The Issue of headcoverings for women is a question of the interpretation and application of a single passage in I Corinthians 11:2-16. In this passage, Paul urges the women of the Corinthian church to wear a headcovering when praying or prophesying, and states that the men should not cover their heads in like circumstances. He also speaks of the impropriety of women cutting off their hair and of a man growing his hair long. In some sectors of the church this passage has become a matter of controversy, the disagreement centering on the question of whether Paul is enunciating customs applicable to all Christians of all times, or simply for those of a particular culture.
It is unusual, if not unheard of, for the Bible to speak only once upon subjects of importance to the Christian’s conduct and worship. Yet, even if a subject is spoken of only once in Scripture, it must be taken seriously. This is especially so if the matter is one which must be understood properly before a believer can begin to live or worship acceptably.
When a Christian duty is universally applicable (as all real duties are), we can trust in the faithfulness of God to clearly communicate this duty in terms that honest seekers could hardly misunderstand. The first sixteen verses of I Corinthians eleven have not proven to be so clear as we could wish. No doubt there are some who would say that they find the teaching clear enough. “It simply means what it says.” Those who talk this way are possibly bringing a fair amount of their own cultural assumptions to the text, whether they realize it or not. For example, the Bible nowhere makes it altogether clear exactly what Paul meant by a “covering,” and it is probable that he meant something quite different (at least in style, if not also in extent of coverage) than the coverings that many modern Christian women use to cover themselves. Nor is it any sense clear what the rationale is for women veiling themselves. It could be an issue of modesty. On the other hand, it may be that the symbolism of wearing a veil (to depict the woman’s subordination to her husband) is paramount. Another consideration, which many subscribe to, is that Paul’s concern may have been nothing more than that Christian women not offend the cultural sensitivities of their Corinthian neighbors.
Among modern interpreters, there are four distinct approaches to the application of this passage:
1) There are those who see the entire passage as a bit of unfortunate accommodation to outdated, patriarchal ideas, which society has since outgrown. This option is that of the so-called “evangelical feminists,” whose views on the woman’s issue are consistently more feminist than evangelical. To these, both the custom of headcovering and the patriarchal ideas behind it should be abandoned together.
2) There are those who say that the custom described is to be followed precisely as it was by those of first-century Corinth. Both the patriarchal ideas and the precise expression of those ideas in veiling women should not be altered in any particular. This option would require that we know precisely what style of headgear was worn by women in the ancient Greek culture so that such items could be duplicated for modern use.
3) There are those who believe that the general principle of patriarchal authority is transcendent and permanent, and should be perpetually celebrated by the covering of the woman’s head, but that the style or form of covering may be varied to include hats, scarves, small pieces of cloth, etc. - rather than being restricted to the precise kind of veil worn by first-century Greeks.
4) Finally, there are those who would retain the principle of male authority in the home and in the church, but would regard the whole question of covering to be negotiable and contingent upon local customs.
Both options 3 & 4 require the retention of a transcendent principle (patriarchy), but allow for modification of practice in some degree to accommadate local modern culture (altering or discarding the covering of women). The only difference between these two last options is the degree to which Paul’s words are seen as culturally conditioned.
Particular vs. Universal Application
That the Scriptures were addressed, in the first instance, to people other than ourselves, must be acknowledged by any who have studied the Bible with care. When Paul writes, “I was with you...”(I Cor. 2:3); “...I preached the gospel to you” (Gal. 4:13); and “Do you not remember that when I was with you...?” (II Thess. 2:5), we are reminded that most of his epistles were written to persons who had known Paul’s personal ministry among them. We have never met Eunice or Lois, Phoebe, Onesimus or the household of Stephanas. Yet the persons to whom Paul’s epistles were addressed were familiar with these people, and could put faces to the names when they read of them. We cannot, and must therefore approach with a certain sense that we are reading “somebody else’s mail.”
There are abiding principles in every epistle, which is why we still read them with profit, but these principles are sometimes illustrated with reference to local customs that do not carry a universal application.
