WOMEN PRAYING AND PROPHESYING
SERIES: LIFESTYLE ISSUES IN THE CHURCH
Our passage of Scripture in this message deals with the public worship
life of the church. Let's jump right into some of the practical application
of the passage for a moment, without considering any historical context
or theological explanation of the issues. First Corinthians 11:4-6: "Every
man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying, disgraces
his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying,
disgraces her head; for she is one and the same with her whose head is shaved.
For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off;
but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head
shaved, let her cover her head." If we take this at face value, the
men in our congregation are doing okay, but the women might be in trouble-I
don't see many head-coverings.
On the recent trip that our pastors took to Romania, ministering in churches
there and in three conferences with Romanian pastors, I realized how culturally
determined both our dress and our deportment together in worship services
are. In any Romanian congregation you choose to worship with, whether Catholic,
Romanian Orthodox, or Protestant, the men are dressed plainly in suits and
ties, usually dark colors. The women have their arms covered and their legs
covered with long skirts-no slacks. They too are dressed in plain dark colors.
Every woman's head in a Romanian church is covered by a scarf, shawl, or
hat. The men and the women sit on opposite sides of the aisle in the congregation.
Women are completely silent in the worship services. The men do all of the
leading, praying, and preaching. Obviously, our lifestyle of worship at
PBC is very different. There is no discernible dress code, except perhaps
the code of diversity. Our women are not silent. The last two Sunday mornings
that we've enjoyed together in worship here, gifted women have led us in
music, prayer, worship, and Scripture reading. And just before Christmas,
Kathy Means, our pastor for Children's Ministry, taught the word of God
from this pulpit on a Sunday morning.
In all three of the conferences that we did with Pentecostal pastors,
Baptist pastors, and Brethren elders in Romania, these issues of dress and
deportment, specifically head-coverings, came up, for several reasons. For
one, we were dealing with a passage in 1 Timothy 2 that talks about women's
submitting to headship in the body of Christ, and immediately these pastors
would jump to 1 Corinthians 11 and ask about head-coverings in the church.
We were also open with them about how our pastoral staff includes both men
and women who are spiritually gifted as pastor-teachers. And then these
issues came up because some of the women in the Romanian churches are getting
sort of feisty and wearing cute, colored hats to church. So the pastors
have to deal with these issues.
Now let's back up and get a running start on the passage by putting those
three verses we read into historical context, and by understanding Paul's
theological explanation of those verses.
In the closing section of the passage we looked at in the last message
(Discovery Paper 4527), in the first couple of verses of chapter 11 Paul
addressed hard issues. He addressed motivation for how we live life, serve
one another, and minister. We could also use these verses to examine our
attitudes about why we come to church, how we dress, and how we view our
participation in our public life of worship at PBC, both as leaders and
as members of the congregation, as men and as women.
In 11:2 Paul is going to conclude this little opening section with a
wonderful word of commendation and encouragement to his Corinthian brothers
and sisters. Let's read 10:31-11:2:
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do,
do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks
or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not
seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything
and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
This is Paul's motivational context for the discussion that is going
to follow. The concern is that men and women worship God together in a way
that is glorifying to him. The phrase in both verses 4 and 5 that we read
earlier, "praying or prophesying," speaks of the context of corporate
Now, Corinth had incredible worship, vibrant with praise. It was probably
the most exciting church Paul had a relationship with in all the empire.
Every spiritual gift was in full expression, and there was much passion
and energy, preaching, and teaching.
But we're going to see beginning here in chapter 11 and going all the
way through chapter 14 that Paul was concerned about disorder. There were
serious problems in the worship life of this congregation. There were wrong
motives at work in some of the people, self-aggrandizement instead of concern
for God's glory driving a lot of the participation.
In this message we're going to examine the confusion over women's participation
in worship. In the next message we'll look at the problems surrounding the
Lord's table. In the following two messages we'll look at chapter 12, where
Paul addresses the confusion about spiritual gifting and the nature of the
body at work.
