Where angels fear to tread - 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 13th June 2010.

Click here to read the bible passage. Click here to use larger text.

An audio recording of this sermon is available.

Click here to download and save for future listening


It has to be admitted that reading some parts of the Bible is like making your way around a poorly lit room. You are able to make out the main items of furniture and perhaps the outline of the building and in many ways that is enough for God’s purposes of enabling us to know his truth and live the Christian life, but nonetheless some of the details remain a bit obscure. And so in those cases what would be helpful would be to have more light in the room by having access to a window. And when we come to a passage like the first part of 1 Corinthians 11, a window would certainly be most welcome, after all why the fuss about men covering their heads when praying and prophesying in church and women not covering their heads? And why, according to verse 10, should the angels give a fig? What is more, what possible relevance could this have for us; I don’t see that many women wearing veils this evening. Well, here we come across a very important distinction which is this: while the Bible was written for us it wasn’t written to us. In order to grasp what it does mean for Christians today we have to take a journey back to see what it meant when it was written to Christian then. And one window which is available to help us do just that is to consider the social and cultural background of the time. So what I want to do first of all is to paint in what was going on in Roman society in general in order to shed light onto what was going on in the Corinthian church in particular. Once we have done that we will be in a better position to see what this passage is all about and what challenges it has for us today.

Over the last few weeks we have been able to piece together a rather unflattering picture of this church. Many were proud and wanted to be ‘with it’, so whatever trends were current, like concern for status and style, they were taken on board and given a Christian spin. And so we shouldn’t be surprised if when we come to praying and prophesying at church something similar was happening.

So what are the wider social troubles which were impacting the specific spiritual troubles in Corinth? Well, it is the connection between these women (show picture of Sex and the City and the Herculaneum statues, ringlets). Let me explain.

In first century Roman society you were what you wore (quote on screen). Not only were people to identify you by the sort of things you wore but you identified your own standing in society by wearing the right clothes in the right way. This applied to both men and women. So Senators were of high ranking class and wore a broad purple stripe on their tunic to denote that fact. What is more, when it came to a political or religious meeting and a man was going to take an up front role, maybe give a speech, he would signal how important he was in the social order by drawing his toga of his head (see pic of Augustus). So a man covering his head was a way of saying, ‘I am important.’

But for women what they wore was even more of a social marker and was especially linked to wearing a veil (or not as the case may be) and the kind of hairstyle they adopted. So a noble Roman woman at her wedding would draw a wedding mantle over her head in a ritual called the ‘veiling of the bride’ (pic of wedding). And so when such a woman was out in public with her husband she would always have the veil covering her head, it was the equivalent to women today wearing a wedding ring. (Pic on screen- larger Herculaneum statue) You can see this from this statue of a first century married woman with a dress of non-transparent material, and a mantle which in part is draped over the head as it had been for the first time on her wedding day. So this is a mark of a respectable married woman. The next type of woman was the modest unmarried woman (pic) and as you can see from the picture that she didn’t wear the mantle over her head because she wasn’t married, but it is wrapped around her body. And in both cases the hairstyle is modest- flat and wavy. But there was a third major group of women- the high class prostitute (pics of ringlets). She didn’t wear a veil either. She would also wear her hair piled up in an elaborate fashion and wore expensive clothes which were more or less transparent. Like some of the designer clothes of today it was a matter of the more you pay for a dress the less you got for it.  These high class prostitutes were active at social gatherings of men, so if you saw a married man next to a woman who was not wearing a veil and had hair piled high, chances are she was a prostitute. And what happened with these women following a meal were called ‘after dinners’ and they weren’t talking about chocolate mints either! Those are the three groups of women ( all three pics).

But then something happened at the time when Roman Corinth was actually being founded. There arose what is called ‘the New Woman’ which, without being anachronistic, was a sort of women’s liberation movement amongst the upper classes. In part it was a reaction against the husbands who as far as convention was concerned could consort with prostitutes and it was acceptable. They were also promiscuous; in fact they did things which were scandalous. For a start they got rid of the veil, this was like the 1960’s women burning their bras (pics). They also piled up their hair in an elaborate fashion and started to wear the skimpy, see through dresses (pic of book cover). The result was that they hardly looked any different from a high class prostitute. Also young men tended to prefer having sex with such married women because they were considered to be more experienced. All very much sex and the city stuff isn’t it? And Caesar Augustus didn’t like this at all; he saw these new women as partly being responsible for the falling birth rate in Rome and wanted to reverse that. And so he did a number of things. The first was to make adultery illegal and if a woman was caught in adultery, she lost her marital veil and her head was shaved. The man was punished too. He also tried to promote marriage by offering financial incentives (including advantages in land inheritance) to men, who promoted the ideal of the modest wife and dissuaded their wives from becoming ‘new women’. So trendy, non-veil wearing, dressing up new women were becoming something of a scandal- that is the point to hold on to. Now with that in mind let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 11 and see what sense we can make out of it.        

