Sunday, March 24, 2024

What We CAN Say

I am anticipating an interesting Bible study this afternoon. Our little house group has been doing an overview of the books of the New Testament in the order they were written (as best we are able to determine), rather than the order they are found in our English Bibles, and we have reached 1 Corinthians.

Because it is an overview, looking at main themes and ideas rather than granular detail, we usually try to cover an entire book in roughly an hour or so. That works well for Galatians, James and 1 and 2 Thessalonians. It doesn’t work quite so well for a book like 1 Corinthians, which has sixteen chapters on a variety of subjects, so we have had to split the book into five sessions. The section we are studying today begins with chapter 11, and the much-maligned headcovering passage.

Wish me luck. Or grace. Or something.

I Don’t Care

Let me say something right off the bat to any of my dear sisters in Christ who may be reading this: I don’t care if you cover your head or not. I will not give an account to God for you. You will do that. If you can read these verses and come away convinced in your own mind that nothing in them applies to you today, carry on and God bless.

What I do care about is that if we have a conversation about these verses, I am not going to pretend they don’t say what they say, and I’m not going to indulge stupid arguments against compliance that are blatantly contradicted by the plain language of the text. In the interests of being a decent human being, I will try not to mock you mercilessly if you tell me the passage is to be dismissed because it is “merely cultural”, but you may correctly observe that withholding a variety of scathing remarks about your intelligence appears exceedingly difficult for me. Please do not put me in that position. I don’t like to be mean. I will also probably pity your husband, but I will try not to mention that either.

Some Things Hard to Understand

Some things about these first sixteen verses are difficult to interpret. That is typical of the apostle Paul’s writing, and Peter comes right out and says so. He also calls Paul’s letters “scripture” and the people who deliberately get Paul wrong “ignorant and unstable”, not to mention self-destructive. We would not want to be in that camp!

Why is this passage in particular so difficult? One obvious reason is that, as modern English readers of an ancient Greek text, we are far removed from the circumstances in which the letter was written, which involved a hodgepodge of cultures in the city of Corinth, as well as a different language. We cannot see the erroneous church practices Paul was addressing going on in front of us. We can only infer them from what he says to correct them. A second major difficulty is that the passage requires women in churches to behave differently from men, which is disharmonious with the spirit of the age in which we live. We must acknowledge that even if there were no questions whatsoever raised by the passage, some Christians simply would not be willing to put its teaching into practice. That’s sad, but that’s also life.

Things Not Hard to Understand

Still, although there are some things in this passage that are hard to understand, many things are not. Christians who come across difficult teaching do a great deal of tossing out babies with bathwater. That is profoundly unwise, and the babies quite reasonably protest. In any passage, there are always conclusions that may be firmly drawn and possibilities we may rule out entirely even where some doubtful aspects remain. There may still be some things about a passage we can’t say with certainty, but there will always be things we can say.

Today, I want to concentrate on what we can say about 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. Here are three issues beyond dispute. No reasonable person should question or fight about them.

  1. Today, the requirement only impacts prayer. The Corinthian church had prophets. Modern churches don’t. Those who believe we do have redefined the spiritual gift in a non-scriptural way. The New Testament plainly states the temporary gift of prophecy was given to women. Nowhere does it tell us of any who prophesied in church meetings. This passage does not do that either. You cannot make a negative statement about not failing to cover your head into a positive command to do something entirely different. (Some may also feel that whatever rules applied to prophecy in the first century church ought to apply to Bible teaching today, but the gift of teaching was being given in the first century, and if Paul had wanted to address that, he could easily have done so. He didn’t.)
  2. The teaching ain’t cultural. The teaching that men ought to bare our heads when praying and women ought to cover theirs is not “merely cultural”. Paul’s basis for his argument is twofold: (1) the creation order; and (2) angels are watching. Neither of these has anything whatsoever to do with the cultural climate of Corinth in the first century.
  3. A woman’s hair is NOT the covering. There are two different Greek words in use throughout this passage. Some English translators have obscured the distinction by translating them both with the word “covering”. Not helpful. The first Greek word appears in verses 4-7 and 13 every time you see “cover”, “covered” or “uncovered”. All are variants of kalyptō, which means to hide something. Paul uses the same word in a later letter to Corinth when he writes, “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” The other Greek word translated “covering” appears only in verse 15, where Paul writes that a woman’s hair is given to her “for a covering”. That word is peribolaion, a completely unrelated word that appears only twice in the New Testament in that form. It means an item of clothing, as in Hebrews 1:12, where its writer says the heavens will all “wear out like a garment”. Now, we may certainly argue from Genesis that the original purpose of clothing was to hide mankind’s nakedness, so that Paul is simply using peribolaion as a synonym for kalyptō. However, peribolaion and its variants have shades of meaning kalyptō and its associated words do not, for example when the Lord Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount about the lilies of the field and adds, “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these”. The word “arrayed” there is periballō, the word from which peribolaion is derived. It means to be gloriously decked out, which is pretty much the opposite of hiding something. So Paul is not saying in verse 15 that a woman’s hair is given to her to hide her glory as a veil might, but that her hair is given to her by God as as a natural adornment. Long hair makes her more attractive. That would be a preferable translation to “covering”. It is a perfectly logical sense in which to use the word in 1 Corinthians, and it makes Paul’s argument perfectly coherent, which believers in the inspiration of scripture, I would suggest, ought to desire. So then, a woman’s natural covering is not sufficient to the job of hiding her glory from public display when she prays. It IS her glory. We may legitimately accuse Paul of being difficult. We should not accuse him of being stupid, or undermining his own argument. If hair is a sufficient covering, the entire passage need not have been written.

In Summary

Once again, let me say to my sisters in Christ that it is not my business what you do about your hair when you pray. The passage definitely leaves loopholes that allow for logical exploitation. For example, someone may argue, “I’m a single woman. I don’t have a husband whose headship would be challenged by my refusal to cover my head.” Or they might argue, “I take this passage to refer only to church meetings and only to public prayer. I don’t pray publicly in church meetings, so I don’t wear a headcovering.” Though perhaps a little evasive, either one, to me, constitutes an acceptable point of view. They leave the passage intact and do not imply its writer was a drooling idiot.

The “it’s cultural” argument and the “woman’s hair is the covering” arguments do not have the same merits. They are simply embarrassing.

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