Seventeenth in a series
1 Corinthians 11:16

But if anyone is disposed to be contentious – we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

This will be a two-part sermon. First, I must make comments that emerged from last week’s message and some events of the past few days. Second, I will endeavor to grapple with our text for today.


There are still some “loose ends” hanging from last week’s message, which dealt with 1 Corinthians 10:23-33-1 Corinthians 11:1.

The first loose end is the confusion I raised in the minds of some with the illustration I gave about the honor code at some of our universities and military academies. I was trying to describe how there are some matters of a clear-cut nature spoken to in the Bible. When the Bible says “do,” we are called to do! When the Bible says “don’t,” we are to obey. But there are specific matters of conduct, theology, philosophy, politics and ethics that fall into the mid-range of gray. Well-meaning believers consult the Bible and, seeing no specific answers, they come to different conclusions as to what they should do or think based on the general principles of God’s Word as applied prayerfully.

I mentioned the tension within a young person signing an honor code, promising not to cheat and also to turn in anyone they observe cheating. I mentioned the high ethical ideal of many young people today that would cause them to both avoid cheating and to want to avoid “ratting” on their peers whom they observe cheating.

I didn’t say this has come closer to home to me as a pastor than you might ever think. Several times, back in the days before no-fault divorce, I have been subpoenaed by judges to give testimony in divorce cases. In each of those situations, I have refused to testify even at the threat of being in contempt of court. My own calling is to faithfully preach biblical truths, some quite unpopular in our contemporary society. This causes me to live with the uncomfortable reality of being perceived by some as a self-styled moral policeman. I don’t enjoy being perceived that way. I like to be liked. Therefore, whenever it is legitimate, I will avoid appearing to be a person who concentrates on the faults of others. I have enough faults of my own. I, like my younger friends, don’t like to “rat” on anybody else. I live quite comfortably behind the veil of the confessional, taking pastoral confidences very seriously.

However, I was not last week for a moment implying that a person who signs an honor code, both not to cheat and to report persons seen cheating, should refuse to report persons seen cheating. I was simply noting the built-in tension that some students feel who must sign that statement in order to matriculate at their university. If they are not prepared to live up to both aspects of that ethical code, they should not sign it, even if it means having to go to another school. I was simply trying to describe some of the problematic matters faced by each of us. The Bible doesn’t teach the second part of that honor code. It doesn’t tell us to rat on each other. But it does call a believer in Jesus Christ who signs such a code to abide by it, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel. And it does call on us to expose injustice for what it is, no matter the cost to us.

The second loose end deals with those three practical questions that can help us conclude our course of action on those matters that are not spoken to so clearly in the Bible.

Question: “What is best for me?”
Question: “What is best for others?”
Question: “What is best for God?”

I’m afraid I did not give adequate emphasis to a motivating principle which must underlie all three of these questions. Paul mentions it in 1 Corinthians 10:32-33 when he writes, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.”

It is the phrase, “. . .that they may be saved,” that needs to be very much at the forefront of our consciousness. God has placed us here on planet Earth as His emissaries. One reason He has left us here after we have received Jesus Christ as Savior to become recipients of His salvation is that we might share that salvation with others. Anything that I do that either intentionally or unintentionally becomes a stumbling block to others who need to receive that same gift of salvation is not for the best of self, others or God. Our task is to be witnesses for Jesus Christ. This is not an incidental function. This is an imperative! You and I are called to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. That somewhat awesome commission was not intended only for the select first-century apostles and disciples. It is the mandate of Jesus Christ for all of us who call ourselves His followers. Therefore, everything we do, everything we say, needs to be undergirded with the question, “Is what I am doing, is what I am saying for the best of all parties in a way that will help this person have the opportunity to enter into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ?” We are called to flesh out that Christian freedom, which is ours in Jesus Christ, with that ultimate spiritual concern.

