God’s Design for Gender Differences

Text: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16


As we continue out sermon series, we are preaching verse by verse through the book of 1 Corinthians. This book was written by the Apostle Paul in the 1st century to the Church in the city of Corinth. What we have seen in our study is that in this Pastoral letter, the Apostle Paul is addressing issues that were culturally important to general life in the 1st century. Many of these topics are easily understood by our modern ears, even though we are so far removed from 1st century culture. Other topics are a bit more difficult to apply to our 21st century lives. As an example, we just studied six weeks, through chapters 8-10 where Paul discussed how Christians should live in a culture where so much of the food they ate dailiy was food that had been offered to idols. What we saw was that, while ‘food offered to idols’ is not the issue we face every day, the principle that Paul was teaching was able to be applied in many different areas of our modern life.

Today we come to another culturally difficult passage for us apply to our modern life. As good Bible students our job is not to dismiss this passage as somehow simply a remnant of some ancient culture. But recognizing it as the Word of God, we want to understand the passage in its original context, and then prayerfully determine how to live out the principles of the passage in our modern context. The topic of this passage is women wearing some kind of headcovering over their heads when meeting with the gathered Church, and connected to that is are principles about the way men and women are designed and ought to relate to each other in life. 

Permit a brief word, if you are new with us, I welcome you, and I want you to know one of the reasons we study the Bible verse by verse, like this, is so that we don’t get to just skip challenging difficult passages. At this Church—we believe every word of the Bible is God-breathed, even the ones that really tough to understand. So we preach verse by verse so we don’t miss any of it.

As we study this passage there are four big picture questions we need to be asking of each verse.

1. Culture: First pertains to culture. What did this passage mean to its original hearers. For example, when Paul speaks of headcoverings, what significance did something like a headcovering mean to his readers that we might not pick up on as 21st century readers.

2. Meaning of Words: Second, pertains to the meaning of words. Some of the words in our English translation of this passage are debatable. Remember, the NT was written in Greek, and our English translations are incredible work of centuries of language scholarship, you can trust them. Yet, sometimes there are words (often footnoted) that there is not total certainty what was meant by them originally.

3. What Transfers: Third, is the question of what ideas from this passage are universally true, always. We believe the Bible is perfectly and always true. There is nothing that has just faded away over time. But in a passage like this we need to really consider what instructions were simply instructions that were relevant for Corinthians in the 1st century. We certainly cannot just cherrypick what we like and don’t like. So we need to get down to the principle level and ask what universal principles can be taken from this passage to be applied in all cultures and times.

4. Am I Willing to be Confronted: Lastly, is the question of confrontation. This passage will irk many in our modern day. We are going to speak about the differences between men and women, the modesty of Christian women should dress. And the question we should ask is, whether we are willing to let God’s Word have the final say on these topics, or if we will settle for letting modern culture have the final say.

So, we have our work cut out for us today. As a result, I am going to be doing a bit more “teaching” and “explaining” than I normally do, but I believe that it is necessary to really understand Paul and apply his instructions well. So today, I want to show Three Prinnciples Regarding God’s Design for Gender within the Church.

Principle 1: God’s Design for Headship is Beautiful

1 Corinthians 11:2-3 “2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” 

Paul begins by buttering them up a bit, and say, Well done following the traditions I have taught you when I was with you. And then verse 2 begins with, “But.” In other words Paul is saying, “I know that you are striving to live out the things I taught you about life in the Church, but there is this issue of headcoverings that you are getting wrong.

Verse 3 provides us with the premise—the underlying principles—that Paul is going to use throughout this entire section. Before we work to understand it, let’s notice that we come across our first Translation issue. Towards the end of verse three, we read “the head of every wife is her husband.” Your Bible probably have a footnote. The footnote explains that in Greek, the word for man and woman is the exact same word for husband and wife. Usually context gives it away. But here—scholars are a bit divided. And there are subtle differences in how this passage might be applied depending on which way you go. I am going to lean in on the best scholarship which actually believes that the general terms, “man” and “woman” were intended by Paul. The reason for this is that in this same passage, Paul is clearly using the terms more generally, and it woudl be strange for him to make his readers jump between terms. So verse 12 for example speaks of male and female interdependence and says

1 Corinthians 11:12 “12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” 

Obviously a husband is not born from his wife. So, I believe—along with the best scholarship—that the more general term is needed

Paul provides the premise for this whole section, and the premise is ‘Every person (male and female) has a head and that how we relate to our head in public matters deeply. 

1 Corinthians 11:3 “3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” 

There are three heads listed. The head of a man is Christ. The head of a woman is a man. And the head of Christ is God. Whoah! What does head mean? Let’s begin with what it doesn’t mean. It does not mean inferiority or superiority. We know that because it says that the head of Christ is God, God the Father. We know from all over the New Testament, that Jesus is is not inferior to the Father. Jesus said, “I and the Father am one.” Colossians says that Jesus, “is the visible image of the invisible God.” Jesus is not inferior to God, so this is not speaking about superiority.

