What is a good understanding of Paul's teaching on head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16?

(Jamie Hobbs) #1

Whenever I think I have at least a fair understanding of the Word of God, I invariably read something that makes me realize I have a lot left to learn. This usually comes from Paul. I’m going to have words for that guy one day. I don’t understand the head covering thing in 1 Cor 11:2-16 at all, even acknowledging the cultural differences between that time and today. Paul goes from talking about eating certain things and whether something sacrificed to an idol is OK to eat, then further stipulations on eating and drinking at someone’s house, to dropping this head coverings section in, and then moving back to the table talking about the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It just seems to come out of left field.

Please read the passage before responding so nothing is taken out of context, but I’d love to hear everyone’s opinion on this passage. My exegesis is failing me here.

(Jimmy Sellers) #2

Here is an interesting article on the subject. Here we see Honor and Shame in Paul’s writings again.

Not sure that it address the “why” but it makes for a good “what”. Hope this helps.

(Andrew Bulin) #3

I find his passage interesting, partly because I’m a guy with hair that has not been cut in 8 years. :slight_smile:

Verses 2 and 16 give the context of a passed down tradition from Paul to these Corinthian people. Seeing as this is a personal letter to Corinth, I don’t see a specific and universal guideline on what we ought to do with our hair. There seemed to be a matter of contention with Corinthian church community harmony, and this may have been a community practice of which we do not have the original question to that promoted Paul’s reply here. Some readers may seek to exegete a gender hierarchy from verse 8, but I believe Galatians 3:28 would conflict with efforts to try and force additional doctrine out of this passage.

I agree this passage does sound a bit weird here, and some theologians apparently try tossing it out as dissimilar authorship to Paul. However, I think we can still read this as Paul’s writing. Here we can find the importance of respecting local traditions as even Paul claimed in the context of the previous chapters. He would not hesitate to subject himself to whatever local tradition for the sake of winning the lost (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

That’s what I take away from this if I was to take a simple and direct approach without having to get too far into the Greek.

(Carson Weitnauer) #4

Hi @Jamie_Hobbs, thank you for bring forward this question! It is a perplexing passage. I would be curious to hear from the @Interested_in_Bible group!

One starting point is that this passage reminds us that responsible interpretation of the Bible requires us to understand the cultural context of the Biblical world - as well as the cultural vantage point from which we are reading the text.

In 1 Corinthians 11:4, Paul states that men should not pray or prophesy with their heads covered. The ESV Study Bible says:

As background for understanding Paul’s point in this verse, Roman men sometimes practiced the custom of pulling the loose folds of their toga over their head as an act of piety in the worship of pagan gods. Paul thus draws on the example of this pagan custom (which everyone in the Corinthian church would have thought absurd) to make the point that men should not dishonor Christ by praying according to pagan custom.

In 1 Corinthians 11:5, like in the article that Jimmy provided, the ESV Study Bible points out that, “a woman’s head covering in first-century Roman society was a sign of marriage.”

Dr. Verlyn Verbrugge, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, adds this:

But why would women fail to hold to normal cultural conventions in a church setting, of all places? I once again agree with those scholars who see as one of the main issues here the nature of the setting of NT worship, namely, in the house church (cf. Ac 18:7; Ro 16:5; 1Co 16:19; Col 4:15). Women were normally unveiled in their own homes and in homes with other women, though not in public places. But what about in a church worshiping in a home? This setting was culturally mixed — it was a home, where women would normally be unveiled, but the church gathered for worship was a public gathering of sorts. Because of this ambiguity some women apparently took their veils off and thus became a distraction.

Dr. Verbrugge also concedes that there may be limits to our understanding. I think that is refreshing. In his comments on verse 10, for instance, he writes:

We should recall that the setting for vv. 2–16 is a worship setting, so that the presence of unseen angels at their worship events is not impossible. But the precise nuance of how angels might be affected by the presence or lack of veils on women escapes us.

To sum it up, I think we need to understand the meaning of these cultural symbols in the Corinth of Paul’s day, reflect on how those symbols help us understand the doctrine that Paul is teaching, and then prayerfully ask what it looks like to faithfully apply these same teachings in our own cultural context.

For instance, in contemporary American society, I would say that when men pray or prophesy in church, they should avoid doing so in ways that are similar to pagan practices. Perhaps when leading worship or preaching, there should be care taken not to mindlessly imitate the style of a rock band or a motivational speaker. Rather, the style of worship and preaching should consciously and obviously honor Christ. (That said, I’m all for guitars, drums, and lavalier microphones, though I enjoy a cappella hymn singing too!)

Or, when married women pray or prophesy in church, they should wear a wedding ring or another symbol that publicly communicates and honors the exclusive marital relationship a wife has with her husband. Likewise, we can see the wisdom of this principle for married men. Especially in light of the justice concerns that the #metoo movement has rightfully elevated to greater public awareness, I think it would be wise for married men to be equally publicly and symbolically clear about their married status.

