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Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1,
1 Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
In other words, Paul says, follow my example insofar as I follow Christ’s example. In what way? Paul has just told us in the previous verse that “I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many.”
It was Paul’s standard of behavior, based on the law of love, to do what was beneficial to others, rather than to seek his own personal welfare or “profit.”
As we will see later in 1 Cor. 13:5, Love “does not seek its own,” that is, its own benefit, because it is not selfish. So Paul advocated that others follow his example of showing love toward others.
1 Corinthians 11:2 continues,
2 Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.
The word translated “traditions” is from paradosis, which means “the act of giving over or giving up, surrender, or that which is transmitted by word or writing, a precept or teaching.” That which is taught or transmitted from one to another may be either true or false, good or evil.
In this case, of course, Paul had transmitted the precept of love, wherein believers ought to seek to be of benefit to others. Paul was confident, therefore, that the Corinthian believers had held firmly to this principle of love which he had transmitted to them by his teachings.
Paul then tells them that this principle of love ought to be the operative principle in the relationship between the believers in the church. So he launches into a discussion about authority in the church as illustrated in marriage. This topic seems at first to be a departure from the topic at hand, until 1 Cor. 11:18, when Paul applies it specifically to the problem of divisions and factions in the church.
Therefore, as we study Paul’s discussion on authority of men and women from verses 3-27, we should keep in mind Paul’s purpose in the conclusion of the matter.
Paul begins in 1 Corinthians 11:3, saying,
3 But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.
Paul does not explain his opening statement until verses 8 and 9, but we may say for now that Paul was referring to the creation story in the first chapters of Genesis. Adam was created first, and the woman was formed out of him some time later (Gen. 2:21, 22). So Adam was the “head,” but the woman was the “rib,” representing his body.
The story in Genesis became the pattern for the Last Adam, Christ, who is the current Head of a greater spiritual body called the church. When Jesus died on the cross, Hebrew terminology said that He was “asleep” in death. Hence, when the soldier thrust his spear into Jesus’ side (John 19:34), he unknowingly prophesied of the church being taken out of Christ’s side while the Last Adam was asleep.
This, Paul says, sets forth the principle of headship within the context of love, for even as Christ was willing to give His life for the church, so also is it with anyone who functions in the position of headship, whether as a husband or as an apostle of a church body.
Paul has often been vilified by his supposed teaching on women submitting to their husbands. But in reality, Paul was one of the first great teachers that liberated women. In an era where women were often highly suppressed, Paul taught that in the eyes of God, “there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). This radical teaching was highly controversial, especially in Judaism, and it brought him much opposition from the Jewish faction.
Likewise, when we study Luke’s gospel, which essentially presents us with Paul’s perspective, women were given prominent positions. For every man that was given honor, a woman was given honor as well, pointing out how God had honored both with divine revelation, calling, and purpose. Today much of this goes unnoticed, but in the first century, it no doubt raised many eyebrows and furrowed many foreheads, while women smiled behind their veils.
Paul found it necessary to address the issue of veils, not because he desired to suppress women, but because his liberation teachings had caused a problem in those who applied his principles apart from the context of love. In other words, Paul sought to restore balance and restraint, based upon the principle of love. Paul had already established the principle that he would not use his liberty to destroy the conscience of others who did not share his view.
Prof. Charles Erdman writes,
“It was Paul’s very teaching of equality which had led to the particular difficulty at Corinth. This teaching had been misinterpreted by certain Christian women to mean that henceforth they were independent of their husbands, and therefore, defying a custom accepted both by Jews and Christians, they threw aside their veils and appeared thus in public assemblies. The veil had been regarded by them as a symbol of dependence and submission. Laying it aside was a declaration that their new status in Christ ended their former relation to their husbands and left them as free and independent in relation to them as though no marriage vows had been taken.” (First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, page 97)
Paul’s self-restraint in eating food sacrificed to idols should not be taken to mean that he was putting other believers into legalistic bondage, for that would only perpetuate a view that Paul believed was incorrect. Paul was trying to change the customary doctrine, but he wanted to do so in a loving manner. So also, we must view his statements regarding male and female. Custom had long dictated that women were subordinate to men, and the veiling of women was a custom which testified silently of being under authority.
