Text: 1 Cor. 11:2-12
Ok, so yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What a weird passage. Why on earth did he pick this one? Well, to quote the 42nd President of the United States: “I feel your pain.” I understand that this is a difficult topic, and I find these verses to be quite challenging myself. They present a good occasion to remind ourselves that the word comes from God, by His perfect inspiration for our teaching. This not some personal opinion of men, nor is it my own special interest. These verses are important precisely because of their discomfort, since they show how our current assumptions about what is obvious and what makes sense are not neutral but themselves come from historical and cultural conditions.
Now, I am not going to talk about the specific question of headcoverings. I have preached on that topic in the past, and if anyone does want to hear more about it, feel free to ask me afterwards. Instead, I want to look at what Paul teaches us about men and women and the logical rationale he uses to find practical application. What we see in this passage of scripture is that, when answering a specific question of how men and women are to dress in worship, Paul moves back to the original creation of Adam and Eve to illustrate the nature of men and women and their original orientation towards God and one another. He explains what men and women are. The big idea is this: As a general rule, women fulfill God’s calling in their lives primarily by being wives to and for their husbands.
In our day the statement I just said is considered highly offensive. This is because secular Western philosophy, which has greatly influenced large portions of the Christian Church, holds to “Egalitarianism.” Egalitarianism states that all humans are created equal and therefore they should be able to do the same work, hold the same positions, and, in the extreme forms, define their notions of identity and reality. Egalitarianism rejects the notion that man and women have different roles in society, family, or the church because of their sex. This has led not simply to women’s rights in law, but also even to full female participation in every sector of society, even occupations which the entirety of human history had previously opposed, most notably the clergy and the military. This has come to be the dominate view in Western culture, and so the Biblical teaching is a major challenge.
For a very long time (the entirety of human history prior to the 1960s, really), the Biblical position was taken for granted. That is no longer the case, and so the term “Complementarianism” has been coined as a shorthand way to identify the Biblical position over and against Egalitarianism. Complementarianism means that men and women have unique features and gifts which complement each other, and therefore, the two are meant to work together in specific and distinct ways. Neither should attempt to perform the function of the other, nor claim the rights and authority of the other, but should instead see the dignity and necessity of being who God made them to be. In a nutshell we might say, men and women are different, and men should be men while women should be women.
The Archetypal Woman
The Apostle clearly holds to such a complementarian view. In 1 Corinthians 11, he does not merely advise men and women to behave a certain way because of historical or cultural mores, though I do think that culture plays some role in the matter of headcoverings as such. Instead, the Apostle Paul reasons from the specific question of dress back to the basic identity of men and women and their creational functions:
I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God… For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. (1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9)
In those verses, the Apostle Paul goes back to Eve as the archetypal woman, and from his observations about her makes four statements about men and women. They are statements about the very nature of what it is to be man and woman. We can list them: 1) The head of the woman is man, 2)Man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man, 3) Woman is from man, and 4) Woman was created for the man.
These statements are closely related, but each serves a distinct purpose in the argument. The first has to do with headship. Paul states that there is a hierarchy in the universe and everyone, even Christ, has a head. Christ’s head is God. We saw this when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Not my will but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Even our savior submitted to an authority. Christ, then, is man’s head. Women are, of course, under Christ, but the descending order of jurisdiction is important because each class has specific authority in relation to the other members in specific order. Woman finds her head in man. This is true of the universal categories of “man” and “woman,” but people always exist as individuals, and so individual women find their individual heads not in every man, but in their husbands. “The husband is the head of the wife” (Ephesians 5:23). And so, male authority is the first point on Paul’s list.
Paul’s second point is, on its face, a bit confusing. He says that man is the image and glory of God, but “woman is the glory of man.” Now Paul does not say that women are not the image of God. That’s an easy mistake for readers to make, but it is not actually what he says. Women bear the image of God as much as men do. Remember in Genesis 1, “In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). The thing that makes women different in this section is that while man is the “glory” of God, women are the “glory” of men. What does that mean?
