1 Corinthians 11:1-34

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With apparent reference to his being willing to forgo his own rights for the good of others, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to become imitators of him, as he was of Christ. In coming to the earth and laying down his life for humankind, the Son of God revealed the greatness of his love for humans, doing so at great cost to himself in order for them to be delivered from the condemnation of sin and to be reconciled to his Father, provided they responded in faith to him and what he had done for them. Jesus Christ did not please himself but chose to follow a course that would result in the greatest good possible for humankind. (11:1)

At this point, Paul directed attention to other matters. He first praised or commended the Corinthians for having remembered him in everything and adhered to the “traditions” he had passed on to them. “Everything” or “all” is here to be understood in a general sense. Basically, the Corinthians had kept Paul’s teaching in mind and had followed the customary ways or procedures for conduct within the community of believers as he had made these known to them. (11:2) Nevertheless, problems had arisen, and Paul either learned about these from members of Chloe’s household (1:11) or from Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17).

The apostle started his corrective admonition with a basic principle regarding headship. He wanted the Corinthians to “know,” recognize, or keep in mind that Christ is the head of every man, that the man is the head of woman, and that God is the head of Christ. If Paul meant to include all men, Christ is their head from the standpoint of his having bought the entire human race with his precious blood. He is the Master, Lord, or Owner, the one whom believing men recognize as their head. In the family, the head is the man, husband, or father. As the Son and the Word through whom the Father made known his will, Christ is subordinate. His Father is the preeminent one or his head. (11:3)

In his own family, the man, husband, or father is not subordinate to or under the authority of another human. As a disciple of God’s Son, a man would be filling his proper role with reference to his spiritual life when praying or prophesying. The prophesying would relate primarily to conveying God’s will to others and not necessarily foretelling future events (which aspect was not the main feature of prophecy). Therefore, in his divinely designated role, a man would “disgrace his head” when covering it while praying or prophesying. Whereas “head” could refer to the man’s own physical head, it is more likely to designate Christ, the one whom Paul had identified as the “head” of the man. (11:4)

In the Greek text of verse 4, there is no word meaning “covering.” The term preceding “head” is the preposition katá, which in this context means “down” and suggests that a covering would be hanging down from the head. Whether the man might cover his head by pulling the upper part of his garment over his head or using a separate piece of cloth is not revealed in the account. If a man were to cover his head, he would be concealing his divinely designated role. By this deliberate act, he would imply that he (either on account of shame or fear) did not want to function in this role and reflect the image of God. As a member of Christ’s body, a believing man would thereby shame Christ as his head. He would be refusing to imitate the Son of God who delights in always reflecting his Father’s image flawlessly.

Paul’s comments about a man are more likely to have been a hypothetical example and not representative of actual cases in the community of believers. This appears to be evident from the fact that the apostle primarily addressed the disregard of established custom by women in the congregation.

“Every woman, however, who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered disgraces her head.” When assuming a role that would be the prerogative of a husband or a father and violating the existing standard of propriety, a woman would be disgracing the man, usurping his place as one who is divinely responsible for manifesting God’s glory or majesty. While it could be said that she would also be bringing shame upon herself or upon her own head, the more likely meaning is that she would be disgracing the man, either the husband or the father. If a woman disrespectfully refused to cover her head as an indication of her rightful place, she might as well have all her hair cut off. (11:5)

“But if,” Paul continued, it would be “disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaved,” then she should cover her head. For women in the first century to have appeared publicly as shorn or shaved would have been unthinkable. They would have been ashamed to do so. Even today most women choose to conceal extensive hair loss or baldness. They are uncomfortable about being seen as bald. Many men, on the other hand, choose to shave off all their hair and have no qualms about their bald appearance. In view of the way in which women commonly regarded their hair, it logically followed that they would cover their heads when praying or prophesying, differentiating themselves from the men who, with uncovered heads, prayed or prophesied. (11:6)

As to why a man should not cover his head and a woman should do so, Paul continued, “The man is God’s image and glory, but the woman [is] man’s glory.” In the family, a husband or father is not subordinate to a human head. He is the head of his household. Accordingly, in this role, he can reflect the image and majesty of God, for the heavenly Father is supreme and in no way subject to anyone else. In the case of a woman, the situation is different. As a member of the household, she has a husband or a father as her head. In her role, the woman is a glory to the man when she conducts herself in the laudable and dignified manner that brings honor to him in the eyes of others. (11:7)

