I've never head a reaction like it before... There was grumbling and mumbling when 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 was read out in our congregation. The person reading it was worried he would have things thrown at him. There was also a lot of laughter when I stood up to speak and started by saying... 'Let's pray... and boy do we need to pray...' maybe I should have said, "Hang on to your hats!!!"
The passage we read today is often pointed to as evidence that Paul was anti women. That is not the case. It is the case however that this has been one of the most misused scriptures in church history. It has been used to support the subjugation of women which it does not. The only time the word authority is used is in verse 10 which says a woman has authority over her own head.
It is the passage that launched a thousand hats. Many of you are old enough to remember when women wore hats in Church… some of you are part of cultures where that is still considered the norm. This passage is also the reason why men wearing hats in church is frowned at. It may surprise you that when I was young I actually had hair… long hair… in church one day someone came and used the part of the passage that says nature tells us that long hair on a man is a disgrace to say get a haircut son.
I have vivid memories of a hitchhiking tour of Northland when I was in my early twenties. I went to a conservative Open Brethren chapel one Sunday. As I went in, there was someone handing out hymn books, but they also had a pile of what I thought were just lace dollies. Now I thought they were there because we were going to have a cup of tea after the service and I could understand that you needed to stop leaving marks of the furniture… But no!!! They were for women who came to church without a head covering. Ironically, in that church it was only the men who prayed and shared scripture…ironic because this passage is one of the strongest affirmations that in the early church men and women participated equally in leading public worship. It says they both prayed and prophesied.
These things may not seem that relevant to us here and now, yet in our foyer is a picture of the first eight women ordained as ministers of word and sacrament in our denomination. That happened in living memory. Two of those women at least have close links with this parish. One was the minister here.
We are working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians to see how they and we as a diverse group of people from different cultures and different socio economic groupings and men and women can come together and be one in Christ. Paul had dealt with divisions and squabbling over church leaders by pointing to God’s grace and love. He had dealt with issues of sexual immorality, marriage, and eating food sacrificed to idols, setting the basis of Christian ethics firmly in an understanding of love for God and for each other. Now Paul turns to address issues in Public worship. Firstly in the passage we had read out today… understanding gender differences… then dealing with rich and poor at the Lord ’s Table… and finally the use of spiritual gifts. All of which speak to us today.
Paul starts this passage by praising the church at Corinth for keeping the traditions he had passed on to them. While we don’t know exactly what these traditions are it does seem that they have to do with public worship. Judging from the first issue Paul deals with, one of those traditions is the radical Christian ideal that men and women are both equal and that unlike Jewish synagogue worship or pagan temple worship that women are to participate fully in public worship. That in Christ there is neither male nor female. As NT Wright points out the church was probably the only place in Greek and Roman society where people gathered as equals: Slave and free, Jew and gentile, Greek and barbarian, rich and poor and men and women.
When the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers at Pentecost, it was poured out on both men and women equally, regardless of socio economic standing, as had been promised in the prophesy Peter quotes from Joel chapter 2. This was the new kingdom of God, the new spirited people of God. As that was the case the early church had women lead public prayers and prophecy in church. While there is some debate over what it meant to prophecy, there is the sense here of speaking the timeless word of God in a timely way to the people of God. Sadly very early on this tradition and practise was lost.
The issue in Corinth seems to be that some people saw this equality and freedom in Christ as meaning that they could throw off the cultural makers of gender. They thought they were spiritual beings and so gender did not apply to them anymore. All the way through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians there is a sense of dealing with the spiritual ones who think that in the kingdom of God that the old had totally passed away, the physical didn’t matter. They’d arrived and the physical was just unwanted baggage. You could understand some women wanting to throw off the markers of their position in what was a hierarchical society. Some have pointed to the fact that this was a problem with women only, but Just like when Paul was talking to the church at Corinth about marriage he was careful to address both men and women. Here Paul talks about the cultural markers of both genders and how that relates to participation in public worship. It maybe that men and women thought that there being neither male nor female in Christ meant that we become some sort of androgynous spiritual beings. And Paul’s argument is that as we are created both male and female in God’s image, dependant on one another, that we need the fullness of that image in humanity to worship the fullness of who God is. Viva la difference.
So Paul turns to deal with this issue. And yes the primary issue that is presenting is women involved in leading worship without a head covering. It would be seen as the most visual manifestation of the issue of gender difference. If you have a look at the passage its split into three paragraphs Paul’s argument is threefold. He deals with it by talking about shame. He then turns to look at the created order and finally social convention in society as a whole and practise inside the church as a whole. Before we look at these we need to realise two things the first is that scholars are in agreement that Paul’s argument is hard to follow here, and Paul presupposes some cultural understanding with his readers which is lost to us now. Gordon Fee is quick to acknowledge that the meaning of the sentence at the heart of the argument verse 10… that women should have authority over their own heads because of the angels… has defied our best scholarly geniuses over the centuries.
Paul’s first argument is that in both Jewish and Roman, Greek cultures it was a sign of shame for women to be in public without some sort of head covering. Some have said that the only women who would walk around like that would have been the temple prostitutes. He certainly points to a woman’s head being shaved as being a sign of shame in both Jewish and roman culture. When the British and American troops liberated towns in Europe during the Second World War, women who had cohabitated with the Germans were shamed by having their heads shaved. The men colaborators were just shot. Paul is a affirming that in the church women are to be honoured and that the cultural marker of head covering does that.
