What Does I Corinthians 11:3 Teach About the Role of Women?
I Corinthians 11 has been surrounded by controversy due to the teaching about the covering. It is not the purpose or scope of this article to try to expound a pro or con position on the covering today. Women do need to carefully study the passage for themselves and make thought-out decisions as to what they will practice. It is certainly not a passage that can be overlooked without serious consideration. This article will focus more on the role of women as taught in verse 3. The wearing of the covering for the women when praying or prophesying was to demonstrate their submissive position. It is the submissive role itself that we want to briefly consider.
"But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ."
In the midst of the problems that the Corinthians were having, it appears that they also had a problem with order among men and women. I Corinthians 14:34-35 indicates problems even within the assembly with women inappropriately addressing the assembly or interrupting with questions. This violated their given role to "quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness" (I Timothy 2:11). Even women with prophetic abilities were not to violate their submissive position to take the lead over men. The apostle is very explicit in the order given. We no more have a right to change this order around than we do to change around the order of what is required for salvation.
Stepping Out of the Role
Terrible consequences come when we step out of our given roles. A woman who did not wear a covering within this context disgraced her head (I Corinthians 11:5). She was "one and the same with her whose head is shaved," something they would have understood to be a great disgrace to women. Women who think that they are demonstrating their "independence" and acting in their own self-interests when they reject God-given submissive roles are, in reality, disgracing themselves. It is no great dignity for a women to try to take the headship away from the man. She does not "fulfill her potential" when she usurps authority over men. She was not created to lead man. Thus, when she attempts to do so, she greatly harms her divine station in life. Contrary to popular opinion, the role of the woman as shown in Scripture is not a shameful position to be in. In fact, it is a position of honor and esteem. For example, to hear people degrade women who stay home to raise their children is distasteful to a mind thinking on godly values. Rather, we need to realize what a great honor it is for a woman to be in the position in which God has put her (cf. Titus 2:4-5).
I Corinthians 11:9 teaches that woman was created "for the man," as Genesis teaches. She was made to be a complement to the man, not a hindrance. Feminism, which in essence seeks to break all ties with "man," has hurt, perhaps more than any movement, the honor and glory that rightly belongs to a woman who gracefully submits to the will of God (cf. Proverbs 31:10-31). She was created to be a companion and helper, not a threat and challenge to the man.
One of the reasons given in I Corinthians 11 for women to wear the covering was "because of the angels" (I Corinthians 11:10). Since the covering was a sign of "authority" (i.e., it symbolizes the authority to which she submits), her not wearing one when praying or prophesying, indicated that she was stepping out of her required role. She needed to think of angels. This is not because they were looking down on her to see what she was doing. It seems more likely that this is referring to the "angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode" (Jude 6). As a result, they were "kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day" (cf. also II Peter 2:4). In other words, he was telling the women to think about what happened to the angels who stepped out of their assigned positions before you think of removing the sign of authority which shows your submission. Keeping our proper places is essential according to the word of God.
Men and women are dependent upon each other (I Corinthians 11:11). Therefore, it is vital for us to recognize our proper places and stay there. The battle existing between men and women is only further aggravated when we try to reverse or ignore the roles. Even "nature" teaches a difference between men and women (I Corinthians 11:14-15). It is a tremendous curse on our society that these differences are not respected as they should be. When men look and act like women, and women look and act like men, we are shamed and reproached.
Meaning of Head
The word head (keyhole) refers to "that which is upper-most in relation to something" (Zodhiates 860). When used of persons, it is "the head, chief, one to whom others are subordinate" (Ibid.). "In the case of living beings, to denote superior rank" (Bauer 430). "A figurative extension . . . one who is of supreme or pre-eminent status, in view of authority to order or command `one who is the head of, one who is superior to, one who is supreme over" (Louw & Nida 739). When it says that "man is the head of woman," it is saying that, in terms of authority, man has the higher position. This clearly puts man in the leadership position. For a woman to resent this and attempt to step out of her role is to disrespect God. This is not the result of some male-dominated society and chauvinistic apostle. This is the inspired teaching of God, and it must be respected.
