On the surface, Paul’s insistence that the women of Corinth wear head covering to believers’ meetings doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with us today. Very few churches require this sort of thing, and in those that do, the head covering has been reduced to a mere ornament. Pretty nearly everyone agrees that 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 relates directly to the culture of the day and in no way intimates that 21st century women should cover their heads in the way that 1st century women did.
Still, that’s no reason to just skip over this. Our culture is different from that of ancient Corinth, but human nature and weaknesses are similar. When should we obey a cultural taboo and when should we ignore it? What sorts of things are worth fighting for and which are not? That’s a distinction that can be difficult to make, but love must be our guide. Let’s take a look at the passage.
Traditions, in the sense used here, means things handed over–ceremonies and precepts. We think of traditions as optional, but this is not necessarily the case. One of the traditions, for example, is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which Paul talks about later in this chapter. The matter of head coverings, which Paul is about to bring up, may or may not be one of these traditions, but Paul had apparently not passed it on along with the things he had already told the church at Corinth.
This can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Head may mean either authority or source (or both). As source, which some believe this most likely means, Christ directly created man out of the dust of the earth, but He created woman from the body of the man.
Unless I have reason not to, I take the Bible literally. Some scripture is apocalyptic and some poetic, but this passage looks historical to me. It’s fun to muse on. God the Father, through God the Son, has already created Adam with the sum total of the DNA of the entire human race that is to come. He then takes a rib and likewise gives to Eve the total compliment of DNA. Due to the nature of human reproduction, no one since that time has ever had the whole package (except possibly for Jesus–who knows?). Adam really did have the entire human race within his body.
If we take the word, head as indicating authority, we have Christ being man’s authority and man being woman’s authority. It’s important to note that while the word for man used here can mean either man or husband, the word used for woman means, specifically, wife. So every woman is not subject to every man–what a mess that would be. The wife is subject to her husband. I’m not going to go into a big teaching on this, because it’s not the point of this passage. I’ll only say that this is what the Bible teaches and I don’t see how we can wiggle out of it. It’s not as bad as it sounds to our modern ears, but that’s a subject for another time.
Jewish men prayed with their heads covered. This was a sign of shame for their sin and their complete unworthiness before God. Paul changes this tradition when he tells the men to pray with uncovered heads. This change may have been considered appropriate because of Jesus’ taking away of our sins. For a man to pray with his head covered would be as if to say that Jesus’ sacrifice wasn’t good enough, that the man so praying doesn’t believe himself to be forgiven and justified. This tradition Paul felt was worth changing. In this case, the church went against the established societal norm in order to present a picture of redemption.
Women also prayed with their heads covered during that period of Judaism. In fact, I’m told they veiled themselves in a manner similar to Islamic women today, though not in black. Greek women typically veiled themselves at least as thoroughly as the Hebrew women, if not more so, though there was a sect in Corinth whose women went unveiled. Women who didn’t wear veils were considered (and often were) morally lax, so for a woman to eschew the head covering altogether would dishonor her husband or father in the sense of saying that she did not plan to be a chaste woman. It could also bring reproach on the church and on the name of Jesus. For a woman, the head covering was not a symbol of shame for sin, but of submission and purity.
Women found guilty of adultery were shorn or shaven as punishment, and women who were promiscuous would sometimes also wear their hair short in token of their “liberated” point of view. The short and sassy style said to the world, “Hey, this girl just wants to have fun.” That was Corinth. Short hair in women doesn’t mean much of anything today, at least not in the western world.
Today, women in the USA in particular are told constantly by the media through entertainment and commercials that their chief value lies in their physical appearance–their suitability to be used as objects of lust. We have a whole generation of little girls dressing up to maximize their sexual appeal. It’s gotten to the point that it’s difficult to find clothing for little girls that isn’t objectifying and revealing. Is this a loving way to treat our daughters?
We have young women attending church youth groups in clothing clearly designed to make their bodies as tantalizing and sexually tempting as possible, and they haven’t even got a clue that this is a problem. Their mothers, often enough, dress in the same fashion.
The girls don’t realize how profoundly this affects the males who see them, and I suspect their mothers don’t realize it either. But I do wonder about their fathers. It’s a severe temptation and trial for a sanctified young male to have beautiful girls all around him decked out in fashions designed to merchandise their bodies in the most effective way possible. It’s not only unkind for the girls to dress this way (though they don’t mean to be unkind), but it’s demeaning. It cheapens them and places the chief emphasis on that which they will retain for the shortest time–their physical youth and beauty.
