1 Corinthians 11:1- 5 – “Tradition and Submission”

Translation and Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS, 17 May 2009


1. Keep being imitators of me just as I also am of Christ.

2. Now, I’m praising y’all because you have remembered all my traditions,
and just as I delivered to you, you are keeping them.


3. Yet I want y’all to know that Christ is the head of every man,
and the man is head of woman,
and God is the head of Christ.

4. Every man praying or prophesying while having [something] down on his head is dishonoring his head.

5. And every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled is dishonoring her head,


There was a young woman who moved out into her own house. While living at home, she never cooked. Upon the move, she returned home to learn how to cook a few dishes. One of her favorite recipes was Pot Roast. So she asks her mother to show her how to cook one.


The mother begins to share her expertise with the daughter. She tells her to salt and pepper the meat well. To make sure the vegetables are all cut the same size. Just before the mom places the roast in the pan, she picks up a knife and cuts about a ¼ of an inch of roast from each end. Then she places the meat in the pan.


The daughter stops her mom. “Mom, I understand why we cut the vegetables the same size – that way they’ll cook uniformly. And I know the reason we salt and pepper the meat all over – and rather heavily, is so the whole roast will absorb the flavor of the seasonings. But why did you cut a little bit off each end of the roast before you placed it in the pan?”

“Because that’s what you do”, said the mom.


“But why?”, questioned the girl. “Does it help it cook better?”


“Well, I do it this way, because that’s the way my Mom taught me”, said the mother. “But I’m not really sure why we cut the ends off. Next time we go to visit we’ll ask her.”


Several months later the family gathers at Grandma’s house for dinner. As grandma prepares the meal the mother and daughter are in the kitchen with her. The daughter asks her grandmother, “Grandma, you’re such a good cook, and I know you passed all your methods on to Mom, but I can’t figure out why we cut the ends off of the pot roast before we cook it.” The grandmother turned to her granddaughter and said, “The only time I ever cut the ends off the roast is if it’s too big for the pan!”

Traditions can be funny things when you forget the reason for doing them.


It is with some fear and trepidation that I enter upon teaching on 1 Cor. 11. This is a passage that is interpreted many different ways by many different people. I spent more time than usual meditating on this passage trying to figure it out just using the Bible. Then I read more commentaries than usual on this passage, and none of them offered the same position that I had arrived at during my own study. However, no two commentaries agreed with each other on every point. So in once sense, I’m just adding yet another opinion to the many opinions out there, and as such, I don’t expect that I will convince everyone of my take on this passage, but I do expect every one – especially every man – to study it out for yourself and come to your own position on it.


I am convinced that the Corinthian church was doing something that Paul had taught to them as a tradition, not necessarily as a command from God. But the church was practicing this tradition without understanding why they were doing it, much like the daughter cutting the pot roast because that’s how she saw her mother prepare pot roasts. Therefore Paul commends the Corinthians for imitating Him in this custom but writes this chapter to help them understand the reason behind the tradition. The application is for us to follow traditions (and even develop new ones) that follow Christ and demonstrate what we believe rather than just doing things because someone else does them.


I)        Imitation of Godly examples is good

A)    The chapter opens with a command – “Keep being imitators of me”

B)    In the Greek language in which this was originally written, the tense of the verb can distinguish between a command to start doing something and a command to continue doing something. This one is in the present tense, which indicates to continue doing something. So, despite the problems Paul has brought up earlier in the letter, he acknowledges that the Corinthians were indeed trying to follow his example.

C)    In fact, he praises them for the fact that they have remembered his ordinances/teachings/traditions.

1.      What traditions are the Corinthians keeping that they received from Paul?

(a)    They don’t seem to be following traditions he set regarding eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols which is what the last three chapters focused on.

(b)   The verses that follow this statement in chapter 11, however, do describe traditions that the Corinthians were practicing regarding Clothing and Communion. So I believe Paul is com­mending them for carrying on the traditions he instituted among them regarding clothing and communion, although there were shortcomings that needed to be addressed on both issues.