Alluding to the Genesis account (2:18-22) that speaks of God as having purposed for the woman to be man’s helper and having “built” her from man’s rib, the apostle said, “Man is not out of woman, but woman [is] out of man, for also man was not created for woman but woman for man.” (11:8, 9)

Although believing men and women have an equal standing as “sons of God” by reason of their faith in Christ and what he accomplished through his death, this does not invalidate the headship arrangement in the family. Therefore, in the state of their earthly existence, women conduct themselves in a manner that reflects their role as being in a supportive position and not in a preeminent one. “Therefore, the woman should have authority on her head on account of the angels.” (11:10)

If Paul had meant that a woman’s head covering signified that she was under authority, he could have expressed this by specifically saying that she should cover her head to indicate her subjection. Because he did not do so, a possible significance may be that a woman, by covering her head, would show her recognition of her divinely ordained role, and this would authorize her to pray or prophesy in the presence of fellow believers. Instead of representing her as being under authority, the head covering would seemingly serve to show that she was maintaining her proper place as a woman with the authority to pray or prophesy. (11:10)

The Greek word ángelos (“angel”) can designate either a human or a heavenly messenger. So, “on account of the angels” could refer to visiting messengers or representatives from other congregations. By covering their heads, believing Corinthian women would be showing regard for these messengers by acting in harmony with accepted custom when praying or prophesying. They would not be conducting themselves in an offensive manner. If the reference is to heavenly messengers or angels, the main thought could be that women would be showing proper regard for the position of angels. These spirit persons exist on a plane that is higher than that of humans and were created in God’s image. Praying and prophesying would be done in their presence. It would grieve the angels to observe women disregarding their proper role in matters of worship and bringing disgrace to husbands and fathers. (11:10) It appears that some of the women in Corinth had cast off all restraint, perhaps considering their spiritual equality with men as nullifying the God-ordained roles for men and women.

Possibly to avoid giving men the idea that they, in relation to women, were superior in God’s eyes, Paul reminded the community of believers that, “in the Lord,” the woman did not exist “without the man, and the man without the woman.” At one with the Lord Jesus Christ as members of his body, both men and women needed one another for mutual strengthening and encouraging as fellow children of God. (11:11)

Just as believing men and women depend on one another “in the Lord,” the physical existence of men and women is not independent of one another. “The woman [is] out of the man,” for the first woman was “built” from the man’s rib. At the same time, all men owe their existence to women through the birthing process. Accordingly, “man is through woman.” Ultimately, though, “everything is from God.” He is the source of all that exists. (11:12)

Inviting the Corinthians to give consideration to what he has been discussing, Paul continued, “Judge for yourselves, Is it fitting for a woman to pray uncovered to God?” The implied answer, based on what he had already stated, would be, No. (11:13)

Paul, though, added yet another reason, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair it is a glory to her?” “Nature” or the natural sense of propriety “teaches” or makes clear that men wear or have their hair cut in a manner that markedly differs from women. The long hair style typical for women in the first-century Greco-Roman world would have been regarded as disgraceful for a man. The long hair that proved to be a “glory” for a woman—a crowning ornament of beauty—would have been dishonorable for a man. (11:14, 15)

When referring to a woman’s long hair as having been given her instead of a “wraparound,” Paul seems to have meant that a woman’s long hair was God’s gift to her, functioning like a beautiful garment. Custom dictated that this splendid natural covering not to be treated in a manner that would reflect unfavorably on its being a glory to the woman. If she acted contrary to her divinely appointed role, refusing to cover her head when praying or prophesying in the presence of fellow believers, she would detract from the glory or splendor of her long hair. (11:15)

Paul acknowledged that there may have been those who had a different view and would not be persuaded by what he had written. He, though, was unwilling to argue the point, saying “we have no such custom [other than what he had set forth], nor do the congregations of God.” In all the other communities of believers, women who prayed or prophesied did so with covered heads. Therefore, believers in Corinth had no basis for introducing an innovation that Paul could not support and for which not a single precedent existed in any other congregation. (11:16)

The apostle next addressed a more serious problem that had arisen regarding table fellowship and the Lord’s supper. On account of the abuses that had come into existence, Paul could not praise or commend the Corinthians. The situation had deteriorated to the point where their meeting together did more harm than good, for they assembled not for “the better but for the worse.” (11:17)

According to reports that had reached the apostle, divisions existed among the Corinthians when they met as a congregation. Seemingly aware that what one might hear is not as authoritative as firsthand knowledge, he added that, “to an extent,” he believed what he had heard. (11:18)

