I’ve just finished reading Frank Viola’s Reimagining a Woman’s Role in the Church: An Open Letter.
As always, Frank makes some good points. And he does it in an extremely readable way. I like what he says, and I would certainly recommend his article to anyone interested in the debate.
Yet there may be more to this issue. As Frank writes in his conclusion: “Perhaps more rounds are needed, but this is all I have time for at the moment. Maybe someday I’ll try to redress the deficiencies. So please accept it in that vein: It’s a stab at something, not a finished product.”
So this led me to write and share what is on my heart.
The Unbelievable Importance of Head Covering
No, that’s not a typo. And please don’t stop reading. Head covering is important. Extremely important. More important, I think, than what we have ever even begun to realise.
And yes, it is in the Bible.
Does this mean that I think the ladies should have scarves handy during times of fellowship? Not necessarily. (Did I hear a sigh of relief?).
Form, Essence, Kisses and Feet
Perhaps an explanation will be in order. When something is important it does not mean that its form is immutable. For instance, brotherly love is an extremely important issue in Scripture. Paul feels so strongly about this that he commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss. Not once, but four times! (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26). Likewise, Peter tells his readers to greet one another with a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14).
How about that? The Bible speaks more about the necessity of kissing one another than it does about ninety percent of the things most Christians are happy to split churches over. To make matters worse, Augustine and other early Christian primary sources tell us that the holy kiss was a mouth to mouth affair and not, as is oftentimes assumed, mouth to cheek or cheek to cheek.
I once knew an elderly gentleman who took these verses extremely seriously. Before services he guarded the front door of the Pentecostal church I frequented like a lion guarding a fresh carcass. No one made it past him without receiving a sudden forceful kiss.
Imagine being slapped on the mouth with wet sandpaper. That’s what it felt like. Twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays.
The experience was neither holy nor very loving. In his sincere effort to preserve the form of brotherly love the elderly brother lost its essence. His actions had a reverse effect. Ironically, he would have been more faithful to Paul and Peter’s instructions if he hadn’t stuck to their formula. A big old bear hug (holy hug?) would have communicated far more love than one of his kisses.
And then… there is the issue of foot washing. Remember Jesus’ crystal clear command? “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13: 14-15).
Nothing ambiguous here. Yet there is a broad consensus amongst most Christians that you would probably be a far greater blessing to your neighbor if you washed his car instead of his feet.
The principle is simple. You cannot read the Bible without considering its cultural context. Frank has done a superb job clarifying this in his open letter, so I won’t elaborate on it. Suffice it to say that brotherly kisses and foot washing were as common in Jesus’ time as Google searches are in ours. And so they were ideally suitable as vehicles to communicate certain gospel truths.
Now here’s an interesting point – the myth that the prostitues in Corinth had a habit of shaving their heads and that this had something do with Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians.
I have never heard a single person argue that Jesus commanded foot washing because pimps had dirty feet. Or that Peter and Paul’s obsession with kisses on the mouth sprouted from an earnest attempt to distinguish the early Christians from the cult of Basilius whose members kissed one another in the neck.
Yet the issue of head covering has birthed some of the most outlandish eisegetical acrobatics ever.
Why? Because it is easy to figure out why kissing and foot washing were important to the early Christians. To conclude that there are more preferable methods by which we can greet and serve one another today does not require much thinking either. And so Christians don’t generally see a need to come up with all kinds of reasons to explain their seeming disregard of a Biblical imperative.
On the other hand, the symbolism behind Paul’s instructions regarding head covering has always been a fuzzy for most Christians. Oh, we understand that head covering for women was as much a part of the first century Christian experience as was kissing and foot washing. What we do not understand is the spiritual significance behind it. We get the form of the thing. It is the essence that befuddles us. And so it is very difficult to adapt the form whilst preserving the content.
This means that we are hard pressed to come up with explanations as to why it is no longer necessary to take 1 Corinthians 11 seriously. Our theological confusion prohibits us to find a suitable contemporary alternative or corresponding symbol for whatever the point was that Paul was making, and so we simply wish the whole thing away. But we dare not do so without reason, and so we come up with novel rationalisations that transmogrify themselves into ecclesiastical myths before too long.
You might have heard that Corinth’s ladies of the night had the strange habit of shaving their heads, and that this is the reason why Paul said that a woman without head covering might just as well go ahead and rid herself of her locks.
