Sometimes, the coward in me steps up, or I guess more accurately, steps backward. Writing on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 pushes my ‘coward button.’ But then, it makes me study and think harder. And so, I find the courage to press forward.
Paul speaks here about male-female relationship and how that relationship manifests itself in the gathering of the church. First, notice that Paul does NOT say women may not pray or prophecy in the church. He assumes that they do. He simply says that women who do pray or prophecy in the congregation should do so in a seemly, honorable way. This indicates an equality of function with the men of the congregation. Both are permitted to lead in prayer and preaching. Then, Paul writes vss. 11 and 12, stating the inter-dependence of men and women under God, indicating an equality of value and need. Men and women are valuable to one another and can receive aid and blessing from one another. This core equality is also implicit in Genesis, where it states that both male AND female are made in the image of God. And in 1 Peter 3:7, husbands are urged to respect their wives as co-heirs of the gracious gift of life.
But Paul also speaks of ‘headship’ and authority. This is to be construed in the context of marriage, for it would be chaotic to think that every woman is to be under the authority of every man. In Paul’s culture, hair or headcovering was the symbol of submission to authority. And so, in the churches of that day, Paul encourages the wives to retain a symbol of their husband’s headship while leading prayer or when preaching.
Is this a contradiction? Is a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission inconsistent with the aforementioned equality of the sexes? No. No more than Jesus’ equality with God the Father renders inconsistent God’s headship of Christ, or Christ’s submission to the Father. Father and Son are co-equal, yet the Father is head of the Son. Jesus is one with the Father, and yet He fully submits to the will of the Father. It is this blessed mystery that is wrapped up in God’s design for marriage. In the marriage union there should be a picture and demonstration of Christ’s submission, and that through the wife. And in Ephesians 5 we get the complete picture, where we read of the sacrificial love of Christ that should be demonstrated through the husband. Two forms of selflessness; not a dominator/ dominated relationship. Two equally challenging calls to be like Jesus!
Where does that leave us today? With these three imperatives – Let men and women together feel free to pray and preach under the Spirit’s leading in the church. Let men and women celebrate their equality and their inter-dependence under God their Father. And let husbands and wives courageously demonstrate, in the divine design of the marriage relationship, self-sacrifice and submission – the noblest characteristics of our Savior.