Did Paul admonish the women of Corinth to wear headcoverings because it was a “culturally appropriate expression…of femininity?”
Short answer: We have ZERO historical, hermeneutical, and contextual evidence for this. In this article, we will dwell mostly upon the history simply because Grudem and Piper get so much of it wrong.
Both John Piper and Wayne Grudem repeat falsehoods in their “Fifty Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns About Manhood and Womanhood.” My corrections to their claims will interrupt what they have written (in italics).
Ed: This article was made when I was a Protestant and upon greater learning and reflection my thoughts may have evolved.
The key question here is whether Paul is saying that creation dictates a head covering or that creation dictates that we use culturally appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, which just happened to be a head covering for women in that setting.
There are historical problems with the above. For one, not all women of the day wore headcoverings (we have ancient pottery and paintings show that this is so.) Further, certain headcoverings were dedicated to particular professions, such as the mitre worn by prostitutes. In addition to this, as we discuss below, wedding rings existed.
Why would Paul choose the headcovering, which was not universally worn by women, instead of the iron wedding ring, which was not affiliated with sex work? Obviously, cultural appropriateness could have not been Paul’s criteria, and in fact, he does give a criteria: “because of the angels.”
Sadly, Piper and Grudem ignore the criteria Paul actually gives in favor of one that, historically, is not even true.
We think the latter is the case. The key verses are: “Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself 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” (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). How did nature teach that long hair dishonored a man and gave women a covering? Nature has not endowed women with more hair than men.
Nature HAS endowed women with more hair–men bald.
…On the other hand, nature dictates that men feel ashamed when they wear symbols of femininity. We could feel the force of this by asking the men of our churches, “Does not nature teach you not to wear a dress to church?” The teaching of nature is the natural inclination of men and women to feel shame when they abandon the culturally established symbols of masculinity or femininity. Nature does not teach what the symbols should be. When Paul says that a woman’s hair “is given to her for a covering” (v. 15), he means that nature has given woman the hair and the inclination to follow prevailing customs of displaying her femininity, which in this case included letting her hair grow long and drawing it up into a covering for her head. So Paul’s point in this passage is that the relationships of manhood and womanhood, which are rooted in the created order (1 Corinthians 11:7-9), should find appropriate cultural expression in the worship service.
As we can see, the whole “culturally established symbol” argument hinges upon the historically false notion that all women in Corinth (and presumably, the whole Christian world of the time) wore headcoverings and men did not. However, as we already pointed out, not all respectable women wore headcoverings. Further, men ALSO wore coverings. Here is a bust of Augustus Caesar.
So, we can see that their whole cultural-applicability hypothesis is based upon ahistorical myths. For this reason, it should not surprise us that Grudem’s modern day application for 1 Cor 11 also does not hold water. Grudem writes, in short, women are obedient to 1 Cor 11 by wearing a wedding ring:
Today we obey the head covering commands for women in 1 Corinthians 11 by encouraging married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married in their own cultures. In modern American society, a married woman wears a wedding ring to give public evidence that she is married. Just as Paul was concerned that women in Corinth not throw off their veils and thereby dishonor their husbands by not acting like married women in the church services, so married women today should not hide their wedding rings or otherwise publicly dishonor their marriage when they come to church.
What is wrong with Grudem’s rationale? In short:
- Paul did not encourage “married women to wear whatever symbolizes being married.” He specifically commanded women to wear a covering AND for men not to cover. Paul said that we must not be contentious about this. Further, marriage, in fact, is never specifically mentioned in 1 Cor 11.
- “In modern American society, a married woman” AND man “wears a wedding ring to give public evidence that she” AND he “is married.” Therefore, a wedding ring cannot be a faithful replacement for a headcovering as there is no differentiation between men and women in the wearing of rings.