When we turn to I Corinthians 11, we immediately realize that we are reading an attempt to correct a problem that was present in a particular church. “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you” (v.2) is a verse speaking of a specific state of a particular congregation.
As we read on, we find that the specific problem had something to do with women and headcoverings. The precise problem and its cause is never made clear. Paul’s teaching in the chapter takes for granted a shared knowledge of the situation between himself and his readers, which allows him to write less explicitly than we may wish he had. The customs of Corinth, as well as those of “the churches of God” (v.16), were common knowledge to them, while we are left to puzzle over the conflicting reconstructions of disputing historians in order to try to grasp the situation.
For example, every woman in Corinth knew what Paul meant by a “covering” (they probably even knew what he meant by his cryptic reference to “authority on her head” and “the angels” in verse 10!). They knew whether the word kephale (head, verse 3) meant “source” or “chief” or “ruler” (I personally have no doubt about this point, though it is a matter of contemporary dispute).
They knew what length of hair was considered too “long” for a man, and in what sense “nature” taught this to be shameful (v. 14). They also knew whether “no such custom” (v.16) meant the custom of women covering or that of women uncovering their heads. From our vantage point, twenty centuries removed, we have greater difficulty knowing these things. The very meaning of the passage and its range of application depend on exact knowledge of these factors. The very obscurity of Paul’s references to these things may call into questions whether it was God’s intention for Christians of all ages to observe the Corinthian customs, about which He did not choose to preserve exact information.
What is a “veil”?
The first obscurity that meets us in the investigation of this passage centers on the definition of what Paul means by “covering.” Two words are found in the Greek text. In verses six and seven, we find the verb “cover” with reference to the head-i.e. it is proper for the woman but not for the man to “cover” the head when praying or prophesying. This verb in the Greek is katakalupto , which Strong’s  renders “to cover wholly.” The word is a compound having two parts. The first, kata , means “down.” The other part is kalupto , for which the given meaning is: “to cover up, hide..to wrap around, as bark, skin, shell or plaster.”
The other word Paul uses is the noun peribolaion in verse 15, where Paul says a woman’s long hair is given to her for a “covering.” The meaning of this word is given as “something thrown around one, i.e. a mantle, veil.”
Whatever other data may be consulted, the words themselves which Paul used suggest that what he had in mind was something much more like a wrap-around shawl, which covered the whole head (and possibly the face), than merely a small piece of cloth pinned to the hair. This leaves room for the suggestion that a woman’s modesty was the object of Paul’s concern, rather than the observance of a merely symbolic ritual.
One of the more debatable points in the present passage is found in its closing verse (16), where Paul concludes, “If anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.” [For some reason, several newer translations, e.g. the NASB, TEV and NIV, have arbitrarily translated the Greek word toioutos (such) as “other.” This has no warrant in the Greek nor in manuscripts and appears to be the imposition of an idea that translators thought Paul should have written!]
Considerable disagreement revolves around the identification of the “custom” to which Paul refers. If the custom referred to is that of women covering their heads (the only custom discussed in the previous passage), then Paul would be saying that these instructions are relevant to the Corinthians, but not necessarily to the church at large- suggesting a local/cultural, not a universal, basis for his instructions.
Those today who would advocate a universal application of the head covering practices have suggested two alternative identifications of the “custom” in question. One suggestion is that he means the “custom” of “being contentious” or of contending against an apostolic dictum. The other suggestion is that he means “custom” of women disregarding the head covering custom.
Either of these latter proposed meanings, if true, would make Paul’s meaning to be, “If you women stop covering your heads, you will be out of harmony with the practices of all the other churches.” However, unless some moral fault could be cited in their behavior, this argument would not be compelling any more than if, say, a group of Christians decided to have their main weekly meeting on Sunday nights, whereas most churches have theirs on Sunday mornings. To tell this church, “No other churches are doing what you are doing in this respect,” would not necessarily provide any argument against the practice- unless some spiritual or moral reason could be adduced for the traditional morning services.
