Striving for Unity – 1 Corinthians Chapter 11: Headship, Coverings, and the Lord’s Supper

By Jenny Fulton

What is your background and experience with this chapter in 1 Corinthians?

Do you wear a headcovering? Do you know others who do? What do you think about it?

How about the idea of men and women and headship? What are your thoughts on that?

What does Paul mean when he talks about examining yourself before partaking of the Lord’s supper?

I have wondered about these issues for a very long time. While I know there are varying ideas and perspectives on these matters, after an in-depth study of this chapter, and many conversations with my husband, I hope to add my findings and perspective to the table.

Personal Background

I grew up in a conservative church where the discussion on headcoverings in this chapter was taken, to some degree, in a literal fashion. Once they’re baptized, girls and women start wearing their hair in a bun with a white covering on top. Various churches and denominations around the world practice other forms of this literal covering. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this practice as long as men and women don’t veer into thinking the woman’s salvation depends on wearing the covering rather than on faith in Christ, I eventually, after many hours of studying this passage with John, came to see that this chapter is about so much more than a physical piece of cloth worn on top of a woman’s head.

As far as my personal experience with being married and being single, I didn’t get married until I was 28, which means I was single for longer than I have been married (so far).

And now, onto the subjects at hand…

Verses 1-2: “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.[1]

After encouraging the believers to live in such a way that they encourage one another in the faith rather than cause someone to stumble, Paul transitions to this section by noting the authority he places himself under (Christ) and urging the church to imitate him as he imitates Christ.

Why does Paul tell them to imitate him?

Perhaps because it’s often far easier to learn and understand how to do something if we can see it done. One of the ways we learn how to live the Christian life is to observe the life of someone who patterns their life after the life and teachings of Christ. In verse 2, Paul praises the church for keeping his teachings in mind as they follow the practices he established with them.        

Verse 3: Who is the Head?

Although the word ‘but’ is used to begin this verse, the word can just as easily and frequently be translated as ‘and.’ In general, I don’t see any great contrast made between verse 3 and the previous verses, but I could be wrong on that. What’s interesting is that after acknowledging who he follows (Christ), Paul extends that authority to proclaim Christ is the head of every man. Now, an interesting fact to note about the word, head, is that it’s the same word Jesus uses when He describes Himself as the ‘chief’ (head) cornerstone in Mark 12:10. The same concept is used by Paul in Acts 4:11, and by Peter in 1 Peter 2:7. The cornerstone was the first stone laid on the ground at one corner of the building. Its job was to provide shape and direction for the rest of the structure. Using this imagery, you could say that one role of the ‘heads’ listed in this chapter is to provide the structural shape and direction for the Christian life.

In verse 3, Paul declares that God is the head of Christ. Jesus’ ministry was solely dependent upon the will and direction of the Father (John 12:44-50, 14:30-31). Was God’s direction given to Jesus for Jesus’ sake or for the well-being of others? Was it given for Jesus to elevate Himself as a world leader or to point people to God? Was Jesus less than God because of God’s role and status as Christ’s head? To even suggest such a thing feels like the greatest of heresy, and yet it’s vital to understanding and putting into context the way God designed a husband and wife to work together. So again, God is the head of Christ.

In a similar manner, Christ is the head of every man. Every man should be receiving the shape and direction of his life’s purpose and ministry from Christ. Christ’s will should be the driving, motivating force of every man’s life, not for the man’s sake, but for the sake of those to whom he ministers. If the man is married, the first people to whom he ministers are his wife and children. The purpose and direction every man receives from his head is given for the benefit of others.

In a similar way, a man is the head of his wife. Something essential to note here is that while Paul says Christ is the head of every man, the word used for woman in the phrase, “a man is the head of a woman,” refers to a married woman. In other words, every man is not the head of every woman. Every woman is not under the authority of every man. Instead, the husband is the head of his wife. The wife’s head is her husband. To say that a man is the head of his wife isn’t any more a statement of greater value than it is a value statement to say God is the head of Christ. These are not value statements but role descriptions within the oneness of a godly relationship.

Yes, a woman, married or single, has her own direct relationship with Christ/God. While she is single, the woman receives the direction and purpose of her life directly from God. However, once she gets married, a man enters into the equation and God no longer views them as two separate entities serving independently of one another but sees them as one whole who are operating together. A marriage and ministry don’t work if a husband and wife try to live separate lives while living together. And so, God established a structural, organizational framework that is really incredible once you come to understand it and if both parties operate within it in the way they were meant to do.

The framework: God communicates the direction to Christ who communicates it to the husband who shares it with his wife who then brings the vision to life. #ChristianLiving #headship

Take-Away for Wives: One way I submit to God is by trusting Him to work in my husband’s life and to communicate the purpose and direction for our family to my husband. To allow myself to be covered by my husband (when he is submitting to Christ) is to accept and trust God’s established structure.

Take-Away for Husbands: The best way to lead your family is to submit yourself to Christ’s will and direction for you and your family and to work in partnership with your wife to carry out the vision that is given.

What happens when one part of the framework breaks down?

Verses 4-6: When Praying or Prophesying

*Brackets indicate words that don’t appear in the original Greek.

