Authority and Submission in God’s Design

As we continue to make our way through Paul’s letter to the church of Christ in Corinth, we’re turning another corner. Paul has just finished addressing problems and abuses related to the pagan temples, and related participation in the wicked ceremonies.

Now, Paul is changing his aim. In the coming chapters of this book, Paul will address specific problems found within the Corinthian church. In 11:2-16, Paul addresses concerns related to authority and submission within the church, followed by the abuses of the Lord’s table found in verse 17 through the end of the chapter. And then in Chapters 12-14 he teaches on the spiritual gifts, which weren’t being handled in a proper way in Corinth, and so were divisive, rather than unifying and edifying to the body, as they are intended to be.

 That’s where we’re headed. Let’s start by reading our text, and then we’ll look at just verses 2-3 tonight. 1 Corinthians 11, starting in verse 2:

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is her man,[b]and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a woman to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.[d] 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

Let’s begin by looking at verse 2 and see the commendations given. The commendations given:

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.

Paul begins this section with the word “Now,” indicating a transition in the text. If you will remember all the way back to chapter 7, Paul has been working through questions that had been sent to him by the Corinthian believers. Chapter 7 verse 1: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.”

And then he works his way systematically through their specific questions, starting with questions related to gender and sexuality. In Chapter 7 verse 8 he speaks directly “to the unmarried and the widows.” Then in verse 10: “to the married I give this charge,” then in verse 12 he addresses everybody else.

Later in chapter 8 he says, “now concerning food offered to idols.” There was apparently some controversy related to the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods, and so they asked Paul, “what about it?” and he answered.

And now in Chapter 11, we’re moving on to Paul’s answer to their next question about authority and submission, specifically as symbolized through the wearing of head coverings by women. But before Paul gets into specifics, he begins by commending the Corinthian believers.

First, he commends them for remembering, and then second, he commends them for maintaining. Remembering and maintaining.

Specifically, he commends them for remembering him, Paul. Paul seeks to encourage them for remembering him and reaching out to him for insight and wisdom. If you’ll remember, Paul has a long history with the Corinthian church, which we can read about in Acts 18. If you’d like you can turn there, and we can get a little glimpse into the ministry of Paul in Corinth. Acts chapter 18.

We can look a Acts 18, starting in verse 5, where Paul goes to the Jews, who then reject him, and so Paul goes on to the gentiles and, in starting in verse 5:

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue.Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” 11 And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

So Paul was run out of the synagogue by the unbelieving Jews, he goes next door to the gentiles, and many Corinthians came to faith, launching the start of this young church. And Paul stayed there and labored. He stayed for a year and a half, patiently preaching and teaching, unfolding the mysteries of God to them, nurturing them. He was like a nursing mother to them, the scriptures say, giving them the food needful for them at their stage of maturity.

And so back in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul commends the congregation for remembering that, and for reaching back out to their spiritual father for wisdom when they needed it. And there’s a bit of wisdom there for us too.

How often are we tempted to look at those who have nurtured us, and fail to remember them? How often might we look at those who have labored over us, who have prayed for us, who have fed us and clothed us and protected us, and neglected to remain thankful for them, honoring them for their work and sacrifice.

We see this perhaps most clearly in the home, where young people are tempted to underappreciate the diligence of their parents, and ignore the wisdom from those who brought them into this world. We can disdain their wishes, ignore their warnings, and thereby neglect the truth that has been given to us, to our down detriment, pridefully choosing to reject the good gifts that have been shown to us.

But we should also note that this temptation occurs in churches too. Pastors and deacons and Sunday school teachers, who perhaps have labored to feed your soul for years, can be rejected and forgotten over the smallest little things.

But the Corinthians don’t do that. They remember Paul, and reach out to their spiritual father whom the Lord had used to bring them into spiritual life. And so Paul commends them for remembering.

But he also commends them for maintaining. He commends them specifically for maintaining the teachings that Paul had given them. Your translation might also say “traditions.” These are the body of teaching that Paul had given them while he was among them. It’s similar to what he says in 2 Thessalonians 2, where he encouraged that church to, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

And I don’t think we have to sit back and wonder what these traditions or teaching are. It’s not some sort of secret wisdom or knowledge that has been lost in the dusty history of some bygone era. We don’t have to wonder what kinds of things Paul might have preached and taught about. He taught them and others, and he wrote it down.

For example, look down at 1 Corinthians 11:23, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you.” Specifically related to the Lord’s supper, to one of the two sacraments of the church, Paul was clear. He told them what to do. He had faithfully passed one what he had received form the Lord, as a man who had been specifically called and appointed as an inspired apostle.

