Modern Applications and Interpretations
Just a local custom?
What are the implications of asserting that the head covering of 1 Corinthians 11 is only being applied to the Corinthians? It would mean, naturally, that the specific applications of the chapter are not for us to legislate in the twenty-first century. There are some indications in the text itself that this was a local custom, and not something practiced in the churches of God as a whole:
· “Christian women were covering their heads a generation or more ago. Were our forefathers wrong? Were the Christians of the 1960s and 1970s wrong? Was it truth then? Friends, God does not change and we should not change the principles of God in order to conform to this ever changing, corrupted world” (“Women, Prayer, and Head Covering”, Lynford Heron, www.centurionministry.org). But I do not agree that the head covering is a rule from God that applies to every generation and in all places. First, if this text is meant to describe a moral truth in the entire world, it is wrong. “Every man who has something on his head while praying…disgraces his head” (11:4). Jews who prayed to God throughout the Old Testament wore veils and were never in disgrace. The high priests wore turbans (Exodus 28:4, 39:28, Leviticus 16:23) and David prayed with a covering on his head (2 Samuel 15:30). So God’s opinion on covered heads does change! Perhaps in Corinth, amongst Gentiles, it would have seemed feminine for a man to perform religious acts with his head covered, but not to Jews.
· Also, there is no law in the Old Testament that required women to wear veils. There is no legislation on the matter, even though many women prayed.
· “Let her also have her hair cut off…” In Corinth, the lowest women in society shaved their hair. What Paul is saying is that if a woman is going to cast aside a mark of respect for her husband, then she ought to cast them all aside and just go whole hog.
· The fact that Paul clearly states, “Judge for yourselves” makes this a matter of opinion. He expects us to look at the matter with dignity and honesty and make a judgment for ourselves based on the conditions around us.
· This must have been something local, or else why does Paul state that there are no other regulations for the churches of God (11:16)? If this is a universal moral symbol that Paul wants all Christian women to live by, then why do we not have clear teaching on it? Why is it that we have crystal clear verses on how, when, and why to partake of the Lord’s supper, give money for the work of the church, practice discipline, perform hospitality, and every moral matter from thievery to divorce and remarriage, yet we are left with ambiguity on the matter of the head covering? If this is binding, what does the veil need to look like, when does it come on and go off, is it public or private prayers only, etc.?
Societal Customs and Godly Truths
The point about this section of scripture needs to be clear to us. The head covering itself is immaterial, friends. What is most significant is that we understand our roles in the church and in our marriages. If there is a symbol of authority that society places on men and women, we need to keep it. If there is a societal custom that represents a godly truth, then it is our duty to maintain it. In Corinth, the head covering in general society represented the woman’s role under men. Because this is a truth from God, it was necessary for the sake of outsiders (Colossians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12) to uphold this. Otherwise, how would the Christians in Corinth have looked? An outsider would have walked into the assembly, witnessing women uncovered and speaking boldly and out of place. The bravado would have been absolutely scandalous! There are some modern parallels:
· If we were to go anywhere in the world to preach the Gospel, it would be our responsibility to maintain a region’s societal customs. Missionaries in the middle east need to dress appropriately, so that their ministry can be effective, and not shocking.
· Women in certain parts of this country consider it very important to wear a head covering, so having a respect for that custom is essential in building relationships and not offending those who have a strong conviction.
· Even something as simple as attire acts as a strong symbol of certain godly truths. Sixty years ago, women would hardly have gone out in public with pants on instead of a dress. Now, women wear slacks to church regularly. It is not that women today want to offend, but that our culture is different. It is not offensive or peculiar anymore for a woman to wear a pant suit to the office. It is not startling or scandalous anymore for women to walk around in public without wearing a shawl or bonnet.
· The point of this text is to make sure that men look like men and women look like women, no matter what society’s specifics are on the matter. If it feminine to wear a head covering, then it would be a disgrace for a man to pray to God, or go anywhere for that matter in such a garment. If it is masculine for women to remove their head coverings and cut their hair, then that will be inappropriate.
