The Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Rules and principles respecting the covering of the head by women in Church assemblies.

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1 Corinthians 11:5 (1 Corinthians 11:5)

Or prophesieth. Although St. Paul "thinks of one thing at a time," and is not here touching on the question whether women ought to teach in public, it appears from this expression that the rule which he lays down in 1 Corinthians 14:34 , 1 Corinthians 14:35 , and 1 Timothy 2:12 was not meant to be absolute. See the case of Philip's daughters ( Acts 21:9 and Acts 2:17 ). With her head uncovered . For a woman to do this in a public assembly was against the national custom of all ancient communities, and might lead to the gravest misconceptions. As a rule, modest women covered their heads with the peplum or with a veil when they worshipped or were in public. Christian women at Corinth must have caught something of the "inflation" which was characteristic of their Church before they could have acted with such reprehensible boldness as to adopt a custom identified with the character of immodest women. Dishonoureth her head. Calvin, with terse good sense, observes, "As the man honours his head by proclaiming his liberty, so the woman by acknowledging her subjection."

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1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (1 Corinthians 11:3-16)

The man and the woman.

"But I would have you know," etc. Although there are some things in these verses that perhaps no one can rightly interpret, and that may have been written as personal opinion rather than as Divine inspiration, there are two or three points in relation to man and woman interesting and noteworthy.

I. THERE IS BETWEEN THEM A SUBORDINATION IN NATURAL RELATIONSHIP . "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." The principle of subordination, it would seem, prevails throughout the spiritual universe; one rising above another in regular gradation up to God himself. God is over Christ, Christ is over man, man is over woman. "For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man." The ideal women and the ideal men are here, I presume, meant. It is because the man is supposed to have more brain and soul than the woman that he is the master; but in cases—and they are not few—where the woman is the greater, the greater in intellect, heart, and all moral nobleness, she, without her intention or even wish, will necessarily be the head. In the Marriage Service, the woman at the altar is called upon solemnly to vow to obey her husband. I confess I have often been struck at the incongruity of this, when I have seen a little-chested, small-brained man standing by the side of a woman with a majestic brow and a grand physique, when she is called upon to vow obedience to such a man.

II. THERE IS BETWEEN THEM AN INDEPENDENT OBLIGATION IN RELIGIOUS SERVICES . "Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head," etc. It is here implied that both the man and the woman are to prophesy, teach, and pray; not one instead of the other, but each independently. However closely related the man and the wife may be, however dependent one is on the other, neither can perform the spiritual and religious obligations of the other. There is no sharing of duty here, no shifting of personal obligation; each must stand alone before God.

III. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM IN OUTWARD ASPECT . There are two points here concerning the difference.

1. A difference in the way in which they are to appear in public. The man is to appear with an uncovered head, the woman with a covered head. "If the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head." The woman's head is to be covered with her hair or a veil, or both. Who shall divine the meaning of the tenth verse?—"For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels." To me this is utterly incomprehensible. Probably there were at Corinth women who shaved off their hair in order to obliterate the distinction of sex: shameless women.

2. This difference is adventitious rather than natural. Is there any reason in nature why a man's head should be uncovered and a woman's covered; why one should wear long hair and the other short? No such thing seems reasonable; the uncivilized tribes know nothing of it. The reason can only be traced to custom. And is not custom second nature? "Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?" But original nature does not seem to teach us that, but custom and conventional propriety. Hence Paul says, "If any may seem to be contentious, we have no such custom;" by which he means, I understand, that, whoever may contend to the contrary, such a custom—as that woman should pray and preach with uncovered heads—was not known by Paul in other Churches, and that the Church at Corinth should not allow it.

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1 Corinthians 11:1-16 (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)

Apostolic injunctions with regard to Church services.

