Propriety In Worship – 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

by Roger McCay
13 December 2020
Sermon Passage: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Link to Audio Version

Have you heard the story of the confused minister at the wedding?

Well, the minister was confused at the wedding because of the groom’s long hair, so he just smiled at the bride and groom and said, “Will one of you please kiss the bride.”[1]

We laugh, but there is something to be said about distinctions between men and women when it comes to grooming and dress, like in our passage today.

Legendary are the difficulties of this passage. Craig Blomberg sums up the sentiment:

This passage is probably the most complex, controversial, and opaque of any text of comparable length in the New Testament.[2]

Nevertheless, there are certain straightforward principles that can be drawn from the passage. In particular is the principle that there are clearly ways we can dishonor Christ in our worship by how we present ourselves in our dress and appearance.

Now, up front, it is important to understand that, in this passage,  Paul is not establishing universal laws of dress and grooming, saying that in all places and times women are to have long hair and wear head coverings in worship. First off, nowhere does Paul say he is establishing a law for women to wear head coverings or have long hair. Further, such establishment would be an aberration from his normal theological teachings: whether that teaching be concerning freedom in Christ; being all things to all people in order to possibly save some; or the more contextually immediate emphasis on living according to cultural norms of styles of dress and grooming particular for men and particular for women. And few would argue that what was the cultural norm for dress 2000 years ago in Rome is the same today. Trousers, for example, were most unacceptable with very few exceptions. Even as late as the fourth century, trousers were illegal to be worn by Romans in Rome.[3] So, no blue-jeans in Rome.

Behavior in worship is the main concern Paul addresses in this passage. For the Christian ladies in Corinth, this would be concerning those who would pray or prophesy, while at worship, without wearing the usual head covering their culture would require for women in their position when out in public.

Our goal today, with this passage, is to discern 1) the reason why Paul was so concerned with head coverings and hair lengths in the Corinthian church, and 2) the underlying principle involved that is universal for the church, thus applying to us right here and now.

Why was it important for women in the church of 1st Century Corinth to have long hair and wear head coverings? Why was it a big deal? Well, in a nutshell, it comes down to the dictates of propriety (in other words what was appropriate, respectable, and modest according to the cultural norms for women in their society).

There is much speculation as to what impropriety was going on in the church. Some suggest the women were getting wild in their worship, and so their hair (which would, by custom, normally be put up and covered by a shawl in public) … their hair was coming loose and falling down their shoulders and back while they were thrashing ecstatically (a rather wanton and inappropriate behavior for decent women in public). Letting their hair down and uncovering their heads in such a way was more in line with a prostitute’s actions or perhaps even the actions of the ecstatic worshippers of the cults of Dionysius, Cybelle, and Isis. Others suggest that the ladies let their hair down and uncovered their heads for theological reasons. They were free in Christ. That freedom, and the principle that there was no longer male and female in the Lord (along the lines of Gal. 3:28), perhaps gave them the idea that the cultural norms for propriety, concerning women, was no longer binding. Whichever reason, and both may have merit in the situation, the women were acting in a way that was not respectable, and was dishonoring to their husbands, so therefore dishonoring to the Lord.

How so? What underlying principles were behind Paul’s concern? Well, Paul first lays out a major truth in v. 3 concerning headship:

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.

Paul, here, is not putting out a point for debate. His statement is one that is consistent with all of Scripture as to the nature and order of mankind.