2.      Why does Paul use the word “Traditions/teachings” to describe what he passed down?

(a)    In practically every N.T. reference it refers to Jewish oral tradition.

(i)     Paul wrote in Gal. 1:14, “I advanced in the Jews' religion beyond many of my own… countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”

(ii)   In Mat 15:2, the Jews asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread.”
Is it a good and orderly practice to wash your hands clean before you eat? Sure!
Is it the end of the world if you don’t? No, there are more important things in life.

(iii) Some of the traditions were good, but some were bad: “Take heed lest there shall be any one that spoils you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ:” (Col. 2:8)
Why are they bad? Because they are not “in Christ” but rather violate His word.

(iv) Paul already mentioned in 4:17 that he had sent Timothy to remind the Corinthians of his “ways which are in Christ…”

(v)   And in 2 Thess. 2:15, Paul writes to another church to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours.”

(vi) He went on to tell the church in Thessalonica, “withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly and not after the tradition which they received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:6b)

(vii)           So the traditions Paul handed them were consistent with the word of Christ and preserved order so that Christians would not be “disorderly.”

(b)   Paul “Delivered/passed” these traditions to the church

(i)     Whether a tradition carries authority depends on who you got the tradition from before you passed it on:

(ii)   15:3 “I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;” Paul got the Gospel from the scriptures; that’s an authoritative source to deliver the message that “Christ died for our sins.”

(iii) The tradition of the Lord’s Supper which Paul will go into later in this chapter (v.23) came from the Lord Jesus Himself; again an authoritative source: “I received from the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread…”

(iv) (See also 2 Pet. 2:21 & Jude 1:3)

D)    “you keep/maintain/hold firmly” – It is a good thing to maintain traditions that come on good authority, are orderly, and Christlike.

1.      Paul apparently set a tradition in Corinth regarding head covering and uncovering, and the Corinthians are apparently keeping that tradition up. This would explain why Paul does not go into any significant detail about how and when to cover and uncover the head, and with what. In fact he never uses a noun to describe the covering. Most English translations have supplied a noun, but there is no noun describing a physical covering in the original Greek text. Paul merely addresses the philosophy behind the practice, I believe, because the practice was already in place.

2.      He doesn’t tell them to stop doing it; rather he commends them for carrying on this tradition.

3.      Traditions can be a good thing, even though they develop particulars beyond the bare principles of God’s word. For instance, I set a tradition of singing “Come O Sabbath Day” every Saturday Night. Are my kids disobeying the 4th commandment to “honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy” if they don’t sing it? No! But it is a good tradition to help us shift gears and start honoring the Lord’s Day when it rolls around each week.

4.      Why do we stand in church for the reading of God’s word but sit while taking communion? These are traditions from Presbyterian forefathers who wanted to show respect for God’s word by standing at attention when it is read but wanted to show fellowship with Christ in communion and a recognition of the honor of all the people of God by sitting rather than standing or kneeling. Does the Bible command us to do these things? No. Does it come on the good authority of godly men? Yes. Does it contradict the Bible? No. Does it contribute to order in the church? Yes! So these traditions I have sought to preserve in our congregation, but I’m not going to get my knickers in a knot if other congregations do these things differently.

II)      Imitation someone’s tradition is bad if it is not following Christ

A)    Following the wrong example can be destructive:

1.      Our oldest daughter was once observed holding herself up with one hand on a windowsill and another hand on the couch end, swinging herself, but then she lost her grip and fell down and hurt herself. Our second daughter was a toddler at the time who worshipped her big sister and imitated everything her big sister did, so as soon as big sister fell, she marched up to the spot between the couch and the windowsill, lifted herself up and then dropped herself down so that she too would fall. If we’re not careful in choosing the example that we follow, we could find ourselves falling down too!

