There is a great deal of confusion about women's roles not only in the church but also in the world. This has come about since the 1960's and the advent of radical feminism. Now "radical feminism" is not to be confused with "liberal feminism" - the sort of feminism women like Josephine Butler supported, a woman from whom so many in the modern world need to learn and who comes from the North East and is buried in Kirknewton churchyard.
Liberal feminism describes a range of agitation from the late 18th century to the early 20th century that sought to give women proper political, economic and social rights. But modern radical feminism is very different. It has sought to liberate women from their womanhood - a totally different exercise altogether. The very things that had been of central importance for most women - marriage and motherhood - were now being derided as demeaning and subhuman.
The first modern radical feminist was Simone de Beauvoir with her book The Second Sex. She taught that marriage is no better than slavery. Kate Millet in Sexual Politics a little later argued that the traditional family was, I quote, "the seed bed of sexist repression". So remove privileges from the traditional family and give greater support for alternative family patterns. And then, of course, there was Germaine Greer who in The Female Eunuch in 1970 argued that women are to be liberated from sexual morality. She was herself raised a Catholic. Losing her faith in her first year at the university, she said this:
"One of the sources of conflict ... was the collapse of my Catholic faith and my unwilling arrival at the conclusion that there was no God. Once that had been decided, there were no rules about anything else either."
Well this is the context for our study this morning. We are going to look at what St Paul has to say about this subject. Our passage is 1 Corinthians 11.2-16.
This is quite a difficult passage. I believe, however, it has important lessons to teach us. I make no apology for what it teaches. If it offends some people, I am sorry. But your argument must then be with the bible not with me. My headings this morning are first, THE CREATED ORDER; secondly, MEN and thirdly, WOMEN.
First, THE CREATED ORDER
Now when you look at 1 Corinthians 11 and you read about head coverings and hair, you may say to yourself: "this proves that what the bible talks about when it talks about sex, women and gender issues is all a matter of culture. What it has to say was relevant then. It is not relevant today. Then women were repressed. So Paul had to make his congregations toe the line so as not to offend outsiders."
Well, No! It is just not true that women were repressed in Paul's world. Oh, yes, they were in ancient Greece and by some in contemporary Judaism. According to Plato a man who fails in this life is reborn first as a woman, then as an animal. And there was that shocking prayer that the Jews prayed, "Oh God, I thank thee that I was not born a woman."
But in the Roman Empire of Paul's day things were very different. A Stoic contemporary of Paul called for sons and daughters to be given the same education. Among the Pythagoreans there were female teachers of philosophy. In the Epicurean school women were given preference as teachers. The great Roman satirist, Juvenal, in his 6th satire, gives a portrait of the "modern woman" in Rome where there was a Women's Liberation Movement going on! And women had great scope in religion. There were priestesses of Artemis. And Ephesus (from where Paul is writing this letter to his friends in Corinth) - Ephesus was the great centre for the worship of Artemis or (in Latin) "Diana". And Corinth was the centre of Aphrodite worship - the goddess of sex. Her priestesses would daily have been seen making their way down from their temple to the city.
So Paul wasn't culturally pressured to give the teaching he is giving here in 1 Corinthians 11. He didn't have to say the things he said to fit in with the culture of the day. Rather Paul is claiming that the basic teaching on women (and men) he is giving is non-negotiable because it is based on the creation order. It is the way God has made us. It is all part of reality. You can try to deny that reality as you can try to deny the law of gravity, but you will suffer. And in going back to creation, Paul is simply following Jesus when he talked about man-woman relationships. So here Paul goes back to the Genesis account, verses 7-8:
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.
Paul is referring there to Genesis 1 and 2. You say, what does Genesis teach?
First, it affirms human sexuality. It says that sex is good and that our sexual nature - our sexual differentiation - comes before the fall. Genesis 1 teaches that we are created male or female. What was created was not pre-sexual. By contrast there is a Greek myth that taught that sexuality came after creation when a neutral hominid was first created and then subsequently cut in two to be male and female. But the bible is clear. To be human is to share humanity with the opposite sex. Modern feminists or homosexualists are wrong. Sexuality is not secondary and just a matter of the plumbing and for you to do what you like with. It is part of the created order. So first Genesis affirms sexuality.
Secondly, it teaches that men and women are equal - that is Genesis 1.27:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
"Man" is there identified as "male and female" together.
Thirdly, it teaches in Genesis 2 the difference between men and women with the account of the creation of Adam and Eve. It wasn't Adam and Steve or Eve and Evita.
Fourthly, in Genesis 3 (the account of the Fall) it teaches that sin destroys God's ideal for sexual relating. God says to the woman in Genesis 3.16 that motherhood will no longer be total joy; it will now involve pain. And her relationship with her husband will slip from a loving rational acceptance of each other's role to irrational instincts for desire and domination:
your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.
And that fallen situation Paul faced in his day and we face today at the beginning of the 21st century. Sex, sexual role and gender issues have been spoilt by sin.
So what is the way out? Supremely forgiveness at the cross of Christ, for all the mess of sex and sexuality that men and women have created. Who needs to seek that forgiveness this morning? Perhaps you have never gone to Christ for forgiveness before. Why not do that this morning? Living a life of obedience to God's word and not 21st century ideas in the area of your sexual life and your understanding and acting out of gender roles, needs not only forgiveness but also the strength of the Holy Spirit. You must remain true to the bible's teaching on equality but difference and avoid two heresies.
