Marcus Dods on 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

The following exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is reproduced from Marcus Dods, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, in the Expositor’s Bible series (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), pp. 243-57.


AT this point of the Epistle Paul passes from the topics regarding which the Corinthians had requested him to inform them, to make some remarks on the manner in which, as he had heard, they were conducting their meetings for public worship. The next four chapters are occupied with instructions as to what constitutes seemliness and propriety in such meetings. He desires to express in general his satisfaction that on the whole they had adhered to the instructions he had already given them and the arrangements he had himself made while in Corinth. “I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” Yet there are one or two matters which cannot be spoken of in terms of commendation. He heard, in the first place, with surprise and vexation, that not only were women presuming to pray in public and address the assembled Christians, but even laid aside while they did so the characteristic dress of their sex, and spoke, to the scandal of all sober-minded Orientals and Greeks, unveiled. To reform this abuse he at once addresses himself. It is a singular specimen of the strange matters that must have come before Paul for decision when the care of all the Churches lay upon him. And his settlement of it is an admirable illustration of his manner of resolving all practical difficulties by means of principles which are as true and as useful for us to-day as they were for those primitive Christians who had heard his own voice admonishing them. In treating ethical or practical subjects, Paul is never superficial, never content with a mere rule.

In order to see the import and importance of this matter of dress, we must first of all know how it came to pass that the Christian women should have thought of making a demonstration so unfeminine as to shock the very heathen around them. What was their intention or meaning in doing so ? What idea was possessing their minds ? Throughout this long and interesting letter, Paul is doing little else than endeavouring to correct the hasty impressions which these new believers were receiving regarding their position as Christians. A great flood of new and vast ideas was suddenly poured in upon their minds; they were taught to look differently on themselves, differently on their neighbours, differently on God, differently on all things. Old things had in their case passed away with a will, and all things had become new. They were made alive from the dead, they were born again, and did not know how far this affected the relationships with this world into which their natural birth had brought them. The facts of the second birth and the new life took such hold upon them, that they could not for a time understand how they were yet connected with the old life. So that for some of them Paul had to solve the simplest problems, as, for example, we find that the believing husband was in doubt whether he should live with his wife who remained an unbeliever, for was it not abhorrent to nature that he, the living, should be bound to the dead, that a child of God should remain in the most intimate connection with one who was yet a child of wrath ? Was this not a monstrous anomaly, for which prompt divorce was the fit remedy ? That such questions as these should be put shows us how difficult these early Christians found it to adjust themselves as children of God to their position in a corrupt condemned world.

Now one of the ideas in Christianity which was newest to them was the equality of all before God, an idea well calculated to take powerful and absorbing hold of a world half slaves, half masters. The emperor and the slave must equally give account to God. Caesar is not above responsibility; the barbarian who swells his triumph and is afterwards slaughtered in his dungeon or his theatre is not beneath it. Each man and each woman must stand alone before God, and for himself and herself give account of the life received from God. Alongside of this idea came that of the one Saviour for all alike, the common salvation accessible to all on equal terms, and partaking of which all became brethren and on a level, one with Christ and one therefore with each other. There was neither Greek nor barbarian, male nor female, bond nor free, now. These three mighty distinctions that had tyrannized over the ancient world were abolished, for all were one in Christ Jesus. It dawned on the barbarian that though there was no Roman citizenship for him nor any entrance into the mighty commonwealth of Greek literature, he had a citizenship in heaven, was the heir of God, and could command even with his barbaric speech the ear of the Most High. It dawned on the slave as his fetter galled him, or as his soul sank under the sad hopelessness of his life, that he was God’s redeemed, rescued from the bondage of his own evil heart, and superior to all curse, being God’s friend. And it dawned on the woman that she was neither man’s toy nor man’s slave, a mere luxury or appendage to his establishment, but that she also had herself a soul, a responsibility equally momentous with the man’s, and therefore a life to frame for herself. The astonishment with which such ideas must have been received, so subversive of the principles on which heathen society was proceeding, it is impossible now to realize; but we cannot wonder that they should by their fresh power and absorbing novelty have carried the Christians to quite the opposite extremes from those at which they had been living.