This information has proven to be a relief for many who have struggled with the issue, and the reason is obvious. If we can prove that the reference to the shaved head was merely a Corinthian issue, then it becomes much easier to suggest that the head covering was as well, for the two are clearly inextricably linked in Paul’s mind: “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.”
Yet the historical evidence backing the prostitute theory is flimsy, to say the least. Most contemporary commentaries that take this line simply quote from other (usually slightly less contemporary) commentaries. Understandably so, for real historical evidence is hard to come by. Furthermore, a brief survey of the subject in question reveals that there are many versions of this idea (as is the case with most urban legends), with some of them quite contradictory.
Still, it is easier to overlook these facts than to live with the implications of accepting that Paul was perhaps making a deep and spiritually profound point. And so we resort to shoddy exegesis to override our cognitive dissonance. We would rather trivialise Paul than revert to a tradition that would make us the laughing stock of the evangelical world.
But would God really put us in such a predicament? I doubt it.
Why We are Confused
Perhaps this is a good opportunity to allow Paul to speak for himself. (When last have you read this passage attentively?).
Note that I have digressed from the conventional numbering of the verses and divided the passage into six paragraphs. Each is followed by a commentary:
1. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you.
Need I say more?
2. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Here, I believe, lies the key. Note that Paul is expressing a wish. He wants us to realise that there is a divine order. The man stands under the headship of God and Christ. The woman does so too, but she also stands under the headship of the man. She has “two heads” whilst the man only has one (for the purposes of this discussion I shall refer to Christ and God as a single “head”.)
Now here we need to note something. Even though women regularly wore head covering in the world of Jesus and Paul, there was no unanimity as to what exactly was symbolized by it. A quick glance at the literature of the period makes that abundantly clear. Furthermore, men regularly also wore head covering, and they were oftentimes expected to do so when praying. We cannot therefore assume that Paul was reinforcing a well-known and generally accepted understanding of the meaning of head covering in this passage.
Also, take into account that the so-called ”ancient world” might seem like a homogenous society from our point of view, but that it certainly was not. In this regard I highly recommend Josh Spiers online article “A Spontaneous Post About ‘The Bible Days”.” It is a concise but helpful commentary on the glib way in which we use the term, and a profitable read for anyone interested in the debate (or in the Bible, for that matter).
The point is that we find ourselves on very shaky ground when we attempt to explain what Paul “really meant” in this passage by appealing to the cultural peculiarities of one Roman city in 1st century Greece. To make matters worse, in this case we are speaking about a single cultural peculiarity.
Do we really think that a trivial and insignificant temporary measure would have found its way into the majesty of what we know as First Corinthians? Do we really think Paul would have introduced it with the two sentences above and concluded it with the statement in paragraph 6 of our text (verse 16) if that were the case?
Lastly, even if it can be irrefutably proven that some damsels of ill repute shaved their hair in Corinth, how do we know that this was the inspiration behind Paul’s comment? Have we never heard of circumstantial evidence?
Allowing Scripture to Interpret Itself
What would happen if we forget about trying to find some cultural cause behind Paul’s statements and rather look for an explanation in the passage itself? What would happen if we assumed that Paul was in fact interpreting the symbolism behind head covering not from an existing cultural understanding but from a whole new vantage point, namely the hitherto unheard of order of authority above? Does that not make more sense, especially in light of the fact that he starts this sentence with “I want you to know that…”?
I believe it does. I also believe that the passage pretty much interprets itself when we take Paul’s three levels of authority as a paradigm for unlocking the mystery.
But before we consider this, let us look at the third paragraph:
3. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.
The important words in this passage are “just as though”. A woman’s uncovered head during prayer or prophecy is so similar to a shaved head that she might as well go right ahead and shave her hair off.
Now why might that be? If we disregard the prostitute theory, and limit ourselves to the text, the explanation is embarrassingly obvious. It follows in the fourth and fifth paragraphs:
4. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
5. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 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.
Note the last sentence: “For long hair is given to her as a covering.” This sentence has proven so befuddling to some commentators that they concluded that the entire covering issue is resolved if a woman has long hair. The long hair is thus seen as the covering spoken of in paragraph 3.