Please don’t misread this. I’m not saying that Christian girls should be frumpy and unfashionable. I am saying that skin-tight clothing that bares the midriff and shows off the cleavage (top or bottom) is not the kind of clothing virtuous and modest women of any age should be wearing. It is unloving and inconsiderate to the males around them who are (or should be) trying to keep their thoughts pure. Yes, wear something pretty and fun, but don’t dishonor your God, yourself, and your family by dressing in a fashion designed to sell your body.
Again, the male does not cover his head because to do so in that society would be to say that he does not believe he is truly redeemed. The headcovering on a female has a completely different meaning–to wit that the wearer is a chaste, pure, modest, and virtuous woman.
The head covering is a symbol of the wife’s submission to her husband and/or the daughter’s submission to her father. To get into this very deeply would take far too long, so I’ll leave the whole authority/submission subject for another post. Suffice it to say this isn’t a license for husbands to oppress their wives or for men to feel superior to women.
I’ve read every commentary I could find on this and I still haven’t read anything I believe explains the meaning of this comment. Everyone has his own ideas and they’re all different. It’s probably some cultural thing we’ll one day have to ask Paul about personally. I confess I haven’t got the slightest idea of what it means. If you think you know, feel free to chime in. 😉
In this life, we follow certain channels of authority, not all of which will survive into eternal life. Jesus will still be our Lord, but the whole male/female authority thing will be history. Before God, there is neither male nor female and neither sex can be independent of the other. We need each other and are equally important and necessary.
In Corinthian society, pagan priestesses threw off their veils when prophesying, thus declaring themselves to be speaking, not in their positions as daughters or wives, but as direct oracles of the god or goddess inspiring them. But the women of Corinth were praying to the God who had laid down these channels of authority. To lay aside their customary covering would be to declare themselves independent of the system God had ordained.
These verses are not properly used when we try to say it’s somehow wrong for a man to have long hair or for a woman to have short hair. In Corinth, the only males who wore long hair were homosexual temple prostitutes. It was a sign of devotion to a false god and a sign of effeminacy. In many societies, long hair in males is considered masculine and proper, but not in Corinth. Likewise, I’ve already gone into the connotations of short hair for women in Corinthian culture. It is not the short hair in itself that is wrong, but rather the cultural message it would have sent to the society of the day.
I spent some time in Jamaica maybe 20 years ago. I don’t know about now, but at that time, Christian women were expected to wear head coverings to church. A little decoration was sufficient, and it was, in my estimation, silly legalism. It was not, however, an important enough issue to fight about. We wore the goofy little hats. It wasn’t important and it wasn’t worth offending anybody.
This was in the church. In society at large, women wearing pants were considered immoral and loose (or American, which to them meant more or less the same thing). I wore dresses and skirts the whole time I lived there. Do I think pants are immodest or that a woman who wears them is trying to appear masculine or to declare herself morally lax? Certainly not! But the Jamaicans did think this, and out of respect for them I dressed in a manner they considered to be appropriate.
When we visit other countries, or even subcultures in our own country, we need to keep in mind the customs of the societies we’ll be moving about in. Let’s not let our liberty become a cause of reproach either to ourselves, our nation, or especially, to our God. It falls to us to learn what people in the places we’re going to consider to be appropriate and modest and respectful behavior and then to be considerate of local customs as much as we reasonably can, even if we think those customs silly and superficial.
Paul realizes that there are plenty of grounds for contending his decision regarding head coverings. God never ordered women to wear head coverings. The whole thing was cultural. But Paul, in this situation, believed it best that the church comply with the customs of society (and of the Hebrew believers within the body). It simply wasn’t important enough to fight about.
Think of all the things we do fight about today in our churches. Should we order new banners and scrap the 1970’s ones that the ladies’ society made so many years ago? We need to replace the worn-out institutional carpet in the fellowship hall, so is it to be more dirt-hiding institutional ugly, or should we go with something less practical and more friendly? Is the worship music too loud? Too soft? Is it too modern? Is it too old-fashioned and irrelevant to today?
So many things not clearly delineated in scripture! What do we do? In this case, Paul said to show love by following deeply held traditions so long as they did not contradict God’s word. Maybe in your case, you’ll show love by compromising on the volume of the worship music (up or down) and including some hymns along with the contemporary music (or some contemporary music along with the hymns). Maybe you’ll show love by giving a little on both sides and figuring out a new floor for the fellowship hall that everyone can be happy with. And perhaps those beautiful old banners should go into the Fellowship Hall where people can still be uplifted by their message while the sanctuary gets a new look.
We can always find a solution if we show love and preference for one another, and that is what the whole head covering thing is about if you distill it down to its most essential form. Do nothing for selfish reaons, but do everything out of love for one another and out of your desire to advance the Kingdom of God.
Grace and Peace to you,