Based on what he did know, Paul concluded that a divisive party spirit had come into existence and so could say to them, “For there must also be factions among you.” The existence of such factions would reveal who among them were approved or who in their midst did not identify themselves with a particular faction but demonstrated themselves to be exclusively attached to Jesus Christ as Lord. (11:19)

Whenever the Corinthians partook of the Lord’s “supper” (deípnon), their unity as members of Christ’s body and beloved fellow children of God should have been in evidence. This, though, was not the case when they assembled. The existing factions and abuses revealed that they were not eating the Lord’s supper. Their actions were contrary to the purpose for which the Lord Jesus Christ had instituted its observance. (11:20)

The Greek term deípnon designates the main meal of the day and was commonly eaten in the evening. As part of this meal, believers partook of the unleavened bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus’ death and what it accomplished for them. So it appears that the entire meal was regarded as the Lord’s supper.

In connection with this meal, a loveless spirit had developed among the Corinthians. They did not share food with everyone and, in fact, did not wait for all to arrive before beginning to eat. Slaves who had little control over when they might be free to leave to go to someone else’s home would have been among the latecomers. They and other poor members of the congregation would have benefited most from being able to enjoy a meal with fellow believers. Yet, without any regard for those in need or those who were no part of their particular faction, the ones with an abundance of food and drink began to eat their own supper. Possibly to indicate that those who ate their own meals had ample for sharing, Paul referred to one person as being “drunk” while another continued to be hungry. (11:21)

If the ones who ate their own meals were so hungry that they just could not wait for others, they, as Paul reminded them by means of a question, had their own homes in which they could eat and drink. He continued, “Or do you despise the congregation of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” All believers were part of the congregation or community that belonged to God and that had been purchased with the precious blood of his own Son. To treat any fellow believer in a loveless manner would have constituted a contemptuous attitude toward those whom the heavenly Father and his Son deeply loved. For believers to humiliate poor fellow children of God by letting them remain hungry proved to be a horrific violation of Jesus’ command to love as he had loved. Paul must have been deeply troubled by the disturbing reports, prompting him to say, “Shall I praise you? In this, I do not praise [you].” (11:22; see the Notes section.)

The apostle was not responsible for the problems that had developed among the Corinthians. When he was with them, he had imparted to them what he had received from the Lord. On the night Jesus was handed over, “he took a [loaf of] bread, and [upon] giving thanks, broke [it], and said, ‘This is my body for you. Do this for a remembrance of me.’ Likewise [he took] also the cup after the meal, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink, for a remembrance of me.’” (11:23-25)

Paul had not been personally present for this occasion. His reference to receiving the specifics from the Lord suggests that he must have had a direct revelation from Jesus Christ in order to speak authoritatively about the event. The handing over may refer to the betrayal of Judas, which led to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and subsequent execution. (11:23)

During the night Jesus was with the apostles in an upper room in Jerusalem and eating the Passover meal, he used unleavened bread and a cup of wine to institute an observance that all of his disciples were to continue. To distribute the unleavened bread, Jesus broke it after he had said a blessing. (11:24)

The Greek word for “bread” (ártos) is masculine, but the word for “this” (toúto; “this is my body”) is neuter, raising a question about whether the bread is actually being linked to Christ’s body of flesh. (11:24) One explanation for the neuter is that “this” reflects the neuter gender of the word for “body” (sóma). From a strict grammatical standpoint, however, the word for “this” should be masculine to establish a direct relationship of the bread to the fleshly body of God’s Son.

Earlier (in 10:17), Paul spoke of the body as being the community of believers. The corporate “body” of which Christ is the head may also be the main focus of the words, “This is my body.” By surrendering his life, Jesus made it possible for the corporate body of many members to come into existence, and the individual members benefit from this body and its head. In that sense, the “body” could be understood to be “for” the believers. (11:24)

The primary aim of Paul’s letter was to provide corrective admonition rather than an exposition on the precise meaning of Jesus’ words. The apostle’s response to developments among the Corinthians was directed to them as a community of believers or as members of the body of Christ. This provides a basis for concluding that Paul’s references to the “body” mainly relate to the corporate body of believers and not to the fleshly body of Christ.

Other ancient manuscript readings, however, do not support understanding the “body” to be the community of believers. These manuscripts contain an expanded text, “This is my body being broken for you.” It could not be said that the body of believers was broken for the individual members, but the physical body of Christ was “broken” when he died sacrificially. This did result in benefits for his disciples. It made possible their being forgiven of sins and coming into an approved standing with God as his children on the basis of their faith in Christ and what he had accomplished.

