Interpreting the meaning and intent of Scripture is a difficult job in its own right, but especially so when you are confronted with issues that are deeply entrenched within particular expressions within a cultural context. Take 1Corinthians 11 for example. Here is a church planted by the Apostle Paul  amongst a heavily Gentile population. The Church is wrought with divisions over the Apostle’s authority, the Corinthian love affair with “wisdom” and a “higher” experience of the Spirit. It is a dysfunctional congregation in that in contained gross sexual immorality, including an on-going sexual relationship between a believing man and his mother-in-law and the endorsement of temple prostitution because the Corinthians women were discouraged from having sex with their believing husbands for the sake of holiness. There were clear issues of the abuse of Christian liberty and lack of love among those who were stronger in their faith in their attitudes toward their weaker brothers and sisters. There was the misapplication of spiritual gifts , lack of order in worship, and some confusion about the resurrection. Then, here, in chapter 11, Paul deals the role of women in the church and a practice that is clearly foreign to our 21st century cultural context.

I don’t necessarily intend to get into an exegesis of the passage here as much I want to point out a significant issue when confronted with passages such as 1Corinthians. Within any given passage there may be issues that are clearly related to a particular cultural practice that no longer seem to have a necessary place of prominence within your particular cultural context. In 1Corinthians 11 we have Paul talking about how a women uncovering or shaving her head is a sign of disrespect for her hubands authority. The issue here is not whether or not 21st century Christian women should cover their heads, but rather, what is the principle behind this particular cultural practice? When you read the text you quickly discover that the principle is related to authority, submission, respect and modesty. Particular cultural practices may not have relevance to us today, but the principles behind those practices shouldn’t be ignored.

What is clear in this passage is that Paul:

(1) Believes their is biblical order to the relationship between male and female. “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (11:2); “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (11:7-9). The issue here is not a matter of equality, for Paul has made it clear in other passages that he sees men and women as equal in Christ in the sight of God. The issue here is the created order and the distinct complementary roles between men and women within the church and the home;

(2) The issues of head coverings is a spiritual issue more than it is a cultural issue. The concern, again, as you read the passage, isn’t so much in whether or not women wear head coverings (though they did in this cultural context), but what wearing those coverings or refusing to wear those coverings said about the male/female relationship between husband and wife and order in the church. Failure to cover one’s head (female) indicated a lack of respect and a desire to rule over the man (Genesis 3:16). Moreoever, when the man fails to lead, he isn’t behaving like the man that God made him to be (this is the issue of men not having long hair);

(3) The issue is not that men are of more significance than women (11:11-12). The distinctions that Paul is making do not undercut or contradict the fact that men and women need one another. Paul is simply drawing out the main point of the passage: The man is the head of his wife; Jesus is the head of the man; God is the head of Jesus. Jesus is the model of both submission and leadership for both male and female.

So, should women cover their heads today? Is it sinful for a man to wear long hair? The issue, again, isn’t so much the cultural practice but the very real, engaging, important principles behind any given cultural practice in Scripture. These are what we cannot ignore.

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