A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part VII – 1 Corinthians 11

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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As mentioned in the previous blog, Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church in order to address several issues within the Church. We now move into a section in which Paul address an issue that directly intersects with our society today: gender and sexuality. Within the Church, 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 has been discussed extensively and the text has been central to numerous debates (such as the egalitarian/complementarian debate and the debate regarding head coverings). However, this passage has much to teach us regarding the meaning of gender and the relationship between the sexes.

The Foundational Analogy

We begin with v. 2-3

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:2-3, NASB)

We begin with the first statement that Christ is the head of every man. This affirms the truth that since Christ is the Creator and Preserver of all men, he must therefore be the head (or master and ruler) of mankind. Christ is the head of all men in that all gifts are derived from him and as the Lord of the nations, all are subject to Him. Moreover, He is the head of all believers since he is the head of the Church. As John Gill writes:

Yea, he is a natural head, or is that to his church, as an human head is to an human body: he is a true and proper head, is of the same nature with his body, is in union to it, communicates life to it, is superior to it, and more excellent than it.

In an analogous way, the head of Christ is God. This is not a reference to the divine nature of Christ because they are one in nature and essence. However, as to the human nature of Christ and the office that He fulfills, Scripture is abundantly clear that Christ hoped in God, believed and trusted in Him, loved Him, and was obedient to Him, even to the point of death. Christ voluntarily performed these tasks as our Mediator and voluntarily submitted to the Father. Therefore, it is proper to say that God is the head of Christ, in His humanity as the Mediator.

The Interdependence of the Sexes

In an analogous way, Paul states that man is the head of woman. Just as God is the head of Christ and Christ is the head of mankind, so is man the head of the two sexes. Paul grounds this argument based not on the Fall, but based on the order of creation. Since the man was formed first (v. 7) and since the woman was made for the man (v. 8), this implies that man must be the head and chief of the mankind.

However, it’s important to note that this statement is an analogy, not an identity. In other words, although man is the head of the two sexes, his headship is not identical to the headship that Christ has over mankind or the headship that God has over Christ. This point should be emphasized in order to prevent the historical error of believing that women are essentially inferior to man in all matters (whether within the Church or within civil society). Man exercises his headship in ways that are analogous to Christ’s headship over mankind. As the head of the woman, man is to provide and care for her, to nourish and cherish her, and to protect and defend her against all insults and threats. Therefore, there is a sense of authority and rule within the context of headship, but the connotation of the term is properly attached to beneficent governance.

It’s also important to note that although man is the head of his own wife , both man and woman are dependent upon each other (v. 11-12). Consider the following commentary on this passage from 19th century pastor F.B. Meyer:

No soul is complete in itself. The man is not complete apart from Christ, as the woman is not complete apart from man… But it is very interesting to notice that while the Gospel so clearly insists on the divine order, it has elevated woman to be man’s true helpmeet, and has caused her to be honored and loved as the glory of man. Neither society, nor family life, nor woman herself, can be happy unless she attains her true position. On the one hand she finds her completion in man; on the other she is his queen and he ministers to her in all gentleness and tenderness and strength.

The Consequences

This statement is worth emphasizing because of the historical error of undervaluing women (within the Church and within civic society). Contrary to popular belief, it was the proclamation and spread of the gospel that liberated women and elevated their worth because it is God who defines and determines the purpose of His creation. Insofar as  we reject God’s intention for the creation both sexes as complements to each other, we diminish and devalue their value.

One of the evidences regarding the growing secularism of our society involves the confusion of God’s purpose for creation. In the 20th century, we saw the rise of early feminism with regards to the fight for woman’s suffrage; however, the influence of second wave and third wave feminism has brought the discussion of biblical sexuality to the steps of the American Church. It was the influence of the second wave feminism of the 1960s that began to associate the “subjugation of women” with broader critiques of patriarchy, normative heterosexuality, and the woman’s role as wife and mother. Furthermore, it was during the second wave of feminism in which sex and gender were differentiated from each other. In the 21st century, we are now in the position of observing the next evolution of third wave feminism. This current wave of feminism stepped onto the public stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization, and defining feminine beauty for themselves (not as object of male patriarchy). Whereas second wave feminism separated sex and gender, third-wave feminism has asserted that the very notion of gender discourages experimentation and creative thought. This has led to the commentary from many secular sources that we are creating a society of feminized men and masculine women.