The word used by Paul for “custom” is sunetheia [Strong’s #4914]. Strong gives as its meaning: “mutual habitation.” The two parts of the word are, respectively, sun , meaning “with or together” and ethos  (a strengthened form of 1485, “a usage prescribed by habit or law; custom, manner, be accustomed”), which means “habits, manners.” It speaks of community manners, established by local habits or laws. This word is found only one other place in the New Testament, where it refers to the Roman custom in Palestine of releasing one prisoner from jail at Passover season (John 18:39), which was clearly a local and arbitrary practice, rather than something God required for moral or spiritual reasons.
The wearing of veils by women was just such a custom in Corinth, and has been in many other cultures, suggesting that this local practice is the “custom” Paul has in mind.
On the other hand, the act of being “contentious” or of defying an apostle’s instuctions, though a practice of some individuals, has never risen to the status of a social custom, and is therefore not likely to be the “custom” of which Paul speaks in verse 16. Likewise, the casting off of veils may have been the practice of some individuals in Corinth, but such an action would better be described as a rejection of prevailing custom, rather than an actual custom itself.
Since the veiling of women and short hairstyles for men were Greek customs of just the kind suggested by the Greek word, it seems best to understand Paul’s use of this word to be saying that the Greek customs, though relevant to the Corinthians as Greeks, were not necessarily practiced in other cultures.
For example, long hair on a man would not be regarded as shameful among the Jews, since both the law and Paul’s own practice validated the growing of one’s hair and beard as a mark of one’s special consecration to God through a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6).
The Jewish heroes who had such a vow and wore long hair included Samson (Judg. 13:7), Samuel (I Sam. 1:11), Elijah, apparently (II Kings 1:8), John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), and Paul himself (Acts 18:18; comp. Acts 21:23-6). In addition, the Jewish priests (Ex. 39:28/Eze. 44:18), the high priests (Ex. 28:4/29:9/39:28/Lev. 8:13), and Ezekiel the prophet (Ezek. 24:17) were all commanded to wear headcoverings while ministering to God, suggesting that God does not know of any universal impropriety in a man covering his head or having long hair.
The law allowed both men and women to take this vow (Num. 6:2). Significant to our present consideration is the fact that a Nazarite, after growing his or her hair out long, was to shave his or her head (Num. 6:18). This makes it plain that for a Jewish woman to shave her head was not, under some circumstances, considered a shameful thing before God. Josephus tells of a time when the Jewish queen Berenice (who was contemporary with Paul, and once met him) had shaved her head to observe a Nazarite vow (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews , 2:15:1). There was no shame in this.
Clearly, Jews and Greeks had different customs from each other in this respect, and Paul validated both, in their respective cultural contexts (Consider I Corinthians 9:20-21 in this light).
There is therefore a difference between the authority of such “customs” and that of the apostolic “traditions” mentioned by Paul in verse 2. Paul opens the discussion of head coverings with this comment: “Now I praise you, brethren, that you...keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you” (v.2). This word traditions (meaning “a transmitted precept”) is used two ways in the New Testament. In the first instance, it refers to the teachings of the rabbis, held to be binding by the Pharisees (Matt. 15:2,3,,6/ Mark 7:3,5,8,9,13/ Gal. 1:14/Col. 2:8). Though Jesus and Paul rejected the authority of these “traditions of the elders,” they were regarded by those who affirmed them to have moral (not local, cultural) binding force.
The same word is used of the normative teachings passed along by the apostles, whether by their preaching or by their epistles (here and in II Thess. 2:15; 3:6). Such teachings had a moral basis and were thus universally binding upon the churches. Violation of these apostolic traditions could warrant exlcusion from Christian fellowship (II Thess. 3:14).