The apostles who actually heard Jesus’ words would not have understood that, in some way, a transformation had taken place in the bread itself, for he was in their midst as a human. If, then, the focus is on Jesus’ own body, the neuter “this” (toúto) could signify that what Jesus did in breaking the bread and giving it to the apostles indicated that he would offer his own body for them. Based on what actually resulted when Jesus died sacrificially, one could say that the bread serves to bring to remembrance that he offered his body of flesh and that this brought a body of believers into existence. Jesus’ own body, which he surrendered for the world of mankind, and the corporate body of which he is the head have proved to be for the benefit of believers individually. (Compare Ephesians 4:11-13.) When partaking of the bread, believers do so in remembrance of Jesus, appreciatively acknowledging what he has done for them.

“After the eating [of the meal; deipnéo],” Jesus took the cup, said a blessing, and then passed the cup to the apostles. (Matthew 26:27; Mark 14:23) The word deipnéo is the verb form of the noun deípnon, which designates the main meal of the day. The common view is that after the apostles had finished the Passover meal and eaten the broken pieces of the unleavened bread, Jesus immediately introduced the cup of wine. This, though, is not necessarily the case. The Son of God may have started the actual meal by breaking the bread and handing it to his disciples. This would have followed the pattern of what is known about ancient Jewish custom. The head of the household or the host, before the start of the meal, said a prayer, broke the bread, and then distributed it. Whether this is what Jesus did cannot be determined from the preserved accounts. What is clear, however, is that the partaking of the bread and the wine was linked to a meal, and this continued to be the case when first-century believers met in homes for spiritual fellowship. (11:25)

The cup of wine represented what Jesus would accomplish in putting the new covenant in force on the basis of his shed blood. This “new covenant” is referred to as being “in the blood,” for without the pouring out of Jesus’ blood there would have been no new covenant. His blood proved to be the element that put the new covenant in force and, therefore, in which its benefits resided. The words about the cup confirm that no transformation is to be understood as having taken place in the case of the unleavened bread. The actual cup of wine could not be spoken of as being the new covenant, the validation of which occurred on the basis of Christ’s precious blood. Since the verb “is,” which expresses the relationship of the cup to the new covenant, does not mean actual identification with this covenant, the “is” would likewise not require a transformation of the bread in a manner that would equate it with Christ’s actual physical body. When drinking from the cup of wine, believers would be doing so in remembrance of Jesus. They would be reminded of the fact that, based on what he did for them when shedding his precious blood, they had become fellow sharers in the new covenant, which included being forgiven of sins and participating in all other privileges and blessings this covenant made possible. (11:25)

While some have concluded that Jesus instituted an annual observance because of its association with the annual Passover, Paul’s words to the Corinthians do not support this. The opening word of verse 26 is hosákis, a term common in ancient Greek writings and meaning “whenever,” “as many times as,” and “as often as.” The same word is found in Revelation 11:6, where the reference is to “whenever” the two witnesses chose to use the authority that had been granted to them. (See the Notes section.) Accordingly, whenever the Corinthians assembled and partook of the bread and the wine, they proclaimed the death of their Lord for them. It was a tangible reminder of his death and everything that he accomplished thereby. Paul’s words indicate that believers would continue to make this tangible proclamation of the Lord’s death until he would arrive in glory. His approved followers would then be united to him in changed glorified bodies as had those who immediately preceded them upon rising from the dead. (11:26; compare 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17.)

Those eating of the unleavened loaf and drinking of the cup of the Lord unworthily would make themselves guilty respecting the body and blood of the Lord. The Corinthian believers who failed to show love for their disadvantaged brothers, not waiting for them to share in the meal, did eat unworthily. When excluding fellow believers from participating with them in the table fellowship, they sinned against members of the body of Christ. The Corinthians who acted in a loveless manner made themselves guilty respecting Christ’s blood, for they acted contrary to the purpose for which he died. With his precious blood, all believers had been purchased and cleansed from sin, leading to their having an approved standing as God’s beloved children. For anyone to humiliate fellow believers, treating them as undeserving of love and compassion, constituted a denial of the efficacy of Christ’s blood. Such hateful action made it appear that his blood had not rendered all believers as acceptable members of God’s beloved family. What is done to the members of Christ’s body is done to him as the head. So those guilty of hateful action would have placed themselves in the same position as those who were responsible for Jesus’ death. (11:27)

