The next major section of 1 Corinthians continues for four chapters. Paul addresses three
main issues, all connected with order in public worship. In chapter eleven, Paul responds to two
issues that have probably been reported to him by the people who brought news of the church to him
in Ephesus, Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). For the first issue, the wearing of head-
coverings, Paul commends the church (11:2-16), but for the second issue, the celebration of the
Lord’s supper, Paul has some strong criticism and warnings for the church (11:17-34). Chapters
twelve to fourteen contain Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts, given in response to a question asked by
the church. Again it begins, “now concerning” (12:1). He has evidently brought these three issues
together in the letter because they all cover the wider area of order in public worship.
It is this section of the book that probably generates the largest number of disagreements in
today’s church, with different groups and denominations coming to widely differing opinions over
these issues. Each of the three issues have caused deep divisions in the church. So we need to look at
the text carefully, attempt to determine what situation Paul was addressing in Corinth, and seek to
bring out principles we can apply in today’s church.
The first issue is probably the most difficult to interpret and apply, being one of the most
problematical passages in Paul’s letters. There are questions about the meaning of words in the text,
as well as cultural elements which are either unknown or still under debate.
Prayer and head-covering in Greek culture
Many studies have been done on the covering of the head in Roman and Greek culture, with
conflicting results. Because of this, different commentaries on this passage come to a variety of
different conclusions. Many studies focus on women covering their heads, or not covering their heads
in different social and religious situations, but tend to ignore that this passage also mentions men
covering their heads (11:4). It is surprising that Paul first mentions the veiling of men. There are statues of high-born Roman men, like Emperor Augustus, who had raised folds of their toga so it covered their head while praying or sacrificing to a pagan god. In Greek and Roman culture it was the social elite who took a lead in pagan worship, so covering the head became a sign of social status. So for a Christian man to cover his head while praying or prophesying in a church meeting would draw attention to his higher social status, which would be dishonouring to his head, Christ.
Greek men tended to make a distinction between wives and mistresses or prostitutes. Wives
were for bearing children and for social respectability, while mistresses and prostitutes were for
sexual pleasure. A Greek wife was expected to remain faithful to her husband, even while her
husband was continuing to have sexual encounters with prostitutes. These encounters would often be
in the context of the social banquets mentioned earlier, where foreign women or slaves would be
provided by the host for the enjoyment of his guests. In later years, many Greek wives rebelled
against this social expectation and became promiscuous themselves, becoming known as 'new women', or 'new wives'. It seems that Greek women were expected to wear a veil or some sort of covering on her head in public as a sign of their status as a married woman. This normally covered all or part of her hair. If a man appeared in public with an unveiled woman, it would suggest that she was not his wife, but was probably a prostitute. At the banquets, an unveiled woman would be a man’s social and sexual companion for the night. The 'new women' threw off the social conventions and also appeared in public without a veil. At home, a Greek wife would not need to wear a veil. This would cause interesting questions if the church met in a person’s home. Should the wife wear a veil,
at what is now a public meeting, even if it is taking place in a private house? A married woman
visiting a friend in her house would not normally wear the veil once inside the house. So would
attending a church meeting in a friend’s house be considered the same?
Paul has heard news of the Corinthian church through verbal reports and expresses his praise
that they are maintaining the traditions that he passed on to them. Before the writing of the NT, the
stories of Jesus and the essentials of the Christian Gospel were transmitted orally, and were known as
the 'traditions'. What Paul had received from the Lord and the other apostles, he passed on to the
churches he founded, as he also noted concerning the Lord’s supper (11:23) and the resurrection
The theological basis (11:3)
Before addressing the issue of head-coverings, Paul begins with a theological statement about
head-ship. “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the
head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” There are at least two difficult questions about how this statement should be translated into English and how it should be understood.
Woman or wife?
