It’s Stephen Covey, I believe, who’s credited with the quote, “The important thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Like most aphorisms, it’s simple to understand, but challenging to apply. Christ is the preeminent example of pretty much every life principle, and this one is no exception. But I have to admit, for quite a while I was mystified by his summative declaration from the cross: “It is finished.” Weren’t there other people to heal, disciples to train, Pharisees to annoy? The answer for the evangelical is that Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross was his ultimate goal and essential action. Another question, perhaps more practical, is how did he know. An answer comes from the intriguing, John 5:19, “Jesus gave them this answer. Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do whatever he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
Much has been made (though perhaps not enough in our go-go-go society) of the hours Christ spent alone in conversation with his Father. They were on intimate terms, so he was perfectly situated to “see” what the Father was doing. Us – not so much. It seems God understands this and graciously provides examples closer to hand. That’s what Paul is expressing in I Corinthians 11:1 when he says ” Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” It isn’t that we are not to pursue intimacy with God, but we also follow visible, tangible examples to know what is right in any given circumstance.
It’s perhaps a bit curious how I recently came upon this verse. I was actually looking at I Cor. 11:3–16, that pesky section on heads, headship, and head coverings so near and dear to the battling perspectives of “complementarians” and “egalitarians” alike. Both sides, it seems, have quite a bit to say about these contentious paragraphs. But as I pondered this section of chapter 11, I became distracted by that lonely dangling verse 1, lost as it seemed, hovering above verse 2, or surgically transplanted onto the end of chapter 10. Now I know that the biblical writers are notorious for jumping around, and I suppose Paul is no exception. Still, I’ve gained some interesting insights of late pondering the odd juxtapositions found throughout scripture, almost as if there were some overall design (wink, nod).
So, to mine along this vein, my eyes jumped to the section at the end of chapter 10, and I was met with this: “I have the right to do anything” you say – but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything” – but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good but the good of others.” (vs. 23 & 24). What follows is instruction regarding the contemporary cultural dilemma of eating food offered to idols: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (vs. 31, emphasis mine). And chapter 10 concludes thus: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” (vs 32 & 33).
Curious indeed! We seem to have a discussion of one cultural dilemma for the Church: food offered to idols, followed by another cultural dilemma: gender roles and their visual expression, bridged by that oddly dangling “Imitate me . . .”
What if Paul intended this close connection between these two dilemmas? At the close of chapter 10, Paul is identifying “the main thing,” not who eats what when, not flaunting a new found liberty, but glorifying God by behaving in a way that minimizes offense “to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God” in order that many may be saved. He wants the Corinthians to imitate him in this. It makes sense then, when Paul turns to tackle headship and head coverings, that the main thing is still the main thing. The fact that original manuscripts had no chapter divisions, and so no editorial separation here, is noteworthy. Not only in food offered to idols, a cultural dilemma no longer at issue in the 21st century church, but also regarding the expression of gender roles, a dilemma which surely remains, we are to imitate Paul by considering most highly not only what is lawful, but what edifies others and promotes the gospel.
I would contend that an important purpose of this passage is not to establish or reinforce ranking but to demonstrate the need for sensitivity to cultural norms for the purpose of eliminating distracting social noise that can so easily undercut the honor of God and the advancement of the gospel.
It’s worth noting that Paul lays out the culturally accepted understanding of gender correspondence in verse 8 and then disrupts that correspondence in verses 11 & 12. I see a correlation here to verses 27-30 of chapter 10 where Paul describes a responsible way to navigate the quandary regarding food potentially offered to idols. What is important has less to do with the outward act and much more to do with conscience and perception. Remember, Paul declares just a few chapters earlier that “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing (7:16). That in chapter 11 he would be theologically adamant about head covering or even strict gender roles is worth questioning. Instead is it not more likely that Paul, the great multiculturalist, is adroitly negotiating cultural diversity while staunchly adhering to the essential truth of the gospel? He could be saying to 1st and 21st century believers alike, “Imitate me. Be very alert to the social or ethnic milieu you find yourself in and adjust your behavior accordingly. Seek not our own profit ‘but the profit of many, that they may be saved.'”
Do we the Church need to wrestle with these gender issues? Certainly. My point here is to suggest a context within which to grapple. What if we included in our on-going consideration of gender the practical question, “How might God use gender here, in this circumstance, in this culture to further his work?” What might derive is a more flexible and malleable approach. At whatever point our stance – no matter how well supported – divides fellowship, at what ever point it inhibits the preaching of the gospel, at that point it is flawed. Whether complementarian or egalitarian, we must humbly consider which “traditions” we will insist upon (and when and where), and which we will willingly set aside for the sake of the gospel and the love that we owe one another. Let’s study how to keep the main thing, the main thing.
 It isn’t my intention to minimize the issue of headship raised in 11:3, but instead to focus on the importance of seeking each other’s well being in points of disagreement. For a relevant examination of the issue of headship see Gilbert Bilezikian’s article “I Believe in Male Headship” CBE International 2011.