Traditions - First Corinthians Chapter Eleven
1 Corinthians 11:1- 34 - The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "Be imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ." Paul wants the Corinthians to imitate the self-sacrificing life-style of Paul, who followed the example set by Jesus, then he offers a word of praise, "Now I praise you, brothers, that you remember me in all things, and hold firm the traditions, even as I delivered them to you."
Traditions are important
While traditions are an important part of the Christian life we must also keep in mind what Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes when they came from Jerusalem and asked Him, "Why do your disciples disobey the tradition of the elders? For they don't wash their hands when they eat bread." He answered them, "Why do you also disobey the commandment of God because of your tradition?" When traditions are contrary to the Word of God they must be set aside. We must never set aside the Word of God because it contradicts traditions.
The word "traditions," literally means, things delivered or passed on that might refer to doctrine, practices, or discipline. Beginning with verse three, Paul explains one of the basic traditional practices of the first century church so that the Corinthians might understand and observe it more willingly, not merely as a traditional custom but as a teaching; Paul begins by commending them for their general willingness to adhere to the traditions he has given them.
1 Corinthians 11:3-4
In verse three Paul sets the foundation for the entire discussion that follows. He indicates that there is a divinely ordained hierarchy, in which Christ is under God the Father, men under Christ, and women under men. Paul expressed a similar hierarchical conception earlier in the epistle, chapter three verses twenty-one through twenty-three, where the teachers are under the authority of the church and the church under the authority of Christ. Paul's point is the authority of the man over the woman is the same as Christ's authority over man.
In verse four Paul addresses the subject of the covering on the head of a man while praying or prophesying. The interpretation of this verse, and of the remainder of the passage, has varied widely among commentators because of their different ideas about Greek and Jewish customs of the time. Contrary to their interpretations, there is not enough evidence in ancient sources to conclude that Paul is advising conformity to Greek customs or Jewish customs, in which women hid their faces in public. He is certainly not advising conformity to Roman customs of his day. However, he is urging the Corinthians to observe an established custom of the Church. Paul established this custom in his Gentile congregations, probably after the example of the Jewish custom, but it was somewhat more liberal in its requirements, that required Christian women to cover their heads, but not their faces.
Although we are not told if this happened, it is possible Paul was told some of the women in the Church had removed their head coverings in some kind of demonstration of sexual equality. If this was the case, then Paul's words in verse six go straight to the root of the problem.
Women's hair grew long
In ancient times the women of all cultures allowed their hair to grow long. Nowhere was short hair the custom for women. Short hair on a woman was a sign of grief or disgrace. Among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, adulterers sometimes had their hair cropped as an extremely humiliating punishment for their crime. Sometimes a Greek woman would cut her hair short as a sign of mourning, after the death of a family member. Another custom of the Greeks, both male and female would cut off a lock of hair and offer it to one of their gods.
The humiliation of cutting off one's hair can be easily documented in the Old Testament Scriptures. When the ancients wished to shame an individual, they would remove some or all of his beard and/or hair (2 Samuel 10:4-5; Isaiah 7:20; 15:2; 50:6). When men wished to symbolize humiliation and defeat, they cut off their own hair (Jeremiah 48:37; Ezekiel 27:31; 29:18; Micah 1:16), anyone who reads the Old Testament would understand that shaving off the hair was a disgrace.
Paul claims, if some women in Corinth were brazen enough to refuse to wear a head covering, let them play out their rebellion and shame to the full. Let them not only pray or prophesy with an uncovered head, let them also cut off all their hair, as a token of defeat and shame. If, on the other hand, a woman recognized that shaving the head was a disgrace, let her also recognize that having an uncovered head was shameful, and so let her cover her head.
Head covering is a symbol
Beginning with verse seven, Paul begins a new argument in which he refers to the head covering as a symbol. He begins by explaining that men and women are like symbols, pointing to the purposes for which God created them. For Paul, the outstanding fact of woman's existence is her subordinate position under the headship of the man; according to Paul, is the inherent symbolism of man and woman, intended by God from the day of creation.
In verse ten, Paul reiterates the necessity of the woman covering her head as a symbol of authority because of the angels. What does a woman's head covering have to do with the angels? Paul does not tell us. What he tells us is, "Nevertheless, neither is the woman independent of the man, nor the man independent of the woman, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, so a man also comes through a woman; but all things are from God."
In these verses, Paul's concern is not when and where a woman can pray or prophesy, but with how she is to pray and prophesy, with her head covered. Do we have problems with why Paul may have employed these terms and referred to these activities? That is understandable because Paul does not explain why he chose these activities because whether or not a woman can pray or prophesy in the church meeting is not his primary concern in this passage. His concern is the covering of the head.
Prayer and Prophesying
Why did Paul pick these two activities, prayer and prophesying when one, prayer, is not a gift, and the other, prophecy, is a gift? We can only speculate. These two activities are not the only things a woman could do, but are the two things a woman should not do, according to Paul, with an uncovered head. Why should a woman cover her head when praying or prophesying? For one thing, prayer and prophecy are functions that both have a strong element of authority.
In both cases, the one who performs these functions is in direct contact with God. In prayer, the one who prays speaks directly to God; the one who prophesies speaks directly from God. If there ever was a time when a woman seemed to be in authority, it would be when she was praying or prophesying. At these times, Paul insists, a woman is acting shamefully if she does not cover her head.