Similarly, in chapter 15 of this letter, Paul says this: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received,” Paul was faithful to pass on that which was given to him. And what was it that was so important for him to pass on? It was the Gospel:

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”

Paul was faithful to pass on a deposit of faith, particularly containing the gospel of Christ, a Christ who had died a substitutionary death for sinners, and who was raised on the third day that they might be saved.

This is the core and foundation of any Christian church: the gospel. The right preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments are the pillars, the marks of a valid church, and Paul was faithful to pass those things along, and the Corinthian believers were commended by him for maintaining those teachings.

It is an example worthy of our reflection. How faithful are we in maintaining these truths? Pastor Jordan exhorted us just a few weeks ago to guard the good deposit of faith that had been given to us. Are we faithful to do that? Are we keeping a close eye on our doctrine and practice, making sure it conforms to that which has been written down for us in the word?

And as a church, are we faithful to maintain these teachings about a pure gospel and the right use of baptism and the Lord’s supper? And are we faithful, not merely to profess the truth, but to labor to ensure it is faithfully passed on? Paul exhorted Timothy to find faithful men and pass on the truth that he had heard. We must do the same. We should labor to see that this baton of faithful teaching is passed on to the next generation as well.

Are we willing to pray for the purity of the teaching within our church, willing to teach others, as the gifting and occasion arises, faithful to speak words of truth to our brothers and sisters around us, to encourage and exhort to persevere amidst trial, to help shoulder burdens, and point one another back to Jesus, and so fulfill the law of Christ?

Are we marked by faithfulness, like Eunice and Lois, who were commended by Paul in 2 Timothy 1 for dutifully passing on the truth of God to young Timothy?

Paul knows, and we have probably all seen, that a church’s faithfulness is something that has to be actively conserved, purposely maintained. Every church, and every believer, will naturally drift without faithfulness and intentionality to maintain right doctrine and practice.

And so, are we faithful to the inherited tradition, to the inspired teachings found in the word? Would we be examples worthy of commendation, like the Corinthians? It’s worthy of our reflection, because yesterday’s faithfulness is no proof of tomorrow’s fidelity.

Now, I think that’s clear enough. Let’s move on.

Paul commends them for maintaining the truth, and then in verse 3 reminds them of some foundation truths which will undergird his specific, practical exhortations to come. And his foundational truths here have to do with authority and submission.

It is quite interesting how relevant this passage is, as it concerns such a hot button issue. Our current culture in America militates against many forms of authority, and the word submission is almost never used in a positive way.

Feminist ideas have so permeated the society that many of us were kind of cringing as I even read the words of this passage. To merely read these words in a public worship service would be borderline illegal in some places in North America. To imply that a woman might have any sort of subordinate role is just insulting, and viewed as hate speech.

But there is nothing new under the sun, and the same issues that believers dealt with in Corinth 2000 years ago are still with us today. And, thankfully for us, while the grass may wither and the flowers fade, God’s word stands forever.

So What was the main issue in Corinth? Why did this come up? And is it still an issue today? There was, apparently in Corinth, some disagreement over the specific issue related to head coverings.  Whether the women in the congregation were to wear some kind of covering over their head during the worship service. That was the question.

But behind the question is the larger issue of authority and submission. And I think that everything else in this passage is downstream of that issue. That is, I’ve divided up this passage in this sermon and the next in this way: we will cover merely 2 verses tonight and spend the reminder of our time thinking about authority and submission, and then next week, Lord willing, we will cover the rest of this section.

And I did that because if you aren’t aligned with what Paul says about authority in verse 3, then of course you’re not going to like what he says about the SIGN of authority later on, whether it is some sort of covering, a hat, or a hairstyle. So we really need to be clear about the fundamentals, the authority structures that God has created, if we are ever going to get anywhere in discussing the SIGNS of authority and submission later on. So let’s look at verse 3 in more detail.

Paul says: But I want you to understand, or we might say, “I would have you to know.” This is Paul putting on a serious voice. He’s saying heads up, this is important. It is crucial for you to know what I am about to tell you. And what is that truth:

that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife[a] is her husband,[b]and the head of Christ is God.

If you have spent any time studying this passage, you will know that oceans of ink have been spilled over what “Head” means. It is the Greek word Kephale, and scholars argue about it a lot. Specifically, does head mean “Source”, like a spring might be called the headwaters of a river, or does kephale mean “authority.” Source or authority?

Some want to argue that it simply means source, and not authority. Man is the source of woman, like Eve came from Adam’s rib. And therefore, the argument goes, shared source means equality in every way, and therefore, that allows us to maintain both our allegiance to the scriptures, but also retain some respectability in the eyes of the world. We can say that we believe the bible, but also that we don’t believe in all that submission stuff.