2.      “The world is also, of its own accord, inclined to a misdirected imitation, and, after the manner of apes, strives to copy whatever they see done by persons of great influence, and we have seen the damage this has done to the church...” (Calvin)

3.      In Mark 7:9 Jesus said to the Jews that they “reject the commandment of God, [to] keep your tradition. 10) For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother…’ 11) but y’all say, ‘If a man shall say to his father or his mother, “Whatever you might have been profited from me is Corban,’” (that is to say, given to God) 12) you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13) making void the word of God by your tradition..." In this case, the Corban tradition did not come from God but from a stingy man who did not want to share his wealth to take care of his parents in their old age. The Corban tradition did not match up with God’s word to “Honor your Father and Mother,” and it contributed to disorder, as it left elderly people without adequate care for their needs.

4.      The folks in the People’s Temple cult followed their leader Jim Jones in committing suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. We can’t just follow anybody, but how do we choose?

B)    Christ must be our standard, not human leaders

1.      Notice that Paul doesn’t just say “keep imitating me;” he also adds the very important phrase “as I also [follow] Christ.” Don’t follow someone unless they are following Christ!

2.      How can you know whether or not a leader is following Christ?
You have to know Christ as He is revealed in His word, the Bible. Read what the Bible says about God and Jesus and see if that leader has values and a life that matches what God says He values in the Bible.

3.      Any leader who makes up his own standards of right and wrong and imposes them on other people should not be followed. It is only God who can make up the standards of right and wrong and impose them on us.
On the other hand, a leader who is looking outside of himself to the Bible to say what is right and what is wrong and then living his life by those standards (seeking to obey and asking forgiveness for failing to obey) is one to follow.

4.      What did Jesus do? 1 Peter 2:21b  “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow His steps.” How did Christ suffer for you? By recognizing that you deserved to suffer death and hell for violating God’s standards of right and wrong, then becoming a man and living a perfect life yet still suffering that punishment of death and hell while on the cross, then rising from the dead and returning to the presence of God and offering to apply His suffering to anyone who would place their trust in Him so that they would not have to suffer hell but rather be saved and enjoy eternal life. Christ must be our standard.

C)    Simply following an outward form is not true religion.

1.      Some people think that dressing a certain way, or cutting your hair a certain way or going to church a certain number of times a week is what makes you a good Christian.

2.      But, simply following outward traditions will not make you right with God. God wants your trust, your heart, not just outward actions.

3.      Paul likewise is not content to leave the Corinthians with an outward ritual, he says in v.3 what he wants; “I want you to understand [the meaning behind this tradition].”


III)    Honoring God’s Created Order

A)    The main principle behind the tradition is that God designed order in His universe. Paul will say later on in 14:40 “let everything be done decently and in order.”

B)    God as the creator comes first. He has ultimate authority.

C)    Christ Jesus is also God, but he humbled Himself and took a subordinate status to God the Father, thus “the head of Christ is God.”

1.      John 5:19b “The Son can do nothing of himself except what he sees the Father doing: for whatever things He does, these the Son also does in like manner... 30) I can of myself do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is righteous; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me.” … 6: 38 For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” 14:28 “I go unto the Father: for the Father is greater than I.” (See also 8:26-29)

2.      John Calvin put it this way, “God, then, occupies the first place: Christ holds the second place. How so? Inasmuch as he has in our flesh made himself subject to the Father, for, apart from this, being of one essence with the Father, he is his equal. Let us, therefore, bear it in mind, that this is spoken of Christ as mediator. He is, I say, inferior to the Father, inasmuch as he assumed our nature, that he might be the first-born among many brethren.”

3.      Eph. 1:20 God the Father raised Jesus His Son “…out of the dead and seated Him in His right hand in the heavens 21. above every ruler and authority and power and lordship and every name being named... 22. and everything He subordinated under His feet, and to Him He gave headship over everything in the church, 23. which is His body…” Christ has headship over his creation.

D)    Man is the same kind as Christ’s human nature, but takes a subordinate status to Christ.

1.      Eph 5:23 “the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the church”

2.      The Greek word translated “husband” in Eph. 5:23 is the same word translated “man” in 1 Cor 11. It can mean both generally anyone of the male gender or specifically a married man.

E)     Woman is the same essence as Man, but is given a subordinate status to man.