Then there was a third loose end, which I didn’t even address last week. We observe it in 1 Corinthians 11:1. Paul writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

At first reading, it would seem that Paul is not suffering from a lack of self-esteem. Perhaps he could use a course in humility. However, the more you study that statement, the more apparent his situation becomes. He is underlining the importance of modeling. He is urging you and me to take ourselves seriously, endeavoring to set a good example for others, even as he has endeavored to set a good example for us. The believers at Corinth had lived with Paul. They had observed him in his strengths and weaknesses. He had lived with the self-conscious awareness that people were watching. That’s how you and I are called to live. None of us is an island. We are all in relationship with others. You may be the only Bible someone else will read this week. What will they see in you? What will they see in me? Will they see someone who is endeavoring to model after the Person of Jesus Christ?

All of this becomes increasingly significant in the light of the fact that periodically we see prominent Christian clergy and media personalities who disgrace themselves and also bring disgrace to the name of Jesus Christ. The mishandling of finances, sexual misconduct, blackmail, extortion, excuses, slander, competitiveness, manipulation, threats, counter-accusations, defenses, rationalizations, bizarre fund-raising schemes, ostentatious lifestyles, all have combined in a way that has caused an already cynical world to become all the more skeptical about Christians. And all genuine believers in Jesus Christ have had their hearts broken both for those whose sins have become so public and for those sinned against, as well as for the entire cause of Jesus Christ. The fall and public disgrace of a Christian leader is devastating to the faithful who put certain personalities on a pedestal. It is painful for us when, on occasion, we hear of a fellow pastor or Christian lay person disgraced for some moral, financial or theological misconduct. Those of us in Christian leadership are called to be models. People are watching, and every one of us who bears the name Christian has a heavy responsibility, whether it’s in as small an arena as the home or as large an arena as the church or a broader community. Paul knew his responsibility. He knew that people would be watching. You and I need to be reminded of that for ourselves.

But, ultimately, there is only one true model. That model is Jesus Christ.

That’s why we say here at St. Andrew’s every time we receive a class of new members, “Watch us. We, your pastors, elders, deacons, will do our best to set a good example, but remember that we, too, have our blind spots and our rationalizations and our serious flaws – those areas in which we in small or large ways scandalize the church of Jesus Christ. Discipline us. Hold us accountable. But, ultimately, keep your eyes on Jesus Christ. He is the only one who will not let you down.

Sin is sin! Every one of us is a sinner. On one hand, our job is not to try to create trouble, make accusations and take joy in gossip and the tragic misconduct of others. On the other hand, we dare not minimize, cover up or excuse sin in the lives of others or our own lives. You and I are called to repentance, a life daily lived under both the scrutiny and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We talked about idolatry several weeks ago, and we described many kinds of idolatry. One I forgot to mention was that elevation of human Christian leaders onto pedestals of adulation. That, too, is idolatry. We must hold our Christian leaders accountable to the Christian community, and we must allow Jesus Christ, and Him only, to be both the object and the subject of our worship!


Now having tried to tie up some of these loose ends, let me speak to today’s text, which is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

Although my topic is “Hair & Hats – The Church & Social Customs,” there is a much deeper theological theme underlying this passage. Paul is wrestling with the issue of propriety is worship. He is responding to questions directed to him by certain Christians at Corinth. He’s giving his answers to these questions. He compliments them in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that they are taking him seriously and endeavoring to practice what he taught them. Even though the Corinthian church was a troubled church, it is clear that there were those who were endeavoring to discover and do the will of God. At the same time, Paul knows that there are those who are insisting that their newfound freedom in Jesus gives them certain license to act in ways that would not be helpful for that local community of believers.

The practical matter which is triggering Paul’s response is the question as to whether or not women should have their heads covered with a veil or hat during worship. In a way, this is a matter of purely first-century significance. It hardly relates to our worship experience today. Our American culture is so different from that of the Middle East, even today.

If you were to travel with me right now to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq or Iran, you would see, 2,000 years later, women who would not think of venturing from the privacy of their homes into public places without wearing a veil. In oriental lands, the veil represents authority, honor, power and the dignity of womanhood. With the veil on her head, in both the first century and present times, a woman could go anywhere with a sense of security and profound respect. Even though in some societies it became a mark of inferior status of women, it also was a sign in a very positive way of a woman’s modesty and chastity.

