1 Corinthians 11


The previous article offered (i) an introduction to 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16, (ii) an outline of the passage, and (iii) expository comments on verses 2-12. The present article provides expository comments on verses 13-16, together with an introduction to 1 Corinthians 11. 17-34 and expository comments on verses 17-21.

For ease of reference, the outline of 1 Corinthians 11. 2-16 is reproduced below.


The section from verse 2 to verse 16 can be broken down very simply. It is structured around three main arguments.

Paul follows his introductory comments in verse 2, by (i) an argument drawn from the chain of headship and subjection which extends downward from God to the woman, vv. 3-5a. The apostle then amplifies and explains his point about the shame of the uncovered woman, vv. 5b-6. He follows this with (ii) an argument drawn from creation, vv. 7-10, which closes with a reference to the angels, who (being fully conversant with the details of the creation of both man and woman) look to see the appointed symbol of man’s headship over the woman. At this point, Paul adds a short section, vv. 11-12, to guard against any possible misunderstanding as to the importance and dignity of the woman. And (iii) he draws an argument from nature, and in particular from the covering with which nature provides the woman; namely her long hair, vv. 13-15. All further contention is silenced by an appeal to the final authority of the apostles of Christ and to the universal custom of the churches which they had established, v. 16.

That is, the section can be outlined as follows :
1. Apostolic tradition – the faithfulness of the Corinthians, v. 2
2(i). The argument from headship, vv. 3-6
2(ii). The argument from creation, vv. 7-12
2(iii). The argument from nature, vv. 13-15
3. Apostolic authority – the custom of the churches, v. 16


The argument from nature, vv. 13-15

Finally, Paul appeals to the woman’s instinctive sense of what is fitting – personifying ‘nature’ as a teacher of that which is right and proper. His answer to the question of verse 13, ‘Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?’ is given in verses 14-151 The Christian women of Corinth had only to think through the teaching of nature to know that it was unseemly and inappropriate for them to pray ‘to God’ uncovered. The long hair which would be a ‘shame’ (a dishonour, that which is degrading) to a man is a ‘glory’ to a woman, perhaps because it is given her by God to distinguish her from the man.2

Paul’s comment about long hair being a ‘shame’ to a man is interesting in that it was while at Corinth that he had let his own hair grow long, the visible sign of the temporary Nazarite-like vow he had taken, Acts 18. 18. In that particular situation, his long hair had been a symbol of his consecration to God. But that was an exception. And it was only temporary. As a general rule, Paul observes, for a man to have abnormally long hair is a disgrace to him. Paul’s very vow demonstrated that it was unusual for men to have long hair.

It is not, I note, that Paul is arguing here that Christian women should have long hair. He takes that for granted, and bases this part of his argument on it. That is, he is not arguing for a woman to have long hair; he is arguing from a woman’s long hair. Her long hair is given to her ‘for a covering’, but we must note that the word translated ‘covering’ is not related to that rendered ‘cover’ in verses 4-7. The word of verse 15 means ‘that which is flung around’, and is used to describe a ‘cloak’ (‘vesture’ KJV) in Hebrews 1; ‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands … like a cloak you will fold them up, And they will be changed’, vv. 10-12. Clearly, the woman’s hair must be reasonably long to resemble a garment which can be ‘flung around’.3

Paul argues that nature itself provides woman with long hair for a covering – not as a substitute for a fashion covering but to set the pattern for one.4 It is obvious that Paul cannot mean that the woman’s natural covering acts as a substitute for a fashion covering. This because, apart from it being a different word for ‘cover’ to that used of the fashion covering in verses 4-7, it would be absolute nonsense to reason (as verse 6 then would), ‘If a woman isn’t covered (that is, if she has no hair – if she is as bald as Elisha, 2 Kgs. 2. 23), then let her hair be cut short or shaved off’!

In answer to the question, ‘And if it (her hair) be given her for a covering, why does she need to add another covering?’, CHRYSOSTOM comments, ‘That not nature only, but also her own will may have part in her acknowledgement of subjection’. Yes, indeed. God wants the woman to show her willing, voluntary submission to the man when she audibly praises and engages in other spiritual activities, and so He expects her to wear a double covering. He adorns her with the first Himself and looks to her to adorn herself with the second.