One question that arises is whether or not this is speaking only of the husband and wife relationship. Some women will say that the only man they have to submit to is the husband. However, there is nothing in this context limiting the relationship to only husbands and wives. It says, "man is the head of woman." If "man" here is "husbands only," then does it also mean "husbands only" when it says "Christ is the head of every man"? If "every man" extends beyond husbands, then on what grounds does it become "husbands only" within the very same sentence? The general relationship is that man has authority over the woman. This is exactly what I Timothy 2:11-14 teaches. This does not mean that a man has a right to enter another man's home and boss that man's wife around. It does not mean that men generally can "command" women to be at their "beck and call." It simply means that God has placed man in the leadership role, and women are to follow this lead, not attempting to usurp authority over men.
A second question over this verse comes with the word "head" itself. some are teaching that the word "head" means "source," and does not refer to authority. What is the point of defining the word this way? If it is to say that man does not have the position of authority, there are many other passages to be reckoned with. Furthermore, if "head" means "source," and refers to the creation, then what does it mean when it says, "God is head of Christ"? Does it mean that somehow Jesus was created? The same word is used in referring to the husband and wife relationship in Ephesians 5:23. Is the husband the "source" of the wife? Defining the word this way creates more problems than it solves. The idea of "head" is clearly authority.
The Nature of the Authority
Men need to understand the nature of their authority. Is I Corinthians 11:3 describing a relationship where man has tyrannical rule over the woman? Not at all. Man does not have a right to force a woman into submission or dangle it over her head to get his own way. This is contrary to the teachings of Christ and the example that he himself left for us (cf. Philippians 2:3-8). A man is overstepping his bounds if he acts this way; and, to be sure, plenty of men have done this. Nor is this passage saying that man is better than woman. A man is no more human or godly than a woman is. This is simply an order of authority that God has put into effect. The nature of this authority is loving, considerate and decisive, just as God has demonstrated toward us. It does not give man a right to "lord it over" women (cf. Matthew 20:25-28).
Consider the relationship between Jesus and the Father. The Bible teaches that Jesus himself is God, equal in nature to the Father (John 1:1; 5:17-24; 10:30; Philippians 2:6; Hebrews 1; etc.). Even so, Jesus took on a role of submission under the Father. This did not change his equality in nature; he simply acted in a different capacity than the Father. Like-wise, men and women are equal in terms of human nature. But God has given them different roles. This does not mean one is more or less important than the other. Both roles are vital for the proper functioning of society, the home and the church. We must respect God's order. Man is to be the leader. He should respect the woman and try to make it pleasant for her to follow his example. The woman is respectfully to submit to the lead of the man.
In the church, men are to be leaders. Modern thinking has opened the door for women to take major leading roles in churches (i.e., preachers and "elders"). We will find real trouble very soon if the truth is not taught and upheld in this age. Though the biblical teaching about the roles of men and women is despised by the modem worldview, our efforts as Christians must be to please God (cf. Galatians 1:10). To place women in positions of equal authority to men in the church is to violate the Scriptures. Feminism has no place in the church of God. Our thinking on this matter needs to be dictated by God, not by political correctness.
Men need to be leaders in the home. Some men relinquish their responsibilities to the wives some let their wives take over. Either way, God's order has been violated. Men need to wake up to their obligations and lovingly lead their families in the ways of God. Unless the home reflects the godly order of leadership, the church and society both will suffer.
The bottom line is that I Corinthians 11:3 teaches that men are in the position of leadership, and women have the role of submission. A man's attitude should be, as Christ, to be a loving leader, providing a good example and godly spirit. A woman's attitude should be that she willingly submits and follows the lead. Man is not to put her in submission, and woman is not to despise submission. When God's way is respected, the home, the church and the nation will prosper. Let us therefore seek to fulfill the will of God even against the prevailing backdrop of feminism today. It matters not what "they" say. Only what God says matters.
Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.
Zohiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, Inc. 1992.