But here in 11:2 Paul begins with encouragement and commendation. He's
not flattering them; his praise is really sincere. There might have been
something out of line in their lives when they gathered together, but the
love and respect that most of them had for Paul was genuine, and he knew
that. And even though there was confusion over some of these Biblical traditions
regarding worship that Paul had taught them, he trusted that they really
did want to submit to his apostolic authority, and so in these verses he
patiently corrects their misunderstandings with spiritual principles from
the word of God.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE HEAD-COVERING
Now, as you can tell from verses 4-6, which we read at the beginning,
there was confusion in public worship over the freedom that women had to
pray and to prophesy. Some apparently were exercising this freedom more
than they should have in refusing to wear the head-coverings that were normative
in that historical setting.
Let me give you some context for this. The gospel that Jesus offered
was revolutionary in terms of the freedom and equality it offered to women,
children, and the slave population of the Roman Empire. Christianity proclaimed
that all people were on equal footing before the Creator God, and that all
believers were one in Jesus Christ. The local church was the only community
in the Roman Empire that welcomed all people regardless of nationality,
social class, gender, or economic status.
If you think about the study that we've come through to this point in
1 Corinthians, and remember what that church was like, it really isn't surprising
to find out that some of the new believers in Corinth would carry this radical
freedom in Christ to excess. So some of the women flaunted their freedom
in Christ, refusing to cover their heads in public worship. Eastern society
at that time was very jealous over its women. And except for temple prostitutes
and high-class courtesans of wealthy Corinthian men, women tended to wear
their hair long, and out in public they wore a scarf or a shawl-like covering
over their head. Mistresses or temple prostitutes might shave their heads
or wear their hair close-cropped without any covering at all. Across Jewish
and Greek and Roman cultures, the head-covering was a symbol of sexual purity.
And for a married woman, it was a symbol of her loyalty to her husband,
of her acceptance of his leadership in the relationship. It would be like
the wedding bands that a man and a woman wear today. So for a Christian
woman in the church to appear in public without that covering, let alone
to pray or to share the word in worship, was both culturally offensive,
and from Paul's perspective, confusing to nonbelievers who were trying to
understand what this new community of faith stood for in terms of values
THE SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLE OF HEADSHIP AND SUBMISSION
So Paul responds by explaining a Biblical tradition, or an ordinance
or teaching. God has defined a difference between men and women in his economy.
Each have a proper place. There are appropriate customs to symbolize the
relationships. In verses 3-6 Paul is going to introduce a universal spiritual
principle, that of headship and the response of submission. He is going
to define the principle in verse 3 and then apply it specifically in Corinth
in verses 4-6. Verse 3:
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head
of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of
This principle is foundational for order in the church. There is a divinely
ordained pattern for certain relationships in the Christian community, and
there is a definite order of headship here. God the Father is head over
Christ the Son. Christ is head over the man. And the man is head over the
woman. And even though there's a clear difference of function for each person
and each place in the order, there's no hint, in either God the Father's
relationship to Christ or in the man's relationship to the woman, of inequality
or superiority in nature. But this order does imply leadership responsibility
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul calls Christ the head (the same
word, kephale), of the church, which is his body. It means that Jesus
is the leader of the church. He has the right to set the ultimate direction
of that relationship. Yet when Jesus was here on earth carrying out his
redemptive ministry, he was always in submission to his heavenly Father
and did that which pleased his Father, even though he has always been equal
to the Father as deity. In the same way, the woman is submissive to the
man even though in Christ she has full equality with the man.
Now, if you look carefully at that first phrase in verse 3, it talks
about the headship of Jesus Christ over men, and implicitly, our submission
to him. He is the Lord. And men are called to exercise their headship, if
you will, the same way that Jesus Christ exercises his. In Mark 10:42-45
Jesus explained to his disciples the nature of the leadership they were
to have in the church: "And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to
them, 'You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles
lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But
it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall
be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave
of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,
and to give His life as a ransom for many.'" That's the leadership
that men are called to: servanthood, slavery, living sacrificially for the
good of others.