1.      Like the word for “man/husband” here, this word for “woman” can mean generally any female or specifically a married woman.

2.      Gal 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, no male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” Same essence; no difference when it comes to relating to God and being saved, but under headship in the church and family.

3.      Gen 3:16 “Unto the woman he [God] said… ‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’”

4.      The order that God created is God-Christ-Man-Woman, in that order. God instituted this system of hierarchy for a good purpose, to foster unity and order in the church.

F)     In accepting this doctrine, we must reject two extremes:

1.      Egalitarianism which says that the word “head” merely means “source” (such as “headwaters”) and that woman is free from any human authority because we are all one in Christ Jesus. No,

(a)    Jesus clearly accepted the authority of His Father, who is head over Him, and

(b)   God clearly expects human obedience to the authority of Christ, who is head over man, and

(c)    Women are to obey their husbands (Eph. 5:22, Titus 2:5) and, as all believers, are to submit themselves to the elders of their local church congregation (I Peter 5:1-5) and also civil governmental leaders (Rom. 13:1-2).

(d)   Romans 13:2 should cause us to tread very carefully in rebelling against authority: “Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”

2.      Male chauvinism is the other extreme to avoid:

(a)    Men are no better than women; in fact ,women are the crown of God’s creation, the “glory” of the human race (v.7).

(b)   Women can know God personally without having to have their relationship mediated by a man, for man and woman are one in Christ Jesus.

(c)    Women are only obligated to obey the man who is head over them, not just any man.

(i)     If you are married, your head is your husband.

(ii)   If you are not married, your head is your father - Eph. 6:1 “Children obey your parents…”

G)    This principle of the divinely-given hierarchy of headship was displayed in whether or not one prayed or prophecied with head covered or uncovered

1.      Paul seems to take the outward practice for granted, never using a noun such as “veil” or “symbol” or “headcovering” (although many English translations insert such nouns) and never explaining details of what it should be made of or how it should be worn.

2.      But Scripture emphatically states that every time a man prays or prophesies with his head covered (or literally “with something down on his head”), he “dishonors his head” and every time a woman “prays or prophecies with her head uncovered/unveiled/unblanketed is dishonoring her head.”

3.      Praying is basically talking to God, and Prophesying is basically speaking God’s word to someone else – whether bringing forth some new revelation directly from God along with predictions of the future or whether simply highlighting previous revelation from God recorded in the Bible.

(a)    If you go backwards in your Bible to the last time the word “prophecied” is used, it is describing what the seven daughters of Phillip did in their home with Paul and other friends. (Acts 21:9). God has no problem with women – married or unmarried – speaking forth His word.

(b)   There is a tremendous amount of debate over the nature of this prayer and prophecy. Is it leading prayers and preaching in church? Is it just public events outside of Church? Is it to be practiced in the home? And what about private prayer when it’s just you and God?

(c)    This passage offers precious little on this subject. We must look at the rest of Scripture to fill in the details. Most notably, I believe we need to fit this passage together with chapter 14, where a woman is prohibited from speaking or even asking questions in the church assembly.

(d)   On the other hand, I see no indication that the first half of chapter 11 is talking about a church assembly. However, when Paul begins to treat of the Lord’s Supper in the second half, he says in vs. 17-18 “Now when you come together… now when you come together…” which would indicate to me a public assembly.

(e)    Therefore I believe that this is speaking of prayer and prophecy outside the church assemblies. That’s how I reconcile chapters 11 and 14.

(f)    As for private prayer, I’m inclined to think that this practice of praying covered was primarily as a witness to other people, but on the other hand, it can be a reminder to the praying woman herself, and we are reminded in v.8 that the angels are observers… Judge for yourself.

4.      Who is dishonored?

(a)    Do we take “her head” and “his head” literally to mean their noggins (in which case they are dishonoring themselves),

(b)   or figuratively to mean their representative authorities, Man and Christ?

(c)    Only about half the commentaries I read even hazarded a position, but of that half, only one (albeit one I respect) took it literally.

