Summary: 1st Corinthians 11 is one of the most controversial and misunderstood sections of Paul's writings. We'll explore it using culture, context, character, and language to find out what Paul is and is not saying to the Corinthians and to us today.
The first thing to know about this section is that it is not about marriage or the role of women in the church. It is about having respect in worship for each other within our culture. Just prior, Paul was telling us to have respect for the conscience of others who are weak in terms of the freedoms in Christ in order to win them for the gospel. Here it is about being culturally aware and respectful, while truthful to the gospel, in order that we might not turn people away from Christ for the wrong reasons. It is also about majoring on the majors and not sweating over the small stuff – having unity in the church as a more important value than sticking to your freedom.
I want to interpret this section with four things in mind: culture, context, character, and language.
1 – 2
Paul is happy that they are paying attention to what he says. Paul’s teaching was received directly from Jesus Christ so it carries a lot of weight. It may make his corrections a little easier to take since they have already put a lot of trust in what he has to say.
One way this verse has been interpreted is that the husband is over the wife, as in “has authority over.” The Greek word kephale can mean authority. But it can also mean something else: source or origin. In that sense, men are the source of life for their wives. In that and most ancient cultures in that women without a husband could often not work or provide for themselves. If we keep that idea going, Christ is the source of life for men because He died for us to give us new life. Christ is not inferior to the Father but was “made a little lower than the angels” when He came to earth in order to pay for our salvation. So, women are not inferior or “lower” than men but must rely on them in that culture just as Jesus had to rely on what the Father told Him when He was on earth.
The second thing we need to consider is that Paul is not talking about an organizational structure or command structure here, but about relationships, so the latter interpretation both makes sense and fits within the idea of sensitivity to culture in order not to detract from Jesus.
4 – 5
We don’t know the exact cultural reasons for what Paul says here. Note that this involves public worship and that both men and women could pray and/or prophecy in public. But for some reason culturally, men did not cover their heads and women did. To do otherwise would focus the attention on the person, not the prayers and not the Lord. Just like they can give up our freedom to eat meat in order to win others to the Lord, so too they could keep the cultural norm of head coverings in order to win others to Christ and not cause a ruckus in the church. A very modern application is that Americans traveling to other countries could dress as we do here in shorts and tank tops, but in some cultures that would be a taboo. People would be focused on what you wear, not the Lord you represent.
6 - 12
Apparently having a shaved head was some sort of disgrace in that culture so Paul says if you won’t defer culturally to covering your head in worship it would be tantamount to going ahead and shaving your head.
Verses 7 – 12 are a little more difficult to interpret. But I think the key is actually in verse 11. We are equal in Christ but not independent. In the creation God created the man first, then took a part of the man and made the woman. It takes both of them to really reflect the full image of God, so if a woman forces her way to uncover her head in the that culture, or if a man covers his, they are not as a team reflecting the image of God in a way that others in the culture will see God instead of them. You need a voice in order to preach, and sometimes that voice comes from silencing cultural differences, even if it means doing things or not doing things you would normally do or not do.
The reference to angels might simply be that angels are present with us and appreciate the lengths we go to put the gospel first.
13 - 16
Again, we have to think culturally here. In Corinth, apparently, men were not to have long hair, nor women short hair. This wasn’t true for all times and places then, nor is it now. Remember Absalom, David’s son? He had very long hair and though it got him tied up in a difficult situation, it wasn’t a disgrace.