It is not clear whether the Greek word should be translated woman or wife. Most English translators use the general term 'woman', while a fewer number use the more specific term 'wife'. The Greek word describes a woman who is older than her mid-teens, but who is not engaged and not a widow. Because Paul mentions veils in this passage, the immediate association in first century Corinth would be with married women. The Latin word for a woman’s marriage literally means, “I veil myself”. We should also remember that remaining single into adulthood at that time was very unusual, so the vast majority of adult women would be married, normally between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. It was the serious responsibility of the father to ensure suitable husbands were found for his daughters. A father would have failed in his responsibility if his daughters remained unmarried into adulthood. Because of this, it is most likely that Paul is writing about married women who were not wearing the veil when praying or prophesying in a public church meeting.
Does 'head' mean authority or source?
The second area of disagreement is more difficult, as it concerns what Paul meant by the word 'head' (11:3). The Greek word used here is the normal word for a human head, 'kephale'. In certain places in the passage the word 'head' is clearly referring to the physical head of a person’s body, while in the same verse it is apparently being used metaphorically. An example is verse 4. “Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head (physical) disgraces his head (physical or metaphorical?)
Head meaning authority
The first understanding is that head means authority over, or rule over. If the brain controls
the human body, then the head is being used as a metaphor for rule or authority. Paul’s statement
would then read as follows: “Christ is the head of (has authority over) every man, and the husband is the head of (has authority over) his wife, and God is the head of (has authority over) Christ.”. This would give a clear hierarchal structure: First God the Father, second Christ, third the husband, fourth the wife, giving a basis for teaching the submission of women to men. One problem with this understanding is that first century Greeks did not have the same understanding of the human body as we have today. They did not know that the brain controlled the rest of the body, so Paul could not have had this in mind when he wrote this. They normally thought of the abdomen as being the centre of feelings and thought. We should point out that Paul does not use the normal Greek word for ruling, and does not speak at all about the man having authority over his wife. In this passage, the only
people having authority are the women (11:10).
Head meaning source
A second possible meaning is that head means the source, like the head of a river being the
source of the river, where the water in the river comes from. In this case, 'head' in this verse would
become a metaphor for source of life. Then Paul’s statement would read as follows: "Christ is the
head (source of life) of every man, and the husband is the head (source of life) of his wife, and God is the head (source of life) of Christ.” It is difficult to see how God the Father can be the source of life of Christ, when the teaching of the NT is that both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are eternal beings. Jesus was not created by the Father. People who prefer the second meaning of head being source, have difficulties with God having authority over Jesus, saying that this would deny his deity. However, a clear distinction should be made between the deity of Jesus and his voluntary submission to the Father. During his ministry, Jesus stated that he only does what he sees the Father doing (Jn 5:19), also Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lk
22:42) and was obedient even to death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
In today’s society there is great confusion between value and role, and this confusion has come into the church. In God’s sight everyone is of the same value, but we have different roles. Within the Trinity, all three persons are equal, but there is a difference of roles, and a submission of
Jesus to the Father, and of the Holy Spirit to both Jesus and the Father. Between male and female, the
biblical principle is equality but difference. In the next chapter we will see that the same is true with
spiritual gifts. We are all members of the body of Christ, but have different gifts. Some gifts are more
prominent, but that does not mean that the person with that gift is any more important before God.
There are a number of places elsewhere in Paul’s letters where he uses this same word for head ('kephale'), particularly in the context of Christ being the head of the church. In several places
it can be understood in either way, Christ is the head of the church, meaning that he is the ruler with
authority over the church, but then he is also the source of the life of the church. He is the head of the church (Col 1:18). We as the church are called to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into
Christ (Eph 4:15).
In other places, Christ is described as the head of every ruler and authority (Col 2:10). In the
context of the letter to the Colossians, which has such a great emphasis on the supremacy of Christ
over all other belief systems and spiritual powers, it would be extremely doubtful that Paul was
saying that Christ was the source of life of these rulers and authorities. Rather he was stating that
Jesus rules over, and has authority over every evil spiritual power, and has triumphed over them
through his death on the cross (2:15). Paul also stated that God put all things under Christ’s feet and
made him head over all things for the church (Eph 1:22). This would also refer more to authority and
rule over all things, rather than being their source of life. In his letter, Peter quoted Psalm 18 saying
that the stone rejected by the builders has become the head of the corner (1 Pet 2:7, Ps 18:22). Again
this would be better understood in terms of authority rather than source. Paul makes a similar
statement about the husband being the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church in Eph
5:22-23, but the same arguments will arise over this passage.
