“We’ve got to go through it!”
Those words conclude the chorus in Michael Rosen’s classic children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. For those who have missed the pleasure of reading that book dozens of times to a 2 year old, the book consists of a family “going on a bear hunt” but constantly running into obstacles. Whether facing grass, river, or mud, they learn that they can’t simply avoid the problem. They’ve got to “go through it.”
A similar resolve is needed for dealing with the weirder parts of Scripture. When tempted to skip certain passages, we must remind ourselves that we’re dealing with God’s Word. All Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness—even the parts we find uncomfortable (2 Tim. 3:16). We shouldn’t ignore or find a hermeneutical escape hatch for difficult passages, but instead humbly seek their true meaning and then joyfully submit to them.
Now all that sounds pious enough, but what do we do when we read a text like 1 Corinthians 11:2–16? Are we supposed to tell women to don head coverings? We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no!
I can’t promise to make this passage easy, but I can help us go through it. By highlighting its immediate context, understanding Paul’s method of reasoning, and considering the purpose of particular customs in the church, we can understand what this passage meant in its time and how it can still be applied today. So let’s set out on the bear hunt. We’re not scared.
Why Are Head Coverings in 1 Corinthians?
One reason this passage can’t be ignored is that it’s sandwiched between two important discussions of the Lord’s Supper. Any pastor who has preached through 1 Corinthians 11 has noticed this reality. But we can learn even more by broadening the context to 1 Corinthians 8–14.
When tempted to skip over certain passages, we must remind ourselves that we’re dealing with the Word of God.
Chapter 8 begins a discussion of Christian liberty regarding food sacrificed to idols, and this conversation develops into a larger conversation about worship, including the role of spiritual gifts in worship. The balance between freedom, the unchanging demands of God’s moral law, and concern for our neighbor recurs throughout each of these chapters.
In fact, the reason Paul addresses head coverings is that the circumstances of prayer and prophecy raise the underlying issue of the relationship between men and women in public assemblies, particularly the worship service. Paul isn’t giving an arbitrary dress code, but is commenting on the implications of public presentation for social order. This is a parallel theme to the use of food and how charismatic gifts are practiced in the worship service. Seeing this clear thematic connection will help us understand Paul’s argument.
Paul is balancing questions of Christian liberty with the effects of free behavior on others, including the church as a social unit. Newly empowered by the Holy Spirit, certain women are praying and prophesying. Paul sees a potential problem: this charismatic activity might be perceived as contradicting the natural relationship between the sexes. So Paul endorses and prescribes a custom of dress, the head covering, to resolve the dilemma.
Grasping Paul’s Categories and Logic
Besides challenging our sensibilities, Paul’s train of argument seems a bit odd. But let’s take a closer look. A number of controlling categories guide his logic. Paul values tradition (1 Cor. 11:2) and custom (1 Cor. 11:16). He sees a certain hierarchical arrangement involved in social ordering (1 Cor. 11:3) related to the creation account (1 Cor. 11:8–12). He also believes that outward decoration can and should provide glory and honor (1 Cor. 11:4–6, 15) and should do so in a manner consistent with biblical protology (1 Cor. 11:7–11) and the natural law (1 Cor. 11:14–15) (protology is the doctrine of first things, just as eschatology is the doctrine of last things).
A term from classical philosophy that brings these strands of thought together is decorum (Greek, τὸ πρεπον). As it happens, Paul uses a variant of this word in 1 Corinthians 11:13 (cf. 1 Tim. 2:10). Decorum means what is fitting, suitable, or becoming. In his classic moral treatise On Duties, Cicero defines this notion of fittingness as a proper alignment with one’s nature.
The apostle Paul sounds a similar note when he asks, “Does not nature itself teach you?” (1 Cor. 11:14). Paul believes we should present ourselves in public in a manner consistent with what we are called to be, as defined by God. We should look like what we are. In social settings, our public presentation should be governed by humility, submission to appropriate authorities, and moderation.
Paul isn’t giving an arbitrary dress code, but is commenting on the implications of public presentation for social order.
Contrary to reflexive arguments that hairstyles and clothing choices are purely subjective choices, Paul believes that they make deep statements about the structure of reality. And on this point the world’s artists and designers actually agree with the apostle: fashion speaks loudly and occasionally takes action. They simply disagree about what it should say and do. Paul argues that we shouldn’t be provocative or revolutionary, but should instead seek to maintain decorum.
