The Apostle Paul told the women of Corinth to wear a head covering at church. Why? And how does this apply today?

12 Dec

This is a tough one.  While all reformed commentators distinguish between a biblical principle which endures, and a biblical practice/custom which does not (it is culturally relative) this verse doesn’t lend itself so easily to those categories.  Paul speaks about the practice/custom of head coverings in the 1st century but he also appeals to natural law and the creation order of things.  Here is Thomas Schreiner’s take (excerpted conclusion from ch. 5 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).  [Note: there are other scholars who argue that the head covering practice is more prescriptive than Schreiners thinks it is].

The significance of this text for the twentieth century must be examined briefly. Am I
suggesting that women return to wearing coverings or veils? No.30 We must distinguish
between the fundamental principle that underlies a text and the application of that
principle in a specific culture. The fundamental principle is that the sexes, although equal,
are also different. God has ordained that men have the responsibility to lead, while
women have a complementary and supportive role. More specifically, if women pray and
prophesy in church, they should do so under the authority of male headship. Now, in the
first century, failure to wear a covering sent a signal to the congregation that a woman
was rejecting the authority of male leadership. Paul was concerned about head coverings
only because of the message they sent to people in that culture.
Today, except in certain religious groups, if a woman fails to wear a head covering
while praying or prophesying, no one thinks she is in rebellion. Lack of head coverings
sends no message at all in our culture. Nevertheless, that does not mean that this text does
not apply to our culture. The principle still stands that women should pray and prophesy
in a manner that makes it clear that they submit to male leadership. Clearly the attitude
and the demeanor with which a woman prays and prophesies will be one indication of
whether she is humble and submissive. The principle enunciated here should be applied
in a variety of ways given the diversity of the human situation.
Moreover, both men and women today should dress so that they do not look like the
opposite sex. Confusion of the sexes is contrary to the God-given sense that the sexes are
distinct. For example, it would be wrong for a twentieth-century American male to wear a
dress in public. It would violate his masculinity. Everything within a man would cry out
against doing this because it would violate his appropriate sense of what it means to be a
man. The point is not that women should not wear jeans or pants, but that in every culture
there are certain kinds of adornment which become culturally acceptable norms of dress
for men and women.
Finally, we should note that there is a connection forged in this passage between
femininity and the proper submission of women to men. The women in Corinth, by
prophesying without a head covering, were sending a signal that they were no longer
submitting to male authority. Paul sees this problem as severe because the arrogation of
male leadership roles by women ultimately dissolves the distinction between men and
women. Thus, this text speaks volumes to our culture today, because one of the problems
with women taking full leadership is that it inevitably involves a collapsing of the
distinctions between the sexes. It is hardly surprising, as the example of the Evangelical
Woman’s Caucus demonstrates, that one of the next steps is to accept lesbianism.31 Paul
rightly saw, as he shows in this text, that there is a direct link between women
appropriating leadership and the loss of femininity. It is no accident that Paul addresses
the issues of feminine adornment and submission to male leadership in the same passage.
In conclusion, we should affirm the participation of women in prayer and prophecy in
the church. Their contribution should not be slighted or ignored. Nevertheless, women
should participate in these activities with hearts that are submissive to male leadership,
and they should dress so that they retain their femininity.

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