 

Fortunately, the Word of God has not left us in the dark in addressing this issue. Throughout 1 Corinthians 11:3-16, Paul grounds his argument for headcoverings based on observable realities about the differences between man and woman. This means that Paul assumes that the Corinthian church understood that there are substantive differences between men and women (i.e. differences that extend beyond customs and cultures). Hence, in Paul’s mind, the audience of his letter already knew that sex and the modern concept of gender cannot be separated. Because God is the Creator, He alone has the prerogative to determine the purpose of His creation and this passage clearly teaches that woman was created for man (v. 9) and that woman is the crowning glory of man (v. 7). Hence, the modern idea of blurring the distinctions between men and women is a movement that is in rebellion against God’s original intention for woman to be the complementary pair of the human race.

Not only does God determine the original intention for woman and her relationship to her own husband , but He also determines feminine beauty. Consider Paul’s argument in v.13-15. Paul argues that special revelation is not needed to determine whether or not long hair is a woman’s glory. It is clear to all that long hair adorns a woman and is fitting for her sex. In modern terms, a woman’s biological features are consistent with her identity as a woman. This reiterates the point that it was never God’s intention to separate one’s sex (i.e. the biological construct) with one’s gender. Rather than seeing one’s biological makeup as a potential form of subjugation and oppression (which is becoming a common perspective among third wave feminists), God designed woman in such a way to fulfill her role as her husband’s  helpmeet and complement.

The Lord’s Supper

Paul concludes chapter 11 with a discussion of the Lord’s Supper. In this discussion, Paul gradually begins to return his readers to the discussion of love. He focuses the Corinthian church back on their attitudes toward one another, and he tells them yet again to stop being selfish. They were hosting love feasts but, ironically, they were not conducting them in a loving manner. As a result, Paul told them that they were partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Given that our present this section does not have any immediate implications for our study of Public Theology, we will not explore it further here.

Egalitarian Beliefs: Clarifying What We Believe

Continuing from the last post, this blog examines the final application from Christians for Biblical Equality. Application #5 states:

In the Christian home, couples who share a lifestyle characterized by the freedom they find in Christ will do so without experiencing feelings of guilt or resorting to hypocrisy. They are freed to emerge from an unbiblical “traditionalism” and can rejoice in their mutual accountability in Christ. In so doing, they will openly express their obedience to Scripture, will model an example for other couples in quest of freedom in Christ, and will stand against patterns of domination and inequality sometimes imposed upon church and family.

In their fifth application, CBE believes that couples who embrace the egalitarian lifestyle will no longer experience guilty feelings or live in hypocrisy because they no longer have to live in biblical “traditionalism.” Thus, married couples will be able to rejoice and hold one another mutually accountability before Christ, and they will be able to model a good marriage relationship for other couples who are looking to avoid patterns of domination and inequality in their own marriages.

To be honest, it has taken me a while to figure out how to adequately critique the complementarian camp with this application, but thank the Lord for husbands who think differently! Considering that this is the last post critiquing complementarianism, this might be one of the more important critiques that we all need to consider. And I will begin with the only affirmation from the Danvers Statement that I believe would be of key importance here, Affirmation #10:

We are convinced that a denial or neglect of these [complementarian] principles will lead to increasingly destructive consequences in our families, our churches, and the culture at large.

As firmly as egalitarians believe that their beliefs and principles are Biblical, complementarians do so to the point that they believe that there will be “destructive consequences in our families, our churches, and the culture at large” if complementarian principles are abandoned. As a complementarian, I agree; however, egalitarians have brought up some valid concerns when they mention “traditionalism” and “patterns of domination and inequality” that are at times imposed upon people in the church and in the family. So let’s think about that more closely.

For the sake of clarity…

  • How much of what we practice as complementarians is truly Biblical?
  • How much of our practices are really passed down traditions?
  • And how much of our practices stem from or attempt to counteract influences from our culture?

I’m not sure how many complementarians have taken the time to consider the questions or even how they live out their complementarianism, but I do believe it is always important to consider the ‘why’ behind what we do for three main reasons. First, it helps us figure out if we are doing things for the right reasons. Second, it helps us figure out how to instruct and encourage other couples who want to have a God-honoring marriage and be obedient to Scripture. Third, it helps us to be more credible and honest to the rest of the world, especially egalitarians. Let’s briefly consider these points.