- The inference we may draw from Grudem’s thinking is that there was not an ancient Greek/Roman version of the wedding ring and, in fact, the veil acted as a ring. However, this is not even true. Wedding rings existed in both ancient Rome and Greece. And, unlike the modern practice in the west, only women wore a ring. Tertullian writes of the practice as being ancient in his own day (200 AD or so) in his Apology, Chapter 6. So, if a custom of women wearing rings, and men not doing so, already existed in the Roman world why wouldn’t Paul make an allowance for this in place of the headcovering if it was in fact permissible?
- As we already discussed above, it was not an universal ancient practice for married women to wear a headcovering anyway.
Conclusion. Writing about headcoverings makes my stomach churn. It is to me practically unbelievable that any intelligent man who has done honest research on the subject can make the plethora of false historical claims that the opponents of headcoverings devise. I mean, you’d think they base their history from watching Spartacus and Gladiator, and not spending a few minutes actually looking at ancient art or, heaven forbid, reading the historical research on the subject.
Why would people make such obvious historical errors? Perhaps God curses those that ignore such a plainly written commands such as those found in 1 Cor 11 with intellectual blindness. “Hey, you look outside the Bible to reinterpret Paul’s plain words?,” says God. “Then I will make it that you cannot even understand the history in which you exploit to ignore my ordinances.”
So, what can the example of Piper and Grudem teach us?
Many intelligent men can get obvious stuff wrong. Let’s not have our sacred cows. Our theological superheros are not perfect. Here, Grudem and Piper give millions of women a false sense of security that they are being obedient to God even though they do not cover. They will be accountable on judgment day for this.
Pray for our theologians. And, please, also pray for me.
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I do remember reading a caution on the subject of portraiture – remember that when photographs rose in popularity, it was customary for families to wear their finest clothing, be positioned by the photographer, and be very, very still as long as it took for the photograph to turn out correctly? They don’t show an actual reflection of what life was like for that family in a typical setting. Roman portraiture has an example of just about everything, women with and without head coverings, men with and without head coverings.
From what I can tell, Greek and Roman women only had optional / occasional use of head coverings whereas Jewish women could be divorced from their husbands if they went out in public with their heads uncovered. Since we know that the Corinthian church was a Greek church under Roman control with a sizeable Jewish population – it’s possible that members of it’s Jewish faction were scandalized by Greek and Roman women not wearing head coverings and wanted them to wear them so that at the very least, the Jewish women wouldn’t remove their own head coverings (or think it was ok for them to do so.) Paul could very easily be saying: hair and head coverings both fulfill the same function – if it’s your custom, wear head coverings, and if it isn’t, your hair covers your head anyway – so don’t force your custom on others.
On the differences between the clothing of men and women – ancient Romans considered themselves descendants of men and women who wore togas. Greek men and women also wore a chiton. Robes and dresses were also quite similar in the ancient world – so the difference isn’t as simple as “men wear pants” “women wear skirts” (after all, my ancestors were kilt-wearers.)
Capite velato – or head covering – was a Roman tradition that the officiants of a worship service were to wear a head covering whereas all others were not to do so. Perhaps the confusion was that Jewish women, as head-coverers, were confused for the leaders of worship – or perhaps the practice of men covering their heads was being picked up so that there was no difference and everyone wore head coverings. The Romans believed that men and women must occupy different “roles” in worship, if men wore head coverings, women ought not to do so. If men were to lead, women were to follow. If men were to speak, women were to be silent. At outsider might walk in and see men leading worship in head coverings and women wearing head-coverings too (and probably leading worship while they’re at it) and think everyone was exactly the same.
Given that head coverings were part of women praying and prophesying, speaking out, it would have been a typical misunderstanding.
The more we learn about ancient cultures, the more we’ll be able to narrow down what possessed the Corinthians to write to Paul on the matter and figure out what was really going on. But a lack of cultural and historical knowledge keeps us in the dark and keeps us from understanding what Paul thought he was answering. What we have is part of a communication, part of a story, part of the problem, but not a full picture of what was really going on. If you want to make a rule up on a partial picture, go right ahead, but I wouldn’t deem it wise, after all, what isn’t there leaves a lot of room for human error.
