When Humpty Dumpty Sat on the Church Wall

A Study of 1 Corinthians 11

Introduction: When we were children, we learned a little nursery rhyme that said: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. / All the king’s horse and all the king’s men / couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. There have been all kinds of meanings attributed to this nursery rhyme. Papers and monographs have been written about it. Some have claimed that this was originally a riddle about an egg. Some have claimed that Humpty Dumpty was an alcoholic beverage in long-ago England. Some have claimed it was written by a critic about King Richard III of England. Recent research has discovered a new theory, that the nursery rhyme was referring to a cannon mounted on the wall at the church in Colchester, in England. According to this theory, a church in Colchester had a good defensive location and was used by the local army who mounted a cannon on the wall and called it Humpty Dumpty. But when an incoming cannon ball from the enemy stuck the wall, Humpty Dumpty went tumbling down. That was the end of the cannon on the church’s wall, and the end of the defensive efforts mounted from the church’s grounds.

Well, I don’t know whether this is a true story or simply something invented to increase tourism to Colchester; but when it comes to the nursery rhyme itself, the moral of the story is obvious. We want our children to know that sometimes when things get broken, it is very hard to fix them. It’s better to prevent them from breaking to begin with. It’s a lesson for us adults too. Sometimes when unity is shattered it’s very hard to restore. Of course, we believe the grace of God can move into any situation and perform a miracle of restoration; but sometimes, humanly speaking, it is very hard. A marriage or a church or a denomination or a Christian group can become so fractured that it’s hard to put it back together.

That had happened in the city of Corinth, and the Apostle Paul was doing his best to put things back together. He was trying to patch up the church. In the book of 1 Corinthians he has dealt with one subject after another. I think 1 Corinthians must have been exhausting for Paul to write. But he very patiently and methodically dealt with one topic after another, and we’ve worked our way through those as we’ve studied this book Sunday night after Sunday night. To review:

  • Chapters 1 – 4 deal with factions and personality cliques in the church.
  • Chapters 5 – 6a deal with church discipline and legal conflicts.
  • Chapters 6b – 7 deal with marriage, singlehood, and immorality.
  • Chapters 8 – 10 deal with Christian liberty and with areas where Christians can have legitimate differences of opinion.
  • Now in chapters 11 – 14, Paul is going to deal with worship services and various public aspects of the church’s ministry.

Here in chapter 11, Paul is going to deal with two aspects of this. The first half of the chapter deals with proper management of the church’s teaching and the last half with the proper management of the Lord’s Table.

1. Proper Management of the Church’s Teaching – 1 Corinthians 11:1-16

I want to simply read the first part of 1 Corinthians 11, and I’m pretty sure it will leave us all scratching our heads in confusion, at least the first time through. People have been trying to figure out this passage for 2000 years. In fact, the apostle Peter once complained that some of the writings of St. Paul were hard to understand. He might have been thinking of this passage. This is one passage that I don’t know if we can untangle by looking at it verse by verse. I think we have to read them all and then untangle them by isolating the basic principles Paul was trying to make. Let me give you those principles in advance. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, here are the main points:

  • Men and women can both pray and preach in the church.
  • Their teaching should always be under the authority of the leadership God has placed over that church.
  • In the Middle Eastern tradition, this was symbolized by women being veiled and by men being bareheaded. In the Roman world it was symbolized by women having long hair and men having short hair. The point isn’t hats and hair; and those cultural vogues were not meant to establish a kind of Christian fashion statement. What Paul says about hairs and hats is not some kind of everlasting set of rules; but what it symbolized – authority and propriety in worship – is.
  • We should respect this authority structure because the failure to do so is what messed up some of the angels.
  • Men and women are equal in value and essence, though they are created differently and may have different roles to play within the church, just as God the Son and God the Father are equal in value and essence, though they may have different roles to play within the Trinity.

So, with those given as clues in advance, let’s read this passage, starting with verse 2: I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.

Verse 3: But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Verse 4: Every man who prays or prophesies with his head uncovered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

Verse 7: A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for woman. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.

Now, I’m going to speculate as to why Paul wrote this. I believe he was facing a situation in Corinth where everyone taught what was right in his or her own eyes. There were some teachers in the church – some of them were apparently very strong-willed women – who didn’t want anyone telling them what to say or what not to say. They demanded to be autonomous. They didn’t want anyone reviewing the curriculum for their LifeGroups.

Here was a woman who wanted to teach a Christian version of Yoga. Here was a man who wanted to lead a course in mystical Christian transcendental meditation. Here was a group holding classes in Jewish rituals. Here was a woman teaching some fanatical variation of Second Coming truth. Here was someone teaching how to speak in tongues and someone else teaching a class on the Prosperity Gospel. They wanted to teach what they wanted to teach without accountability. It was chaotic, and Paul wanted to get these local church lay teachers under a system of healthy accountability. I believe in that. I’ve heard of people who start churches with no boards, no elders, no deacons. They don’t want any accountability. It’s easy to veer off into false doctrine when you do that. This is why all the way through the book of Acts and the epistles we’re told to establish a goodly leadership team in local churches. This is why I function under the accountability of the deacons here at TDF. Paul was trying to correct this problem in the city of Corinth.

First, he said, both men and women can pray and preach in the church. This seems quite clear to me when you look at the first words of verse 4 and the first words of verse 5:

  • Verse 4: Every man who prays or prophesies (preaches)…
  • Verse 5: Every woman who prays or prophesies (preaches)…

The assumption is that both men and women can pray and preach if they do so under the correct authority. The problem comes when they don’t want to minister under the authorities God has established. That leads to the next principle…

Second, when a man does pray or preach, he should do so under authority; and when a woman prays or preaches she should do so under authority. Their teaching should always be under the authority of the leadership God has placed over the church.