Though the Corinthians deserved blame in some things, they were entitled to praise in that they had generally observed St. Paul's directions. Despite their departure from certain of his instructions, he could say, "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ;" by which he recognized that they had discernment enough to see the Lord Jesus in his personal and official character, and a sufficient brotherly sympathy to imitate his example. His commendation is hearty: "Ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you." With this preface, short but conciliatory, he takes up his first topic, viz. the headship of man in the natural and spiritual order, established by Providence and maintained by the Spirit in the Church. In his writings, natural facts are ever reappearing in new and diviner connections, as if they had undergone a silent and wonderful transfiguration, and had been glorified in light and beauty. Instinct had always acknowledged the subordination of woman to man, nor, indeed, is the instinct of sex conceivable in the absence of this element in its nature. But St. Paul is careful to lay his doctrinal foundation on the fact "that the head of every man is Christ," assured that the ultimate strength of all truth is in its spirituality. Be it a law, a principle, a motive, an end, "other foundation can no man lay." Critics may entertain widely different estimates of the man, may be as broadly separated as M. Renan and Dr. Farrar, and yet none can deny that St. Paul had this incomparable advantage, namely, a great centre, from which he saw all objects that engaged his attention. His method is fully brought out in the third verse: the head of the man is Christ; the head of the woman is the man; the head of Christ is God—a statement clear, compact, exhaustive. One moment he is dealing with the relationship between man and woman: Eden rises to his view, the sleeping Adam wakening to find Eve at his side, "the woman of the man," and "the glory of the man;" and the next moment he is contemplating the Trinity in its economic and immanent relations. Yet from this sublime height of Christ's exaltation at the right hand of the Father there is no break when he descends to discuss woman's behaviour in Church assemblies. The principle involved keeps him on ground far above dress and decorum as such, and, indeed, he will not touch the matter at all until he has set forth the dignity of its associations. Let us be careful, then, lest we err by supposing that St. Paul looked upon dress and decorum, in this instance, as simply conventionalities based on whims of taste and caprices of opinion. Conventionalities they were in a certain sense, but conventionalities to be respected and observed. In brief, they were customs that had a moral meaning. If a woman appeared in public unveiled, she was deemed immodest. To wear a veil was a sign of womanly delicacy, and hence, if she went to a public assembly without her veil, she acted shamelessly. To be consistent, argues St. Paul, "let her also be shorn," and so assume the mark of a disreputable woman. A woman acting in this way sets public opinion at defiance; and as public opinion in many things is public conscience, and as such the aggregated moral feeling of a community, no woman could do this thing and not shock all right sensibility. Besides, the veil is a sign of subordination and dependence. Refusing to use this covering of the head was a mark of insubordination and independence. A symbol it was, but to cast off the symbol was to repudiate the thing signified. This was not all. If uncomely, it was also unnatural; "for her hair is given her for a covering." The argument has one passage ( 1 Corinthians 11:10 ) which is confessedly difficult to understand, but this does not detract an iota from the general directness and force. St. Paul's purpose is unmistakable—to set forth the order of God's economy in the relative positions of man and woman to each other, and the entire unity of their relation to God in Christ. Man's authority is guarded against all excess, and woman's dependence is beautified by delicacy, retiringness, and trustful love. So high an estimate is put on her character and attitude, that even her personal appearance, as to attire and demeanour, is a matter of moment, involving the honour and happiness of her husband, and intimately blended with the conservatism of society and the influence of the Church. Nor is the apostle's manner of appeal to be overlooked. A great truth may be conveyed to the mind, while nevertheless the mode of its communication, left to haphazard impulse, or, forsooth, in downright contempt of the mind's laws, may work an amount of harm for which the truth itself is no compensation. Rest assured that so discerning a man as St. Paul, whose eye took its seeing from sensibility no less than from reason, would not violate manner when he was discussing the worth of manners. Rest assured, too, that he would seek a very firm basis for the logic of his judgment. That such was the fact, "Judge in yourselves" demonstrates. At the very moment that he distinctly recognizes public opinion as public conscience, and counsels deference to its dicta as divinely authoritative, he yet addresses human intuitions. "There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding." No other truth save this could have availed Elihu when he came to the perplexed Job and his well meaning but very mistaken friends, and, as a mediator, prepared the way to close the controversy. No other truth than the "spirit in man" and its "inspiration of the Almighty" can qualify any man to mediate where intellectual conflicts interblend with the moral and spiritual instincts. Inspiration in its highest form makes no war on inspiration in its lower form, since the inspiration that gives original truth, and that openness and sympathy which receive it, are both from God. St. Paul preached a gospel that commended itself to every man's conscience in the sight of God, and he acted in the same frame of mind when he treated of decorum and showed wherein manliness and womanliness consisted. Customs and habits vary; he goes back to the sense of custom and habit rermanent in the soul. He is not afraid of human instincts. Although he knows how they miss their way and sadly blunder in working out themselves through the mists and clouds of the intellect, yet trust them he will, nor can he suffer others to disparage their office. This inward consciousness the Holy Spirit acknowledges, and to it he brings light and warmth, in order that the intuitive judgment may be supplied with the conditions of its best activity. It is, indeed, a part of our fallen nature, but, notwithstanding that, it is a Divine remnant, and only awaits God's voice to utter its response. The dark lumps of coal when dug from the earth give no sign of the sunbeams hidden in them, but, on being ignited, they attest their origin. Therefore, argues the apostle, "judge in yourselves," since there is no knowledge of God unaccompanied by a knowledge of ourselves. Only let your judgment be in the Lord; for only in him can man and woman be seen in the perfection of their mutuality. After all, then, may we not say, in view of this argument no less than of all his methods of thinking, that St. Paul is peculiar among the apostles by his insight into the natural economy of the universe, the apostle of nature as well as of grace, because each was a portion of the same vast scheme of Providence? According to his view, the human race was in Christ from the beginning, and Adam's federal headship took its whole meaning from the pre-existence of Christ, as the Creator of man.—L.

