Bible Study with Jairus – 1 Corinthians 11
1 Corinthians 11 introduces a perplexing question. If the chapter seems to instruct women to cover their heads, why do so few Christians practice this today? Furthermore, the passage says that women should keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). How should this be applied to today’s world?
These questions can be confusing to today’s generation of Christians. Are Paul’s words intended for a specific time and situation, or are they general principles of God for the entire Church? In other words, are Paul’s words meant to be God’s unchanging principles, or are they flexible guidance for specific contexts?
Different churches have different understandings of this. Some people regard Paul’s words as a universal principle given by the Holy Spirit. They require women to cover their heads and to avoid preaching. But other churches believe Paul’s commands addressed specific social circumstances of the time, and there’s no need to enforce it rigidly today.
The church’s position on this issue has split into two camps, conservative and liberal. Conservative churches often do not allow women to serve as pastors. But there are many female pastors in liberal churches. Some liberal churches even allow homosexuals to serve as pastors.
How should Christians understand Paul’s controversial words? When we study the Bible, we must understand the difference between God’s unchanging principles and his specific guidance for individual circumstances. God’s principles apply to all times and places, whereas his leading does not. We must always keep this difference in mind.
How to distinguish between God’s principles and his guidance.
Christians have commonly made the error of confusing God’s unchanging principles with his leading. God’s principles reflect his unchanging nature, and they always involve his glory. His leading does not.
Brother Witness Lee gave a helpful example to illustrate the difference between God’s principles and His leading. What if a young bridesmaid is trying to decide whether or not to wear a miniskirt at a wedding held at the church. This is a matter of God’s unchanging principles. Wearing a miniskirt is not proper because the church is a holy place. Indecency is not acceptable. Miniskirts are not allowed in the church, regardless of time or location. 
What about other wedding decisions, such as details about specific time, place, colors, food,? etc. These decisions are matters of God’s leading. No matter what you decide, you will not violate God’s glory and principles. You may want to seek his specific leading, but you realize that your decision does not involve issues of right or wrong.
The Bible tells us that God’s principles are unchanging. For example, many of the stipulations in the law given by Moses are related to God’s principles. Some commands—“Do not kill, do not take the name of the Lord in vain, do not worship idols, honor your parents, do not covet, do not commit adultery”—are for all people at all times. Disobeying these commands is sin and all who sin will fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). These commands should be respected universally. The law often reveals God’s principles. Disobedience to these principles offends the glory of God.
On the other hand, prophets often gave specific messages that were unique to a particular time and place. Each Old Testament prophet spoke different messages to different groups of people in different circumstances. Prophets communicated God’s specific leading to individuals. The law and the prophets, two main segments of the Old Testament, demonstrate these two aspects of God’s revelation – God’s principles and His leading.
At times, God’s principles and His leading can overlap. For example, the command to respect the Sabbath was an important law included in the Ten Commandments. However, this law was abolished after the Lord Jesus came. Many Christians make a distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. A moral law will never change, while a ceremonial law can be abolished. Many believe that the Sabbath was a ceremonial law.
The Sabbath regulations reflect both God’s principles and His leading. God’s principles are revealed through his mercy. Because of his mercy, God chose the Jews and commanded that they should observe the Sabbath. The purpose of the Sabbath was to give God’s people spiritual and physical rest, helping them stay pure until the birth of Christ as Savior of mankind. Now that Christ has come, that purpose is fulfilled.
As Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8), Jesus could heal a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-5) and eat grain with his disciples on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1). In the story recorded in Mark 3, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. The passage specifically mentions that these Jews were hoping to find something to accuse Jesus of. Jesus asked them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. The Lord Jesus was angry and grieved at their hardness of heart (Mark 3:4-5). After Jesus healed the man, the Pharisees went out and consulted with the Herodians about how to kill Him (Mark 3:6).
When Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath, he was reflecting God’s unchanging principles and nature. Jesus showed God’s tender mercy and demonstrated that He is the Savior. The Sabbath pointed toward the birth of our Savior, who would bring healing on the Sabbath. The Sabbath demonstrates God’s nature and his mercy. On the subject of the Sabbath, God’s leading in the New Testament differs from His leading in the Old Testament. Although God’s leading has changed, His principles have remained the same.
The Pharisees failed to recognize the difference between God’s principles and His leading. They mistakenly confused God’s past leading with his unchanging nature and principles. They turned God’s word into unchanging dogma, killed the Lord Jesus, and persecuted many Christians.
The Pharisees are not the only ones who have made this mistake. How many people in the church throughout the ages have committed the same mistake? Many denominations have tried to turn God’s past leading into unchanging principles and unyielding dogma. They have equated God’s specific leading for specific denominational leaders with universal truth. As a result, they were unable to move forward and seek God’s leading for a new era. They became stumbling blocks to God’s fresh guidance.
