The Great Cover-up?- 1 Corinthians 11, part 2 -Context Matters

Once again, here is the passage (from the ESV):

1 Cor. 10:32  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

1Cor. 11:1   Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

1Cor. 11:2   Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. 3 But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. 4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. 7 For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. 11 Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; 12 for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. 13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

When Paul talks about a man not covering his head (literally, “having down head” or “having down from his head”) and a woman having her head covered, just what does he mean? Did he mean that a man cannot have a toupee? Did he mean that a woman must wear a veil? Can a praying male soldier wear a helmet? Can a woman wear a ribbon or a tiny piece of veil that does not hide anything, but is on her head, and covers part of it?

Or, was the whole point of this passage from the Apostle Paul something other than physical garments, fabrics, or notions?

Examining the Context

As Part 1 of this examination concluded, it is very important to remember the context of 1 Cor. 11 when examining this passage (1 Cor. 11:1-16)

Why? Because 1 Corinthians this is a letter written by Paul to people he knew. What is more, he lived in their town and with them for at least 18 months (according to Acts 18:11), so he knew both them and their city quite well. In addition, Paul is writing 1 Corinthians in specific response to specific questions and issued that the Corinthians raised in a letter that they had written to them.

Paul knew what he meant when he wrote about a woman’s head being covered. He knew the Corinthians would know. However, we are not (exactly) Corinthians of the first century.

To figure out what WE should do to obey this passage, we need to bridge the gap of years, languages, and worlds to figure out what Paul was saying to his readers.

All writing (including 1 Corinthians) has a context. We must enter into that context to understand the writing.

Immediate Biblical Context

Generally, the most important context for understanding a difficult passage in the Bible is the Bible itself.

One principle to apply in interpretation is to examine the immediate Biblical context. That is, by examining  the surrounding passages of Scripture, we might see if terms or ideas are used in the immediate context that aid in our understanding. This we did a bit of in Part 1, and there is not much in 1 Corinthians, beyond a general pattern of correction, that can be brought to bear on this passage. Now, the fact that Paul is sort of slapping the Corinthians around for things they are messing up is helpful, but not so much if we want to understand the particulars of men not having their heads covered and women having their heads covered. That sort of language is just not used or alluded to elsewhere in the first letter to the Corinthians.

Broader Biblical Context

Another principle to follow when you come to a place like this is to examine the broader Biblical context. That is, we might see what other Scripture says.

Here, we might get a little more mileage. The book of Acts tells us (in Chapter 18) a lot about the church in Corinth. It tells us that there were Jews who joined the church early on, but also gentiles. Regarding hair length, which is mentioned in our passage, Acts tells us that Paul probably grew long hair as part of a vow when he was with the church (he cut it off after he left- Acts 18:18). There is not much help about head coverings specifically though.

Where else in Scripture are the heads of men or women mentioned? What do those passages say about headwear or hair?

All believers are to metaphorically put on Christ and the helmet of salvation, but those are pictures and not literal garments or hair styles.

However, there are some pretty clear and specific descriptions of what women are to wear in the New Testament Scriptures.

In 1 Tim. 2:8-10. Paul says

8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

In 1 Peter 3:3-5, Peter says

3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair, the wearing of gold, or the putting on of clothing— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their husbands,

It is interesting that in both these places women are told how to adorn themselves and what to wear. Do you notice that BOTH of them say not to have a fancy hairstyle? We will leave aside the admonition not to wear jewelry of any kind or dressy clothes (although that is in both passages as well).

The mention of hairstyles in these passages is potentially important for an understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 for one big reason. If all women in all churches were wearing something that COVERED their hair (as might be concluded in 1 Cor. 11), why would the arrangement of the hair underneath be a concern for both Paul and Peter as they were writing for the benefit of the Church as a whole years after 1 Corinthians was written?

It seems reasonable to at least admit the possibility from these two passages that, whatever Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 11, it did not include something that would hide the hair. Either it was not a hat or scarf, or, if it was, it was something that women in places other than Corinth did not normally wear..

