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.

There are, of course, those who either dispute or abuse the teachings inherent with the truth that Paul puts forward here. For example: Some, who would, because of this teaching, call Paul a hopeless supporter of patriarchy and the demeaning of women. Also, others, who would point to it as meaning that men are the boss, thinking this gives them a license to treat their women however they want, including both physical and emotional abuse.

However, either of these interpretations miss what Paul is saying. Is it demeaning Christ the Son to say that the head of Christ is God the Father? Think about that. Is God the Father a tyrant to Christ because he is the head? No, of course not.

Paul hits this point again, arguing from a creation standpoint in vv. 8-9:

For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.

This is just a statement of fact, an argument based on God’s ordering of creation. God created man both male and female. Woman was created to be the helpmeet of the man (see Genesis 2 for the account of this). Both man and woman are equal before God but have different roles.

Further, there is an interdependence between man and woman consistent with our creation; we need each other. Paul mentions this in vv. 11-12.

11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.

Man and woman are dependent upon one another, as they fulfill their roles defined by God himself. Both are dependent upon God. God is over both man and woman, and man has been given authority over woman.

It therefore goes to follow that when we live according with God’s design, we bring him glory. And when we worship, we are to act in such a way that glorifies God. Hence, in v. 10, we are told of the “angels,” who witness the worship of the church (a term perhaps better understood as “messengers”), who will attest to the church’s glorifying of the Lord in right worship, according to his design or attest to the disgrace of not worshipping to God’s glory, as the church goes its own way according to its own design.

Christian worship takes place within a social context, in whatever era we live. Culturally, there are certain understood norms for dress consistent for men and women and their standing before God in relation to one another. In the first-century Corinthian church, it was how one wore their hair and whether one wore head-coverings or not. Paul addresses this here, in vv. 13-15, where he refers to what is natural:

13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

You may be wondering, “How does nature teach that a man wearing long hair is a disgrace?” Where Paul refers here to “nature,” he is referring to long established custom—norms of dress for man and woman. It is simply counter to nature for men to be like women and women to be like men, in certain areas of grooming and dress. And this natural understanding is consistent with the created order. Arguments against this, even in our gender-bending culture, remain an aberration rather than a norm.

Thus, where the two (creation and culture) harmonize, the church must set the example. Paul had just taught in 1 Cor. 10:31-32:

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.

His instruction now is consistent with that teaching.

Christians, our dress and grooming represents Christ, and we are to dress consistently with the norms of our culture that represent how we are created both male and female. Men are to be men and women are to be women. So, when women, or men for that matter, wear clothing that is sexually misleading, blurs the lines between sexual differences, or communicates to the world through our grooming and dress that Christian worship is like idol worship, such is inconsistent with who we are in Christ Jesus. And it brings dishonor and shame. And Christians don’t want to bring dishonor; we want to honor our Lord, bringing him glory.

You all know of the concept of military uniforms. As retired Army, I can testify that dress and grooming are very important to the active-duty soldier. Soldiers all understand the standards of how they are to wear the uniform. Also, their hair along with their uniform represents the Army and is either consistent with the standards set by the Army or is not. Yet even in the uniform culture of the Army, there are different standards for men and women. Women may wear their hair long, as long as it is kept above the lower edge of their collar in a bun, while men must wear short hair. A man in the Army who would wear his hair long and up on his head in a bun just won’t fly. No man-buns in the Army. Thus, any given soldier’s uniform and grooming that is done within the Army standards, including differences between men and women’s styles, honors our country and the soldier’s calling. Each and every soldier represents.

Similarly, as the body of Christ, we honor Christ by our dress and grooming, when it is consistent with the way we were created and in harmony with our cultural standards that represent that reality. This is seen especially in worship.

In our general western culture today, of course, things are a little different than in first century. Hairstyles typically are morally neutral, with both men and women wearing their hair long and short. Also, head-coverings aren’t even a consideration and carry no moral weight one way or another. Thus, as Blomberg points out,

To the extent that people’s grooming or dress flaunts authority and social convention, such actions cannot be condoned by Christians, because it gives us an unnecessarily bad reputation among non-Christians.[4]

Examples are dress and hairstyles that communicate misleading sexual signals.

Blomberg continues.

Men should not wear dresses, since this suggests transvestite behavior to most onlookers. Women should not wear the excessive make-up and revealing clothing typical of prostitutes “on their beat.

More specifically, husbands and wives should carefully guard against sending signals that suggest they are not married or are disloyal to their spouses. In some contexts, it would be misleading and inappropriate not to wear a wedding ring if one is married. Flirtatious conversation or behavior with someone other than one’s spouse also puts one in a position asking for trouble.[5]

And as for dress, it would be a misapplication of “being all things to all people” if a Christian were to dress like a Hare Krishna or some other sort of distinctive way associated with false religion and idolatry.

Christians, we are called to glorify God in our worship, so our dress must show that reality. Let propriety be your watchword in this. Men, dress and groom yourself as a man in dignity before the Lord. Ladies, dress and groom yourself in your glory as a woman, glorifying and honoring your husband and so therefore glorifying and honoring the Lord. And single ladies, widows, you’re not left out—dress to glorify the Lord. Indeed, let us all seek to glorify our Lord in our dress and grooming. Thus, since Christian worship is to glorify God, our dress and grooming should be according to where we stand as men and women under God.


[1] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 537.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 214.

[3] Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, Rev. Ed. (New York, NY: Facts On File, Inc., 2002), 130.

[4] Blomberg, 221.

[5] Ibid., 221-222.