(d)   Although this is not a point I want to be dogmatic on, I’m inclined to go with the majority who take the head which is dishonored figuratively, because in Greek, as in English, Paul could have said “it” instead of the more wordy “his head” if he meant the literal head, but instead chose the more cumbersome “his head/her head” which could indicate he was switching to the figurative head, Christ/man.

5.      Why would covering or uncovering the literal head dishonor the figurative head? Every commentator I read appealed to local traditions of ancient Corinth.

(a)    Some said that Jewish men wore a Tallith prayer-shawl. Others said that the Jews didn’t have that Tallith Prayer-shawl tradition for men in that time and place.

(b)   Some said that Pagan men prayed with heads covered and therefore Christians should be different. Others said pagans prayed with their heads uncovered so Christians should fit into the culture by not covering their heads.

(c)    Some said that Greek women didn’t cover their heads in public, others that Greek women did cover their heads in public.

(d)   Some say that uncovering the head was a signal that the woman was a slave. Others say that covering the head was a sign of subjection.

(e)    Others claimed that when a woman did not wear a shawl, they were indicating that they were a prostitute.

(f)    However, I believe that anyone who bases their interpretation and application of this passage upon disputed information from outside the Bible is on a shaky foundation. Some historian could contradict the information your position is based on and force you to re-interpret Scripture.

(g)   All we can say for sure is that scripture is emphatic and unqualified that “every” man and woman who does not observe this practice dishonors their head.

H)    In the midst of these details which may be hard to accept, please don’t forget the big picture: here is a tradition that people were observing as they followed Paul’s example, but they needed to know the meaning behind the custom, and that meaning was their need for authority and their need to be appropriately related to their authority.



A)    Create cultural and family traditions that embody God’s truth:

1.      This may mean you start veiling your wife and daughters… or singing a Sabbath eve song… or maybe not. I’m not going to judge your spirituality by your traditions. I’m so used to people disagreeing with me on this subject that I don’t even notice or think about it.

2.      Michael has told me about a ritual he has of praying before approaching a bomb to defuse it. If I had a job like his, I think I’d have the same tradition!

3.      If you don’t have any little traditions that make daily life meaningful, try coming up with one that displays a spiritual truth.

B)    Imitate the examples of Godly people:

1.      1 Cor. 4:16. Therefore, I exhort y’all: Continue to be imitators of me. (cf. Phil. 3:17)

2.      Eph. 5:1 “Be imitators of God”

3.      Spending time with Godly people are reading biographies of godly people allows their example to rub off on you.

C)    Evaluate traditions based upon Christ’s word rather than merely following men:

1.      Don’t put on headdresses, don’t homeschool, don’t even cook fried okra just because the pastor’s wife does it – don’t do it even if everybody is doing it. You must follow Christ.

2.      Stop and ask yourself, “Why do I do this or that?” That’ll be good practice for when your four-year-old child or grandchild starts asking the Why questions, so you can pass on the meaning of important things behind the traditions to the next generation.

D)    Prioritize heart-worship and understanding over doing things a certain way:

1.      Remember that the first and greatest commandment according to Jesus is not “Properly adjust your headgear,” but rather, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” (Matt. 22:37)

2.      Don’t keep cutting the ends of the roast beef just because your mom did. Ask your parents about your family traditions; ask me about our church traditions, and then explain them to your kids so that the meaning isn’t lost!

E)     Honor God’s created order:

1.      Women, honor your husband – be a good follower; make it easy for him to lead by being attentive to his vision and falling in line with it.

2.      Children, honor your parents.

3.      Men, live in light of Christ being your authority – don’t become little tyrants. At the same time take the leadership in your home and act like a “Head.” You could start by debriefing this sermon with your wife and kids. We have had to counsel too many women whose husbands refused to think this passage through and take a stand. Continue by staking out a little time each day to lead your family in Bible study and prayer, and maybe even singing.

All of you, honor Christ as the head of the church – Put your trust in Him; Love Him with all your heart, and be a good follower, being attentive and obedient to His word.