Head Covering and Worship

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

We begin a new section in Paul’s letter with 11:2, a section that continues through to the end of this chapter. Here, Paul deals with a couple of areas that involve worship, first head covering, and second, the Lord’s Supper. I should point out that we have a departure from what we have seen in the previous sections thus far, because as you can see, Paul does not say, “Now about…” as we have seen before. Instead, he comes at the subject a little differently. This section has two subcategories, and the first begins in verse 2:  I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you. The second begins at verse 17:  In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.

Most scholars seem to agree that unlike the “now about…” sections, this section is not an answer to a question as much as it is a response to a report that has come to Paul’s attention.

As we consider this first section (11:2-16), we have a discussion from Paul that can give a great deal of difficulty to a modern Western reader, and to be sure, a great deal of ink has been spilled in recent decades about these verses, particularly by commentators who come at this passage from a feminist theological perspective. The debates can become quite heated, and tend to go on and on without anyone ever giving any ground, but what is gained by any of this?

After typing out the question I sit at my keyboard trying to think of something that can be gained, other than debating points and high blood pressure… and I haven’t come up with much, other than discord and division.

Rather than putting ourselves through such and ordeal, let’s simply ask ourselves who Paul is sending this to. As we know, Paul is sending this to the church in Corinth, a Roman Colony inhabited primarily by Roman Citizens, along with several other groups that include very few Jews; it was a Gentile assembly. He is writing to this congregation to address problems that they were experiencing in the church c. 55 AD. This is an entirely different place, time and culture than we find ourselves in anywhere today. Paul is writing to them to address a cultural issue: Head covering. Therefore, why would we be surprised that he would take positions that differ from our cultural perspectives today?

“OK Don, how do you know for sure that this is a cultural discussion and not a message from God that we must follow today?”

Boy, am I glad you asked that question! Here’s how I know it:

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. (11:14-15)

Remember who wrote this: Paul the Apostle, a Jew among Jews, and a Pharisee among Pharisees, right? Traditionally, Jewish men didn’t shave their beards, and they wore their hair long. Who wore their hair short and usually shaved their beards? Greeks and Romans: Paul is making a cultural argument.

Although he doesn’t say it here, he will in the next section: The worship assembly must not put off an outsider who comes as a seeker, open to hear the gospel message preached, thus we should conduct ourselves accordingly to save others… and that should sound familiar to you. In the case of Corinth, c. 55 AD, women should wear a head covering.

You see dear reader, there is nothing for us to fight about in these verses. Today, a woman is free to choose whether she wears something on her head or not. If she wants to: Great. If she doesn’t: Great.

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About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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14 Responses to Head Covering and Worship

  1. DWMartens says:

    Although I have to depend on the scholars to do the translating, the alternate reading that the NIV gives for vv 4-7 as a footnote, seems to me to agree better with vv 14-15 than chosen text.

  2. The Lion says:

    I am glad you took the direction you did with this post. Many who make comments about these passages do not understand the various contextual hurdles with interpreting the epistles. I think the way you handled this is wise considering that reality.

  3. Can you tell me the authority you use to establish the fact that, in the first century AD, Jewish men … wore their hair long. Much appreciate it.

    • Don Merritt says:

      Josephus mentioned it when talking about traditional vs. Hellenized Jews in the first century. The traditional Jews would of course have observed the regulations found in Leviticus about hair and beards, especially a Pharisee such as Paul.

      • Thanks. The Leviticus passage seems to be dealing with the beard. Alfred Edersheim once wrote that shaving was a barbarous act (the act of a barber). It doesn’t say anything about the non-trimming of top and back of head. I haven’t checked Josephus yet, but a straight reading of Paul seems to be to be saying the nature itself indicates something (rather than mere custom).

  4. Wally Fry says:

    I remember on our Israel trip. At the very Jewish western wall men had to cover their heads yet in the Catholic churches they had to uncover them.

  5. Lena Rae says:

    Serious scriptural study that includes cultural context would avoid much confusion on this emotional topic. Appreciated your comments.

  6. Pingback: Head Coverings – Part 2 – Be Ye Glad!

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