Perhaps particularly in a house church or small group situation, we should take especial care to navigate the complexities of intimate fellowship and worship with the dynamics of human sexuality in a manner that is holy, honorable, and culturally sensitive. For instance, I think this passage raises the question, if your neighbors joined you for a small group meeting, and there was a mix of married and single members in the group, would they be able to easily identify who was married to who, and that these husbands and wives honor their relationship and one another?

These are some initial, tentative thoughts. I look forward to learning from your insights and the contributions of other members.

The Law
(SeanO) #5

@Jamie_Hobbs Here is my response to a similar question in another thread. I provide some links to relevant articles. I think your feeling that it comes out of left field is probably because Paul was responding to a situation within the Corinthian Church. The thing about reading Paul’s epistles is that they were written to an audience in a specific place at a specific time for a specific purpose that had a shared experience with Paul that we lack. In the case of head coverings, there was obviously something going on in Corinth that made Paul feel he needed to address the issue.

In fact, if we read 1 Corinthians 7:1 we see that Paul is addressing questions posed to him by the Corinthians in an earlier letter.

I Corinthians 7:1 - Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter.

My summary on this issue would be: No, wives do not need to wear head coverings today. Paul urged wives to wear head coverings because in ancient Greco-Roman culture wives wore a head covering to honor their husbands / symbolize modesty .

Regarding the bit about angels, there is debate as to whether the text means heavenly beings or preachers. The word for ‘angel’ after all only means ‘messenger’ and can be used to refer to prophets or people declaring God’s Word.

Here is a direct link to an article by Sam Storms and a link to the other thread. May the Spirit of Christ grant you wisdom in this matter.


(Jamie Hobbs) #6

Thanks for the words and resources, everyone. I’m going to go back and re-read the passage in light of your interpretations. Blessings.

(Carson Weitnauer) #7

Hi Jamie, that’s encouraging. When you’ve wrapped up your research on the passage, I’d be interested to hear what conclusions you come to and continue the conversation.

(Peter S) #8

Thank you for raising this @Jamie_Hobbs and thanks for the input everyone!
My wife and I moved house 12 months ago and felt very comfortable in the new church, apart from one thing; women are expected to cover their heads if they pray or prophesy. It felt rather strange to us but we are used to it now. The church takes a literal interpretation. My wife and I don’t agree with women having to do this today but the rest of what the church stands for and it’s theology is spot on so we are happy there. We are always looking for people’s opinions on this so the thread has been helpful for me. Our approach is that there are disputable issue and non-disputable issues, and this falls into the disputable group.
Thanks again!

(Joshua Mathew) #9

i don’t think this would be true for countries like India as most of the churches here…says that women should wear head coverings as
In our culture women still covers their head whenever they go to their temples(to worship pagan gods)
They also do this to honor their husbands and also as a symbol of modesty(same like greeco- roman culture)

but nowadays the youth of india is leaving their indian culture and are trying to adopt American-European culture (where not wearing head covering are not considered as immodest)

as a young evengalist i am in a dilemma as what should i advise both these groups as youths do not want to cover their head while the older generation including pastors consider…not wearing scarfs) as an immodest thing in church
can you pls tell me what should i advise both these groups so that it will be appropriate for the biblical view and also both these groups will be satisfied?
**actually this topic has have created a great division among the church leaders and pastors of india on the issue that whether women who do not cover their head…should be allowed to preach or worship in the church or not?

(SeanO) #10

@Joshua_Mathew Thank you for sharing this struggle from your context in India. I do not think there is an easy answer to your question because it is truly a question that involves 2 Cs - Community and Conscience. We all live within a community and we are called by the Lord to honor the other members of our Church community and of the community in which we live so that they might know Jesus. Also, in matters that are not clear, the Bible calls us to obey our conscience - to obey what we feel the Lord is truly leading us to do.

For example, in Romans 14, Paul talks about the Sabbath by saying that each person should honor God by following their conscience.

Romans 14:5-6 - One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Again, in I Corinthians 8, we see Paul addressing meat sacrificed to idols. He says that there is nothing wrong with eating it if we have a clear conscience, but that we should not cause our brothers or sisters to stumble by eating it in front of them if it would offend their conscience (here we see Community).

I Corinthians 8:7-13 - Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Paul also tells us, regarding Community, to consider others as better than ourselves and even with unbelievers to do what we can to honor their way of life so that they might come to know Jesus.

Philippians 2:3-4 - Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

I Corinthians 9:20 - To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.