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1 Corinthians 11:1-16 (1 Corinthians 11:1-16)

Decency in public worship.

When we appear before God we should observe the greatest propriety. Externals should not be lost sight of, for they are significant. Often they are indicative of inward condition. The apostle had occasion to blame the women of Corinth for laying aside the veil—the mark of modesty and subjection—in public assemblies. On the ground of the abolition of distinction of sex in Christ, they claimed equality in every respect with men, and the right to appear and act as men did. Whilst women, they would be as men. Equality as believers they had a right to claim, but they forgot their "subjection in point of order, modesty, and seemliness." When women leave their proper sphere, it is never to rise, but to fall. Men women are failures. In the apostle's argument valuable truths are enunciated.


1. Man is the head of the woman. ( 1 Corinthians 11:3 .) Woman is subordinate to man, is largely dependent upon him. He is her natural guide, defender, supporter. Authority lies with him, not with her. "I suffer not a woman to… usurp authority over the man… for Adam was first formed, then Eve" ( 1 Timothy 2:12 , 1 Timothy 2:13 ). Woman is the "weaker vessel" ( 1 Peter 3:7 ). She is to be "in subjection" ( 1 Corinthians 14:34 ). This is after the Divine order, and any subversal of it is sure to lead to injurious results.

2. The head of man is Christ. ( 1 Corinthians 11:3 .) Man is not a monarch; he is subordinate to the God Man as his Head. Man can only act aright as head of the woman when he recognizes Christ as his Head. The apostle does not mean to intimate that Christ is not the Head of the woman as of the man. He is pointing out the order in the Divine economy, and "by the term 'head' he expresses the next immediate relation sustained." Man is subordinate to Christ; woman is subordinate, though not in the same sense, to man as well as to Christ. To further illustrate the Divine order, the apostle states that:

3. The head of Christ is God. That is, of Christ the God Man. There is nothing here which conflicts with the doctrine of the divinity of Christ or of the equality of the Son with the Father. Rather is there here additional evidence of the former, since the distinction between the position of man and woman obtains where there is identity of nature. Christ is here spoken of as he assumed "the form of a servant." Christ in his mediatorial capacity is lower than the Father ( John 14:28 ).

4. Man is the Image and Glory of God. ( 1 Corinthians 11:7 .) Man was made in the likeness of God ( Genesis 1:26 ). How great is the dignity of human nature! But how that dignity is lost when God is blotted out of a man! How eagerly should fallen creatures seek recovery, that the blurred image may be restored to its original beauty, and the impaired glory made once more lustrous! Through the Son of man, the ideal Man—declared to be "the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person "—this may be effected. The apostle does not intend to convey that woman is not in many respects the image and glory of God, but that man is this first and directly, woman subsequently and indirectly." Man represents the authority of God; he is the ruler, the head.


1. She is subject to man as her head. She sprang from him ( 1 Corinthians 11:8 ). She was created for him ( 1 Corinthians 11:9 ). Still, there is mutual dependence: "Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man" ( 1 Corinthians 11:11 ). "In the Lord"—this is of Divine appointment. And man and woman constitute complete humanity—one supplying what the other lacks; and thus forming in Christ "the Bride," the Church redeemed by his blood. And further, although at first woman sprang from man, now the man is of the woman ( 1 Corinthians 11:12 ). But "all things are of God"—man and woman. Man has a real but qualified supremacy; so qualified as to save woman from any humiliation, and to allow her a position of peculiar dignity and beauty.

2. She is the glory of the man. ( 1 Corinthians 11:7 .) Woman is not directly the glory of God; she does not directly represent God as the head of creation—she rather is man's representative, as man is God's. She is the glory of man directly, of God indirectly. Man is the sun, woman the moon ( Genesis 37:9 ).