Paul makes a deliberate distinction between these apostolic traditions (v.2) and the “custom” of covering in Corinth. Though some Corinthian women were seemingly unveiling themselves in violation of local custom, Paul was nonetheless able to praise them that they were careful not to violate apostolic traditions. In his 18 months of personal ministry among the Corinthians (Acts 18:11), Paul had never given instruction about women veiling themselves (peculiar, if it was a Christian duty), and they were apparently unaware that he would discourage the abandonment of the local practice. Paul, in this passage, recommends conformity to the local practice because it is a good way of expressing acceptance of the husband’s authority over the wife- which is transcendent truth of God (v.3).
The train of thought in the passage would thus be as follows: The Corinthians were honoring apostolic precepts (v.2), but some were not following Greek customs (vs. 3-16). In the transition of thought from verse 2 to verses 3ff, Paul makes a deliberate and emphatic distinction between apostolic ordinances and local customs, but considers the latter to be agreeable enough with the transcendent principle of gender roles (which transcendent truths are woven into Paul’s appeal to maintain the custom) not to cast it off- especially in view of the possible offensiveness of such a policy to local culture (compare Paul’s concern that no one stumble anyone else in the immediate context: chapters 8-10).
Symbolism, modesty or cultural conformity?
The question of the continuing relevance of the customs of headcovering depends upon Paul’s rationale for giving the instructions. Is there a local/temporal concern behind his teaching, or is he aware of some transcendent spiritual reality that dictates the need for women of all times and places to cover themselves? In part I, I discussed a few of the issues raised in I Corinthians 11:2-16. Principally, that discussion centered upon the question of which “custom” Paul declares not to be universal in verse 16, and I did not deal with the majority of the verses in the passage. There are three main theories as to what was Paul’s rationale for giving his instructions about the veiling of women. in this installment, I would like to consider whether Paul’s concern was for a) symbolism, b) modesty, or c) cultural conformity. Let us briefly examine the evidence for each of these possibilities in the passage.
1. Necessary Symbolism of a Spiritual Reality:
There are some symbolic practices enjoined upon Christians. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper spring immediately to mind as examples. We should consider the possibility that the covering of women is such a practice, the neglect of which would be as wrong as would the neglect of baptism.
In I Corinthians 11:10, some translations speak of the need for woman to have a “symbol of authority on her hea d.” This can give the impression that the important thing to Paul was the symbolism of having something (anything) on the woman’s head to convey the idea of her submission to her husband’s authority. Though there was perhaps a commendable symbolism in the practice, this verse does not yield the conclusion that this was Paul’s main focus. The words “symbol o f” are not in the original text. Paul actually says that a woman praying or prophesying ought to have “authority on her head,” or possibly, “authority over her head.” Translated “authority on...” it may refer to the veil upon her head as a visible “authorization to publicly pray or prophesy.” If we translate, “authority over her head,” it would not be so much a reference to the veil as to her relation of subordination to her husband as the factor universally required of women praying or prophesying.
Some have suggested that Paul’s comment that long hair “is give n” to women for a covering (v. 15) refers to a universal divine ordinance. Since it is not a physical fact that a woman’s hair grows longer than a man’s, God has not “given” this long hair by creation. Thus, if it is God who has “given” long hair to the woman, then it must be by divine decree or ordinance.
The difficulty here is in locating the place where such a “decree” of God is recorded. It is not found among the decrees of the law (where there is approval of long hair on Nazarite males). Nor did Jesus or the apostles decree it in any place, unlesss Paul is giving it as an original revelation in this passage- which seems unlikely, since the impression is given throughout the passage that the custom of headcovering was already known and practiced by the readers prior to Paul’s writing this chapter.
It is necessary to ovserve that Paul does not say that it is for God who has “given” the woman long hair. The Greek word for “given” is generic with the wide range of meanings, including “granted” (see lexicons). Is seems likely that Paul is saying that it is “granted” by cultural consensus that women may grow their hair long, though the same consensus denies this practice to men (v. 14).
