Tear Down this Wall?

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret, particularly in light of our contemporary views about women and their roles in the Christian assembly.  Many interpreters simply ignore this passage; it is not even included in the Daily Office lectionary.  There is some evidence to suggest that 11:3-16 is an interpolation, i.e., Paul may not have authored this passage; an editor may have inserted it so that the letter could be applied to a different situation.  On one level, this hypothesis makes sense: this passage does not fit well into the sweep of Paul’s argument.  Throughout chapter 10, Paul discussed “eating and drinking” at length, using the Lord’s Supper as an example in several cases.  The logical “next step” in Paul’s argument would be his discussion of the Lord’s Supper itself, which begins in 11:17.  In other words, the protracted discussion about a woman’s role in worship feels somewhat out of place.  Also, Paul does not use “headship” language very frequently (i.e., Christ is the head of the man, God is the head of Christ), and its use in this chapter seems contrary to the point that he makes in chapter 12: we are all part of Christ’s body.  The argument of this passage, in other words, does not fit neatly into the broader argument that Paul makes throughout 1 Corinthians.

Even though its authenticity may be doubtful, it is important for us to deal with this passage, since it is part of the Scriptural canon.  This passage is less about female subordination and more about upholding the appropriateness of gender distinctions.  Evidently, one of the cultural assumptions in the early Church was that women would cover their heads during worship.  Though this is a fundamentally patriarchal assumption, notice that the author of this passage endorses the right and ability of women to prophesy and pray during worship; they should, however, do so with their heads covered.  Paul likens a woman removing her head covering in worship to a woman shaving her head; he regards this as something that, in this cultural context, will bring shame upon the woman and her community.  The next few verses articulate a very patriarchal order to creation: 1) man is the reflection of God, but woman is the reflection of man, 2) man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man (both of these reference Genesis 2:20-24). Though these references appear to denigrate the status of women, this passage also emphasizes the interdependence of men and women.  In spite of its assumption that woman was created for the sake of a man (11:9), this passage is careful to stress that “woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman” (11:11).  The next verse recalls Paul’s argument at the end of chapter 3: “just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”  Ultimately, it is God who is the giver and source of all things, and not everyone who comes from God is supposed to be identical.  Though the Christ event has made it so that the distinctions that historically divided humanity (Jew/Greek, male/female) no longer matter, the death of Jesus Christ has not erased these boundaries completely.  There are still differences between men and women, and it is appropriate to acknowledge these differences.  Diversity of gender, ethnicity, and spiritual gifts (more on that in a few days), in other words, is not a bad thing within the Christian community.

“When God draws lines, they are pure lines, without breadth and consequently invisible to mortal eyes, not walls of separation such as many Christians are fond of constructing.” — George MacDonald

This is, undoubtedly, one of the more difficult passages for modern readers of 1 Corinthians.  It makes some fairly uncomfortable assumptions about women and the role that they should play in the Christian community.  This passage, however, highlights an important point that Paul has made throughout the letter and will elaborate on in the next chapter.  If everyone comes from and belongs to God, as Paul affirms at the end of chapter 3, then it stands to reason that everyone should behave identically.  One might imagine that everyone who “belongs to Christ” should worship and dress similarly, hold the same theological opinions, and be endowed with the same spiritual gifts.  This passage demonstrates that this position is ludicrous.  Christ did not come to make us all the same, but to bring us into unity with God an one another while maintaining our distinctiveness.  We saw this in chapter 8, where Paul castigates the “strong” for expecting the “weak” to have the same understanding of Christian freedom.  We saw this in our passage for the day, where the Corinthians are chided for trying to erase the natural distinctions between men and women.  And we will see this when we discuss the next chapter of the letter, where Paul notes that there are a variety of spiritual gifts.  Though this passage contains some views on the role and appearance of women that are inconsistent with our 21st-century worldview, the overall point is that the distinctions between men and women are not destructive, but should be celebrated.

In the Church, we often get caught up in our differences.  We identify ourselves as conservative or liberal, free church or liturgical, fundamentalist or form-critical, Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical, and a whole host of other polarities.  Occasionally, in our effort to emphasize our unity, we downplay the differences between us as if they don’t matter.  We try to find common ground, but this invariably devolves into seeking the least common denominator.  We sacrifice substantive difference for a kind of bland and bloodless uniformity, and our community suffers accordingly.  George MacDonald, however, reminds us that it is not our differences that cause strife in the community, but the walls that we erect.  We are meant to tear down these walls, not so that we can all become the same, but so that we can learn from our differences and experience each other in a profound and meaningful way.  Embracing diversity in the Church is about acknowledging  the reality of our differences and simultaneously concentrating on the centrality of Christ in our life together.

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