Hats Off (and On) in Corinth

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Good morning everyone and welcome to Corinth where we have come to check out a passage Paul wrote about men, women, hats and Imago Dei…

To begin with, Corinth in the first century was a moral cesspool even by the standards of the ancient world. By modern standards, even the wildest and most “progressive” thinkers would likely be grossed out by some of the things that went on there; it makes for an interesting study, if you have a strong stomach. Not surprisingly, the church in Corinth was a mess, and when news of what was going on there reached the Apostle Paul, he grabbed his pen and fired off a letter addressing the issues that had come to his attention.

The church there was dealing with rampant sexual immorality, chaos and disorder in worship and false teachers, heresies and false apostles, to name a few of their problems. Make no mistake, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is a letter of correction, containing quite a few rebukes; it is not just lovey-dovey chapter 13.

It would seem that one of the problems they had there was with people causing disruptions in the worship, disruptions of more than one variety. Paul addresses these in a section that includes chapters 11-14. Yes, that’s the context into which the great “love chapter” falls, and isn’t that interesting? Our exploration is concerned with a part of this larger discussion that is found in 11:2-16, and the particular verses that concern out study of the image of God are these:

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

1 Corinthians 11:7-9

So, now that you have read the passage (11:2-16), and re-read these three verses, is Paul telling us that only males are made in God’s image?

Many have taught that it does mean that over the centuries…

While you’re considering your answer I’ll share something with you: When I was a boy, both my mother and sister always wore hats to church on Sunday, but my father and I did not. Funny thing is… I haven’t seen women wearing hats in church now, for 30 years or more; I wonder why that is…

OK, what did you decide, are women created in the image of God?

Well, if they are not created in the image of God, then we have a real problem, because Moses and Paul would be contradicting each other!

As I see it, here’s the solution: Paul is writing to Corinth at a specific point in time when they were having very specific local problems to contend with, and they were losing their way. Paul’s corrective measures were specific and local in nature, and only applied to Corinth and congregations with similar problems and circumstances; in Corinth, both the problems and the solutions were local and cultural in nature; neither was either transcendent or universal.

Yet there is also another factor in play here, for within Scripture there is a certain metaphorical hierarchy that Paul has expressed here as part of his solution to the problems of Corinth. That hierarchy is this: The Father is over the Son, who does the Fathers’ will. The Son is over the church that serves the Son. The husband is over the wife, as Christ is over the Church, and the parent is over the child, also as Christ is over the Church. This hierarchy is quite common in Paul’s writings, see Eph. 5:21 ff. for one of them. None of this means that men are better than women, or that women are less than men; it means that Christ is over the church! (cf. Eph. 5:32)

Thus, Paul is not putting women beneath men as any kind of universal dictate or directive, but rather trying to bring order out of chaos for the sake of the Gospel. For me, this becomes very clear in these verses, and I’ll give them the last word:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (11:11-12)

I’ll see you back in the Garden next time!

(And don’t forget to stop by Church Set Free for the conversation about Justice!)

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About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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5 Responses to Hats Off (and On) in Corinth

  1. Matt Brumage says:

    Without getting into the cultural context of this particular passage, there internal contextual support within 1 Corinthians for seeing the gender equality that Paul teaches. One element is here in this passage where the topic, while nominally about head-covering is also about women prophesying and praying in the context of worship (which you stated right up front in this entry).

    Additionally, and almost striking in its balance, 1 Corinthians 7 explicitly teaches this equality among the genders. What is essentially good for men, Paul also says includes women; teaching it’s good for them as well. Even considering chapter 14’s oddly out of place, even clumsy, statement about women not teaching or speaking in church doesn’t negate these other contextual elements.

    Any burden for proof falls to those teaching Paul as believing that women are not in the image of God (or part of). The rest of this letter teaches an implicit inclusion in that image. At least from my perspective.

    • Don Merritt says:

      And in mine too Matt, I couldn’t agree more. I must confess that I had a hard time resisting the temptation to run off a lengthy dissertation on the background and context of the letter, and I hope that I’ve covered it clearly enough here. Certainly your very on-point comments help to solidify the contextual issues; thank you!

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