Now, Biblically, there are really only two spheres in which men have
a right to exercise headship. One is Christian marriage, in which the husband
is the head of the wife (Ephesians 5; 1 Peter 3). The other is the church
(1 Timothy 2-3), in which a group of elders who are men are called to submit
to Jesus Christ as Lord and to submit to one another, and then that group
of men is to serve the body sacrificially with their leadership.
APPLICATION IN CORPORATE WORSHIP
Paul applies the spiritual principle of headship and submission specifically
in verses 4-6 in the context of praying and prophesying in public worship.
Every man who has something on his head while praying
or prophesying, disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered
while praying or prophesying, disgraces her head; for she is one and the
same with her whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head,
let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman
to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head.
The first important point I want to make from those three verses is that
men and women were equally free to exercise ministry, to pray and prophesy
when the church gathered. The issue Paul was concerned with was that of
heart attitude. As we're going to see in chapter 14, prophesying is very
close to what we would call teaching or preaching today. It's reflecting
or illuminating the word of God. Women in the early church who had the gift
of prophecy were free to exercise it. They were also permitted to pray in
public meetings. But in 1 Timothy 3, Paul doesn't permit women to be elders.
In 1 Timothy 2 he doesn't permit women to usurp authority over the men who
were in leadership of the church.
But again, at the heart of Paul's concern here is the ministry of the
word in public worship. And so with that setting, how men and women dressed
and what they looked like was important. Paul says in that first-century
Corinthian setting that men should not have their heads covered, and women
should have their heads covered. That conformed to then-current cultural
standards, and it was symbolic of their acceptance of the spiritual principle
of headship and submission. It expressed the men's submission to the headship
of Jesus Christ, and the women's submission to the spiritual leadership
of their husbands and to church leadership.
The disgrace Paul mentions that could result if these public conventions
were ignored would be (1) a distraction or confusion for other people in
worship, (2) the dishonoring of the uncovered woman's husband in his role
as spiritual leader, (3) an undermining of the spiritual authority of the
elders in the church, and (4) a disappointment to the Lord, who established
this timeless principle of headship and submission, and who was reading
the hearts of the rebellious men or women who refused to conform.
Now what Paul does in verses 7-16 is give an explanation of this spiritual
principle of headship and submission. He makes three different arguments
to defend this tradition or ordinance. In verses 7-12 he offers a Biblical
argument from the order of creation. In verses 13-15 he offers a common-sense
argument from the pattern of nature, as he calls it. And finally in verse
16 he offers an argument from apostolic authority.
HEADSHIP AND SUBMISSION IN THE CREATED ORDER
Let's look first at this argument from the order of creation. We'll read
verses 7-9, where Paul briefly summarizes God's creativity at work in his
purposes for men and women.
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since
he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For
man does not originate from woman, but woman from man. For indeed man was
not created for the woman's sake, but woman for the man's sake.
This principle of headship and submission has been true since God created
the world. And the creation narratives in Genesis show that both man and
woman equally bear the image and the glory of God. Genesis 1:26-27: "Then
God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness'...And
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male
and female He created them." Genesis 5:1-2 again summarizes the creation
order: "In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness
of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them
Man [Adam] in the day when they were created." But in Genesis 2 when
God created Eve, he took her from Adam's rib. So Paul says she was created
from the man. Genesis 2 also tells us that God created woman to meet a specific
need that man had. There was an incompleteness in man. He created her to
be a help, a strength, a corresponding contribution that man was desperately
in need of. And because of that, in addition to reflecting the glory of
God, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:7, she also reflects the glory of man.
The woman will glorify God, and she will also bring glory to the man by
submitting to God's order. And again, this priority of creation doesn't
imply male superiority or female inferiority. We are equal, but we are called
to different functions in leadership and response. Because God established
this order of creation, it can't be explained away as culturally conditioned.
Paul goes on in verse 10:
Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority
on her head, because of the angels.
