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Submission, Modesty and Unity in the Worship Service (I Corinthians 11:1-16)

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: Ignoring Gender Roles to Our Peril

Paul Etiello Jr. once gave this enlightening sermon illustration. He wrote:

The captain of the ship looked into the dark night and saw faint lights in the distance. Immediately he told his signalman to send a message" "Alter your course 10 degrees south." Promptly a return message was received: "Alter your course 10 degrees north."

The captain was angered; his command had been ignored. So he sent a second message: "Alter your course 10 degrees south--I am the captain!" Soon another message was received: "Alter your course 10 degrees north--I am seaman third class Jones." Immediately the captain sent a third message, knowing the fear it would evoke: "Alter your course 10 degrees south--I am a battleship." Then the reply came "Alter your course 10 degrees north--I am a lighthouse."

In the midst of our dark and foggy times, all sorts of voices are shouting orders into the night, telling us what to do, how to adjust our lives. Out of the darkness, one voice signals something quite opposite to the rest--something almost absurd. But the voice happens to be the Light of the World, and we ignore it at our peril."

We are living in a time of utter rebellion against God's Word and an ignoring of His values given to us today for our society and all human societies. And that rebellion is seen very clearly in the sex versus gender debate where many make a distinction between our biology and our 'gender roles' which they say are imposed upon us by the society in which we are living. Because of this, many are saying that a child must decide for themselves how they choose to identify as either male or female. And some even go so far as to allow children, as well as adults, to mutilate the bodies that God has given them because they may feel that they are the opposite gender trapped in the wrong body.

While, there is no doubt that there have been changes over the years in how various societies view the roles of males and females, (though sadly, many are man-made and some degrading to women), the Bible still makes it clear that God created man in his own image as male and female. They are both equal in value in His sight and are equally loved by Him. However, at the same time, each gender has differences and they are given different roles to fulfill. Further, no amount of confusion of the sexes by the world is ever going to remove those differences from our society.

In the first 16 verses of I Corinthians, the apostle Paul is addressing an issue that had come up amongst the believers in Corinth. That is the issue of women wearing head coverings while praying and prophesying in the worship service.

In the culture of the time, a woman wearing something on her head meant an entirely different thing than it does today. In our day, and in our culture, it has become simply a fashion statement. Not then. Here is how addresses this issue. It says:

"Apparently, nearly all women wore head coverings in public during this era. This included Jewish, pagan, and Christian women. Women seen without head coverings may have been considered morally loose or sexually available. This was a matter of cultural assumptions; people of Paul's era would have reacted to a woman with an uncovered head much the same way modern people might have to a woman wearing extremely revealing clothes. Paul received a report that some of the women in the Corinthian church were not wearing head coverings while praying or prophesying during their gatherings."

Paul also references a further symbolism of the covering of women's heads in public. In the culture of Corinth, a woman's covered head while ministering or worshipping was a symbol to signify a subordinate relationship to her husband.

This is a concept that the world hates because the nature of sin is to be number one and to be subordinate to no one. It is to be in the place of God rather than allowing God His proper place. However, God has set up an order of headship and submission, of which all are a part. It begins with Jesus Christ Himself being subject to God the Father, Then it goes on to include all mankind being subject to Jesus Christ.

In looking at other writings of Paul, we see that all believers are to be submit themselves to one another in the fear of God. Then the wife is to be subject to her husband as she would be to Christ. The husband, for his part, shows his submission to Christ by loving his wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it (Ephesians 5:21-33).

By voluntary mutual submission to one another, the Church of Jesus Christ demonstrates that we are indeed different from the world. It shows our relationship to our Lord and allows others to see the true love and unity that we have with one another in our life of service for each other and for Christ.

Let us look a little more carefully at this passage of I Corinthians 11 to separate the cultural issues from those things which are principles that we are to follow in our church's today.

Paul begins by telling the believers at Corinth to follow him as he follows Christ and to hold firm to the traditions that he delivered to them, including his teaching on mutual submission.

I. Follow Paul and the Traditions He Taught, Including Submission (1-3)

Here is how Paul introduces his subject. He writes:

"Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God."

The word for 'traditions' here, in the strictest sense, is a synonym for God's Word. The word is sometimes used in a negative way in the New Testament to refer to man-made ideas or practices. In other words, the traditions of men. They are especially the ideas and practices that conflict with Scripture when used in this way. But Paul makes it clear in this passage that following these traditions, which he has passed on to them, is a good thing.

Part of those traditions include the headship and submission teachings of the apostle Paul. In this world there is conflict as people seek their own interests and not the interest of others. The church, as it voluntarily submits to Christ and to each other, ends conflicts and brings about unity and peace.

The key to all of this is not forced submission. That is not taught in Scripture. But it is voluntary submission as Christ submitted to the Father by giving Himself, out of love, to the church to the point of dying for it. And to make submission work as it was intended to work, each person in the relationship has to be voluntarily submitted. That includes the husband being completely submitted to the will of Christ.

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II. The Symbolism for Godly Submission (4-7)

In verses 4-7, Paul introduces the cultural symbols for submission that were understood during the time that the Corinthian letter was being penned. For the man, it was an uncovered head. For the woman, it was a head adorned with a covering. The apostle says this:

"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 here 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. 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." (4-7).

