A previous article entitled Headship, made no mention of 1 Cor. 11: 16: “But if any one think to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the assemblies of God”. What does this verse mean?
Verse 16 is the conclusion of Paul’s explanation of the doctrine of headship and the symbolism of its acceptance seen in the head–covering. The substance of this doctrine is given in verses 4–5: “Every man praying or prophesying, having [anything] on his head, puts his head to shame. But every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered puts her own head to shame; for it is one and the same as a shaved [woman].”
Some have argued that the sense of verse 16 is ‘we have no such custom of coverings’. Hence if anyone disagreed with the apostle, then for the sake of harmony Paul would not press the matter, and would retract what he had just introduced. This explanation begs the question as to why the Spirit of God saw fit to record the passage at all. Was it to teach us that we can adopt a take–it–or–leave–it attitude to the apostle’s teaching? Definitely not, because if the ultimate arbiter of Christian doctrine is to be its acceptability or otherwise to professing Christians then the authority of the Word has been taken away. What kind of God is it who seeks our approval of what He has to say? And what is man, that he can deign to sit in judgment on the words of the Almighty?
Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ and the instructions that he delivered to the Corinthian saints carried apostolic authority. Those directions that dealt specifically with headship (vs 3–15) carried the same authority as the teaching Paul had previously given them, and which they had already obeyed. It is clear from verse 2 that the directions were presented for their obedience and not for an examination of their perceived merit or otherwise. The NT Scriptures were not as yet written, but what the apostle laid down orally as doctrine (comp. 2 Tim. 2: 2) carried with it divine authority. If we deny this, then what does Acts 18: 11 mean: “And he remained [there]”—Corinth—“a year and six months, teaching among them the word of God”?
A more intelligent explanation of verse 16 is that the word custom refers to being contentious and thus the Apostle is saying that he and the saints generally were not contentious, that is had no such custom of contention, and neither should the Corinthians. The word custom is thus made to apply to an attitude of the mind. However, scholars tell us that the Greek word implies not so much a mental habit as a usage—what a person does—thus excluding such an interpretation. We can see this clearly in John 18: 39, the only other occurrence of the word in the Scriptures.
The word used for custom is sunetheia. This is not the normal word (ethos) but has a prefix (sun) attached which means with. The word conveys the idea of a practice allowing persons to live together in harmony with one another. Thus in John 18: 39 Pilate reminded the Jews of the custom of the Romans releasing a prisoner at the feast. The occupying power did not have to do this but it served as a sop to the conquered Jews allowing a little more harmony between Romans and Jews living in conditions which often gave rise to conflict. It is not without significance that the individual released was a political prisoner (see Mark 15: 7).
Thus Paul’s final argument in 1 Cor. 11 for the truth of headship is one of custom (in the sense of that which promotes harmony) among the saints. How could “any one think to be contentious” (v16)? Only by having in mind a custom other than that which Paul had just argued for and was accepted by both the apostles and assemblies of God generally. Whatever that other custom might be Paul says, “we have no such custom, nor the assemblies of God”. There was no custom promoting harmony other than the one already laid down by the apostles. The emphatic “we” in verse 16 would hardly be the writers Paul and the brother Sosthenes (see 1 Cor. 1: 1) but the “we” of apostolic authority as in 1 Cor. 4: 8, 9. The mention of other assemblies occurs again later in regard to disorder (the opposite of harmony) when he says “For God is not [a God] of disorder but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints” (1 Cor. 14: 33). It would be a serious matter indeed to range oneself against what the apostles had laid down and what Christians generally were still practising. Hence if we would seek to be pleasing to the Lord we will subject ourselves to what Paul says in 1 Cor. 11: 3–15.