The appeal to the authority of the apostles and to the universal custom of the churches v. 16

Before leaving the subject, Paul has a blunt message for anyone (whether man or woman) who is still inclined to argue. The word the apostle uses, translated ‘contentious’, is found only here in the New Testament and means to be quarrelsome; referring to one fond of strife and given to disputes. Refusing to discuss or debate the matter further, Paul makes it clear that neither the apostles nor the churches at large recognized any other custom and practice.5

By mentioning ‘the churches of God’, Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that he was not asking anything special of them, for this was how believers everywhere conducted themselves. The apostle’s remark that the churches of God have no such ‘custom’ (of women praying or prophesying with their heads uncovered) certainly doesn’t mean that he regarded the whole issue as one of mere human ‘custom’. Such a universal practice (’the churches of God’ – spanning those of both Jewish and Gentile origin) could have resulted only from teaching and ordinances which came with full apostolic authority.

It may be that the champions of women’s liberation in the Corinthian church had supposed (1) that they would find a firm ally in Paul, the champion of Christian equality and freedom, and (2) that the discarding of the woman’s covering may well have been in vogue in other Greek churches. If so, they were wrong on both scores.

By way of summary, as I understand it, our passage teaches that, whenever a woman assumes a semipublic role in spiritual work (whether she is speaking to God or for God), she is to wear the symbol of her subjection to the man. She must make it clear (to the angels if to no one else) that she has no intention whatever of usurping the place of the man, and that she willingly recognizes her subjection to him.

Failure to do so, Paul says, constitutes in effect:
(1) the breaking of the God-appointed chain of headship which reaches from God right down to the woman, vv. 3-6;
(2) the denial of the God-appointed relationship established between man and woman at the time of their creation, vv. 7-12;
(3) the failure to follow the lead set by nature, vv. 13-15; and
(4) the rejection of the authority of the apostles of Christ and the universal practice of the churches, v. 16.6

From what I have been able to discover, it seems that Paul’s teaching had the desired effect. Not only do sculptures in the catacombs (dated to late in the first century) show the men wearing short hair and the women wearing either a close-fitting headdress or a shawl, but Tertullian of Rome (writing at the end of the second century) actually cites Corinth as an example of the universal compliance among the churches; ‘In fact, at this day the Corinthians veil their virgins, as well as their married women. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve’. Tertullian says elsewhere of the menfolk, ‘we lift our eyes, with hands outstretched … with head uncovered’.7

1 Corinthians 11. 17-34


Two points need to be made by way of introduction.

(1) The passage assumes the merging of two distinct events:
(a) what we call ‘the breaking of bread’, ‘the Lord’s Supper’, the remembrance of the Lord, and
(b) what was once known as a ‘love feast’.

The love-feast (or agapé) was the communal meal of the early church. It was an expression of the brotherly love, sharing and warm fellowship which marked the church’s infancy. The actual word itself is found in the New Testament with this sense only in Jude 12, in connection with certain false teachers and apostates, ‘These are spots (better, ‘hidden rocks’ or reefs in the sea – referring to those who by their ungodly conduct cause shipwreck to others) in your love-feasts, while they feast with you without fear’. According to Acts 2. 46, the first Christians, ‘continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart’. And it is clear from our passage that the remembrance of the Lord at Corinth was associated with some such a meal. For the abuses which Paul mentions could not have arisen at a gathering which involved only one loaf and a limited amount of wine.

Communal meals were a regular feature of the countless religious clubs and associations found throughout the Greek-Roman world at that time, and for the church to have enjoyed such a meal would not therefore have appeared at all strange to the Christians at Corinth.

It seems that the actual remembrance of the Lord at Corinth followed the communal meal, in much the same way as the institution of the original ‘breaking of bread’ followed a communal meal – namely, the Passover ‘supper’ referred to in verse 25, ‘He also took the cup after supper’. The breaking of bread itself should, however, have always been regarded as distinct from the ‘love-feast’, if for no higher reason than that, as Paul makes clear, only bread and wine formed part of the memorial instituted by Jesus.