How we label things

Coming from egalitarianism, having some solid reasons behind why I am doing things the way I do them now is paramount for me to walk and live in unwavering confidence in this world. Yet, I know that I have a very accommodating personality that desires for things to just go ‘smoothly’ even when I have problems with them, so I often find myself having done things for months or years because I never gave it real thought. This experience is the premise behind my first point. As Christians, we have to be careful to distinguish what are doctrinal standards, convictional beliefs, and our own cultural preferences. We clearly believe that complementarianism is Biblical doctrine that is expounded upon clearly in Scripture, but what about other things we practice?

Can husbands wash dishes, take care of the laundry, prepare meals, and/or take care of small children or is that purely the work of women as homemakers? Can wives cut grass, clean out the gutters, work on the car in the garage, and build furniture in the shed or is that stepping into men’s work? If your daughter likes to play with cars or paper towel tube swords, do you tell her to put it down to play with a doll or have a tea party instead? If your son likes to play house or is really interested in baking, do you try to distract him with some sports or other outdoor activities.

Now, I’ve picked the least controversial examples I could think of to drive home the point that we have to be careful what we label as ‘complementarian’ when it could easily be us sliding into ‘traditional roles’ or doing what we’re most comfortable doing. We also have to be careful that we’re not perpetuating traditional gender roles and calling it complementarianism because we’re uncomfortable that playing with trucks just isn’t ‘feminine’ enough for our daughter or baking isn’t ‘masculine’ enough for our son. I have all intentions to teach my daughter how to manage and care for a home properly, but if she wants to pursue a PhD and become a physicist like her daddy, I’m not going to tell her that she is going against God’s design and purpose for her as a woman. Basically, we ought to be certain that we have a solid understanding of what is actually Scriptural and whatever else is only traditional, cultural, or just our own personal preferences.

Determining what to teach others

One of the obvious results of being able to label things properly is that we will be able to offer more Biblically-sound advice to others. Whether it’s our own children, teenagers at church, or other young couples that we know, we are often put into the position of having to either teach, instruct, exhort, or encourage others about what a God-honoring marriage and family life look like. And these interactions happen either directly or indirectly, but regardless, the interaction will leave an impression upon the hearer.

For instance, most women have probably heard that housework is women’s work in some way or fashion. And from the Bible we know that we are to take care of our homes and our families (Titus 2), so this is perfectly sound to teach. However, if we couple that with something like…The reason you need to make sure that you are taking care of your home is because you really can’t trust a man to do a woman’s job. Men don’t know how to clean the way we do. They aren’t as detailed-oriented as we are, and you know you should never leave your little ones with your husband. God only knows what will happen to them when you’re gone. Really, you just have to learn how to manage it all. And don’t worry, God will give you the grace to be able to handle all of it because He made you a woman, and women are equipped to carry and handle a lot…then we have surely added some things to the Biblical text. But what is worse, the extra traditional and cultural things only cause people to become more burdened down and overwhelmed as they are likely to believe and feel that this is how they are to please the Lord in their roles. Christ told us in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Let us be diligent to not add to the burden in our own minds and hearts and in the hearts and minds of others who are serious about having a God-honoring marriage and family life. If we are going to teach, exhort, and encourage ourselves and others, let’s be perfectly clear about what is Biblical and what just follows traditional norms, our present-day culture, or what just works for us.

Building some credibility

Finally, all of this leads to us, as complementarians, building up our credibility with egalitarians and others who think the way we live our lives in the face of our culture today is just crazy and outdated.

Now, there will always be some people who will simply be contentious and look for a way out so they don’t have to feel guilty about not obeying Scripture, and honestly, we can only pray for those people. But for the other people who are jaded, ignorant of the truth, or searching for some clarity about their role as a man/woman and a husband/wife, I encourage my fellow complementarians to hold fast to the Bible alone first and foremost. And then be open about what they will have to work out depending on their own circumstances. Talk about the things that complementarians have historically gotten wrong. Even touch on the abuses and sins that have often been committed under the guise of complementarianism or being Biblical. By all means, be forthright, frank, and honest in everything that you have to say because as we know that complementarianism is God’s design and purpose for men and women, we are obligated to represent it rightly, fully, and faithfully so that others will have a proper view of what God requires of all of us and so that we will not be a reason why some will choose to abandon it altogether.

This post concludes my critique of complementarianism, and I will pick up my next blog with taking a closer look at egalitarianism.