It has been suggested from verse 10, where Paul says that the woman should have authority on her head “because of angels,” that this proves there to be a spiritual and universal basis for the custom of veiling women. But this expression, too, is anything but self-explanatory as to its meaning. Some have felt that Paul would have women cover themselves to avoid offending the holy angels, or of tempting them by the woman’s beauty. In the first case, we might expect Paul to appeal to our need to avoid offending God by inappropriate worship behaviors, rather than offending the angels, whose opinion of us matters infinately less. As for the second suggestion, one must wonder whether a woman’s beauty in a worship service provides more temptation to angels than the same would provide, for instance, when the woman bathes. She certainly does not bathe in a veil. If the angels find mortal women sexually tempting, then one should require women to cover themselves at any time an angel might be present.
Some think that the angels in question are demons, and that a woman without a covering is advertising herself as a rebel against her husband (and hence against God) and setting herself up as a target for demonic attack (compare Prov. 17:11). This is a possibility, but it would still be possible if such were the case, to argue that it is the rebellion, not the absence of a veil, that renders the woman vulnerable. In Corinth, the casting off of the veil would be tantamount to rebellion, whereas this might not necessarily be so in cultures of a different sort.
Yet another possibility is that the “angels” refer to the preachers, or “messengers” (the literal meaning of angeloi ) who address the church. This very word is often used of human messengers. It is used of John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10), of John’s messengers to Jesus (Luke 7:24), of messengers sent ahead of Jesus into Samaria (Luke 9:52), and of the spies sent into Jericho whom Rahab sheltered (James 2:25). Perhaps to avoid distracting and tempting the preachers who faced the congregation, women were expected to cover their faces. If this is Paul’s meaning, then we are concerned with a modesty issue. (I hope I will not be misunderstood if I say that, as a preacher myself, I can see a value in such a custom).
It is possible that this is Paul’s concern. A veil covering the head and face of a woman would certainly be an instance of modesty of dress. Paul expresses concern about women’s modesty of dress elsewhere, though without reference to their wearing veils. In Roman culture, it seems, women typically wore elaborate hairstyles (seemingly without veils). Paul and Peter both discouraged Christian women from imitating these hairstyles, though they do not mention the need to wear veils in the Roman culture to which their comments were addressed (I Timothy 2:9/I Peter 3:3).
Corinth had a Greek culture, not Roman. It was a city known for its immorality- having a temple of Venus, employing a thousand prostitute/priestesses. Throughout the empire, “to play the Corinthian” was a phrase that meant to live in drunken immorality. There is a disagreement among the scholars as to whether Greek culture required the veiling of women. However, whether such veiling was customary among all Greeks or not, it is reasonable to assume that in a city as corrupt as Corinth, decent women would have distinguished themselves by modest dress, of which a veil may well have been a part. We know that there was a Jewish community in Corinth (Acts 18:4-6), whose women, no doubt, veiled themselves in public according to the Jewish practice. The Christian women, as an alternative to the immodest garb of the immoral Greek women, may well have adopted the custom of the local Jewish women in this respect.
Though many cultures have corrupt ideas about what institutes modesty (our own, for example), yet not all cultures define it in exaclty the same terms. In some cultures (e.g. Muslims) a veil that covers the entire head and most of the face is a necessary part of a woman’s modesty; in other cultures it is not so regarded. Because of the extremely immoral culture for which Corinth was legendary, it may have been deemed necessary for Christian women to hide their faces completely in order to avoid tempting men other than their husbands, or simply to set themselves apart from the corrupt women of the city. The practice might be a good one to revive today, but no Christian I know has judged a Christian woman to be immodest simply because she does not conceal herself behind a wrap-around shawl. Therefore, even if modesty is what I Corinthians 11 is about, this does not dictate inflexible particulars of dress that could not vary from one culture to another.
3. Cultural Conformity:
Even though patriarchy is a transcendent norm in God’s economy, the covering of women is not a universally recognised expression of this concept. Veiling of women would have had this meaning to the Jews, and may also have carried that significance in the Corinthian church. Decent folks and Jews, in Corinth, might have been offended by women professing godliness who went about unveiled. The avoidance of offense to the Jews and other people of conscience may well have been the whole concern of Paul in his instructions to the church about headcoverings.