Third, In the Middle Eastern tradition, this was symbolized by women being veiled and by men being bareheaded. In the Roman world it was symbolized by women having long hair and men having short hair. I think it helps us to realize that we have some very similar customs in our own day and age. For example, in the Middle East and in Muslim lands, women are veiled. In some very conservative Arab countries women are completely covered. That seems crazy to me, oppressive, and even evil. And yet when you see an American female journalist from CNN or some other network reporting from, say, Saudi Arabia, they will very likely have a scarf over the heads. It is a sign of submission. Of course, even here in the United States there are some Amish-related groups in which the women always wear little hats or veils. They take this passage in 1 Corinthians more literally than I do. In a sort of similar way, here in the United States when you go to a ballgame and they play the American national anthem, what do the men do? We remove our hats. There are still some strong feelings about men wearing baseball caps and such in church. Several years ago, I asked a young man to help teach my Midweek Class on Wednesday nights. He was a great teacher, but he wore his baseball cap during the lesson. He had no idea it was considered improper by some; and I never even noticed it. But one day one of the older men in the class pulled me aside and complained about it. To this man, it was disrespectful. It’s not a problem to me, because I don’t like to wear caps or hats, although on occasion in Israel I’ve worn a hat while teaching the Bible in the hot sun to protect me from the withering heat. And, of course, you have to look at both sides of the coin. If you don’t allow men to wear baseball caps when they teach the Bible, does that mean that all women should wear hats when they pray or teach the Bible? Well, it’s not worth debating about as far as I’m concerned. I want us all to be respectful, and there are undoubtedly some generational differences. I want us all to be respectful. But I do not believe the point here was hats and hair. Those were first century fashion statements that conveyed messages in that culture about respect for authority. What Paul says about hairs and hats is not some kind of everlasting set of rules; but what it symbolized – authority and propriety in worship – is.

Fourth, we should respect this authority structure because this is what messed up some of the angels. Verse 10 is a confusing verse in a confusing passage. It says: For this reason, a woman ought to have authority over her own head (or a sign of authority on her head—margin) because of the angels. What do angels have to do with it? I can think of three possible interpretations, although I don’t know which is right.

  1. Perhaps Paul means that since the angels are always observing us and worshipping alongside us and visiting us unseen, we want them to be joyful and untroubled in our fellowship. Since the angels are always invisible but present, make sure you do things correctly.
  2. Perhaps he means that since the angels are orderly and subject to levels of authority, responsibility, and accountability, we should be the same in our churches.
  3. Perhaps – and this is my preferred take on it – we should learn from the fallen angels what happens with we want to be totally autonomous. In the book of Jude, we have a strong warning about false teachers in the church who want to be autonomous and who want to teach with no accountability. He said: Dear friends… I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals… have slipped in among you. They are ungodly people… I want to remind you… (They are like) the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these He has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.

And then, Paul uses this occasion to remind us that men and women are equal in value and essence, though they are created differently and may have different roles to play within the church, just as God the Son and God the Father are equal in value and essence, though they may have different roles to play within the Trinity. He tells us that Eve came out of Adam, but men are born out of women, and so we are equal in nature and essence. So this is the best I can do with this passage in the amount of time we have.

  • Men and women can both pray and preach in the church.
  • Their teaching should always be under the authority of the leadership God has placed over the church.
  • In the Middle Eastern tradition, this was symbolized by women being veiled and by men being bareheaded. We have some parallels in today’s culture that may help us understand that.
  • We should respect this authority structure because the disregard for authority is what messed up some of the angels.
  • Men and women are equal in value and essence, though they are created differently and may have different roles to play within the church, just as God the Son and God the Father are equal in value and essence, though they may have different roles to play within the Trinity.

2. Proper Management of the Lord’s Table – 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

The last half of the chapter has to do with the proper management of the Lord’s Table. Paul says the most remarkable thing in verse 17. He tells them that their Communion Services are doing more harm than good. Apparently in the New Testament church, the Lord Supper was often or always part of a complete meal. The church would gather and have Fellowship Suppers and perhaps at the end of it they would pass the bread and cup of the Last Supper and observe Communion. But it had deteriorated in Corinth, and some people were stuffing themselves, eating and drinking too much, and even drunk—and then observing the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. And in verse 30, Paul indicated that this abuse of the Lord’s Supper had brought the judgment of God on some of them in the form of illness and even of death.

The observance of the Lord’s Supper is a memorial to his death. Verse 23 says: For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper, He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me. For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Conclusion: Dr. W. A. Criswell once wrote that the Lord’s Supper is, first of all, a memorial to the atoning death of our Savior. His words have always helped me understand Communion in a fresh way. Criswell said, “There are many kinds of memorials on the earth.  If you have ever been to Washington, D.C., you have seen there the tall, monolithic marble monument to the Father of our country–the Washington Monument. In Egypt, you can see many towering obelisks. Sometimes a monument will take the form of a mausoleum. In India, you will see the most beautiful mausoleum in the world–the Taj Mahal–built by Shah Jahan in memory of a beloved wife. But our Lord did not create a monument out of marble to bring to us the memory of our Savior’s suffering in our behalf. In fact, this memorial is not in the form of any kind of structure. He did it in a primeval, fundamental, and basic way–by eating and drinking–and this simple memorial is to be repeated again and again and again.  The broken break recalls for us His torn body, and the crimson of the cup reminds us of the blood poured out upon the earth for the remission of sins.”


[i] W. A. Criswell, Great Doctrines of the Bible, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1983), p. 83.

 

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