Nature and Gender: 1 Cor. 11:2-16

In a sermon I recently preached on the innateness of gender and its connection with our physical bodiesI referenced 1 Cor 11:14-15: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

I drew out the point that here Paul is telling us that we should, in whatever way is most culturally appropriate, telegraph to others through our dress, appearance, and mannerisms that we are happily embracing and participating in our God-given gender. So, men should look like men, and women should look like women. These particular expressions will vary depending on what culture we are in–in America it would be strange for a man to wear a skirt, but in Scotland it would be less so–but Christians should never be the one’s attempting to blur gender lines in their appearance.

This is a highly controversial, but critical issue today. Let’s take a closer look at what 1 Corinthians 11 is telling us.

Overview of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

In verse 2 Paul opens by commending the Corinthians in keeping “the traditions” he has delivered to them. We don’t know what precisely those “traditions” are, but they appear to be different than what he spends the rest of the time discussion because he begins verse 3 with, “But I want you to understand…”

Verse 3 explains Paul’s theological foundation for gender roles in marriage: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” Head here refers to authority, but Paul quickly explains that what is theologically true in the abstract should be practically displayed in the concrete. In other words, our theological “heads” influence what we do with our literal heads.

In verses 4-6 Paul explains that because of this, a man should not pray or prophesy with his head covered but women should. In verses 7-9 Paul returns to the story of creation and grounds his understanding of husbands being the “head” of their wives because Adam was created first, then Eve–there is an asymmetry between men and women, “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,” (11:7). This may lead some to think that Paul is saying that men are, in some way, superior to women, but Paul anticipates this response with his comments in verses 11-12, where he explains that though the first woman was made from man, now all men are born of women, and both men and women alike owe their existence to God. There is no superiority/inferiority dynamic going on here. Remember, Paul is saying that women are praying and prophesying right alongside men in the church.

Nestled in-between those two sections is the admittedly puzzling passage of verse 10, “That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” The “symbol of authority” is likely the head covering Paul has been talking about. In the original context this letter was written in, women would wear a head covering or veil as a public way of demonstrating to others that they were married, and thus was widely recognized as both a symbol of her husband’s authority and her recognition of it (Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows, Eerdmans: Grand Rapids. 2003, pp. 77–96). For women to shed their head coverings in church would be tantamount to a woman today slipping her wedding ring off before walking into church or insisting that others use her maiden name when introducing her to the congregation before she prays.

What Paul means by his enigmatic comment “because of the angels” has long puzzled interpreters. The word “angels” could also be translated “messengers,” so it could be referring to messengers that Paul (or others) had sent to the Corinthian church to observe how things had been going. Or it could refer to angelic beings observing the church. Either way, Paul is trying to show them that what they are doing is going to affect those looking in on their worship. Perhaps women, celebrating their equal standing they have in Christ with men (Gal 3:28) thought that when they stood up to pray or prophesy in front of the church they no longer needed their traditional head-covering, they could do this act in the same way men could. And Paul is saying: Hang on, freedom in the Spirit does not mean that we should begin to blur the distinctions between men and women. (See Paul’s other comments later in 1 Cor 14:33-35)

Finally, Paul simply asks the Corinthians: “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God,” (11:13-16). This is a fascinating conclusion to what Paul has been arguing. He assumes:

(1) The Corinthians themselves already know that what they are doing is improper, contrary to “nature” in some way.

(2) The appropriateness of women wearing head-coverings is tantamount to the appropriateness of the distinct feminine beauty of long, flowing hair.

(3) Paul says that his teaching on head coverings is universally accepted in all the churches, so what is happening at Corinth is out of the ordinary.

Distinguishing Between Creation and Culture

How are we to understand how this applies to us today? One of the reasons 1 Cor 11:2-16 is so baffling is because we, unlike the first century, do not live at a time where it is widely assumed that a woman wearing a head covering is a sign that she is married. In fact, in our culture, if we see a woman with a head covering we are likely to assume that she is a practicing Muslim.

We need to distinguish between the two levels of argument that Paul is putting forward in 1 Corinthians 11: creational norms and cultural norms. Creational norms are distinctions between men and women that are bound up with creation, including the distinct differences between God’s design of our male and female bodies. Cultural norms, however, are transient and determined by societal context. I want to make a careful distinction here: not every cultural norm comes from creational norms, but every creational norm will be expressed through a cultural norm. We see both of these at play in 1 Corinthians 11.