One heresy is to say there is no equality, but only inequality between the sexes. This is the situation that feminists rightly reject. This has been the position in many traditional societies where women have been repressed. But the bible teaches that this is wrong. Jesus fully accepted women (contrary to many Jews of his day) and Paul taught in Gal 3.28, that
there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
So traditionalists are wrong who deny the equality of the sexes.
The second heresy is to deny the difference between the sexes and say not only that men and women are equal but also that they are essentially identical (apart from the plumbing). And that was the problem Paul was facing in Corinth. In leaving off their head coverings the Corinthian women were rebelling and proclaiming an identity with men. This was a serious matter. As John Chrysostom put it in the 4th century AD:
Do not tell me it is a trivial fault. It is disobedience. And if the matter were small in itself, it would have become important because it was a symbol of something great.
So look at verses 3 - 6:
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head--it is just as though her head were shaved. 6 If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
People can differ over the precise understanding of some of the details here and in the following verses. But the gist, I believe, is clear. Paul, surely, is not saying you must, if you are a woman, always wear a hat in church. Rather he is saying that women must recognise and respect the difference between the sexes in church. They have to play ball with current conventions in regard to masculinity or femininity. Now if that means wearing hats or a veil, so be it.
You see, what counts as feminine or masculine and so acceptable for a woman or a man is cultural and variable. Asian women have long worn trousers and Sudanese men, at least when I lived in the Sudan, wore dress-like tunics called "jellabas". So Paul is not saying that creation dictates a specific head covering. What he is saying is that creation dictates that we use culturally appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity. And for Corinthian women that meant a head covering at that time. Paul is saying in verse 4 that a man who behaves like a woman dishonours his head (that is Christ).
And in verse 5 he says that a woman who tries to be like a man dishonours her head (that is her husband). And why that is wrong is because (as we have seen) verses 7, 8 and 9, it goes against God's created order. But then Paul says in verses 13 - 16:
Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. 16 If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice--nor do the churches of God.
You say, "how does 'the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him'? In the 17th and 18th centuries men had long hair - or at least wigs, and judges still have them today - and so does Andy Carroll, formerly of Newcastle United." Yes, that is so true. Culture or custom determines what hair arrangements (and a whole host of other things) are generally masculine or feminine. But nature - "the very nature of things" - teaches us that men feel ashamed and embarrassed when they wear or use current symbols of femininity and vice-versa.
Paul today could have said: "Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man in Gateshead in April 2013 comes into church wearing a dress, it is a disgrace to him. But (verse 15) if a woman wears a dress, it can be her glory - people think she is elegant and attractive."
The teaching of nature is the natural inclination of men and women to feel shame and disgrace when they abandon conventional symbols for masculinity and femininity. But these are always changing and usually have to do more with fashion than theology. So much for creation.
We must now be more brief.
What does this passage teach about men? In simple terms, and however unfashionable, it teaches male headship. Look at verse 3:
Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Someone has said that if the man is the head, the women is the heart. And in individuals the head works for what the heart longs for. The biblical doctrine of male headship is rooted in the divine Trinity. That is why it certainly isn't a matter of culture or tradition. It is part of the divine order of being. And that is why it certainly isn't a matter of chauvinistic bullying or domination. It is modelled on the relationship of the Father and the Son and is one of interdependence. That is what Paul is saying in verses 11 and 12:
In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.
Now, Paul is here speaking of headship in the church. Elsewhere he speaks of headship in marriage - Ephesians 5.23:
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
Notice that both here and in Ephesians Paul doesn't say "should be" but "is" - the man is the head. But Ephesians makes it clear that this is to be like Christ's headship - not a dominating but a self-sacrificial and loving headship. You see, the model for male headship must come from the bible and not any natural expressions of male headship. That is because those will be fallen and sinful, as we have seen, unless, "in the Lord" and according to the Lord's will. But today the problem in the West is often not male abuse of headship, but male failure to fulfil a headship role at all - a role that is appropriate to a man's differing relationships. And they differ in the world, in the church and in the home. In the world it is more complicated. But one thing genuine male headship in the world should mean is that men see it as their role to prevent any wrong intimacy with female colleagues. It is not primarily a woman's job to set guidelines to protect themselves from sexual advances. But with the denial of sexual difference and biblical male headship you would expect an increase of sexual harassment. And that is what you have got!
Every woman who prays or prophesies ...
This deserves a sermon on its own. And you can get one of mine here from 1 Timothy 2. 8-15. That is all about what women can do in church.
But let me say this much now. Male headship in the church does not mean an absence of female ministry. Women were certainly praying or prophesying here in Corinth. However, female ministry has to be exercised in ways that do not undermine the calling of men to bear the primary responsibility for teaching and leadership. Certainly women have a teaching ministry. Paul tells the women of Crete to "teach what is good" and to "train the younger women". Paul commends the teaching of Timothy by his grandmother and mother. Priscilla was a great bible teacher along with Aquila her husband. So when Paul says in 1 Timothy 2. 12 ...
I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent ...
as we shall see, it is not all teaching that is forbidden, but the public teaching of men linked to having authority over a man - it is that that is forbidden. That rules out a woman as a vicar of Jesmond and the ordination of women to senior pastor-teacher roles and certainly women bishops (as is now being proposed for the Church of England).
But none of that means women can't have huge influence in the church. I think of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. She was the great benefactor and strategist in the 18th century at the time of the evangelical revival. Then there was the mother of the Wesley's. Think of the woman and wife in Proverbs 31 - a remarkable woman, if ever. She is running a business, organising the home and "faithful instruction is on her tongue." So in all of this we must keep the proportion and balance of the bible. That means that the way ahead for a true understanding of women in the church is to listen not to the world and current fashion but to what the bible says - all the bible, not some selected parts - and then obey it.