Two quick points: 1. Even if portraits are idealistic and not accurate, they portray “ideals” and it disproves the notion that it was inappropriate for men to wear a covering and for women not to cover. 2. We have plenty of written evidence that what the portraits are portraying is accurate on this count
It should also be noted, that Jewish customs were in flux in this time and we don’t know enough about them to draw any serious conclusions. Being that this is the case, it is not wise to re-interpret what the Bible literally says based upon supposed contemporary Jewish cultural norms we do not have firm ideas about.
I was referring to this part of the Talmud: “MISHNAH. THESE ARE TO BE DIVORCED WITHOUT RECEIVING THEIR KETHUBAH: A WIFE WHO TRANSGRESSES THE LAW OF MOSES OR [ONE WHO TRANSGRESSES] JEWISH PRACTICE … AND WHAT [IS DEEMED TO BE A WIFE’S TRANSGRESSION AGAINST] JEWISH PRACTICE? GOING OUT WITH UNCOVERED HEAD,”
But the Jewish priests wore headcoverings, and men wore headcoverings. So, the analogue is simply not there. http://www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html
Craig, I have wondered about the resistance to headcovering. I believe it has to do with an inability to see a strong link between Jesus’ death and resurrection and the tradition. As such, headcovering is like a brown leaf on the end of a branch of doctrine. It’s seen not just as dead, but in light of modernity’s rejection of formalism, deadening. Hence the willingness to accept without rigorus testing any means of cutting the leaf away, Bruce Winter’s work being the latest pruning shears Grudem supports.
Craig, I agree it’s incredible that godly Christian leaders so willingly relegate this passage to the cultural basket. I’ve wondered for quite some time why that is.
I’d suggest that they are part of a generation that jettisoned what they couldn’t explain in terms of the gospel. The gospel links with headcovering are not clear enough and so they believe headcovering provides no life. And fearing the extinguishing power of legalism, they prefer not to preach the necessity of something that does not bring life and may even – as a legalistic tradition – bring death.
So they allow slipshod historical work go by because it tells them what they want to hear.
Of course, they are not just slipshod in their history, they are slipshod in their exegesis, which allows them to ignore the logic of the passage. You quote Piper and Grudem saying,
“How did nature teach that long hair dishonored a man and gave women a covering? Nature has not endowed women with more hair than men.”
That is a clear misreading of the text. Paul explicitly compares a man with long hair (a disgrace) to a woman with long hair (her glory). He is comparing long hair to long hair. There is no indication Paul is suggesting a difference in the natural amount of hair between genders – even if there is.
Normally, these two, Piper in particular, would dig deeper, as they do in almost every other passage. But they just skim over the top and add inaccurate historical filler.
On the other hand, if these leaders, who courageously take unpopular stands in other doctrinal areas, saw the practice of headcoverings as so essential to the gospel that the non-practice of that tradition would compromise it, they would preach headcoverings as tradition for today. But in all honesty, I don’t believe many people have made a strong argument for headcovering as a gospel issue, though I believe one can be made.
Apart from a strong gospel case being made, I wonder if the increasing cultural confusion about gender may lead to headcoverings once more being seen as an essential practice.
“they allow slipshod historical work go by because it tells them what they want to hear.” Yes, this is sad.
Thank you for this article, Brother Craig; I really enjoyed reading it. It echoes my thoughts exactly.
Thank you so much for your article on headcoverings. I believe that you are correct in your beliefs and I appreciate your passion. I too, very much desire to obey the Lord’s commands, and to walk in obedience.
It is obvious that you are a brilliant young man, and by His grace in your life He has given you a gifted mind, and a desire to pursue holiness and truth.
I am a 63 year old lady probably almost old enough to be your Granny! I promise you I do not have a thimble full of the knowledge that you have. I feel compelled to reach out to you and gently nudge you in an area you may not be aware of. By cutting down John Piper and Wayne Grudem you are hurting the body of Christ not helping us. As you comment in a slightly snarky way about these two dedicated, precious, individuals who have served and loved the Body of Christ faithfully for decades it looks like you are putting them down and trying to boost your own self up (tooting your own horn) and your own keen insights (which on the subject of head coverings I agree!). But Craig you don’t need to call out these two giants in the faith. It’s like it’s a “got’cha” moment A’Ha I caught these two pillars and they are doomed come judgement day!