Being under authority is not an indicator of inequality, except, of course, in the minds of imperfect people. Jesus Himself, Paul says, “will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him” (1 Cor. 15:28), even though He was equal in substance to God (Phil. 2:6). Jesus felt neither shame nor suppression by subordinating all that He did and said to His Father’s will. Yet Christ’s subjection is an expression of unity in thought and purpose.
The rest of us in this world of imperfect relationships can often feel oppressed and discontented, not because of authority itself, but because of its misuse and because of differing beliefs and opinions. When men and women are in unity, there is nothing oppressive about authority.
Paul’s teaching on this topic takes us back to the origins of both man and earthly authority, as recorded in the book of Genesis. A husband’s authority over his wife, he says, is based on the fact that “man does not originate from woman, but woman from man” (1 Cor. 11:8). He was referring to the fact that the woman was taken out of the man as a secondary step in creation (Gen. 2:22, 23).
On the other hand, Paul is quick to balance this by reminding the church that “the man has his birth through the woman” (1 Cor. 11:12). Hence, both men and women originate in each other in different ways, making neither independent of each other. His point is that men should not misuse their authority, and they should not consider their wives to be slaves.
It would be difficult to find another man in those days who would dare to speak out against customs in such a way. To suggest any form of equality between men and women was radical in those days, because the enlightenment of New Covenant teaching was new. The Old Covenant itself was a form of spiritual bondage, represented by Hagar, the bondwoman (Gal. 4:23). Old Covenant thinking formed the basis of culture in Judaism and around the world in various forms. It affected virtually all governmental relationships, including marriage.
Paul received his New Covenant revelation during his sojourn at Mount Sinai in Arabia, shortly after his conversion. Paul “did not immediately consult with flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:16, 17) but went to the same place where Moses received his revelation of the Old Covenant nearly 1500 years earlier. The light that he received there went beyond that which the other apostles had received—in large part because they received most of their training prior to the cross and before the light of Pentecost had been imparted. Jesus certainly emancipated women during His ministry, but this did not really become a revelation to the apostles until later, when they came to see it in terms of the New Covenant.
In looking at the Genesis story, we see in the general story of the first chapter, where the order of creation is given, that God created “male and female” at the end of the sixth day. Gen. 1:27 makes no attempt to give the details that are seen in the second chapter. The second chapter enlarges upon the first, telling us that the man was created first, and then the woman was taken out of him later.
This is the basis of Paul’s main appeal in 1 Corinthians 11 in establishing the man’s authority. Secondly, God’s purpose for creating the woman was to be “a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:20). Their equality of substance is seen in the fact that the woman was taken out of man and in the statement in Gen. 2:23, “this is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Their unity is seen in the next verse, for the man was to “cleave to his wife” and “become one flesh.”
This original unity might be compared to the unity between the Father and Son. There was no conflict, because both the man and the woman were under God and knew His will perfectly. There were no differences of opinion, and no issues of “conscience” that might divide them.
Hence, in the flow of Paul’s letter, we can see how things had changed since this original unity had existed. By Paul’s day, there were many issues of conscience, which could not be resolved by earthly authority. Only God Himself could resolve these issues of conscience, for even the apostle Paul lacked the singular authority to dictate to the other apostles what to believe and teach.
Finally, it is not until Gen. 3:16, in the course of divine judgment for sin, that God tells the woman, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The implication is that sin had created division, though not yet apparent, and that division would require authority to be implemented in terms of one’s will being imposed upon another. Sin has brought imperfect discernment, so that the knowledge of God’s will cannot always be known fully. With the rise of competing wills and differing opinions, authority took on greater importance from the standpoint of practical application.
Unfortunately, giving the man authority did not necessarily give him the ability to be right in his viewpoint. Authority itself did not confer greater understanding of the mind of God. Hence, since the dawn of time, authority has been used in a selfish manner, and women have often been relegated to the position of servants and slaves.
Paul, however, by emphasizing the principle of love in all things, seeks to correct such practices in every area of life. When authority is implemented with the love of God, and when both husband and wife discern the will of God, then it is possible to return to the original unity that was seen before the entrance of sin.
This is what I call a New Covenant marriage relationship.