I could have entitled this article, “Do Christian women today need to wear head coverings?” For that in good measure is what this particular passage addresses. But a simple yes or no answer is not so readily forthcoming, as I will seek to explain and elaborate upon in this article.
So bear with me as I go through ten points about all this. After I present the first nine, I will then try to summarise things and offer a tentative answer to that initial question in my tenth and final point.
One. By all accounts, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is a hugely difficult section of Scripture. In my series on difficult Bible passages, sometimes the passages are not so much difficult or hard to understand as simply radically abused and misused.
But here we have a real doozy, a genuine theological puzzler on just so many levels. It is among the most difficult passages in the entire New Testament. It is quite simply an exegetical, hermeneutical, theological and pastoral minefield. Only those who have little or no genuine biblical and theological understanding think that it is a walk in the park.
For example, there are a number of key terms which we really are not fully certain of, and there are some phrases which are still quite up in the air. For example, what exactly does “because of the angels” in verse 10 mean and refer to? Plenty of options have been offered here over the centuries, and it is still being hotly discussed! And what exactly does Paul mean by appealing to nature in verses 14-15?
As Ciampa and Rosner put it in their commentary: “This passage, dealing with honourable attire for prayer and prophecy, is one of the most difficult passages in the letter, due in part to Paul’s use of expressions and ideas that he apparently expects to be transparent to the Corinthians but which have been opaque to most readers ever since.”
Craig Blomberg puts it this way: “This passage is probably the most complex, controversial, and opaque of any text of comparable length in the New Testament. A survey of the history of interpretation reveals how many different exegetical options there are for a myriad of questions and should inspire a fair measure of tentativeness on the part of the interpreter.”
Or as David Garland simply puts it, “The complexity of 11:2-16 continues to vex modern interpreters, and its comments about women rile many modern readers. . . . The danger lurks that interpreters will try to make it say what they would like it to say.”
Gordon Fee in his top-notch commentary says this:
Along with these larger contextual questions, this passage is full of notorious exegetical difficulties, including (1) the “logic” of the argument as a whole, which in turn is related to (2) our uncertainty about the meaning of some absolutely crucial terms and (3) our uncertainty about prevailing customs, both in the culture(s) in general and in the church(es) in particular (including the whole complex question of early Christian worship). Paul’s response assumes understanding between them and him at several key points, and these matters are therefore not addressed. Thus the two crucial contextual questions, what was going on and why, are especially difficult to reconstruct.
Good critical commentaries will offer the many options and possibilities of the various debates involved; will weigh up all the pros and cons of the contentious words, phrases, ideas and concepts; and will perhaps offer their own opinions on how they understand things. Bad commentaries will ignore all this and insist that they alone have all the truth and insight on these contentious matters.
Two. Simply discussing just one of the numerous difficult terms here shows how complex things are. The English word “head” comes from the Greek word kephale. But as any first-year Greek student knows, the question is, how is kephale best translated and understood? Does it mean a literal or a figurative head – or both? If metaphorical, we can translate it in many ways, such as authority, leader, chief, top, preeminent, foremost, source, origin, etc.
As with all things biblical, a small library already exists on just this one word, and how it is not only used in this chapter, but also in the rest of the New Testament, in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint), in the Hebrew text, and in non-biblical sources.
Let me offer just two examples of how complex things can get here. One evangelical scholar has gone through 2,336 uses of the word in extra-biblical documents from the writings of thirty-six Greek authors, trying to get a handle on how it should/could be used.
And Anthony Thiselton in his massive 1450-page commentary on 1 Corinthians spends 50 pages on this portion of Scripture, with an entire ten pages devoted to just this one Greek word and its multiple meanings. This is indeed not a lightweight matter.
Then we have a number of questions as to who exactly Paul has in view here when he discusses headship and the like. Is he referring to all men and women in general in these remarks, or is he specifically referring to husbands and their wives? Debate is still ongoing concerning these sorts of issues as well.
Three. This is part of the larger and exceedingly contentious issue of the role of women in the church (and to an extent, their role in the home as well). That broader subject is of course another hot potato area of controversy with many wars breaking out continuously on how we should understand all this. Briefly, should we opt for an egalitarian, feminist understanding here, or a hierarchical, complementarian position?
Once again entire libraries exist with books and articles on this – and I have many of them. It is a massive debate and certainly one that will not be resolved here. So this particular pericope is simply part of a much bigger biblical debate, and to do the former real justice, we need some understanding of the latter as well. But here I simply cannot enter into that larger debate, alas. Perhaps another time.
Four. There are many cultural and social issues discussed by Paul here which appear to be to some extent at least lost on us. Cultural considerations are certainly important, but by now it should be obvious that we are not fully clear on all the cultural and social practices taking place some 2000 years ago. And even if we were, the question remains as to how they translate into quite different cultures today.
Was the lack of head covering an indication of sexual immorality? For example, did prostitutes back then dress (or undress) this way? Are some homosexual practices in view here as well? And it is not even certain if Paul is referring to actual head coverings here or some sort of veil, or just to particular hairstyles. Even that debate is by no means resolved 2000 years on.
And this same passage speaks about what a shame it is for men to have long hair. What exactly does that mean? How long is long? Back when I and many others in the hippy counter culture got saved in the late 60s and early 70s, that one phrase caused no small amount of concern for many of us!
Also, we do know that many cultural practices from back then are no longer relevant or fully applicable today. For example, washing the feet of others when folks walked on dusty roads in sandals made perfect sense back then, but not now. Today we might wash someone’s car or find some other contemporary cultural equivalency.
