Chapter eleven contains two sections which do not necessarily relate to one another but seem to continue either the list of questions that Paul was answering or some issues that needed clarification and instruction. The first section deals with the propriety of women in church gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), something Paul could “praise” them for. This is a difficult section, which has resulted in a variety of interpretations, but the key is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3, showing that there is a proper order and authority of things. Like the Father is Christ’s functional “head” without any thought of superiority, so man is women’s “head” without insinuating that women are inferior. However (as he will demonstrate again in chapter 14), Paul expected a level of order in the church gatherings. Specifically, this was displayed by the head coverings the women were to wear. One major difficulty is in determining whether these were cultural issues limited to Corinth or the first century or whether they are timeless principles still applicable today. Another question has to do with the nature of the head covering, whether it required an external covering, like a shawl, or if it could refer simply to her hair. The comment “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 has also confounded scholars throughout the centuries, but it may have a connection to Ephesians 2-3, where Paul wrote that the Church is observed by angels to demonstrate God’s wisdom.
Although it is impossible to conclusively resolve the debate here, it seems likely that the issue is connected to the abuse of freedoms the Corinthians displayed in the previous chapters, so Paul was correcting their loose attitudes of respect to their husbands, particularly in their public worship services. If this were simply a cultural issue, then a modern comparison may be a woman taking her husband’s last name rather than keeping her maiden name. 1
The second section is in regard to something that Paul could not “praise” them for, namely, their decorum when they attended their love feasts in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper celebrations (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). He could not praise them because their factions were on full display during these times, rather than the unity in Christ that should have been obvious. One example was that some did not wait for the whole congregation to be present before they began. They would have eaten their fill before others arrived, leaving them hungry.
Paul used this opportunity to remind them of the sacred importance of the celebration, that he received these instructions directly from Christ, and that it is a proclamation of his death on our behalf. In fact, their abuse of this ordinance had caused some of them to become physically ill and others even to die. This is one of at least a half-dozen passages teaching that physical death is a potential judgment on decidedly unrepentant believers. To not fall under God’s judgment, Paul wrote, they (and we) should closely examine themselves before participating in the celebration. He had other things to tell them, as well, that he would hold onto until he arrived.
- I have taught this for several years as a modern application of Paul’s general rule of a wife acknowledging her husband’s “headship,” and Constable seems to consider it one possible application as well. ↩