But is that what does head means? Is it Source or authority? I wanted to find out for myself, so I dug through the New Testament and found all 75 uses of kephale. Most of them refer to someone’s actual physical head. Jesus’s head was anointed, or Jezebel called for John the Baptist’s head, or God knows the number of hairs on your head. Verses like that.

Another smaller set of the uses of kephale does indeed indicate source, at least in some measure. Interestingly, 5 of the 75 uses are found in the phrase, “the stone that the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone,” with cornerstone being kephale. That seems to indicate, at least in part, head as source.

But, in the remaining uses of kephale, the word indicates head more as authority. And significantly, these verses also are dealing directly with relations between different parties, and issues of authority and submission.

Verses like in Ephesians 5:22: “22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

Head is clearly here used in terms of authority. Wives submit to husbands just like the church submits to Christ.

You might say, well ok, but what about Colossians 1:18? Doesn’t that indicate “head” as source? Well it might be read that way at first:

Colossians 1:18: “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” It sounds like source is the emphasis. However, if you read further in the passage, Paul makes the meaning of head more clear.

Colossians 2:10: “you have been filled in him [Christ], who is the head of all rule and authority.” There we go, any idea that Kephale ONLY means source in Colossians 1, and not authority, is clearly thrown out.

So, after examining Kephale, it seems to me to indicate authority when speaking of relational dynamics, at least in Paul’s usage. We could spend days discussing the use of Kephale in the wider Greek literature and culture, but how Paul uses the word is my main concern, and Paul indicates authority.

Additionally, if you make kephale mean source here, I think the analogy breaks down for Paul. In what way did Christ become the source of every man? In what way am I the source for my wife? In what way is God the source of Christ? The father is the eternal source for the Son, but God did not give birth to the man Christ Jesus.

To gut Kephale of any sense of authority makes you have to contort this text, and you have to do interpretive gymnastics to make sense of other places like Ephesians 5. Better to retain the traditional interpretation of Kephale as including a clear sense of authority here.

So back to our verse, we can take it one step at a time. Notice in Paul’s language the universality: that the head of every man is Christ. This is a foundation, fundamental aspect of creation that is built into the very fabric of our nature. It’s not merely believers who have Christ as their head, unbelievers do to. He is their Lord.

“All authority has been given to me over heaven and Earth,” Jesus said after his resurrection. All things have been put in subjection under his feet (Hebrews 2:8). Unbelievers may not now recognize him as such, but scripture does teach that one day, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.

Christ’s Lordship ought to be most clearly affirmed and respected among believers though. In the church, Christ’s lordship is demonstrated in countless ways. From the way we end our prayers, in Jesus name, to the fact that we center all of our practice and doctrine upon the word of God, to the way we restrict the office of pastor and deacon to men as Christ ordained, to the way we recognize Christ as the only true Lord over our consciences, as our confession states.

Those that recognize and submit to Christ’s headship are the ones who make up the church, and those to refuse to submit to Christ’s headship are the world.

As a side note, it is not possible to be under NO authority. Ironically enough, the way that God has made the world is that to fail to submit to His authority is to submit yourself to Satan’s authority. You can’t serve two masters, the bible teaches, but you will certainly serve one. And if God will not be your master, then you are blinded by the god of this age, the prince of the power of the air, and you are a sinner just like your father, the devil. Don’t be deceived to think that you’re able to operate independently. You will take your cues from your head, and you will necessarily get your leadership from someone. Choose wisely.

Next, Paul says that the head of woman is man, or some translations say that the head of a wife is her husband. I think that the former translation is superior, though it is undoubtedly true that the principle applies to husbands and wives. This is the principle of authority and submission that is written into the fabric of our natures.

Men are made to be the protectors and leaders and women are made to be helpers. That’s how God has made things to operate. That’s how God has made the church to operate. Godly men are called to lead. How this principle works itself out in situations outside of the church takes great wisdom and care, and I wouldn’t be able to address all that from the pulpit, but I think the general principle is clear, and for our good.

Christian feminists want to take passages like Galatians 3:28 which says there is neither male nor female in Christ, and try to disprove the idea of authority and submission between man and woman, even in marriage.[1] But to do that is to distort what Paul is saying, both in Galatians and here in 1 Corinthians.

Paul makes it very clear that in terms of salvation, everyone is welcome, both men and women. In terms of dignity, value, being made in the image of God, men and women are equal. Let us make man in our image, male and female he created them both. Men are not inherently superior and women are not inherently inferior.

And yet, even with equality of being, God has designed for there to be differentiation in roles. We see in Genesis 1 & 2, Man was created first, and woman second, the sequencing of which Paul attaches special significance to in 1 Timothy 2. Man was given the task of naming the animals and subduing and having dominion. He was the leader, the protector, the provider.