And we are clearly commanded in the New Testament to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’. Hmm, I do not find all that many Australian or American believers doing that today – are they living in sin therefore? No, that was a cultural practice back then, just as it still is in other cultures today. But a good hearty handshake would be one acceptable equivalent for us to employ today.
Five. One crucial aspect about all this controversy and confusion is that this discussion that Paul has about proper clothing and coverings and the like was only about apparel in public worship – not elsewhere. Thus Paul did not have in mind how women – or men – should be dressing in other places.
Thus we are not being commanded by Paul to have women covered up – whatever exactly that means and entails – as they go to Kmart, as they walk the dog, as they do dishes at home, and so on. This concerns only the issue of public worship – nothing else. Sure, modesty and purity is the broader issue here, and that applies to all believers in all places and at all times.
Six. Properly understood, this is a secondary issue. It is not a primary issue which if you get wrong, you forfeit your right to be called a Christian. This is not a salvation issue in other words. There are of course some key biblical doctrines which we must adhere to if we want to be called Christians.
If we deny core teachings such as the Trinity and the deity of Christ, then we forfeit the right to claim to be Christ followers. So yes, adherence to or rejection of certain key beliefs will put one’s salvation at risk. But this is not one of them. So with all such secondary matters, we have a bit of room to move here, and we dare not hurl anathemas at each other if we have differing understandings of how to comprehend and apply 1 Cor. 11:2-16.
Seven. Because of all that has been said thus far, humility is certainly needed here. Given how very difficult this passage is, even to our greatest theologians, exegetes and interpreters, we all need to show a bit of grace and humility to one another. No one has the complete and perfect take on this tough passage.
Even one of our greatest living New Testament scholars, N. T. Wright, has said this about the text: “Now I have to admit that I didn’t understand this passage then, and I’m not sure I’ve understood it yet.” Those who think they know exactly what this passage means, including all its component parts, are either kidding themselves or awash in pride and arrogance.
Eight. What then, if anything, can we know with some certainty? I do not want to leave my readers in complete despair here. I am not claiming we know nothing about this tough text. I think that there are some broad general principles at least that we can adduce from this section of Scripture. Let me offer some of them.
Blomberg says that despite of all the complexities and uncertainties, there are some “timeless principles that may be deduced from this passage”. These include
-“Christians should not try to blur all distinctions between the sexes.”
-“There is nothing inherently moral or immoral about head coverings, whether veils, shawls, hats, or whatever. The same is essentially true for hairstyles, but one must be sensitive in certain cultures to the social connotations that may be present with certain fashions of men’s and women’s hair and even, occasionally, with other kinds of head coverings.”
Ciampa and Rosner offer these as some of the more clear truths found here:
Despite its obscurities, Paul’s teaching in this passage clearly affirms three things: a balance between (1) respect for a creation mandate to maintain and even celebrate the gender distinctions with which we have been created; (2) a respect for culturally specific approaches to guarding moral and sexual purity; and (3) a commitment to fully integrating women and their gifts into the experience of the worshiping community.
Or as Fee puts it,
Even though Paul has now spent considerable effort on this issue, the very nature of his argument reveals that it is not something over which he has great passion. Indeed, there is nothing quite like this in his extant letters…
The distinction between the sexes is to be maintained; the covering is to go back on; but for Paul it does not seem to be a life-and-death matter.
Nine. Some try to weasel their way out of all this and claim things are really simple by appealing to verse 16: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” They think Paul has just undone everything he has been saying in the previous 14 verses, and is saying ‘let’s not get into a fight over this’.
But as most commentators point out, that is not exactly what Paul has in mind here. The ‘we have no such custom’ seems to be referring to the disputed matters themselves and those pushing them. That is, he is not saying, ‘believe whatever you want, it is no big deal,’ but ‘adhere to the points I have been arguing for all along’. As Fee puts it, “The words ‘such practice,’ therefore, must refer to that which the ‘contentious’ are advocating, and which this argument has been combating.”
Ten. OK, I am now finally at a place where I can offer a very tentative – and probably to some, an unsatisfactory – reply to our original question. And my response is this: if Christian women prefer to wear head coverings, that is up to them. I do not believe it is mandatory, and I do not believe we should condemn those who don’t, or those who do.
And as noted, if they do, Paul seems to indicate this is only for public worship, not elsewhere. One main thrust of this passage is modesty and moral purity. That is the bigger, more important principle being pushed here. And as the entire Bible makes clear, this is as much an internal matter as anything merely external.
Yes what we wear can be important, but biblical purity and holiness is at bottom a matter of the heart. So this is a matter of choice for believers, and it should not be turned into yet another legalism, and another case of unnecessarily condemning others. We have freedom in Christ and we have some room to move here, especially given how many very real questions remain about this passage of Scripture.
And I realise that those Christians who think we can have perfect understanding of all things in this life will be quite unhappy with an article like this. They want absolute certainty and crystal clear answers NOW. They are impatient with any ambiguity, mystery or hard questions.
Well, those sorts of believers I will never satisfy, so I will not even try. But for the rest of you, this has been my take on this. Indeed, since some Christians have already asked for my thoughts on this matter, that in part is why I have finally bit the bullet and weighed into this massively complex and nuanced debate.
If it is helpful to some, fine. If it simply raises more questions, or gets some folks more upset, well, what can I say? God bless you anyway!