We shouldn’t think that the woman’s being the “glory of the man” is a putdown or sort of downgrade, as if the man is the glory of God but she is only the glory of the man. Instead it means that she is the glory of the glory. The man is the glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the glory of God. She’s the glory of God’s glory. This is an exaltation.
Third on Paul’s list is the statement that woman is “from man.” This is a pretty literal reference to the creation of Adam and Eve. Paul makes this same argument in 1 Timothy 2:12-13, “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man… for Adam was formed first, then Eve.” Priority in the creation order gave Adam a natural authority over Eve, and so men have authority over women.
Then fourthly, Paul states, “nor was man created for woman, but woman for man.” In the context of Genesis 2, we know that Eve was created as a helper suited for Adam (Genesis 2:18). Paul says that this is an archetype for all women. Every individual woman only has one man in her life at any given time that she is supposed to be “for.” She is not “for” every man, as if any male in the room could give her commands or ask her to be a special helper. No, she is for her husband. And yet all men and women are called to identify with Adam and Eve, as universal symbols, and then, in the gospel, with Christ and the Church.
Now, having said this we need to also say that none of this affects our relationship to Jesus as such. Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, and husbands do not stand between their wives and Jesus. No, in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). We have been addressing the temporal realm, relationships in time and space on this earth. The “headship” in view is a real authority, but it is an earthly and human authority. This means that there are always exceptional situations as well, and we can talk about those situations as they arise.
There is also the question of single women. The same thing which we said last week about marriage is true for women’s relations to men. God’s normal calling is for marriage, and so ordinarily women ought to become wives. There are cases of singleness, however, and the most prominent one in the Bible is widowhood. In such cases, widows do not need to find a new male head. If they remarry then the new husband becomes their new head, but they are also allowed to remain single and operate as widows under the right conditions. Single women who never marry can also become their own heads in certain situations, but again, this is always the exception and not the norm.
And so what does all of this mean for today? The first point is simple but important. Women ought to look to archetypes to find their basic identity, first to Eve and then to the Church. These are the basic guide posts for who women are. Women are not first generalized “persons” who happen to also be women. Instead women are created with the special and particular intent to be an Eve to an Adam, a helper to a husband. The fact that Adam and Eve are our guideposts here also reminds us that this is not simply the assumptions of a patriarchal society or the natural limitations of an ancient world but instead how God wanted it to be from the beginning.
This helps to inform how we talk about “women’s roles.” We ought not to just think about what a woman should or shouldn’t do in isolation, but instead we should think in these creational symbols, “woman” as always in relation to “man,” wives relating to their husbands. Specifically, we can also highlight three additional points: submission, the woman as helper, and the woman’s role as glory.
Submission is a basic rule to the relationship. If the husband is the head and the authority, then the wife must submit to him. 1 Peter 3 says that wives are to “be submissive to your own husbands… as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:1, 6). Now, this actually applies to men first in that they are called to be leaders. Husbands have an inescapable authority over their wives, and this means they have a duty and responsibility which they cannot avoid. Husbands can either be good leaders or bad leaders. A bad leader can be either a dominating and tyrannical one, or one who is overly passive and abdicates authority, frustrating and holding back everyone under their authority. A good leader, by contrast, ought to take the initiative, set the course, and command authority, all the while being sacrificial, gracious, loving, gentle, and responsive to feedback, listening to others and making decisions with their best interests in mind. Wives, for their part, are called to submit and obey. Wives can and should give feedback, and they should even be able to argue in an appropriate and godly way, but at the end of the day, submission is only ever meaningful when it involves disagreement. Once the husband makes the final decision, the wife is called to obey and support this decision. The wife needs to also practice contentment and conscientious support for her husband’s decision. She should not subtly undermine his authority by sighs, eye-rolls, and constant pushback. Sometimes this will come easily, and other times it will be a battle. Either way, it is a dutiful calling.