A Christian woman's head-covering is a sign or a symbol of her submission
to the principle of headship, and that humility before the Lord and her
husband then gives her the spiritual authority to pray and prophesy in church,
to exercise ministry in the freedom of the Spirit. I'm honestly not sure
what the angels have to do with this, but the Scriptures tell us that angels
are attentive observers of church life and practice. In Isaiah 6:2 we're
told that angels veil their faces in humility when they worship before the
throne of God. Perhaps Paul is encouraging women to worship with that same
submissive humility as those angelic ministers.
Now in verses 11-12 there's a wonderful, strong emphasis on the mutuality
of men and women in marriage in the church. Paul is still arguing from the
creation order, and from the beginning, it was clear that there was mutual
However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent
of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from
the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things
originate from God.
The phrase "in the Lord" in verse 11 clearly envisions Christian
marriage and life in the body of Christ (as opposed to relationships in
the world). And this mutual dependence of man and woman speaks of full equality
in personhood. Peter says that we are "fellow heirs of the grace of
life" (1 Peter 3:7). We can't get along without each other. Paul is
concerned to promote love between the sexes. Neither of them, because of
their different positions or advantages, should consider themselves better,
or treat the other with contempt or condescension. Paul says in verse 12
that this mutual dependence of the man and the woman is grounded in creation.
The first woman, Eve, was originally created from the man. But from that
point on, every single man is birthed by a mother. He says their inter-dependence
is also grounded in the Lord himself. All things are from God, which gives
us another reason for humility in the relationships between believing men
FEMININE APPEARANCE AND SUBMISSION
Now let's look at the second argument, in which Paul appeals to common
sense, or what is readily observable as a pattern in nature. Verses 13-15:
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray
to God with head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that
if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long
hair, it is a glory for her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
Now, if I were writing this, I probably wouldn't have appealed to nature.
But I'm not an inspired apostle. Paul says that if these Corinthians just
looked around them at the natural lengths and styles of men's and women's
hair, then they could decide for themselves this issue of how women's head-coverings
symbolized their submission to the principle of headship. In this regard,
men and women are generally distinguishable. The Greek word in the text
for long hair can also mean beautiful hair or beautifully braided long hair.
And since the Bible nowhere says exactly how long hair ought to be, I think
Paul is just talking about how women naturally tend toward longer, beautifully
styled hair. In 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Peter 3, Paul and Peter, respectively,
tell about the beautifully attractive qualities of women's hair. Paul says
a woman's hair is her glory. He doesn't say a man's hair is his glory. And
he says a woman's hair represents a natural head-covering that God has given
her, even if she doesn't have on a scarf or a shawl. I think beautifully
styled hair is appropriate for women, and inappropriate for men. Women are
concerned with beauty, and men are concerned with utility, by and large.
There are exceptions, of course, on both sides. But Paul is concerned that
there not be confusion of the sexes. He is ruling out androgyny or any kind
of unisex appearance that would confuse people. Paul says that it's not
only common but good and right for women to wear longer hair than men, and
to have distinctively feminine hair styles, because it symbolizes in some
way their submission to the lordship of Christ and their willingness to
follow the men that God has put in authority in their lives.
We're talking about what's normative, and where custom dictates it, Paul
says women ought to wear proper head-coverings to distinguish themselves
as submissive to God's principle of headship. As I've traveled to different
parts of the world, I've noticed that this basic principle of headship applies
in every culture, but the way it's demonstrated differs from place to place.
The important thing here is the submission of the heart to the Lord, and
the public manifestation of obedience to God's order.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE APOSTLES
The final appeal is to apostolic authority in verse 16:
But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no
other practice, nor have the churches of God.
As in almost every age and every church, some of the believers in Corinth
weren't satisfied with God's order of priority. They wanted to disregard
it or modify it to suit themselves. Paul anticipates the objection to what
he's just taught, and he declares that neither God, who is represented by
the apostles, nor the faithful congregations in his churches will recognize
any other foundational principles of leadership.
