The Principle of Submission and Authority – 1 Corinthians 11

A language instructor was explaining to her class that Latin or French nouns, unlike their English counterparts, are grammatically designated as masculine or feminine. Things like “chalk” or “pencil” have a gender association, although in English these words are all neutral. Puzzled, one student raised his hand and asked, “What gender is ‘computer’?” The teacher wasn’t certain and so she divided the class into two groups (male and female) and asked them to decide if the term “computer” should be masculine or feminine. Both groups were asked to give four reasons for their recommendation.

The group of women concluded that computers should be referred to in the masculine gender for the following four reasons:

  1. They store a lot of data, but are still clueless.
  2. They are supposed to help you solve your problems, but half the time they ARE the problem.
  3. As soon as you commit to one, you realize that if you had waited a little longer you could have had a better model.
  4. And in order to get anything out of them, you have to turn them on.

The group of men, on the other hand, decided computers should definitely be referred to in the feminine gender because:

  1. No one but their Creator understands their internal logic.
  2. The native language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else.
  3. Even your smallest mistakes are stored in long-term memory for later retrieval.
  4. As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it.

(I thought, given my topic today, it might help to start with a little humor.)

As Paul moved on from the topic of whether or not it was ok to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, the next topic that he addressed was the lack of order in the worship gatherings of the Corinthian church. Some of the women were assuming more freedom than they should have; there was disorder in the midst of the Lord’s Supper; and there was confusion in the use of the spiritual gifts. Paul could have tried to solve these problems by issuing apostolic edicts, but instead he patiently explained the spiritual principles that supported the teachings he had given the church.

As we have noted, the introduction of Christianity brought about a new sense of freedom for people, but this often led to abuses of freedom. For example, in the first century the Christian faith brought freedom and hope to women, children, and slaves. As opposed to the first-century culture at-large, Christianity taught that all people, regardless of race or sex, were equal before their Creator, and that all believers were one in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28). The local church was perhaps the only community in the Roman Empire that welcomed all people regardless of nationality, social status, gender, or economic position.

However, in the midst of this counter-cultural way of viewing all people as equal, it is not surprising that we might find that some individuals took advantage of this new freedom. As we have seen the last few weeks, some believers were using their freedom in Christ in inappropriate and selfish ways. What we find in chapter 11 is that some of the women in the church were flaunting their newfound “freedom” in the worship gatherings by refusing to dress modestly by wearing head coverings.

Now here’s why this was a problem: in their culture, except for the temple prostitutes, women wore long hair and in public they wore a covering over their heads as a sign of submission and modesty. At this time, for the Christian women in the church to appear at a public church meeting without a head covering was disrespectful to their husbands and to the Lord. In essence it was a woman’s way of presenting herself as “on the market” and independent of her husband. So in chapter 11 Paul sought to restore order in the church by reminding the Corinthians that part of God’s plan in revealing Himself to the world was through the example of the relationship between men and women and their particular roles within that relationship which were to mirror the church’s relationship to God.

In today’s passage we’re going to read about an important principle in scripture – the principle of authority and submission. It’s a principle that our world doesn’t appreciate because our world doesn’t understand, or even attempt to understand, the mind of God. While this is normal and to be expected of the world, we must remember that as followers of Christ that while we are in the world, we are not to be of the world. We have willingly chosen to take on God’s yoke and follow His plan even when it is difficult for us to understand. We are people who have confessed our inability to live righteously and we have thrown ourselves fully on the mercy and wisdom of an Almighty God. So this morning as we study a difficult passage of Scripture, I want to challenge you to remember God’s omniscience and sovereignty. Remember who you know God to be. Remember His actions throughout history and throughout your own life and press on in obedience in light of His goodness.

Let’s dive in and read our whole passage this morning, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.

