument is hard to follow, there are many unanswered questions about the cultural practices at the time, we don’t know what the specific situation was in Corinth that was being addressed, and there are terms and metaphors here with unclear meanings. As I said, it is notoriously difficult.

So what do we know about this passage? What can we say confidently? Well, what we know is that it has to do with men and women, it speaks about tangible things on a person’s head while praying or prophesying (either hair or cloth), and the actions that are taken in this area can bring honor or dishonor to someone else.

Paul launches into his discussion with a metaphor of a physical body, specifically discussing the head/body relationship. This is not the only time Paul uses the head/body metaphor, for we find it in other places in relation to Christ and the church and wives and husbands (see Col. 1:15-18; 2:18-19; Eph. 1:19-23; 4:15-16; 5:21-33). With metaphors, we can attempt to get a general sense of why the metaphor was used, but the details of metaphors should not be pressed too far. All metaphors break down at some point. In Paul’s metaphor here, he states that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Thus, he uses head/body metaphors for three sets of people. There are two main views of the essential sense of this metaphor, based on the word for “head” in the original language. One is that it means “source” in reference to life: man was created through Christ in the beginning of creation; woman came from man as Eve came forth from Adam’s rib; and Christ was sent forth from God in the incarnation. The other view is that it means “authority figure” and the sense is Christ is the ruler or authority figure of man, the husband is the authority figure of the wife, and the Father is in authority over the Son. I tend to lean toward the former meaning for several reasons, including the fact that the contexts surrounding Paul’s use of this metaphor are replete with themes of origination, life-giving, and growth. However, the heart of this passage can be discerned whichever perspective one has on this particular metaphor. And the one thing that cannot be denied is that if the husband is the head and the wife is the body, they are a complete and total unity. In fact, this unity idea cannot be overlooked. The actions of one have a powerful impact on the other.

As for the situation here in Corinth, there are also a couple different views on what was happening. One view is that the women were wearing their hair down and loose, as was typical of the prostitutes of the time. Thus, the “head covering” Paul is referring to was their own hair and he was saying that their hairstyle was bringing disgrace on their husband. This is certainly understandable, as we can easily comprehend how a wife looking like a prostitute might embarrass her husband! The other idea is that the women of that time and culture wore a cloth on their heads either to distinguish themselves as a woman, to show submission to their husbands in the midst of a very patriarchal culture, or for modesty. Thus, most think that the women of Corinth were wondering whether they should wear this covering in the worship service (or may have been refusing to do so). This throwing off of cultural practices in reference to marriage would have disgraced their husbands.

While the details of what was happening can be difficult to understand, the practical importance for us is finding the timeless principle in the midst that we can apply to our lives. I think that we can pretty safely say that it is NOT that women should wear a hat or covering on her head at church. First of all, there is nowhere else in Scripture in which such a command is issued, as one would expect if it was indeed an important directive for the church for all times. Second, it is not even clear here in this passage that it is a cloth, as strong arguments can be made that it was a hairstyle. Third, there are too many things that are unclear in this passage for one to assert a strong conviction that women of all times and places should wear head coverings in church. Fourth, head coverings mean nothing in many cultures, including our current American culture. Fifth, wearing head covings in church would actually be a stumbling block for many to come to church in our culture and thus would be a stumbling block to the gospel. This latter issue is one that Paul is very clear on in his letters: one should not put unnecessary stumbling blocks on anyone’s path to the gospel.

But what can we say then? What is the timeless principle that can be carried forth to all places, times, and cultures? Well, one, of course is the way that we dress. Especially for women, but also for men, we should dress in such a way that does not dishonor the opposite sex, including but not limited to, our spouses. We see the theme of disgracing or dishonoring come forth very clear in this passage: “every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head (used metaphorically for Christ) (v.4), “…every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head (used metaphorically here for her husband)” (v.5). Furthermore, the word “glory” is used here several times, most likely with the idea of “reflecting something onto someone.” In fact, glory in verses 14-15 is contrasted with “disgrace.” For example, if I am at a party and my kids pick up the ladle from the punch bowl and begin drinking out of it, that would disgrace me. It would not bring me glory, but shame. My children’s actions reflect upon me and communicate what kind of parent I am to others. Thus, part of the reason (however selfish and prideful it may be) that I want my kids to be well-behaved in public is that it reflects back on me. They have the ability to disgrace me or bring me honor and glory.

This is true not only for our children, but also our spouses. Who of us hasn’t at one point or another kicked our spouse under the table (or been kicked) when one did something that embarrassed the other? This goes both ways for spouses in our culture. However, in a patriarchal culture, it is much easier for a woman to disgrace her husband. In the patriarchal cultures in which the Bible was written, women, unfortunately, were considered the “property” of their husbands. Thus, they had a much greater ability to bring disgrace on their husbands than husbands could upon their wives. God never condoned this “wives as property” societal view, and certainly made strong statements against this kind of thinking: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In fact, even here, Paul seems to send a message against the superiority of men by saying, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman….” (vs. 11-12). However, the writers of Scripture, while making redemptive statements concerning social equalities, tread lightly in regard to overturning societal norms, customs, and politics. Their most important goal was not to change a culture; it was to infuse a culture with the life transforming message of the gospel. The gospel was the most important thing, and it needed to be infused graciously and gracefully into a culture that was damaged by sin and thus not operating according to God’s perfect ideals. Thus, Scripture does not directly command slave owners to free their slaves, it does not command dictators to give freedoms to their citizens, and it does not command a society to end gender inequalities. However, within Scripture, the principles are there that if a society chose to abide by them, the society would more greatly reflect the Kingdom where love, selflessness, respect, and dignity reign. No human would be the property of another. No human would be considered inferior. No human would be donned a second class citizen.

But, here in Corinth, we are not there. We are in a patriarchal first century city, where a wife had tremendous power to bring great dishonor to her husband. And the principle Paul seems to be stressing is this: women are not to act in such a way that brings disgrace to their husbands. Even if this involves following cultural practices that may seem unfair or hard to understand. Their love and respect for their husband should trump their freedoms.

So the timeless principles for our culture? Appropriate dress seems to be one principle, dressing in line with our gender, modestly, and in a way that does not disgrace our husbands or wives. By extension, our dress should also not dishonor the men and women around us. This is especially important when in the midst of the church gathering, where the focus should be on bringing honor and glory to God. Secondly, we can extend this principle to all of our behavior. Are we conducting ourselves in ways that bring honor to our husbands and wives? Or do our actions and behaviors embarrass and dishonor them?

As followers of the One who loved with the greatest sacrifice of all, the words of Barclay should be on display clearly in our lives. We should love with responsibility and sacrifice…responsible to honor the ones we love and willing to sacrifice our own personal freedoms and rights to put them first. That is the true essence of Biblical love.