What is the main issue that Paul is trying to address here? I don’t think it is women’s leadership in the church or what they should be doing in church. Here both men and women pray and prophesy. It was how they were doing this that was a problem. The real issue is in v 16, ‘If anyone wants to be contentious about this….’ Like with pretty everything else the Corinthian Christians were being awkward and so disruptive. The question is: how?

Now remember that it was more or less written into Roman law that you were what you wore (screen). So what is going on in church which was upsetting that? It was contravening the dress code. So let us decode the dress code.

First of all, the men. As we see in verse 4, when some of the men stood up to pray or prophesy they covered their heads, probably pulling their toga over them (pic Augustus). Why do that? Well, as we have seen that was something the elite men did on public occasions to draw attention to their lofty status- they were posers. Now why is that inappropriate in church? Well, just think about it: how can men strut and pose when they claim to worship a God who came down from heaven to go to a cross? How can they draw attention to themselves when their greatest joy should be drawing attention to the one they are praying to or in whose name they are prophesying- their ‘head’ the Lord Jesus Christ. More than that, in verse 7 Paul literally says that a man is obliged not to cover his head in this way because it detracts from the fact that he is made in God’s image. To behave in this way which serves to puff up a man runs contrary to him being made in God’s image in two ways. First, it is an expression of pride, the same pride of Adam which puts man and not God at the centre of things.  Secondly, if Jesus is the image of the invisible God, and what we see in him is humility, then we are at our most God-like, reflecting that image most truly when we are most humble. So do you see what Paul is saying? That kind of strutting behaviour symbolised by covering your head dishonours Christ who came as a servant King. So what that in the outside world you are a person of rank, inside the church we are all on the same level as brothers and sisters. You don’t bring that sort of worldly behaviour into the church. At the end of the last section in v1 Paul calls them to follow his example as he follows Christ, that is precisely what they are not doing by this sort of behaviour.

And what of the women? Well, it seems the ‘new woman’ has come into the church. The new wife throws off her veil covering, maybe thinking that if my husband can behave in a worldly fashion by covering his head when he prays, I will behave in a similar fashion by not covering mine! And so she looks like the high class prostitute  (pic) and in verse 5-6 Paul is saying if you are going to look like a loose adulterous woman then why not go the whole hog and have you hair shaved off altogether! It might be in vogue for the ‘new woman’ to flout convention and scandalise the pagan world, but it isn’t on for Christians to do that sort of thing. It would be like a wife today coming to church and then throwing her wedding ring to oneside, as if to say to her husband, you might be my husband at home but you are no such thing here.

And Paul is saying ‘no’. Christians are not to adopt dress codes which send signals that marriage is unimportant, that you can be free and loose with regards your husband, you need to adopt a dress code which underscores the importance of marriage. And while the way we express our marriage may be cultural, marriage itself is God -given and universal, which is what verses 3, 7, 8 and 11-12 are about going back to Genesis 2: ‘I want you to realise that the head of every man is Christ and that the head of every wife is man/husband and the head of Christ is God’; ‘man is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man, neither was man created for woman but woman for man’; ‘In the Lord the woman is not independent of the husband (although the new woman-sex and the city types thought so), nor is man/husband independent of woman/wife (although some chauvinist types behave as if this is so)- but woman came from man and also man is born of woman and everything comes from God.’ God established a co-dependency between a husband and wife. Yes, there is, if you like, a hierarchy of roles between husband and wife woven into creation- hence all this talk of husband being the head and woman coming from man, but there is an equality of worth- we all come from God. And this is not to be undermined or contradicted by behaving in ways which brings it into question-in this case a wife not wearing a veil in a public meeting and praying and so cocking a snook at the husband.

