In January of 2010, actor Kiefer Sutherland went on national TV wearing a dress. He described that appearance as his “most humiliating moment” ever.
The ’24’ star admitted to talk show host David Letterman “I lost a bet over the weekend. I was so sure New England was going to win, that I told a guy who used to be my friend that if New England lost, I would wear a dress on ‘Letterman’ And so, here I am.” He also said, “This I think may be the most humiliating moment of my life – and I’ve had a couple to choose from.”
Sutherland apologized for embarrassing his family and friends with the outfit, and also described his embarrassment at buying the dress earlier that day.
Ironically, Sutherland’s shame was produced by his earlier pride– pride in his assumed football expertise. Then, as a matter of honor, he had to dishonor himself and his family by following through with his bet. Did he realize how his pride in his so-called knowledge would make him look a fool and bring shame to others?
Sometimes, what we do out of pride not only ends in our shame, but the shame of others. Those things can be relatively benign, as Sutherland’s actions were, but they can also be more serious.
This concept helps us approach 1 Corinthians 11.
Pride is the Point of 1 Corinthians 11
The entire first letter to the Corinthians deals with pride. Over and over, Paul reveals to the Corinthians that they are prideful. Again and again, Paul takes a mirror and holds it up to show the believers in Corinth that their mistaken pride causes them harm, shame, and dishonor. The Corinthians time and again proved how foolish and immature they were as they showed off their imagined wisdom and presumed maturity. Remember, this letter of Paul to the Corinthians is in response to a letter from them. Paul is responding to almost everything they write by saying something along the lines of “yes, but…”
In 1 Corinthians, 1-3, Paul corrects the Corinthian church members’ misplaced pride in their various teachers. In chapters 1-3, he also shatters their very concept of wisdom, and highlights that their wrong views come from pride and are regenerated by pride. He teaches them about true humility in chapter 4. He corrects their wrong proud views of toleration of sin in Chapter 5. He corrects their prideful ways of settling disputes in chapter 6. He corrects their prideful views of sexual liberty in chapter 6. He corrects their pride both in asceticism and indulgent views of marriage and male/female relations in chapter 7. He corrects their prideful selfish views that might cause others to sin in chapter 8. He corrects their selfish view of their own rights in chapter 9. He corrects their prideful and selfish attitudes towards all they do in chapter 10, in which he reminds them to look both towards Christ and others in all that they do.
After telling them in the previous chapters to cede their pride for others, to display their responsibility by giving up their rights for others, and to be like Paul, who agrees that all is lawful but not everything builds up, Paul ends 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 by saying
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
Then, he continues in 1 Corinthians 1:1-16 with this,
1 Cor. 10:32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
1Cor. 11:1 Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
1Cor. 11:2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
This passage continues on the point of pride, and it is quite likely that missing that will result in us missing the point!
Whatever interpretation a believer has of this passage, and whatever practices he or she espouses (or does not adopt) because of it, can easily become a wedge of pridefulness. Satan will use that, and has used it, to divide believers and tempt them to proudly proclaim, “only I have the truth, and the rest of you are wrong.”
Indeed, there are few passages of Scripture that have been used by so many in so many ways as a source of God-dishonoring pride as this.
And that misses his very point, not only here, but in the entire book of 1 Corinthians.
Many believers get so caught up in looking for the practical application of what Paul is saying here that we miss his whole point.
I see no other reason why he would close this passage with verse 16: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.”
Clearly, the point of Paul is not for this to become a point of contention.
Here are some things we need to remember at the outset of examining this passage and the issue it raises.
First, the issue of headwear, hair length, or whatever should not be over-emphasized, and it is very possible to do so.
Many people see in this passage an urgency, a stridency, a firmness that, frankly, compared to the rest of 1 Corinthians, is simply not here. Paul does not call anyone a sinner, although he has had no reluctance to do so in the rest of the letter (see 1 Cor. 6:18, 8:12). He does not in 1 Cor. 11 call for anyone to be put out of the church, although he was quick to do so elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 5:2). He does not call to turn anyone over to Satan (as he did 1 Cor. 5:5). He does not say that anyone is bringing judgment upon himself, although he shows no reluctance to do so elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 11:29, 11:34). He does not even say that anyone’s prayers will not be heard, or claim that anyone is violating a commandment!
Yet, people in the church, whatever their understanding of the passage, adopt the view that their position is the “more spiritual” or the “more enlightened.” Some then go so far as to claim that one’s spiritual maturity or submission to God in their lives can be gauged by this issue. That is contrary to what Paul teaches later in this very letter (1 Cor. 13), and what all of Scripture proclaims. Christ Himself said that “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) Jesus did not mention this issue as a test of being a disciple, and yet we who claim to be His disciples can be tempted to make it so.
Pride is always a sin, and pride in one’s viewpoint is always an enemy of love.
Secondly, some people are simply inconsistent when they approach 1 Cor. 11:1-16.
Many people see in this passage a universal practice that is for all churches, and declare emphatically that it cannot be discussing something cultural or specific to the people and time to whom the letter is written. Others, with equal certainty, claim that there is no doubt that this is only cultural, and that such a conclusion should be clear to all. Those of either view, if they hold the view too firmly, are in danger of displaying what can only be called a prideful inconsistency.
I point out that danger not to accuse, but to warn.
At least some of the people who make the claim that this passage refers to some universal wearing of head garments by women will also, with equal surety, apparently set aside other Scriptures with which they are not as comfortable (or to which they do not wish to be as conformable). They may declare such verses as 1 Corinthians 14:39 , which says “earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues,” as “not applicable to today,” or “something only for the people in Corinth.” Paul makes the statement in 1 Cor. 14 even though he has just explained how tongues might be abused. Yet, the admonition not to forbid speaking in tongues is understood to belong to things which are “for a specific time and place.” Whether that is right or not is secondary to the fact that, when it comes to 1 Corinthians 11, many of the same readers will overlook the lack of specifics and the several other features of the text and declare that it is plainly universal, while other verses are only “for a specific time and place.” This is inconsistency in interpretation, and is made even more perplexing when the more emphatic and unqualified statement by Paul is interpreted as being the more expendable to the passage of time.
And, at least some of the people who understand 1 Cor. 11:1-16 as referring to a cultural symbol of position, will also, with equal surety, reject the idea that other passages of Scripture may be also be cultural.
Thirdly, some people come to this text and forget it is a letter.
We cannot forget that this is a letter between people that know quite a bit about each other that we do not know. It makes references to things that Paul assumes the Corinthians knew but that we, 2000 years later, do not.
There are other cases of this in the Bible.
When Paul tells Timothy in 1 Tim. 5:23 to stop drinking water and to start drinking wine for his stomach’s sake, we assume that such advice comes from knowledge of the circumstances of Timothy. It is not necessarily applicable to us– we don’t stop drinking water ourselves, neither do we stop using Tums and Pepto-Bismol in exchange for drinking wine. It might involve a principle we should consider (wine may be medicinal, and is certainly not sinful in itself).
In Ephesians 4:28 and 1 Thessalonians 4:11, Paul tells people to work with their hands. Does that mean that those of us who don’t use our hands in our work, but who manage or teach or the like should seek different employment? In both cases, there was a particular problem that is being addressed that we can read between the lines (dishonesty in Ephesus and laziness in Thessalonica), but that might not always be easy to discover by reading the text.
When he wrote 1 Corinthians 11, Paul had before him the letter that the Corinthians wrote to him. He also had the experience of 18 months that he had spent with them teaching them various things and setting up their various practices. If we want to know what constitutes a covering, we have one option– look elsewhere in Scripture for what Paul and they would have understood.