Note: This article was written before my conversion to Orthodoxy.
Last night my wife and I attended a Bible Study and we usually have a “free for all” once a month when we discuss a random topic. I joked and said, “I suggest an edifying discussion on headcoverings.” After some scoffing, I expressed my serious concern and said that it is interesting that until 60 years ago it was a topic that every serious exegete was in agreement on.
I was told, “Well, I’m not sure that is the case.” In response, I said, “Well, it in fact was, but this is a topic that is part of 1 Corinthians 11 to 14, arguably even 15, which speaks of necessary traditions passed down in the church, it is needs to be approached after appropriate study and with respect.”
Further, I expressed a concern that the modern day church may be suffering spiritual blindness, as the topic appears to elicit furor among Christians who don’t want to accept the literal interpretation.
Even though I wanted to continue with our study of Romans 9, the Spirit instead lead us into a discussion of 1 Timothy 2:9-10.
Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.
Before we went into our personal interpretations, the conversation centered on Romans 14 pertaining to each being convinced in his own mind what is right and not judging the other person, if not bearing with his weakness so that he may not stumble. It was asked then how do we deal with people with wrong interpretations, that if we always ceded to them would drag down the Church. I suggested we follow the example of Paul, who condemned observing Sabbath days in his teaching but cautioned against making the Sabbath a point of contention between Christians (Rom 14:5). Further, I asserted, that unless our compromise for the sake of the weaker brother causes us to sin or act against our own conscience, we are compelled to not do anything that causes our brother to stumble (Rom 14:21).
After this we went in a circle counter clockwise, my wife and I would speak last. The initial objections from newer Christians pertained to the social-historical context of what was written. It was argued, we don’t understand exactly what Paul was getting at so if we take it literally, we would not be really following the spirit behind what he wrote.
Finally, it came to me, and I asked my wife to speak first. My wife refused and told me to, so then I spoke and made three points:
1. Paul was not writing to a narrow audience in 1 Timothy. 1 Tim 3:15 states that the letter was written “so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God” and that 1 Peter 3 was addressed to several churches. So, the teaching had an universal application in the church.
2. The perspicuity of Scripture. I stated that we should not view anything in Scripture as too difficult for the Christian to apply and understand in a useful way. I used 2 Tim 3:16-17: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” I wish I would have quoted Deut 30:11 which states, “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach.”
My point was that we do not need to be theological or historical experts to understand the Scripture, especially when the Scripture provides a rationale within itself. When this is the case, we are to accept the consistent testimony and rationale offered in the Scripture and not abrogate it by bringing in alien historical assessments and such into the text.
3. How does ignoring the text make me a more obedient Christian? In order to counter accusations of legalism, I offered this counter argument based upon my own wrestlings with the issue: if God does not literally compel me to follow what is written in the passage to the letter, what do I have to gain by wearing gold, for example? How does such an act spiritually edify my fellow Christians?
The third point, though perhaps the least Biblical point, at least was the most logically compelling one. Because, those who want to accuse the ones who take the literal interpretation of being legalistic baddies often don’t ask themselves how they are glorifying God by obviously flouting the teaching given in the Scripture. If one’s objection is rooted in self-love, they will not have a real response to this.
Until I hear a good response to this, I have no reason to say Christians are at liberty to patently ignore consistent Christian teaching on excessive outward adornment any more than Christians can ignore teachings on idols, sexuality, divorce, and other New Testament topics that are addressed specifically. Being obedient to God will often take the shape of following the principles and traditions handed down throughout Church history.
My wife then told a quick story about a retreat she been to. Her friend would spend an hour every morning straightening her hair and miss the morning prayers, while my wife quickly braided her hair so as not to have it in her face when she prayed. This, in effect, is the crux of the whole issue. The more faithful response was to contradict the letter of 1 Tim 2:9 so that it can be followed in spirit for the right reasons. If my wife was asked, “How do you spiritually edify your fellow Christians?” she would actually have an answer. It allowed her to pray with others.
For example, everyone here knows how I feel about the issue of headcoverings. Yet, I am not so legalistic that if my wife forgot one I think she ought to not pray at all, simply because God commands us to pray. I think when a matter becomes one of obedience to God, we don’t always necessarily have a cut and dry answer as to what is the best possible way to do something. For example, is the Christian thing to do to lie to the Nazis if you are hiding Jews or just give them up? Ultimately, our actions should be predicated upon, given the circumstances, what would God be most pleased with us doing.
Hence, with the issue of outward adornment, if you are coming at it with the angle of desiring to wear something simply because you like it, I don’t find such reasoning very compelling. Wanting to feel good about yourself or look good to others can be the reasoning behind a plethora of sins. Rather, ask yourself, is how I dress hurtful to someone who might be given to envy because of my wealth, or given to lust because how it makes me look, etc.? To come at it from any other direction shows selfishness and a blatant desire to flout the clear testimony of the Scripture. And, as I alluded to before, if that be the case there is spiritual blindness going on.
Thanks be to God that he is patient and merciful. We fall short on so many things, are patently blind to even the most obvious things, yet He pursues us and shows us mercy. Jesus Christ has paid the full penalty for all our past and future sins, anticipating our weakness and need. Thank You for Your unparalleled love and may You be glorified in our weakness. Amen.