So what does Paul mean when he says in verse 10, ‘For this reason and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.’? I would have thought that the heavenly angels had better things to do than worry about than whether wives are wearing veils in church. However, it could be that Paul is thinking about another type of ‘angel’. You see ‘angel’ in the Greek simply means ‘messenger’, and so could refer to human messengers, folk who not only came with messages but reported back to other people. And here we need to take into account something else about the political situation of the day. The Romans were nervous of sedition- after all Emperors tended to get assassinated and rebellion did break out in different parts of the Empire. And so with the exception of the Jews, groups of people were only allowed to meet once a month, just in case they were plotting. Christians in the first instance would have been classed as a Jewish sect so could meet weekly, but they would have been suspect nonetheless, not least because they called each other ‘brothers and sisters’ which was borderline illegal. And so you could understand that such movements were kept a close eye on. What is more, the vestibules of Roman houses, which is where the Christians would meet, were open to the street and so it was quite easy for outsiders to call in to see what was going on (14:23). So what do you think might have happened if someone called in on a Christian meeting in Corinth to see the wives praying but with no veil? They would assume one of two things. They would either conclude that these were the new women that the Emperor disapproved of, that immoral bunch and so defying the law or that they were prostitutes on the game. Either way they would go away giving a bad report, a damning message to the official dress police, government officials whose duty it was to monitor women’s clothing. So because of these reporters, these ‘angels’, the women should not be behaving like this. That makes sense doesn’t it? Again, Paul is concerned with the reputation of the church and ensuring that we don’t have any stumbling block to unbelievers except the stumbling block of the cross (1:22).

In this society, what you wore was considered proper or improper in such a way that it had the weight of Roman law behind it and the Christians had a responsibility to think through what was proper- v13- and stick to it. They were to adopt a dress code which would commend the Gospel not condemn it. Paul is culturally sensitive and so should all Christians be.

And so he comes back to the contentious point of wives not wearing the marital head covering in verse 13- ‘Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.’ Does that mean that the Christian hippies were wrong in having long hair and women can’t have short stylish haircuts? No, again think of what it meant in this culture. If you were to go to Corinth today and the city museum you would find a fresco in which you find portrayed the captors of the Roman army with long flowing hair (Pic). This was deliberate, because they were being portrayed as weak and effeminate, compared to the strong, testosterone Roman Russell Crow types (pic). So the adult males in Corinth didn’t wear their hair long because it was thought to be a denial of their masculinity. So Paul might be saying something like this: ‘You know it is proper according to the norms of our Roman culture for wives to pray to God with their heads covered for it shows you are a faithful married woman, don’t shame your husband by denying your marriage by, as it were, throwing away your wedding ring (veil). Long hair is a disgrace for Corinthian men in that it is seen as a denial of their manhood, but long hair in wives is honorific in that unlike the ‘piled’ style hair of the ‘new women’ which marks resentment towards their husband (as well as making them look like a prostitute), it is one with the marriage veil in providing a covering and shows that she is a modest Christian woman which pleases the Lord. So avoid being contentious, this is the practice in all the churches, get back in line, not least for the sake of the outsider who might be put off the Gospel.’ Do you see?

So what does this have to say to us?

Before we come down too hard on the Corinthians for how they prayed, note that at least they did pray. And you know that I have said this many times from the pulpit and I will continue to say it, it is one of the greatest tragedies of the church today that the prayer meeting is still regarded as the Cinderella of meetings, poorly attended and it should not be. At least the Corinthians had got that one right.

Since Paul begins with a word of rebuke to men in 4, that is where we should begin. Why is there this inherent competitiveness amongst men to engage in ‘one upmanship’? We all do it, wanting to be noticed and not outdone. We may not cover our heads to show how important we are but we can do it just as effectively in other ways. As men we often want the high visibility positions in the church, to be in on all the decisions and be looked up to, but the Scriptures say, ‘no’. That is a respectable sin which must be got rid of because it leads to strife and contention in the fellowship- v16. So men if we are failing in this at the moment, now is the time for us to repent of it and ask God to forgive us and help us.

Now what I am about to say to some of the women I find very difficult and rather embarrassing but the passage demands that I say it and I will try and say this as delicately as I can. The Corinthian women were very much in tune with the fashions of the day and some of the fashions, as we have seen, were quiet immodest- the skimpy dresses. Today’s fashions are very much like that and so they find their way into a church meeting like this- the low cut dress and short skirt. My dear sisters, could I ask you to consider the appropriateness of dressing like that especially on a Sunday and think about what effect that is having on the men? And here is the really embarrassing bit- what do you think it is like for the people giving communion to women kneeling at the rail with such low cut dresses? Where do we look? I don’t want to be indelicate, but I do want to be helpful and ask you to take a little more thought about what you wear in church. It doesn’t mean looking frumpy or boring; you can still look nice and fashionable, but think Christianly about it.

At the end of the day Paul is concerned with two things: negatively that we don’t do things which cause other Christians to stumble or non-Christians to be put off the faith; and positively that we are thoughtful so we build up each other in the faith and make the faith attractive to outsiders. If we get those things fixed in our minds- everything else will follow.

Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.