1 Corinthians 11:1-16

Click here to read the passage.

Well, apart from the first verse, this is probably the most troublesome passage we have read together since this blog started. Just what shall we take from Paul’s teaching here?

It is helpful to start with verses 1-2 before getting lost in the quagmire. There is a phonic link in Greek between imitate (mimetai) and remember (memnetai). Paul wants the Corinthians to imitate him, and to remember the traditions he passed onto them. It is perhaps helpful at this point to note that word, ‘tradition’. Because from here on we dive into a culture that is not our own.

Certainly I can agree with verse 3, although even that would raise eyebrows for some people. Some scholars read ‘head’ as source and believe the passage talks about all women and all men, not just husbands and wives; that is, it is not about authority within the family in the same way as Col 3:18. (It is certainly interesting to note here that Paul expects women to prophesy within the church community.) But all this talk of long hair and short hair and shaved heads and head coverings – what is that about? When I visit my husband’s family in South India, all the women pray with their heads covered; if they are not wearing a hat or a garment which can cover their heads, they will grab the nearest tea towel, or even the end of a curtain when someone starts praying. On the other hand, in my Jewish family we have the opposite tradition; men must cover their heads when praying, but women don’t need to. Ah, tradition.

However, Paul seems to indicate this is something more than merely human tradition when he points back to the creation story, specifically Eve being formed from Adam’s rib. On the other hand, Paul argues, males are born out of women. So both are dependent on each other for life. Anyway, everything came from God, and he made the rules, right?

I am relieved from my quandary by the imperative in verse 13, ‘Judge for yourselves’, and the rhetorical question in verse 14, ‘Does not nature teach you …?’. Um, no. Nature does not teach me that men shouldn’t have long hair; if it did, then my son’s hair would not grow like it does. So I will take those little bits of rhetoric and use them for understanding this passage. I am not ‘inclined to be contentious’, and I accept that for Paul this was the way things were, according to his culture and tradition. For me, praying with my head uncovered, even within my husband’s family, is no big deal. I also don’t mind if he comes to my family’s Passover celebration without wearing a skullcap.

Obviously, I am treating this passage somewhat lightly. I don’t mean to be flippant, nor do I want to offend anyone for whom these are really important issues. I definitely don’t have any problem with women who choose to cover their heads while praying, or men who refuse to either cut or grow their hair. The problem comes, I believe, when we try to decide between what is true for only a particular culture, and what is true for all times and in all cultures. If I can say here that women don’t need to cover their heads while praying because this is just for a particular culture, then why should my brothers and sisters not be able to say that homosexuality was wrong only in Paul’s culture? Or the reverse: if homosexuality is wrong, why don’t I cover my head when I pray? In both instances, we may reach back to Genesis to back our arguments. Of course, this is a highly complex issue and I don’t have space to solve it here. But I encourage you to keep thinking about it! Feel free to share your opinion in the comments. Here is another article to read that has more depth; its focus is on the culture of the day and the mutuality of ministry.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to be a humble reader of your word. Let me be an imitator of Jesus, who always spoke the truth in love. Give me wisdom to navigate this world and remain faithful to you.

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