Now let me try to tie this together in conclusion. The churches around
the world may share common spiritual problems, and Biblical principles are
provided for universal solutions. But the local, historical, and cultural
manifestations of the problems are not universal. The ways we live, function,
dress, and behave in Palo Alto, California are different from the ways of
our brothers and sisters in Cluj, Romania. In our studies in chapters 8-10
Paul gave instruction concerning the eating of meat offered to idols. The
spiritual problem there was the use of freedom in Christ. The cultural,
historical expression was the idol temples of Corinth. We don't live in
an age or cultural setting where we have to deal with meat offered to idols
(although there are some Christians who live in Asia who may have to face
that issue). But every one of us has to deal with the problem of the exercise
of our Christian liberty in our own cultural setting on the edge of the
And just as with meat offered to idols, there was nothing in the wearing
or not wearing of the head-covering itself that was right or wrong. Some
of the women in Corinth, to their credit, had come to understand that. The
spiritual problem was the rebellion of some women against the God-ordained
roles. In Corinth that rebellion was demonstrated by their praying and prophesying
with their heads uncovered. Dress and hairstyle are largely cultural, and
unless what a person wears is sexually suggestive, or it indicates real
gender confusion, it has no moral or spiritual significance. Paul is not
laying down a universal mandate that Christian women should always worship
with their heads covered. It's the spiritual principle of women's submission
to the headship of husbands and to the leadership of the church that Paul
is teaching in this passage, not any particular external mark or symbol
of that submission. You see, the issue is not what we're wearing on our
heads, but what is in our hearts. Remember, the Scriptures say that humans
look at the outward appearance, but God is always looking at our hearts
(1 Samuel 16:7). What counts is the spiritual reality, not the symbol.
I am very grateful for men and women at PBC who model this beautifully
complementary relationship in their marriages and in their participation
in the life of the body here. I'm thankful for men who have repented of
lording it over women and are learning to serve women sacrificially as Jesus
does. I'm really grateful for women here who have repented of competition
with men and are learning to creatively give us the strong help that we
desperately need, supportively and encouragingly. I've watched many marriages,
both younger couples and older couples, and some of them have taught Candy
and me how better to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.
I am very grateful for the spiritually gifted women whom God has placed
in leadership here at PBC. We shared, as I said, in all three of the Romanian
pastoral conferences the spiritual health and life and blessing God has
given us as we've worked together on a pastoral staff of both men and women
who are learning the dynamics of complementary relationships, affirming
the goodness of being created male and female. When I got here twenty years
ago, our staff was a hundred percent male, and the staff meetings were rowdy
and rough-and-tumble, having the dynamics of a men's locker room. I loved
the first generation of leaders here, and I'm grateful for the years I had
as a young man. But the spiritual dynamics at work now among the leadership
are much healthier, much more life-giving.
Every one of us needs to re-examine our understanding of God's plan for
us as men and women in light of this passage. Remember, above all else we're
to be sold out to living to the glory of God. Men and women alike are called
to submission to his leadership. As in Corinth, the world is watching us
to see how our relationships work, to see if the gospel that we proclaim
mediates love and mutual submission in our relationships as men and women.
The question is, do the men reflect the loving headship of Christ in their
marriages and where God has called them to leadership in the church? And
do the women reflect the loving submission of Christ in their marriages
and in relationship to the leadership of the church?
I want to close with a reading from Jesus' high-priestly prayer in John
17:17-23. Watch very carefully the fluid movement in Jesus' thinking. He
is equal with his Father in nature, in personhood. But we see his submission
to his Father in his redemptive ministry on earth, in the saving function
that God called him to.
"Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth.
As Thou didst sent Me into the world [here is Jesus' submission to the
Father], I also have sent them into the world [here he is functioning as
the head]. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself [by going to the cross
the next day, giving up his life], that they themselves also may be sanctified
in truth. I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who
believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one, even as Thou,
Father, art in Me and I in Thee; that they also may be in Us; that the
world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast
given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one;
I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the
world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou
didst love Me."
Catalog No. 4528
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
May 17, 1998
The Scripture quotations in this message are all taken
from New American Standard Bible, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972,
1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Copyright (C) 1995 Discovery
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