Speaking Against Myself

For my theology and culture class, we were asked to respond to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, on the issue of women and head coverings. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit, because of my Mennonite background. In some circles “the covering” is still an issue, even today… not so much in the larger denomination (Mennonite Church USA) but certainly in the smaller and more conservative groups. Anyway, here is my essay in response to Paul.
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As I search these verses for meaning for today, in suburban America, I cannot help but look back a few chapters to put this passage in context. Chapter 9 immediately catches my eye. In verse 19 of that chapter, Paul says: “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Then he goes on to warn against idolatry and to encourage the Christians of Corinth to “do everything for the glory of God” (10:31), whether they are eating or drinking or serving or worshipping. In my opinion, the key to interpreting 11:1-16, is actually found in the last verse of chapter 10: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so they may be saved.”

I think Paul’s approach to the issue of women’s head coverings has everything to do with furthering the Gospel in Corinth. Just as he admonishes the Christians to eat whatever food is given to them when they are houseguests of an unbeliever (10:27), not themselves questioning where it came from; he contends that women should not bring disgrace upon themselves by putting away their head coverings (11:6). The meaning in this passage for us today, in general terms, is to examine our social structures and “judge for ourselves” (11:13) what is behavior that will bring offense, and what will nurture relationships that may win converts to Christ. Neither meat offered to idols nor women’s head veilings are issues that we grapple with in suburban America, yet the underlying principal Paul uses to approach these issues is central to following Christ in the here and now. The principal itself is counter-cultural in America—to give up our right to choose for ourselves how we would like to conduct our lives, so that we might not bring offense to anyone; but rather open doors to new relationships with non-believers.

Paul’s deepest passion was to see the Gospel spread and new churches flourishing, and he believed that imitating Christ, the bringer of the Gospel, was the way to do this (11:1). In Paul’s mind, the way to imitate Christ was to lay down his life, lay down his rights, making no claims to his personal freedom. The hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2 seems to shape his Christology and thereby, his life as a disciple of Christ (“he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing… taking on the very nature of a servant/slave…”). Thus, Paul was a first-century man, living in a first-century world, teaching fledgling Christians what it meant to empty themselves and follow the way of Jesus in the nitty-gritty of their daily lives.

This passage has often been used to further arguments for male-only leadership in Christian churches. In verses 7-12, Paul addresses issues of proper lines of authority based on the second Creation account in Genesis 2. What I find interesting is where his interpretations of the second Creation account lead him (and yes, I am being very intentional about saying “the second creation account,” because in the first account both men and women reflect the image of God. Paul is being selective here). The fact that woman was created for man and not man for woman, is not the end of the story. The fact that man was created first and woman created out of man is not the end of the story. The end of the story is that neither men nor women are independent of one another, but that they come from each other and all of them come from God alone. Men and women need each other and depend on each other for different things, which is just as it should be. I do not believe that Paul sees the birth of the Church as an opportunity to push for equal rights for women or for the subservient position of women. Which statements of Paul in this passage concerning women should bear more weight for us? Neither. His point is to do what will bring honor to Christ. Paul views being found ‘in Christ’ as an opportunity for us to lay down our lives in service to one another and to God, not as an opportunity to demand what should rightfully be ours.

I realize that I am a woman at an evangelical seminary, a pastor of worship, a former youth pastor, and someone who often speaks strongly on behalf of egalitarian church leadership. How can I, in good conscience, be saying all of this in my essay? I do have a fairly sensitive justice radar and a hot temper to go along with it. I am not afraid to say what I think most of the time, either. I am an egalitarian. However, I have come to believe that those of us who are passionate about issues of justice and equality must work for those things on behalf of others and not ourselves. If I am fighting for my right to preach, my right to lead or my right to hold authority; then I am not following Christ. And I have difficulty even typing those words. But isn’t that what Paul says over and over in his epistles—serve, love, empty yourself for Christ’s sake, submit, follow in Christ’s footsteps, become a slave in order to win some to Christ? In a freedom-loving, independence-loving, rights-loving society such as ours; these words are tough to swallow. I am called to stand up for the orphan, the widow, the poor, the oppressed; but I am not called to stand up for myself. I am “not seeking my own advantage, but the advantage of many,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32.

1 Corinthians 11 is a step toward self-emptying love. It can be used to argue for culturally specific guidelines for women or for universal guidelines for women. Perhaps the Holy Spirit knew that both patriarchal groups and feminist groups would need the tempering this passage offers. We are not called to be independent of one another, or to lord anything over each other, male or female. We are called to empty ourselves for the other. If that means covering my head, shaving your beard, dressing up when you’d rather dress down, serving coffee when I’d rather be preaching, cleaning toilets when I’d rather be teaching, or for some maybe it means leading when they’d rather be invisible… whatever it means, it should be for Christ’s honor and for the sake of others, not for our own sake.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Loretta
    Mar 26, 2009 @ 09:14:09

    Sister these are some good thoughts. Probably I will need to be reminded of this over and over.

    Reply

  2. Aunt Pam
    Mar 26, 2009 @ 22:17:57

    I like your train of thought on this. Good work!

    Reply

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