Still Broader Biblical Context

There is another aspect of the “context” of other Scriptural passages on wearing things on heads or on hair styles that should not be overlooked.

Nowhere else in the New Testament are women or men told literally what to wear or not wear when they are praying or declaring the things of God (prophesying). When we are told to wear or put on something in the New Testament, it is always metaphorical. For example, we are told to put on the armor of light (Romans 13:12), the Lord Jesus (Romans 13:14), the new self (Ephesians 4:24), the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-15), compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, love (Colossians 3:12-14), the breastplate of faith and love (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

In the Old Testament, the priests were commanded to wear turbans, but that would itself be the exact opposite of what Paul is saying, since he told the men not to have their heads covered in the way women were told to. If women were to wear coverings like the Old Testament priests, then they would be serving as priests while the men were not. However, we are told that we are all priests to God in the New Covenant (see 1 Peter 2:5, 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:6).

Admitting That The General Cultural/Historical Context Matters

At some point, if our examination of other Scriptures does not yield a clear confirmation of what exactly having a covered head entails, or if that examination raises other questions that are not answered by our passage, then we might want to get some outside help. We might want to ask “what evidence outside the Bible is there for what Paul and the Corinthians would have understood as covering?” As soon as we do that, we are saying that to understand this passage we must understand a different culture.

Now, there is nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. We will gain more insight into truth that way, I think, than by declining to ask what was going on there at the time. Indeed, throughout the book of 1 Corinthians, understanding requires that we do that very thing. To understand chapter 7, it helps if we understand the historical cultural and legal aspects of marital practices, betrothals, etc. in Corinth. To understand chapter 8, it helps if we understand the kinds of things that went on in idol worship in those days in Corinth.

Knowing these things helps us to understand really and fully what God’s word says– they do not keep us from understanding!

Once we do this, however, we may discover that the world that they lived in is so different from ours that we can no longer do things that they did in the same way that they did them. We may discover that the reasons for doing things the way they did them no longer exist.

In other words, we may discover that there is a cultural difference that will require us to adopt a practically different practice to fulfill the principle of what the people of 2000 years ago were called upon to do.

For example, we might not take the Lord’s Supper out of a common cup or by breaking a single loaf of bread or using actual wine.

We do not think it necessary to baptize people in rivers or on the same day as they confess faith in Christ.

We do not greet one another with kisses, although the Bible says to in Romans 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thes. 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14, and Jesus says that his host should have kissed him in Luke 7:45.

We don’t wash one another’s feet although Jesus commanded his disciples to do so in John 13 (and remember the Great Commission is a commandment to the disciples to teach all that He commanded). This is despite the explicit command that a disciple wash the feet of others in 1 Tim. 5:10. Why? Because we don’t live in a world in which animal dung accumulates in the street and gets between our toes.

We don’t lift our hands when we pray, although 1 Tim. 2:8 says to do so and Exodus 17, Lev. 9, Neh. 8, Psalm 28, Psalm 63, Psalm 119, Psalm 141, and more.

In all these things, though, the principle remains.

The application may depend on who and where we are, and what life is like in our times.

If you doubt that the different culture and environment of Corinth in 55 AD might be important in understanding this passage, let me just say this. In first century Corinth, if a man walked around the streets wearing the dress that Keifer Sutherland wore on The Late Show with David Letterman in January 2010 to pay off a bet, it would not be the “most humiliating moment” of his life, as it was for Mr. Sutherland. Indeed, that Corinthian fellow would have probably attracted absolutely no attention, except for complements about how nice, clean and colorful his garments looked.  Men and women alike wore what we would describe as “dresses” then. It is not so now.

Context matters. 

What is the Cultural/Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11?

Remember, Corinth was the “sin city” of the first century Roman Empire. Temple prostitution and all sorts of pagan worship rituals were common. In many religious ceremonies, the rules and decorum of daily life would be jettisoned so that some perverse practice could be adopted in the name of religion, or so that some tendency to sin could actually be encouraged.

1 Cor. 10:32  Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33  just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

1Cor. 11:1   Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

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