But this is not what the text says. Paul says that the absence of a head covering is “just as though her head were shaved.” He likens the two by saying that they are similar, not that they are one and the same thing. Long hair is not “the” head covering”, but “a” head covering”. And herein lies the key to Paul’s “just as though” statement. If a woman does not honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 3, then neither should she honour the principle of head covering spoken of in paragraph 5. Disregarding the one is exactly the same as disregarding the other. That is how great the similarity is!
This raises a question: How is a head covering made of fabric “similar” to the natural head covering of hair? Obviously they both “cover” the head of the woman, but what does this mean?
The answer, as I have pointed out, lies in Paul’s introductory statement regarding God’s order of authority. Let us look at it again:
Do you see that the woman has “two heads”? Now note that Paul defines a head covering as “a sign of authority” in paragraph 4. Authority is a rather abstract concept, and so it needs to be signified, which is what a visible covering is all about. And herein lies the key:
2 Heads = 2 Authorities = 2 Signs of authority = 2 Coverings.
A woman has two heads under whose protection and covering she finds herself, and so two symbols are required to distinguish between the two. The covering of fabric (COF) represents one of these, and the covering of hair (COH) the other. It is, I believe, as simple as that.
Which is Which?
This raises another question: “Which is which?”
One way of answering this is to look at Paul’s instructions regarding the COF. This covering becomes operational when a woman prays or prophesies, that is, when she speaks directly to God or when God speaks directly through her. Clearly she finds herself directly under the authority of God in both cases, and so we can safely assume that the COF is a sign of God’s authority.
On the other hand, Paul forbids the women in Corinth to speak in the assembly and instructs them to “ask their husbands at home” if they desire to learn (1 Cor. 14:34-35). This type of speaking is clearly distinguished from chapter 11’s admissible ministry of prayer and prophesy (assuming that Paul was referring to the assembly of believers in paragraphs 3 to 5 above), and herein the woman is to respect the authority of her husband.
We can thus safely assume that the COH is a sign of the husband’s authority. This is the “natural” state of affairs and explains why women worldwide are generally associated with having long hair. Nature itself has provided the female species with a “sign of authority” on their heads, signifying the universal truth that “the head of the woman is man”. Men need no such sign, and so their hair is designed to thin and fall out. This explains why it is a “disgrace” for a man to have long hair.
These observations are vital. But there is actually a much simpler way to get to the same answer. We merely need to compare Paul’s levels of authority with the physical order in which the coverings appear on the woman to find it:
The answer is the same as the one above, and the message is clear: A woman wearing a head covering is a living, walking, talking representation of God’s order of authority. When she ministers she does so under the covering of one who covers both her and her husband. Her ministry is never an independent one. It is not done apart from her husband, but rather under the authority of one who is greater than both her and her husband.
This is the meaning of the sentence “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (Par 5 of our text). When a woman ministers she remains under her head, but for the duration of her ministry her head is covered by the greater head of God and Christ. As the symbols clearly communicate: She still has her hair, but it is not seen. Rather, God’s authority is seen. And so her ministry is legitimised and sanctioned by the calling and gifting of God. She is “in the Lord”, and yet she is not “independent of man”.
This explains why a woman who does not acknowledge the symbolism of the COF might just as well be consistent and deny the symbolism of the COH. If she does not want to indicate God’s authority during times of prayer or prophecy, then neither should she indicate het husband’s authority during the rest of the time. She might just as well shave her head. Denying one symbol of authority is tantamount to denying the other.
The Mystery of Ephesians 5
The symbolism makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining one of the greatest doctrines of Scripture, namely Paul’s “great mystery” of Ephesians 5.
The picture of the man leaving his father’s house to cleave to his wife is really a picture of Christ and the church, Paul says. So is the ensuing marriage relationship. Wives should submit to their husbands in everything as the church submits to Christ, and husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.
Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride. The church is the “wife of the Lamb”, we read in Revelation 19. Similarly, the wife is the body of the husband as the church is the body of Christ. They are “one flesh”. The woman “came from man” and were “created for man” (par 4 of our text). They came from “one flesh” (She is “flesh of my flesh”, Adam said in Genesis 2:23) and were separated with the express purpose of becoming “one flesh” again (They shall “become one flesh”, God said in Genesis 2:24).