Argument from culture I, what is disgraceful (11:4-6)
As noted above, if a man covers his head while praying or prophesying, he is drawing attention to his social status, and worshipping as he would do in a pagan temple. This is dishonouring to his head, Jesus. If a woman does the same without a veil, she is behaving like an immoral 'new woman', and dishonouring her head, her husband. The shaving of the head was the punishment for an adulterous wife. It was a public humiliation, reducing her to the status of a prostitute. Therefore she should wear the marriage veil. We should note here that the women were praying and prophesying in the church meetings, and that Paul makes no objection to that. He is only giving instructions concerning how they should be dressed. This appears to contradict Paul’s later instruction for women to remain silent (14:34-35), which will be considered later.
Argument from creation I (11:7-9)
Twice Paul uses the word 'ought' (11:7,10). In Roman society the word used here had a much stronger meaning. It was associated with the Roman 'Laws of Obligations'. These were the part of Roman Law that determined a person’s conduct in relation to other people, whether in friendship, between slaves and masters, or marriage. He says that men ought not to wear a veil because he is the image and reflection of God (11:7), made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). For them to wear a veil while praying dishonoured Christ as their head (11:4), as well as failing to meet their obligation to him. In contrast, women ought to wear a veil (11:10), as the sign of her marriage. Not to wear a veil dishonoured her husband as her head, and failed to meet her obligations to him. The obligations to their head come from creation. Man was a direct creation of God himself, and the woman was made from man for the sake of man, to be his helper (Gen 2:18).
Woman ought to have symbol of authority on her head (11:10)
One of the most mysterious parts of this difficult passage is where Paul says a woman would
wear a veil because of the angels. Numerous different suggestions have been given for the meaning of
this sentence. If angels are in attendance during worship services, even though they are invisible, the
women should behave in a dignified way before them. Some have even suggested that these are evil
angels who will lust after unveiled women (as Gen 6:2), but why would their lust be limited to times
The word 'angel' comes from the Greek word 'angelos', which can either mean a supernatural being, or a human messenger or representative. If Paul is meaning a human messenger, then the situation may be as follows: In contrast to pagan religion in which an individual attended the temple for worship, Christianity held regular meetings for corporate worship and teaching in people’s houses. Any such meeting would be seen as suspicious by the Roman government authorities, as a potential threat to the peace and security of the empire. The authorities would send representatives to the church meetings to see what was happening, to determine whether there were any potential threats or subversive activity. Paul mentions outsiders and unbelievers later in the book (14:23). In Roman eyes, meetings of the church would have political rather than religious associations. If the authorities thought the church was being subversive, they would close it down by force. Another possibility was if there was a member of the upper classes who was interested in Christianity he would send one of his representatives to the meeting to 'spy it out', before attending himself. It may be one of these two scenarios that Paul had in mind in this verse. He would want the Christian congregation to be seen to be behaving in order and the women to be respectable to any outsider, whether a representative of the authorities, or to a potential convert. He did not want the wives to be behaving like the immoral and promiscuous 'new women', and give the church a bad name.
Argument from creation II (11:11-12)
Paul is not wanting to encourage subordination of the women, or for the men to dominate the
women. In the Lord, neither are independent beings, but both come from him, so there is equality
before Him. There should be an inter-dependence between the sexes. Again he points back to
creation, even though woman originally came from man, now all men are born from a woman, their
mother. Again he is showing the principle of equality, but difference, without saying one is more
important than the other. Both are needed, both are important, and both are equal before the Lord.