As one reads this text, it is important to remember the situation in ancient Corinth. It was one of the most wicked cities in the world. William Barclay observes that the apostle Paul probably felt it was better to err on the side of being too modest and too strict rather than doing anything that might give the heathen fellow citizens a chance to criticize the Christians as being too lax.

Frankly, although there may be a few sectarian groups today that apply this teaching to the present time and require women to wear bonnets, hats or veils during worship, I personally believe, along with most fellow believers, that this is a clear case in which the apostle Paul was addressing a specific cultural situation, helping the believers function in a way that would bring about the greatest health of that first-century Christian community. It was a prostitute who dressed immodestly, did not cover her hair, strutted publicly in the streets in a not-too-subtle selling of her sexual services.

Remember, the issue here is propriety in worship. The presenting problem is whether or not women should be required to have their heads covered. Under the circumstances facing the first-century church, in an environment where Christian women were emerging from chauvinistic society into a position of equality with men, Paul was urging continued gracious humility that would keep the pendulum from swinging too far to the other extreme in a way that could scandalize the church of Christ. This was a society that was all too prone to use women as either a beast of burden or an object of personal sexual self-gratification.

Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Church, gives an insightful contemporary example of what today would be the equivalent of a woman worshiping in first-century Corinth with her head uncovered. He writes that it would be like having a man today walk into an Anglican worship service wearing nothing but a bathing suit. Imagine your shock if, right now, a man wandered down the center aisle of St. Andrew’s wearing nothing but a “Speedo” or “board shorts” and sat down in the front row and stayed throughout the service. We see it all the time at the beach, but it would certainly raise some eyebrows, at the least, and be viewed as inappropriate by most.

Emerging from this overall theme of propriety in worship, we discover certain hints that can guide us in some of the major issues we face today. These issues go beyond worship, although everything in the life of the Christian finds itself fleshed out in a context of that which brings glory to Jesus Christ.

Let’s look at some of the practical contemporary issues that must be addressed.

First: Traditions are important.

Paul writes, “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.”

Some of us are iconoclasts. That means that there’s something in us that hates tradition. We love change for the sake of change. We get around conservative people, and we love to belittle those traditions that are precious to them. Some of us have made an art form out of tweaking our parents in ways that make them embarrassed about their traditions.

On occasion, I’ve been guilty of this. And I’m even embarrassed to admit it, but I will.

I remember one time while traveling in the Middle East, I entered the grounds of the Catholic monastery that contains the ruins of the ancient city of Capernaum, knowing full well that the monks there preferred that men wear long pants. Having frequently visited that place, I knew how stubborn these monks were. So I warned the men on my tours to wear long pants. On one occasion, I personally simply refused to do it. How ridiculous. I wasn’t going inside the chapel to worship. I had my group and tour guide. The rest of the day, we would be doing touring of a nature that my shorts would be much more comfortable. So I figured that I would just sneak in, hoping to go unnoticed. After all, I was so much more “progressive” than those stodgy, staid Roman Catholic monks. I barely knew what had hit me, when one of the brothers came rushing up to me and declared that I could not continue my visit dressed in that way and ejected me from the premises. My immediate reaction was self-defensive. I had to bridle my desire to belittle him, to put down the silly rules of his order. As I stood outside the fence cooling off, the Holy Spirit spoke to me about my own spiritual elitism and cultural snobbery. What right do I have to put down the well-meaning convictions and ground rules of others? I am learning to think twice before defying the conventions of another. Their traditions are important to them. And I honor them and represent Jesus better by respecting their right to hold those traditions, even if they are not mine.

Some of us are traditionalist. We see the value in the past to the point that we’ve become locked up in the past. We simply are not open to change. We like things the way they were. I find in me the tendency, on one hand, to tweak those who are a little more traditional than myself. On the other hand, I am, at the very core of my being, a traditional easterner. Change doesn’t come easy for me. I’m having to adjust to the idea of not getting dressed up for church. And now, with the retirements of Dick Todd, Bill Flanagan and Larry Ball, I’m the last person on your Program Staff who prefers coming to work dressed in a coat and tie.