There is one important fact we must not overlook in this matter of wearing or not wearing a head covering. If the Corinthians were to allow their women to remove the head covering, this new practice or custom would go against the established custom of Paul and his fellow-workers, the custom which was observed in all the other churches, and which he has delivered to them as one of the "traditional practices" of the faith (verse 2). A similar appeal is made in chapter fourteen verse thirty-four, "let your wives keep silent in the assemblies, for it has not been permitted for them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as the law also says."
The head covering practice is a matter of apostolic authority and tradition, and not open to debate. Paul's instruction is "hold firm the traditions, even as I delivered them to you" (verse 2).
Traditions in our churches
We have traditions in our church. We have certain things that we do that we have always done. There is nothing wrong with traditions unless they lose their meaning. When our traditions lose their meaning, there is a danger that we might continue in the tradition thinking we are pleasing God. The result is that, instead of moving closer to God, we move further away from Him. This is what happened to the Corinthians, when they came together to worship, they did not come closer to God. They drew further away from Him. Their coming together had the opposite effect the coming together was intended to accomplish, worship the Lord, edify the body, and manifest faith, love, and hope.
The meeting of the church in Corinth was marked with dissension and petty jealousy. At the time when the church should have been united in Christ, just as it should be in these last days, the people were divided. Paul knew there are times when division cannot be avoided. When there is sin in the church, those who are righteous need to separate from those who refused to repent. This separation will result in division. If there is sin in the church and there is no division, then it means that sin is being accepted and condoned within the church. Paul proceeds to describe the Corinthian worship service.
The worship service in the Corinthian church was much different from what Paul expected it to be, the church should come together to pray, sing praises, hear exhortations and teachings, and celebrate the Lord's Supper. This should have been a time of unity and holiness. Instead it was a time of division. This is always a danger when the church comes together.
We need to be reminded
The problem with Christians is not that we do not know enough doctrine. Our problem is not that we have not been to enough Bible studies or listened to enough sermons. The problem with Christians is that we forget. Because we forget, we need to be reminded that God is good and that He has done mighty things for us.
Having described what the Corinthians should have been doing, Paul now proceeds to show the consequences they will incur if they do not start doing it. Like the Corinthians, we need reminded that the God whom we worship is the God of the universe. We need reminded the God whom we worship is not an impersonal force. He is the God who struck down His people for complaining. He is the God of judgment and He is not to be trifled with.
Unworthy manner in the Lord's Supper
In verse twenty-seven, Paul describes what an "unworthy manner" in eating the Lord's Supper is. It is a way that denies the unity of the body. It is eating the Lord's Supper in a way that ignores the meaning of the Supper. It is eating the Lord's Supper while not recognizing that Christ is present. If we partake of the Lord's Supper in a mere ritual manner, counting it as merely another religious activity, we bring judgment upon ourselves. We side with the unbelievers when they say that the death of Christ had no effect.
The dishonoring of the Lord's Supper is not merely the dishonoring of a potluck supper. It is the dishonoring of the Lord Himself. It is saying that Jesus died for no reason. It is making a mockery of the cross. That is dangerous. It is dangerous because God will hold such a man guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Paul tells the Corinthians to take a cold, hard look inside, look at your motives, and your attitude toward the Lord, His table and the other believers around the table. It is by means of such self-examination that you can come to the table in faith and repentance. This will result in the Lord's Table being a time of unity.
In verse thirty, Paul describes the punishment for disobedience. This reference to sleeping is a description of those who have died. There were people who were going through hard times, some who were sick, and some who had even died because of their blatant disrespect for the Lord's Supper.
God wants us to confront our sin and to deal with it. If we will do this on our own, then He will not have to do it for you. If we will correct ourselves in repentance, then He will not have to correct us.
Lord's Supper can be a means of grace
The Lord's Supper can be a means of grace or it can be a means of judgment. Why is this, because it is the gospel in physical form? It is the gospel acted out in a visible manner. You can either partake of the Lord's Supper in faith, or else you can experience the judgment of God.
Note if you will there is a measure of grace amidst the threat of judgment. Paul says that the very fact that you might undergo discipline today is so that you will not undergo condemnation tomorrow. Discipline is God's means of moving you to the cross. God spanks in order to save. His discipline is to drive you to repentance so that you might be saved from His ultimate wrath.
There were other problems in the church in Corinth, but Paul is not going to deal with them here. This tells us something about Paul. He had a sense of priorities. He knew not to make mountains out of molehills when there were still mountains to be conquered. He deals with the major problems now and he leaves the minor problems for later. He does not say he will ignore the minor problems. He will eventually deal with them. Now is not the time.
Lesson to be learned
This is a lesson that we need to learn. We who are older in the Lord often come across an immature believer who has quite a bit that is wrong with him. Instead of recognizing the principle of priorities, we want to straighten everything that is wrong with him right now. Instead of helping him, we overwhelm him and leave him lying dazed in the dust as we go off to help some other poor unsuspecting believer.
We can learn a lesson from Paul's example. He dealt with the major issues and left the minor issues for later. Make certain that you make the main thing the main thing.
Quotes from World English Bible unless noted otherwise