Apparently, the man having a head covering became a local custom at Corinth as well. Jews wearing head coverings didn't come into fashion until the fourth century A.D., though some may already have been wearing them before this. This symbolism, for Paul, represented a reversal of roles where the man was putting himself in submission to the woman rather than to God.

Paul's talk of women shaving their heads here can come from 2 sources. In the Greek world, only prostitutes would shave their heads. In the Jewish world, a woman would have her head shaved, as a form of punishment, if she committed adultery. Both of these things are seen to be a disgrace by Paul. And a woman who prophesied and prayed with her head uncovered was doing a disgraceful thing as well, because she was going against God's order of submission in the church and behaving immodestly in the world at large.

We need to understand the word modesty in the context of this passage, for it played a role in the reasoning behind the symbol of the hair covering.

Here are some ways that we can describe modesty. Modesty is an attitude of humility that seeks to please God rather than man or self. It is characterized by restraint, self-control, and dignity in dress, speech, and actions. Modesty is a product of pure thinking and is not determined by what one wears. It is more than that. But also, can include it.

In this context, Paul is using the idea of modesty to include the area of sexuality. Modesty, in that sense is a mode of dress and deportment which intends to avoid encouraging sexual attraction in others.

Paul says that a woman to be shaved or have her head uncovered is a disgrace to her head. This could mean both her physical head and her husband who is her spiritual head. In the same way, a man's covered head is a disgrace to Christ, who is his spiritual head.

With the end of verse 7, Paul gets into his reasoning for his understanding of submission, which was set up by God and goes back to the very creation of the world.

III. Paul's Reasoning for Submission: The Order of Creation (8-10).

The apostle goes all the way back to Genesis where it tells us that Eve was made, not from the soil as Adam was, but from Adam's rib. When everything was created, and the man was on earth naming the animals, God saw something that wasn't good. He said that:

It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Genesis 2:18.

And when God created Eve as the perfect companion for him, to help his aloneness, He presented her to Adam. And He the man exclaimed:

“This is now bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh.
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." (Genesis 2:23:24).

That is why Paul could say in this passage we are studying:

"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. Therefore, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels." (8-10).

The angels here are, more than likely holy angels who watch the church and observe our activities. In the book of Hebrews, they are called ministering sprits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14). There is no reason to believe that they aren't still doing that today. Paul seems to suggest that a person could offend them who were also present at creation where God designed the order of authority of men and women.

IV. The Limitations of Submission (11-12)

In verses 11-12 we get Paul's mitigating remarks that show that there are limitations to submission. Submission to authority should be out of love and respect and a knowledge that the one who is submitting is equal in value to the one who is receiving submission. None of us is independent of the other, and we need each other. Here are Paul's words on this. He tells us:

"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." (11-12).

Once again, God is the ultimate authority to whom all of us must submit. And anything we do to someone else; God is going to make us give an account for at the Judgment Seat of Christ.

V. Submission Demonstrated Through the Woman's Natural Hair Covering (14-16)

Paul ends this section with an interesting illustration. He appeals to nature and to the natural covering that most women possess of hair. The term 'nature' here conveys the idea of basic human awareness. By that he means an innate sense of what is normal and right. He uses this to show that nature or common sense itself shows that it is proper for a woman to pray to God with her head covered.

It may be no coincidence that the male hormone, testosterone, speeds up the loss of hair in men, Estrogen in women, on the other hand, causes women's hair to grow longer and for a longer time. The truth is that women rarely go completely bald, no matter how old they become. Because of this fact, this physiological phenomenon, the custom for most cultures is to have long hair on women.

Here is what Paul says about this is verses 14-16 of chapter 11. He states:

"Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God."

He never commands the women to wear a covering, or the men to go without. However, he ends this discussion rather abruptly with those who are still contentious about covering their head with the thought that the whole church leadership is against women being uncovered. No one practiced or allowed such things. Basically, he is saying that: "If you Corinthians prefer such abnormal practices, then you stand alone in what you are doing. The universal customs of the church are against it.


So, what are we to make of all this? Though we are living in a completely different culture, the principles of this passage are still valid today. For instance, in a world of chaos, selfishness and disunity, the Christian is to stand out by being loving and unified as members of the Body of Christ. The principles of submission to one another out of love for Christ are still just as active, though we may not demonstrate them by hair coverings on women while prophesying and praying.

And, whether you be male or female, modesty is still a virtue that we all must cultivate. Also, it still is to be characterized by restraint, self-control, and dignity in dress, speech, and actions. And we need to make sure that what we do is not causing a brother or sister in our congregations to be tempted by our over-exposure in the area of clothing, or by any suggestive talk that is inappropriate for anyone other than our spouse.

Further, we should never do anything that in any way dishonors God, or the husband or wife that God has given to us.

Finally, if what we wear, say or do in anyway destroys the unity and harmony of the Body of Christ, or harms a fellow brother or sister in Christ, then out of love for God and our brother or sister, we should stop it immediately, even if we think that we should be Scripturally free to do it if we were on our own. Love always should trump our freedom, as we learned earlier by Paul's instructions in the epistle to the Corinthians on meat offered to idols.

The bottom line is that we belong to the Lord. And that means that we are to live differently from the world around us. We must always live a life of submission, modesty, love and unity, both in our everyday life, but especially in our worship services.

May we seek always to be a reflection of the true Light of the World, our Lord Jesus Christ, and not just a carbon copy of the culture around us. And let God be pleased and glorified by the light that we shine for Him.

© 2022 Jeff Shirley

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