Is long hair a natural covering?
“Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15). It is not that men and women have different biological capabilities when it comes to long hair. And it is also not that all societies have believed that long hair is unnatural for a man. The Spartans, for example, wore their hair quite long and considered it a symbol of honor and manhood. Samson certainly had quite long hair (Judges 14-16), as did Absalom (2 Samuel 18). But what Paul is saying is that in Corinthian society, as well as in most cultures throughout history, men with long hair are viewed as feminine. Women, however, across time and culture, have been honored because of long, luscious hair. It is a sign of beauty, luxury, and honor. According to Paul, it is given to her for a covering, for it is her glory.
Some try to argue, however, that Paul means to say, “For her hair is given to her for a natural covering and a veil is an artificial covering that she was to wear when she prayed or prophesied” (“Is Hair the Natural Covering?”, Truth Magazine, October 18, 2001, Weldon Warnock, p. 3). Yet this is not what the verse says. It is a clear and unmistakable abuse of the text and an addition to what the apostle actually wrote. In plain words, Paul states that a woman’s hair is given to her “for” (“in place of; instead of” [Thayer, p. 49]) a covering (peribolaion, or “a veil” [Thayer, p. 502]). I am adding nothing to the text, or taking anything away from it when I read that a woman’s naturally long and glorious hair is given to her in the absence of an unnatural head covering. Anything beyond this, asserts Paul, falls into the realm of culture. If a cultural practice represents a godly truth, then it must be maintained. But in the realm of nature, a woman who is not constrained by a societal custom already has a symbol of authority on her head: the hair that God gives her.
“Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10). The fact that Paul leaves this verse ambiguous is telling – whatever symbol of authority a society delineates, the woman ought to live by it. “Because of the angels” likely is a reminder to all of us what happens when we try to go beyond our scope of authority. The assertion is that if even angels are punished for casting aside their symbols of authority (Jude 6), then God will not hesitate to punish us for disrespecting the authorities above us (husbands, parents, elders, etc.).
A Simple Analogy
If the Bible was forgotten, and a new restoration movement started up in the year 2300, what would they think of this verse? What if that society’s symbols of authority were big shoulder pads, as in: big shoulders pads represent femininity, womanliness, and respect for husbands. What if they took these verses and applied them to their society? The head covering would mean nothing to them, neither those who wore them nor outsiders who observed the practice. What is the point of forcing the head covering on people who place absolutely no significance on it? Would it not be more appropriate for those 24th century Christian women to maintain the custom of giant shoulder pads?
· Again, does it hurt anybody to wear a veil during the assembly? Of course not. If a woman is so inclined, then I will not be contentious and legislate something that is beyond the scope of my authority.
· If a woman chooses not to wear a head covering, she needs to seriously consider her motives, her actions, her influences, and the way that people will perceive her. If a lady lives in a part of the world that calls for respectful women to wear a head covering, then it would behoove her to follow that custom so as not to offend unbelievers or Christians in that part of the world.
· The head covering issue is not one of fellowship, because this is a personal decision that must be made by individual women. It only becomes a matter of fellowship if that woman’s decision results in disrespect or dishonor. Is she not wearing the veil because she wants to stand out, supplant her husband’s authority, or be seen by others? Does a woman wear a head covering only to impress somebody else, or to make some political statement, or prove a point? Motivation is key.
· For women who are undecided on the issue, please remember that I have only spoken my honest opinions on what the scriptures say. I have added nothing to the meaning of the text, and wish only to encourage you to study it for yourself. Remember a few things about the decision you have to make:
· Does your husband feel strongly either way?
· Does the culture have a custom or not?
· What does the veil mean to you?
· How will you feel about your decision either way?
· Does your conscience bother you?
· Is your decision based on your convictions or pressure by others?