Argument from culture II, what nature teaches (11:13-16)
Paul calls the congregation to judge whether it 'it is proper' for a woman to pray with her
head unveiled. The word he uses concerns social decorum or etiquette, which was of the highest
importance in Roman society. If a Christian woman prayed without a veil, she was effectively
identifying herself with the 'new women'. This would present a poor image of Christianity to the
outside world, and would contradict the biblical teaching on marriage, where both sides were
expected to remain faithful (7:3-5).
“What nature teaches” is a Stoic term, meaning what is right. In first-century Greek society, it was degrading and dishonouring for a man to have long hair. Young boys often wore long hair, but it was shaved off when they reached puberty and began to grow a beard. In popular Roman thought, a man with long hair was considered to be effeminate, and a denial of his masculinity. In statues, passive homosexuals were portrayed with long curly hair, as a contemptuous sign of their weakness. So a man with long hair would be thought of as a passive homosexual, and treated with contempt. For a woman, long hair was her glory. Statues of Roman women normally have long hair, which was elaborately styled and decorated.
Paul ends by referring to anyone who is disposed to be contentious (11:16). This comment
would indicate that there were some in the congregation who were being contentious over wearing or
not wearing a veil. Paul states that the behaviour he is expecting from the Corinthians is the same as
same as in all the other churches. For the men to mimic pagan worship and draw attention to their
social status, or for the women to act like immoral women was certainly not part of the apostolic
Conclusion - how to find practical application from this passage
In the church today there is a tendency to go to one of two opposite extremes with passages such as this one. One is to say that we must take the Bible literally, and obey exactly what it says. This approach tends towards legalism, and does not take adequate notice of the cultural issue that
Paul was addressing. Such a view would teach a rigid hierarchy of man and woman, and insist that
women wear some sort of physical head-covering in church. The other extreme is to say that the
whole issue is cultural, and limited to the situation in first-century Corinth, and therefore it has
nothing to say to us today. This approach tends towards more liberal standards of dress and
behaviour, but effectively ignores the passage altogether.
I am convinced that in any passage of Scripture there are principles to be drawn which are
timeless and not bound by culture. We need to look at the setting of the passage in the first century
and seek to determine how Paul intended the Corinthians to obey it within their own culture. Then we
need to find principles from the passage and apply them today, but avoiding the extremes of literal
legalism. There are timeless principles to be found in any passage of Scripture, however obscure or
however difficult for us to understand today.
One important principle from this passage is very controversial today. That is that there
should be a distinction between men and women. God made men to be men and women to be women,
equal but different. This is at completely at odds with the prevailing view of the world today that
there are no real differences between men and women. We should also resist the tendency towards
unisex, the blurring of both the physical appearances and the distinct roles of men and women. The
dress and appearance of men should be distinctively different from women, so there is no confusion
between the sexes. However, details of dress or hairstyle will vary considerably in different cultures.
We also need to affirm the different roles, and honour the woman’s unique role in child-bearing and
being a mother. There is also the principle that we should avoid dressing in ways that would identify
the church with pagan religion, or with immorality.
The Lord’s Supper (11:17-34)
For the second issue, Paul has words of rebuke rather than praise. It appears that the divisions
that existed in the church were being particularly exposed during their celebration of the Lord’s
supper, so their meetings were harmful rather than beneficial. The context here is that of a 'Love
feast', a communal meal at which each person brought food which was placed on a communal table
for everyone to share. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated as part of this communal meal. The division
was between the rich and the poor. The rich could afford to bring plenty of food, while the poor and
slaves could not afford much. Some of the rich were greedily devouring their own food and refusing
to share it with others, as well as drinking so much wine that they were getting drunk (1:21).
