Does 1 Corinthians 11. 1-16 deal with matters of culture?
Howard Coles, Coleford, England
An overseas enquirer recently wrote in with the following comment, ‘I believe that 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verses 1 to 16 is a cultural passage and is not necessarily relevant to many cultures today’.
In answering this commonly held view on these verses it is worthwhile referring to the four ‘timeless’ things clearly evident in the passage, namely:
- Headship - ‘But 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’, v. 3. What is referred to in this verse is the order of ‘the headships’. The term ‘headship conveys metaphorically the authority, order or pre-eminence in relationship that exists on account, not necessarily of superiority, but of priority in function. As it cannot be other than plainly evident that God is still the head of Christ, this is a timeless statement and not just for the generation to which it was first written. It therefore follows that the rest of the verse must also be timeless. To say otherwise renders it meaningless.
- Creation - ‘For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man’, vv. 8-9. The order of creation cannot be changed, so therefore that which is drawn from this unchangeable order in the creation of the man and the woman must make the truth again something which is timeless and therefore relevant to all ages and cultures.
- Angels - ‘For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels’, v. 10. The question could be asked ‘Did the angels only look down upon the believers gathered at Corinth?’ The answer must surely be that they have continued to observe what is being practised in every local church through the ages to the churches currently functioning in the world today.
- Nature - ‘Doth not even nature itself teach you, that if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?’, v. 14. The Holy Spirit here draws upon the order of ‘nature itself’ so understandably this order cannot possibly be something that was culturally produced. It must then be a timeless thing applicable to every age.
So by these four timeless things we understand that this passage must apply to today as much as it did when first written. It cannot be dismissed as merely ‘cultural’, or ‘geographical’, applying to the saints at Corinth alone. Indeed the statement of verse 16, ‘But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God’, plainly shows that the truth taught, applied to all the local churches then existing and was something the apostle held as a continuing practice for all time.
Clearly there are scriptures where culture is involved and in which we have the option to substitute our own parallel practices in their place. For instance, ‘Greet one another with an holy kiss’, 2 Cor. 13. 12. In the United Kingdom the usual form of greeting between men, is with a handshake and not by kissing. In this scripture then there is no underlying principle of doctrine at stake and we can choose to defer from the practice being taught accepting that it is something that can be taken culturally.
Some would dismiss these verses in 1 Corinthians 11 as being nonfundamental and therefore something that we need not to be too concerned about. However could there be anything more fundamental than our subjection in love to the Lord Jesus and our obedience to His word? These matters have to do with the honour and place that the Lord Jesus has amongst His own people and we cannot just dismiss them as peripheral or of little consequence. What a privilege it is for us as believers today as we gather, to demonstrate that Christ is the Head of the church and so to cover that which is for the glory of man, that His glory alone should be pre-eminent.