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Proper Worship Attire

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Head Coverings are a theologically grounded command that the apostle Paul gives for women in the New Covenant.

Notes & Transcripts
1 Corinthians 11:2–16 NIV
I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.

Introduction

In one of my favorite podcasts, which I listen to frequently, the podcaster often speaks of a time when he worked in a large Southern Baptist Church running sound. He tells a story of a time when the church was having some sort of concert, and as some sound techs were hauling equipment in, the pastor of the church came running up to one of these men, and began upbraiding him. The man was wearing a hat in the church. He exclaimed to the man “Don’t you know you’re in the house of the Lord?! Take your hat off, that is completely disrespectful.” The podcaster speaks of this time as something very fond to him, his pastor being so guarding of the dignity of God’s house.
In one of my favorite podcasts, which I listen to frequently, the
But is this the attitude we should have toward something so seemingly insignificant as a hat? Our culture certainly doesn’t have an issue with hats, so why would we think it’s offensive to God? If you go anywhere other than the Gathering, you typically will get some pretty judging looks if you wear a hat as a man. However, I’ve never walked into a church (though I know they exist), which gives a shameful look to a woman for having her head uncovered in the worship service, though it wasn’t long ago that that was the norm.

The Traditions Handed Down (11:2-16)

Honoring and Dishonoring Your Head (vv. 2-6)

I want to start by laying out the purpose of our passage today. Paul instructs believers to cover the glory of man, and to uncover the glory of God during worship, by women wearing head coverings, and men worshipping with uncovered heads. I’m sure this will make for some wonderful discussion Wednesday night, and I truly wish I could be there for it.
Paul begins by praising the Corinthians for holding to the traditions that he passed on to them, just like he gave them to them. It seems likely that the following discussion falls into the “traditions” which Paul handed down to the Corinthians. Now, we might ask what Paul means by “traditions” here. We know that Jesus always seemed to pit “tradition” against “command” or “scripture”. However, we can easily see that Paul holds “tradition” as authoritative in other passages - but never without a qualifier. The term that Paul uses here is found in 1 Thessalonians, usually translated as “teaching” rather than tradition, but when Paul qualifies this as something that he has passed down, or something that the other apostles have passed down, it is considered authoritative, because as we know now, the writings in which much of this “tradition” are contained, are to us - Scripture.
So Paul praises them for holding to that which he passed on to them. But he wants to inform them further. Paul begins with a correction concerning the practice of head coverings. Paul begins with what is the theological grounding for the rest of his argumentation, by telling the Corinthians that the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Now, I know that most of us here use the ESV, and if you were following me in the reading of our passage this morning, you may have noticed that I read from the NIV, and particularly here, it was drastically different from the ESV. The ESV stands in a very tiny minority of translations, that seek to translate this passage using the term “wife” instead of “woman”. Various scholars note the problems with the ESV’s translation at this point - as it is horrifyingly inconsistent.
The particular Greek terms used here are generic “man” and “woman”, which are also the most common terms for “husband” and “wife”. But there are two problems in translating this as the ESV does - first, Paul is dealing in broad categories. As we will see shortly, Paul’s argument makes absolutely no sense, particularly the way most commentators take this passage (letalone Paul’s own argumentation) if Paul is intending both terms to be used in reference to marriage partners. Consistency would require both “man” and “woman” to be used this way - not just translating “woman” as “wife”. But there is nothing in Paul’s grammar or use of terms that would even come close to signifying that he is talking about men in general and wives in particular (or even that he is switching back and forth talking about women in some places and wives in others, as the ESV suggests!). Most commentators and most translations recognize that Paul is dealing with general classes - men and women, which will come out more in the passage as we go. It must be noted however, that the application may come primarily in the form of husbands and wives - but that’s not what Paul is getting at here.
Now the next question we might ask is what Paul means by “head” in this passage. This is a matter of some debate, but we can be almost certain that it means, in some sense, “to have authority over”. This is it’s most common metaphorical use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Paul would have been using, and it’s Paul’s most common metaphorical use of the term. So Paul begins by telling the Corinthians that Christ has authority over man, man over woman, and God over Christ. Again, this will have it’s application in marriage, but Paul isn’t dealing with marriage here.
Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians of the traditions that he passed on them. He says that if a man prays or prophecies having his head covered, he shames his head, but if a woman prays or prophecies with her head uncovered, she shames her head. Now, there seems to be a common understanding of what Paul is referring to here among Christian commentators, but it seems to be one of those things that has just been repeated so many times that it’s now taken for granted. But the common way of understanding this falls into two categories for the statement about women, and one category for men. For men, the common understanding is that men are not to cover their heads because this was something done during pagan worship festivals, by those officiating or participating in the pagan worship - particularly by those of higher classes. For women, it is either an issue of modesty, or submission to her husband. Some commentators say that a woman was considered immodest if she went out of the house with her head uncovered. Some say that since the head covering was the sign of a married woman, refusing to wear it meant that she was rejecting her husband’s authority and their marriage.
Now, while there is some truth to all three of these facts, it is unlikely that any of them inform what Paul is talking about. For the issue of women, most commentators point to a couple of literary sources we have from this period of history that discuss the impropriety of women who refuse to wear head coverings, and particularly a divorce document where a man divorced his wife because she went outside uncovered. But, it is worth noting that secular scholars on Roman attire recognize that the head covering wasn’t very common in Roman society. Though we have some literary evidence, we have very little artistic evidence for this. Women typically went bare headed, with a couple of important exceptions. Now, for men, it is true that they wore head coverings during pagan worship if they were officiating or participating, but it didn’t distinguish them as higher class - priests of higher class had specific headgear which they wore to denote their class, it wasn’t a simple toga pulled over the head. Now, I said there was one exception to the lack of evidence for women wearing head coverings in public. There is one instance in which the evidence is ubiquitous. Surprisingly, it’s the same instance that we see men wearing head coverings - during participation in pagan worship.
So if Paul is telling the men not to wear it because of it’s connection to pagan worship, it would follow that women shouldn’t wear it either. Paul is going to give his own distinctive reasoning for this practice shortly - but right now he simply wants men and women to understand that worshipping in these ways shames their head. By going uncovered during worship, woman shames man, and by going covered, man shames Christ. But now Paul tries to help the women understand the kind of shame that this brings. So far, Paul has been laying the theological groundwork for the practice of headcovering, but now he tells the women that if she doesn’t wear a covering, it is the same as her having a shaven head - and if that is shameful for her, then she should cover her head. Now it’s important to note that the covering is not grounded in whether or not short or shaven hair for women is shameful - rather Paul is likening the lack of the theological covering as a symbol to the cultural lack of hair - they are both shameful. In the same way that short hair or shaven head is shameful, so it is if a woman goes without a covering.

