On Headship, Hats, Hair and Historical Context

There might not be a more difficult exegetical onion in all of the Scriptures than 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Throughout the centuries many commentators and theologians have scratched their heads (no pun intended) as they sought to understand the historical situation, the flow of Paul’s argumentation and what should be the application of the text to the church of their day. As the Westminister Confession of Faith (1.7)  so carefully states:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

I can’t help but think that this is one such “less clear” passage. No doubt, ascertaining the historical context is one of the foremost difficulties. What was it that the Corinthians had written to Paul about that served as the platform on which 1 Cor. 11:1-16 is played out? Another challenge to the interpreter is coming to a settled position on the language used throughout the passage. What is the interpreter of Scripture to do with the language of “head?” What are we to understand about the “covering” spoken of throughout the text? What are we to understand about all the allusions to short hair, long hair and shaved heads?

In seeking to answer these questions, the following are a few of the best resources I have come across in my studies:

  • Edward Donnelly “Headship,” in Brian H. Edwards’ Men, Women and Authority – This is, in my opinion, the single most helpful treatment of the subject. This chapter was first published in Brian H. Edwards’ ed. Men, Women and Authority. It is posted here with permission of Day One Publications. The book in which this chapter was originally published is currently out-of-print. You can find a used copy here, here or here. In this article Donnelly makes the important observation that “‎”We must beware of our own bias, for we can too easily be guilty of talking to Scripture rather than listening to it.”
  • John Calvin Commentary on 1 Corinthians, (ch. 11:1-16). You can find Calvin’s exposition of the text here.
  • Edward Donnelly’s sermon “Women and Headship” is a helpful demonstration of how to preach this passage to a congregation today.

Recently I preached a sermon on this text at New Covenant as we made our way through an exposition of 1 Corinthians. The sermon was not an exegetically detailed exposition so much as an attempt to faithfully unearth the enduring principle embedded in the teaching of the passage. The sermon was titled “God, Christ, Men, Women, Angels and Hair.” You can find the audio and video of it here. I have to admit that this was quite possibly the most difficult passage upon which I have had to settle on an interpretation.

9 Responses

  1. I have found the John Macarthur commentary so useful in helping me put all these chapters and verses in context. There really is a ton of contextual information that helps understand the whole picture. See you soon.

  2. I heard a sermon (talk) by John MacArthur yesterday morning on my way to work, and found it to be dreadful.

    No assurance for the sinner, outside of looking inward to your…whatevers…for the assurance of being saved.

    Just dreadful stuff.

  3. This was the right word for the right time, Nick! Someone close to me had been wrestling with the head covering issue, and this message hit the spot. It even helped me explain to an unbeliever the logic of submission and headship, and the gospel logic behind all the commands of God’s Word. Thanks for posting it!

    Steve, regarding John MacArthur’s approach to assurance, have you read Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation , edited by Michael Horton? It helped me understand MacArthur’s idiosyncracies in that department.

  4. Pingback : View Worthy: 10.3.12 | jtcochran.com

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