(2) The second half of 1 Corinthians 11 is meant to be a very practical passage. The central, most wellknown and best cherished section, verses 23-26, forms part of Paul’s overall argument. Hence the ‘for’ which introduces verse 23, and the ‘therefore’ (‘so that’, lit) which introduces verse 27. Verses 23-26 are sandwiched between the section which reports the abuse, vv. 17-22 (which section both begins and ends with Paul’s censure – ‘I praise you not’), and the section which, after noting the serious consequences of the abuse, sets out to correct it, vv. 27-34.

And we will find that our interpretation of the whole passage rests critically on how we understand the expression, ‘not discerning the body’ in verse 29 (almost certainly not ‘the Lord’s body’, NKJV8) because this was clearly the cause of many at Corinth eating and drinking ‘unworthily’, v. 27, as a result of which they incurred the Lord’s disciplinary judgement.

As I read the passage, there were two related, but distinct, strands to the abuse; both of which stemmed directly from the Corinthians’ misunderstanding about the main purpose and most important element of the meeting – of the combined agapé and breaking of bread meeting, that is. For it is clear that the Corinthians were treating the Lord’s Supper as no more than an adjunct – as a mere addon – to the love-feast, and utterly failed to appreciate the significance of what they were meeting to do.

On the one hand, Paul’s phrase ‘the body’ here clearly includes a reference to the Lord’s own literal body – an interpretation supported by the fact that he has used the word ‘body’ to refer to the Lord’s actual body in both verse 24 and verse 27. To fail to ‘distinguish the body’ in this sense meant that the Corinthians failed to view the bread which they broke as a symbol of the Lord’s body. They degraded the bread and cup into mere items of food and drink, regarding them as no more than an additional means of satisfying their appetite, and failing utterly to see beyond the physical emblems to the spiritual realities of which they were only the symbols.

But we can’t help noticing that, although Paul has spoken consistently throughout verses 21-29a of both eating and drinking … of both Jesus’ body and Jesus’ blood … of both the bread and the cup, at this critical point he confines his comment to ‘the body’, making no reference to the Lord’s blood. Such an unexpected twist should alert us to the fact that there is probably more to Paul’s meaning than at first meets the eye. Why single out ‘the body’ alone?

Well, we know from other sections of his letters, including this letter, that Paul not infrequently described the church as the Lord’s ‘body’. For instance, he spoke of ‘the church, which is his body’ in Ephesians 1. 22-23 – and terms the church ‘the body of Christ’, not only in Ephesians 4. 12, but in chapter 12 verse 27 of this very letter; ‘you are body of Christ’, he writes, ‘and members in particular’, literally.9 Compare also, ‘by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’, 1 Cor. 12. 13.

And I suggest that, when Paul rebuked the Corinthians for not ‘discerning the body’ in verse 29, he intended them to see a double meaning to his words. Indeed, this would be entirely consistent with his practice earlier in chapters 10 and 11, where he has on several occasions played on the meaning of some key word, deliberately using that word in an ambiguous sense. As I understand it, he did so at the beginning of chapter 10 with the word ‘rock’.10 And he certainly did so at the beginning of chapter 11 with the word ‘head’.11

But, with greater relevance to our verse, he did so in verses 16-17 of chapter 10. ‘The cup of blessing which we bless’, he wrote, ‘is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? Because it is one bread, we the many are one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread’, literal translation. In verse 16, the word ‘body’ clearly refers to the actual body of Christ (as witness the parallel with ‘the blood of Christ’), but in verse 17 the same word refers to the body of believers – ‘we the many are one body’.12

That is, the apostle has previously introduced the Corinthians to a double meaning to the word ‘body’, making it clear that the one bread was meant to direct their attention, not only to our Lord’s actual body, but to ‘the church which is His body’. And I suggest that here in chapter 11 verse 29 Paul uses it with the same double meaning again.

And so, the one loaf of bread which they broke and ate (supposedly in remembrance of the Lord) represented, not only His physical body given in death for them, but also His spiritual body, the church. And, as I see it, the Corinthians failed ‘to discern’ (failed ‘to distinguish’) ‘the body’, not only in that they failed to see beyond the physical emblem of the bread to the spiritual reality of the Lord’s actual body which it symbolized, but in that they failed to distinguish between the church of God and the many religious clubs and associations around them.