I remember when we built this new sanctuary, we had a major controversy over whether the choir should be in the front or the back. In the old sanctuary, the choir processed down the center aisle at the beginning of each service, circled around the two side aisles and then climbed the stairs up into the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary. Some people were adamant that, in the new sanctuary, it should be the same – the choir should be in the rear. In the early months in this new sanctuary, I received letters from people protesting how abnormal it was to have the choir up front. It was so distracting to worship. Now, 22 years later, most of us have not only forgotten the controversy, we have a hard time remembering what it was like to have a choir in the back instead of the front. As tough an adjustment as it was at the moment of change, we’ve developed a brand-new tradition.

The apostle Paul functioned as both iconoclast and traditionalist.

In terms of developments in the United States during the past 40 years, the apostle Paul seems somewhat traditionalist in his view of women. Put him even today in many parts of the world, and he would seem quite liberal. Place him back in the first century, and he was absolutely a radical. It was Paul who stated, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In that one inspired statement, he tackled the religious distinctions between master and slave, the deep-seated male chauvinism of both Jewish and Gentile cultures – not only in the first century but all the way down to the present. In addition to philosophically declaring such a liberating statement, he fleshed it out by recruiting women for prominent places in his newly established churches. However, Paul was not going to sacrifice the welfare of the Christian church by minimizing some of the longstanding conventions that prevailed in Jewish worship. He would allow women to pray and to prophesy, actively participating in worship in the same room with men, while insisting that the tradition of female with covered head in worship be respected as a sign of female modesty.

Second: Watch out for the “headship” trap.

I’ve heard many well-meaning preachers and husbands, as well as chauvinistic preachers and husbands, quote 1 Corinthians 11:3 as the ultimate statement that men are to be in charge in the home, church and community. “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” This text is used as a power grab to put “women in their place.” It’s used in a way that beats down women. It’s used in a way that speaks against the ordination of women as elders and pastors. This text is often used in conjunction with Ephesians 5:22-24, which reads, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”

I’ve also observed some women go almost wild with rage as they read 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5, accusing Paul of being a chauvinist and wanting to tear pages of his teachings out of the Bible. Early in my ministry here at St. Andrew’s, I was confronted by both some men and women who referred to the Gospel according to Paul as being different from the Gospel according to Jesus.

Now, I’m not knowledgeable enough or wise enough or stupid enough to try to make the definitive statement for all time on this matter of man/woman relations. However, there are two strands of biblical expression that, when quoted out of context, can appear, on one hand, to be chauvinistic and, on the other hand, to be oriented toward women’s liberation. There are statements in the Bible about what we call “the orders of creation” that imply a kind of hierarchy of God, male, female, children, in that order. On the other hand, there are those tremendous passages that deal with equality in Christ, which defy hierarchal understandings of relationships. Although I cannot put together the definitive statement, let me at least make some factual observations.

One, the word “head” is a very poor translation. It implies authority over. Study the Greek word, and you will discover that it literally means “source” or “origin.” Even as the statement is made that the source of man is Christ and the source of woman is her husband and the source of Christ is God, we see also the balancing dynamic in 1 Corinthians 11:12 that says, “For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”

Two, passages on submission, such as Ephesians 5, are not designed for one to beat down upon the other, whether it is a male chauvinist beating down on women or a women’s liberationist beating down on men. There is no place in Christianity for ugly chauvinism or ugly feminism. A man has no right to act superior to a woman, declaring headship. And a woman has no right to put down a man simply because some men have taken advantage of women. If there is anything common to normal sinful human interplay, it is people using people (men using women and women using men) and individual and group power plays (men grabbing for power and women grabbing for power). The answer isn’t bloody revolution in Christian society. It may end up that way in the secular world. Historically, there have been power plays in many societies. Men have used women, treating them unfairly and employing them at unequal pay. And women have manipulated men in their own ways, perhaps more subtle in their power plays. The feminist movement is a natural result of women being exploited by men. Even in the church, women have had to rise up when men have denied them their rightful place.