Why was the separation necessary? Even though the woman was “in the man” in the beginning, a relationship between them was impossible. He was regarded as being “alone”, which was “not good” (Gen. 2:18). The only suitable helpmeet, it turned out, was one that had not been “formed out of the ground” (2:19) but from Adam’s own bone and flesh. The woman had to come “from man” in order to be suitable “for man”.
In this sense the woman is the “glory” of man. Her existence speaks of her origin, and so glorifies it, just as the man is depicted as being the “glory and image of God” in the same paragraph. She once was covered by man, but then uncovered to be covered again, albeit in a glorious form the second time around. The man is to cover her as Christ covers the church. He is to love and protect her with his very life, just as Christ did.
Throughout all of the above, the mystery is revealed. The church, who was chosen “in Him, before the foundation of the world” in Ephesians’ first chapter, is presented “to Himself glorious” in Ephesians’ fifth chapter.
The refrain of Ephesians, of course, is the term “in Him.” The church is born from the spirit, not the flesh. She has her origin in Jesus Christ Himself. She was taken out of Him, as it were, in order to become one with Him. She is both “from Him” and “for Him”. She was uncovered for the express purpose of being covered “in Him” yet again.
It is for this reason that the issue of “covering” is no small one, as pointed out at the beginning of this article.
Man Born from Woman…
The beauty of this story concluded with an interesting remark. Note again the sentence in paragraph 5: “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.”
Even though the woman was taken out of the man, the man in his present state cannot exist without the woman. He is “born” from her, even as Jesus Christ was “born from woman” (Gal. 4:4). This reveals the remarkable place of the woman in God’s eternal purpose. It also provides the most probable explanation as to why God has created the hair of a woman as a symbol of the man as her “covering.” Even though she is covered and protected by it, it is something that miraculously traces its origin to her own body, that begins within it, comes out of it and grows to ultimately cover it.
She births her own hair, to put it differently.
Women and Ministry
As mentioned earlier, the symbolism of the two “coverings” makes it possible for women to minister powerfully in the Lord without undermining that which is symbolised by marriage. The authority of a woman’s husband is never removed during her ministry, but rather subjected to an even higher authority, namely one who “covers” both the woman and the man.
Clearly this is the issue underlying Paul’s statements about women and ministry. In writing to Timothy, he says: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
The order of creation, which has as its purpose the revelation of Christ and the church, must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. That is Paul’s main concern. The mystery of marriage is now revealed, and so the headship of Christ and submission of the church must be consistently modeled in the relationship between men and women throughout the churches. This may explain why the passage is concluded with the following sentence:
6. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.
This has nothing to do with sexism, discrimination or cultural peculiarities, but with God’s eternal purpose in Jesus Christ. Just as God has called some to be apostles and others to be evangelists, he has assigned different ministries to the sexes as far as headship and submission are concerned. Women are created as the “weaker partner” (1 Pet. 3:7), a fact that is so evident and indisputable that we do not even need a spiritual voice like Peter’s to inform us of it. The Wimbledon finals can do that. (Note: Some commentators seem to have found this statement offensive. What I meant was that the physical biological differences between the sexes are so obvious that women and men compete in different categories throughout the world of sports.)
The biological peculiarities of a woman’s physical strength and hair, and even the temperamental peculiarities that have given rise to books about the sexes and the planets, all testify to the fact that she has a very specific calling regarding God’s great declaration of the relationship between Jesus Christ and the church. The mother of all grand narratives needs to be proclaimed, and for that to happen the actors and the script must be in place. The woman has been given very specific lines in this drama, and it was the scriptwriter’s prerogative to do so.
And so, when it comes to issues of leadership and authority, the woman’s calling is not to lead but to submit “as the church submits to Christ”. This submission is so much a part of her calling that it should even be evident during those times when God uses a woman powerfully in the assembly of the saints. Hence Paul’s extremely practical, albeit it novel interpretation and application of the well-known tradition of head covering.
The principle is clear: A woman’s exclusive calling regarding the above was never intended to inhibit her ministry. Rather, it was to define it according to the overriding message of the Bible. God’s eternal passion is for his bride, and he has chosen the woman as the glorious portrayal of her. This is not to inhibit her ministry, but to expand it beyond anything imaginable.
A Contemporary Corresponding Symbol?
This brings us to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Once we understand the essence portrayed by a now culturally defunct symbol, such as brotherly love communicated through holy kisses, how do we find a contemporary corresponding symbol, such as the “holy hug”?