By partaking of that ‘one bread’, they professed to believe in the unity of the church, the body of Christ – they professed their close fellowship with the other believers at Corinth. But their outrageous behaviour in the preceding so-called ‘love feast’ made a mockery of the whole thing! Their casual attitude to the ‘body’ (the church) left the rich free to indulge themselves and refuse to share their provisions with the poor (with ‘those who have nothing’, v. 22), thereby in practice denying the very unity which both the agapé and the remembrance of the Lord were meant to symbolize.


  1. The abuse, vv. 17-22 (which section both opens and closes with Paul’s censure, ‘I do not praise’)
  2. The uniqueness, significance and real meaning of the Lord’s Supper, vv. 23-26
  3. The serious consequences and correction of the abuse, vv. 27-34


Verse 17. ‘I do not praise you’ stands in obvious contrast to the ‘I praise you’ of verse 2. It wasn’t even that they came together to no useful purpose; the fact is that their coming together actually did more harm than good. Now that is a sobering thought! And Paul’s purpose in writing was to warn them, lest, when they ‘come together … for the worse’, v. 17, they ‘come together for judgment’, under God’s discipline, that is, v. 34.

Verse 18. I take it from Paul’s ‘first of all’ (or ‘firstly’), that verses 18-34 deal with only one element of the problem he could see at Corinth, and that they came together for the worse, not only as a result of their abuse of social position with which Paul deals in this passage, but also as a result of their abuse of spiritual gifts with which he deals in chapters 12-14 – where the same word translated ‘come together’ five times in our section13 occurs twice again, 14. 23, 26.

Coming together ‘as a church’ (literally ‘in church’) makes no reference, of course, to any particular religious building. It refers to the character of the gathering – when ‘the whole church’ came together, 14. 23, meeting as a church. It is possible that the believers still met in the house of Titius Justus, next door to the synagogue, Acts 18. 7, or that they now met in the house of Gaius. (See Paul’s greeting from Corinth to the saints at Rome, ‘Gaius, my host and the host of the whole church, greets you’, Rom. 16. 23.) But, although they boasted no special church building, clearly their actions when they came together ‘in church’ were to be clearly distinguished from actions they were free to perform elsewhere; for example, in their own ‘houses’ or ‘homes’, vv. 22, 34.

Paul speaks in verse 18 of ‘divisions among you’, and in verse 19 of ‘factions among you’. The word ‘divisions’ describes splits and schisms – and the word ‘factions’ describes, not erroneous doctrine (as the KJV rendering ‘heresies’ came to convey in later times) but parties. Not that the divisions and factions in view here are the same as those in chapters 1-3; which were of the ‘I am of Paul … I am of Apollos’ type. Here we are dealing rather with social and class distinctions – with the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ of verses 21-22.14

Verse 19. ‘There must also be factions among you’. Not, of course, that God is in any way the Author of divisions and parties in the church. Perish the thought! As the Lord Jesus said concerning the sowing of tares, ‘an enemy has done this’, Matt. 13. 28. But God can, and does, overrule such evils, that those who resist all forms of party-spirit … that those who refuse to get involved in social and class divisions … might be recognized as having His approval.

Verse 20. ‘It is not to eat the Lord’s Supper’. Why not? Because, as the apostle explains in verse 21, during the preceding so-called ‘love feast’ everyone has been greedily devouring ‘his own supper’. It is out of the question, Paul is saying, that, following their deplorable excesses and selfish conduct at the one, the Corinthians can then properly observe and celebrate the other.

Paul speaks of the remembrance as ‘the Lord’s Supper’ because the Lord is both the author of it and the subject of it. In every way the Supper belongs to Him. And it belongs to Him as ‘Lord’.15 Indeed, we can hardly miss the change in emphasis between the first half of the chapter (where the stress is on the headship of Christ), and the second half of the chapter (where the stress is on His lordship – to which we find no less than seven references in 18 verses).16

Verse 21. Far from the rich sharing their lavish provisions, Paul says, they won’t even wait for the poor to arrive; each goes ‘ahead of others’ and eats his own supper. And so the poor leave hungry and the rich leave intoxicated. It was a farce! A loveless ‘love-feast’. What a misnomer! An agapé without a trace of agapé. A fellowship-meal which denied the very first principles of Christian fellowship.

Yes, maybe many of the Corinthians had come from a background of riotous meals given in honour of some pagan god. Yes, maybe they had once been used to drinking heavily at their pagan feasts. ‘Idolaters … greedy, drunkards’? Yes, such had been some of them, 1 Cor. 6. 9-10 KJV. But now they have been washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God, 1 Cor. 6. 11! And so they are altogether without excuse.



