Never mind that Chrysostom, Tertullian and other men who actually read Koine Greek fluently understood that the Apostle Paul was commanding women to cover their heads, and men to uncover theirs, during praying and prophesying. We have evangelists such as Ralph Woodrow telling us that everyone for 1900 years had it all wrong.
In his article Woman’s Head Coverings, he argues that headcovering was in fact a practice that Paul specifically condemned. He essentially makes two arguments to prove this radical thesis.
- The text may seem like it is saying that women must have their heads covered when praying and prophesying, but Paul is speaking rhetorically and not actually commanding it.
- Verse 16 specifically says the Church has “no such practice” as headcovering. So, that means, the Church does not follow such a tradition.
Let’s begin unpacking this very unorthodox misreading of 1 Cor 11.
Obviously, most detractors of women’s headcovering usually argue that Paul’s commandment that women cover their heads was a social custom, because the text is clearly a command. However, Mr. Woodrow’s unorthodox apologetic may make some of us scratch our heads as we are not used to defending the traditional interpretation against such an attack.
I find it ironic that a false doctrine (women ought to not cover) has so many varying, contradictory defenses, while the true and traditional interpretation has been the same for 2,000 years; but I digress.
Anyway, onto our article. Mr. Woodrow writes:
Some believe, consequently, that such statements were not Paul’s teachings at all. Instead, he referred to certain customs and teachings some had adopted at Corinth…We should keep in mind that in the Greek language there were no quotation marks, question marks, or punctuation as we know it now…Consequently, verse 5 [of chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians] might just as well be translated: “Does every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonor her head?”—a question. Or, if written like a statement, but placed within quotation marks, it would indicate that Paul was quoting what they believed.
What he is saying, in short, is that 1 Cor 11:4-10 is Paul quoting the Corinthians’ false teaching in extreme length. It makes sense on some level. If 1 Cor 11:4-10 is the Corinthian’s false teachings and verse 11 reads as Paul’s rebuttal: “However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman!” Then verses 13-15 represent another Corinthian block quotation in which Paul responds, “If you wish to be contentious we have NO SUCH PRACTICE, nor do the churches of God!”
How do we respond to this interpretation?
- At the very least, this would be unprecedented in Paul’s letters, where he makes a practice of quoting the Corinthians’s short platitudes in a single sentence (“Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food,” 1 Cor 6:13; “[I]t is good for a man not to touch a woman,” 1 Cor 7:1; etc.).
- How do we make sense of 1 Cor 11:2-3, if verses 4 through 10 represent a massive block quotation that Paul opposes? Verses 4 through 10 actually support verse 3. I presume Mr. Woodrow would respond, “Paul affirms verse 3, but then he challenges the misapplication of verse 3 that the Corinthians concocted in verses 4 through 10.” My response is, then make sense of verse 2 my brother! “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions…I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man.” Paul then speaks of the tradition. It makes a lot more sense that Paul is explaining what the tradition means than praising the Corinthians for holding to traditions, reminding them of the submission of women to men, and then quoting them at length on their false tradition. If they got a tradition wrong, why would he praise them for properly upholding traditions? Praising them for holding fast to the traditions mitigates against Woodrow’s tragic misreading.
- Lastly, no other church interpreter for 1900 years had this misreading, which says a lot. If no one else reads a passage the way you do, and their reading grammatically makes sense and works given the context, the problem is not with the traditional interpretation–it’s with the new one!
Mr. Woodrow then goes through a litany of Old Testament examples that imply that men praying with their heads covered (like the High Priest) is a good thing. This, to me, misses the mark entirely.
Ask yourself, Mr. Woodrow, who do the Levitical priests, and the High Priest, typologically represent? Christ.
Who is Christ in submission to, according to 1 Cor 11:3? The Father.
Why do women wear head coverings? To show their submission. Hence, it is entirely appropriate that the High Priest, in an Old Testament context where worship was a shadow of the heavenly realities made clear to us in Christ, would have his head covered. Because there is not a High Priest in the present day, as we do not require a type of Christ to stand in His place for He has already come, men do not cover their heads. However, women do, because they are still in submission, but to their husbands.
Lastly, Mr. Woodrow quotes 13 different translations that says 1 Cor 11:16 states,”We have no such custom” instead of “we have no other custom,” as in the NASB. He says that this demonstrably proves that the Corinthians had no such custom as covering women!
Well, we know this is wrong on several counts. First, it is historically wrong. Tertullian related in the early third century that the church in Corinth veiled not only its married women, but also its maidens.
Second, it is not a good understanding of the text given the context. After all, the King James Version reads “no such custom” and plenty of traditional adherents to headcoverings have used this translation over the centuries. How is it that the majority of people who have read the King James over history have come to such a radically different conclusion than Mr. Woodrow?
The key is in verses 13 to 15.
Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. But if one is inclined to be contentious…
So, when Paul says literally in the Greek “we have no [such/other–not in the Greek] practice” what can he mean given the context? If he is saying “we have no such practice,” such as woman praying uncovered (v. 13) and men with long hair (v. 14), then clearly this bolsters the traditional viewpoint. However, if he is say “we have no other practice,” this likely is in reference to verse 10 where Paul says there should literally be “authority on her head” (i.e. the covering from verses 4 through 9), which verses 11-15 explain how creation and even nature testify to this. Either way, the word “such” and “other” fit, though it changes the rhetorical thrust of what Paul is saying as one emphasizes verse 10 while the other emphasizes verses 13 and 14 particularly.
However, what we do not see given the context is “no such practice” meaning headcoverings is condemned. How can Paul go about proving why a woman needs a covering and then say “we have no such practice” as a way of warning against the practice? This would be totally out of context.
Conclusion. In my short time as a Christian (about nine years) I have seen the following bad defenses for ignoring the traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 11:
- The hair is the covering (rebutted here)
- The admonishment was for a peculiar social context and not our own (rebutted here)
- Head covering is a false teaching in Corinth that Paul had to correct
I honestly wonder whether there can be any other wrong-headed ways to go about ignoring the obvious. 1 Cor 11:1-16 is not in the Bible by mistake. God obviously knows there is an eternal application to what is taught. For this reason, we ought to be able to make use of it as Christians. Given the clear meaning of what is said, and the immediate context Paul’s admonishment, what other conclusion can we draw? Christians ought to display Godly submission. Proper, literal head covering practices reinforce this heavenly reality just as the Lord’s Supper is a literal representation of Christ’s sacrifice for the Church.