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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Headcovering the Reprise, Part 2

Continued from part 1

2. Head covering is a cultural custom not applicable today

There are two main reasons (aside from the fact that culture/custom arguments against Biblical teaching almost always lead us away from the will of God) why I think this is a weak argument.

A. The history of the veil

First let's address the first century customs regarding veiling. An excellent resource I found for this is a dissertation on the book of 1 Corinthians. The pertinent section is here, about halfway down the page. Please read the entire thing, but in case you're pressed for time here are some gems:

"In addition, 41 pictures show 63 Roman women from art objects ranging in date from the eighth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. [....] An examination of the data in the tables reveals that there was no uniform practice [regarding headcovering] in either Greek or Roman customs."


"It is sometimes maintained that for a Greek woman to appear in public bareheaded was a sign that she was a prostitute [...]. Zinserling's work contains nine illustrations of Greek hetaerae (i.e., 'companions') taken mostly from Greek pottery; these show thirteen women and date from the sixth to the fourth century B.C. Of these one is bareheaded, six are wearing headbands and six are wearing a special type of headdress shaped something like a horn-of-plenty. [....] Still further, Zinserling's book contains eight pictures that show fifteen Greek women in various acts of worship. A picture dating from the fifteenth century B shows three Cretean women worshiping at a tree, one bareheaded, one with a headband, and one with head covered."


"Jewish women, as well as most women in Tarsus and to the east of there, did wear a head covering in distinction to the Greek custom, a fact worth mentioning since there was a Jewish community in Corinth (cf. Acts 18:4-5). It would seem that most oriental women covered their heads in public, in the east if not in Corinth. Philo [...], a first century Alexandrian Jew, describes the head-covering (επίκρανον) as "the symbol of modesty, regularly worn by women who are wholly innocent"; and it is related that a certain woman named Qimchith, who was the high priest's mother, was always veiled, even in the house [...]."
So it appears that the strongest community of head coverers in ancient Corinth were the Jews. And we are well aware of how much Paul liked pushing Jewish custom onto Gentiles. Oh wait. That was the Judaizers.

So to me the cultural argument falls flat right there, but in case you're not convinced let's examine church history. First, what did the church fathers have to say about this passage? Tertullian had the most to say, and I'm more interested in what his writings say about church culture than his exact positions. Specifically, that the controversy in Tertullian's day was not over whether women ought to cover when praying, but over whether the covering could be sheer, whether women needed to be veiled all the time or just in prayer, and whether the command applied to married women only (hence the title On The Veiling of Virgins). Tertullian took the conservative position on all those issues, by the way.

In later centuries, Christian women continued to be veiled. Do a google image search sometime for "woman praying" and compare the modern images to those from previous centuries. I went through about 20 pages and the earliest I could find an uncovered woman was around 1890. All the older paintings and pictures show women in veils, bonnets, or hats. Let that sink in for a minute. From the mid first century through the late 19th century, virtually all Christian women covered themselves. For one thousand eight hundred years. And we think we can dismiss it as custom just like that?

Obviously, though, 1800 years of custom isn't Scripture. But 1 Corinthians 11 is, so a custom argument is going to have to be pretty strong to overturn it.

B. Paul's argument

Paul is a master of making a case. He's like a lawyer, laying out all the facts just so, and 1 Corinthians 11 is no exception. Here is the reasoning he gives:
  1. The order of creation: "For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." (verses 8-9); "For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God." (verse 12)
  2. Angels: "For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head." (verse 10)
  3. God's natural order: "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." (verses 14-15)
  4. The way things are done: "If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God." (verse 16)
Now, aside from the last point, those seem to be incredibly timeless reasons. How can you argue that the order of creation has changed, or that "the very nature of things" is cultural? No, Paul's point here is obviously that God designed things this way, so therefore we ought to obey Him.

Now if we believe that Paul was inspired by God to write this, then we must conclude that Paul's point is God's point. And the only thing to do then is obey.

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  • CappuccinoLife

    That was a great explanation! I've always felt that the "It's cultural!" argument was like a sieve, for all the reasons you mentioned. For 1800 years it was a clear and obvious matter of Scriptural obedience, and then suddenly one day it's "cultural" and bordering on legalism. hmmmm... ;)

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    Because of the angels was the clincher for me in the 'it's cultural' argument. Whatever else that means, angels are not bound by, limited by, or even affected or effected by our culture. They are outside of our culture. Anything we are instructed to do *because* of the angels cannot be a cultural thing.

  • Ginny

    I haven't been around in a while, but I appreciate your thoughts here. It is nice when people come across these things themselves...

    :-D