In the case before us the women who had been awakened to a sense of their own personal, individual responsibility and their equal right to the highest privileges of men began to think that in all things they should be recognised as the equals of the other sex. They were one with Christ; men could have no higher honour: was it not obvious that they were on an equality with those who had held them so cheap ? They had the Holy Ghost dwelling in them; might not they, as well as the men, edify Christian assemblies by uttering the inspirations of the Spirit ? They were not dependent on men for their Christian privileges; ought not they to show this by laying aside the veil, which was the acknowledged badge of dependence ? This laying aside of the veil was not a mere change of fashion in dress, of which, of course, Paul would have had nothing to say; it was not a feminine device for showing themselves to better advantage among their fellow-worshippers; it was not even, though this also, also falls within the range of possible supposition, the immodest boldness and forwardness which are sometimes seen to accompany in both sexes the profession of Christianity; but it was the outward expression and easily read symbol of a great movement on the part of women in assertion of their rights and independence.

The exact meaning of the laying aside of the veil thus becomes plain. It was the part of female attire which could most readily be made the symbol of a change in the views of women regarding their own position. It was the most significant part of the woman’s dress. Among the Greeks it was the universal custom for the women to appear in public with the head covered, commonly with the corner of their shawl drawn over their head like a hood. Accordingly Paul does not insist on the face being covered, as in Eastern countries, but only the head. This covering of the head could be dispensed with only in places where they were secluded from public view. It was therefore the recognised badge of seclusion; it was the badge which proclaimed that she who wore it was a private, not a public, person, finding her duties at home, not abroad, in one household, not in the city. And a woman’s whole life and duties ought to lie so much apart from the public eye, that both sexes looked upon the veil as the truest and most treasured emblem of woman’s position. In this seclusion there was of course implied a limitation of woman’s sphere of action and a subordination to one man’s interests instead of to the public. It was the man’s place to serve the State or the public, the woman’s place to serve the man. And so thoroughly was it recognised that the veil was a badge setting forth this private and subordinate position of the woman, that it was the one significant rite in marriage that she assumed the veil in token that now her husband was her head, to whom she was prepared to hold herself subordinate. The laying aside the veil was therefore an expression on the part of the Christian women that their being assumed as members of Christ’s body raised them out of this position of dependence and subordination.

This movement of the Corinthian women towards independence, on the ground that all are one in Christ Jesus, Paul meets by reminding them that personal equality is perfectly consistent with social subordination. It was quite true, as Paul himself had taught them, that, so far as their connection with Christ went, there was no distinction of sex. To the woman, as to the man, the offer of salvation was made directly. It was not through her father or her husband that the woman had to deal with Christ. She came into contact with the living God and united herself to Christ independently of any male representative and on the same footing as her male relatives. There is but one Christ for all, rich and poor, high and low, male and female; and all are received by Him on the same footing, no distinction being made. While then in things civil and social the husband represents the wife, he cannot do so in matters of religion. Here each person must act for himself or herself. And the woman must not confound these two spheres in which she moves, or argue that because she is independent of her husband in the greater, she must also be independent of him in the less. Equality in the one sphere is not inconsistent with subordination in the other. “I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.”

The principle enounced in these words is of incalculable importance and very wide and constant application. Whatever is meant by the natural equality of men, it cannot mean that all are to be in every respect on the same level, and that none are to have authority over others. The application of Paul’s principle to the matter in hand alone here concerns us. The woman must recognise that as Christ, though equal with the Father, is subordinate to Him, so is she herself subordinate to her husband or her father. In her private worship she deals with Christ independently; but when she appears in public and social worship, she appears as a woman with certain social relations. Her relation to Christ does not dissolve her relations to society. Rather does it intensify them. The inward change that has passed upon her and the new relation which she has formed independently of her husband only strengthen the bond by which she is tied to him. When a boy becomes a Christian, that confirms, and in no degree relaxes, his subordination to his parents. He holds a relation to Christ which they could not form for him, and which they cannot dissolve; but this independence in one matter does not make him independent in everything. A commissioned officer in the army holds his commission from the Crown; but this does not interfere with, but only confirms, his subordination to officers who, like himself, are servants of the Crown, but above him in rank. In order to the harmony of society, there is a gradation of ranks; and social grievances result, not from the existence of social distinctions, but from their abuse.

This gradation then involves Paul’s inference that “every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head.” The veil being the recognised badge of subordination, when a man appears veiled he would seem to acknowledge some one present and visible as his head, and would thus dishonour Christ, his true Head. A woman, on the other hand, appearing unveiled would seem to say that she acknowledges no visible human head, and thereby dishonours her head — that is, her husband — and so doing, dishonours herself. For a woman to appear unveiled on the streets of Corinth was to proclaim her shame. And so, says Paul, a woman who in public worship discards her veil might as well be shaven. She puts herself on the level of the woman with a shaven head, which both among Jews and Greeks was a brand of disgrace. In the eyes of the angels, who, according to the Jewish belief, were present in meetings for worship, the woman is disgraced who does not appear with “power on her head;” that is to say, with the veil by which she silently acknowledges the authority of her husband.