This is even true for instances of charismatic inspiration.
Customs and Their Meaning
If the text of 1 Corinthians 11 describes literal coverings over women’s hair, and if this was a nearly universal practice until the 20th century, then what should we make of its extreme rareness today, at least in Western churches? I don’t know the definitive answer, but I doubt careful exegesis and solid theology were the primary causes for this discontinuation. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between retaining a common and known custom and trying to restore a lost one. We should carefully approach this question.
First, we should understand what a custom is. A custom is a public and repeated practice meant to enforce a certain moral or social principle. It’s not a law but rather a routine action meant to teach and persuade through example and conditioning. Customs vary according to time and place, and take their meaning from broader public interpretation.
They ought not be entirely subjective, but rather grounded in reason. Customs should command people’s respect, and can approximate the authority of law insofar as they represent deference to the notion of authority and a polite disposition toward the people who practice them.
Paul calls head coverings a custom in 1 Corinthians 11:16. Commentators have noted this as well. Martin Luther and John Calvin commended women covering their heads in public assemblies, but both noted it was a matter of custom. Charles Hodge puts the matter this way:
Dress is in a great degree conventional. A costume that is proper in one country would be indecorous in another. The principle insisted on in this paragraph is that women should conform in matters of dress to all those practices that the public sentiment of the community in which they live demands. The veil in all eastern countries was, and to a great extent still is, a symbol of modesty and subjection. For a woman to discard the veil in Corinth, therefore, was to renounce her claim to modesty and to refuse to recognize her subordination to her husband. The apostle’s whole argument in this paragraph is based on the assumption of this significance in the use of the veil.
Customs and Their Purpose
Noting that head coverings were a custom is important, but it doesn’t end the discussion. After all, this is a custom the apostle Paul endorses and commends.
So the second thing we should note is the custom’s purpose. For Paul, the head covering is connected to women who “pray and prophesy” (1 Cor. 11:5). The larger context makes it plain that this is public prayer and prophesy. Recalling the other important themes of 1 Corinthians, we can see that the head covering was a symbolic way to maintain decorum when a woman prayed or prophesied in a public assembly. As a “symbol of authority” (1 Cor. 11:10), it showed that the woman was indeed respecting the authority of her husband even while doing something that might otherwise be perceived as insubordinate (1 Cor. 14:34–35).
Thus the head covering was a custom with a particular purpose. It preserved proper order in public assemblies, even when a woman engaged in charismatic worship. With it, the woman could pray and prophesy without causing scandal. Without it, she couldn’t.
Three Contemporary Applications
First, this passages teaches us the importance of decorum in Christian assemblies. We should make sure our dress and behavior is consistent with what we believe about human sexuality, as well as modesty and respect for others. This means Christians need to learn to resist many fashions and trends. Yes, we may sometimes wish to dress for comfort, but we must also always dress for the conscience of our neighbor. Our public presentation should promote a respect for authority.
Second, it shows us the deep reality of human sexuality and its implications for public interactions. Our behavior ought to reflect who we are as God created us. This isn’t a matter of biblical prescriptions and proscriptions, but rather of actions that flow from our nature and that glorify our callings as male and female.
This isn’t a purely individual decision. Instead, we ought to respect the abiding customs in the place where we live, and we should reject revolutionary impulses, even if we believe them to be spiritually inspired. We should embrace our creational or natural sexuality and live by it in consistent and appropriate ways.
This passage shows the deep reality of human sexuality and its implications for public interactions.
Third, I don’t believe that churches have to resurrect the custom of head coverings. Were the custom still dominant, it would be pious to respect and retain it, but a lost custom is somewhat different. When a custom is lost, the public meaning of that custom changes, and enforcing it anew can send a new and different (and, yes, mistaken) meaning.
For example, 100 years ago men wore dark suits to most public events, including recreation, from a desire to not stick out. Were they to do so today, their suit would have the opposite effect. Wearing a fedora is a similar example. In earlier eras, it signified a certain ordinary politeness. Now, however, it carries a somewhat stipulated and even provocative public meaning.
Yet 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 teaches us that godly customs in practice should be retained, and it teaches us to investigate our customs to see what message they are sending. Intelligible customs that signify male headship or the glory of godly femininity should be respected and promoted.