Messy church: Gender issues

I Corinthians 11:1-16

In early Christian meetings both men and women were allowed to address the congregation, in marked contrast to the Jewish synagogues. Paul was concerned, not because the women were engaging in a ‘masculine’ activity but because they were doing so in an inappropriate way – with uncovered heads (verses 4,5).

In Christ, men and women are equal in status; there is no difference between the sexes spiritually. Yet there is a world of difference biologically and socially, and in virtually all societies this is marked by differences in appearance. The normal everyday dress code in the eastern Mediterranean dictated that free men should not cover their heads; married women, on the other hand, covered their hair in order to honour their husbands and to indicate that they were not sexually available. A woman’s long hair was considered erotic; only prostitutes put their hair on public display. It was therefore as inappropriate for a woman engaging in public ministry in Corinth to let her hair down as it would be for her to appear on a platform today wearing a bikini.

A Christian man (unlike a Jew, who covers his head in God’s presence) worships bare-headed to symbolise his new status in Christ (II Corinthians 3:16-18). He is not a servant but a son, able to engage with God directly; to cover his head would dishonour the Saviour who has set him free (verse 7). But a woman showing her hair in first-century Corinth would draw attention to herself – and not in a good way. Christian women flouting this social convention would not only disgrace their husbands but also bring shame on the church. A church worship service cannot be an anarchic free-for-all where any and all behaviour is acceptable just because it carries a ‘Christian’ label. There is a sense in which no Christian meeting is ‘private’; the Jews believed that when God’s people met for worship, the angels were also present. If we are in heavenly company, we should conduct ourselves accordingly (verse 10). The woman’s head-covering, far from being a mark of subjugation, was her ‘licence’ to participate in the service on equal terms with the men without causing offence. The other alternative – to exclude women completely – is not acceptable because God has so ordained that the two sexes are interdependent (verses 11,12). Whether we like it or not, we need each other (and not only for procreation!).

There is a tacit assumption here that women will contribute to the worship service by praying and prophesying. But failure to observe the conventions of society (whatever they are) while doing so causes unnecessary distraction, when all our attention should be on Christ. Cultural gender markers vary from one culture to another, but they are not totally arbitrary. Men and women are different – a fact that is almost universally recognised. We should neither ignore the distinctions that God has made nor attempt to obliterate them. In modern Europe, women do not wear veils; but we still need to respect the conventions of our own society in our behaviour and in our manner of dress. Appearances do matter!

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1 Response to Messy church: Gender issues

  1. Jamie Carter says:

    I’m glad to this perspective of my favorite verses – it really brings to light how interpretation can affect application. I have friends – they operate the head covering movement – who are attempting to restore the tradition of women wearing head coverings to church just because the Bible says to do it – but they fail to recognize that such an appearance at a modern church would send the opposite message intended – not only that, but they’re literal about the “women must be silent”, too – so they wear head coverings and avoid speaking at church. Which is obeying the letter of the text, but not the spirit in both passages. That’s the result of deciding that the culture of the Bible is irrelevant and divorcing it from the context of the passage.
    in the ancient Roman empire, it was important that men and women occupy distinct places / styles of dress in the act of worship. It galled the Romans to no end that Christian men and women were doing the same thing – and the problem was that women and men were dressing the same way – the distinction had been transgressed and the messengers were spreading the word that “those” churches were weird because they couldn’t tell the women apart from the men. It was shameful for men to be so like the women, and dishonorable for women to be so like the men in their society.
    This doesn’t mean that God wants appearances to reign today – it’s the heart that he looks to – not our heads to see how obedient we are to the weirdest section of the Bible.
    Gender is going to be a confusing issue as we iron out where we stand and which hills we’ll die on, but I think we’re all agreed that it would be a mistake to accept ancient Roman standards as the ideal for all time just because they happened to be vaguely referred to in an ancient book from an ancient culture that’s not our own..


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