All of that said, here is my list of things to consider when addressing the issue of head coverings in a particular Church or in your own life:

  • it must never be coercive - people should not be shamed, gossiped about or made to feel unworthy if they do not wear the head covering (this shows a complete lack of grace)
  • we as individuals should honor the community - if we are young people attending a Church of elderly where they all wear head coverings, perhaps we should do so to honor them
  • this is why new Churches form - as the old culture passes away we need new Churches that can reach the young people who no longer wear head coverings and are inhabiting a new culture - this is missions to a new people!

Are those thoughts helpful? May the Lord Jesus grant you wisdom as you consider this matter. I do not think there is a single answer and I would be very wary of anyone who says that there is a simple answer to this question.

Women's dress
(Joshua Mathew) #11

thank you for sharing your thoughts

as you said this has really caused a division among churches and today the church has got divided into modern(mostly made of youth) and pre-modern church with satan using this topic to break the unity between these groups

for me…i will have to teach the literal interpretation of this verse
as my parents are of that view and also i work among mostly uneducated and rural people
i will have to tell the young people that…even though their views on this topic are not wrong
they will have to cover their head…as that is the rule of my church

(SeanO) #12

@Joshua_Mathew It is very sad to see the Church divided by these types of issues - it truly breaks my heart. I wish more people understood that doctrines vary in importance. So many Christians take their convictions or opinions and turn them into absolutes - and that does terrible damage to the Body of Christ.

Here is an excerpt from an article on levels of doctrine:

  1. absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith;
  2. convictions , while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church;
  3. opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and
  4. questions are currently unsettled issues.

Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations:

  1. biblical clarity;
  2. relevance to the character of God;
  3. relevance to the essence of the gospel;
  4. biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it);
  5. effect on other doctrines;
  6. consensus among Christians (past and present); and
  7. effect on personal and church life.

May the Lord bless your ministry and give you wisdom and grace to help those you teach to bring unity rather than division into Christ’s Body.

(Sven Janssens) #13

:slight_smile: this is one of my favorite bible passages, especially it freaks people out in church when raising the subject. (Yes I am that kinda guy :smiley: ) but in love :slight_smile:
The thing is that I believe with all my heart that every verse and subject should be open for teaching and debate. If we start to filter out certain verses, we might have a fundamental problem on our hands.

I used to believe that this covering for women was true and not covering for man was true, because that is what it said: “Because of the angels”.
Although I had some question I never got those answered in those days.
Pastors and church members and brothers and sister in Christ tried to explain to me and would give me notes on the subject, but I would undermine them based on basic logic and translation. (and I’m not even an educated man) But some things are plain logic and easy to research.
But this seemed a … bump in the road.

So one day I was reading that famous chapter 11 and boom … God just told me: “this is cultural”
This might sound weird, but after that you might have put a gun to my head, but I would have told you it was cultural, although I had no grounds to explain it.

It was seven years later someone sent me a book that actually for the first time in my life gave me answers to my questions and a reasonably good explanation on this part.

The book is called: - Who Said Women Can’t Teach
Author: Charles Trombley

Although I am not a reader, I read it 3 times and was happy with what his research. Even if someone wouldn’t agree with these writings, it is still worthwhile reading.

Just sharing. :slight_smile:

(Sven Janssens) #14

Also, thanks for sharing this. I believe it has been to much of a fuss among church leaders up to the point that they will divide the churches.
Again I believe that every subject should be open for respectful debate.

Culture changes, no matter where you live or who you are, and that is alright. Although tradition may be a very important part of a culture we should question also if it is worth to fight over or even die for?

A question, concerning our subject here is, Is our salvation depending on the covering or not covering of our heads? No, of course not. It is based on the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing can be added to that. That is the first and foremost important message of the gospel.

But there is this other part too and I think that it might also be something to share with the youth, since they are “free”.
The thing with people is that we like to show what we believe without thinking about the person next to us , wetter we hurt them or not.

I do not think it is a bad thing to cover your head, if that is part of the culture where you live, or even if that is what your local church lives by. That is personal choice.
Is it wrong not to cover the head? No, it is not, but it would be wrong to not do it when visiting a church that does embrace that custom. It would be impolite and disrespectful towards the gathering, church, fellowship attended.

I think that teaching respect is never a bad thing, and that is what Paul was sharing in Corinthians. He told them to have respect concerning that cultural custom. It was not even about the covering of their heads in the core of it, although it was part of it, but it was about respect. (I believe)

Even if those young people are correct in their believes, they should be respectful. And I believe respect is a lot more important than enforcing own ideas on theology or insight or other, even if they are right. That is part of becoming an adult; setting aside yourself in order to respect and love your neighbor.
We don’t build relationships based on our differences, but based on mutual respect.

Actually that is what makes me feel home here. (on connect)
People sharing their ideas, insights, teachings and so much more, yet respecting eachothers’ opinion, ideas, insight, keeping the message of the gospel central in everything.
It is not about how right I can be, but how much I can learn from what you share.
(wish I could have that here in real life too :smile:)