“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 [as] the [woman 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.[2]

Is Paul talking about physical things on the head, or is he talking about something spiritual? Or is he using a physical custom/practice they would have been familiar with to illustrate a spiritual truth? Given that in verse 3, Paul is clearly describing a spiritual truth, I believe it is the latter. So, let’s break these verses down to see if we can figure out what spiritual truth Paul is talking about.

The physical practice of the day was for men to show their respect during times of worship by removing anything that was on their head. However, for women, going around without something on their head was a sign of immorality.

So, what is the spiritual principal here? The Greek word used for on literally translates as “down, against, according to.” If we substitute one of these meanings, remove the words that aren’t in the original Greek, and insert the descriptions of verse 3 into verses 4-5, these verses read, “Every man who has something against Christ while praying or prophesying disgraces Christ. But any wife whose husband is uncovered while she is praying or prophesying disgraces her husband, for she is one and the same as the shaved. For if a woman does not cover her husband, 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 husband.”

What does this mean?

The understanding John and I have come to is this: If a man is praying and prophesying (speaking and working on behalf of others for the progress of their faith) but has not submitted himself to Christ or is receiving his purpose and direction from something or someone else, he disgraces Christ. A woman who is praying or prophesying while her husband isn’t submitting himself to Christ (is uncovered) is dishonoring him. Instead of working to help others outside the family grow in their faith, she should be focused on helping her husband in his. The shame to both her and him if she neglects his faith would be similar in degree to if she were to physically cut off her hair or shave her head and thereby, according to the cultural understanding of that day, declare herself to be completely destitute.

Take-Away: Our spouse should always be our first earthly priority (with God always being our ultimate priority).

Our spouse should always be our first earthly priority (with God always being our ultimate priority). #ChristianLiving #Marriage

Verses 7-12: Working Together

These verses describe the relationship and value God created men and women to have toward one another. The word glory (doxa) is used in verse 7, and I think it’s important to understand what this word means in order to better understand the relationship Paul describes.

Most of the time, when we hear the word ‘glory’ we think of the glory of God and some nebulous shining splendor. But do we ever stop to think about what the word really means and refers to? A few years ago, John and I did an in-depth word study of glory. We discovered that throughout the Bible, the word is used to refer to what someone is about – what they prioritize and value, their reputation or what they’re known for, their value or what they value and give credit to.

In verse 7, it says man is the image and glory of God – God’s work and dealings with men show what God is about – His love, mercy, justice, etc. We, and the angels, can learn a lot about who God is by watching how He deals with men. By extension then, when it says woman is the glory of man, you could say the wife reveals what her husband is about; how he treats her reveals much about his character and priorities.

Men and women were created to work together and be dependent upon one another. In Genesis, God created woman out from the body of man. She was created for man’s sake because he needed her, because he couldn’t go through life alone without her (yes, even single men and women need friends who are of the opposite gender). In like form, man is born out from the body of a woman.

In verse 10, the word ‘symbol’ doesn’t appear in the original Greek. Neither is it ever, in any other context, included with the meaning for the word authority (exonsia). Exonsia, in every other context in the Bible and throughout the Greek world of that time, has the idea of legally given authority and ability to act. Kings and other government officials had exonsia. Masters had exonsia over their slaves. In 1 Corinthians 7:37, this word is used when it says, “But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has exonsia over his own will…”

Therefore, using these commonly known and used definitions, and keeping with our spiritual substitutions for ‘head,’ you could read verse 10 as, “Therefore, the wife is legally given and obligated to possess authority and influence in the sphere of her husband, because of the angels.” If the husband is not walking rightly with God, his wife has the authority to influence, lead, do whatever is necessary to help him return to a right relationship with God, because the angels are watching to see how God deals with humankind.

In all of these interactions, it’s imperative to remember that men and women are dependent upon one another. Having headship and authority over someone doesn’t mean the first has greater value over the second or is independent of the other. Both were created by God for the purpose of working together as one in love and service to God and others.

Take-Away: The best way for the church to flourish is for men and women to value one another and to work together in their unique differences.

Take-Away: When a woman’s husband isn’t following God, it’s her responsibility to do what’s necessary to help bring him back under Christ’s covering.

The best way for the church to flourish is for men and women to value one another and to work together in their unique differences. #unity #Church #Christianity

Verses 13-16: Summary

In these verses, Paul again uses a physical practice and value system they would have been familiar with to emphasize the spiritual truth that a man has been given spiritual authority over his wife. He is responsible for hearing from Christ and communicating the structure and direction of their Christian walk. The man should have no other authority than Christ. It is a woman’s glory to be covered by a godly man, to be walking, operating in, and bringing life to the vision and purpose that was given by God to Christ, who made it known to her husband, who shared it with her.

Verses 17-19: Divisions When Gathering

In order for there to be unity within the church, there must first be unity within the family. Perhaps that’s why Paul spent the first 16 verses of this chapter focusing on the relationship between a husband and wife.

Now, he extends his focus to the rest of the church. In verses 17 and 18, he describes what he has heard: there are divisions among them. Because there are divisions, it causes more harm than good when they come together.