1. That man should not have his head covered. The covering would indicate subjection, which, in relation to those joining with man in public worship, was not man's true condition. There he appeared as "the image and glory of God," representing the Divine headship, and to assume the badge of subjection would be to "dishonour his head." This may mean to dishonour his Own head by placing upon it something unsuitable, or to dishonour Christ, the Head of man, who has placed man in his position of honour. We should not usurp a higher position than God has appointed for us; we should not take a lower. Our best place is where God places us.

2. That woman should have her head covered. The veil was a recognition of subordination and an indication of modesty. To discard it was to claim man's position and thus to dishonour man, her head—or to dishonour her own head by depriving it of a mark of propriety and even of chastity. For by discarding the head covering a woman put herself in the class of the disreputable. It was but a carrying out of the principle involved for a woman to have her head shaved ( 1 Corinthians 11:5 , 1 Corinthians 11:6 ), which was sometimes done in the case of those who had forfeited their honour, and became thus a brand of infamy. Thus a woman snatching at the position of man would descend far below her own. An apparent rise is sometimes a very real fail. The apostle enforces his argument by:

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1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

Laws of order in Christian assemblies.

The subject dealt with in this passage is the appropriate conduct and dress of the women in Christian assemblies. That, however, was but a matter of present and passing interest, one standing related to the customs and sentiments of a particular age. Our concern is not with the details of apostolic advice, but with the principles upon which St. Paul deals with a particular case. "Every circumstance which could in the least degree cause the principles of Christianity to be perverted or misunderstood by the heathen world was of vital importance in those early days of the Church, and hence we find the apostle, who most fearlessly taught the principles of Christian liberty, condemning most earnestly every application of those principles which might be detrimental to the best interests of the Christian faith. To feel bound to assert your liberty in every detail of social and political life is to cease to be free—the very liberty becomes a bondage" (Shore). "It appears that the Christian women at Corinth claimed for themselves equality with the male sex, to which the doctrine of Christian freedom and the removal of the distinction of sex in Christ ( Galatians 3:28 ) gave occasion. Christianity had indisputably done much for the emancipation of women, who in the East and among the Ionic Greeks (it was otherwise among the Dorians and the Romans) were in a position of unworthy dependence. But this was done in a quiet, not an over hasty manner. In Corinth, on the contrary, they had apparently taken up the matter in a fashion somewhat too animated. The women overstepped due bounds by coming forward to pray and prophesy in the assemblies with uncovered head" (De Wette). St. Paul gives advice which bears upon the maintenance of due order in the Christian assemblies. Taking this as the subject illustrated, we observe the following points:—

I. ORDER MUST BE BASED ON FIRST PRINCIPLES . Here on the designed relationship of man and woman. The new law of the equality of the sexes must be dealt with in a manner consistent with the earlier principle of the natural dependence of the woman on man. "Observe how the apostle falls back on nature. In nothing is the difference greater between fanaticism and Christianity than in their treatment of natural instincts and affections. Fanaticism defies nature. Christianity refines it and respects it. Christianity does not denaturalize, but only sanctifies and refines according to the laws of nature" (F. W. Robertson).

II. ORDER MUST BE ARRANGED BY CHRISTIAN PRUDENCE , which acts by persuasion rather than by force, avoids any over magnifying of little differences, and makes due allowance for individual peculiarities. Prudence can recognize that the preservation of peace and charity is of greater importance than the securing of order, and order may wait on charity.

III. ORDER MUST BE ADAPTED TO EXISTING CUSTOMS . No stiff forms can be allowed in Christian assemblies. Social and national customs and sentiments have to be duly considered. Illustrate from the necessary differences of administering the ordinance of baptism in different countries, or from the diversities of Church order in heathen lands that receive the gospel. There can be unity of principle with variety of detail.

IV. ORDER MUST BE ACCEPTED BY EVERY MEMBER LOYALLY , This is the condition of working together in every kind of human association. A man's individuality may properly find expression in the discussion of what shall be done; but he must sink his individuality in order to help in carrying out the order that is decided on.

V. ORDER BEARS DIRECTLY UPON SPIRITUAL PROFIT . It injures to have the Church's attention diverted to forward women. Order relieves the minds of the worshippers, so that full attention may be directed to spiritual things. In quietness, in rest of mind and heart, the soul finds the time to enjoy and to grow. Distracted by the material, due attention cannot be given to the spiritual. Illustrate from the anxiety with which harmony, beauty, and order were sought and preserved in the older Jewish ritual. Amid all those formalities worshipping souls could be still, and in the stillness find God.—R.T.

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