3 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. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. 6 If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. 7 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. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Paul begins with some kind words praising them for thinking of him and wanting his opinion as they wrote to him and asked him these questions that he is responding to. But then he quickly launches into correcting the misbehavior of some of the women who had taken their new freedoms in Christ to excess and were no longer wearing their head coverings in the worship gatherings. Paul gives several reasons why this action was inappropriate:

  • The head of woman is man (v. 3)
  • Every woman who prays of prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her “head” (vs. 5)
  • Not covering her head is like having her head shaved, which is disgraceful (v. 6)
  • Woman is the glory of man; woman came from man and was created for him (vss. 7-9)
  • Because of the angels (v. 10)

The Head of Woman is Man (v. 3)

Verse 3 gives us the principle that the rest of this passage rests on, the principle of authority and submission that I mentioned earlier. In this verse Paul uses the word “head.” How a person understands this passage is dependent on how they interpret this word. “Head” can refer to “a prominent person, one of honor or authority who ranks above a family or community; or it can indicate a source, or point of origin.” I believe that in verse 3 it refers to authority, and here’s why. When we look at similar uses in the New Testament we read things like:

-Ephesians 1:22 – And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.

-Ephesians 4:15 – Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.

-Colossians 1:18 – And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.

-Colossians 2:9-10 – For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

Typically in Scripture, when it refers to “head,” it is referring to authority. But another vastly important reason that I don’t believe the term “head” can refer to “source” in verse 3 is because it says that “the head of Christ is God.” We know from Scripture that Jesus did not come from God the Father, He is one with the Father. John 1:1-3 tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Colossians 1:15-17 explains that, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” So we know that the Son didn’t come from the Father, rather, for the period of time that He came to Earth in human form, He willingly took on the role of submission to the Father to carry out His plan. And this is exactly how we are to understand the submissive role that women are to have to men – their submission in no way speaks to an inequality with men, it is simply their God-given role in the grand scheme of God. Just as Jesus is in no way less than the Father, women are in no way less than men, but we do have different roles that each come with their own blessings and challenges.

In the 21st century we sometimes struggle with the idea that women and men are to have different roles because we often confuse different roles with the idea of inequality or we fear that it could lead to tyranny, but that is not God’s plan. We need to understand that the authority God speaks of is an authority based in love. Again, looking to the example of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, authority was not an issue. Jesus willingly surrendered to the Father’s plans because there was no fear of tyranny or inequality.

When one in authority acts in love and grace and responsibility, it is wonderful to be under that person’s leadership, but we struggle with this idea because we have seen authority misused so often. However, we must understand as followers of Christ, that God has a perfect plan in mind for the world as we follow His design. If we can show the world what God’s perfect plan of authority and submission should look like it in the midst of male/female relationships, it might help them to understand how submitting control of their lives to Christ is a wonderful and freeing decision rather than an oppressive one.

So we’ve seen that the first reason Paul gave for women to wear a head covering is that it was a visual representation of her submission to man as her “head” according to God’s plan. The second reason Paul gives is that not wearing a head covering dishonors her “head.” This is a continuation of the first reason. In His sovereignty and wisdom, God created man first giving Him the responsibility of authority over all things, including their wives, and now some women were removing their head coverings, which was a way of telling everyone around them that they were not submissive to their husbands. This was a huge problem because it was a deliberate act – it was understood by the women what this would tell others; and it was an intentional breakdown of the distinction God had created between men and women. When a woman, particularly a wife, didn’t wear her head covering it was a dishonorable statement against her husband – a display of disrespect and independence.

The third reason Paul gave was that a woman not wearing a head covering was the same as having her head shaved. Have your head shaved was something that women did for two primary reasons – either to display her desire for independence in a sort-of feminist act of protest or to declare herself as intentionally immodest (like a prostitute). Once again, this went right in the face of their culture’s social norms for a respectful and modest woman. Intentionally not having long hair or wearing a head covering was a public statement that announced “I am not submitting to a man and I am on the market for whoever is interested.” Obviously, this was disgraceful for any woman, but especially for one who claimed to follow Christ.