Here’s the deal, my husband and I have been close dear friends with the Grudems for 17 years, We attended his Sunday School Class at Scottsdale Bible Church for 11 years, he is the most humble man I have ever ever known, with a heart sold out to His Redeemer. Being part of his prayer team we have first hand knowledge of his heart, his dedication, and his tenderness. He is the most respectful theologian I have ever been around, and I’ve had the joy of knowing a number of God’s finest teachers in this generation. I bet you and I share a lot of favorite dead theologians! All gifts to the body of Christ, all, everyone of them flawed sinful humans redeemed by the blood of Christ.
May I encourage you to put forth your view without downing other Brothers whose love, committment, and integrity have been a work of the Lords, to bring so many to a saving knowledge and have given people an appetite to dig deeper and love others as Christ would have us to.
I know God is using you, my younger brother Craig, I just encourage you to yeild to the Lord’s greatest commandments, To love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is like it you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Matt 22:3738
God. bless you, I sincerely hope that you receive this letter in the spirit it was sent.
your old sister,
Thank you for voicing your concerns. My issue is not against the men, its against those (not you!) who partake in hero-worship.
This was a beautifully written piece of wisdom, thank you!
I thought it would be more obvious, so I amend my comment to point out that it was for Pammy. Blessings!
Sooooo….just curious…why when certain men of the bible devoted to God at birth they were not allowed to cut their hair??Samson..John Baptist..and how does this play into nature and recovering and hair lengths of men and woman…???
Yeah, that’s a toughy. I guess this would require us understanding why these men were consecrated in such a fashion. Due to their celibacy, it might reflect them not being a spiritual head over a wife.
Craig, I do not think you response about celibacy makes sense. The tradition of uncovering/covering does not symbolize marriage. It is an indication of, and submission to, God’s design of men and women, male and female, and his headship order: Father, Son, man, woman. The marriage relationship, and the leadership and teaching of the church are based on this headship model image of God’s person, true, but this NT worship tradition does not reflect marriage status. Both single and married men should uncover in worship. ..Speculating about the exception of Samson, this was instructed by an angel (Judg 13:5) and does not refute the argument about the normal natural order. Some women do go at least partially bald, but in general, we would say they fair better in the hair department.
Historically, the Church was split whether virgins cover.
Craig, Your blog says, “Why would Paul choose the headcovering…”. But I think that overstates Paul’s role in the development of this NT worship tradition. 1 Cor 11:2 says “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.” Paul does not claim to have created the traditions of uncovering/covering nor the cup of the new covenant. A messenger typically delivers something sent by another. And so uncovering/covering may have been given by the Lord to all the Apostles at some point, or, like the tradition of the new covenant, which Paul did not attend when originally performed, have been given directly to him by the risen Lord. And/or it may have been developed via inspiration of other Apostles.
Craig, I don’t understand your remark about virgins. In about 150 AD Tertullian wrote “So, too, did the Corinthians themselves understand him. In fact, at this day the Corinthians do veil their virgins. What the apostles taught, their disciples approve.” And of course every man has Christ as his head, not just husbands. And both married and single women have long hair. Moreover, “because of the angels” is also a clearly non-marital reason. All of the supporting reasons, and therefore the logical application, is simply gender based.
Tertullian made the remark that the Corinthians veiled their virgins, but half the Church did not. As for the reasoning why half did not, my speculation is that the veil was interpreted by different churches to be a husband-wife thing, not a man-woman thing. The Greek allows for both interpretations as the Greek words for man and woman also mean husband and wife.
Craig, Which half did not? What is your source? Paul said the churches had no other practice, which would also imply they had no significant variations in practice.
I think you are on the right track. I believe that the head covering dialogue is metaphorical. It simply speaks of the authority as established starting with verse 3. Men NOT assuming it and women ARE assuming it.