In view of the seriousness of what had taken place among the Corinthians, they needed to “test,” “prove” or “examine” themselves, determining whether they were in the right condition to partake of the unleavened bread and the wine. The implication is that, if they recognized the error of their ways, they needed to repent and change, asking fellow believers against whom they had sinned for forgiveness. After the self-testing and making sure that they could partake of the Lord’s supper in a worthy manner would it be right for them to “eat of the bread and drink from the cup.” (11:28)

Those who ate and drank without discerning “the body” (“the body of the Lord,” according to other manuscripts) would be eating and drinking judgment against themselves. They would merit condemnation. The words “without discerning the body” could be understood in three basic ways: (1) not differentiating between common food and the bread and the wine used in the observance, (2) not eating with a proper appreciation for what the Lord Jesus Christ did when laying down his life sacrificially, and (3) failing to recognize all believers as part of the body and not treating them as beloved members of that body. The apostle’s focus on the corporate body of believers and the abuses he mentioned suggest that the third meaning is the preferable one. Among the Corinthians, a significant number had failed to discern that all associated were members of Christ’s body and that they were obligated to treat them with the kind of love that Jesus had shown when laying down his life in sacrifice. (11:29)

The loveless spirit certain ones among the Corinthians had shown was spiritually destructive. It also seems to have affected the physical well-being of the congregation, for Paul specifically linked the failure to discern the body with what had happened in their midst. “Therefore, many of you are weak and sick, and a considerable number have fallen asleep.” This suggests that quite a few of the Corinthian believers were physically ill and a disproportionate number had fallen asleep in death. Lack of love is death dealing. (11:30; see the Notes section.)

For the Corinthians to avoid adverse judgment, they needed to examine themselves and take any required corrective action. As Paul continued, “But if we examine ourselves, we will not be judged.” (11:31)

It appears that Paul regarded the weakness, illness, and death as expressions of the Lord’s judgment. Being the congregation’s head, the Lord Jesus Christ does judge its members, and his judgment serves as corrective discipline. (Compare Revelation 2:20-23.) The objective of the Lord’s judgment is so that the members of his body will not experience the severe judgment to come upon the world that is at enmity with his Father. (11:32)

Although there were those in Corinth who had transgressed, Paul did not reject them but addressed them as “my brothers,” acknowledging them as part of his beloved family of God’s children. He urged them to end the past abuses, waiting for one another before they began to eat. (11:33)

If any in their midst were so hungry that they could not wait until all arrived, they should eat at home. Then, when they came together as a congregation to eat a meal and to partake of the unleavened bread and the wine, they would not be doing so in a manner that would merit the Lord’s unfavorable judgment. Their united fellowship at one table would reflect love and consideration for all and a deep appreciation for what Lord Jesus Christ had done for them. (11:34)

There were other matters that needed to be given attention, but Paul did not consider it essential to address them in this letter. He planned to deal with them personally during his next visit in Corinth. (11:34)

Notes:

The concluding part of 1 Corinthians 11:22 can be punctuated differently. “Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise [you].”

The early controversies involving Nisan 14 were not about whether there should be an annual observance of the Lord’s supper but when the fasting prior to the period linked to Jesus’ death should end. According to the Eusebius (c. 263 to c. 339 CE), Victor, the head of the church in Rome, made an issue of trying to enforce Sunday as the official day for ending the fast. This was in the second century. The “bishops” in Asia, with Polycrates taking the leading position, resisted. Eusebius wrote about the two positions (Ecclesiastical History, V, 23 [translated by G. A. Williamson]): “All the Asian dioceses thought that in accordance with ancient tradition they ought to observe the fourteenth day of the lunar month as the beginning of the Paschal festival — the day on which the Jews had been commanded to sacrifice the lamb: on that day, no matter which day of the week it might be, they must without fail bring the fast to an end. But nowhere else in the world was it customary to arrange their celebrations in that way: in accordance with apostolic tradition, they preserved the view which still prevails, that it was improper to end the fast on any day other than that of our Saviour’s resurrection.”

Humans tend to be traditionalists. This also weighs against the view that an established annual celebration, an anniversary, would in the course of time change to an observance that is repeated throughout the year. Traditionally, anniversaries remain fixed as anniversaries. Moreover, the fact that Paul did not consider it necessary to address other problems until he actually visited Corinth but did feel compelled to deal with the abuses that had arisen regarding the Lord’s supper points to a comparatively frequent practice. The abuses that arose within a comparatively short time after Paul left Corinth provide additional evidence about the unlikelihood of this being an annual event.

Some have thought that the words in 1 Corinthians 11:30 refer to spiritual weakness, illness, and sleep or death. This seems less likely, for spiritual states cannot be differentiated with the kind of specific terms that relate to physical conditions.