Rather, listen to the definition provided by the scholar David Garland, 

“To be ‘head of a group of people simply means to occupy the position at the top or front… While it may result in authority and leadership, that is not its basic denotation. While this may have implications for authority, authority is not the point. Paul’s primary intent is not to assert the supremacy of man and the subordination of woman. Intstead, it is to establish that each has a head… It establishes the need for loyalty to the head...”

Andrew Perriman, another scholar says it this way,

“The point seems to be… that the behavior of the woman reflects upon the man who as her head is representative of her, the prominent partner in the relationship… 

This is vital language for understanding God’s design for gender distinctions. And it is wildly in the face of most modern understandings that have attempted to equalize everything between men and women, to say there are no distinctions. Just as Jesus represented God the Father in everything he did. Men, you represent Christ in everything you do—feel that weight for a second. We’ll come back to that.  And women, you represent the men in your life (particularly your husbands, but more broadly in this context the men of your Church by how you live and behave.

Let me give you an example of this that might paint the picture well. Over the years I have hired a lot of people, and not hired a lot of people. One time I interviewed a man for a Pastoral role, and he was great. When we met his wife, she was also great. However, there were some concerns with two things. First, was the way wife presented herself on social media. Second, was the way she often presented herself in the public settings physically in the way she dressed. Her presence in both of those avenues represented her husbad of whom I was interviewing to be a Pastor. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “This is going to be a problem.

This is the principle Paul is going to apply. And its beautiful. We don’t need to cringe at this in the Bible. We need to lean into this. We need wrestle with it and learn how to integrate these principles into the life of the Church. I think there are two reasons why people might cringe at this doctrine. One is that many have witnessed with their own eyes, or have heard of countless examples where women have been abused by men. This pains me, as it should pain every person in this room. This passage leaves no room, and the Bible leaves no room for abuse. If that is you in this room—please let our team of pastors and deacons care for you as you navigate this doctrine, it may not be easy. But I want us to understand, what Scripture is describing here is not the cause of abuse of men towards women. This is the antidote. Abuse has happened since the fall in every culture. The only solution to this global result of the fall, is the gospel of Jesus Christ which places men and women in their proper relationship underneath the ultimate headship of God. In other words, when this is lived out properly, it is beautiful, and the solution to the problems of abuse in the world.

Principle 2: God’s Methods for Honoring Headship are Beautiful (4-12)

Second principle—God’s methods for honoring headship are beautiful. This next section has tons of cultural language in it that I will explain. But let’s read it first.

1 Corinthians 11:4-12 “4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”  

Culturally, this passage would have been shocking to somebody who picked it up in 1st century Corinth, because of the radical place Paul instructed for women to have in the gathered Church. In verse 5 he gives permission for women to pray and prophecy in the Church. In that culture, women were not even allowed to be in the room. They weren’t allowed to learn. This was one of the hallmarks of Christianity, was that women were invited, along with men, to have both presence and participation in religious activity. This was wild. So, nobody can read this passage and say, “well that is just a culturally bound, non applicable passage.” It was not culturally bound. This broke beyond any cultural norm of Paul’s day. He was establishing principles for God’s Church.

Paul moves us into the conversation on Headcoverings. Remember the principle—each person has a head, and how we honor our head ultimately is a demonstration of our worship of God. Verse 4 forbids men from praying with their heads covered. In 1st century, it was common for men to wrap a bit of their toga over their heads when worshipping false gods. That was standard. There are statues from the old world that show men doing this. So Paul here first speaks to the men, “We are not worshiping pagan Gods. Don’t borrow false worship practices.

Then Paul gives instructions to the women about how to treat their physical heads, “A wife/woman who prays with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” Culturally, what is going on here? When women covered their head in that culture, it was a not statement of worship, it was a statement of modesty. There is some debate what is meant by headcovering. Some commentators think it refers to a shawl, while others think it refers to wearing the hair up. Both somewhat symbolized the same thing. In 1st century, a woman who went in public with her head uncovered was seen as a promiscuous woman. Being in public with your head uncovered communicated, “Men—desire me. I want you to look at me. Notice my beauty.” The same thing was true of the way women wore their hair. In public, the hair was done up in what was considered a proper hair do, but then at home, they would quite literally “let their hair down.” It was appropriate to “let your hair down” in front of your husband, but not in front of other men. So Paul says, “Women—if you pray or prophecy while your dressed in a way that is intentionally trying to get men to see you, you are dishonoring your husband and the other men in your Church.”

Then he follows up in verse 6

1 Corinthians 11:6 “6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.” 

In those days, there are reports of women who were caught in the act of adultery, who as part of their punishment had their head shaven. It was a symbol of shame. So Paul here is saying, “Women, you are Christians, don’t start behaving in a way that communicates that you are adulterers or sensualized women. Far from it— you want to communicate the opposite. You want to communicate your love of Christ through your respect of your head.