With Paul’s instruction, ‘Judge among yourselves’, 1 Cor. 11. 13, compare his words in chapter 10, ‘judge for yourselves what I say’, v. 15.


The description of the hair of the demonic locusts of Revelation 9. 8 is said to be ‘like women’s hair’ – clearly something distinctive of the woman.


Or to be used as a towel, Luke 7. 38!


The Greek preposition translated ‘for’ means just that here. It does not signify ‘instead of a covering’ (as some have alleged) but ‘as a covering’. See Principal T. C. EDWARDS, A Commentary on First Corinthians, page 281.


To any disposed to be contentious and obstinate, the apostle appealed to the universal practice of the churches of God, compare 1 Cor. 14. 36-37. It is important to note that the New Testament requirements for uniformity in behaviour between churches do not necessarily refer to gathered meetings of the church. For example, the letter from the so-called ‘Jerusalem Council’ gave directions to all Gentile churches with reference to food and sexual immorality. More particularly, when setting out his ruling concerning the believer’s private life (matters of marriage, circumcision and slavery), the apostle wrote in chapter 7, ‘so I ordain in all the churches’, v. 17.


And tell me not this, that the error is but small. For first, it is great even of itself: being as it is disobedience. Next, though it were small, it became great because of the greatness of the things whereof it is a sign’, JOHN CHRYSOSTOM on the first half of 1 Corinthians 11. ‘… it would probably be unwise to look upon head coverings as a fundamental of the faith, something which determines one’s salvation or spirituality. But because it is a command from the pen of the inspired apostle, and an issue which can divide the saints, it is important. It may not be a ‘camel,’ but it is a fairly good-sized ‘gnat’ we dare not ignore’ BOB DEFFINBAUGH 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 – Its Issues and Implications, Preliminary Comments (4). Paul’s strong wording (‘dishonour’, ‘shameful’) shows that he regarded the wearing (or not wearing) of head-coverings as an important issue.


Veiling of Virgins, chapter 8; and Apology, chapter 30.


The word ‘Lord’s’ is not in the earlier manuscripts of verse 29.


Compare also, ‘by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’, 1 Cor. 12. 13.


See the exposition of 1 Corinthians 10. 1-4 (together with Footnotes 16-17) in Precious Seed, Volume 61, Number 3, August 2006.


‘The head of every man is Christ; the head of woman is the man … every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head’, 11. 4-5. Paul envisages a situation where the man prays or prophesies ‘having his head covered’. The man’s ‘head’, Paul insists, is thereby dishonoured. That is, as I understand it, at one and the same time, the man dishonours both his literal head – the physical ‘head’ which he ‘covers’ – and his spiritual head – the Lord Jesus – or we lose all connection with his previous statement that ‘ the head of every man is Christ’. The same holds true, of course, of the woman; the word ‘head’ refers both to the woman’s own head (which is to be covered), and to her figurative head, the man. That is, the apostle there gives a double-meaning to the word ‘head’. See the exposition of 1 Corinthians 11. 4-5a in Precious Seed, Volume 62, Number 2, May 2007.


See the exposition of 1 Corinthians 10. 16-17 in Precious Seed, Volume 61, Number 4, November 2006.


1 Corinthians 11. 17, 18, 20, 33, 34.


How tragic that Paul finds it necessary to link the words ‘divisions’ and ‘factions’ with the expression ‘come together’. What a contradiction in terms – to ‘come together’ and yet to be divided! The more so in this case, I suppose, because the very purpose of their coming together was originally meant to be an expression of the fellowship and oneness which exists between believers.


As is well known, the word translated ‘Lord’s’ in verse 20 is different to that in verse 26 – ‘the Lord’s death’. The word here occurs in only one other place in the New Testament – in the expression ‘the Lords day’ in Revelation 1. 10. The word is found, however, frequently in inscriptions and papyri in the sense of ‘imperial’; for example, the ‘lord’s service’ meant the ‘imperial service’ the service of the emperor (ADOLF DEISSMANN, Light from the Ancient East, p. 358).


Verses 20, 23 (twice), 26, 27 (twice), 32. See footnote 8 above.


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