Third: This brings us to the biblical concept of “mutual interdependence” in man/woman relations.

Paul writes, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12).

This mutual interdependence is emphasized all the more emphatically in Ephesians 5, which you’ve already seen as so often misquoted. Paul urges both men and women to live in mutual interdependence. He states in Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

This means that Anne and I are sister and brother in Jesus Christ. Our submission is not one in which I rule over her, but that we together are called to acknowledge each other’s gifts and to subordinate ourselves to the leadership of each other in ways that enhance our mutual dignity as male created in the image of God and female created in the image of God.

I’ll be the first to admit how difficult it is to work this out in a dynamic male/female relationship that resists a death struggle power play. The rhetorical use of Scripture quoted out of context gives me ultimate authority over others. Mutual interdependence makes life much more complex. Even as a totalitarian state has a higher degree of order than a democratic state, so does a family or church that is ruled by a dictatorial, arbitrary, authoritarian leader. However, as I read the Bible, there is only one ultimate authority. That authority is Jesus Christ. Someday, He will return to provide that perfect rule where fairness prevails for all and justice will reign. In the meantime, you and I live in a broken world with institutions that are flawed, and we are called to a mutual interdependence, as we bow before the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. We are called, led by the Holy Spirit, to practice the teaching of His Word.

Let me state a personal word. Nothing destroys my relationship with Anne faster than when I demand my rights as “head of the home” instead of functioning as a servant after the model of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:5-8 words that I find myself increasingly drawn toward when tempted to assert my authority. It reads, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

I’ve discovered that nothing destroys Anne’s relationship with me faster than when she starts pushing me around demanding her rights. It’s possible to find biblical text to support a non-biblically endorsed attitude on both of our parts which, in its truest form, is simply a power struggle. I dare you to show me anywhere in the Bible that a power struggle is defined as God’s will for man/woman relationships. Mutual interdependence is His plan.

Fourth: There is no place for unisex.

This is probably the most basic teaching of this passage. That’s why Paul instructs the women in Corinth to continue the wear the veil, even though, in one way, their freedom in Christ entitles them to get rid of it. He goes on to write in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15, “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

There is a difference between a male and a female. I challenge you to show me anywhere in the Bible where it describes the proper length of hair for either. The Bible clearly teaches that a man should look like a man and a woman should look like a woman. I am not expert enough to be able to delineate exactly what that means, but I’ll assure you that both you and I can tell when a woman looks like a woman and a man looks like a man. And I have a sneaking suspicion that both you and I can tell when a woman looks like a man and man looks like a woman.

The story is told about a pastor who had a wedding back in the hippy era of the late 1960s. At the conclusion of the wedding, he said in a somewhat confused tone of voice, “Will one of the two of you please kiss the bride?”

There is a difference between a man and a woman. There is a difference biologically. There is a difference psychologically. God wants a woman to look like a woman – a healthy, modest, godly, gracious, loving Christian woman. And God wants a man to look like a man – a healthy, modest, godly, gracious, loving Christian man.

Fifth: This passage rebukes the person who is contentious.

Contentiousness is not what the Gospel, whether in the home or church, is all about. There will be disagreements. Let’s honestly acknowledge them. Let’s air them. Let’s identify them for what they are. Let’s come to resolution and subordinate our private scruples or opinions to the ultimate will of the body of Christ. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 11:16, “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious – we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”

There must be order if the Christian community is going to function healthfully. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. If your conviction on a particular matter is not your highest priority, then adapt to the will of the majority. If your conviction on a matter is of the highest priority and does not agree with the majority, then you have to, after loving and graciously stating your case, peacefully remove yourself from that community. For God’s sake and yours, see the good of the whole. If your conviction is strong enough, don’t compromise it but hold it in a way that doesn’t destroy the body.

Perhaps I’ve tried to say too much in this one message. But this text has a lot to say. My prayer is that God will apply this word to you and me at our point of need and potential growth. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen!


John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

Share This On: