Friday, 5 July 2013

Female Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (Part 5 of 5): Summary, Application, and Conclusion

     For many, the difficulty in interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 seems to rest on two underlying assumptions: (1) if what Paul has written is taken at face value, it cannot be harmonized with the context; and (2) if the context is considered, what Paul has written cannot be taken at face value. Thus the passage has a long history of being modified (distorted) by well-intentioned translators and interpreters, while the apostle’s original purpose remains aloof. However, the inspired text does not need additions or alterations for a reasonable and consistent understanding of it to be attained.
     Precise knowledge of the occasion which prompted Paul’s directives is unavailable to modern exegetes. The best we can do is to reconstruct, as closely as possible, a scenario that is consistent with the information provided by the passage itself and its surrounding context. The popular conjecture that the women at Corinth were engaged in a defiant emancipation movement, casting off their head-coverings and flaunting their independence, is untenable. Nothing in Paul’s discourse, or anywhere else in the New Testament, warrants this supposition.
     The Christian ladies at Corinth were probably meeting in private homes to pray and/or prophesy. Gatherings restricted to females (inclusive of children) would have been the only settings in which they could legitimately exercise their gifts and fulfill certain ministries (cf. 14:34-35; Titus 2:3-4). Some of these women might have questioned the necessity of wearing headdresses in the home, especially when no men were present. Should they have the right to uncover their heads in these situations? If others reacted against this notion and sought to bind the head-covering in every circumstance as a matter of faith and religious law, the resulting conflict needed the wise counsel of the apostle Paul.
     On one hand, should women be denied the right to decide in matters of personal expediency, and should a man-made tradition be sanctioned as a matter of objective faith? On the other hand, should the more sensitive and conscientious brethren be dismissed, with the potential of weaker Christians being caused to stumble (cf. 8:9-13) and unbelievers being offended or left with the wrong impression (cf. 10:23-32)?
     Paul does not formulate a rule they had to follow but offers a few reasonable premises and then calls on them to make their own decision. Female submissiveness is according to God’s design, so a Christian ought to be careful not to do something that might give the impression that this arrangement is being disrespected or ignored. In ancient Corinth men were not expected to routinely cover their heads, with the opposite applying to the opposite gender. A Christian woman, therefore, in her demeanor and appearance, especially when engaged in religious activity, should modestly reflect her God-given submissive role.
     At the same time, she ought to have freedom over her head and be trusted to use it responsibly. In the Lord neither man nor woman is independent of the other, and all things are from God. You [Corinthians] must decide among yourselves, already knowing what is proper. But if it is going to generate strife, be aware that “we do not have such a custom,”1 i.e. this is not a religious mandate. As a social convention it should not be an issue that causes disputes among brethren.
     This passage makes more sense when read through mid-first-century Corinthian glasses. For example, Paul goes on to say to the very same readership, “greet one another with a sacred kiss” (16:20b). Does this mean that modern-day Christians in western cultures ought to be kissing each other as the divinely ordained mode of interaction? We understand that the apostle is not initiating a new and distinct form of greeting for all churches of all times. He is simply regulating the customary kiss-greeting already practiced by his mid-first-century Corinthian audience. In other words, when they greet one another in the conventional way, they are to make sure it is done in a sacred manner for a holy purpose.
     The conscientious Bible student will begin his/her investigation of any biblical text by considering what the inspired writer was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they would have understood the message in the context in which it was first communicated. When this is the preliminary focus, one is in a much better position to correctly interpret and apply the sacred writings as they were intended (see Biblical Interpretation: Asking the Right Questions).
     The question is not whether Paul’s teachings should be applied today, but rather how the directives and underlying principles should be understood and observed. For example, to dress modestly is a biblical principle, but how does it apply? In 1st-century Ephesus is was applied by women not wearing braided hair or expensive jewelry and clothing (1 Timothy 2:9). In 19th-century Europe it was applied by ladies not wearing skirts above their ankles. In 21st-century Saudi Arabia it is applied by women not exposing their hair or faces. Just because braided hair no longer betokens immodesty in most cultures today, the underlying principle is still valid.
     Seeing that the issue in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 involves culturally relevant symbols, other means which sustain the same principles may be acceptable in different historical and cultural settings (akin to the kiss-greeting, feet washing, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, etc.).2 The enduring principles include (1) God’s hierarchical arrangement = God-Christ-man-woman, (2) consistency of Christian behavior, (3) the sanctity of spiritual service kept separate from anything shameful, (4) Christian freedom and responsibility, (5) natural gender distinctions, (6) divinely appointed gender roles, (7) Christian demeanor involving purity and decency, and (8) living in harmony with customs that are right within themselves.
     The means of expressing these principles in mid-first-century Corinth involved women having long hair and covering their heads, with the opposite applying to men. While the principles remain relevant today, the symbols do not, unless one’s cultural conventions are similar to those of the original addressees. It is a mistake to wrest a local directive from the circumstance in which it was given and transform it into a universal decree.3
     In societies where being unveiled is not “one and the same [thing] as the one having been shaved,” it would seem that the appeal to “let her continue to have her [head] covered” would not be directly applicable. Where else would a conditional pronouncement be obligatory when the condition was no longer true? “While the logical conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing is that it is not necessary for women to wear a hat or other head-covering, Christian women, nevertheless, in their dress and behavior will always comply with the accepted conventions consistent with decorum.”4
     What about those who wish to bind the precise details of this passage and insist that ladies cover their heads in worship assemblies today? An initial response is one of consistency. Where in this passage is the wearing of a headdress restricted to the corporate worship assembly? If the headdress symbolizes modesty and submission, should not modesty and submission be manifested outside the assembly as well?     
     The meaning of the head-covering was clear to those living in ancient Corinth, but the same is not true for those living in 21st-century western societies. Seeing that Paul is appealing to social disgrace and shame, collective judgment and propriety, and cultural normalcy, the enforcement of the head-covering in cultures where such is not the norm would reverse the purpose of these directives. God’s people are most certainly to be different from the world, yet we are not totally divorced from our environment. Granted, secular society does not set the standard for what is right, but at least in some circumstances it can help define what is improper and offensive.
     If a Christian woman chooses to wear a head-covering today, she has the right to do so. If a Christian woman chooses not to cover her head, if it is not expected in her culture, she has the right not to do so. The wearing or not wearing of a head-covering is a matter of personal liberty and is not a collective work of the church. If one woman is veiled in an assembly and another is not, neither affects the activity of the other. Both are individually responsible before God.
     Brethren who differ on this matter can still work and worship together, as long as proper attitudes are manifested, opinions are not bound, and consciences are not violated. “There are some issues over which brethren may disagree without any break in fellowship, and wise Christians generally recognize this” (W. Jackson, A Sign of Authority 21).
     Every woman who exhibits a sincere desire to please the Lord and humbly fulfills her divinely ordained role deserves utmost admiration and respect. May all who approach this passage of scripture do so with humility and reverence, avoiding extremes, and seeking to comprehend and obey its timeless message.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations in English are the author's own translation.
     2 While the head-covering no longer expresses the same symbolism that it once did, this alone is not sufficient grounds for rejecting it. After all, the symbolism of baptism and the Lord's Supper requires instruction for the meaning to be understood. But unlike baptism and the Lord's Supper, the significance of women covering or uncovering their heads was already established in ancient eastern societies. Paul is not telling ladies to cover their heads. His arguments concern women, who ordinarily cover their heads, not removing the coverings while praying or prophesying.
     3 Cf. L. Morris, First Corinthians 156. “It seems that Paul was asking the Corinthians to follow a normal cultural practice that in that day reflected an understanding that God has created men and women to function in different roles. As long as men and women today are not communicating by their dress that the creative order and distinctions are done away, they are being obedient to this passage” (K. T. Wilson, “Should Women Wear Headcoverings?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148 [Oct.–Dec. 1991]: 461).
     4 W. J. Martin, “I Corinthians 11:2-16: An Interpretaion,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel. Eds. W. W. Gasque and R. P. Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970): 239 n. 3.

Related PostsFemale Head-coverings (Part 1)Part 2Part 3Part 4

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  1. Great series of articles on this subject. Thank you so much!

  2. Hello - I just wanted to say that I believe that Paul is quoting a faction of men from Corinth who wrote him in verses 4-6. The reason why I believe this is because I believe that Jesus Christ (not man) is the image and glory of God. (See below for the following Scripture which states this.) Indeed, only Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh. Therefore, only Jesus Christ is the image and glory of God.

    3"And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (2 Corinthians 4: 3-4)

    15"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Colossians 1: 15)

    3"And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature..." (Hebrews 1: 3)

    23"And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb." (Revelation 21: 23)

    So when Paul states that a man ought not to veil his head (vs. 7) I believe that he is referring back to his model (vs. 3) where he states "3But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man..." And the reason why Paul does this is because he is using Jesus Christ as a correlation as to why women should not be veiled. Anyway, this is just what I believe. God bless

  3. Kevin,
    Your articles were very helpful. I appreciate your research on this topic, and it has helped me tremendously.
    Thank you.

  4. Thank you Kevin for your series of lessons. I feel much more educated on the verses presented.