In the early verses of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul directly introduces the subject of the Headship of Christ. He does so with the statement that "the head of every man is Christ" (11.3), but we should see that this subject lies at the foundation of all his teaching throughout the epistle. If the implications of this truth had been understood and applied, none of the other issues which he has had to address would have been seen in the assembly at Corinth.
We can consider this under three headings:
What is Headship?
The Implications of Headship.
The Character of Headship.
What is Headship?
There are two ideas associated with Headship: firstly, it refers to the position that a person holds; secondly, it has the idea of the source of sustenance for the body. In the first respect, it is closely related to Lordship. The major difference is that Headship refers to the position itself, whereas Lordship is the exercise of the powers which are consistent with that position. When God sets up His Kingdom, He sets up Christ as Head with the right to govern, but also as Lord with the power to rule. This is a reason for us to rejoice, because it removes any possibility of failure due to human weakness.
The truth of Headship is universal in that every man will bow to Christ, but this is not seen openly at present. As believers, we have now accepted His claims in our lives personally. The teaching of the New Testament is that everyone who exercises faith in Christ for salvation will acknowledge that He is Lord in their lives. This is why the statement that Christ is the Head of every man is not only fundamental to this epistle but also is one which ought to be accepted by all believers. In the act of baptism, we effectively state that we renounce our link to Adam and that we acknowledge Christ as Head.
In addition to this, the New Testament shows us that the Head is also responsible for nourishing the body and ensuring that the whole body functions in harmony (Col 2.19).
The Implications of Headship
The importance of Headship is easily seen by considering how this truth would affect the conduct that Paul highlights throughout the epistle.
In 1 Corinthians 1-4, he deals with division. This occurs because saints set up men in place of Christ. It may be that they link themselves with individuals (1.12). It may be that they set themselves up as leaders or teachers (2 Cor 11.12-13). It may be done implicitly, by giving credence to individuals rather than testing what is said against the Word of God, or it may be explicit, when individuals or a group of men are allowed to control the assembly. While it is true to Scripture that the elders are expected to give a lead to the saints under their care, they are unambiguously taught that they must not act as lords over the saints (1 Pet 5.3).
Chapters 5-6 deal with immorality among the saints. As Head, Christ is directly linked to every activity in which we engage. If we recognise His Headship, we would realise that we cannot associate the holy Son of God with acts of immorality or, indeed, with sin in any form. Chapter 7 follows from this in that it deals with marriage as a safeguard against immorality. It concludes with the assertion that marriage must be in the Lord. We should not enter into any relationship without His consent. This is seen in a broader context in 2 Corinthians 6.
Chapters 8-10 remind us that we must show consideration for others because we are all members of His body. Because He is Head, we should treat every other believer with the same consideration that we would give to Him and to ourselves.
The closing verses of chapter 11 highlight the immense privilege of remembering our Lord in the Breaking of Bread. As we do, we are making a public declaration of His Lordship. It is important, in this context, to note that Paul indicates that we are showing the Lord's death. This is a death which is unique. He went into death voluntarily: death could never lay claim to Him (Jn 19.30). He came out of death in His own power (Jn 10.18).
In chapter 12, we learn the implications of Headship in respect of the gifts which He has given so that we can function as "body of Christ". The emphasis here is on the gatherings of the assembly rather than on private life as in chapters 8-10.
In chapter 13 we learn that, before we can exercise any gift for the glory of God, we must display the character and kind of love which was exemplified by Christ in His life.
Chapter 14 teaches that any gift in the church must be exercised under the control of Christ as Head, as directed by the Spirit of God. Only then will others recognise that God is among us (v.25).
Chapter 15 takes us on to consider the fulfilment of divine purpose when Christ will be seen as Head over all creation. This is the glorious consummation of all that God has intended. Christ is central to this as well as being the One who accomplishes it.
Chapter 16 includes practical exhortations which are all based on the need for the saints to show the care for each other that would be expected from members of the same body.
When Paul introduces the subject of Headship explicitly in chapter 11, he encourages the Corinthians to follow his example as he is following Christ. The Headship of Christ is the foundation on which he has built his life, and everything that he is teaching here rested on the same foundation. If we have a right appreciation of the Headship of Christ, we will not be drawn away into any of the issues that are addressed in this epistle. Paul starts by commending the saints for the obedience they have already shown to what he had already set out. Clearly he has taught a pattern of what was expected of them and they have followed up to this point.
In the goodness of God, their circumstances mean that the truth of Headship has now been set out for us in a way which can only be overlooked at our peril. It is no exaggeration to say that the Headship of Christ is the pivot around which the whole epistle revolves, and around which our lives should likewise revolve.
The Character of Headship
The character of the Headship is illustrated by the next two statements in 11.3. Paul states that the Head of the woman is the man and the Head of Christ is God. The second of these statements highlights that Headship does not indicate an intrinsic superiority, but rather a willing submission.
Whilst the truth of Philippians 2.1-5 is true for all, the woman may reflect the glory of the submission of Christ to God by her submission to the man in a way that the man cannot because there are times when a man must take a lead. In the home, the husband or father is responsible as Head of the house. He has to give a lead to the family because he is responsible to the Lord. He will be called to account for his actions in the same way as the Lord held Adam responsible for sin at the Fall in the beginning. Unless asked to contradict a direct command of God, the woman must submit. In every aspect of the gatherings of the assembly, the men are responsible to lead the saints. They need to come with an exercise to do so and recognise the prompting of the Holy Spirit to fulfil their calling.
It is important for us to recognise that the principle laid down here will only work as it should if both men and women accept their place in the sight of God. If a man does not live in a way that shows his submission to Christ, he has no moral right to insist that the woman should submit to him. The statement in v.3 indicates that the man must conduct himself as the representative of Christ in the assembly in the same way as Christ was the representative of God when He lived in this world.
Against this background, the act of uncovering or covering the head in assembly gatherings is an action which symbolises the foundation of true Christian fellowship and effective witness.