The Custom Of God’s Churches: Head Coverings And Cultural Appropriateness (Part 3)

This series explores Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 in the hope of providing some clarity on the perennial question of whether women are required to wear head coverings in public worship. The issue basically circles around whether Paul’s instructions about head coverings mean that women are continually bound to wear hats in church.

In part one, we considered how this passage contains a great number of difficulties even at the level of translation, and all the more in its interpretation. Hence, we should not be overly confident in our conclusions, especially if we are reliant exclusively upon English translations. Such hubris would suggest that we have arrived at indubitable clarity concerning all the particulars of a hard passage despite that clarity having constantly eluded the church.

In part two, we looked at the passage to determine the circumstances in question. By setting aside the most common assumption about the passage, we saw that good reasons exist to think that Paul was addressing an issue other than public worship at this stage of 1 Corinthians. If that conclusion holds true, it entails that the passage has no specific binding authority regarding whether women are still required to wear head coverings in public worship. It was never about that particular application.

What was Paul enjoining though? It is rarely enough to show what a passage does not mean. We want to know what it does mean and how it applies. If we cannot provide satisfactory resolution on the positive front, our negative claim will unlikely be persuasive.

The main point at stake in this passage—regardless of its particularity in the issue of head coverings—is about propriety in Christian relationships. As suggested previously and as will be taken up again in the next and final installment, the circumstances under Paul’s consideration were not public worship, but marriage. In other words, application may involve family worship and could involve public worship by implication, but the application is not directly about attire in public worship.

When we consider the passage’s framing, we see all the more that the main issue involved apostolic tradition. Paul’s point was that the churches ought to keep apostolic tradition as their baseline and work out how to use those fundamental principles in right application within their cultural settings. This article will not presume that the head coverings question was a mere social convention for Corinth. Paul clearly appeals to nature to prove something (1 Cor 11:12, 14). But what specifically did he aim to prove? Was the issue in Corinth an issue of how to apply a more basic apostolic principle within a particular context?

Applying Apostolic Tradition

When we let the passage itself shape how we understand its main issue, we recognize Paul’s primary injunction concerned traditions and headship, with head coverings being only its application. He opened this section of the epistle in verses 2–3: “Now, I commend you because you remember everything concerning me and likewise I delivered to you, and so you maintain the traditions. 3 But I want you to know that every husband’s head is Christ and the wife’s head is the husband, and Christ’s head is God” (my translation). This commendation is a structural signal within the letter because, at verse 17, he changes gears to address a series of problems: “But in the following commands, I do not commend you.” At that juncture, he takes up the topic of public worship—namely, concerning their failures to conduct it rightly on several important issues. For the section involving his commendation, however, his focus was on something else.

Thus, Paul’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 was that the apostolic traditions should be maintained. The circumstance that he himself raised was the marriage situation between husbands and wives, which is in focus throughout this entire discussion. Thus, the specific traditions in question pertained to the leadership role that the husband has in marriage.

Always the pastor, Paul was careful to ground this type of leadership that a husband exercises in the gospel, which must shape our application. Paul led with “I want you to know that every husband’s head is Christ and the wife’s head is the husband, and Christ’s head is God.” To follow the apostolic tradition, therefore, the husband’s leadership of his wife must be like Christ’s headship over the husband. Christ is the loving redeemer, the self-sacrificial leader who works for the good of others. His teaching has the governing qualifier that a husband’s headship cannot be used rightly for his own benefit, since it must follow the pattern of Christ’s headship, which Jesus executed specifically with a view to blessing and benefitting his bride— namely, the church. Paul elaborated this governing qualifier more extensively in Ephesians 5:25–30:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (ESV)

The issue of headship then has a specific apostolic shape in being in the tradition governed by the gospel.

Having clarified that ethical caveat, we should also clarify a doctrinal point. When Paul wrote that “Christ’s head is God,” he referred specifically to the incarnate Son with respect to his mission, not his eternal identity as the Son.1 The Father is not in charge of the Son in the Godhead. Both are equally God. The Son obeyed the Father during his incarnation to obey on our behalf and to secure our redemption. As God the Son, Jesus Christ submits to no one, because God is to be obeyed. He is equally God with the Father. His obedience pertains entirely to his incarnate mission. Hence, this passage offers no support for the heterodox doctrine of the supposed “eternal submission of the Son.”2 A husband is supposed to follow Christ in exercising this type of servant leadership wherein he acts sacrificially for the good of his bride.