Verse 19 strikes me as being a sarcastic commentary aimed at what Paul understands to be a motivating factor for some of the Corinthians: their need to be right and to prove themselves as superior elites above the rest of the common people. “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you,[3]” he says.

The most effective way for those striving to be elites to show themselves above the rest is to split/divide themselves off from everyone else.

A striving for elite, prominent status always creates division.

Verses 20-26: The Purpose of the Lord’s Supper

For this reason, because some individuals are striving to set themselves above the rest, they aren’t truly meeting for the purpose of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Instead, their actions (pushing to be first and taking most of the food and drinks, leaving nothing for those at the end of the line – verse 21) show that their motivation for meeting is to elevate and serve themselves without consideration for others, with no intention of remembering and worshiping God.

“Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink?” Paul says. “Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.[4]

Paul then goes on to remind the church of the true purpose of the Lord’s Supper: to remember and proclaim the life and death of Christ until He returns. When we partake of communion/the Lord’s Supper, we align ourselves with God’s purpose, God’s will, God’s oneness with others who place themselves under God’s authority. We proclaim an acceptance of Jesus’ work on the cross – His forgiveness and the new life He offers. We commit to doing the will of God just as Jesus did the full will of His Father. Our life is not about us, but about serving and loving God and others in whatever way He directs us to do.

Take-Away: We should participate in the Lord’s Supper/Communion with concern and consideration for the well-being of others and with the realization that in this act, we are aligning ourselves with Christ and everything He was about.

We should participate in the Lord’s Supper with concern and consideration for the well-being of others, with the realization that in this act, we are aligning ourselves with Christ and everything He was about. #Communion

Verses 27-34: Examine Yourself Rightly

Beware. It is a serious thing to say you commit yourself to God if your heart and priorities proclaim otherwise. For this reason, Paul warned the church, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.[5]

In order to prevent those at Corinth from acquiring the guilt of the Lord’s death, Paul urged them to examine themselves and judge themselves rightly – to honestly look at their heart and identify whether or not they are truly desiring to submit themselves to Christ and to follow Him. It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t say a person must be desiring to submit themselves to Christ before they can partake of the Lord’s Supper, only that they must be honest about where they’re at. If they’re struggling with submitting to Christ, they should acknowledge it and seek God’s help and instruction to return to His covering and headship. The worst thing a person can do when partaking of the Lord’s Supper is to claim they are following Christ when in actuality they are pursuing their own gain and their own pleasures. When they do this, when they don’t judge themselves accurately, they receive the Lord’s judgment and discipline.

Why does God discipline them now?

So He won’t have to condemn them later with the rest of those in the world who don’t follow or submit to Him.

“So then, my brethren,” Paul says, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.”

In other words, don’t put yourself above others. Instead, consider and work for the well-being of one another.

“If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.[6]

Take-Away: Partaking of the Lord’s Supper/Communion is a serious thing. We should honestly look at our hearts to see if we truly desire God’s will and leadership in our life and ask Him to help us if we don’t.

United or Divided?

In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity, 

Things That Divide Us:

  • Not submitting to God
  • Rebelling against God’s design for headship
  • (If married) Not submitting to our spouse
  • (If married) Not working together with our spouse
  • (If married or single) Not valuing or working with members of the other gender
  • Thinking we are of greater or lesser value than someone else
  • Trying to rise to an elite status
  • Not considering the well-being of others
  • Pretending to follow Christ while truly desiring and following after our own will

Things that Unite Us:

  • Following and submitting to God
  • Adhering to God’s design for headship
  • (If married) Submitting to our spouse and working with them to fulfill God’s vision and purpose for the family
  • Valuing and working with members of both genders
  • Seeing ourselves of equal value to others
  • Seeking to serve others
  • Considering and working toward the well-being of others
  • Judging ourselves rightly concerning whether or not we desire to follow and submit to Christ.

What Do You Think?

  • What stands out to you from this passage?
  • What stands out to you about this interpretation? Which parts do you agree with? Which parts do you disagree with?
  • What modern day application do you see from the principles Paul establishes?

In this Series

Women, Join In!

Ever since the Spring of 2020, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

_ _ _

*Blog Photo Background: I wanted to show a picture of a headcovering, and it didn’t seem fair to put anyone else on display without their permission, so the picture used for this blog is of me when I was a teenager. I was at a youth retreat and at the end of the retreat, they had a talent show. A couple of friends and I signed up. In the first picture, I think we were singing a nice, harmonic song. In the second, we were lip syncing to a Veggie Tales song.


[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 11:1.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 11:4–6.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 11:19.

[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 11:22.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 11:27.

[6] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 11:33–34.

20 comments

  1. This is an indepth study on a controversial passage. The thing I took away from your analysis is that a wife is just as much tasked with the sanctificatiin of her husband as the husband is tasked with presenting his bride to Christ without spot or wrinkle. Humility, strength, and courage are needed in a godly marriage, and also some creativity, I’d say! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I feel like so often we take a one sided approach rather than realizing that everything in marriage goes both ways with both members working together to love, respect, build up, and sanctify one another.

      Like

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