Most of the teachings of the Bible are straight forward and pretty easy to understand what is being taught. There are some occasions, especially in the writings of the apostle Paul when he is obviously dealing with some situation in a local church and gives them answers on how to handle the problem when it is extremely difficult to grasp what all is going on. One of those times is in I Corinthians 11. This whole segment is about problems in the church. Actually Paul deals with two major problems in the chapter. Both the topics really are tied to acceptance of people where they are. Think for a moment about the situation in Corinth at this time and both the problems tend to take on a different light.
Corinth was a city that had been largely settled by the Roman government as a retirement place for soldiers. So you had a large population of Roman officers and often the slaves that went with them. It was a place that Rome had given lots of interest in because of their proximity to two large bodies of water. As far back as the reign of Nero there was an attempt to build a canal between the two bodies of water which was over a mile in length. Nero visited Corinth on more than one occasion. It was also a place with a large population of slaves. Some estimates are that near seventy percent of the population were slaves. Two things that were affected strongly by that reality are that slaves were not allowed to have legal marriages and that wearing the veil was a privilege and sign that one was married. A third reality that affects a lot of what was happening is that at the top of Acrocorinth was a temple to Aphrodite and the Persians had set up a fort type arrangement on the top with a garrison of soldiers. As a part of the worship to Aphrodite there was a population of priestesses who served as prostitutes for the area. Like any city of that time or most other times with this kind of population there was an established aristocracy which lived in great luxury and a world of extreme poverty with a relatively small population of those between those groups. Besides these there was also a fairly large segment of Jews who had a synagogue in the agora, which was something like a town square. Also it is vitally important to remember that the church at this time was meeting in the homes of members of the church. Often there were more wealthy members who would invite the people to come to their home to worship God regularly. So, when we consider what was happening when they came together to worship it wasn’t in some church building or even some large rented hall. Instead you must think of meeting to worship God in someone’s living room and how things would go there.
Think of the first problem dealt with. He started the discussion by commending the church for their memory of him and maintaining the teaching he gave them. As a foundation for the discussion he said, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For 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 was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.”
What is the world is going on in the church that led to this whole discussion? Truthfully, we don’t know for certain. It could have been the case that among those converted to Christ were slaves who had been with the same man as her husband for years and with whom she had children, but who by law wasn’t married at all. So, when she was converted and came into the assembly, if there were Romans there who were not slaves but of the more elite crowd, it would have been objectionable for her to wear the veil that indicated she was married. So, when such women prayed and prophesied in their gatherings there were objections because they were not wearing a veil, showing she was married and devoted to her husband, there would be a problem. Several of the things that Paul used to appeal to the people would have been true in Corinth at that time, but not true in most other places even then and certainly not true today, much of anywhere. While it was a shame and disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut short or her head shaved then, it isn’t today and so that whole appeal is lost. Most likely the reason these were disgraceful then was that it associated those who did so with the priestesses for Aphrodite. The other thing would have been whether or not as the church they would follow the Roman law that slaves’ marriages weren’t recognized or would they accept them as married because they were committed to each other before God? It also seems to have been a part of the whole thing that somehow the women praying and prophesying were not demonstrating submission toward their husbands and this led to objections.
In light of the situation and customs, accepted norms in Corinth, Paul pleaded with the Christian women to wear the veil and wear their hair long to show submission to their husbands and not cause undue problems in the church. In the church there are tons of things that are far more important that correcting all the social and political problems in the area. You are there to strive to lead the people out of the world of sin and death into a right relationship with God. As a result, Paul, for example didn’t confront many of the social problems of the time, such as slavery, even though it is awful. Saving their soul was so much more important that solving the problems around their customs. Many problems socially would be solved through people coming to Christ but it would be through the change of people from their hearts rather than a political or social solution. Imagine living in an area where all the gang members, prostitutes and drug pushers wore red shirts and black tennis shoes. While there is nothing wrong in wearing either a red shirt or black tennis shoes, in that place it would be wrong for a Christian to wear such since it would identify them with those involved in all such activity.
Wearing a veil and long hair wasn’t some norm that would be bound on people everywhere in all times. But the principle that is involved does apply to all time. We need to be aware of the customs, traditions and basic ideas in the area where we are and not do things that will hurt the influence of the church while trying to do right.
Notice in verses 11-12 there is a corrective statement that is vital. “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” Lots of things are true in the world and even in the Bible in history that do not fit God’s design for those in Christ. In the Lord we need each other and are dependent on each other. As Paul would say to the Galatian Christians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
So, we need to be conscience of norms in any given area and not do things that will bring shame and disgrace on the people of God. We also must not try to bring into the church all the worldly standards around us. In Christ all people are accepted and loved where they are with view to helping them become all God wants them to be. It seems obvious that Paul was more concerned about the reality a couple was committed to each other and to God than that they could meet some strange legal requirement to be married that was intended to discriminate against slaves.
It is important to notice Paul didn’t condemn the women for praying and prophesying in the presence of men in some kind of gathering of Christians. He did point to their being sensitive to the thinking around them and put the salvation of the people ahead of everything else.