This section has been examining how Paul’s leading focus was on the exhortation to keep the traditions. As Kim Riddlebarger summarizes, “Moving on to a new topic, Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christians have no business flaunting public convention and causing disruption.” Further Paul’s commendation was because “They accepted his teaching (‘the traditions’), which was the memorized oral tradition that had been given to Paul, which he, in turn, passed on to the Corinthians.”3 The next section addresses how that main focus of apostolic tradition affects the issue of head coverings.

Discerning Custom

As Paul closed this argument about propriety, he returned again to the issue of tradition. In closing, however, he clarified that the whole discussion about head coverings had concerned a specific application in Corinth of the binding apostolic tradition, which had grounded his appeal to nature. He concluded in 1 Corinthians 11:16: “Now, if any supposes to be argumentative, then we have no custom of this sort, nor do God’s churches.” Paul’s closing point referred to the whole discussion about his application to the Corinthians about head coverings, and it is a concession.

Paul’s final premise was to concede that the specific issue about head coverings is merely one expression of minding apostolic tradition, an application that was specific to Corinth. In that regard, he has no argument to defend it in principle, even if it is appropriate for Corinth. In verse 15, Paul indicates that a wife’s long hair is a fitting head covering: “If a wife wears long hair, then it is a glory to her? Because hair is given to her instead of a covering.” Following the point regarding his main concern about the creational and apostolic pattern of marital structure, he explicitly conceded that “we”—which I take to mean the apostles—do not have any related custom, nor is any custom of the sort under discussion for Corinth observed universally in God’s churches. In other words, the practice for head coverings as observed in Corinth under debate was a local custom that for them fittingly expressed the deeper apostolic principle about propriety in the marital structure.

Possibly explaining some of the passage’s unusual features, in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, Paul was addressing an issue that the Corinthians brought to him by helping them reason through the proper way to apply the apostolic principles in an expression fitting for their context. His application was, therefore, guidance for application within a principle and not itself a strict principle. As New Testament scholar Gordon Fee explains, “That he is dealing with ‘custom’ (church ‘custom,’ to be sure) is now made plain, as is the fact that this argument, for all its various facets, falls short of a command as such.”4 In other words, this practice fell within the scope of Christian wisdom rather than under the direct auspices of the moral law. In the case that someone wanted to argue against how he had worked through an application about head coverings, Paul explicitly admitted that the apostles and the other churches do not observe that practice and said he was not going to contend for that specific manner of expressing the apostolic tradition any further.5

Considering Two Objections

I anticipate two potential points of pushback against the case made for this point of relative custom. One concerns the grammar of verse 16 and one regards Paul’s appeal to creation. Both are worthwhile to consider briefly.

Concerning Paul’s concession that his application about head coverings for Corinth is not itself part of apostolic custom nor a universal practice among the churches, some try to mitigate the force of Paul’s concession by claiming that he meant that the churches do not have a custom or practice of being contentious.6 Although the commentators taking this view are great exegetes, their interpretation here makes little sense of Paul’s sentence in context. Ever since 1 Corinthians 1:10–17, Paul has been refuting various divisions and rebuking those who have caused them by being contentious. Given that arguably this whole letter is devoted to correcting contentiousness, it is highly unlikely that Paul would here simply wave off contentiousness as a non-apostolic, non-ecumenical custom. Although that may be true—at least concerning what should be—Paul would have again rebuked the practice of contentiousness. Further, elsewhere in this epistle, Paul has been happy enough simply to assert his apostolic authority, making it unlikely here that he would simply sidestep disagreement itself if he had a principle to assert.

In contrast to that interpretive suggestion, Fee helpfully analyzes the text in scholarly fashion: “Paul’s final appeal . . . is that ‘we have no such practice—nor do the churches of God,’ referring to communities outside Corinth. The words ‘such practice,’ therefore must refer to that which the ‘contentious’ are advocating, and which this argument has been combatting.”7 Fee assessed the content of that contentiousness differently than this article has argued, but he nonetheless rightly noted that the content of the contentiousness rather than the act of contentiousness was the focus of Paul’s rejection.8 So, Paul explicitly noted that his application, which is meant to support the binding principle about proper order in marriage, is culturally conditioned for the Corinthians, not just in that time but even in their city and culture.9 Paul, therefore, explicitly tied the topic to culturally conditioned issues.

