FAQ: Difficult Passages Blog #3
1 Corinthians 11:2-16
Question: What is the reason for head coverings? Are they relevant today? What was considered a head covering?
Two caveats before I start:
First, in Paul and Gender, Cynthia Long Westfall spends twenty pages discussing this passage. I won’t be taking up that much space. If you’d like to explore this more in depth, I recommend her book, Craig Keener’s The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, and his article “Man and Woman” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.
Second, I am not going to use the CAPTOR acronym (see previous blog) as rigidly. I will focus mostly on the context since this is mainly a cultural issue. This passage is a great example of Pastor Ian’s reminder: the Bible was not written to us but for us.
In this passage, Paul is addressing a question about whether women and men should cover their head in worship. Paul instructs women to cover their heads and men to uncover their heads.
The head covering Paul is referring to is a veil or hood. There were different styles and lengths of veils that were prevalent through the history and across the geography of the Roman Empire. Some, particularly in Palestine, covered the face as well as the hair.
Before I started studying the passage and the historical context, I assumed two things:
1. That wearing a veil was a sign of submission;
2. That the women in the house churches were trying to assert their freedom in Christ by refusing to wear a veil when the gathered for worship.
I failed to understand that in the ancient Mediterranean world, women’s hair was a prime object of men’s lust. For a woman to have her hair uncovered in public was a signal that she was available. A married woman should cover her hair; both to signal her faithfulness to her husband and because her beauty (or ‘sexiness’) should only be displayed to her husband. A worship gathering is not the place to signal sexual availability or to display that kind of sexual beauty, especially since it was believed that men were unable to control themselves in the presence of such provocative beauty (I still hear similar arguments today!).
Additionally, veiling was a sign of social status in the ancient world. There were women who were prohibited by law and custom from wearing a veil including current or former slaves, women in the low classes, and current or former prostitutes. Paul believed that in Christ we are all equal: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28). Paul is advocating that all women be allowed to veil in worship, regardless of social status, as an act of dignity and honour. This was a significant command; imagine you were a slave owner who attended church with your female slave. You would be reminded of her inherent dignity, worth, and equality as a child of God, and the limits of your control over her – every time she veiled herself.
We assume that it was the women who didn’t want to wear a veil. This is probably based on our Western mindset: we live in a culture of bra-burning and wearing revealing clothes as a demonstration of women’s power over their own bodies. However, we also live in a world where women have been forced to unveil: the women being arrested for wearing burkini’s on the beaches of Cannes, for example. In addition, it is usually, though not exclusively, men who try to set the rules for what women wear and don’t wear. In Esther, it’s the king who orders Vashti to unveil herself to a roomful of prominent men; in the Roman culture, it was men who set the rules about who could and could not be veiled, and it was men who had most at stake: a woman veiling herself was indicating that she was not sexually available to him. It was limiting the power of the man.
This makes it easier to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:10 – “It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” (It doesn’t make it easier to understand what “because of the angels” means, but you didn’t ask about that. Thank you!). If Paul was commanding women to wear a veil against their will, this phrase doesn’t make sense. If Paul was confirming the women’s desire to wear a veil, the verse makes sense: she has authority over her own head and can wear a veil.
Obligations and Reflection: We have to look beyond the presenting problem (veils) and consider the universal principle: Paul’s teaching on modesty and dignity, especially in our sexually charged culture. Paul argued that worship gatherings were not a place to advertise sexual availability. This caution is for both men and women. Men’s clothes aren’t typically as obviously revealing as women’s clothing can be. However, advertising sexual availability isn’t just about the clothes you wear. It’s also about words, tone, body language, scents, touch, etc. I think Paul would caution us to careful to be modest in the way we dress, talk, and act so that we don’t steal focus from Jesus when we gather to worship.
Related to this, we have an obligation to treat everyone as a brother and sister in God’s family. We have an obligation to treat everyone with the dignity and honour they deserve as one created in the image of God, whom God loves, and for whom Jesus died. We must especially go out of our way to dignify and honour those who typically get overlooked and oppressed. This is at the heart of Paul’s instructions: the status symbols of culture do not apply in the family of God.
This is the gospel: regardless of your status in the world and regardless of your past – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, lonely or popular, poor or rich, powerless or powerful – you are a full participant in the kingdom and a full heir of the promises because of Jesus.
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