Let’s look at some examples that will help you learn to tell the difference between God’s principles and His leading.
A Story about Head Coverings
I was saved in the Local Church Movement. Watchman Nee, the founder of the Local Church Movement, had a spiritual friendship with Brother Theodore Austin-Sparks. Theodore is an important figure in the British Inner life movement. He once studied under Mrs. Jessie Penn-Lewis, an important figure in the Inner Life movement. Both had an important impact on Watchman Nee and later the Local Church Movement.
Watchman Nee taught that women should cover their heads, so many women in the Local Church Movement did so. Initially, I observed that women covered their heads automatically after they realized that they should obey men’s spiritual truth. Later, many students who came to the United States from China were saved. No one forced these new immigrants to cover their heads. There are still some older women in the church who cover their heads, but this is never the main truth taught by the church.
After Brother Watchman Nee was imprisoned, Brother Witness Lee went to Taiwan to continue building the Local Church. He also continued to have fellowship with Brother Theodore and invited him to serve in Taiwan. But later, the two of them got into a disagreement. One main reason for their conflict was the “one church, one city” doctrine, a controversial topic that Theodore criticized. Another reason for their conflict was the issue of head coverings and culture.
Brother Witness Lee told the following story in his book. When Brother Theodore saw the Taiwanese soldiers wearing hats in the meeting hall, he criticized them. He told them that covering their heads was not in line with the Bible. However, Brother Theodore was using the culture of the West to judge the culture of the East. He was not basing his assessment on the truth of the Bible.
In Chinese culture, soldiers are not allowed to remove their hats. Therefore, all the military brothers who attended the meeting kept their hats on before and after the meeting. During the meeting, they took off their hats to show respect for the Lord, but they put them back on as soon as the meeting was over. 
Brother Theodore hastily condemned these military brothers because he did not know that wearing hats was required by the military. These military brothers were doing their best to glorify the Lord. By the rules of their Eastern culture, they were pleasing to the Lord. Because he was looking at them with Western eyes, Theodore thought the men were sinfully covering their heads.
I believe God’s specific leading is unique for these military brothers in the context of Chinese culture. As soldiers, they must obey military orders. As Christians, they should take off their hats during the meeting. But after it is over, they may put their hats back on to remain in compliance. This not only glorifies the Lord but also abides by the military regulations of the secular society.
Applying these principles is a subtle balance. Theodore, who didn’t understand Eastern culture, hastily condemned these military brothers for covering their heads. He mistakenly confused God’s leading with God’s unchanging principles.
A story of Kaifeng Jews
The story of the Kaifeng Jews also illustrates the principle of God’s principles and God’s leading. Matteo Ricci came to China as a missionary in 1583 and established a good relationship with the Chinese emperor and the scholar-official class. He was in a good position to spread the Gospel among the Chinese.
Ai Tian, a Jew from Kaifeng, went to Beijing to take the official exam. Hearing about a Westerner who believed in one true God as he did, he went to see Matteo Ricci. Ai Tian believed that Matteo Ricci was a Jew. When he saw a picture of Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist in Ricci’s house, he thought they were images of Rebecca and her sons Isaac and Jacob.
Matteo Ricci, on the other hand, thought that Ai Tian was a Nestorian believer. Only later did he discover that Ai Tian was a Jew. Matteo Ricci wanted the Jewish community to come to know the Messiah, so he sent messengers to the Jewish community in Kaifeng to investigate. After investigating, they found that the Jews had integrated with the local Chinese culture to a considerable degree. They had combined the Chinese tradition of ancestor worship and emperor worship with their own belief that they should not worship idols. Chinese Jews placed God’s name above the emperor’s name on the plaque they were worshiping. When they worshiped, they worshiped God and ignored the emperor’s name.
This story of synchronism sparked debate in the Holy See. Matteo Ricci and his fellow Jesuits explained that the Chinese people were only honoring their ancestors and not worshipping them as idols, just like the Jews honored their ancestors. They asked that the Chinese be given some space so that the gospel could continue to spread in China.
But the other faction had a different view. They were jealous of Matteo Ricci’s success in China, and they opposed his point of view. They insisted that Chinese ancestor worship was idolatry and should not be tolerated. In the end, this faction won. The Holy See ruled that Chinese ancestor worship was idolatry. As a result, the Chinese emperor banned the spread of Christianity in China.
I think this example demonstrates the importance of differentiating between God’s principles (don’t worship idols) and His leading (evangelism in China). I feel it’s a great pity that the Holy See at that time did not find a way to balance the two. Their choice led to the ban of Christianity in China and delayed the propagation of the Gospel among the Chinese for hundreds of years. If they had taken a more balanced approach, perhaps China’s story would have been very different.
