When anyone begins a list of people who made a huge difference in the church in the first century there must be a host of Godly women who served, blessed and helped to build the church in that time. Names such as Priscilla, Dorcas and Phoebe stand out for their work and when Paul reached the conclusion of I Corinthians he commended the whole family of Stephanas for addicting themselves to the ministry of the saints and Aquila and Priscilla for the church meeting in their home. Remember that the church in Corinth was God’s church and called to be saints with all who call on the name of the Lord. The first chapter of I Corinthians laid down a passionate plea for unity among the believers. Lots of things were causing problems among them. He pulled them back to the cross and challenged them to stop following different men and all go to Christ the one who died for you and in whose name you were baptized. His point was so strong on this point that he would say, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” From that foundation he marched through the rest of the book dealing with the different problems that were destroying that unity of the Spirit that they were intended by God to have. Each section with each problem was to be handled with the view to restoring unity and keeping Christ and him crucified as the unifying truth.
It is imperative that we keep those truths clearly before us as we approach the text dealing with God’s woman serving in God’s church. In chapter ten he had pointed to the taking of Communion as a plea for unity. We eat on one bread and drink of one spiritual drink. Taking of the one table should pull us together rather than driving us apart. He challenged them to not try to take of the Lord’s table and the table of demons at the same time. When we commune together and remember the death of Jesus for us, proclaiming that death until he comes we shouldn’t allow such things as our view of eating meat and going to the idols temple for a dinner, to divide us. It is with that before them that he turns in chapter 11 to discuss two concerns going on when they gathered together. He started with, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” From that he laid out a plan to solve the first problem. The head of Christ is God, the head of man is Christ and the head of woman is man and we should not dishonor our heads.
What in the world is the background for this whole problem with women wearing veils when they prayed or prophesied in the presence of men? In studies on the background of Corinth one thing stands out that I think affects what we see in these verses tremendously. Slavery was common and over half the people in the city were slaves. Slaves weren’t given the privilege of legal marriage so when the person committed to a man as her husband was a slave they weren’t allowed to wear the veil that was common for the married woman in the area. Besides that there were numerous women in the city who were or had been part of the religious prostitution tied to the temple of Aphrodite on the hill overlooking Corinth. They were not allowed to wear the veil and typically had their hair cropped to distinguish them from other women. In that society that was an accepted norm. Then Paul came to town preaching Christ and started God’s church there. In the church those walls between slave and free, between those who have been involved in an immoral life and have changed, were torn down. So the whole veil thing wasn’t about appropriate dress at church but about allowing every woman who was a follower of Christ to be treated with the same degree of respect and allowed to wear the veil demonstrating her marriage and submission to her husband.
But what about the whole praying prophesying thing in this passage? Many would say that this wasn’t the church assembly but some other meeting of the church and that could well be since he does make a distinction verse 17 and following, about when they came together as a church. But it must be remembered that this wasn’t some metropolitan church meeting in a large building down town. It was a church that met normally in the home of different members and there was likely more than one group of them. At least one group was meeting in the home of Aquila and Priscilla. So to picture this as the ladies Bible class down at church is a misapplication of Scripture. Some have said this was only a group of women meeting. That would make the whole discussion about wearing the veil to demonstrate submission to the man silly. Whatever was involved it was people from the church getting together in some setting, likely in someone’s home with both men and women there and there was praying and prophesying going on. Women were involved in the praying and prophesying in this group. Perhaps the best picture we can draw of it would be a small group study gathering in someone’s house one Sunday night. They weren’t just praying silently or prophesying to each other or again the point is lost. Paul made no attempt to stop what they were doing. Instead he said that all of them should wear the veil to demonstrate their submission to a man but continue with the action of praying and prophesying in the group.
Notice the things that stand out for us to learn. First of all the veil was cultural for that place and time so it isn’t mentioned again about any other group than this. In the cultural realm they were not to allow the culture to keep them from being the church God planned. Building walls between people was wrong. Jesus died to tear down such walls and when we try to erect them again we are wrong (Ephesians 2:12-16). There is in the very nature of humanity a difference between the man and the woman. While God tore down the walls he didn’t try to turn men into women or women into men and what is a glory to one is a shame for the other. What was right for the man to do wasn’t for the woman and what the woman was to do in wearing the veil would have been wrong for the man to do. So while God tears down walls it doesn’t mean that he is trying to make us all the same. We are equally open to a right relationship with God and to serving in His kingdom. But to try to make them into the exact same thing, doing all the same things isn’t what God taught or stressed. Culture mattered but the principles of God invade culture and sometimes demands culture to change to be right.