Hair Styles

When Paul asks the Corinthians “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering,” he is trying to ground his argument in something deeper than culture. He is arguing that God has so fashioned women to radiate a distinct kind of glory and beauty through long hair that is fitting, is natural, to women and thus unnatural to men–He has given women this design as a gift. To put in more simple terms: women are beautiful in a way men never will be, and if men attempt to partake in feminine beauty (or vice versa) it is disgraceful. This is why earlier Paul explains, “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head,” (11:6). Paul is making a statement about the unique design of feminine beauty, a design that should be expressed clearly in how men and women present themselves to the wider culture.

Remember: not every cultural norm comes from creational norms, but every creational norm will be expressed through a cultural norm. For instance: In this section Paul makes the argument that for men to look like women, or vice versa, (with hair lengths and head coverings in this instance) violates a creational norm. The glory of man and woman are distinct (1 Cor 11:7) and men appearing as women is contrary to “nature” (1 Cor 11:14; cf. Rom 1:26). But who determines what is considered “long” hair? What is considered “long hair” is something that is decided by cultural norms. There is no chapter and verse that prescribes hair-lengths. In Jesus’ day it was common for many men to have what today would be considered “long” hair. In the Old Testament, Samson and everyone else who took the Nazirite vow had long hair (Num 6:5; Judges 13:5)? When Absalom fled his hair was apparently long enough to become entangled in branches, leaving him dangling from a tree (2 Sam 18:9). So how can Paul condemn long hair? The creational norm is, in some way, free to express itself differently in different cultures. And yet, there are bumpers set up–Paul says that any man who wears his hair long like a woman is a disgrace.

Shorter hair is usually more utilitarian, while longer hair requires more work and is usually associated with adornment for beauty’s sake. Perhaps the creation account is in Paul’s mind, where Adam is created to labor and cultivate the land (work and keep the garden, Gen 2:15) and Eve is described with the beautiful words of poetry (Gen 2:23), and thus labor and utility is fitting to men, whereas beauty is fitting to women. If that is true, then Paul would think it wrong for men to grow long hair out of a desire of expressing feminine beauty, or for women to shave their heads out of a desire to display masculine strength. There is something about that that Paul says is contrary to God’s design, contrary to nature.

Head Coverings

This distinction between creational and cultural norms helps us understand what we do with Paul’s teaching on head-coverings. Look again at verses 13-15 and verse 6:

Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering,” (1 Cor 11:13-15)

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,” (1 Cor 11:6)

Notice how Paul links together hair length with head coverings (remember, a marital symbol). In Corinth, married women wore a head covering, married men did not. For a man to pray with his head covered would be tantamount to him growing out his hair long–it would be a blurring of cultural gender norms. For a woman to pray with her head uncovered would either be a similar attempt, or could be a scandalous attempt to present herself as unmarried. As the creational norm of long and short hair express themselves in accordance with cultural norms, so too should the creational norm of a man or woman publicly embracing their married status be displayed in accordance with cultural norms. So he encourages wives to continue to wear head coverings when they pray or prophesy, and he discourages husbands to pray or prophesy with their head covered (11:4). Like his comments on hair-length, he does not want men to present themselves as women, nor women to present themselves like men. To do so would dishonor their heads–literally and metaphorically (11:3-5). This is a creational norm (not blurring gender lines) because Paul grounds this in the creation order of Adam and Eve (11:3, 8) and was expressed in the cultural norm of head coverings (and hair length).

Application for Today

What does this look like in our wider society today? While our cultural norms have now shifted, it has not eradicated the need to express these creational norms; they simply must now be expressed anew. So, in dress, appearance, mannerisms, men today should still present themselves as men, and women should present themselves as women. Christians should never be the ones pushing the envelope on gender presentation (girls wearing tuxedos, boys wearing dresses, etc.).

What of the marital symbol that head coverings represented? How do we apply that today? One way this could be adapted to today would be a wife taking her husband’s last name.

Further questions need to be asked for thinking through the specifics in the numerous options that lay before men and women. I will discuss that in another blog.

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