Men covering their heads when they prayed equally seemed to be a sign of shame it’s interesting that Jewish men covering their heads to pray according to Gordon Fee did not become the norm till the fourth century AD, and maybe even then it was to differentiate them from the Christians, who were originally considered a Jewish sect. So a lot of Film’s about Jesus life where they have Jesus covering his head when he prays are most probably historically inaccurate.
The part of Paul’s first argument that causes us the most trouble is that’s Paul’s rational for this comes from a set of relationships in verse 7 where the word head is used metaphorically. The head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man and the head of Christ is God. In English we tend to use head like this to mean a position of authority “head master”, “head of state”, and this passage has been misused to assert that men are supposed to be the boss. It has been translated in some versions that the head of a wife is her husband to tie it into a specific relationship, but one where women are seen as being in submission. But using head like that is not that common in Greek. It is used more often to mean the source of, as in the head waters of a river. Paul’s second paragraph picks this up by referring to the order of creation.
One of the difficulties of this of course is Paul’s mention of the head of Christ is God. In theological terms this is close to a heretical understanding of the Trinity. But again if you have a look at Paul’s argument from creation in his second paragraph he ends it by saying everything comes from God.
Paul’s second argument comes from the idea of the created order. Paul asserts that in the created order men were created first according to the genesis narrative women were created from man, both are made in God’s image, the point that Paul emphasises is that women somehow complete man, that to do away with the one is to leave the other incomplete. Paul is quick to affirm that in reality as man now comes from women in procreation that it is more that we are dependent on each other. Some have seen the Hebrew word in the genesis narrative translated help mate to describe the women means a subservient role, but as it is also the word in the Hebrew scripture that is used of the Holy Spirit, this cannot be the case.
In fact as I mentioned before the only use of the word authority in this whole passage in verse 10 where it says a women has authority over her own head. The fact that this issue follows on from Paul talking about how we curb our freedom out of love when it came to food sacrificed to idols, may mean Paul is saying in this case as well we curb our freedom for sake of others.
What about the angels? There is an understanding that we and the angels join together to worship God. But also in Isaiah 6:2 the Angels Isaiah sees in his vision of heaven use their wings to cover their feet and heads before the throne of God. The Corinthians may have thought that as they now spoke in the tongues of angels, which we’ll get to when we look at Spiritual gift they were angelic and Paul reminds them that even the angels cover their heads.
In his final argument, Paul points to nature or at least social understandings to point to the fact that women and men are basically different. It seems in most cultures men have hair that is shorter than women’s hair.. In roman society long hair on men was a sign of being effeminate. It was right then for men and women to lead worship dressed in culturally designated clothing for men and women. Of course some of the passage has been used by some groups to say women shouldn’t wear trousers, or cut their hair. We need to realise that social conventions do change some from place to place and time to time. Those wonderful hats of the 1950’s and 60’s would not have ben what the first century had in mind. In the end Paul’s last point is that keeping these social markers was the practise of all the other churches. The people in Corinth may think they were wise and more spiritual than other groups but Paul is quick to point to the fact that they are one amongst many churches.
Ok what for us from all this.
Firstly is the strong affirmation of the equality of men and women in Christ. Sadly historically that was lost and is only recently being rediscovered. The church lost its radical affirmation and practise of men and women being equally filled with the Holy Spirit and equally equipped and called to minister and lead public worship and preach. In fact I wonder what we have lost as a church historically because this early distinctive was lost. And women have borne the brunt of that. Sadly also there are churches and places in the world where women’s equality is not accepted and acknowledged even today.
Secondly In our culture what define a women and a man is not the same as in Paul’s day. To impose those sorts of cultural markers, clothes or hair styles or whatever, wouldn’t be appropriate today. However like in Paul’s day to do away with the differences is also not helpful. Both men and women need to be celebrated. The difference affirmed. Yes some forms of dress are appropriate and others are not for public worship. One commentator suggested a bikini, and in keeping with the emphasis on men and women, maybe if he’d been a Borat fan...a mankini, is not really appropriate for leading public worship. In different cultural settings this may mean different things and in a multi-cultural church will have to be handled with sensitive and tolerance. But never compromising the equality of men and women.
It may well be that the spiritual one thought a certain type of clothing and attire was more spiritual than others, but this is not the case. I choose not to wear clerical garb or robes because I actually believe in the priesthood of all believers that we are all called to be ministers in Christ.
Finally, viva la difference, men and women are equal in Christ, Christ died for us all, we are equally forgiven and reconciled to God, we have equal access to the throne of grace, the spirit has been poured out on everyone equally, everyone has been given gifts and talents to use and we actually need the variety and insights and understanding that each other have so with the full image of God in humanity we can fully worship Our God and saviour. If we do away with that by saying one of these genders is not able to participate we cripple ourselves as the body of Christ. Equally if the two are at loggerheads with each other we are crippled and equally if we say we do away with gender we limit ourselves from the breadth and depth of what we have been given by God, an which has been affirmed in Christ.