Genesis (Study 14)—Head Coverings? Really? (Gen 2:18–25 / 1 Corinthians 11:2–16)

09/25/2022 10:07

We have talked about Paul’s instruction to husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. We have also discussed Paul’s point in saying (in Eph 5:26) that the husband is not charged with making his wife holy or cleansing her by the Word or atoning for her in any way. Husbands can’t do that. Only Christ could. That’s why he came. But if that’s not what Paul is telling husbands, why did he say that? Why did he, in verses 25 to 26, bring up the fact that husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, precisely to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word? What is Paul’s point? 

Put the first part of verse 25 away for a moment, and let’s concentrate solely on Paul’s example of Christ. Christ loved the church by giving himself for her. Of course, he did this to atone for her. That was his goal—atonement. But notice the activity. The metaphor given is cleansing by washing. The idea of washing is that Christ’s atonement removed sin from our physical essence just as we wash dirt from our bodies. 

Remember we are spirit and body. Through God’s revelation, we recognize our sin and pray in faith for forgiveness. God then forgives and our spirits can be freed from their guilt. But the whole process is not completed because we live in this cursed flesh which continually fights against love relationship. Our bodies must be cleansed, and that is what the work of the cross was for—redemption, the restoration of the physical essence so that we in our whole beings may be one with God.

That idea, in fact, is what is behind Hebrews 4:12 where we’re told that the word of God is like a “double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” The division mentioned is not between soul and spirit, just like the division is not between the joints and the marrow. (If it were, a better expression would have been the separation of bone and marrow.) Soul and spirit are unseen matters of the individual person. Joints and marrow are the seen, fleshly, physical essence of the body. So the verse speaks of the two-edged sword that pierces through to the dividing of (or consideration for both) spirit and body.

Returning to Ephesians we find Christ’s atoning work as cleansing the body, obtaining redemption. And that, then, is the thrust of the husband’s concern for his wife—the attending care (by the head) for the more vulnerable in body (the wife) just as Christ in attending care (as the head) gave himself for our benefit (the vulnerable in body).

And Paul doesn’t just leave it there. To make sure you get the point, he goes on in verses 28b through 30 to say, “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, since we are members of His body.” Providing and caring is exactly what the attender—the head—is supposed to do. So Paul ensures understanding that we’re not talking about authority or some other idea here. It is giving of yourself to those who are more vulnerable, just as Christ did for us. It is the transformation of the world in Christ’s kingdom. The world erects a hierarchical system for selfish control. In Christ’s kingdom, we all submit, each one to the other for the sake of our eternal love relationship.

Paul then returns us to Genesis in that perfect state before the fall: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” It is a oneness of unity and care. This is love.

Of course, that sexual intimacy spoken of in Genesis—that image of abilities and vulnerabilities uniting for complete fullness—pictures the human-to-human relationship as well as the God-to-human relationship (as the oneness mentioned in John 17:21 reveals). Paul knows that the image in sexual intimacy also pictures the triune God. In fact, a brief summary of what the marriage union images is shown in this chart:


Relationship Imagery of Marriage Union

1.     Images the Trinity (relationship of the Godhead)

2.     Images the attender with the vulnerable


—Relationship of God with humankind


—Relationship of Christ with the church


—Relationship of Christians with Christians



Paul’s point, then, is that the profundity of the marriage union picture can image many relationships, but he is talking about the relationship of Christ with the church because that perfect example of attender to the vulnerable (of which the marriage union is a picture) is what he is getting at to show the Jews and Gentiles how to get along in the church. That’s why he says, “This mystery is profound [it has more imagery detail], but I am talking about Christ and the church.” Paul limits his discussion to the picture of ability to vulnerability.

Paul wraps it up in verse 33 with a summary of his example of the picture of the marriage union. The application, however, is to the church at large (Jews and Gentiles). That greater application (the summary of which is in 5:19 through 25) could be paraphrased like this: So, then, Jews and Gentiles, actually all of you who belong to Christ, be filled by the Spirit, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ—wives to your husbands, just as the church to the Lord, and husbands, love your wives as the Lord loved the church.

There is no hint of hierarchy or authority in the husband-wife example of Ephesians 5. If there were, it would destroy Paul’s whole message to the Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s argument to them was that they should NOT presume authority over each other but give themselves to each other. That’s why Paul brought up the illustration of the marriage relationship. It should be an example of a relationship that submits to each other, giving of their abilities to the other’s vulnerabilities. 


Now, we move to the more complicated discussion of 1 Corinthians 11:2–16. I don’t know of any commentary that doesn’t somewhere in this discussion make mention of its difficulty. However, I believe the degree of its seemingly convoluted discussion is due mostly to translational manipulations to try to make the text say something Paul never intended.

Let’s begin by looking at Paul’s introduction to this discussion in verses 2 and 3. In verse 2, Paul commends the Corinthian Christians for sincerely trying to do what he has taught them. This verse is the only place in this epistle where Paul is actually commending them. The letter is full of correctives to their wrong thinking, and that means Paul may have been being a little sarcastic here. However, I don’t think it is pure sarcasm. His reversal in telling them what he doesn’t commend in the next passage (starting in 11:17) seems to favor the fact that Paul is being sincere in his commendation. Still though, I don’t think Paul was prompted to commend them simply because he was overwhelmed with their Corinthians’ earnest response to follow well. 