An Argument from Creation (vv. 7-10)

Now, Paul goes on to give the actual reasoning for his injunction on this practice. “For man indeed should not cover his head, for he is the glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” Now we are getting into the meat of why Paul is asking the Corinthians to do this odd practice. Paul tells his readers that man should not cover his head, for he is the glory of God. In worship, the glory of God should be uncovered, while the glory of man should be covered. Paul expresses this as the way in which the man shames his head - by covering its glory, the woman shames her head by uncovering its glory.
Paul goes on to explain where he gets this from. He goes to the creation account, showing that man wasn’t taken from woman, but woman was taken from man, and neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. Though Paul doesn’t introduce this with any quotes from the Genesis account of creation, he no doubt is drawing this principle from the account of - man was created independently, and woman was created out of man. Furthermore, man was created independently to rule over the earth, and woman was created because man was alone and had no one like him with whom to procreate. She was created as the help for man. In the created order, man came first, and for Paul, this priority shown in the creation order makes the man the glory of God, while the glory of man is woman. With this reasoning, Paul instructs men to display the glory of God, and women to cover the glory of God during worship - what they covered and what they displayed was in a way, representative of what should be occurring during corporate worship.
Now verse 10 is by far one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the New Testament. I’ll give you my take and a couple others, but I’ll pipe in with most reasonable Christian commentators by telling you - I don’t know exactly what this verse means. I’ve changed my mind several times on different parts of the vers, but the best thing I can tell you is there’s no 100% answer from me. Paul says “for this reason, a woman ought to have authority on her head - because of the angels”. Gordon fee notes that the phrase which Paul uses here, translated as “for this reason”, is often used to point in both directions - meaning that Paul wants you to look back to the previous reason - “man is the glory of God, but woman is the glory of man”, and forward to his next reason - “because of the angels”. Few commentators pretend to know what “ought to have authority on her head” means, but there are two basic schools of thought on this that I find plausible. The first is that the head covering stands as a sign of the woman’s authority to pray and prophesy in the New Covenant - something that was not available to all women under the Old Covenant. This is possible, but I don’t believe it’s likely, due to the passage’s emphasis. Paul takes it for granted that the woman can pray and prophesy in the public worship - it’s not his focus here. The second is that the head covering stands as a sign of the authority which man has over woman, as her head. This seems most plausible from the context, but it still has difficulties as far as the standard usage of the Greek term, though it’s not impossible, and in fact has been the prevailing interpretation through history.
One commentator notes that both may be the case, and states it this way:

The most likely explanation is in two parts.* (1) A woman must wear a head covering in order that she may cease to fulfill her natural function of reflecting the glory of man, and instead be free to pray or prophesy to the glory of God alone. (2) The head covering is the sign of the authority that God now gives to a woman in order that she may speak to God in prayer and declare his word in prophecy. “That is, her veil represents the new authority given to the woman under the new dispensation to do things that formerly had not been permitted” (Barrett).

So Paul tells a woman to wear a covering on her head which symbolizes the authority given to her head, but also because of the angels. For anyone who wants a good laugh, just google some of the different interpretations of this phrase in this verse. It’s almost comical some of the things that people throw out there for this. Biblical scholars are a little more agreed on this one, but most still agree that it’s difficult to know what exactly Paul means. What seemed to me to be one of the best interpretations of this, is that in first century Judaism and Christianity, angels were believed to be overseers of the worship of God, and they were also believed to be overseers and upholders of the creation order. Paul is imposing a theologically reasoned symbol to differentiate between genders, the theological reason being grounded in creation order - so Paul tells his readers not to offend those who uphold the created order which God has established.
So Paul tells a woman to wear a covering on her head which symbolizes the authority given to her head, but also because of the angels. For anyone who wants a good laugh, just google some of the different interpretations of this phrase in this verse. It’s almost comical some of the things that people throw out there for this. Biblical scholars are a little more agreed on this one, but most still agree that it’s difficult to know what exactly Paul means. What seemed to me to be one of the best interpretations of this, is that in first century Judaism and Christianity, angels were believed to be overseers of the worship of God, and they were also believed to be overseers and upholders of the creation order. Paul is imposing a theologically reasoned symbol to differentiate between genders, the theological reason being grounded in creation order - so Paul tells his readers not to offend those who uphold the created order which God has established.

An Argument from What is Proper (vv. 11-15)

As a final argument for this practice, Paul appeals to the Corinthians concerning that which is proper. He begins by reminding them that man is just as dependent on woman as woman is on man. This theological truth doesn’t make man worth more, or more useful than woman - because man cannot exist apart from woman - and both sexes find their ultimate source from God Himself. But Paul invites the Corinthians to judge for themselves whether a woman praying or prophesying uncovered is proper. Paul appeals to nature: “Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is dishonorable to him? But if a woman wears long hair, it is her glory.” This is one area which many commentators seem to point to, to show that it is a cultural argument. Although, it seems that many cultures do indeed find this to be the natural standard. I remember being in second grade, and going into the bathroom at school. There was a boy in there who, later in high school, would be one of my better friends. But I remember seeing him in the boys bathroom, and I almost told him “I think you’re in the wrong bathroom...”, because his hair was down to his hind end. Our culture had long before this accepted long hair, but there is something that seems innate in us, which says that men have short hair, and women have long hair. Even as a child, it was something that I understood, though many would debate this. Either way, Paul is not arguing about hair length here, he is simply drawing an analogy by appealing to what people, at the very least, of his time, would have understood as being the way things were intended to be.
But Paul says that for the woman, her hair is her glory, and it is given to her as a covering. This verse also has problems in interpretation. The phrase about a woman’s hair as her covering could be translated a few different ways. First it could be “instead of a covering” or it could be “as a covering”. It should be noted that if Paul is arguing here that the woman doesn’t need a covering because she has long hair, it makes the rest of his argument completely pointless. Commentator C.K. Barrett puts it best I think. He says :

But woman has been given in her hair a primitive form of covering which man lacks. In this she has the advantage of him, and she must follow the hint her naturally long hair supplies.