This subordination of the woman to the man belongs not merely to the order of the Christian Church, but has its roots in nature. “Man is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.” Paul’s idea is that man was created to represent God and so to glorify Him, to be a visible embodiment of the goodness, and wisdom, and power of the unseen God. Nowhere so clearly or fully as in man can God be seen. Man is the glory of God because he is His image and is fitted to exhibit in actual life the excellencies which make God worthy of our love and worship. Looking at man as he actually and broadly is, we may think it a bold saying of Paul when he says, “Man is the glory of God;” and yet on consideration we see that this is no more than the truth. We should not scruple to say of the Man Christ Jesus that He is the glory of God, that in the whole universe of God nothing can more fully reveal the infinite Divine goodness. In Him we see how truly man is God’s image, and how fit a medium human nature is for expressing the Divine. We know of nothing higher than what Christ said, did, and was during the few months He went about among men. He is the glory of God; and every man in his degree, and according to his fidelity to Christ, is also the glory of God.

This is of course true of woman as well as of man. It is true that woman can exhibit the nature of God and be His glory as well as man. But Paul is placing himself at the point of view of the writer of Genesis and speaking broadly of God’s purpose in creation. And he means that God’s purpose was to express Himself fully and crown all His works by bringing into being a creature made in His image, able to subdue, and rule, and develop all that is in the world. This creature was man, a masculine, resolved, capable creature. And just as it appeals to our sense of fitness that when God became incarnate He should appear as man, and not as woman, so does it appeal to our sense of fitness that it is man, and not woman, who should be thought of as created to be God’s representative on earth. But while man directly, woman indirectly, fulfils this purpose of God. She is God’s glory by being man’s glory. She serves God by serving man. She exhibits God’s excellencies by creating and cherishing excellence in man. Without woman man cannot accomplish aught. The woman is created for the man, because without her he is helpless. “For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman.”

But as man becomes actually the glory of God when he perfectly subordinates himself to God with the absolute devotedness of love, so does woman become the glory of man when she upholds and serves man with that perfect devotedness of which woman so constantly shows herself to be capable. It is in winning the self-sacrificing love of man and his entire devotion that God’s glory appears, and man’s glory appears in his power to kindle and maintain the devotion of woman. Not in independence of God does man find either his own glory or God’s, and not in independence of man does woman find either her own glory or man’s. The desire of woman shall be to her husband; in the honourable devotedness to man which love prompts, woman fulfils the law of her creation; and it is only the imperfect and ignoble woman who has any sense of humiliation, degradation, or limitation of her sphere in following the lead of love for the individual. It is through this honourable service of man she serves God and fulfils the purpose of her existence. The woman who is most womanly will most readily recognise that her function is to be the glory of man, to mould, and elevate, and sustain the individual, to find her joy and her life in the private life, in which the affections are developed, principles formed, and all personal wants provided for. And man, on his part, must say,

“If aught of goodness or of grace
Be mine, hers be the glory.”

For, as a French writer says, “her influence embraces the whole of life. A wife, a mother — two magical words, comprising the sweetest sources of man’s felicity ! Theirs is the reign of beauty, of love, of reason, always a reign. A man takes counsel with his wife; he obeys his mother: he obeys her long after she has ceased to live, and the ideas he has received from her become principles even stronger than his passions.” [See Landel’s True Glory of Woman.]

The position assigned to woman as the glory of man is therefore far removed from the view which cynically proclaims her man’s mere convenience, whose function it is “to fatten household sinners,” “to suckle fools and chronicle small beer.” Paul’s view, though adopted and exhibited in individual instances, is far as yet from commanding universal consent. But certainly nothing so distinguishes, elevates, purifies, and balances a man in life as a high esteem for woman. A man shows his manliness chiefly by a true reverence for all women, by a clear recognition of the high service appointed to them by God, and by a tender sympathy with them in all the various endurance their nature and their position demand.