The next application is that wives are called to be helpers to their husbands. Eve was called to help Adam complete his calling, and so wives find their callings today in conjunction with their husbands. Wives are complements and completers. This is a very important point and one which is quite countercultural today, something at which even many conservative Christian churches bristle. This helping is still a form of taking dominion, of course. Dominion is a calling for all humans, but it can only be carried out by individuals in their specific callings. Men take dominion as husbands and fathers, and women take dominion as wives and mothers. The husband typically takes dominion by going “out” into the world, and the wife typically takes dominion by helping him, and this starts with keeping the home. And again, this means that the husband has to go first. He needs to clearly identify his calling and then go after it, making sure the wife knows what he is all about so she can then discover how to be a helper to him. A passive or confused husband is going to create a confused or frustrated helper. So husbands, pay attention. Your wife is a reflection of you.
Now, a regular question here is whether women need to stay at home. As a general rule, they are called to be homemakers. Listen to the following verses: “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully” (1 Timothy 5:14), and “…the young women [should] love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed” (Titus 2:5).
In both lists, the Apostle Paul states that domestic work, beginning with the family itself, is a normative and virtuous calling for the wife. In the passage from Timothy the wife is actually called to be the manager of the home. The specific term for “manager” rather than simple “worker” is used. This means that she is the one with the normal and everyday expertise and organizational execution. The husband is away from the home, busying himself in other ways, and so the running of the house is the calling of the wife. This means that she has a real sort of authority and jurisdiction here, and wives ought to be treated as authorities over their home. They ought to be house-managers, and the husband who tries to micromanage is not showing his leadership at all. He’s simply being a bad leader. Husbands need to learn a proper respect in this area, and they ought to joyfully recognize the wife’s authority and expertise here.
Now a regular question comes up here— Can a woman “work” outside of the home? Definitely maybe. She can work outside of the home if she is still able to keep her family as the top priority. She may not simply outsource her home-management to someone else. She can also work outside the home if her doing this truly helps her husband and enhances his calling. She ought not to work outside of the home if her doing so hinders him or competes with his calling. Remember, home is primary. “Outside” is an extra. This can be a difficult thing to hear today, but it goes to the heart of headship and complementary relations.
And then the last and often neglected point is that the wife is called to be the husband’s glory. This means that she is supposed to be glorious. I think this is a good reason why women are prettier than men. But the Bible is talking about more than just prettiness. It is talking about a glory of righteousness and wisdom. “An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones” (Proverbs 12:3). “As a ring of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a lovely woman who lacks discretion” (Proverbs 11:22). And then:
…women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works. (1 Tim. 2:9-10)
The wife should be externally lovely and glorious as well. As long as she is moderate and holy, the godly wife is always also praised for being lovely. She is compared to fine jewels, and the standard of beauty is assumed to be, well, beautiful. Consider Jesus’ wife:
“Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb’s wife.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. Her light was like a most precious stone, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal. (Rev. 21:9b-11)
When we put together the total biblical picture, we see that wives ought to be beautiful and externally glorious, but they also ought to be holy, modest, and proper. A good rule of thumb is that the inside should match the outside. Wives ought to want to be glorious in order to help and bless their husbands, and husbands, in turn, ought to want to bless, glorify, and beautify their wives.
What’s really amazing in all of this is that God designed it to work out consistently and in harmony. When husbands and wives are following their specific callings, when they are being who they are supposed to be, they actually flourish individually as well. A wife actually grows in beauty and glory herself as she believes she is beautifying and glorifying her husband, and a husband gains more glory, not by himself being glorious, but by having a glorious wife. This is the genius of God’s system. As we all follow out callings with the other person in mind, and not as mere individuals, we find out that we are also individually blessed and more so than we would have been without the other.
And so wives, be wives to your husbands. Husbands be good husbands by helping and enhancing your wives and their wifely callings. As we each submit to God’s calling and follow the proper order for our lives, we find our individual blessing as well. We glorify God by glorifying others, and in all of this we find our glory as well. We come to understand God better as we understand ourselves, and we are sanctified by the sacrifices we make and the shared lives we live. It is a great mystery, but a Christian marriage shows the world Christ and His Church. Let us pray.