Some believe that when Paul commanded the Corinthian men not to cover their heads, he was referring to the fact that men in Roman times often covered their heads when they went to worship idols. They say that Paul commanded the believers not to cover their heads to avoid an association with idol worship. This command lies within the scope of God’s principles. Paul also said that men are the glory of God, so they should not cover their heads (1 Corinthians 11:7). This statement may have been directed towards the customs of Roman men at that time – covering their heads when they worshiped idols.
Some believe that the same concept applies to women as well. Perhaps Paul was instructing that women should cover their heads because the city of Corinth was very promiscuous, and covering their heads would protect them.
These statements are worth considering, but let’s look at the biblical records. When talking about men not covering their heads (1 Corinthians 11:4) and women covering their heads (1 Corinthians 11:5), Paul mentioned two contexts: “praying” and “prophesying.” How do we explain this? How should we respond to what Paul said? Was Paul expressing God’s firm and unchanging principles? Or was Paul giving specific guidance for a particular situation?
I don’t have a specific answer with regards to the head covering here. But my main point is this: we must not use God’s words as mechanical, lifeless dogma but as living principles that apply in fresh ways in every era. If God’s guidance on the Sabbath could change between the Old Testament and the New Testament, then we should not be dogmatic about this command.
Rick Joyner told a story about a vision he had. He said that Paul appeared to him in a vision and said, “The modern church has highly exalted my writings. Churches should not allow my words to evaluate the words of the Lord in the four Gospels. Instead, they should use the words of the Lord to evaluate my works.”
According to Rick Joyner, most exegetical writings since the Reformation have revolved around Paul’s letters. Of course, much of this is good. These writings help us better understand Paul’s letters.
At the same time, we must be careful not to exalt Paul’s teachings too much. We should not equate Paul’s specific guidance in this passage with the eternal and unchanging principles of God.
Wisely discern God’s principles and His leading
Everyone has different interpretations of this passage on head coverings. We must learn to differentiate between God’s principles and His leading. This mindset can help us learn to accurately apply the Bible’s teachings to our lives.
To make this distinction, we must ask ourselves, “Does this command relate to God’s unchanging nature and glory?” If so, the command should not be compromised. On the other hand, if the command is related to God’s specific leading for a specific situation, we are free to make bold changes. We can apply this principle to every area of life and Christian ministry.
Are there any traditions in your church that are hindering Christ and the Holy Spirit? Perhaps God led your denomination’s leaders to make specific decisions in the past. However, God’s leading may be different for you in your current context. Ask yourself, “If I make changes, will it tarnish God’s glory?” If so, it’s a question of principles; you must not make changes. However, if the change only affects your tradition rather than God’s glory, this decision falls within the scope of God’s leading. You can make bold changes.
For example, some churches do not allow the use of any musical instruments in worship. Others restrict themselves to specific musical instruments. Applying the above principles, we can realize that God’s glory will not be tarnished if we use musical instruments in worship. The use of instruments does not cause us to fall short of God’s glory. Rather, we can glorify God as we worship him with musical instruments. Such a change falls into the category of God’s leading. We are free to be flexible and adapt to today’s culture. Churches that firmly oppose the use of musical instruments are living in legalism and dogmatism. They need to be set free from this. They are following the traditions of men, not the word of God.
Let’s look at another example. Some churches teach that women cannot be pastors and that only men can baptize. However, in the early days of church planting in rural China, churches were composed entirely of women, older people, and children. There were no men at all. The only ones who were familiar with the Bible were women. Naturally, they took on the role of spiritual leaders and baptizers. In addition, the government monitored men stringently, and men were often busy with work. The government’s monitoring of women was relatively lax. Therefore, in the early days of rural churches in China, many women served as leaders. I think that this demonstrates God’s leading at that place and at that time. Under such circumstances, it was logical for women to serve as spiritual leaders. They did not fall short of God’s glory; instead, they demonstrated His glory.
However, Paul was speaking to another cultural context in 1 Corinthians 11. Perhaps there were women in the church who were challenging Paul’s authority and rebuking him for being humble (or timid) (2 Corinthians 10:1). In addition, they didn’t cover their heads or remain silent. Perhaps that’s why Paul said that it was better for women to cover their heads and keep silent. His command was appropriate for the context of the period.
The concept of differentiating between God’s principles and leading can help you better understand His words and follow His leading in your life. Of course, we must never tamper with God’s words. At the same time, we must never use God’s word mechanically or dogmatically. Instead, we should remember that in any situation, God will reveal his unchanging nature and guide us in the way we should go.