This understanding would make good sense of the general context of I Corinthians 11. In the previous three chapters (8-10), Paul had been encouraging the Christians to be sensitive concerning the feelings of their brothers toward the pagan practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols. It was primarily the desire not to offend the sensitivities of Jewish people that motivated the Jerusalem Council to restrict the gentle believers from eating such meat (Acts 15:20-21).
Paul teaches that there is nothing morally wrong with eating such meat, but to avoid offending or stumbling a brother, one should not eat it in certain cases. Though the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols is not a contemporary issue in our time, the transcendent concern not to stumble others may have application to many modern decisions Christians must make about their lifestyles.
Paul’s exhortation to the Christians not to abandon the covering of women may stem from the same rationale as his request that they avoid meat sacrificed to idols, in the immediate context. Both concepts appeal to transcendent principles as a basis for relating to local, cultural practices- but do not demand that the same principles are best served in precisely the same manner in other cultures.
It is in this connection, I think, that we must view Paul’s appeal to nature in verse 14: “Does not nature itself teach you ...?” He seems to be saying that there is a basis for his instructions that is somehow confirmed by “nature.” Some feel that this makes Paul’s instructions transcultural and based upon some creation ordinance.
While it is true that Paul appeals to the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 as a basis for the principle of patriarchy (I Cor. 11:8-9,12), the specific issue of the veiling of woman is not mentioned or implied in the Genesis account. In fact, man and woman were created naked. For this reason, we cannot use the way that God created man and woman as a current norm for gender clothing styles. Babies are not born veiled, so it is not in this sense that “nature” teaches the lesson of head covering.
Nor does the animal world teach this lesson. Among birds, it is generally the males of the species that sport the gaudy plumage. Among lions (very familiar to the biblical writers) it is likewise the males that are maned. It is not in this sense that “nature” teaches conformity to Greek hair customs.
Paul’s probable meaning is that one has a natural instinct about such matters. It goes against the natural “grain” for a man to wear a woman’s apparel or for a woman to wear a man’s (it not only goes against our own “grain” but against God’s as well! Duet. 22:5). The suspicion that Paul is appealing to something like people’s inner instincts is strengthened by his saying, in the previous verse, “Judge in yourselves ...”
This is not an appeal to one’s natural modesty, for it is the man’s short hair (not the veiling of women) that is said to be taught by nature. Short hair on men is not a modesty issue. Of course, Paul never indicates how long a man’s hair must be in order to be too “long.” Without specific instruction about this, we must, to some extent, allow local customs to dictate. This is true of gender dress norms in general. Scots may wear kilts, but most Americans would consider this too much like a woman’s skirt. At one time, in our culture, pants were a style which strictly “pertained to a man.” Though some still object to women wearing pants out of modesty considerations, one could not sustain an argument that pants are a distinctly “male” style in our present culture (I know of no man who would wear most of the pants sold in women’s clothing stores!). Good men and women instinctively (by nature) know that they should not cross-dress in the clothing styles deemed to be those of the opposite sex. Each culture has its own ideas about what constitutes a man’s and what a woman’s garb and hair-styles, but the revulsion for cross-dressing is universal and natural. One’s specific judgements on gender-appropriate styles would be conditioned by one’s cultural upbringing, for if human nature universally approved a particular hair length for men, customs would not vary as much as they do among cultures.
If Paul’s concern was that women not offend cultural sensitivites, but rather conform where possible to local styles and practices in order to reach their neighbors, it would seem that women who wear veils in a culture where this is not generally done would be a practice directly contrary to the spirit of Paul’s instructions. In America there are many countercultures, including some in which women wear veils. Women should conform, so much as modesty permits, to the clothing norms of that culture which they most hope to reach. While the Bible calls us to be morally different from our unsaved neighbors, I do not believe that a distinctive Christian “uniform” is recommended in Scripture. Such uniforms tend to encourage onlookers to mistake Christianity for a set of external considerations, rather than as the spiritual reality that it is. It seems to me that the only standard garb for all Christian women, according to Paul, is that they be clothed modestly and, as women professing godliness, “with good works” (I Tim. 2:10).