What was likely happening. It is possible that there was a burgeoning mini feminist movement happening in the 1st century. These new Christians were experiencing freedom in Christ, and perhaps some of the women were taking it in an unwise direction. I think that is more unlikley. Rather, consider this. The early NT Church met in homes. It was so personal—that was the place where you could let your hair down. They called each other “brother” and “sister.” Brothers and sisters were the people you could let your hair down around. And so probably, the women were stuck in this place of being in their own home, but is this a formal event or what is this? Paul instructs them, “Don’t get too casual here. This is still a worship gathering. Women dress modestly and in that way honor your head.”

Again, in verse 7 Paul essentially repeats his previous point

1 Corinthians 11:7 “7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” 

This is simply Paul repeating his point. Noting, he never says that women are the image of man. Men and women both are the image of God, they have dignity, worth, value, moral compass because they are made in God’s image. There is a difference though, not one of superiority or inferiority, but one of headship. Man’s head is Christ and his glory—what he reflects—is Christ. Women’s head is man and her glory—what she represents—is man.

Now paul is a wise pastor, so that this conversation does not get extended into unhealthy places, he doesn’t want this principle to be abused. So he writes in 8-11

1 Corinthians 11:8-12 “8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” 

So Paul ties these gender differences all the way back to the very first chapter of the Bible where woman was made for man. God made Eve for Adam. But verse 11 brings it full circle and says but that doesn’t man is somehow more special or more important than woman, now he’s born of a woman. It’s a circle. There is a mutual inter-dependence. Nevertheless the headship remains.

Perhaps you noticed in verse 10, Paul amplifies this whole conversation by mentioning angels.

1 Corinthians 11:10 “10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” 

Once again—a challenging verse. The word for angel can also mean messenger. So does this mean that when we gather and worship physical angels are surrounding us, and we ought to do thing formally to honor their presence. I would lean in that direction. Others think, outside messengers might stop by at any point. And if they come in and see the women all with their hair down around a bunch of men who aren’t their husbands, what are they going to think is happening in that place. That’s possible too. Both of those scenarios actually have deep modern day applications.

Before I try to apply this section, let me bring us back to verse 3. Who is the ultimate head. It is God. Women represent the men in their Church through their behavior and presentation. Men represent Christ to their Church through their behavior and presentation. Christ represent God the Father to His bride—the Church—through his behavior. How did Christ behave. In that chain we are all—men and women—looking up towards Christ who teaches us how to do this perfectly. You want to know how to honor your head, look to Jesus who perfectly honor God the Father. Where he went, how he spoke, how he loved, all perfectly represented and reflected God the Father. You want to know what God is like, read the life of Jesus. And what you will discover will change your life. God is remarkably bigger than our small thoughts of him. The greatest act of love the world has ever known or seen is when God sent Jesus Christ to the cross for you and for me. Do you see this! Headship demonstrated through sacrificial love. Headship exemplified through crucifixion. This is our head.

Permit me to speak briefly to both the men and the women. Men, you are to represent Christ. Step into that role boldly. Be like him. He was both strong and tender. He rebuked when necessary, and washed feet—the lowest job. He publicly stood for God, and quietly got alone to pray with God. On the night of his betrayal Jesus led a group of men in singing a hymn. Men take note—Godly men sing their hearts out to God! On the cross, as he was dying, he made sure the women in his life were provided for, instructing John to take care of Mary. Men—Provide for, lead, and defend the women around you. And in so doing, you will reflect Christ.

Women, you too must honor your head. The primary thrust of this passage is how they were dressing and presenting themselves. While that is not the only application of this principle, I think there are lessons for women here, to really consider how one dresses and what that communicates. Consider the instructions Peter gives to the women he ministered to.

1 Peter 3:3-6 “3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” 

Oh how this passage flies in the face of what the world offers women today. The world is promising freedom by breaking from passages like these, but it doesn’t work. And the evidence is all around us, the promises of the radical feminist movement of the last fifty years have failed. Women—lean into the imperishable beauty of a godly woman. God considers that very precious.


Let me close by looking briefly at verses 13-15

1 Corinthians 11:13-15 “13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.” 

When Paul speaks about “nature” here, he is referring to the common practices held in their day. And he is forbidding behaving in any way that would confuse anybody about their masculinity or femininity. Why does he go there. Because this whole passage is about God’s design for men and women.

In our day, in this moment, there is great confusion over gender identity. I don’t want to mock this. The entire conversation around those who have the mental illness of gender dysphoria, and our culture’s attempt to disrupt God’s design is literally killing people. This is not a light conversation. Based on verses 13-15, every Christian must confirm in their hearts that they will not be swayed by popular opinion, or by political theater. But we will hold fast to the word of God. And we will, like Jesus, so boldly care for and step into the lives of those who are hurting and confused, not to prove them wrong, but to save their life. Because God gives life. And a life apart from God’s Word is apart from reality. It is a hopeless existence.

We have covered much ground today. There is much more to say. My Pastoral prayer, is that wherever God is bringing conviction in your heart today, that you would listen. And wherever correction is needed—both men and women—that you would permit God to change you, to change your perspective, to change your behavior, in order to honor God.


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