Paul is also giving this commendation as someone who wants to say something nice first because a corrective still needs to be made. He is saying, “I know you are really trying, BUT here’s how you’re messing up.” We get that impression not only from the “but” that starts verse 3 but also from its first phrase: “But I want you to know. . . .” This phrase means that Paul has already told them something about which he is now having to go back to correct their thinking. They had not understood some principle or example or some basic knowledge he had taught them, and that has led them to act contrary to Paul’s intent. We see the same phrase at the beginning of both chapter 10 and (with slight alteration) chapter 12. In those other examples, we find Paul bringing up examples or prior teaching that have been ignored or misapplied in some way regarding some practices the Corinthians were doing.

Paul goes on then in verse 3 to lay out the teaching or principle he had given them before: “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Of course, if we ignore the rest of the New Testament, we can assume Paul is talking about authority here. But again, ignoring the rest of the Bible (for example, the passage we just concluded in Ephesians) is not really helpful if we’re interested in truth. What we found is that when Paul speaks of head in relation to the church, he is showing attender-to-more-vulnerable imagery. 

Now, the three relationships mentioned here in verse 3 should remind us a little of our chart discussed in Ephesians 5. There we saw three similar relationships: relationship of Christ with the church, relationship of Christians (humans) with Christians (humans), and relationship of God with humans (perfect humans). Although the three relationships mentioned in 11:3 have some designations of more specificity, they are really categorically the same thing. When we are talking about Christ and other men, we are still talking categorically of Christ in relation to the church. When we speak of males and females, we are still speaking categorically of humans with humans. And when we speak of God and Christ, we are talking about God and perfect humanity. And in each we have relationships of attenders to those who are more vulnerable: Christ the attender to vulnerable men; men the attenders (structurally) to vulnerable women; and God the attender to the vulnerable Christ.

I believe Paul lists the relationships in this order for instructional purpose. The three relationships form a chiasmus of sorts, as follows.

—Christ the head of men

——Men the head of women (structurally)

—God the head of Christ

The outer tiers involve Christ, the unique God-Man. In those relationships, we see Christ act in both aspects of the attender-to-more-vulnerable imagery—first as attender and second as the vulnerable one. The middle of the chiasmus emphasizes the strictly human to human relationship, and it does so by highlighting the marital imagery of the husband’s ability and the wife’s vulnerability in structural concern. That emphasis is shown here because it is this aspect in which the Corinthians were failing.

That then, is Paul’s introduction, giving notice of the principle regarding the specific practice he will next comment on. 

Now, I’ve mentioned that the passage is confusing. It seems to promote opposing positions to what Paul has said elsewhere, to what others have taught elsewhere in the NT, and even in contradiction to itself within this one passage. The usual method flailing interpreters use to resolve these contradictions is to build tinker toy reasoning from one point to another, leaving the whole argument unstable and unsatisfying. It also tends to make translators (who have decided on their own tinker-toy interpretations) to take a few liberties with the text to ensure their readers read versions that coincide with their interpretations. That is not a good thing.

One thing that may help us avoid such confusion is to recognize something from the very start. This whole letter is corrective to Corinthian errors. Paul had spent a year and a half building the Corinthian church on his second missionary journey. As he writes this letter, he is in his third missionary journey stationed in Ephesus for a few years. So, he is at least a year or two or three from his in-person interaction with the Corinthians. So how does he know what to write? How did he know they needed correction? Well, we get hints from the text itself.

In the first part of the letter (chapters 1–6), Paul appears to be responding to things he’s heard—reports from other people either writing letters or traveling to Ephesus. But the second part of the letter (beginning in chapter 7), Paul begins to address specific questions and practices that the Corinthians themselves had told (or asked) him in a letter sent from the church itself. Chapter 7:1 begins: “Now in response to the matters you wrote about.” And most translations, at that point, insert quotation marks to indicate that Paul is quoting from their letter. Remember, the Greek scroll from which the translations come had no punctuation—no quotation marks, no periods, no question marks, really very little help in making these manuscripts easily understood. Manuscript compilers and translators have helped by inserting these quotation marks based on the inferences from the text itself. And that is a good thing. I wholly agree that Paul is quoting from the church’s letter in 7:1. And we find that in other spots as well. In 8:1, Paul quotes from the letter (again most compilers and translators agree as evident by their insertion of quotation marks). In 10:23, Paul again quotes. So we ought to bear this in mind as we read any part of this second half of the 1 Corinthians letter.

Are there quoted parts in our passage of chapter 11? Well, possibly. Since we do have seemingly opposing views being both spoken of favorably in this one passage, it seems that one way to make sense of that contradiction is to understand that the Corinthians were proposing one position while Paul was countering with another; we just don’t have the quotation marks. But which view is the church’s and which is Paul’s.

In passages involving sides of an issue in which right and wrong positions are being argued and determined, there is a neat little trick to help discern the flow. We can fast forward to the end and review how Paul concludes the issue. His conclusion would most likely be his view. Armed with that conclusion, we can return to the beginning to notice how Paul built his argument toward that conclusion.

Now, we know the middle portion of the passage discusses the custom of women wearing head coverings—veils or some kind of clothing material that would cover their heads. Someone appears to be in favor of the custom; someone is not. So that is the issue about which we’re hoping to discover Paul’s mind.