Mailbag #73: Dealing with Cultural Commands in 1 Corinthians 11 . . . Must All Elders Be Teachers?


How should we interpret the passages in 1 Corinthians 11 about women cutting their hair? »
Should all elders be teachers, or must they merely be capable of teaching?»

Dear 9Marks,

My denomination has interpreted the “hair” passages in 1 Corinthians 11 to mean that a woman should not cut (or even trim) her hair, but should rather let it grow out to its natural length. This is a test of church membership and any woman in violation of this rule may not teach Sunday School, become a voting member, or participate in church ministry in any meaningful way. As a result of my upbringing, I have always struggled to see any woman who cuts her hair as a truly spiritual, godly women (I am aware that 95% of the church does not interpret 1 Corinthians in the way my denomination does).

How should Christians approach this issue? I am struggling to understand how evangelicals dismiss 1 Corinthians 11 as cultural while maintaining our commitment to the authority of Scripture. Doesn’t this do damage to our position against homosexuality, abortion, and other clear sins? I want to get this right but I’m beginning to wonder if my church has missed it on this issue.


Dear Luke,

I asked my former seminary professor and one-time pastor Thomas R. Schreiner to answer this one. So, without further adieu:

The question is excellent since our desire is (or should be!) to practice whatever Scripture teaches. First Corinthians 11:2–16 clearly teaches role differences between men and women, for we see:

  • Male headship (v. 3)
  • Eve came from Adam (v. 8)
  • Women were created for men’s sake (v. 9)
  • Women should adorn themselves properly because of the angels (v. 10)

Yet scholars disagree about whether women were commanded to wear a head-covering during worship, or were they required to not let their hair fall onto their shoulders but to wear it up on their head in a bun? Very few interpreters think the passage says women should not cut their hair. But here’s the point: we don’t know for sure what Paul was commanding the women to do! This isn’t surprising since the text was written 2000 years ago. The best arguments, however, point to wearing a covering of some kind—not to refusing to cut one’s hair.

What do we learn from this? I think we can say the following.

  • We need to be humble with those who disagree with us since the cultural practice isn’t completely clear.
  • We respect and honor those who wear head coverings, or don’t cut their hair, or tie their head up in a bun since they are endeavoring to obey the scriptures.

Still, the point of the passage isn’t the cultural practice but the principle of male headship in marriage and the church. In most cultures today, a wife’s submission to male leadership isn’t signified by whether she wears a head-covering or how she wears her hair. Yet it doesn’t follow from this that the text doesn’t speak to us or isn’t authoritative today, for we learn from these verses that there must be distinctions between the sexes and that the leadership of the church comes from men.

We could compare Paul’s instructions about head-coverings to what he says about the holy kiss. Believers are to greet each other with a “holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Today, we’re not required to kiss one another when we greet one another. We obey this command when we greet one another warmly whether with a hug or a handshake. In the same way, the Lord doesn’t require us to replicate the culture of the first century by having women wearing head coverings when the church meets together. What is necessary is that women are submissive to male leadership in the church (of the elders).

Dear 9Marks,

I’m trying to make sure I’m rightly defining the office of elder for my congregation, and there’s one detail I’m trying to work out. I know most Presbyterian churches and many Baptist churches make a distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders, justifying it primarily with 1 Timothy 5:17.

I’m unconvinced of that common interpretation of 1 Timothy though, because everywhere I see the role of elders discussed in Scripture, it’s connected with teaching sound doctrine, indicating that leading by teaching should be the primary function of every elder. This seems to be the view taken by Desiring God, but I haven’t been able to find anything from Mark Dever or 9Marks clarifying this point.

Should all elders be teachers, or must they merely be capable of teaching?

Thank you.


Dear Reed,

You’re right, Presbyterian churches commonly make the distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders. They undergo different ordination processes, and they possess different authorities. For instance, a teaching elder can administer the ordinances and preach the weekly sermon, while a ruling elder cannot. Some even say that the differences here are significant enough to suggest Presbyterians really turn the elder office into two different offices.

I expect a random Baptist church here or there might make a similar distinction, but I’m not aware of any that do. A Baptist church like my own, instead, makes a distinction between a staff elder/pastors and a non-staff elder/pastor. They undergo the same ordination process. They possess the same formal authority. They can do the same things. The only difference is one gets paid for the work of eldering while another does not.

I, too, agree that an elder’s role centers on teaching. He must be “able to teach.” That is, he holds fast to sound doctrine and can faithfully communicate that doctrine to others. He rightly teaches the Bible (see my interpretation of “able to teach” here). This doesn’t mean every elder takes his turn in the Sunday morning pulpit. One or two might do most of that. Others will teach in other ways and in other venues. In fact, most of the teaching an elder does might be one-on-one or in other smaller, informal settings. Think of even Paul going house to house (Acts 20:20; no, I don’t think those were separate churches or campuses in Ephesus).

So what’s going on in 1 Timothy 5:17? I basically agree with David Mathis’ the Desiring God piece you alluded to. My one caveat is, “especially” might mean “that is,” such that Paul is referring to all of the elders when he refers to those who “labor in preaching and teaching.” Yet I’m also happy to say that “especially” refers to a subgroup of elders who particularly give themselves to teaching and preaching in a public and formal and therefore paid sense.

In other words, Reed, different elders will lean into different kinds of ministries in the church. They’re all able to teach. They all possess oversight. But Jim might be really good at handling crises situations, Stan really good at discipling young marrieds, Bob really good at preaching to the whole church, Phil really good at helping the elders and the church think through complex ethical issues, Mark really good at hospital visits, and so forth. Furthermore, it’s their teaching in the crisis situation, with the young marrieds, with the whole church, through the complex ethical issues, and on the hospital visits that makes them elders and not deacons. Their authority is in their teaching.

So, Paul might be using “especially” in the way Mathis describes it. Or he might be using “especially” to say, “Some of you will give yourselves to publicly teaching and preaching to the whole church. You should think about paying them to do that work on a regular basis.”

Either way, I’m happy to make a staff/non-staff distinction among the elders, and to say that all must be able to teach, even though that doesn’t mean all of them will take a turn in the Sunday morning pulpit. When a non-staff elder’s ministry (in whatever form it takes) proves so fruitful that the church thinks it would be worth paying him full time to do that work, then it might consider hiring him.

I hope that helps.