Is there a present-day symbol that can do for us what head covering did for the early Christians?
To answer this, let us consider some of the practical implications of head covering during a Corinthian church service. The moment a woman covered her head it would have been an indication to men and angels that she was about to minister ”in the Lord”. She was not going against Paul who did not allow women to speak in church and she was not dishonouring her husband. Her head covering was a “sign of authority”, pretty much like a policeman’s uniform that represents the authority of the state. As such she would immediately have an audience, and no one would wonder what she was about to do or why.
Whilst part of this arrangement clearly expresses the timeless symbolism associated with head covering, it would appear that another part does not. In Corinth, it seems, the head covering doubled as a measure to maintain some sort of order during the assembly of the saints, according to first century standards. This included the enforcement of culturally excepted norms regarding the way in which women were expected to behave in public. It may also include Paul’s instruction regarding a specific problematic situation in Corinth.
The obvious way to do this was to apply the principle of head covering as a measure. Paul was not acting outside of his apostolic jurisdiction and he was not using God’s word as some sort of a weapon. Rather, he was merely applying a spiritual principle to regulate a meeting in accordance with culturally accepted norms, or to address a problem specific to the church in Corinth.
But we live in different times, and in our day and age it is not improper for women to speak in public meetings. And so there is no need to regulate their speaking or to inhibit them in the same way that Paul did, and certainly no need to use some or other symbol in doing so.
Yet this does not mean that the symbol of head covering can go the way of the Dinosaurs. This fact has been missed by many expositors of the passage. As we have seen, head covering represents infinitely more than a temporary and circumstantial application to regulate the order of a service according to culturally accepted norms. To reduce it to such a level is to miss Paul’s point altogether and to make the baby part of the bath water.
For example, Jesus’ words “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” contain a timeless principle applied in a specific cultural setting. Christians today need not be concerned with looking for Caesar, but that does not mean that they don’t have to pay their taxes. Similarly, a woman’s ministry is still subject to the high calling of reflecting the church’s position as the bride of the groom, and in this sense the symbolism of head covering remains relevant.
So how do we substitute that? How we transfer the timeless truth of Paul’s teaching to the church of today?
To be honest, I don’t think we can or should. At least not by using some or other material substitute, ritual or ceremony. If we agree that it is not advisable to reinstitute a Corinthian type of head covering, then we are left with the bare essence of Paul’s teaching, and that should be enough. We are to view and accept this matter in faith, and apply the principle without the benefit of its form.
Most of us no longer wash the feet of the saints with water and soap, but we adhere to the timeless principle underlying it through random acts of loving service. In the same way, the picture of Christ and his bride must remain intact during the assembly of the saints. This will do justice to Paul’s teaching.
Of course there is a practical implication here. And certainly some discussion is called for, which is what I hope to stir up with this post. What does “submission” look like when the saints gather in the 21st century? If we believe this to be a timeless, non-negotiable principle that must be modeled at all times for the sake of revealing the mystery of Ephesians 5, how do we do it? How does it impact on the public ministry of the sexes?
Remember that we are not arguing here for or against the principle of submission. My request for comments is based on a very definite hypothesis: The submission of a woman to her husband has absolutely nothing to do with the cultural peculiarities of the “Bible times” or the ungodly suppression of women, the latter being a conclusion that is so obvious in my mind that I do not even wish to touch on it. Rather, God has ordained it for the purpose of revealing the grand narrative of the ages in and though the single institution that pretty much makes the world go around: The relationship between a man and a woman, especially as it culminates in marriage.
If this is really the issue, and if Paul’s instructions on head covering was a vital teaching to illustrate and enforce this, how does it impact on the way we meet today? Does it restrict a woman’s public ministry in any way? If so, how? Is Paul’s practical instructions to Timothy, regarding women and teaching, still valid today? Are their forms of ministry that are incompatible with the calling of reflecting the position of the submissive “bride”?
I have some thoughts on this, such as that the “elders who rule” were men for this very reason, and that they should remain so in our day and age. But mostly, I would like to hear what you think, and I would especially like to hear from my sisters in Christ. I believe the above interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 provides a perspective that calls for a new type of discussion, one that is free from the typical politics that have plagued these debates in the past.
I suspect we have lost sight of the main issue. If so, it would be refreshing to explore this topic yet again with the main issue back in its place.
Looking forward to hearing from you.