Paul is arguing from nature, and it should be best understood that Paul is inviting women to follow what nature implies.

The Standard Practice of the Churches.

Paul concludes by telling the Corinthians that if anyone is contentious, we have no other practice, nor do the Churches of God. This is a big statement. Paul tells his readers that all the churches practice using head coverings for women, and not covering the heads of men - you stand on your own if you don’t practice this. He calls them back to the traditions which were passed on to them.

Application

So here comes the part which will get me in trouble - but it will also make Wednesday night discussion really fun. What do we do with this passage? Some of you may have noticed before, but Pashia covers her head when we go to public worship. In fact, Pashia was the one who came to me with the question of head coverings. One day, while we were talking about biblical ideas of gender, she asked me “what do you think about head coverings? Do you think that is something I should do?” When we started coming to the Gathering, Pashia referred to herself as a “recovering feminist”. I remember waking up one night to Pashia throwing a book across the room because it said that Paul prohibited women from teaching in the church. Of her own reading, Pashia came to the conclusion that that author was correct. But she told me “I always said that Paul’s prohibition of women teachers was a cultural thing - and I was wrong. Maybe I’m wrong on this too.”
And so I thought I may be as well. For us, after learning about the culture of Roman society, and learning that head covering wasn’t as prevalent as commentators think (which commentators are now beginning to realize), we realize it wasn’t a cultural issue. Many commentators now admit this, most of them agreeing that Paul is advocating a distinction between genders. But where I disagree with these commentators, is that they argue that the symbol which displays this can be changed. They still attach the reasoning for a head-covering as the symbol, to cultural realities. However, Paul’s argument is that the glory of man should be covered, and the symbol which he prescribes fits this need, and shows it visibly.
I want to quote a couple authors before we close. First, Elliot Johnson, a christian author, notes this:
“It should be evident, however, that a change in culture demands teaching the theological basis for and meaning of the practice. A repetition of the practice without this teaching would be meaningless form. For example, it is possible that there are missionaries for whom the original elements of the Lord’s Supper are not available. Does this prohibit their practice of the Lord’s Supper? Common sense suggests that the teaching must supersede the form; but it also suggests caution against using such an exceptional instance as the basis for one’s normative practice. The normative practice should be drawn from the biblical text.
If we accept in principle the practice of substituting cultural equivalents, the danger of abandoning prescribed form of response involves the related problem of losing or distorting the type of meaning. Perhaps the form was chosen for theological reasons which the interpreter does not yet perceive or which are related to other biblical usage. If the chosen form is abandoned, the unknown implication involved in the form will be forever lost. This is the very real danger, especially when the form has become culturally unpopular. For example, in the case of headcovering, the basis for the form must be clearly demonstrated to be non-theological before the form itself can be dismissed without possible loss of theological truth taught in the apostolic practice.”
Bruce Waltke says this:
“This writer concludes, then, that a woman who prays or prophesies in an assembly of believers should cover her head as a symbol of her submission to the absolute will of God who has ordered His universe according to His own good pleasure. This picture of His rule must not be seized by believers into their own hands to shape it according to their own pleasure. Ahaz incurred the wrath of God by changing the shape of the altar to conform it to Assyrian demands (). Of course, the appearance of the headdress will change, just as the practice of the Lord’s Supper may vary from culture to culture, but the symbol must be present or the reality and its truth may be lost.”
Something that I would invite you to discuss Wednesday night, is whether it can be demonstrated that the theological truth can be portrayed through a symbol other than what was prescribed by Paul. I would posit, very strongly, that it cannot. Paul instructs believers to cover the glory of man, and uncover the glory of God in public worship, in order to demonstrate submission to the created order which God Himself has established. Let us pray.
Something that I would invite you to discuss wednesday night, is whether it can be demonstrated that the theological truth can be portrayed through a symbol other than what was prescribed by Paul.
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