Free to Do What?
1 Corinthians 10:23-11:16
This week’s lessons teach us that we do not have unrestricted freedom to do as we please.
Charles Hodge, the great theologian who wrote what I consider to be the best commentary on 1 Corinthians, comes to today’s passage with unusual humility and says, “This is certainly a puzzling matter upon which theologians are not entirely agreed.” In the first paragraph of chapter 11, Paul talks about women covering their heads and says if they fail do so, especially in worship, they dishonor their head. Then he talks in the second paragraph about the length of men’s and women’s hair. Both passages are puzzling.
But then notice that the Apostle Paul puts this into the larger context in which he has been writing as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Therefore, with divine authority, whether you understand them or not, they are the law of God. They are commands to be obeyed. Paul does not say, “You may not understand these things because certain things belong to us and others are the hidden things of God and this is one of those hidden things.” Quite the contrary, Paul says in verse 14, “Doesn’t even nature teach you that this is the way things ought to be?” In other words, he is saying, “To prove this point you don’t need an apostle. All you have to do is look around you to see that this is true.” So, if the first two commands are not puzzling enough, this one certainly increases the difficulty.
Let me explain what I think is going on here. When Paul talks about head coverings, he is talking about recognition of authority. When he talks about this being true in nature, I think he is pointing to something we do recognize. I realize there are people who would say that what is true for us in our culture might well be different somewhere else and I recognize that that is true. Many so-called differences between men and women that we say are natural may very well be cultural; and, therefore, in many cases they ought to be challenged. But what Paul is saying here is that, although there are cultural differences, there are, nevertheless, built-in differences so that men are not women and women are not men and that is a good thing because that is the way God made it.
Now generally speaking, women no longer cover their heads in church. But, as I pondered this issue, I wondered if there are situations in which authority really is as self-evident as Paul seems to indicate it is. I attended the graduation at a Bible college. As I sat on the platform, I noticed something that I had never noticed before in this context. Everybody came in with his or her head covered with an academic cap. When somebody took the pulpit and said, “Let us pray,” all the men took off their caps, but the women kept their caps on. Now, I do not know whether that is a completely cultural phenomenon; it may well be. But that is the way we do it, and it may illustrate the kind of thing which Paul obviously observed to a much greater degree in the culture of his day. He was saying that there is a certain sense in which, intrinsically, we recognize the authority that God has set over us within the Church of Jesus Christ.
The second issue Paul talks about is this matter of hair length. At a Conference on Reformation Theology, R. C. Sproul dealt with the differences between males and females. Dr. Sproul came to this passage in the context of his exposition. I found what he said very interesting. Paul says that it is a disgrace for a man’s hair to be long and it is a disgrace for a woman’s hair to be short. Dr. Sproul began to talk in terms of the struggle that parents have with their children. Many have great battles over the length of their sons’ hair. “Get your hair cut,” a father tells his son. The son says, “I don’t want to get my hair cut.” “Why not?” the father asks. “Because everyone is wearing it long.” Again the father asks, “Why do you need to wear a badge of conformity?” And so the argument goes. Dr. Sproul went on to say, “When children are reminded by their biblically oriented parents that the Bible says that a man’s hair should be short, the smart ones could reply, ‘How short is short?’ ”
Why is this puzzling passage of Scripture not to be overlooked or excused?
What deeper issue is being addressed in Paul’s discussion of head coverings and hair length?
How are the differences between men and women evident in nature?