Woman, while equal in dignity, was created for a different role. She was made to help man. She is a helper fit for him. A helpmate appropriate to man, to complement him, and together man and woman were to be fruitful and multiply and be faithful to the commission that God had given them.

And that same pattern is in place after the fall. Man is the leader, and woman the helper. That’s the natural order: equality of being, diversity of roles.

And this doesn’t change based on gifting and ability. Some women might be better natural leaders, better communicators, or smarter, but they are still called to be helpers.

The same is true in the church. There may be women in the church who are incredible theologians and wonderfully gifted teachers, but God has ordered his church so that men are to be the elders and deacons. It’s consistent with the very nature of things, and with the pattern of God’s creation plan itself.

But what is this headship to look like? Well, in places like Ephesians 5, Paul is very clear that a man’s leadership ought to look like his head’s, who is Christ. That is, if you’re a man, then very simply you ought to be behaving like Jesus. Your standard as a husband, as a father, as a boss, as a pastor or deacon, is for people to look at you and think, “man, that guy is just like my savior.”

That’s a high standard. That means there can be no domineering. Man isn’t to be heavy-handed, or harsh. No selfishness. No severity, no cruelty. You’re called to be like our savior, who was meek, lowly, tender and compassionate. He came to give his life in service rather than seeking to be served. In fact, the bar for a husband is to do whatever it takes, to give at whatever the cost, up to and including his own life, because that is what Jesus did for his bride.

But we don’t often do that, do we, men? We like to be served, rather than to serve. We like our wives to serve us, to gratify our desires, rather than help us fulfill Christ’s commission. We too often are badly tempered, quick to anger, as Paul highlights in the first part of 1 Timothy 2, right before he speaks to the women.

We can be harsh with our words and actions, quarrelsome, domineering, rather than tender.

Praise be to God that Christ was not that way, and is not that way. Christ didn’t demean and belittle his disciples. He wasn’t quick to anger or quarrelsome with his family. He was a dutiful man, faithful in all his capacities and positions of authority. He was trustworthy and kind. He was gentle and compassionate. He was a joy for people to submit to.

Doesn’t that sound pleasant? That’s the kind of authority you want to exist under. That’s the kind of leader that it is a joy to follow. Men, trust in that Christ, and he can forgive you of your failings and grow you into a better servant. He can make you into the man you ought to be.

And ladies, perhaps you’ve noticed in your heart a feeling of rebellion. You might bristle at the idea of submitting to anyone, or to a man, or even to Christ. I urge you to consider Paul’s words here, and elsewhere. These are the words of God and are meant for your good.

I know that men have failed you. In fact, every human leader has failed and will fail in one way or another. But start by considering Jesus, who has never failed. He’s the only authority that will perfectly lead you and protect you. No husband or pastor could every provide you with the love and protection that only Jesus can offer. Start by reflecting on Jesus, on who he is and what he has done.

He can forgive you of any rebellious feelings or words or actions, and help you joyfully embrace God’s plan for creation. In the strength of Christ, Be the kind of helper that you’ve been made to be, and the kind of helper that men in this world need.

And if you’re struggling under sinful authority, don’t languish in it. Come and talk to someone: a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, someone. Godly authority is meant to lead to flourishing, not wasting away in misery. God’s plan, rightly followed, leads to healthy, blossoming relationships, not harsh or domineering situations. I’ve spoken about this in previous sermons, but please don’t hesitate to talk to someone.

Now, lastly, final question for us tonight: How is God the head of Christ? That’s the end of the verse: and the head of Christ is God.

Christ here is the bookend of the statement. Christ over man, man over women, God over Christ. Christ, the person of the Son who took on flesh, was completely submissive to the will of the father.

In John 4:34- “34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” Doing the Father’s will sustained him and satisfied him just like food does for me and you.

In John 5:30- “30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

Even in chapter 15 of this book, which we will get to eventually, Paul speaks of the son being in subjection to God. Christ is totally and willfully submissive to the will of God.

Here we can get into a little bit of trinitarian theology. We serve one God, who eternally exists in three persons. Each of the persons possesses the fullness of the divine nature, and thus there exists within the trinity a complete equality of persons.

And yet, within the plan of redemption, the second person of trinity, the eternally begotten Son, willingly agreed to add to himself the fullness of human nature, to come and be born of a virgin, to live a sinless life, to die a sinner’s death, and to be raised and seated at the right hand of the father. He was willing to submit to this plan, to come under the authority of God and the agreed upon plan of salvation for the people of God.

The perfect authority of the Father, overseeing the perfect submission of Christ, all to the praise of God.



[1] See John MacArthur’s commentary on this point. Or this sermon: (accessed 5/23/2022).


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