The second anticipated objection involves Paul’s appeal to the creation order. In verses 7–14, Paul argues from ontology and nature in favor of his position.10 Arguments from nature are strong and should not be ignored. The appeal to nature also indicates a matter that is universally significant and not culturally relative. In these respects, I agree with the premises of the objection. Where the objection falters is in what Paul’s appeal to nature and the created order aims to prove.

Paul appealed to nature to maintain the apostolic principle under discussion, not to ground the particular application of that principle which was part of the Corinthian context. Throughout this passage, he has been working through how to apply an apostolic principle with an expression fitting for the culture in Corinth. As verse 16 demonstrates, the custom of head covering as it appears in the Corinthian inquiry was not itself part of the principle. Thus, nature grounds the principle that marriage should have a structure endued upon it by the creation order. That creational principle, however, can be applied through differing customs that fittingly express that norm for a specific culture. Our next and last installment in this series will explore that point further.

Notes

  1. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 20:1.353; Charles Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Geneva Series of Commentaries (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 207.
  2. For more extensive refutation of this view, see Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021).
  3. Kim Riddlebarger, First Corinthians, Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2013), 260.
  4. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 585. Fee also cited T. Engberg-Pedersen, “1 Corinthians 11:16 and the Character of Pauline Exhortation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110 (1991): 679–89.
  5. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 585–86.
  6. Hodge, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 214; Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 20:1.362–63.
  7. ee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 585.
  8. Although Fee seemed to suggest that Paul was rejecting the contentious practice of discarding head coverings, that interpretation itself conflicts with Fee’s point, cited earlier, that Paul was not issuing a strict command about the necessity of head coverings. Although the beginning and ending points of Fee’s interpretation at the grammatical level line up well, his logic comes short when it came to filling in the content of the contentious objection. This article’s interpretation lines up the points more consistently. Although his interpretation is still wrongly colored by the assumption that this passage is about events in public worship, Anthony Thiselton is closer to the mark about the content of contentiousness in identifying it as about this specific manner of expressing differences between the sexes; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 847.
  9. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 553–57.
  10. The running appeal to nature makes me think that the highly ambiguous phrase, “because of the angels,” relates to some way that the angels fit into the created order rather than to their unseen presence in the divine assembly of public worship.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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6 comments

  1. I look forward to your final installment. One thing that mystifies me is how, 2000 years on, we seem to be arriving at a conclusion that is contrary to the church fathers and the Reformers, Calvin and Luther included. Has some new information reached us? Better skill at translating? I don’t dispute that as a possibility, though it does seem unlikely.

    Also, I think it is helpful to remember that the men are also instructed. This is not just a women’s headcovering issue, it is a men’s head-un-covering issue as well.

    • I find your point mystifying as well. Up until the women’s suffrage/feminist movements began, head covering was not an issue. Suddenly, it became one. And now we have to bend over backwards to justify the church following the culture.

      • Steve, David, et al.,

        The entire church, for more than 1,000 years were sure that the Bible taught that the earth was at the center of the universe. Then we didn’t and it wasn’t because of biblical exegesis. It was science that changed our minds. So, let’s be a little careful about accusing people of giving in the culture etc.

  2. Tracking with you more and more. Gratefully so. Have studied this for 3o+ years, and only got to a shoulder shrug as to application.

    Your interpretation is like a missing puzzle piece that causes dozens of others to click in place.

  3. Thank you for a very helpful article. My only question is, what is the content of the contentiousness that Paul rejects? Would it be for or against his application of the apostolic tradition? I’m assuming it would have to be against, to mean: “Now, if any supposes to be argumentative (by disagreeing with this application of the apostolic tradition to the specific context of Corinth), then we have no custom of this sort (that is, no custom of aruging against a legitimate but culturally specific application of the creation order/ apostolic tradition), nor do God’s churches.” Is this a feasible understanding of the relationship of v. 16 to the rest of the passage? For some reason, my only objection to your interpretation of v. 16 was an objection to the idea that the content of the contentiousness was FOR Paul’s application, but thinking of it as AGAINST helped clear that up in my mind.

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