One of the strangest paragraphs in all of the New Testament is.1 Corinthians 11:2-16. And although 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is quite a bit easier to interpret, it can be challenging for the average interpreter to make sense of how this paragraph is connected to the first paragraph of the chapter. And both paragraphs can be difficult to apply to our present situation.
One connection between them is they both deal with issues of church order. I think this is part of why Paul arranges this material in the way he does, but I think there is also something else at play. I think Paul, implicitly at least, wants to bring the attention of his audience to the issue of dignity. Though he never uses the word, it seems to stand behind all he writes in this chapter. He wants his converts to act with dignity, but he also wants them to treat others with dignity.
Our Cultural Moment: The Opposite of Dignity
It seems dignity has very little to do with our cultural moment. Politicians regularly degrade others in order to gain power for themselves. Entertainers often degrade themselves in order to obtain money or fame. Average people degrade both themselves and others in order to satisfy their cravings for power, money, fame, or sex.
We in the church are not immune from this cultural moment. We, too, can be tempted by the lie that what we really need is whatever our broken hearts tell us will quell the dull ache inside. So, we sell our souls to get the latest fix, never considering how our behavior makes us less than what God wants us to be and harms those who are close to us.
I’ve done it. Maybe you have, too. It makes me sick inside. And what really astonishes me is how blind I can be to the ways that I degrade both myself and others.
Google defines dignity as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” and although other dictionaries may have more elaborate definitions, none is better for our purposes. Dignity is not something which can be merely felt or thought. It must be acted out. It must be lived.
Dignity is what Paul was calling his converts to cultivate when he wrote them the words of Chapter 11. Indeed, his words about women may sit uneasily on our modern consciences, but I am convinced he was not intending to diminish their worth. Rather, he was calling women, and men, to conduct themselves in their assemblies in ways that are appropriate to their high station in God’s created order. He was urging them not to debase themselves in order to appropriate power or seem acceptable to outsiders. He was urging them to remember the power they have already been granted through their relationships with Christ.
Likewise, the second half of the chapter urges the Corinthians to model in their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper the common identity they share in Christ. The way wealthy members of the congregation were behaving not only impacted the physical well-being of those who were less fortunate, but it also diminished their worth within the family of faith. Paul will discuss further how believers ought to relate to one another in chapters 12-14, but in the present discussion, his words served as a call to treat others as honored brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am convinced Paul would call us to rediscover the value of dignity, as well. Our women may not cover their heads when they enter into worship, but they (along with all churchgoers) should dress and act in ways that are appropriate for the august setting in which the church gathers (tha is, in the presence of God). Moreover, we must all examine how we transgress both our own dignity and that of others in order to satisfy our cravings for sex, wealth, power, and fame. With Christ’s help, we need to model for the world a different, more dignified, way of living.