The rich probably kept in exclusive groups, while the poor sat on the outside with very little
to eat. The division was also partly caused by the design of houses. The church probably met for
meals in a house belonging to one of the richer members of the church, who became the host for the
meal. The dining area, or triclinium, of most houses would only be large enough for between nine and twelve guests. Most of the guests would therefore eat in the courtyard, or atrium, which would seat between thirty and fifty people. The wealthy host would naturally invite his friends to eat with him in the triclinium or dining area, while the poorer members of the church would have to eat outside in the atrium. In this way, the wealthy would retain their privileged status, eating the more expensive food. They were effectively eating a private meal among themselves and separating themselves from those who were less wealthy or privileged. These actions of the rich had the effect of destroying the unity of the church as one body in Christ.
This was a total perversion of Jesus’ intention for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Instead of honouring Christ, they were returning to the manners and behaviour characteristic of
secular banquets, where guests even fought over the food. This was not the time to focus on
satisfying hunger. If people want to eat a big meal, they should eat at home (11:34). Instead of
demonstrating the unity of believers before Christ, the deep class divisions of Corinth were being
repeated in the church. The actions of the rich were showing contempt for the church, and
humiliating the poorer members of the church, so Paul’s strong words of rebuke are not surprising
(11:22). To despise the poor is to despise the whole church.
Tradition of celebrating Lord’s supper (11:23-26)
Again Paul is passing on what he had received, the traditions. He received the tradition from
the Lord, either by direct revelation, or through the apostles. He then reminds them of the original
institution of the Lord’s supper on the night Jesus was betrayed, when Jesus celebrated the Passover
meal with his disciples, including Judas (Mt 26:26-28, Mk 14:22-24, Lk 22:17-19). The meal was a
time to remember and repeat the words and actions as originally instituted by Jesus.
The Lord’s supper has a variety of names, partly depending on various denominational traditions. The early church called it the 'Breaking of Bread' (Acts 2:42, 20:7), referring to Jesus breaking the loaf (11:24). It is also called the 'Eucharist' from the Greek word for giving thanks, referring to Jesus giving thanks for the meal. In this passage, Paul calls it the Lord’s Supper (11:20). The Greek word for supper referred to the main meal of the day, eaten leisurely in the evening, to be enjoyed in the company of others. Paul does not specify how often the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated. Some churches celebrate it at every service, or every Sunday, others more occasionally. Some churches do not celebrate it at all. It is a pity that in today’s church it has normally been reduced to small tokens of bread and wine, when it was originally more of a shared meal, with a strong emphasis on fellowship.
Paul states the purpose of eating the bread and drinking the cup is to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. It was a memorial meal, to remember the death of Jesus, which the church should continue to practice until the second coming. It is a time for each believer to look back and remember that the death of Jesus brought us life. It is also a time to look to the future, to the return of Christ, and the fullness of life in glory we will receive. The focus should be on Jesus, his death, and the new life given through the Gospel, rather than on the food and drink.
Eating in an unworthy manner (11:27-32)
In the light of their scandalous behaviour, Paul calls the Corinthians to examine themselves
carefully before coming to the Lord’s table. They were being careless and irreverent in the way they
ate the Lord’s supper, coming with selfish motives, and with contentions between members of the
church. They need to examine their motives, behaviour and attitudes towards others in the church,
particularly the poorer members. If they eat with disregard to the body of Christ, probably meaning
the body of believers, then they will eat and drink judgement on themselves (11:29). This discipline
from God for abusing the Lord’s supper could result in sickness or even death. Paul suggests that this
was already happening in the church (11:30). The way to avoid this judgement was the self-
examination already mentioned (11:28).
Call to be hospitable (11:33-34)
He ends by calling the members of the church to wait for one another before they eat. In this
way, the meal becomes a special time of fellowship, rather than a time to eat and drink in excess.
They should share their food with one another, a particular call for the rich to share their food with
the poor, which would be a demonstration of true fellowship and the unity of the church.
Different understandings of the Lord’s Supper
This passage is one of the few places in the NT which gives teaching on the Lord’s Supper, apart from the passages in the gospels describing the meal Jesus had with his disciples the night before the crucifixion. For many centuries there has been a wide variety of conflicting understandings
of the nature of the Lord’s Supper within the church. The particular issue of contention is whether
Christ is actually present in the bread and wine.