Though there is only one passage in the Bible that mentions the issue of women’s headcoverings, there are several relevant issues that are taught repeatedly throughout Scripture. Some issues constitute “weightier matters” (Matthew 23:23) than others. A matter of external dress mentioned only once in Scripture is worth giving full consideration to, but it should not be permitted to eclipse those things taught throughout Scripture as central concerns for Christians. There are at least three principles of Scripture that ought to be remembered when wrestling with the issue of women’s headcoverings:
A. The principle of corroboration.
God stated a principle in Dueteronomy 19:15, which is quoted by Jesus and by Paul and alluded to in no less than four times in the New Testament. It is this: “by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established (see Matthew 18:16/John 8:17/II Corinthians 13:11/I Timothy 5:19). Practices that have universal application to all Christians (e.g. baptism, the Lord’s Supper, etc.) generally are confirmed repeatedly in Scripture. Typically, we can find them 1) in the teaching of Jesus, 2) in the apostolic practice in Acts, and 3) in the teaching of the epistles. If there is a universal requirement upon all Christian women to veil themselves, it would represent an important and peculiar responsibility, and it would be strange to find it mentioned only one time in Scripture, in a passage full of ambiguities that challenge every honest interpreter.
B. The Principle of shadow vs. substance.
In the Old Testament law, there were commands of universal moral principle (e.g. against murder, adultery, theft), and there were laws whose function was symbolic and temporal (e.g. sacrifices, festivals and laws of ceremonial cleanness). The New Testament refers to the latter as “shadows” (Colossians 2:16-17/Hebrews 8:5) in contrast to the “substance” which is in Christ. There is nothing wrong with a Christian’s observance of such “shadows” as dietary restrictions and holy days (Romans 14:1-6), so long as he does not mistake them for the “substance” of Christian experience and duty. Each Christian must judge for himself whether the headcovering practice would fall into the realm of “shadow” or of “substance.” My vote is for the former. I thus judge from a) the evident externality of the practice, and b) the contextual connection with the dietary restriction upon eating meat sacrificed to idols (I Corinthians 8-11).
C. The principle of love.
There are two commands upon which all Christian duty hang. They are to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). to do unto others as we would have them do to us summarizes “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). “Love does no harm to a neighbor: therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10/Galations 5:14). “If you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well” (James 2:8). The Bible plainly teaches that pleasing God does not consist in the observance of religious externals, but in love expressed in all relationship. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galations 5:6). Whatever conclusions we reach concerning headcoverings, it is essential that we do not neglect the core issue of the Christian life, which is to be loving toward all. I recently heard a brother say, “It seems that every woman I know who wears a headcovering has a chip on her shoulder!” I personally could not make the same statement. However, it is my experience that whenever a segment of the Christian population adopts a practice not generally followed by other Christians, there is a temptation to make that practice, first, a thing to defend; second, a primary focus; and third, a test of fellowship. It is not necessary to fall to this temptation, however, and I know a number of veiled women who do not seem critical of their unveiled sisters. On the other hand, I have also met those who have apparently made the issue of headcovering a larger factor in their assessment of spirituality than that of love.
In conclusion, my consideration of the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians inclines me to the view that Paul wished for the Corinthian women to uphold the customs of respectable women in their culture, which were generally in conformity to the principle of patriarchy. He does not give details about the custom, since these were well-known to his readers. This lack of detail makes it difficult, if not impossible, for modern Christians to know exactly how we might duplicate the Greek practice. On the basis of the considerations discussed above, my opinion is that such imitation is not required. In view of the corrupt styles of our own culture, with reference to headcoverings, it might be advisable for Christians to agree among themselves to honor their own “countercultural” standards of dress, possibly including some form of veiling of women. Except as such standards were essential to modesty, however, this would have to be regarded as voluntary and could not be pressed on the basis of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 11.
Updated on December 12th, 2014