The fourth reason Paul gave was that a woman should wear a head covering because she is the glory of man, she came from man, and she was created for man. In other words, the head covering revealed God’s order of Creation and the wisdom of His plan. In God’s design of this authority and submission principle, the wisdom of the created order of things points to the glory of God. Just as Creation points to the imagination and power and wonder of God, the beauty of a relationship between a husband and wife working together in mutual submission and respect and humility reveals His love and understanding. God created us as relational beings who are better together, and when a husband and wife relate in a complementary fashion, both fulfilling the roles that God has assigned, it is a testimony to God’s wisdom.

The last reason Paul gives regarding head coverings is the seemingly strange statement, “because of the angels.” In the midst of my studies it appears that the honest explanation for this phrase in the minds of most scholars is, “I don’t know!” This is one of those mysteries of God that we may not fully understand until we see Jesus face-to-face, however, I think there are two reasonable explanations behind this idea. The first is that angels clearly understand this authority and submission principle and they serve as reminders to us that God’s plan works wonderfully when we submit to it. We have seen the devastating results of one particular angel (Satan) attempting to break out of submission to God and through the remaining obedient angels we can see the beauty of the order that God created. Another explanation though is that the angels are watching and learning from the church. Ephesians 3:10 says that God’s intent was, “… that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” That is, angels, and demons for that matter, continue to watch God’s creation and as His wisdom is continually displayed it will reveal His wisdom and bring Him glory.

What I hope you gather as we study this idea is that this whole principle of authority and submission is not really about women and men as much as it is about the glory of God. I love the way Tim Keller explains this, he says, “Submission is a ministry a wife gives to her husband because of her devotion to Christ. It is because of Christ and His grace given, not the excellence of her husband that a wife is to submit to her husband. In other words, a wife’s submission to her husband is a “gift” of grace to the husband. But how? The wife’s submission serves the husband in that if affirms his God-given calling to be the leader of the family, a calling compromised and distorted by the fall. Without a wife’s submitting respect, a husband will increasingly abnegate his role of leadership, which comes with its own challenges. Her submission creates a context for the husband to flourish in his leadership. The headship men are to give their wives is patterned after the headship of Jesus Christ, which means it is both real leadership and real sacrifice.”

While we, who live in the midst of a fallen world, may struggle to completely understand God’s plan for our roles as men and women, I find it helpful to remember that He modeled this for us in the life of Jesus. The Son is not inferior to the Father in any way, yet Paul teaches us that “the head of Christ is God.” There is equality in identity and distinction in role. Jesus willingly and happily submitted to the Father during His time on Earth because He knew that serving in this role would bring about God’s plan of salvation. Scripture speaks of Jesus’ submission to the Father often in Scripture, we read things such as:

  • Philippians 2:5-8 – Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name
  • John 6:37-38 – All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
  • Mark 14:35-36 – Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

The Father’s role of headship over the Son was based on an authority of love. The Father always had the Son’s best interest in mind and it was precisely because of Jesus’ obedience to His role of submission during His time on earth that Philippians 2:9 tells us that God gave Him the highest place (of glory) and the name that is above every name. It is this God-given formula of loving authority and voluntary submission that is the basis of Paul’s teaching in chapter 11.

One final thing and then we’ll close. The last thing Paul talks about brings harmony to this whole subject. In verses 11-12 we find that after talking about the submission of a wife to her husband Paul says, “…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. But everything comes from God.” Here Paul is talking about salvation and the church and his explanation is that while woman came from man, in the church men are as dependent on women every bit as much as women are dependent on men. The church desperately has to have its women function. In Christianity, Paul is saying that women and men need to rise up to the place of Galatians 3:28 which says that we are “one in Christ.” We have different roles from God, yet we are equally dependent on each other and in the Lord’s plan we find a beautiful equality and need for one another. Mutually, in the body of Christ we all labor together for God’s glory and this edifies, or builds up the body of Christ to the glory of God.

So men – “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.” (Eph. 5:25-26)

And women – “submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22)

So that together – we might “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 21) in hopes that the world will see Jesus in us and recognize the beauty and glory of our Heavenly Father.

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