That this is woman’s normal sphere is indicated even by her unalterable physical characteristics. “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him ? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” By nature woman is endowed with a symbol of modesty and retirement. The veil, which signifies her devotement to home duties, is merely the artificial continuation of her natural gift of hair. The long hair of the Greek fop or of the English cavalier was accepted by the people as an indication of effeminate and luxurious living. Suitable for women, it is unsuitable for men; such is the instinctive judgment. And nature, speaking through this visible sign of the woman’s hair, tells her that her place is in private, not in public, in the home, not in the city or the camp, in the attitude of free and loving subordination, not in the seat of authority and rule. In other respects also the physical constitution of woman points to a similar conclusion. Her shorter stature and slighter frame, her higher pitch of voice, her more graceful form and movement, indicate that she is intended for the gentler ministries of home life rather than for the rough work of the world. And similar indications are found in her mental peculiarities. She has the gifts which fit her for influencing individuals; man has those qualities which enable him to deal with things, with abstract thought, or with persons in the mass. Quicker in perception and trusting more to her intuitions, woman sees at a glance what man is sure of only after a process of reasoning.

These arguments and conclusions introduced by Paul of course apply only to the broad and normal distinction between man and woman. He does not argue that women are inferior to men, nor that they may not have equal spiritual endowments; but he maintains that, whatever be their endowments, there is a womanly mode of exercising them and a sphere for woman which she ought not to transgress. Not all women are of the distinctively womanly type. A Britomarte may arm herself and overthrow the strongest knights. A Joan of Arc may infuse into a nation her own warlike and patriotic ardour. In art, in literature, in science, feminine names may occupy some of the highest places. In our own day many careers have been opened to women from which they had hitherto been debarred. They are now found in Government offices, in School Boards, in the medical profession. Again and again in the history of the Church attempts have been made to institute a female order in the ministry, but as yet both the clerical and the legal professions are closed to women. [The experience of the Society of Friends throws light on this matter.] And we may reasonably conclude that as the army and navy will always be manned by the physically stronger sex, so there are other employments in which women would be entirely out of place.

But it will be asked, Why was Paul so exact in describing how a woman should comport herself while praying or prophesying in public, when he meant very shortly in this same Epistle to write, “Let your women keep silence in the Churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the Church”? It has been suggested that although it was the standing order that women should not speak, there might be occasions when the Spirit urged them to address an assemblage of Christians; and the regulation here given is intended for these exceptional cases. This may be so, but the connection in which the absolute prohibition is given rather militates against this view, and I think it more likely that in his own mind Paul held the two matters quite distinct and felt that a mere prohibition preventing women from addressing public meetings would not touch the more serious transgression of female modesty involved in the discarding of the veil. He could not pass over this violent assertion of independence without separate treatment; and while he is treating it, it is not the speaking in public which is before his mind, but the unfeminine assertion of independence and the principle underlying this manifestation.

Besides the direct teaching of this passage on the position of woman, there are inferences to be drawn from it of some importance. First, Paul recognises that the God of nature is the God of grace, and that we may safely argue from the one sphere to the other. “All things are of God.” It is profitable to be recalled to the teaching of nature. It saves us from becoming fantastic in our beliefs, from cherishing fallacious expectations, from false, pharisaic, extravagant conduct.

Again, we are here reminded that every man and woman has to do directly with God, who has no respect of persons. Each soul is independent of all others in its relation to God. Each soul has the capacity of direct connection with God and of thus being raised above all oppression, not only of his fellows, but of all outward things. It is here man finds his true glory. His soul is his own to give it to God. He is dependent on nothing but on God only. Admitting God into his spirit, and believing in the love and rectitude of God, he is armed against all the ills of life, however little he may relish them. To all of us God offers Himself as Friend, Father, Saviour, Life. No man need remain in his sin; none need be content with a poor eternity; no man need go through life trembling or defeated: for God declares Himself on our side, and offers His love to all without respect of persons. We are all on the same footing before Him. God does not admit some freely, while He shrinks from the touch of others. It is as full and rich an inheritance that He puts within the reach of the poorest and most wretched of earth’s inhabitants as He offers to him on whom the eyes of men rest in admiration or in envy. To disbelieve or repudiate this privilege of uniting ourselves to God is in the truest sense to commit spiritual suicide. It is in God we live now; He is with us and in us: and to shut Him out from that inmost consciousness to which none else is admitted is to cut ourselves off, not only from the deepest joy and truest support, but from all in which we can find spiritual life.

Lastly, although there is in Christ an absolute levelling of distinctions, no one being more acceptable to God or nearer to Him because he belongs to a certain race, or rank, or class, yet these distinctions remain and are valid in society. A woman is a woman still though she become a Christian; a subject must honour his king although by becoming a Christian he is himself in one aspect above all authority; a servant will show his Christianity, not by assuming an insolent familiarity with his Christian master, but by treating him with respectful fidelity. The Christian, above all men, needs sober-mindedness to hold the balance level and not allow his Christian rank entirely to outweigh his social position. It forms a great part of our duty to accept our own place without envying others and to do honour to those to whom honour is due.