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The Key to Understanding Head Coverings

Editors’ note: 

The new August 2019 issue of Themelios has 214 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

It is widely acknowledged that the gospel was preeminent in Paul’s thought and practice. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians brings the gospel to bear on the many problems that were disrupting the God-given unity and sanctity of the church: divisions (1:10), pride (1:29–31; 5:2), sexual immorality (5:1), a shameful case of litigation (6:1–11), a disparagement of human sexuality (7:1–40), abuses of Christian freedoms (8:1–13), idolatry (10:1–30), and improprieties in corporate worship (11:2–14:40).

Paul signals his intent to apply the gospel to each of these matters early in the letter when he states concerning the emerging factions in the Corinthian church, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1:17). The core message of the gospel—“the word of the cross”—is foolishness to unbelievers but has power to transform those who believe (1:18). As Gordon Fee observes, “This paragraph (1:18–25) is crucial not only to the present argument . . . but to the entire letter as well. Indeed, it is one of the truly great moments in the apostle Paul.”

Paul confirms the importance of the gospel for the entire letter in his programmatic statement toward the end of the epistle: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you . . . 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” (15:1–4). Beginning and ending the epistle with the gospel is not merely a literary device. Paul intends to set forth the gospel as the solution to every problem in the church. At times the gospel solution is direct and explicit. At other times, it is less direct but transformative nonetheless.

In keeping with the preeminence of the gospel in Paul’s writings in general, and in 1 Corinthians in particular, our interest in this present essay is to revisit the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:16 with the gospel as the interpretive key to Paul’s argument [about gender, head coverings, and the Trinity]. As will become evident, seeing the explicit manner in which Paul appeals to the gospel in this passage serves to strengthen the standard evangelical reading of 1 Corinthians 11 while putting it in its larger gospel context.

Here is how the gospel can be shown to provide the integrative glue for Paul’s argument.