The Reformers were unanimous in rejecting the Roman Catholic view, which stated that there were seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, extreme unction, ordination and marriage). Most of the Reformers, including Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Bucer, accepted only two sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper). Luther originally included penance among the sacraments, but later denied its sacramental nature as there was no physical sign associated with it. Only baptism (Mt 28:19) and the Lord’s Supper (Mt 26:26-28) were directly commanded by Jesus in the Gospels, which was Melanchthon’s argument for accepting only the two sacraments.
The Reformers also challenged the Catholic understanding of the nature of a sacrament being
a channel of grace, so they actually caused what they stood for. On the other side, the Reformers
believed them to be a sign of grace, but not a cause of grace, or able to lead to justification before
Much of the conflict over the Lord’s Supper arises from the words of Jesus, whether, “This is
my body”, and, “This is my blood” are to be understood as literal statements or as metaphors. The Catholic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper was described by Thomas Aquinas, and re-stated following
the Reformation by the Council of Trent. This was called 'trans-substantiation', that after consecration by the priest, the substance or essence of the bread and wine is super-naturally converted into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. However, they still retain the physical appearance and taste of bread and wine.
Luther rejected the doctrine of trans-substantiation, recognising its origins in the teaching of
Aristotle, and warning of the danger of ordinary people misunderstanding the doctrine and
worshipping the bread and wine. He believed that when Jesus said, “This is my body”, Jesus meant
that he was really present in every part of the bread, in both the substance and the physical bread, and
similarly with the wine. He called this 'consubstantiation'. He supported his argument by the fact
that Christ can dwell in our human bodies, without our human nature being trans-substantiated.
Instead both natures are completely present. Luther is right in his desire to make doctrine easy to
understand by the ordinary people, and to avoid the danger of idolatry, while maintaining some of the
mystery and reverence in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which can often be missing in other
Protestant churches. Luther also characteristically taught that the Lords’ supper was a will or
testament given to the believers by Jesus before he died. A testament needs the death of the testator, a
promise of an inheritance and the identification of heirs. Christ spoke about his death, promised an
inheritance of forgiveness of sins to his heirs who are those who believe in his promises. In this way
the mass or Lord’s Supper is a testament or promise, which can only be accepted by faith and not
gained by any of one’s own merit or works.
The Swiss reformer, Zwingli understood the words strictly as a metaphor, in the same way
that Christ was not literally a door (John 10:9) or a vine (John 15:5). Instead, these statements meant
that Christ was like a door or a vine, so he understood the bread and wine in a similar way, arguing
that the bread still tastes like bread, and not like the flesh of Christ. In the Book of Acts, the apostles broke bread (Acts 2:46) and did not claim that the bread was the body of Christ. Christ only became flesh once in his incarnation, and not every time the bread was consecrated in the mass, as claimed by Catholics.
Calvin taught that a sacrament was given because of the weakness of our faith as an outward
sign to confirm and seal a previous promise from God. He claimed that his definition clarified
Augustine’s definition of a sacrament being “a visible form of an invisible grace”. In this way a
sacrament was a physical mirror of spiritual blessings. Beza developed this idea by teaching that no
part of the sacrament is actually changed, but its significance and purpose is changed, so by faith,
through the sacrament, Christ communicates with us through his Spirit. This understanding has the
advantage of avoiding the mysticism and potential idolatry of trans-substantiation, but still recognises
that there is power in the sacrament, so it is more than a merely physical sign or symbol.
This is a very difficult issue to assess biblically, as so few passages give direct teaching on
the Lord’s Supper. As noted above, most of the argument rests on the interpretation of, “This is my
body, This is my blood”. It is probably correct to say that these words should be understood
metaphorically, so the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ, but remain unchanged.
However, the real presence of Christ in the bread could be argued from Paul’s statement, “the bread
that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16). This would support Luther’s
understanding of the real presence, or the more spiritual understanding of Calvin and Beza.